Jump to content

North of Gnat Pass--the way home to Alaska on the Cassiar Highway


Recommended Posts

I just got home from the BMWMOA rally in Spokane and while riding down and back from Alaska (6300 miles) was thinking about highlighting my favorite part of that long route, the Cassiar Highway of Northern British Columbia. The Alcan and its few variations (the Cassiar is one) is now pretty tame but still a very worthwhile scenic adventure for me, even after having been on that road many times.


The 450 mile Cassiar highway essentially cuts off about 600 miles of the main Alcan and in my opinion is far better for its scenery, solitude, light traffic, and side trip potential. The road has a bad reputation mainly earned more than 20 years ago when, all gravel, it was known as a tire eater due to the particularly sharp rock on the northern end. Now, however, most of the Cassiar is paved--about 50 miles remain of the gravel and that is in good condition. Each year more is paved and a significant section north of Bell 2 is being paved this year. Compared with the Alcan, however, the paved Cassiar is much more narrow and frost heaved, which makes for an unpleasant bumpy rolling ride in a wallowing RV. Therefore the road's rep with the RV crowd is negative--another plus in my book since the wavy surface is easily handled on a bike. Lighter traffic means more wildlife and I saw quite a few bears from the road as well as a few moose.


The Cassiar runs from the Pacific Northwest rain forest near the BC coast up to the Yukon Territory border near Watson Lake and follows river valleys through the coast ranges of BC to do so. The first 100 miles of the road remains in coastal BC forest when the side trip road to Stewart/Hyder is encountered. That 40 mile side trip is highly recommended as it descends through glacier clad mountains to the sea at Stewart, a very nice destination with good food and accomodations. Hyder AK is across the street from Stewart BC and is quite primitive by comparison, but has two attributes. One, is the bar where you can become "Hyderized"--don't ask-- and two, it's the closest road access to Alaska by 1000 miles for people looking to check off states visited or compete in riding endurance contests. I met a couple from Louisiana headed to Hyder on their Goldwing so they could "check Alaska off". Excuse me, but visiting Hyder and saying you've been to Alaska is like going to the island of St Pierre off the coast of Newfoundland Canada and saying you've visited France.


As you return to the Cassiar from Stewart after watching the bears feed near the Salmon Glacier (another reason to go there), the road goes another 150 miles through big spruce and pine forest along a series of westward flowing rivers, past a heli ski resort (Bell 2) ((nice food)) and gradually climbs to Gnat Pass. Up to this point the look of the land is Pacific coastal forest, but near the top of the pass at treeline, the look changes to sub arctic boreal forest--all in the course of 10-20 miles. The pass isn't very spectacular, but I know it feels a lot like home and, in fact, is the doorstep divide. Water flowing down the north side of the pass moves on to the Mackenzie River system through the Liard River, eventually ending up in the Arctic Ocean, instead of running to the Pacific off the coast of BC. I notice a lot more fireweed along side the road, a true marker of the North (more later).


I spend the night at Dease Lake, a few miles down from Gnat Pass and the biggest town on the road. I spot the only Ferrari I've ever seen on the Cassiar in the Motel parking lot






Dease Lake has the second notable side trip option. A 75 mile fair gravel road runs from here to Telegraph Creek on the Stikine River. There is a small lodge at the end by the river, usually has gas (check on rooms and gas before leaving Dease Lake) built in an old Hudson"s Bay Trading Post. It's kind of like a ghost town without the ghosts and the trip definitely qualifies as an adventure if you're up to it. My wife did it just fine on her Honda Magna, but take care on the steep downhill with hairpin in the middle--you've been warned. Plan on a day in and overnight at Telegraph Creek--it's really worth it.


As I take off in the morning it's clear and calm, quite a change from the 2 days of rain and mud I encountered coming down. The town of Dease Lake is at the head of Dease Lake, a 20 mile long clearwater finger lake. There is a 17 mile gravel stretch along Dease Lake which I photograph to prove how good the gravel really is




Now you could handle that on your RT couldn't you??


(note: the Telegraph Creek road is rougher than this in many places).


Dease Lake looks good in the early morning light and I stop on the road to shoot the lake




There's been no traffic, it's just me, and I pull in to a gravel turnout to hike down to the lake shore for a water level shot




I climb through the game trails back to the turnout and spot a map board on the far side of the gravel lot. Believe me--None Seen, None Looked For...




