A winter drive from Jasper to Whitehorse via the Stewart-Cassiar

From Airdrie to Jasper on Wednesday December 13th, I had had superb weather, but I reached Jasper just after noon, stopped for fuel, and my luck with the weather ran out soon after. My rough-draft itinerary called for me to reach Vanderhoof that night – 990 km from my starting point in Airdrie.

My fuel stop at Jasper was quick, and by 12:40 I was headed west on Hwy 16, with the temperature at -1°C (30°F). I was extremely surprised to see a cyclist struggling along the shoulder of the highway.

Cyclist on Hwy 16 near Jasper in December
The gates of Jasper National Park for eastbound traffic.

The gates of Jasper National Park for eastbound traffic on Hwy 16
At 1:00 pm, I reached Yellowhead Pass and crossed back into British Columbia, and Mount Robson Provincial Park.

Welcome to British Columbia, and Mount Robson Provincial Park
The mountain goat sign for Mount Robson Provincial Park has always been one of my favourites.

Mount Robson Provincial Park sign
It’s quite unusual to see all of Mount Robson, and I was pleased to get this much of a view from the visitor centre parking lot.

Mount Robson in December
With the temperature up and down a degree from the freezing point, it spit rain for most of the 270 km (168 mi) from Tete Jaune Cache to Prince George. West of Prince George, I soon ran into fog, which at times was extremely thick. It was a slog, down to as slow as 30 km/h for long stretches. The fog was compounded by the dark – it became one of those nights (though it was only afternoon) when the dark absorbs every bit of light, and the lines on the road were mostly covered by gravel so they didn’t help.

Highway 16 east of Prince George
By 4:45, I had had all the fog and crap I could handle, and the Coach Light Motel in Vanderhoof looked like the refuge I needed. This was my third stay here over the years – I got Room #205 in the small block of 4 units this time. It has a fridge, microwave, a tiny coffee maker, and the free wifi was good. Although it’s showing its age, it’s very clean, and it offers great value at $69.

Coach Light Motel in Vanderhoof, BC
I was up very early on Thursday (December 14th). The weather forecast when I went to bed called for very thick fog (down to “zero visibility”) from Vanderhoof to at least Smithers, and when I peeked out and saw minimal fog, I got up, and hit the road at 04:15.

Coach Light Motel in Vanderhoof, BC
Although there were some fairly small stretches of fog, the road was far better than I expected from the forecast. I shot the next photo east of Smithers at 08:40, ten minutes before sunrise.

Winter dawn on BC Hwy 16 near Smithers
I usually stop for a minute or so at Moricetown Canyon, located 30 km west of Smithers. If nothing else, it’s a good spot to just get out and stretch.

Moricetown Canyon, BC
The Skeena River has always attracted me. Even on dull, dreary days like this, it just has a good vibe for me.

Skeena River
At 11:35, I reached the junction of Highway 16 and Highway 37, the Stewart-Cassiar. I had fueled up in Smithers at $1.149 per liter (and picked up 3 gallons of windshield washer fluid) so only needed a small top-up here. Sometimes the fuel is quite pricey at the Petro-Canada station at the junction, but this day it was the same price as Smithers.

The junction of Highway 16 and Highway 37, the Stewart-Cassiar
I hadn’t stopped at St. Paul’s Anglican Church (Episcopal) at Gitwangak (formerly Kitwanga) for a few years, and decided to have a look. It’s now abandoned.

St. Paul's Anglican Church (Episcopal) at Gitwangak (formerly Kitwanga)
It’s sad to see such beautiful stained glass at the rear of the church, with some of the regular glass windows at the front broken.

St. Paul's Anglican Church (Episcopal) at Gitwangak (formerly Kitwanga)
The “Highways Open” sign at Km 6.6 of the Stewart-Cassiar was reassuring. The temperature was 0°C and a light rain was falling.

The 'Highways Open' sign at Km 6.6 of the Stewart-Cassiar
My draft plan was to reach Dease Lake to overnight. When I shot the next photo at the KM 90 post at 12:50, that was only 398 km away, so with these good road conditions, easily attainable.

Stewart-Cassiar Highway Km 90, in December
I pulled in to the Meziadin Junction Lodge just to check the fuel price – last summer it was very high. This day, not bad at all – $1.248.

Meziadin Junction Lodge
I reached Bell II Crossing, the second crossing of the Bell-Irving River, at 2:50 pm. The bridge is at Km 249.3. I stopped in at the Bell 2 Lodge here for a second to check the fuel price – $1.40 per liter. From here northbound in the winter, the next fuel is at Iskut, 155 km away.

Bell II Crossing bridge on the Stewart-Cassiar Highway
The next photo is a good example of why I love the Stewart-Cassiar – it still looks the way the Alaska Highway did 25 years ago. The little bridge ahead crosses Ogilvie Creek at Km 286.

