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Roadtripping Northern BC and The Yukon

Updated: Aug 23, 2019

Back in the summer of 2017 we set out on a road trip, direction: North.

We traveled the iconic Alaska Highway, saw the gold rush town of Dawson City, drove the Dempster Highway and came within two hundred kilometers of the Arctic Circle before heading South again. We also lost a wheel, saw more bears than we could count (we stopped at 40), checked out the largest, road accessible glacier in the world, and drank a cocktail with a dead toe in it.

I hope what follows can be of some help if you're planning a trip up North yourself.

Melanie, her brother, my cousin, my brother and myself started out in Calgary, and also did Southern BC and Alberta. For this post I'll start and end the itinerary in Prince George, however, the gateway to Northern British Columbia, and focus on Northern BC and the Yukon. Don't worry, we'll talk about the other regions in future posts.

Here's a google map of the trip, so you can follow along.

The green line represents our route, approximately 5300 km long, the grey lines are side-trips or extensions that would be worth looking into, and that I wish we did; I'll mention those when they are relevant.

Prince George to The Alaska Highway

Maybe you came from Vancouver, maybe you visited the Rocky Mountain parks of Banff and Jasper, either way, Prince George is your gateway to the North; it has all the amenities you need, a decent sized airport with great connections from Vancouver and makes for a great starting and ending point for a beautiful loop through the North..

If you come in from the East, Ancient Forest/Chun T'oj Whudujut Provincial Park and Protected Area is a nice stop on highway 16, about an hour before you get to the town. This park protects a portion of one of the only inland temperate rainforests in the world. Some of the trees here are over a thousand years old, and their sheer size can only be understood when standing right next to them.

The Ancient Forest along highway 16

Prince George is the largest city of Northern British Columbia, but take that with a grain of salt; the population is under 100,000, and it feels more like a town than a city.

It sits at the confluence of the Fraser and Nechako Rivers, and the crossroads of highway 16 and 97. It's the latter we continued our journey on, due North.

There is a multitude of great excursions and side trips to be had in this area, but we drove straight through, towards the one and only Alaska Highway.

However, if you do have a bit more time to explore this area; Fort Saint James, a former fur trading post and now a national historic site, is an interesting side trip. Tumbler Ridge, situated in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, is worth visiting too (check out the interesting "Shipyard Titanic" rock formations). Nearby Monkman Provincial park would also be a beautiful stop, with Kinuseo Falls as a highlight.

In Chetwynd, we left Hwy 97 for 29, as the sun was setting, a fiery red ball piercing through a sky heavy with wildfire smoke, a sight that's becoming all too familiar for our North American summers.

We pitched our tents for the night along Moberly Lake, and finished the day with a very refreshing, after-sunset, swim.

The next day we followed Hwy 29 through the rolling prairies alongside the Peace River, until we finally reached the famed Alaska Highway.

The Alaska Highway

One of North America's most legendary wilderness drives, the Alaska highway is a mythical road-trip, and even though it's been paved over the years, it remains an incredible adventure.

The Alaska Highway runs from Dawson Creek, BC to Delta Junction, Alaska. It was built in an incredible effort during the summer of 1942, as a US army supply line. The original muddy route measured around 2700 km, but it has continually been reworked and improved to the current paved road, clocking in at 2200 km.

It's hard to fathom exactly how wild this place is. I'd driven some roads that could be considered isolated, before, but nothing compared to this. There are stretches on this highway where, other than the road itself and the sparse opposing traffic, you don't encounter a sign of human presence for hundreds of kilometers. The wilderness stretching out, to either side of the road, sometimes bigger than the entire state of California.

Make no mistake about it, this is a wilderness drive. It left a long lasting impression on me, and I'm sure I will be back, to drive the highway in its entirety, into Alaska.

Fort St. John to Fort Nelson

We skipped the official start of the highway in Dawson Creek, instead joining in around Fort St. John, as mentioned above.

The first part, up to Fort Nelson, is fairly flat, mostly surrounded by rolling hills, covered in a never-ending forest. Bears, moose, foxes and other wildlife are common here, as they are along the entire drive, and it didn't take long for us to spot our first bear. It wouldn't be our last either, we stopped keeping count after a while, but over the whole trip we must've seen at least fifty bears, with as much as nine in a single day. I wasn't lying when I said it was a wilderness drive.

