The Yellowhead Highway (Hwy. 16) follows the lush Skeena River valley from Prince Rupert, on the coast of the Inside Passage, to the province's interior. It's the gateway to the land-based return route from the Inside Passage ferry cruise. The long, winding valley is home to a diverse community of fishers, loggers, and aluminum and paper-mill workers in Terrace, and is the ancestral home of the Gitxsan, Haisla, Tsimshian, and Nisga'a First Nations.
If you want to understand glacial geology, this drive will provide instant illumination. It's easy to picture the steep-sided valley choked with a bulldozer of ice, grinding the walls into sheer cliffs. Streams drop thousands of feet in a series of waterfalls. There are many small picnic areas along this route; plan on stopping beside the Skeena to admire the astonishing view.
Terrace is an industrial town of about 14,000 and has only just begun to develop itself for tourism. Stop by the store at the House of Sim-oi-Ghets, off Hwy. 16 (tel. 250/638-1629; www.kitsumkalum.bc.ca/hos.html), a cedar longhouse owned by the Kitsumkalum tribal band of the Tsimshian Nation. It offers jewelry, carvings, bead and leather work, and moccasins.
North of Terrace & Nisga'a Memorial Lava Beds Provincial Park
Forty kilometers (25 miles) northwest of town, the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Bear Preserve is the province's first official sanctuary of its kind. You must be part of an authorized group or accompanied by a ranger to observe these amazing creatures.
North America's rarest subspecies of black bear, the kermodei, also makes its home in the valley. The kermodei is unique, a nonalbino black bear born with white fur. Its teddy-bear face and round ears are endearing, but the kermodei is even larger than the impressive Queen Charlotte Islands black bear.
Also north of Terrace, at the Nisga'a Memorial Lava Beds Provincial Park, vegetation has only recently begun to reappear on the lava plain created by a volcanic eruption and subsequent lava flow in 1750, which consumed this area and nearly all of its inhabitants.
The route to the park's near-lunar landscape begins in Terrace at the intersection of the Yellowhead Highway (Hwy. 16) and Kalum Lake Drive (Nisga'a Hwy.). Follow the paved highway north along the Kalum River past Kalum Lake. Just past Rosswood is Lava Lake (where the park boundary begins). While there are a number of short interpretive trails to volcanic curiosities along the parkway, the primary hiking trail is the 3km (1.9-mile) Volcanic Cone Trail, which leads through old-growth forest to a volcanic crater. To protect the site, it is required that you hire a local guide; reservations are mandatory. There are scheduled 4-hour guided hikes at 10am Monday through Saturday from June 15 through Labour Day; the cost is C$30 adults. Call to schedule at the park office tel. 250/638-8490. Hikes depart from the Nisga'a Visitor Centre (tel. 250/638-9589; www.env.gov.bc.ca/bcparks).
Continuing on Nisga'a Highway, the road picks its way across the lava flow. As you approach the Nass River, the road forks: To the left is the visitor center and to the right is the town of New Aiyansh, the valley's largest Nisga'a village, with basic facilities for travelers. The entire trip is 120km (75 miles); allow at least 2 hours each way.
The Nass River valley is the homeland of the Nisga'a indigenous peoples. In 1998, the Nisga'a and the Canadian federal government concluded an agreement that gives the Nisga'a tribe full title to about 2,000 sq. km (772 sq. miles) of land, a cash settlement, and powers of self-government.
Maps also show an unpaved road linking New Aiyansh with Hwy. 37 to the east. Called the Cranberry Connector by locals, it's a heavily rutted and pot-holed logging road that is perfectly passable but very slow going. If your destination is Stewart or Dease Lake, then it's worth inching your way across this shortcut (it will take about 2 hr. to make the 77km/48-mile journey to Cranberry Junction on Hwy. 37). If you are heading back toward the Hazeltons, however, you're better off returning to Terrace and driving at highway speed up Hwy. 16.
In winter, Shames Mountain, 35km (22 miles) west of town (tel. 877/898-4754 or 250/635-3773; www.shamesmountain.com), is known for its small crowds and huge quantities of snow. Open mid-December to mid-April, it has one double chair and one T-bar lift, along with 28 groomed trails. Lift tickets are C$42 for adults, C$32 for seniors and youths 13 to 18, and C$23 for children 7 to 12. Facilities include a rental and repair shop, store, cafeteria, and pub.
