When you're talking about the "north" in Canada, you have to be careful. Although the following destinations are certainly northerly -- at least a day's very long drive from Vancouver, or by a 15-hour ferry trip from Vancouver Island -- most of this section's towns and sights are geographically in British Columbia's midsection. By the time you reach Prince George or Prince Rupert, however, you'll feel the palpable sense of being in the north: The days are long in summer and short in winter, and the spruce forestlands have a primordial character. First Nations peoples make up a greater percentage of the population here than in more southerly areas, and Native communities and heritage sites are common.
One of the most dramatic ways to reach northern British Columbia is by ferry. The BC Ferries Inside Passage route operates between Port Hardy, on Vancouver Island, and Prince Rupert, on the mainland; this full-day ferry run passes through mystical land- and seascapes, with excellent wildlife-viewing opportunities. From Prince Rupert -- a fishing town with an excellent Native arts museum -- you can catch another ferry to the Queen Charlotte Islands, which lie truly on the backside of beyond. Part of these islands is preserved as Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, a refuge of rare flora and fauna, and the ancient homeland of the Haida people.
Inland from Prince Rupert, the Yellowhead Highway (Hwy. 16) follows the mighty Skeena and Bulkley rivers past First Nations villages and isolated ranches, finally reaching Prince George, the largest city in northern British Columbia. Prince George is also a transportation gateway. Whether you're coming west from Edmonton, east from Prince Rupert, north from Vancouver, or south from Alaska, you'll pass through this city at the junction of the Fraser and Nechako rivers.
From Hwy. 16, there are two options for travelers who wish to explore realms even farther north. The famed 2,280km (1,417-mile) Alaska Highway -- the only overland route to the 49th state -- begins at Dawson Creek. More than 960km (597 miles) of the route wind across northern British Columbia, through black-spruce forest and over the Continental Divide. The Alaska Highway exercises an irresistible attraction to die-hard road-trippers, many of them retirees with RVs. Another route north, the Stewart-Cassiar Highway, also labeled Hwy. 37, leaves the Yellowhead Highway west of the Hazeltons, cutting behind the towering Coast Mountains to eventually join the Alaska Highway in the Yukon.
Frigid weather and short days make winter travel difficult in northern British Columbia; rather, explore this beautiful wilderness landscape under the glow of the summer's midnight sun.