By the end of the lake, the pavement returns and the Dease River begins its journey North to the Arctic Ocean. It's a fairly robust river and the road follows it almost to the Yukon border. At the Dease Crossing Bridge, the river is flowing into one of a series of lakes it traverses like a string of pearls on the way north. Looking south (towards Dease Lake)




And looking north down stream as the river runs into a small lake




Along this section of road there are banks of Fireweed, an emblem of the North often seen on roadsides and clearings in more profusion the farther North you go.




There are also many small ponds nestled back into the mountains




And few cabins can be seen on some of these ponds




After enjoying 80 or so miles of this beauty I come to the only significant commercial operation north of Dease Lake--Jade City. I park next to 2 giant boulders of jade (note the saw cut in the near boulder surface)





There's a kid cutting up pieces of jade under a tent and a boom box blasting out Willie Nelson and 2 jade shop emporiums. That's it for 80 miles in each direction




After leaving Willie Nelson and company behind I'm looking for the old road to abandoned Cassiar, the third side trip potential of this highway. I've been told by a local to just go around the road closed sign, so I do:




And find a delightful, paved road about 10 miles up to the old town of Cassiar high in the mountains. Needless to say there is no traffic or boom boxes up here. The town hasn't been out of business too long from its looks and I gather that the mine was an asbestos mine which explains why it is now closed. A beautiful creek runs along this high valley almost at tree line




and a few people still spend some time up here




Returning downhill to the Cassiar Highway I note that this country is highly mineralized judging from the multiple colors in the rocks. By a roadside falls you can see a contact zone between two types of rock





And not far from this spot is an active placer gold mine along the creek





As the road finally leaves the mountains for the final 50 miles to Watson Lake, there is the Boya Lake Provincial Park (BC). This park is typical of the high quality of BCs provincial parks--well laid out, very nice sites, and very clean. I stop for lunch lakeside at an empty site. Imagine yourself hopping out of the tent in the morning with such a nice view. There are also nice sites back in the trees.




The Cassiar joins the Alcan at a non descript junction about 10 miles west of Watson Lake. It's easy to blow by this point and wind up on the longer and busier and more drab alternative.


Though I'm still at least 1250 miles from home, I feel like I'm almost there. It's still a nice ride north from here and gets good around the Rancheria River area where the divide from the Mackenzie system and the Yukon River system is located. I spot an old trapper cabin near the lower Rancheria River




and spend the night in Teslin YT where the Nisutlin River runs into Teslin Lake. I took this photo about 1045 pm




looking up the Nisutlin River.


I hope any of you tourers looking for adventure, a beautiful ride, and nice country come up for a visit and don't forget about the Cassiar. Just don't give me any of that I've been to Alaska/Hyder stuff...


Best wishes,


Link to comment

Thanks David. Beautiful! I will be returning to AK next june. Plan on going via your route rather than the alcan which I did last time.

Link to comment

Just got to hit the Favorite Thread (toggle) at the bottom of the page.



Link to comment

Beautiful pictures from a fascinating, far-away country !! How I'd love to visit just once ! Thanks for the great description Dave smile.gifsmile.gifthumbsup.gif

Link to comment

Thanks for all the nice comments. Best time to do this trip is late June to mid July and be sure to take your time--there's a lot of good stuff to see up here but you need to stop to see much of it. Next time I'm looking for a Maserati...


Link to comment

Dave, Great ride report - and the pic's were wonderful.

I did that ride last summer and decided to take the Cassiar for many of the same reasons you selected it - it is remote with great scenery and wildlife.

I have my ride report at http://www.clarkejohn.com if you are interested.

I still get e-mail from riders asking for advice on riding to Alaska. I always advise them to take the Cassiar even though it has gravel sections. I tell them them it was one of the highlights of my ride.

Glad you had a good time and thanks for bringing back to me the memories I have of my ride on the Cassiar.

Link to comment


Your trip report of last year's ride to AK was great! Though you covered a lot of ground there's still a good bit of great riding up here. When you come back, consider the road to Circle Hot Springs, the Denali Highway, and, of course, the Kenai. If you come across the Top of the World road again, don't miss taking the side trip from Jack Wade Junction to Eagle. I admire your spirit of going ahead and checking out allegedly "bad roads" for yourself. Almost always they're not as bad as claimed and usually have a lot to offer. If they are that bad, it's easy to turn around and get out of it. Pushing yourself a little also adds to the adventure. Anyway, you've really got the right stuff for Alaska. Come back!


Link to comment

Thanks to both you and Dave for great posts. A trip to Alaska looks much more worthwhile after reading both posts.

Link to comment


This topic is now archived and is closed to further replies.

  • Create New...