The Stewart-Cassair Highway: North to Alaska
Seventy-five kilometers (47 miles) west of Terrace (48km/30 miles west of the Hazeltons) is the junction of Hwy. 16 and the Stewart-Cassair Highway (also labeled as Hwy. 37), one of two roads leading to the far north of British Columbia, eventually joining the famed Alaska Highway in the Yukon. This route is not as popular as the Alaska Highway, which begins farther east in Dawson Creek, though the scenery is more spectacular and the road conditions about the same. The route is now mostly paved, though there are a few gravel sections. Thus, expect delays due to road construction. To put it mildly, the winters up here are hard on the roads. It's a total of 718km (446 miles) between the Yellowhead Highway and the junction of the Alaska Highway near Watson Lake, in the Yukon.
Even if you don't want to drive all the way to the Yukon or Alaska, you should consider a side trip to the twin communities of Stewart, B.C., and Hyder, Alaska, 153km (95 miles) north on the Stewart-Cassair Highway to Meziadin Junction, then 64km (40 miles) west on Hwy. 37A. What a drive! These two, boundary-straddling villages lie at the head of the Portland Canal, a very long and narrow fjord -- in fact the world's fourth longest. The setting -- the two ports huddle below high-flying peaks and massive glaciers -- is alone worth the drive.
From Meziadin Junction, Hwy. 37A immediately arches up to cross the mighty glacier-choked Coast Mountains, before plunging precipitously down to sea level at Stewart. You'll want to stop at the Bear Glacier Rest Area, where massive Bear Glacier -- glowing an eerie, aqua blue -- descends into Strohn Lake, frequently bobbing with icebergs. Watch mountain goats and bears along this stretch of road.
Stewart (pop. 900) is Canada's most northerly ice-free port, and is now a major copper-mining center. The tidy little town contrasts vividly with Hyder (pop. 70), Stewart's grubby Alaskan cousin: One feels like it's an outpost of an empire, the other feels like it's the end of the road. Facilities are basic but serviceable; the best place to stay is the King Edward Hotel and Motel, in Stewart, on Fifth Avenue (tel. 800/663-2126 in B.C., or 250/636-2244; www.kingedwardhotel.com), which has double rooms for C$69 to C$119.
The Skeena and Bulkley rivers join at the Hazeltons (pop. 2,000). Straddling two river canyons and set below the rugged Rocher de Boule mountains, the Hazeltons are actually three separate towns: Hazelton itself, South Hazelton, and New Hazelton, all located along an 8km (5-mile) stretch. The junction of these two mighty rivers was home to the Gitxsan and Wet'suwet'en peoples, for whom the rivers provided both transport and a wealth of salmon. In the 1860s, it became the upriver terminus for riverboat traffic on the Skeena, and Hazelton became a commercial hub for miners, ranchers, and other frontier settlers farther inland.
The old town center of Hazelton, though small, still has the feel of a pioneer settlement. And you can get a sense of the Gitxsan culture by visiting 'Ksan Historical Village, off Hwy. 62 (tel. 877/842-5518 or 250/842-5544; www.ksan.org), a re-creation of a traditional village. Some of the vividly painted longhouses serve as studios, where you can watch artists carve masks and hammer silver jewelry. If possible, plan your visit to coincide with a performance by the 'Ksan Performing Arts Group, a troupe of singers and dancers who entertain visitors with music, masks, costumes, and pageantry. The shop here is a great source for Native art and gifts, and the Wilp Tokx, or the House of Eating, is a good place to try Native cooking. There's a C$2 admission for entrance to a small museum and the grounds themselves. To see the interior of the longhouses, you'll need to join a guided tour, which costs C$10 for adults, C$8.50 for seniors and students. If you take the tour, you don't have to pay the grounds fee. 'Ksan is open from April through September daily from 9am to 5pm. The rest of the year, only the museum and shop are open, Monday through Friday from 9:30am to 4:30pm.
