The Alaska Highway runs about 1,400 miles from Dawson Creek, BC in Canada to Fairbanks, Alaska. It was constructed during World War II to connect Alaska to the contiguous United States primarily to enable defense of the region. It was open to the public in 1948, and since then many travelers have made the famous trek, starting from Mile Zero in Dawson Creek.
To make the drive a little more interesting – and at the recommendation of a local contact in Fort Nelson – we made a detour from the Alaska Highway almost the minute we got on it in Dawson Creek. We hopped on Highway 52 down to Tumbler Ridge to make a scenic loop that would reconnect us to the Alaska Highway just north of Fort St. John. Read more and watch the video about this delightful detour here. From Fort St. John to Fort Nelson, the drive is mostly rolling hills, straight or slightly winding roads, and trees for miles and miles. Traffic is light, but most of them are semi-trucks and work vehicles for the logging and gas lines. The trees and brush have been cleared from the road a good 30-40 meters on either side, and the lush open greenery is famous for attracting wildlife. On our drive to Fort Nelson we saw a bear and two moose – a momma and a baby who looked just days old.
Upon reaching Fort Nelson, we found a once-booming-now-surviving town. Back around 2007 when the lumber mill closed down, there had been a thriving lumber industry that provided for the community. It was somewhat revived when oil and gas came to town, but that industry moved out around five years ago. While not even close to replacing the jobs and commerce in the area, the tourism sector is a critical piece to this quaint town’s survival.
However, for most people traveling the Alaska Highway, Fort Nelson isn’t much more than an overnight stop on their journey, but the truth is that it’s much more than that. Besides being the last place for over 300 miles for good groceries and affordable fuel, we found the Fort Nelson had lots to offer.
The Visitor’s Center is a great place to start and get help to plan the next leg of your trip (because you’re going to want to take your time getting to Watson Lake, YT – trust me!). From hiking trails, biking trails, plane trips, or dirt back roads that only the locals know of, they have a plethora of knowledge and have actually gone out and done many of the attractions themselves to inform YOU
. Our recommendations and experience is detailed further below!
After you’ve planned out your trip BEYOND Fort Nelson, consider checking out some of the amenities in town and using Fort Nelson as a place to take a bit of a rest during the long drive to Alaska:
1. Fort Nelson Historical Museum – for those fascinated with history, antiques, and collector cars! Collector Marl Brown, whose white bushy beard once sold at auction for $10,000, has been avidly collecting the town’s historical artifacts for decades. The cozy compilation of trinkets, photographs, displays and stories from the town’s people can keep you busy for hours – and then there are the outbuildings! We recommend asking for the guided tour to get the stories of how the items (and buildings) were collected.
2. Down to Earth Health Store & Café – I can say with certainty that this is your last chance for a store like this for a long time! As we eat a mostly plant-based diet, this café was a great place for a vegan dinner (and carrot cake!) and to re-provision on any special supplements, all-natural soaps & cleaners, and organic foods. We also noticed they carry pet foods and special keepsakes.
3. Recreation Center – Ask about this place in the Visitor’s Center! Built during the boom of the town, this full-service modern recreational center is complete with all your fitness desires, including swimming pool and climbing wall.
4. Phoenix Theatre – movie theater and more! Check out https://www.fortnelsonshow.com/for the latest movies and other shows coming to town.
5. Poplar Hills Golf Course – Like to golf? Check out Poplar Hills Golf Course, a 9-hole course that we heard was pretty good.
6. Parker Ecological Preserve – great place to take the dogs for a swim or for a leisurely paddle.
Northern Rockies of British Columbia
After Fort Nelson, the Alaska Highway starts getting really interesting. You essentially driving back into the Rocky Mountains – the same range as Jasper & Banff National Parks and all the way down through Colorado in the States. So that should hopefully give you an idea of what you’re heading into 😀
Episode 8 of our Go North series chronicles our journey through this amazing area:
A large section of the drive is within the Muskwa-Kechita Management Area – a wilderness management area larger than Ireland. We highly recommend watching this short, well-done documentary about the area that gave us a better understanding and appreciation for the area as we passed through it: https://player.vimeo.com/video/62464008
The Muskwa-Kechika: A Delicate Balance from Don Roberts on Vimeo. It is an amazing place for hiking, fishing, camping, biking, and more. Many people also take advantage of the numerous plane and pack trips into the wilderness. We had allotted 4 nights to spend between leaving Fort Nelson and Arriving to Watson Lake, and we had a very ambitious list of things we wanted to do (in order from east to west): 1.Steamboat Viewpoint – stop and see the mountains from this high viewpoint. Great spot for lunch! 2.Tetsa River Lodge – for the “Best Cinnamon Roll in the Galactic Cluster.” We tested it, and while we haven’t tasted all the cinnamon rolls in the galactic cluster, it was really really good. 3. Summit Lake Trails and Campground – Flowering Springs Lake Hike or the Summit Peak Hike. We were told the Peak hike was brutal, so we did the Flowering Springs one.
