Imposing trees, rugged mountains and grizzlies fishing the salmon from the rough river. This is the Canada I have had on my wish list for a long time.
We make a road trip of quite a few kilometers. Camping in Provincial Parks in the middle of nowhere and trying to spot as much wildlife as possible. This is the story of our summer vacation in British Columbia. Not the standard tour of Vancouver Island and the National Parks in the Rockies including Icefields Parkway. No, our target is further north.
We start in Portland. Not a logical choice, but one of the cheapest choices. The flights to Portland are cheaper and more importantly renting an SUV is cheaper in Portland. This saves us a few hundred dollars.
From Portland we drive to Seattle and cross the border to Vancouver. From Vancouver we drive via the Sea to Sky Highway to Wells Gray PP. From there we drive to Prince George and this is where the Northern Circle begins. Via Dawson Creek and Fort Nelson we follow the Alaska Highway to Watson Lake. From here we follow the Cassiar Highway to Meziadin. We visit Stewart and Hyder and then drive to Terrace, in the middle of the Coast Mountains. Then back to Prince George and then south via Lilloet and Hope, to arrive again at the border with the USA. Via Abbotsford and Seattle back to Portland.
This roadtrip is slightly more than 7000 km and we drive in 3 !/2 weeks.
We mainly camp in Provincial Parks. On the British Columbia website you can find all information about the different parks, the campsites can also be changed and other activities. Many campsites are too reserved, but the campsites in the north in particular are first-come, first-served. Camping costs about $20 a night, with peaks above (28) or below (15).
There are not a lot facilities in these campsites. Running water (pump), pit toilet and picnic table and clearings at each tent. Many camping pitches are much larger than we used to be in Europe and are beautifully situated on the water in the middle of a forest.
Free camping is also possible, the recreation areas can be found via the map on the websiteitesandtrailsbc.ca. These campsites have the same facilities in every spot, such as a pit toilet and a picnic table, but they are often further away from the main road. You drive on a dirt road.
We spent the first night and the last night in a hotel. They are generally quite expensive, bigger with Europe.
The most beautiful campsites during this trip:
• Leo Island – Murtle Lake – Wells Gray PP
• Joffre Bovenmeer – Joffre Lakes PP
• Murtle Lagoon – Murtle Lake – Wells Gray PP
• MacDonald-Muncho Lake PP
• Furlong Bay – Lakelse Meer PP
Below are some highlights from our road trip.
Backcountry camping at Joffre Lakes PP
Joffre Lakes PP is located on the Sea to Sky Highway. It is easy to get to from Vancouver. You need a day pass, a permit, if you only want to walk to the lakes. You can arrange this via the bc website. If, like us, you want to continue camping, you must have a backcountry permit. It will cost you $6 per person per night. Can also be arranged via the same website. They are popular, especially on weekends in the summer. But we went during the week and booked about two weeks in advance.
The parking lot fills up quickly in the morning. We are there early. It is a beautiful clear day, the sky is a clear blue.
We reach the first lake, Lower Joffre Lake, in five minutes. Next stop isMiddle Joffre Lake. We ascend, the path is busy and the insects are quite present. We also have to get used to walking with a full pack, that has been a while ago. So we don’t hike up the mountain super fast.
In the afternoon we arrive at Middle Joffre Lake. Here we have lunch and watch all the crowds. Many people take insta photos on a tree trunk in the water. A nice picture with the blue lake and the glaciers and mountains around it. It gradually becomes quieter on the path. We have views of Middle Lake and the mountains.
The Upper Lake and the glacier are insanely beautiful. The campsite is a bit further, we walk around the lake.
Once at the backcountry place we look for a suitable spot. There are spots on the water and a bit higher, between the stones. There is a pit toilet and there are bear caches. Here you can hang your bag with food and lift it up. Very handy. There is no running water, but there are several mountain streams, so we tap water from there.
We set up our tent and enjoy the beautiful surroundings. It is nice and quiet here, despite the fact that there are several people camping around us. Joost takes a dip in the cold glacial lake. I cool my feet. We walk to the waterfall and have a beautiful view of the area. In the evening we see the sky change color. It is not cold, although it is clear.
