South of Williams Lake, we needed to choose among four routes heading further south through the mountains of southern BC. Though all four promised amazing views and mountains and crazy roads and funky towns, we could explore only one. We’re at that time in this year’s trip where we need to think about weather and getting back to Vermont before it snows (too much…)
Based purely on sentimental reasons, we decided on the Sea to Sky Highway. We’d drive it just for the name! As hard core skiers, it would be enough that this highway passes by Whistler-Blackcomb, the largest ski resort in North America, rated one of the top ski areas consistently since the 1990’s. It was also the site of one of the infamous annual ski trips of our early adulthood with friends Pat, Geoff, Harry and Karen. That was in 1997…
There are only two roads through British Columbia that will get you to or from Alaska – the Alaska Highway and the Cassiar/Yellowhead Highways. We came north on the first one, so we headed south on the Cassiar.
The Cassiar Highway is a relatively remote, 725-km (450-mile), paved, narrow, two-lane road through the Cassiar Mountains connecting Watson Lake (pop 1600) to Kitwanga (pop 400). The road mostly follows the river valleys and we were always within view of lakes and mountains of various shapes and sizes. Still, there were hints everywhere that there was more we weren’t seeing… occasional, brief glimpses between the trees of high, snow-covered peaks and avalanche signs everywhere. Also, heli-ski operations in settlements like Bell II (pop a handful plus seasonals) and a brochure for Provincial Parks with glorious mountain photos and instructions for how to access them, by air. Hmmmm…
Nonetheless, we found the drive to be quite pretty, imagined what we couldn’t see from where we were, and enjoyed a few remote campsites near lakes and rivers with great mountain views.
Most people have heard of the Klondike and Klondike Gold Rush, even if only through watching Klondike Kat on Sunday mornings as kids. (Savoir-Faire is everywhere!) The Klondike was indeed a productive gold mining area in Western Canada near the Alaska border during 1896-1898. We suspect most people don’t know the Klondike Gold Rush was a group of about 100,000 prospective miners (aka prospectors) hoping to strike it rich, fueled by a recession in the lower 48 with high unemployment along with a spate of exaggerated claims and advertising fueled by the boom towns benefiting from the influx of outsiders buying passage, food and supplies. The prospectors bought passage on ships from Seattle and San Francisco to Skagway/Dyea (pop then 30,000), hiked over Wright Pass, then built boats to navigate down the Yukon River to Whitehorse where they boarded steamships to Dawson City (pop then 40,000). After their year of travel, they arrived to find no more gold claims were available. About 30,000 prospectors made it to Dawson City. Some turned around and went back home while others moved on to other gold fever boom towns in Alaska.
Although Alaska and western Canada share a rich (pun intended) gold mining history, the Klondike slice of it is fascinating and widely celebrated in this part of the world. We got to drive the overland part of the gold rush route in reverse, from Dawson City to Whitehorse to Skagway, on the Klondike Highway.
You might be thinking by now that we have a perverse infatuation with dead-end roads to out-of-the-way places. Ok, maybe we do a little – and we’ve been to some outrageously cool end-of-the-road spots – and sometimes there’s more to it than that. While at the Folk on the Rocks Festival last year in Yellowknife, we chatted with some folks living there who came originally from Inuvik. They loved the town, and they also told us that the Mackenzie Delta was the most beautiful place on earth. That was certainly enough for us to put it on our list.
So, who’s ready to hear about another 1600-km (1000-mile) road trip on a mostly great dirt road that totally rocked? It’s actually quite different from the last one. True, Alaska’s Dalton Highway – which we drove in June – and the Yukon/Northwest Territories’ Dempster Highway both provide overland access north of the Arctic Circle. They both involve about 1600 km (1000 mi) of unpaved roads through the wilderness with spectacular wildlife, and they are both the northernmost roads in their respective countries as well as the first (Dalton) and second (Dempster) northernmost roads in North America. They’re both legendary for broken windshields, flat tires and, oh, yes, you could die. Other than that, everything was different.
If you are driving into or out of interior Alaska, you have go through the town of Tok. Ah, but there are two roads that head east from Tok. We came in on one of them, the Alaska Highway. We had the option of driving out on a road called the Top of the World Highway.
The window is early September. That’s when it’s usually safe to head out of Alaska – see some fall foliage colors yet before snow in the mountains of Canada create challenges for those headed to the lower 48. So, we’re watching the calendar a bit more closely than we have. And we’ve got one more corner of Alaska to explore.
The plan: spend 2 days in greater Anchorage on major provisioning, scheduled maintenance for the truck, no blog posts (who wants to hear about doing laundry?), no pix, head north. Plans never work out.
When I first looked at a map of the Kenai Peninsula, there was a small dot on the northern edge labelled Hope. I looked a bit more closely and, sure enough, there was a road to it. Ok, we have to go there. Hope there’s something to see…
A few weeks ago at Salmonfest, we of course saw a lot of people wearing T-shirts. About 50% of the festival-goers understandably were wearing their t-shirts from prior Salmonfests, but the next largest group had shirts from the Seaview Cafe & Bar and Campground in Hope, AK. Hmm… We asked around and yes, downtown Hope has a cafe and bar with live music daily, there’s a campground, and yes, we should check it out. Then Duncan highly encouraged a visit to Hope. Good advice!
Seward is a small, picturesque city on Resurrection Bay at the base of Marathon Mountain at yet another Alaskan road’s end. It’s totally surrounded by tall, steep mountains wearing a shawl of glaciers that make up Kenai Fjords National Park. Seward is predominantly a commercial fishing town, also a destination and embarkation point for tourists in the summer. It’s the northern terminus of many cruise ship lines as well as the southern terminus (aka Mile 0) of the Seward Highway to Anchorage, the Alaska Railroad to Fairbanks, and the original Iditarod dog sled trail to Nome. Heavily damaged by the 1964 earthquake, the rail yards and fish processing plants directly on the bay were not rebuilt where they’d stood; the land was instead converted to parks with hundreds of campsites, enabling travelers to soak in the views and get to the mountains.
We left Whittier to drive straight through the Kenai Mountains and across the Kenai River Valley to get to Salmonfest on time, which allowed none of our usual poking around to see what there is to see. No worries, though. There’s but one road through central western Kenai Peninsula, and we knew we’d have to drive back that way, so poking around could wait for the return trip.
So we poked our way up the Kenai River. The Kenai River captures the glacial meltwater from the Kenai Mountains in eastern Kenai Peninsula, creating the screaming bright aquamarine colored Kenai Lake. From the lake, the river meanders through lowland lakes and forests which evolve to predominantly flat wetlands, enroute to Cook Inlet and the Pacific Ocean.
D’oh! No, not that Homer – Homer, AK. It’s a small town in a stunning location at the road’s end on the west side of the Kenai Peninsula. It’s situated where the Kachemak Bay empties into Cook Inlet, feeling cozy and protected by the Kenai Mountains interspersed with glaciers to the south and east, and the Alaska Range with its four towering volcanoes to the west. A key geological feature of the town is the Homer Spit, a terminal moraine left by the glacier that filled and carved out the Kachemak Bay 15,000 years ago. The Spit is a long, narrow, natural gravel bar that sticks out 4.5 miles into bay, now dotted with campsites and shops and people fishing.