“Up North” is a relative term, but I suspect many of us would consider the top third of British Columbia and the bottom portion of the Yukon as “up north”. In fact, it took over ten hours of driving and almost a thousand kilometers (six hundred and twenty miles for the imperial thinkers) just for us to get to the start of the British Columbia Northern Circle Route. While the density of interesting automotive finds probably does not match a large metropolitan area the quality is certainly there.
A little background on the trip and its route before we get into the curbside classics: Ever since I did my motorcycle trip a few years ago I have wanted to return to the northern BC area. My wife came across the so called “British Columbia Northern Circle Route” which is a circuit that includes both the famous Alaska Highway and the less travelled but possibly more scenic Stewart-Cassiar Highway. This summer we found ourselves with eleven or so overlapping vacation days and decided we would do it together. To be clear this really was not enough time, but it was either do a rushed trip or none at all. To help make the most of our time we left work on Friday and drove straight through the night to McBribe, BC.
This meant we did almost all of the famous Banff to Jasper section in the dark but got us close to the starting point on day one. While I realize it might seem mind boggling that we blew through this iconic section of road that many people travel thousands of miles to see, but we have done it before and would have an easier trip to return than most. The map of the loop is above and it is roughly 2,700 kms (1,678 miles) long but the total for us was close to double that with the travel to and from the Prince George starting/ending point with a few detours along the way.
As previously mentioned, we stayed in McBride, British Columbia which is west of Jasper, Alberta and while the accommodations were much more modest, they were also affordable unlike Banff or Jasper. We planned to split our overnights stays about half and half between camping and hotels/motels/cabins. At our first motel there was a mildly hot rodded Ford Model A with a distinctive yellow paint job.
While our route would soon diverge, I passed this same motel on my bike trip and remember this A from several years back. Property of the hotel owner perhaps? From the details I suspect it was customized in the Eighties or early Nineties.
This heavy-duty pair of tow truck and stricken semi-truck greeted us as we left. We would be driving my wife’s GMC Sierra with well over 200k on the clock, so we hoped for better luck than this driver had.
I will sprinkle in a few non-automotive bits to give a flavor of the overall trip. The first stop is at the ancient forest with massive red cedars with some that are one to two thousand years old. This is a rare and unique inland rain-forest that has somehow escaped notice and logging for decades. The photos really do not do it justice but if you ever find yourself nearby it is well worth a visit to this majestic place.
Next, we arrived in Prince George, which is the official start (and end) of the circle route. We attempted to find a suitable lunch spot in the historic downtown area but mostly just found a few CCs including this Japanese Domestic Market Nissan Safari in right hand drive.
At the rear there was a dealer sticker that indicated it had spent some time in Tokyo. These Japanese imports are quite popular in British Columbia.
The fate of many an old truck, being turned into a sign.
While fueling up I noticed this rather unusual to see a stock looking Suzuki Samurai without big tires and a lift. If you have not seen a Samurai lately and wondered where they have all gone, the answer is BC apparently as we saw several. Well, I did as I suspect most (all) of these are background noise to my wife.
It was quickly time to head north and deviate from the route I had taken a few years back on the motorbike. A well-preserved Seventies era Ford truck led the way.
The terrain became quickly became more mountainous. We stopped along the way for some sightseeing and short hikes before arriving at our first no frills campground. We have a tent that fits in the bed of the truck, which is ideal for two people travelling light(ish). Luckily for us this far north the light lasts well into the night hours given our late arrival. In fact a flashlight was not even required for the inevitable middle of the night trek to the outhouse.
The next stop was in Chetwynd which is absolutely chock-full of these amazing chainsaw sculptures. Dozens are spread out over the town.
At this point we took a rather large detour south to explore the Tumbler Ridge Geo Park but it proved to be well worth it. Next to the best visitor center I have encountered was this 1968 Plymouth Barracuda hardtop looking a little sorry for itself. It was not clear if the wrinkled fender happened here or elsewhere.
We could have spent a week exploring the Tumbler Ridge area but with limited time we had to choose just one activity to do. We settled on a hike called “Shipwreck and Titanic” which involved driving down this mining road that was utilized by robotic coal mining trucks. Being a weekend, we did not get to actually see any. Getting to the starting point requires one drive a good way up the mountain allowing the hike to consist of all the scenic bits rather than a long walk to start.
The actual hike itself had a serious of these dramatic rock formations.
The coal mine is visible across the valley. I was told it was no longer active due to a drop in demand from China but it still had plenty of vehicles and buildings on the site. While this diversion had cost several hours it was well worth it, but we needed to get moving again.
As we headed north the terrain changed to less mountains, more trees and even some windmills. The population density could be accurately described as very low.