Fort Nelson to Stone Mountain and Muncho Lake: The Northern Rockies

I'll mention a great side trip here, straight away. From Fort Nelson you can take the Liard Highway North towards for Liard and Fort Simpson, this will get you as close as you can get to the incredible Nahanni National Park and Reserve, top of the bucket list for me. The park has no roads, but is famed for river expeditions along the might Nahanni river as well as great hiking.

a first glimpse of the Northern Rockies

Once you pass the small community of Fort Nelson, surrounded by Boreal Forest, the landscape starts to change; the hills grow a little taller, and soon you'll catch a first glimpse of the Northern Rockies.

And then, abruptly, as you enter Stone Mountain Provincial Park, the hills give way to the weathered peaks of the Northern terminus of North America's greatest mountain range.

This place was one of my favorites of the trip, and I highly recommend camping at the Summit Lake campground. We arrived quite late, but still went for a bit of a walk around the campground, admiring the unique landscape we found ourselves in, while my crazy brother, brother-in-law and cousin went for a dip in the ice cold, blue water. Rather them than me, I suppose...

The wind was brutal when we arrived, and made for quite the challenge pitching our tent, howling well into the night, but the next morning we woke up to a perfectly still lake, pristine reflections, and a beautiful sunrise

After a good breakfast, we decided to go for a hike up to Summit Peak, officially named Mt. St. Paul. It's labeled as a 5 km return trip, but we continued along the ridge to the next peak and followed a river bed down, to make it a longer loop.

This hike will take you up a ridge that, essentially, sits at the edge of the mountains, meaning that on one side, you'll see Summit Lake and the peaks of the Northern Rockies, while on the other, you'll see rolling hills and forest, for as far as the eye can see. All this and not a human in sight. This is one of those places that will leave you feeling very, very small.

Another cool trail here would be the Flower Springs Lake trail.

After the hike, we continued on our way. Having only spent a day here, I know I will be back.

The road snaked its way through the Northern Rockies to, what many consider, one of BC's most beautiful lakes. Muncho Lake is situated in a long valley at the Northern terminus of the Rocky Mountains, surrounded by jagged peaks who's sediments, washing out into the lake with rain and spring melt water, give the lake its grayish-blue color.

There is a campground on either end of the lake, and there is a lodge as well (famous for back-country floatplane fishing tours), but that's really all there is. We just ended up doing a little sightseeing, spending the night, and packing up. If I could do this trip over again, I would definitely spend more time in this beautiful area, but it seems like that's true for a great many places we saw on this journey.

Liard Hot Springs to Whitehorse

Less than one hour past Muncho Lake you'll get to Liard Hot Springs, arguably the most famous stop on the entire Alaska Highway, and for good reason. These are incredible natural hot springs that have been developed in a very tasteful way, that only adds to the experience, and there's an attached provincial park campground.

The natural pool is enormous and is roughly divided in a hotter and slightly colder section, the latter continues down a little creek that you can explore further down.

This place is a must-do. Pause, relax, unwind and recharge here, you won't regret it.

We enjoyed this place so much that I forgot to take a single photo, so I'll link one here that isn't mine:

Moose and black bears are very common in this area, but there's one animal in particular that roams around these parts; Wood Buffalo/Bison. They are bigger than plain bison, which makes them the heaviest, living land animals in North America. Once you stumble upon them, they'll stop you dead in your tracks, that's how impressive they are. Well, that and, you'll often find them chilling on the middle of the road, so I guess you'd better ...

Sadly we couldn't soak in the heavenly waters of Liard Hot Springs forever, so on we went, less than three hours to Watson Lake, finally crossing into the Yukon.

There's one thing Watson Lake is known for, so we had to check it out on our way through; the Signpost Forest. It was started by a homesick soldier, Carl K. Lindley, in 1942. He was assigned light duty while recovering from an injury and erected the signpost for his hometown: Danville, Ill. 2835 miles. It has been accumulating signs ever since; there's over 80.000 signs already, and you could put yours up too, if you'd like.

Definitely some signs here.... can't see the forest for the trees/signs... I'm sorry :)

After a quick stroll between the signs and grabbing some food we continued towards Whitehorse.

We saw a cute little fox, somewhere along the way, and did I mention bears? Lots of bears.

We stocked up on groceries, hit up the (inevitable) local Timmies (Tim Hortons is a Canadian coffee/sandwich/donut chain, founded by a former hockey player, for those of you who aren't familiar), and basically skipped town after that. I'm sure there's tons more to do around here, but it is also the major hub for the Yukon and has a fairly big airport, which makes flying here pretty easy from major Canadian cities, in case we'd want to come back in the future.

