This is part 2 of a three part trip report of my adventure driving to Alaska and back from Seattle. Visit the first part to read about the drive up through the Canadian Rockies. You can also skip to part 3, which details the last leg of the trip through Prince Rupert, Terrace and more.
*Note: Many of the images below are cell-phone shots and certainly not of the same quality as you will find in my fine art photography galleries.
Westward and Northward to Alaska!
I woke up bright and early (literally, it was like 6 a.m. and already bright), got ready quickly and stopped at a local bakery in Jasper, the Bear’s Paw Bakery, to pick up some breakfast for the road. If you’re in Jasper, this is a must stop. The breakfast items and various pastries are top notch! Next stop was Mount Robson, about 30 miles west of Jasper, across the Alberta-British Columbia border. Beyond that was the 700 mile tromp across western Canada that I would complete through this long day in my quest to reach Hyder, Alaska and the Salmon Glacier. Mount Robson was beautiful but it was very hazy at the viewpoint near the visitor’s center. There were also about three tour buses about to unload after I had been there for a minute or two, so I decided to move on, making mental note to return and hike the famed Berg Lake trail one day.
As I drove west, out of Mount Robson Provincial Park and into the vast forested lands of British Columbia, I saw my first bear. Within five miles of that bear, I had seen four total! Very impressive! I also saw what I think was a wolf (or a very large coyote) dart across the road into the forest. Seeing all of this wildlife just added to my sense of wonder for what was to come!
I didn’t see any other wildlife as I drove west, finally reaching Prince George. Prince George is considered the “capital of northern British Columbia”. I stopped to pick up groceries, not knowing what to expect in terms of food options in the coming days. The drive from Prince George on to Smithers and beyond is very long, but beautiful. Hills and forests dominate the terrain. As I drove west to Smithers, I started seeing a few snowcapped peaks off in the distance. This meant I was nearing the coastal range and the Great Bear Rainforest! This area of the world is one of the most vast areas of wilderness left. The Great Bear Rainforest is an extension of the Pacific temperate rainforest ecoregion, which in turn is the largest coastal temperate rainforest in the entire world.
I stopped in at Smithers for gas and a bite to eat. I also attempted to visit Twin Falls before heading out of town, but decided to leave it for the way back if I had time. I wanted to try and reach Hyder and see the Salmon Glacier before dark, in case there was a beautiful sunset that night. As I passed Smithers and neared the turn for the Stewart-Cassair Highway, a long-dormant emotion crept up inside of me. I have a memory from when I was a child. When I was, at best, 5-6, I took a trip with my grandparents to the Colorado Rockies to visit my aunt and uncle. I had been to the mountains a few times already, but for some reason, this really stuck out to me. Passing Denver and going into the foothills, I remember being in awe of the huge mountains around me. A child-like sense of wonder at the glory of Creation and the natural world around me. Nearing the coastal range and the edge of Alaska evoked this same feeling of awe and wonder in a way I haven’t experienced since I was a child. A sense of mystery at what is around each bend in the road and what was going to await me as I continued further into these beautiful mountains. It probably didn’t help that I had been waiting six long years to go on this adventure, which had only built up more and more anticipation.
It wasn’t long until I was at Kitwanga and the beginning of the Stewart-Cassair highway. In the past, most people who traveled to proper Alaska used the Alaska Highway. The Stewart-Cassair highway is a secondary route through arguably even better scenery. I wouldn’t be driving the majority of it, as I would be turning at the Meziadin Junction towards Stewart, British Columbia and Hyder, Alaska. When I turned north towards the Meziadin Junction I decided to stop really quickly to view the Gitanyow totem poles.
