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Canada’s Inspired Yellowhead Highway
by Charles Shugart Jr.
From Jasper it is 665 miles west to the port city of Prince Rupert, and this section of the Yellowhead is jam-packed with awesome beauty.
While in Jasper National Park you’ll no doubt spend a few days exploring. Out and about in the early morning and late afternoon is the best way to spot wildlife because large mammals such as elk and bears are more active during those prime hours of feeding. My favorite technique is to cruise around all the paved roads in the park, watching, watching, watching. If I see another car pulled off the road for no apparent reason, I pull in behind them (on the shoulder of course). Chances are they’ve spotted something. Hey, I’m not proud; they don’t give out gold stars for being the first person to spot a black bear gorging on berries, or a 900-pound bull elk with his harem of females. I just want to see the critters in their natural habitat within Jasper’s magnificent setting.
The drive to Maligne Lake is worth a long day’s outing, with stops at Medicine Lake and Maligne Canyon. And the long boat trip on Maligne Lake is not to be missed.
There are other delights to be discovered in Jasper National Park, and three or four days might be enough time—unless you like to fish. Or hike.
Leaving Jasper Village—which is on the eastern edge of the Canadian Rockies—Trans-Canada Highway 16 stays in the Rockies some sixty-two miles, all the way to Tete Jaune Cache Junction. On the way west, you cross over the summit of the mountains at a low 3700 foot elevation. Actually, Jasper Pass is 1146 meters high (Canada went metric on us, eh?) and I forget the exact conversion factor. But I do remember that it’s uphill to the summit and downhill from there on. Call it 3700 feet between friends.
West of the pass is a small park and visitor center with a view of Mt. Robson (weather permitting, of course). The mountain is the highest in the Canadian Rockies, at 3954 meters, which is, uh, really high. Even if it’s cloudy, this is a good place to get out, stretch your legs and enjoy the scenery.
While still in the mountains you pick up the mighty Fraser River near its beginnings. It flows west to Prince George and then turns south. Some three hundred miles further is where it carves its way through Hell’s Gate and eventually reaches the ocean at Vancouver. The river was named after Simon Fraser, who explored much of British Columbia during the early part of the 19th Century.
Driving the Yellowhead to Prince George is a beautiful and peaceful experience. The highway is good and there are few curves and hills to slow you down. It’s the kind of northern driving where you can see most of what you want to see as you drive, with occasional stops for photography and leg stretches.
I’ve seen moose crossing this section of the Yellowhead a couple of times. They’re really smart at being moose, but really dumb when it comes to estimating the closing time of a 35-foot motorhome (especially since Canada went metric), so scan the fringes of the highway as you travel. A thousand-pound animal is not what you want to see directly in front of you unless you’re completely stopped.
Unfortunately, although the map indicates the Fraser River is close to the Yellowhead, in fact, it isn’t, but you’ll cross the river at McBride, and see it again in Prince George.
Fort George got its start during the middle of the 19th Century as a fur-trading post. By 1860 gold discoveries were made south of the trading post, along the Fraser River and the Cariboo Trail. By the turn of the century the town was called Prince George. In 1903 the Canadian Government decided to build another railroad across Canada, through Prince George, and all the way to the Pacific Ocean at Prince Rupert. What with one thing and another (including two world wars and the worst economic depression in modern times), the railroad was finally completed in 1952 (only 50 years later). At the same time the Yellowhead Highway was opened from the east and the Cariboo Highway to the south.
Prince George has some fine museums and historic sites, but I prefer the surrounding nature. It’s probably just me, though, because I think the same about Anchorage Alaska.
Provincial Highway 97 comes into Prince George from the south and leaves northbound, on its way to Dawson Creek and Milepost Zero of the Alaska Highway. But we’re headed west on the Yellowhead, Trans-Canada 16.
The highway quickly climbs out of the valley and onto Fraser Plateau. This is rolling hill country for some 200 miles and is rife with hundreds of picturesque lakes and streams. If you like to fish, be careful; you might never get away from all the attractions.
Rolling along northwest, the road takes you to Vanderhoof, with the Aboriginal Village of Stoney Creek and its Potlatch House. Interestingly, most people—including British Columbians themselves—consider this part of the province to be way up north. Well, it’s not. Vanderhoof is the geographical center of B.C.
Fort Fraser is among the oldest settlements in British Columbia. The nearby Village of Fraser Lake is considered by many to be the white swan capital of the world. Among the largest and heaviest flying birds, the swans feed and rest along the lake edges.
If you plan to investigate Tweedsmuir Provincial Park, the town of Burns Lake is your turnoff point.
Steelhead fishing on the Bulkley and Morice rivers near Houston is an enticing prospect. Steelhead are rainbow trout (which is actually a type of salmon) that have gone to sea. When they’ve grown large they return to the streams of their birth to spawn. If you’re an avid steelhead fisherman (is there any other kind?) you’ll want to wet your line for a few hours at least. Maybe even a few days if the run is good.
Beyond Smithers, the Bulkley joins the Skeena River at the town of Hazelton. Native North Americans lived in the region many thousands of years before the coming of the Europeans, and there is a fine Gitskan Village where you can see traditional longhouses and totems, as well as other examples of native arts and crafts.
About 26 miles beyond South Hazelton is a turnoff for the Stewart/Cassiar Highway. Highway 37 takes you north to the Alaska Highway just beyond Watson Lake. Travelers to Alaska often drive up the entire Alaska Highway, and then on the return home, take the Stewart/Cassiar. It makes for excellent variety.
The Yellowhead and the Canadian National Railroad follow the Skeena River to the ocean near Prince Rupert. At the town of Terrace you can visit another excellent Aboriginal Village called Kitsum. You might want to take a look at the Nisga’a Memorial Lava Bed Provincial Park and search for the black bears called Kermode. These rare animals are also known as Spirit Bears. Creamy white in color, they aren’t albinos, just a unique fur color for the species.
Prince Rupert is one of the largest deep-water, ice-free seaports in the north. It is the gateway to the Queen Charlotte Islands as well as an important shipping point for rail and highway commerce leading to all points east.
From here you can return along the Yellowhead to Prince George, or take the every-other-day B.C. Ferry south to Vancouver Island. This daytime-only sailing is through some of the most scenic parts of the Inside Passage, and I highly recommend it for those who will be heading south. Note: advance reservations are a really good idea.
But hey, let’s not leave out sightseeing in Prince Rupert. The Museum of Northern British Columbia tells of the 10,000 year history of the native North Americans. There is a Tsimshian Indian Potlatch, with indigenous food and entertainment. The last time I was in Prince Rupert there was a nice little totem park near the center. Outside the town is a grizzly bear sanctuary where you’ll have good opportunities to view these great beasts. Inquire about whale and orca sighting boat excursions. You might want to go flightseeing over the coastal mountains and see a glacier from above.
Even if you’re not planning to visit Alaska on this trip, consider taking the Alaska Ferry to Ketchikan. RVers can leave their rigs and just take the ferry as foot passengers; that’ll cut the cost way down. Maybe stay overnight in Ketchikan and take a sightseeing tour.
You will have little problem finding provincial campgrounds and RV parks along the Yellowhead Highway. As in all of Canada, most of the campgrounds are between towns and usually at some of the most beautiful sightseeing areas, whereas RV parks tend to be clustered in and near the towns themselves.
Regardless of how you go about driving the Yellowhead Highway, you’ll find the scenery and points of interest well worth the time. Some travelers skip it because it seems to be a road to nowhere. Be a smart traveler.
“Do” the Yellowhead.