How to Drive from Vancouver to the End of the Cassiar Highway in British Columbia
How to Drive from Vancouver to the End of the Cassiar Highway in British Columbia
Learn how to visit this remote area of Canada, what to see along the way, and tips for safe travels!
By: Peter & Kathy Holcombe
Wow, wow, wow! We’ve heard stories about the Cassiar Highway from our friends for years as a “must-do” overland route through Canada, and now that we have finally seen it in person … we agree! But it is not for the faint of heart because it is a really, Really, REALLY long drive through an incredibly remote area of British Columbia. AND not only is the road itself remote, but it is a long, LONG way to even get to the start of it.
With that said, the road is narrow and winding, but is paved and is maintained year-round (although you should expect winter driving conditions starting in late October through May). We traversed the Cassiar in late July, and it was an absolute delight to experience it first-hand. However, be aware that in recent years, wildfires have plagued this area beginning in early summer. You can track the fire activity across the province via the BC Wildfire Service application.
Throughout our travels, we saw many 2WD cars, SUVS and pickups, expedition vehicles, buses, small RVs, huge RVs, 5th Wheels, semis, and logging trucks all navigating the Cassiar Highway with ease. But don’t be lulled into complacency by the fact that it is paved: it is an extremely remote route through the wilds of British Columbia and should be treated with respect.
Be sure that you have everything you need to safely traverse the Canadian wilderness including a substantial repair kit, newer tires in good condition and full-sized spare, plenty of provisions to last the duration of your journey, and enough fuel capacity to make it from one fuel station to the next. Any type of evacuation (tow or medical) would be quite an undertaking, and very costly.
Getting to the Cassiar Highway from Vancouver
The big surprise for us was how involved it was to actually get to the start of the Cassiar. Initially, we budgeted for a couple of hours from Vancouver to get to the start of the Cassiar; however, it was almost 1000 miles and over 20 hours of driving just to get to the beginning of the road. Albeit, 20 spectacularly beautiful hours meandering through remote British Columbia. It’s a BIG place!
Sea to Sky Highway (HWY 99) Vancouver to Cache Creek - 192 miles (309 km)
Our total travel time on the Sea to Sky Highway was approximately 5-6 hours.
We left from Vancouver and took the Sea to Sky Highway to Cache Creek. This incredibly scenic route leads to two of our favorite towns in BC: Squamish and Whistler.
Squamish is a worthy destination in its own right and we have spent weeks on end exploring the town and surrounding area that is nestled between a towering granite monolith and a fjord. This place is made for adventure with world-class rock climbing, whitewater and sea kayaking, mountain biking, hiking and so much more all within minutes of the city center. The town itself is filled with great restaurants and breweries and has a similar vibe to Hood River, OR, or Moab, UT.
Whistler is a quintessential ski town with world-class mountain biking as well. Both are worthy of a layover (time permitting) or, at the very least, a good walkabout. Note: Nairn Falls is a great stop to stretch your legs and break up the drive between Whistler and Pemberton. The trail is approximately 3 km (almost 2 miles) round trip and ends at a gorgeous waterfall. The trail is relatively flat with a slight gain in elevation toward the end.
This entire corridor draws substantial crowds from Vancouver on the weekend, so plan accordingly, and know that camping options will fill up quickly on weekends and holidays.
We used the iOverlander app to find a spot to camp just north of Squamish late on a Friday evening. We headed up the road to Cat Lake, and every spot marked on iOverlander was bursting with as many vans as would fit in the space. Eventually we drove all the way up to the lake and paid $18 CAD to park in the dirt lot of the campground at the lake.
The area between Squamish and Whistler is very busy and camping options are sparse, so plan accordingly.
Caribou Highway (HWY 97) Cache Creek to Prince George - 245 miles (395 km
Our total travel time on the Caribou Highway was approximately 5-6 hours.
From Cache Creek we headed north to Prince George. This stretch of road ran through granite-lined canyons, through beautiful river valleys and thick forests, and across rolling hills and prairies. The scenery was impressive and much more arid than we were expecting - more like Idaho and eastern Oregon than what we expected in British Columbia.
The route was regularly punctuated by small towns with fuel, food, and all the basic necessities. We stopped for the night midway through this trip at the Alexandria Rest Area. It’s a fairly standard rest area complete with grassy areas, restrooms, picnic areas and ample parking. It served us well for a single night as we made our way north.
Yellowhead Highway (HWY 16) Prince George to Kitwanga - 298 miles (481 km)
Our total travel time for this segment of the Yellowhead Highway was approximately 7-8 hours.
NOTE: Be sure to stock up on food, fuel, and anything else you may need at Prince George as it is the last city before heading into remote BC.
From Prince George, we headed west toward Prince Rupert on Highway 16. This stretch of highway includes lakes and rivers and there are many campgrounds and Provincial Parks with ample recreation opportunities including fishing, hiking, and boating.
There is a beautiful display of Totems that are scattered throughout the First Nations Kitsequecla Village just before you reach the turn to Kitwanga.
