Waterfalls crisscrossed the face of the entire side of the mountain and their crashing sounds filled the air. Lush green covered the spaces in-between. Glaciers glistened in the sunlight outlining peaks while glowing blue added to the scene. Further down the road, bears fished for salmon. And up one of the most beautiful roads Mr. J has ever discovered, a massive glacier displayed gloriously beneath the deep blue sky. The Cassiar Highway simply dazzles and comes highly recommended by Mr. J. Put this on your bucket list and figure out a way to visit if at all possible.
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Now driving up the Alaska Highway definitely makes for an unforgettable adventure. And the bragging rights of driving the whole thing definitely carry significant weight. However, the lesser known Cassiar Highway surpasses the lower section of the Alaska Highway in my opinion. Bigger mountains, more wildlife, and greater solitude top the list of reasons to consider this alternate route. Oh yeah, and glaciers! For folks planning to drive up to Alaska and back, I definitely suggest they take the Cassiar in at least one direction. As I poured over The Milepost in advance of the trip, my blood pumped a little faster reviewing the Cassiar.
Before arriving at the northern entrance to the highway, we first passed the roughly one thousand miles from Anchorage, Alaska. Along the way, we covered the prettiest half of the Alaska Highway. Arriving at the Cassiar Highway in the early evening, we rode over the highway’s first 50 miles that first night. Oddly enough, this marked the roughest stretch of the 450 mile long route. Road conditions forced me to slow down in order to better dodge potholes. Most of the Cassiar Highway is paved. While narrow in places, overall road conditions prove sufficient for any vehicle. Of course, if you break down, then it might be awhile before you get rolling again. I advise driving something in decent working order as most types of services lie few and far between.
We spent our first night at the very attractive Boya Lake Campground. From there, we drove just under a hundred miles through mountains to Dease Lake. This major town along the Cassiar Highway serves as home to nearly 500 people. And it also hosted the first gas station we came to since turning off of the Alaska Highway. Northbound travelers should seriously consider topping off their tanks in Dease Lake.
Sporadic and sparse gas station placement is the number one reason that I HIGHLY recommend visitors to the Alaska and Cassiar highways get a copy of The Milepost. While great resources such as this map and milepost reference log are available online, you absolutely cannot count on reliable signal connection in this wilderness. You really need a dependable guide to know where to get gas or stop for the night. And a physical edition of The Milepost stands ready to become your best friend in these matters. For now, I recommend opening the map and example link above for enhanced reading of this article.
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After Dease Lake, the mountainous terrain gives way to the rolling hills that cover interior Alaska and northwest Canada. Many great adventurers of the past spent much time in this sort of terrain. A great deal of the fascinating adventures of Hudson Stuck chronicled in Ten Thousand Miles With a Dog Sled took place in similar settings. While not as scenic or grand as coastal areas, these interior landscapes exude an attractive solitude and wilderness. They also give me a pioneering explorer feeling faster than anywhere else.
Some thirty miles down the road, the Cassiar Highway passes over the Stikine River. This is just another wild wonder shared between Alaska and Canada. Most of its length sits in the latter but it reaches the ocean by way of the former. On this day, I checked another geographic feature off my list. While aware of the Stikine for most my life, I now finally saw it with my own eyes. On a future trip, I hope to get to know it better by way of Telegraph Creek Road.
Along this stretch of highway, a Royal Canadian Mounted Police car passed us. This sight also stirred up my sense of history and adventurous spirit. Many stories tell of the red-shirted pride of Canadians known as mounties. It occurred to me that Canada doesn’t seem to have state/province police like the United States. I am starting to realize that local police are a very distinctly American concept.