On my way from Gitanyow to the Meziadin Junction, I spotted another couple of bears. After a while, I arrived on the east shore of Meziadin Lake, which in turn was the point where I would leave the Stewart-Cassair Highway for the short route to Alaska! I topped off the gas tank at the little gas station, snapped an obligatory photo of the sign and started off to the west. Within an hour, I would be in Alaska for the first time! But I also knew that the “glacier highway” from the Meziadin Junction to Stewart, BC itself was renowned for beautiful scenery. I took my time, finally leaving the beautiful Meziadin Lake behind and traveling upwards. It wasn’t too long and I was seeing waterfalls pouring off of massive mountains around me. And then, I was stopped in my tracks. I came out into an open area with a lake to my left and the massive Bear Glacier reaching down towards the lake. The scenery was mind-boggling. And yet, I knew the Salmon Glacier that lay ahead was going to a hundred times larger than Bear Glacier.
I continued on, staring wide-eyed at the insane scenery around me. Glaciers hanging off the tops of mountains and waterfalls pouring off from every angle just left me in awe. I made mental note to stop more on the way out to get photos. I wanted to make it to the Salmon Glacier before sunset, so I kept on. I finally arrived in the small town of Stewart, British Columbia, driving straight through to the border crossing of Hyder, Alaska. This area is so remote that there isn’t even a U.S. border checkpoint. I guess they figure since there really isn’t any easy way out rather than going back into Canada, so what’s the point? I stopped to get my motel room key and chatted with the nice lady running the motel. When I told her I was heading up to the glacier, she exclaimed something like “Tonight?!”. That gave me a bit of pause, as if maybe it wasn’t safe or something. I also mentioned something about a sunset and was met with a chuckle and a “we don’t really get sunsets here”. Everything I had read had made out the road to be gravel, but fairly easy in a car. While they don’t recommend it, people have brought RVs up the road, so it can’t be that bad in a car. So I dropped my stuff off and started up the road.
The next 25 miles can only be described as some of the most beautiful scenery accessible by car in the world. It rivaled even the Icefields Parkway, but in a different way. While I didn’t stop, the National Forest Service operates a boardwalk to with a viewing platform where bears, wolves and bald eagles come to get their fill of salmon in the summer. Unfortunately salmon season wasn’t underway yet in this part of the world, so the viewing platform was empty and the bears were elsewhere. Rather than stopping, I kept driving. Eventually the road left the flat valley floor where the Salmon River lay and started to climb. Somewhere around here I left Alaska and was back in British Columbia. But in this remote part of North America, the border between the US and Canada is nothing but beautiful mountains and scenery. All of the time, waterfalls were rushing down the mountains on my side. And then the first viewpoint of the toe of the Salmon Glacier opened up. Even the Bear Glacier from earlier paled in size to the Salmon Glacier. The Salmon Glacier is known as the most car-accessible glacier in the world. Whether that’s entirely accurate, I’m not sure, but I’d certainly believe it! The Salmon Glacier is huge! In fact, it’s Canada’s fifth largest glacier. I kept driving, stopping at many of the viewpoints to try and find a good photo. The weather was dreary, so photos weren’t really anything to write home about. It was more about the experience in this moment. I finally reached the top and saw the full extent of the Salmon Glacier! And while it was cloudy, a small spark of color opened up in the north. I had done it. I made it to the Salmon Glacier. Maybe six years later than planned, but the wait was worth it! I decided to head back and would explore further in the morning. The road actually goes past the Salmon Glacier to the Granduc Mine. I wanted to go check that area out as well, but it was getting dark, and honestly, I was tired. I drove back to the motel in Hyder, glancing back at the glacier a number of times.
The next morning I was so exhausted, going to bed at midnight and getting up at 4am night after night caught up to me. I slept it way longer than I meant to. My plan was to be up for the tiny chance of a sunrise. I got up four hours after sunrise. I wanted to call my wife, so I drove to the end of the pier where there was a tiny bit of service to view the Portland Canal and watched a bald eagle looking for it’s morning meal across the fjord. I tried stopping at the “The Bus” in Hyder on my way up to the glacier to eat breakfast/lunch but it wasn’t open yet, so I continued on up towards the glacier again. The Fish Creek viewing area for bears was again, empty of bears, but I expected that considering salmon season hadn’t started yet. I also stopped a few times to photograph waterfalls and get a bit of video with the drone. Hopefully I can put together a full video of drone footage from this trip sometime in the near future.