Driving the Cassiar Highway in Remote British Columbia
Cassiar Highway (HWY 37) Kitwanga to Watson Lake - 450 miles (724 km)
Our total travel time on the Cassiar Highway was about 10 hours, which we traveled over the course of three days.
The Cassiar begins just outside the small village of Kitwanga and continues on for 450 breathtakingly beautiful miles through an extremely remote area of British Columbia. The road is winding and steep in places but is paved for all but approximately one mile near the Slave River.
Detour to Hyder, Alaska
Our first objective on this stretch of road was to visit the small town of Hyder, Alaska. This is the southernmost town in Alaska and can only be reached via the Cassiar Highway (or by boat or plane). You will cross the USA/Canada border right outside of Stewart, BC.
Hyder is a super quirky town with few amenities, but what is there is definitely worth a stop. The gift shop is what you would expect from any tourist town with one exception: the owner is a true character and a conversation with her is well worth the time. (This is also the place where you can purchase tickets to the Fish Creek Bear Viewing Area.)
The Glacier Inn Bar, across the street, is the go-to spot if you want to get “Hyderized”, which involves a generous shot of 150 proof alcohol and a certificate of achievement. We were there early in the day before the bar was open, but we hear it’s quite an experience. If you are in search of a great meal, be sure to check out The Cabin for fabulously fresh and delicious halibut fish and chips. They only take cash, so come prepared!
Fish Creek Bear Viewing Area
Just outside of Hyder lies the Fish Creek Bear Viewing area. You will need to either purchase tickets to Fish Creek online or in person at the gift shop in Hyder - they do not sell tickets onsite at Fish Creek. The preserve has ample parking for small vehicles as well as large RVs.
Adjacent to the parking area is an elevated boardwalk that parallels the creek giving visitors a birds-eye view of the happenings in the water below. Starting in mid-July, the salmon arrive in Fish Creek and shortly thereafter the bears make their grand entrance.
When we were there, there were regular sightings of both black and grizzly bears. While it would be quite convenient to know when the bears are most likely to appear, there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to their behavior or arrival time. They come and go as they please, keeping spectators on their toes. We only budgeted a couple of hours for our visit and spent the entire time watching bald eagles feed on salmon scraps left behind by the bears the day before.
Unfortunately, we didn’t actually see a bear. If we were to do it over again, I would bring a book, lunch, and water and make a whole day (or two) of it. Ironically, we spotted a black bear wandering alongside the road about 30 minutes outside of town, so we didn’t leave the area “bear”-handed!
Just up the valley from Fish Creek is the Salmon Glacier - a highlight of the area and likely the main attraction of the entire Cassiar Highway. The glacier is colossal and is truly an extraordinary sight to behold. It’s well worth the hour drive to the top of the pass.
The road to the top is dirt (and fairly muddy when we were there), and it is narrow and steep. While you don’t need 4WD to get to the top of the pass, a smaller more rugged vehicle is definitely preferable for this endeavor. The glacier spans for many miles and the views keep getting better as you ascend the pass. There are numerous pullouts along the road where smaller vehicles can spend the night and contemplate the splendor and magnitude of the glacier over a glorious sunset.
After a night spent above the glacier, we returned to Hyder and retraced our track back into Canada. The drive north on the Cassiar highway, meanders through lush valleys punctuated by lakes and rivers. Two hundred miles to the north, we discovered the Morchuea Lake Recreation Site.
It is a densely wooded primitive campground with a handful of sites (each with a picnic table and fire ring) that lies along the shore of a beautiful mountain lake. The lake is perfect for boating (and has a boat ramp), swimming, fishing, etc. and is a great spot to spend the night after a long day’s drive.
Beyond Morchuea Lake lies the small community of Dease Lake, a good resupply spot for fuel, groceries, and a quick bite at the deli. Another 120 km beyond that is the infamous Jade City. Jade City is renowned for its quirky art studio and gallery where artisans come from around the world to test their skills carving everything from small talisman and figurines to large sculptures and home decor all made from locally mined jade. It is a great place to stretch your legs and learn all there is to know about jade, and pick up hand-crafted works of art.
Just a quick drive north brings you to Boya Lake, another highlight of the Cassiar. The allure of the shimmering iridescent blue water of the lake entices photographers, swimmers, paddlers, and nature enthusiasts to her shores.
We arrived without reservations and snagged a primo spot right on the water and spent the afternoon photographing the majesty around us and swimming in the crisp, crystalline blue water. It was a delightful stop and worthy of a layover day if time allows.
The End of the Cassiar Highway
The remaining 100 km of the Cassiar continues on through the upper stretches of British Columbia, enters into the Yukon Territory and terminates at Highway 1: the Alaska Highway. From here you can decide if you would like turn left toward Alaska, or turn right toward the nearby town of Watson Lake and their infamous sign forest.
Whichever direction you choose, you are guaranteed to have adventure and beautiful scenery awaiting you just over the horizon.
If you want to learn more about our experiences on the Cassiar Highway, you can watch our YouTube video here.
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