We sleep well. The next morning we wake up early and have breakfast with a view of the glacier. We pack our things and walk back down. The path is now a lot quieter and we enjoy the walk immensely. At about ten o’clock we are back at the car.
Kanotrip op het rustige Murtle Lake
Wells Gray Provincial Park is a popular park. We also visited Wells Gray during our first Canada trip. It is a beautiful area, with a lot of wildlife.
In the east of Wells Gray is Murtle Lake. A place where you can enjoy canoeing because no motorized boats are allowed on the lake. This appeals to us. You can rent canoes here for $65 a night, you can spend the night in backcountry spots for $5 a night. In the weeks before departure we book a canoe online at Murtle Canoes and arrange the backcountry permit.
After our hiking adventure in Joffre Lakes PP we continue to Blue River. We spend the night here and the next morning we drive to the parking lot near Murtle Lake.
Then we’re not there yet. Because from here you have to walk another 2.5 km with a cart with your things. This doesn’t seem like it and it isn’t. But it’s warm and there are a lot of insects, so that makes us happy when we arrive at the boat launch. Here we meet a very nice park ranger and a lot of canoes.
He gives us our life jackets, paddles and of course the canoe. Then he explains that it is best to sail to the western part of Murtle Lake. We planned to look for the northern part of the lake, this would be quieter. That’s true, the ranger says, but there the distances from one backcountry camping spot to another are greater, plus there is more wind and current. As beginners he advises our western calmer part, here it is easier to sail and we can move from place to place faster if a camping spot is full. In addition, he expects the wind to turn and this is more favorable. Makes sense, so we’ll follow his advice.
Starting an adventure
We start at the Murtle Lagoon. Here it is still wonderfully quiet, little current and sheltered. Canoeing takes some getting used to. I am not such a hero on the water and I doubted whether I wanted this trip. Have tipped over in the past, that was not a pleasant experience. I would like to have a positive experience, so I’m glad the getting used to it goes quite smoothly.
When we are almost out of Murtle Lagoon, we sail to the left. We arrive in a kind of Biesbosch environment, with lots of reeds, birds and narrow waters. This does not appear to be the passage to Murtle Lake, but it is beautiful! Back to the passage and then we’ve to follow the left bank. There is more current and more waves. We must now try harder to move forward!
We pause for a moment and look at the map where we are. Mmm, we didn’t proceed very far yet. We notice how many insects there are when we are on the beach. Fortunately, we have no problems with it on the water.
We cross one of the coves and pass Sandi Point. A popular place for camping. There are already many tents, we count four. We sail further along the left bank and go to the Ranger Station. The jetty is sheltered and here we stop for lunch. We relax wonderfully on the jetty.
After lunch we continue sailing to Fairyslipper Island. This used to be a camping spot, but because it was damaged too much, it is no longer possible to camp here. It is a beautiful island. We decide to continue sailing to Leo Island and hope we can camp there.
Leo Island is a paradise spot. You can stand there with several tents, but no one is there when we arrive. At all backcountry spots there is a dry toilet and fire pits.
We set up our tent and relax with drinks and chips when a full canoe arrives, a family with two children. They are investigating whether the island is the place where they want to be….Meanwhile, two more boats are arriving, also with two families and a lot of stuff. The children run across the island, but the adults are less enthusiastic. One of them decides that they will continue sailing to Tropicana…. We are happy with that! Once they have left, peace returns quickly. Great!
We have a great time on our island. We swim, we eat and we make a campfire. The sunset is insanely beautiful. Every minute the sky is different, beautiful shades of yellow, orange, pink and purple pass by.
The next morning the water is super tight and nature is still quiet. We have breakfast and once again enjoy the surroundings to the fullest. We pack our things and canoe west to explore the coves there.
It is still nice and quiet on the water and when we sail into the coves we expect to see a moose or other wildlife. We don’t see them, but we do see two beautiful cranes. They scurry through the tall reeds.
A little later we meet two cranes again, which fly up. Gorgeous face. After exploring the west side, we cross over to the north side to have lunch at Bearch Beach. Also a nice place. Here are all homemade wooden spoons hanging in the tree.
