Roadtrip

The Great Northwest

Driving BC's Stewart-Cassiar Hwy

BC's north coast is everything you think about when you think about BC. Dark forests, soaring mountains, miles and miles of pristine lakes and untrammelled wilderness, bears and salmon, vibrant west coast culture... this is BC at its best and finest. And unless you want to hire a helicopter, there is no better way to get up and explore it than the scenic Stewart-Cassiar.

Whether you drive it on its own or make a big loop by combining it with the Alaska Highway, the Stewart-Cassiar is a perfect road trip. If you have the time, there are enough interesting stops and detours to easily spread it out over a few weeks, but you can also just do a few select highlights and zoom down in a couple of days. With a week to take in as much as we could, we left the Yukon and crossed the border back into BC, excited to complete the Great Northern Circle Tour.

BOYA LAKE

Driving South, the first can't miss stop is Boya Lake Provincial Park. With its warm water and mesmerizing bright green-blue colour, it is to the Stewart-Cassiar kinda what the Liard Hotsprings are to the Alaska Highway. Located on a vast and ancient glacier-carved plain, Boya is one of the few northern lakes that won't stop your heart when you jump in — it is actually warm enough for a prolonged swim. The lake is well known for its clear jewel colour, due to a light toned marl bottom, a mixture of fine sand and shell fragments. The lake bottom is pretty soft and if you tread water in a shallow area for too long you can kick away the white bottom exposing a firmer, darker, lake bottom below. But don't do that.

If you can budget a couple of nights here to explore the lake by canoe, do it. The shoreline is a maze of little islands and intricate bays, with beavers and loons and plenty of quiet swimming spots. And if you don't have a canoe, no sweat: BC Parks offers a handful of canoes and kayaks to rent based on the honour system, with very reasonable rates. Just get down to the dock early because there's a decent chance they'll all disappear by midday.

CASSIAR

Heading south, the old townsite of Cassiar waits just a short sidetrip from the main highway. Once a booming mining town, profits bottomed out and it's now all but abandoned. We love ghost towns, and seeing as how they named a whole highway after this one we figured we should check it out.

Nestled in a picturesque mountain valley, Cassiar was founded in 1952 as a company-owned asbestos mining town. With 1500 residents, it had two schools, its own airstrip, a hockey arena, and more. But when the mine was forced to close in 1992, they burned and bulldozed most of the buildings. Only a few crumbling houses and gutted buildings remain, surrounded by thick brush.

It's a haunting and compelling place to visit, and the views of the surrounding mountains alone make the short trip worth it. But there's also an opportunity to rip around on a weed-filled airstrip. Where else can you do that?

THE STIKINE RIVER AND TELEGRAPH CREEK

The brooding overcast skies slowly turned to dark rain, and we turned off the highway at Dease Lake onto a muddy dirt road heading west to Telegraph Creek.

Such a memorable drive! The road winds its way along through forest to the sweltering sage-scented heat of the scenic steep-walled Stikine Canyon, a little ribbon of dirt in a landscape of stone. One of our favourite parts was the approach to Tahltan, a little First Nation fishing village at the confluence of the Stikine and Tahltan rivers. You round a bend and suddenly the landscape plunges away on both sides, and there you are driving on a narrow column of rock surrounded by canyons and rivers. The road drops down to the town, where a swooping basalt formation on the canyon wall resembles the outstretched wings of a giant bird, an ancient and immortalized stone raven. This place holds a special power.

The road slowly climbs back up to the lip of the canyon, and you drive along the rim for the rest of the way to Telegraph Creek. There are pullouts here and there, and little trails to viewpoints over the river and of waterfalls. But equally enticing was the old townsite itself. Once a thriving town on the route to the goldfields, Telegraph Creek was the furthest point upriver that boats could navigate and it quickly became an important staging ground for the supplies and stampeders streaming inland. In its heyday some 10,000 people lived here, and it was an important hub for both the Yukon telegraph and the Hudson Bay Company, but like Cassiar the town is pretty quiet these days. There's a new community up on the flats above the river, but most of the old townsite on the terraced slopes is fading slowly back into the earth. There are still a few houses and businesses, including a river outfitter and a small restaurant/inn, and the locals we met were proud of their heritage. It's difficult to imagine 10,000 people living here, crammed along the steep banks of the narrow river, but the few buildings they left behind are fascinating to see and explore.

ISKUT TO BELL II

Leaving the arid canyon, we returned to the grey weather waiting for us on the highway corridor. Mountains and lakes dominate much of the drive, but the area around Iskut and Bell II have more than their share. Home to world-class heli-skiing come winter, this stretch feels especially rugged, especially remote. The Sacred Headwaters and Spatsizi Plateau waits tantalizingly to the east, and the stark volcanic landscapes of Edziza to the west. Much anticipated trips for another time.

STEWART

We had originally planned on camping at Meziadin Lake, but it's a perennially popular campground and was all booked up. But no bigs: we drove out to Stewart instead.

It's a short drive, about 60km or so, but this is some of the most beautiful country you're likely to see anywhere. The mountains rise straight up from the roadside, a series of unbroken steep-sloped avalanche paths teeming with thick lush foliage and waterfalls spewing from the bottom of massive glaciers. We were told that in winter the road is closed for weeks at a time due to constant avalanches, but even in summer it is pure jaw-dropping awe.

Built on the estuary of the Bear River, Stewart is a great little town with some amazing views. Surrounded by steep glacier-clad mountains and the ocean, there's a ton of things to do, including several hikes and a scenic boardwalk over the mud flats. The town used to occasionally flood with exceptionally high tides until the 1964 earthquake bumped the town's elevation up a few inches, solving that problem perhaps indefinitely.