We set up camp at the Takhini Hot Springs just outside of Whitehorse for the night. These are natural hot springs that have been developed and made into outdoor swimming pools, nothing special when you've just experienced Liard, but a fun place nonetheless, to relax and spend the night.

Haines Junction and Kluane National Park

Ah, Kluane... What can I say about this place... We didn't even scratch the surface, as for so many places on this trip I wish we had more time, especially because the weather was not in our favor during the two days we spent here.

Kluane is wild, impressive, big, unforgiving, and undeniably beautiful. If only we'd seen more of it! It's home to Canada's highest peak, the massive Mt Logan, standing tall at 5959 meters (19.550 feet ...!), making it the second highest peak in North America. Logan is believed to have the largest base circumference of any non-volcanic mountain on Earth, including a massif with eleven peaks over 5,000 meters. For this reason it is considered the largest mountain on Earth. The coolest thing? It's still growing, due to active tectonic uplifting.

Kluane is also home to the world's largest non-polar ice-field. The ice has a thickness of almost a kilometer in some places. It's wild.

Part of what makes it so wild is the fact that there are no roads in Kluane, the Alaska Highway passes to the North and in Haines Junction Highway 3 cuts off and passes along its East side.

There's a few hiking trails that go into the park, including multi-day ones, but none of them even coming close to the park's core; Mount Logan is never even visible from the road,, at least by my knowledge.

The best way to experience the vastness of this park and the scale of its Mountains, would probably be by air, judging by the multitude of plane tours offered and advertised in Haines Junction and Whitehorse (that, or a multi-day excursion into the back-country). Sadly, for the five of us, this was not within our budget, but if you're ever going to do a plane tour, it would be hard to find a better location. I'll say it again: one day I'll be back for it.

That being said, there is some amazing hiking to be had within this park, some of the trails go deep into the back-country and would make for a beautiful wilderness experience. It's definitely a place you can just dedicate a week or two towards, to truly experience it.

Haines Junction is a good 2 hour drive from Whitehorse, and it's the gateway to the Park. There's a really nice interpretive center, a few restaurants, lodging, and really not much more.

A very refreshing dip in Kathleen Lake

We camped just South of Haines Junction, at the Eastern border of the park, by Kathleen Lake.

Our original plan was to hike King's Throne the next day, but the weather did not cooperate, with a dense layer of low clouds covering the landscape, hiding the mountains and subsequently ruining our chances of those great mountain views we were after.

So we opted to try and find this ice-cave we'd heard about, instead, located at the toe of a glacier at the northern edge of Kluane National Park.

We researched it online, and with some vague instructions, we set out to find it. This proved harder than we thought, and after half an hour driving up and down the stretch of the Alaska Highway where the trail-head was supposedly marked by a small piece of tape, we decided to drive the few kilometers back to Haines and ask a local for advice. The first place we stopped pointed us in the direction of a nearby lodge, so that's where we went.

The lodge (it has changed owners now) was owned by a very 'interesting' Norwegian man, with possibly the most peculiar and high pitched laugh I've ever heard. After a slightly awkward, but entertaining, conversation, he offered to show us where the trailhead was (although not after offering us all a beer, it was 10 am so we politely declined). With his help we were finally able to start our hike.

I'm not sure if the ice cave is still there to this date, 2 years later, but if you'd like to find out, it's actually quite easy to find your own trail if you cant find the trail-head. I've marked the location of the ice cave on the map at the top of this article. Essentially, all you have to do is park your car on the side of the road, where the river that starts at the ice-cave comes closest to the Alaska Highway. You would then make your way through the bush and follow the river bed all the way up. Do this at your own risk though; a melting ice-cave can never be considered very safe.

I should mention here some great side trips from the Whitehorse and Haines Junction region: Skagway, Atlin and Carcross (with a mini desert!) are worthwhile excursions, and the region offers great hiking.

Dawson City

Crazy guys taking a cold dip in a lake somewhere along the Klondike

We backtracked towards Whitehorse, this is where we left the Alaska Highway, and headed North on the Klondike Highway, forever associated with the gold rush of 1898, towards the iconic gold rush town of Dawson City.

Dawson City, with a population of around 1400, is the second largest town in the Yukon. ( doesn't that just put things in perspective?) The city was build on the confluence of the Yukon and Klondike Riv