On our way to Murtle Lagoon
We cross the lake straight to the south. We have to do our best. The current is strong and we can’t really relax. It costs us a lot of energy. We arrive at Murtle Lagoon completely exhausted. There are already a lot of tents in the usual place, so we decide to go to the group site. There we are alone at first, later three more canoes arrive, but they will be on the other side of this huge camping spot, so we are not bothered by it. We swim, we canoe some more in the area and we enjoy the peace.
The next morning we take it easy. We just need to cross Murtle Lagoon to get to the boat launch. Here we return the canoes. We have to be there at eleven o’clock, but we’ll be there in plenty of time.We pack our things and after a nice chat about the cranes we walk back to the car. A very successful trip!
Legendary Alaska Highway
It was a great desire to follow Alaska Highway. This legendary road was built in 1942, in the middle of the Second World War, in 9 months by soldiers and civilians. The conditions were slightly different then than now, there were no big bulldozers or asphalt rollers…and the nature and the weather conditions were unforgiving. Special to follow this road from mile 0 in Dawson Creek.
By the way, we start our round through the north a little further south. After our canoe trip we drive to Prince George. Along the Rockies and Mount Robson. Then we drive further north.
The road and the surroundings are by the way not always spectacular, sometimes even somewhat boring. Along fields, farms and along lots of forest. Yet it has something special.
After Fort Nelson the landscape gets rougher. The mountains higher and the rivers wider. Virtually no people live here and the human hand is becoming scarcer. We enter the savage north. At the campsite of Stone Mountain Provincial Park we spent the night. We stopped several times to enjoy the view. The mountains are less high here than in the Rockies we know near Jasper and Banff, but the landscape is vast and rugged. Here we also see the first caribou and mountain goat along the road
The campground at Stone Mountain is quite close to the road, on Stone Mountain Lake. After dinner we take a walk. It is very quiet there. A very active beaver swims in the lake that can be photographed well.
The next day we drive on to Muncho Lake Provincial Park. The environment here is beautiful. The blue lake adds to that. We put our tent at the second campsite, Mac Donald. It is just a little further from the road than Strawberry Flats and has slightly more spacious pitches. We have a beautiful spot on the water.
We take two hikes in the park, Stone Mountain Goat and Boulder Canyon. There is not a lot of walking, which surprises us somewhat. Because the area is very nice, but apparently not very accessible. We also notice this when walking. We have to make our way through the riverbed. There is no marked path or signage. Boulder Canyon is more fun and challenging! In any case, we are having a great time.
Liard Hot Springs
In the afternoon we drive to Liard Hot Springs PP. Here you can enjoy the hot springs for a few dollars. There is a natural swimming pool with changing cubicles and benches. It is very quiet and the area is super green. Really nice to relax here. The warm water comes from a swamp that provides special plants. Animals are attracted to the minerals in the soil.
When we leave Liard we see a number of black bears. They are young males. Lovely to watch them. We also see the first bison. What an impressive animal! The next day, driving north, we see two large groups of 25 and 35 animals. This is one of the reasons I wanted to drive along the Alaska Highway. It is unbelievable that you are driving on the highway here and those animals are just grazing on the roadside!
Cassiar Highway, bear encounters
At Watson Lake we visit the Signpost Forest and say goodbye to the Alaska Highway. We drive back south via the Cassiar Highway. We thought the Alaska Highway was remote and deserted… the Cassiar Highway is even more so. You can drive hundreds of miles here without meeting anyone. No houses, no people. We drive through great emptiness. Special..
At Boya Lake PP we spend the night at the campsite. In the evening we take a walk to the Beaver Lookout, where we are surprised by a large black bear! He would like to walk to our side via the dam built by the beavers in the river. But he scares back twice. Then he decides to swim a little further. What a beautiful sight, a swimming bear! Wow! Completely excited we walk back a little later, clapping loudly because he might be nearby and we don’t want to startle him again.
The next day we are at the beautiful lake of Meziadin Provincial Park and we see our first grizzly bear walking along the beach of the lake. Silently, as if it were quite normal. We think it’s special. We enjoy the cooling of the lake, but the swimming is different.