Not too far beyond the Stikine, the coastal mountains began making an appearance. These glacial-clad beauties separate the interior from the wet coastal regions of Southeast Alaska. They also shift the forest to a higher and thicker spruce cover. We made our next stop for gas shortly after noon at Bell 2 Lodge about 150 miles south of Dease Lake. The builders of this place built to impress with the use of thick logs. The folks provide gas, restrooms, food, and lodging. Travelers with budget and calendar flexibility ought to consider spending a night here. On any future trips, I will try to at least plan to stop and sit for lunch. However, I had a laser focus on spending my afternoon in Stewart-Hyder that particular day. About an hour later, we came to the turnoff at Meziadin Junction.
With one turn, the highlight of the trip began. The road immediately begins cutting through mountains as it aims for the coast forty miles away. After 15 miles, we came to Bear Glacier and the lake sitting out in front of it. While clearly in retreat, it still remained a pretty good-sized glacier during our visit in 2014. Historically, the glacier turned down the valley right alongside the current road. The lake that filled the space upon its retreat dead ends right into an arc. Both road and pull-off make use of it the glacier’s firmly packed lateral moraine.
Just a few minutes past Bear Glacier, I simply had to stop. The mountainside hosted one of the most amazing, beautiful, and impressive waterfall complexes I have ever seen. I immediately fell in love. Somehow, the green bumpy furrows made me think of Hawaii. As noted in the opening paragraph above, a high glacier topped off the whole scene. I simply could not capture the dazzling splendor of the sun lighting up both the glacier and the spray in front of the falls. On the way back out, I got some less washed out pictures to share though. I must say folks with tons of time might consider the trip just to see these falls! Spend a day there seeing it at different lighting and climb up to and around the base for varied angles.
After another 20 miles, we rolled into the big town of Stewart. At right around 700 residents, it plays the role of big city in the area. Its Alaskan neighbor Hyder has less than 100. Both of these twin international towns sit at the head of Portland Canal. Much of the 90-mile long canal serves as border between Canada and the United States. The Portland Inlet-Canal system is one of the longest fjords in the world. A short couple miles along a road between rock and sea brings visitors into Hyder, Alaska. Unlike other land borders entering the United States, this one lacked a border checkpoint. Of course, you only have access to Hyder! The Canadians keep an eye on the border and handle re-entry into Canada.
Hyder marks the southernmost location in Alaska accessible by car. Street signs, use of miles, a post office, and forest service signs give hint of a return to the United States. The highlight of Hyder is the Fish Creek Observation Site in Tongass National Forest. A boardwalk right next to the parking lot perches above the salmon stream. Meanwhile, word about the presence of fish has gotten out among the bear population. Stop here to watch bears fish or perhaps saunter down the road. I watched a wild grizzly catch a salmon for the first time in my life at Fish Creek. Interestingly enough, the bear had to work for his meal. The slippery fish swam very quickly downstream and also slipped in tightly under the banks of the creek. The bear ambled around suddenly changing directions. Eventually, he landed his dinner in the form of a good-sized salmon.
Beyond Hyder, the road narrows and steeply works its way up the mountain. Before long, the snout of Salmon Glacier appears in the valley below the road. But the grandest views await up ahead. By the time we reached the pass, we had briefly re-entered Canada. When folks decided to put “Beautiful British Columbia” on the license plates, they might of had this spot in mind. The glacier makes a turn straight back into the mountains here, and it is a sight to behold. Some claim Salmon Glacier is the 5th largest in Canada and the world’s largest road accessible river of ice. While those numbers prove hard to verify, the size of the glacier makes them believable. Whatever the case, I found the whole drive and area around Salmon Glacier totally worth the effort to visit. Mr. J gives the Stewart-Hyder side trip the highest rating possible.
Following an afternoon filled with huge glaciers and bears, we checked back into Canada and headed on our way. Along the way, we saw multiple black bears. Eventually, it got dark, and we ended our trip on the Cassiar Highway in darkness. That night, we stayed in a hotel in New Hazelton on the Yellowhead Highway. But not before getting to know a really great stretch of road and a very special side trip off of it. If you ever get the chance, then jump at the opportunity to visit the Cassiar Highway and the Stewart-Hyder area. Chances run really high that you won’t regret it. Mr. J sure didn’t!