Flowering Springs Lake Trail follows a gated two-track for about 2km and then you hike for 2.5km to the Flower Springs lake. We rode our bikes up along the road to the hiking trail, which significantly decreased the time to do this hike, and we got to coast down when we were on the way back! More info here
The lake was unfortunately still frozen over, but when melted it glows turquoise just like lakes in jasper and Banff National Parks! Regardless, the hike was beautiful, with snow capped mountains and rolling tundra the whole way!
Summit Lake Campground – beautiful lake, beautiful spot to camp. $26/night self-serve, cash-only.
4. Baba Canyon Hike – heard this was beautiful. We did not have time to go, but it was very highly recommended to us! 5.5km/3.5miles of small waterfalls, creeks, and deep clear pools. More info here. 5. Toad River Lodge – Stop and see the thousands of hats lining the ceiling of this lodge! When we were there the count was 11,188 and growing! The river has been dammed by a beaver and has formed a beautiful lake. Camping available here as well.
6. Wokkpash Road – were told there is awesome hiking off of this road.
7. Nonda Creek Road – Our first time taking the Lance truck camper off in order to utilized the 4×4 capabilities of the truck for a true off-road excursion! Being able to take the camper off the truck was always one of the huge draws for us to truck campers or a Class B, as you can leave the house portion for things like this and be able to use the truck separately during your trip for going to get groceries or tooling up some crazy two-track 😉
There was lots of space at the bottom of the road before the one-lane bridge to park an RV for the day to drive up Nonda Creek Rd. 4×4 and high clearance required to make it to the top. Clocked 21 km one way from the bridge. AMAZING views from the top! Would be awesome on ATVs.
8. Muncho Lake – One of the most beautiful lakes we’ve every seen! Unfortunately, there is nowhere to rent kayaks or canoes on this gorgeous lake unless you stay at the Northern Rockies Lodge. We HIGHLY recommend bringing your own means to get out onto this lake.
When we visited in late May the ice had just melted, which means the water was COLD but it was absolutely stunning! We stayed at MacDonald Campground right on the water for $20 CAN/night.
Sunset over Muncho Lake at MacDonald Campground 9. Wood Bison! – These herds are notorious for hanging out around the road between Muncho Lake and Liard Hot Springs. We were not disappointed, and even got to see baby bison playing! Wood bison are a subspecies of the American Bison, with historical ranges of Alaska and northwestern Canada.
10. Mineral Licks hike – a short pleasant hike to views of the Trout River and the mineral licks – concentrations in the rock that wildlife frequent to get crucial minerals for their diet.
11. Liard Hot Springs – A must-do! For the small fee of $5/person for day use (good until 11pm) you get to enjoy one of the most beautiful hot springs areas. It does have a slight Sulphur smell (and you’ll want to take a shower shortly after as to not smell like Sulphur the rest of the day). Also, take a short walk to see the Hanging Garden, a waterfall of white tufa with moss and flowers growing all over it.
12. Smith River Falls – a 2km (1.2 mile) potholed dirt road to see one of the most perfectly fanned waterfalls I’ve ever seen. Not recommended for large RVs, as there isn’t a very big turn-around at the end, but we were able to fit and maneuver the Lance with no problems. A short and very steep hike (there is a rope to help you down and up) takes you down to the river and the base of the falls. Tom caught an Arctic Grayling as we sat admiring the view.
Welcome to Yukon! Sometimes you’ll even be greeted by a bison.
We ended our trek through the Northern Rockies region and British Columbia and made a stop at Watson Lake, the biggest town we’d come across since Fort Nelson. This town is known for the Sign Post Forest, easily its biggest attraction that was started by a man named Carl Lindley, a US Soldier who was tasked with repairing directional signs. He erected a sign that gave the direction and miles to his hometown of Danville, Illinois, and others followed suit. Today, over 77,0000 signs reside in the “forest.”
We thought it’d be really fun to have a Scavenger hunt as you explored this place, so here is one for if you’re planning to hit this attraction! Take a picture of each item on the list below and see who can get back to the entrance sign the fastest:
- Your State
- Your First Name
- Name of a town you’ve been to
- Last name of a family friend
- Furthest place away from Watson Lake you can (see who gets the furthest!)
- Make up your own!
We stayed at the Watson Lake Campground just outside of town while we restocked and caught up a little on some work before heading out on the next leg of our journey, turning off the well-known Alaska Highway onto a lesser-known dirt road into the wilderness: Canol Road.
This would be our first time taking the Lance 1172 Truck Camper on rough, dirt road, and we were excited to see just how far out there we could go with this rig!
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