We booked a night at the Ripley Creek Inn, a little hotel hobbled together from a variety of restored old pioneer buildings (including, famously, an old brothel) with a restaurant that doubles as a toaster museum. Seriously, it is the best. Complete with two restored vintage cars parked permanently out front, it’s hard not to feel like you’ve gone back in time. We woke up refreshed to thick low-lying clouds and huevos rancheros, and hopped across the border into Hyder, Alaska, an isolated outport town that is largely abandoned save for the tourists that flock here every summer to see grizzly bears feasting on incoming salmon. We stopped for a quick view but were told that the bears don't usually come down til evening, so we continued on up the road, crossing back into BC, and up into the mountains to see the magnificent Salmon Glacier.

It's a sight we'd been wanting to see for years: Salmon Glacier offers picture perfect views looking out over a vast river of ice flowing through the narrow valley. But as we drove higher and higher into the mountains it wasn't long before we climbed into the clouds, too. The fog was so thick that we could barely see anything. Parking at the viewpoint, we pulled out the stove and made some coffee, and worked a couple hours in our vehicle with the hopes that the view might clear. But no luck. Returning down the mountain, we managed to catch a teaser view of the tail end of the glacier just as we descended out of the cloud. Maybe not as expansive but still a pretty darn good view.

And besides, maybe there'd be some grizzlies waiting for us in Hyder.

THE NASS VALLEY

One of the more unique areas of Northern BC is the Nass Valley, a little detour on the colourfully-named Cranberry Connector, and the home of the Nisga'a people. Because the valley is a ways off the main European trading routes, the Nisga'a managed to keep their traditional way of life longer than some of their neighbours, and in 1998 they became the first Nation in BC to negotiate a land-claim treaty since 1854. It's a fascinating story, and a keen precedent for the rest of Canada.

But one of the most dramatic things for a traveller are the vast lava beds that dominate the upper valley. Thought to be Canada's most recent volcanic eruption, the valley is a chaotic jumble of broken black boulders and collapsed tunnels, impossible mounds of debris and rubble.

Some 300 years ago a mountain split open, spewing a flood of molten rock down into the valleys below. Thinking the deep booms of the eruption were the beat of war drums calling them back to defend their towns, the Nisga'a raced back into valley bottom where they succumbed to poisonous gases and the wall of lava racing towards them. Entire villages vanished, and it's estimated some 2000 people perished. Anhluut’ukwsim Laxmihl Angwinga’asanskwhl Nisga’a [Nisga’a Memorial Lava Bed Park] was established to help protect the unique landscape and serve as a memorial to the dead, a vast and sacred burial ground.

The forest has been slow to take root here, but white lichen and thick green-yellow moss now cover much of the black broken landscape, making an interesting contrast. We booked a tour to view the Tseaux cone, a short hike through the forest and up the mountain to the volcanic crater. Along the way our guide taught us a bit about Nisga'a history, some geology, and the traditional uses of some plants beside the trail.

The four Nisga'a villages are also worth visiting. Gitlaxt'aamiks (New Aiyansh) is the seat of government and culture, and has most services you might need. Gitwinksihlkw (Canyon City) was until recently only accessible by a swinging footbridge, Laxgalts’ap (Greenville) is home to the impressive cultural collections at the Nisga'a Museum, and Gingolx (Kincolith) is perched at the mouth of the Nass River, nestled in the scenic mountains way out by the ocean. It's a bit of a drive to Gingolx, but very much worth it. The narrow winding road was only put through in 2003, and when we came down the mountains were obscured by a thick coastal fog. It was a stunning drive even with limited views.

TERRACE

The first city we'd seen since Whitehorse, Terrace opened its arms to us with warm sunny weather. The main service centre for northwest BC, we took a couple days off to visit with friends, catch up on our emails, do laundry, and while away a few pleasant hours in cafés and at Bluefin Sushi. We managed a couple of quick trips, once to see the giant old growth trees at Lakelse, and then out for a nice refreshing dip in the canyons of Kleanza Provincial Park. But there are a lot of other things to do, too: hike up into the surrounding mountains, go mountain biking, visit the weekly farmer's market, celebrate Riverboat Days, or try your hand at fishing for salmon in the mighty Skeena.

KITSELAS, KITWANGA, 'KSAN

Of all the ideas and images BC has exported to the world, few are more iconic and striking than the totemic art of the north coast First Nations, and there are few better places to witness their power and variety than in Gitsxan territory on the banks of the Skeena. When Emily Carr — BC's most beloved painter — wanted to capture and record the vanishing totem poles and visual culture of the coast, she headed up here to Gitwangak (Kitwanga) and Gitanyow (Kitwancool).

We stopped in at Kitselas Canyon first, a National Historic Site of Canada and home to a series of new totem poles, long houses, and a short interpretive walk through mossy forest to an overlook above the canyon. Then on to the older, greyed and weathered poles and old church at Kitwanga and finally a guided tour of 'Ksan Historical Village in Hazelton.

North of Hazelton sprawls the broad Kispiox River Valley, home to world-renowned steelhead fishing, totem poles, a rodeo, and the beautiful Bear Claw Lodge where you can catch guided fishing trips, river rafting, a popular eco-wild kids camps, or just a good old-fashioned getaway with great dining. And they also do horse packing trips... and we had one booked. Read about our time riding horses in the Skeena Mountains on our Horsepacking the Highcountry post. It was easily two of the best days we've ever had.

Sore and elated, we descended from the mountains. After a rejuvenating swim in the crisp waters of the Kispiox River, we ate one last sumptuous dinner in the lodge and returned to the car. We were still a good 14hr drive from Vancouver, and there were plenty more places to see.

But that's the thing about BC. There's always always always more to see.

Big thanks to Destination BC for helping make this trip possible