The next place of interest was Dawson Creek which is “mile zero” of the Alaska Highway.
Here we stopped for a bite to eat and a row of mini beers.
As well as some surprisingly good live music on the patio for such a small town before heading off to Fort Nelson for the night. The nice thing about the long daylight days is you can pack a huge amount into each day.
This radioactive RAM was in the parking lot of our motel. It is likely a “tool truck” for the bustling oil and gas industry around these parts. In fact, I suspect we were the only guests that were not staying on the company dime. We did have a pickup truck so were able to blend in at least.
In town I spotted this vaguely Mercedes SSK inspired kit car. I do not think it is the more common Gazelle as the doors and rear section are quite different. It appeared to be wearing a Lincoln grill. Can anyone identify this one? Update identified as a Bremen Mini Mark kit car.
Back on the road this Ford Excursion is well stocked with fuel for any adventure.
At the edge of town is the amazing Fort Nelson Heritage Museum at mile 300 of the Alaska Highway which has been previously covered.
There were a number of these portable and temporary “towns” based around the resource extraction industry. This means less ghosts for the future as the resource is tapped out or demand changes.
We drove down a seriously rugged road followed by another hike to visit this amazing waterfall.
The road was mostly lots and lots of trees with wide grass sections at the side which makes for potentially good wildlife spotting opportunities.
Before long we spotted our first big wildlife in the form of this black bear who was deep into eating wildflowers.
Here is everyone’s worst nightmare: a breakdown in a remote place and in a large vehicle. This would be a seriously expensive tow.
Before long the mountains returned. There were several bridges like this with metal grating rather than normal road surface. I would assume this is done to allow snow to flow through rather than building up over the winter. They felt a little odd under the truck’s tire, but I would be slowing way down if I was on a motorbike.
The scenery was often dramatic as we approached our planned campground for the night. This was one of two sections that we were unable to get a reservation as it was first come, first serve so we were hoping for the best given it was a weekday rather than a busier weekend.
Unfortunately the intended campsite was full including this lovely Land Rover 110 with a rather slick adventure pop top set up.
These Volkswagen vans appeared to be long distance travellers and were parked at the side of the road for the night. My wife was not enthusiastic about doing something similar, so we kept going.
Given the late hour (around midnight) we came across a pair of moose eating plant life at the bottom of a lake. Several porcupines waddling along the road as well as we continued on.
Then a handful of wild bison.
The sun was starting to set as much as it does, so we really needed to find a place to stop for the night. We ended up driving all the way to the next night’s campground … which was also full.
So, we ended up pitching on truck bed tent in the overflow parking lot at Liard Springs. Unfortunately, there was an amazing number of mosquitoes. I am sure we were quite the sight as the truck rocked back and forth with us killing the bugs that entered the tent for at least half an hour after. The locals were wearing mosquito mask/helmets and remarked it was the worst they had ever seen. We skipped the hot springs and headed out first thing in the morning. In fact, we drove down the road a little with the tent up just to escape to slightly less buggy spot for proper take down.
While we were excited to have seen a handful of bison the night before in the morning there was literally a pile of them at the side of the road. Even a few little ones.
After a quick stop at a waterfall, we stopped at a gas station and restaurant to allow my grumpy-from-the-bugs-last-night wife to spend some time on her hair in the plumbed bathroom. There were a number of long-distance motorbike riders that stopped during our time there.
The road stop is owned by a couple who were enthusiastic travellers of the highway before buying and reviving the Coal River Lodge in the Seventies. They had some historical photos on display. Update – identified as a Western Flyer.
I suspect this was one of their original travel rigs. An “Old Look” GM bus.
Reader Bob B. adds in the comments below:
It appears to have a standard GM ‘Old Look’ transit front but the side windows are those of a parlor type (intercity) coach. Not sure what it was I looked through some of my bus books I found pictures of just such a GM coach, the model PGA-3301. The PGA-3301 was a military model that used the body side panels of the 29 passenger ‘parlor’ coach mated to a TGH-2701 transit front. Powered by a GMC 503 gasoline 6 cylinder, 840 were built for the U.S. Army between ’51 and ’52. A fairly rare and unique coach.
There were also a large number of these Airstream trailers. In talking to one group, they are mostly Americans who rent them to travel the Alaska Highway. They are advised not to bunch up too much and drive other road users crazy.
The next leg of the journey could prove to be interesting as mere days before leaving we had been advised that the highway had been washed out in a section by a flood. Given the remoteness of the landscape, there was no alternative road to be taken. It was only two days before starting the journey that a detour had been created around the washout. We had few details on how much extra time it would add but we would need to navigate it in part two.