Eventually the toe of the Salmon Glacier began to show up again. I took my time shooting some footage with the drone as I drove higher and higher above the glacier. Eventually I stopped to shoot a panorama of the glacier to show it’s enormity! It’s hard to really understand just how jaw-dropping the Salmon Glacier is. It’s Canada’s fifth largest glacier and the world’s largest road-accessible glacier. I could literally spend days just camped out here admiring the beauty and exploring the surrounding mountains. But as I only had a week to do this trip, I was limited to the one night. And I still needed to get to Terrace with stops between. So I decided to continue down the road and explore the Granduc Mine area. Mining for copper, the Granduc Mine has existed in some form since the 1930s. It saw the majority of it’s activity in the 1960’s-1980’s, but has had various periods of activity, including recent interest in the mine. When I was there, there was some level of activity, but I wasn’t sure what they were doing. A helicopter was flying back and forth from a spot above the road to the area below the Berendon Glacier. The area beyond the Salmon Glacier is definitely beautiful in it’s own right. I drove the road up until a broken wooden bridge made it impossible to go any further. With a 4-wheel drive jeep of some kind, the entire valley beyond would have likely been possible to explore. Glacier’s like the Berendon Glacier hang off of the mountains above. If I had the time and some fellow hikers, I would have loved to hike down to the base and see what kind of ice caves might have been down there. Being solo though, I’m not keen on hiking in grizzly country on my own. And I had already spent a number of hours up here. I really wanted to see the Nisga’a area before dark on my way to Terrace, so I headed back the other way, again seeing the Salmon Glacier come into view. I said goodbye to the glacier, with the thought of taking more people up here at some point in the future to do some hiking.
When I arrived back in Hyder, “The Bus” was open and full of people eating what looked like some delicious seafood! I grew up hating fish and most seafood, but have since grown to appreciate most of it! Fish and chips has become one of my favorite meals, so I ordered up some halibut and chips. I usually eat my seafood with shrimp (cocktail) sauce as I’m not a fan of tartar sauce, but I forgot to get some shrimp sauce when ordering. They also had fresh unsweetened iced tea. For those that known me, know that I only drink water and unsweetened ice tea. Canada seems to have a problem with unsweet tea. You can only find bottles of sweet tea. On a rare occasion, you can find lemon flavored unsweet tea, but I’m picky and just like plain unsweet iced tea. So it was funny to me that the moment I went across the border to Alaska, the only restaurant around had some plain old unsweetened ice tea. Obviously I ordered some, and they brought out my plate of fish and chips. And holy smokes, the halibut and chips from this place was the best fish and chips I’ve ever had in my life. And the tartar sauce was delicious too! Even for someone that doesn’t like tartar sauce. Even if the Salmon Glacier didn’t exist, I’d want to return to Hyder just have some more fish and chips!
After eating my delicious lunch, I stopped at the Canadian border crossing. It’s so weird here. There’s no border crossing into Alaska, but there is one going back into Canada. As far as I know, there’s no other way into Hyder, Alaska except from British Columbia, so what’s the point of the border crossing? Maybe people boat in up the Portland Canal? I’m honestly not sure. And as far as I know, it’s the only border crossing into the US that doesn’t have a station. You just drive in and you’re in Alaska! Anyways, I had read stories online that this border crossing can also be very strict. Stories of cars being searched, really stern border agents, etc. But in all reality, it was pretty painless. The border crossing lady asked me a few questions and had me on my way pretty quick. I stopped in at the Stewart Visitors Center to look around and make a few phone calls while I had limited cell service. I made my way back up the glacier highway, stopping at a few spots for some drone footage. I also stopped again at the Bear Glacier area to admire one last glacier before descending back down to the Meziadin Junction. The next area I was going to be driving through would be a really unique experience!
To read about that, visit the blog post on part 3: Nisga’a, Terrace, Prince Rupert and the British Columbia coastal mountains!