There aren't many lodging choices, but the 28 Inn, 4545 Yellowhead Hwy. 16, New Hazelton (tel. 877/842-2828 or 250/842-6006; www.28inn.com), with a dining room and pub, is clearly the best, with rooms going for C$74 double. The area's best dining room is the Hummingbird Restaurant, 2720 Hwy. 62 (tel. 250/842-5628), which serves German specialties. It's open nightly for dinner, weekdays for lunch, and Sunday for brunch.
The 'Ksan Historical Village and Seeley Lake Provincial Park, 9.5km (6 miles) west of New Hazelton (tel. 250/847-7320), have campgrounds. For advance information on the area, call the Hazeltons Travel Info Centre (tel. 250/842-6071 in summer, 250/842-6571 Oct-May). The summer-only visitor center is at the junction of highways 16 and 62 (Main St.).
Smithers & the Bulkley Valley
Smithers (pop. 6,200) is located in a stunningly beautiful valley that truly resembles the northern Alps. Flanked on three sides by vast ranges of glaciated peaks, it is cut through by the fast-flowing Bulkley River. The heart of Smithers occupies the old commercial strip on Main Street, which is perpendicular to the current fast-food and motel haven that is Hwy. 16. This attractive area is lined with Bavarian-theme storefronts that offer outdoor gear, gifts, and local crafts. But what Smithers really has to offer is found in its gorgeous mountain backdrop. With 2,621m (8,599-ft.) Hudson Bay Mountain rising directly behind the town, snowcapped ranges ringing the valley, and the area's fast-flowing rivers and streams, you'll feel the urge to get outdoors.
Driftwood Canyon Provincial Park, 11km (6 3/4 miles) northeast of Smithers, preserves fossil-bearing formations laid down 50 million years ago. Considered one of the world's richest fossil beds, the park has interpretive trails leading through a section of exposed creek bed, which was carved by an ice-age glacier. To get here, drive 3km (1 3/4 miles) east of Smithers and turn east on Babine Lake Road.
Regional information can be obtained from the Smithers Visitor Info Centre, 1411 Court St. (tel. 800/542-6673 or 250/847-3337; www.tourismsmithers.com). Hours are 9am to 8pm Monday to Saturday mid-May to October 1.
The Lakes District
Between Smithers and Prince George lies a vast basin filled with glacier-gouged lakes, dense forests, and rolling mountains. There are over 300 lakes, whose combined shorelines add up to more than 4,800km (2,983 miles). Not surprisingly, sportfishing is the main draw here, and rustic fishing lodges are scattered along the lakeshores.
But this isn't an easy place to plan a casual visit. Many of the lodges are fly-in or boat-in, and offer only weeklong fishing packages. Most are very rustic indeed. If this is what you're looking for, contact the Burns Lake Chamber of Commerce , which can connect you with the lodge or outfitter that suits your needs.
If you have a day to spare and want to explore the region, there's a paved loop starting in Burns Lake that explores the shores of four of the lakes. Take Hwy. 35 south from Burns Lake, past Tchesinkut Lake to Northbank on François Lake. From here, take the free half-hour ferry across François Lake and continue south to Ootsa Lake. Here, the road turns west, eventually returning to François Lake, Hwy. 16 at Houston, and then back east to Burns Lake.
Burns Lake is nominally the center of the Lakes District, and if you end up here needing a place to stay, try the Burns Lake Motor Inn, on Hwy. 16 W. (tel. 800/663-2968 or 250/692-7545). For information on the region, contact the Burns Lake Visitor Centre, 540 Yellowhead Hwy. (tel. 250/692-3773), open in July and August daily and year-round at varying times; call for hours.
At Vanderhoof, 133km (83 miles) east of Burns Lake, take Hwy. 27 north 59km (37 miles) to Fort St. James National Historic Site (tel. 250/996-7191), one of the most interesting historic sites in northern British Columbia. Fort St. James was the earliest non-Native settlement in the province, a fur-trading fort established in 1806. In summer, costumed docents act out the roles of traders, craftsmen, and explorers. The park is open daily mid-May through September from 9am to 5pm. Summer admission is C$7.80 for adults, C$6.55 for seniors, C$3.90 for youths 6 to 16, and C$20 for families. Free audio-guided tours of the grounds are available in winter; call ahead to request one.