Fishing grizzly ‘s at Fish Creek
Stewart, and especially Fish Creek Observation Platform is one of the big reasons for our trip through the northern part of British Columbia. Here you can watch the bears catching salmon in the river from a platform. That seemed really magical to me! In preparation I searched for a long time for places where this could be done. Most places are difficult to reach, for example you have to fly there or sail with a private tour. That costs a lot of money. Of course Stewart is also not easy to reach, but if you do bridge those kilometers you can go to Fish Creek for 6 dollars.
We camp in Stewart itself and then drive to the border with Alaska, USA. There you are in ten minutes. You drive through the ghost town of Hyder and then come to Fish Creek. There’s a carpark and you can register at the kiosk. You cannot buy tickets here, you have to do this online in advance. We have bought a three day pass so that we can visit several times.
It was very quiet on our first visit. It was the middle of the day and about 25 degrees, not ideal conditions. The bears are more active in the (early) morning and at dusk in the evening.
We decide to first drive to Salmon Glacier, another attraction when you are here. The Salmon Glacier is Canada’s fifth largest glacier. You can reach this glacier by following a 35 km long gravel road. The road is in bad shape here and there and runs along the deep abyss. So it takes a while before you can enjoy the most beautiful view. It is impressive how this glacier makes its way. The weather is beautiful and that makes it even more beautiful, the white glacial ice stands out nicely against the blue sky.
On the way back we see several eagles fishing in the river.
In the evening we return to Fish Creek. It turns out a bear has just passed by, are we just too late? We’re already starting to feel a bit fed up….but a little later a grizzly appears in the bushes on the other side. Yes! The grizzly goes hunting to catch salmon, there are hundreds of them in the stream. But it’s not easy for this bear to catch them. They are either too fast or too slippery. In the end he succeeds. But the attempts are also nice to see. It’s like watching a wildlife movie on National Geographic! Wow! Very happy to be here!
When we return to the campsite, I see that many of my photos are blurred. The conditions, in the twilight and with my new telephoto lens, are not optimal. Annoying. Still, I’m glad we’re here, because I saw it with my own eyes. Special.
The next day we go longer and see two different grizzlies fishing. The first makes fun antics on a tree trunk and is a bit further away at the lagoon. The two arrive two hours later and continue fishing for an hour(!) This grizzly bear is overactive and shows all his tricks. Fortunately, I manage to capture this in various photos and videos with my camera and phone
On our last morning we decide to drive one more time to Fish Creek and we are lucky again. Although at a somewhat greater distance and quite short, we see another grizzly catching fish. What a beautiful place!
Stewart is a nice place to stay by the way. It is a small village but next to the camping site you will find a hotel, restaurant and some shops. The campsite is dilapidated, but if you get over it, it’s a good base. And we were happy with the hot shower!
Old Growth Forest in de Coast Mountains
After Stewart we drive towards Terrace. We want to enjoy the Coast Mountains a little more. An area where it usually rains and where the temperature is on average between 15 and 20 degrees, in the summer. Now it is 25 degrees or more and the sparrows are falling from the roof. Good for us, because we enjoy the nice weather. Not a good development for nature here.
This area has been inhabited for centuries, including by various tribes of First Nations. For example, you can check out totem poles in Gitwanyow and a Battle Hill in Gitwangak, where the Gitwangak once lived and kept out invaders by rolling logs down the hill.
We spend the night in different places and especially enjoy the beautiful Old Growth Forests in this area. Beautiful forests with impressive Sitka Spruce trees of hundreds of years old, a rich natural environment. Lakelse Lake PP and Kleanza Creek PP have nice campgrounds. We see less wildlife here than we expected. It is also a bit busier there, so it is likely that the game withdraws more into the high mountains.
On our to Portland
Following the Fraser River we return south. Via Prince George we drive to Lilloet and Hope and then on to Abbotsford and then across the border to Olympia. A considerable distance that we divide so that we also have some time every day for swimming or walking.
After 3 weeks we arrive in Portland. A roadtrip of more than 7000 kilometers. We look back on a wonderful holiday, which went well. We have seen a lot of wildlife, enjoyed the beautiful camping spots and the rugged nature.