The Stewart-Cassiar Highway at Km 286

About half an hour from Dease Lake, as I descended from Gnat Pass, I got hit by a wild (!!) snowstorm driven by high winds. I was down to about 50 km/h because I simply couldn’t see. I had been doing about 90 km/h, and a vehicle that had been steadily gaining on me from behind for a few minutes vanished – I never did see him again.

The snow only lasted for a few minutes, but when I got to the valley bottom where Dease Lake sits, I discovered that the storm had arrived there as freezing rain, and the whole world was a skating rink. For a few reasons (mostly, I wasn’t tired and really wanted to get home), I decided to continue on – I’d catch some sleep in the car when I needed it. I fueled up and headed north just before 4:00.

The highway was now in terrible condition, but my car handles this sort of crap really well as long as you’re careful. About an hour out of Dease Lake, though, things went sour in a big way – the all-wheel-drive and ABS systems died! This has happend twice before – large magnets on each rear axle control these systems, and can break.

Dead awd system in my Cadillac CTS

Testing how bad things were now, I totally lost control of the car on the ice, but managed to get it back. I drove another few miles, and when a large pullout appeared, I parked, pulled out my Arctic sleeping bag, and caught 2½ hours sleep. The skies had now cleared, and the stars were incredible – Dark Skies of the finest kind 🙂

I started driving again at about 8:00 pm, slowly making my way north. There was nobody else on the highway. I saw a semi running at Jade City, and then saw his tracks chipped in the ice – he had chained up to get that far and then gave up.

Ice on the Stewart-Cassiar Highway

Conditions were so bad that I was surprised that the highway hadn’t been closed. I think that it was simply a case of nobody from the Department of Highways seeing it yet. I knew that most of the highways in the Yukon had been closed the day before because of freezing rain. Which of course didn’t bode well for the rest of the drive home.

Things improved slightly towards the north end of the Stewart-Cassiar, and I stopped and went to sleep for another 3½ hours.

The Alaska Highway wasn’t bad, but there were stretches that hadn’t been sanded so drivers could never get cocky. There were many signs of vehicles having recently gone off the road, though they had all been recovered. Until I reached Km 1182 (east of Teslin). When I stopped to check on this pickup just before 06:00, there was nobody around even though the truck was running. A single set of footprints led to the road where a vehicle had clearly been sitting for a few minutes. Very odd.

I got home just after 08:30. This will certainly remain in my memory banks as the worst ice I’ve ever seen, and one of my worst drives ever. Thinking about it once I was safely at home, I wish that I had taken more photos of the ice, and a video of me skating on the road in the lights of the car would have been pretty awesome. During the drive, though, I wasn’t spending much time thinking about the possible entertainment value of it 🙂

Despite the challenges of the road from Prince George on, though, it was a superb trip in every way. I had mostly glorious weather, and a wonderful visit with my kids and grandchildren. The map below shows the whole trip – about 5,400 km (3,355 mi). Click on it to open an interactive version in a new window.

Winter road trip map - Whitehorse to Calgary and back


A winter drive from Jasper to Whitehorse via the Stewart-Cassiar — 6 Comments

  1. I hate driving on ice because you really don’t have a lot of control and there’s always someone who doesn’t understand about centrifugal force and think they can go around a curve on ice at the same speed they can when it’s dry.

  2. Thanks for the maps, for me it makes all the difference in really figuring out the story… too bad about the dangerous situation w the car.

    The Caddy has such a sophisticated AWD, easily one of the best on the road anywhere. Sensor failures or ECU going…? (Magnets?) What do they tell you at the dealer, since this is 3x failure?

    And you just having looked at new one’s…karma!

    • On each axle, a magnetic ring is around the speed sensor that controls the awd/stabilitrak. The first 2 were replaced under warranty, but although I have lots of miles left on the warranty, it time-expired last summer. The warranty bills that were paid were $601 each 🙁 The dealer doesn’t know squat – there’s no Caddie dealer within 1,000 miles. I’m talking to the guys on the Cadillac Forum now. It’s possible that rough roads can break them, and I hit a section of very rough potholed ice.

  3. I loved re-living this route with you!

    I drove a three-ton packed to the hilt with goods up the Cassiar–with all the weight, it seemed easier than in a smaller vehicle. In my Jimmy, however, driving on ice into Yukon, one time my steering froze up; another time, I hit a moose–fortunately at only about 25 m.p.h. Couldn’t stop for the ice although I shifted down, down, down….

    Every late November/December, I’d do the Christmas Caravan, bringing worldwide handmade Christmas goodies to communities that had no stores to speak of. I’d do a northern and a southern route from Whitehorse. Cassiar was operating full-tilt-boogie then: the mine admin would hand me a set of keys and a meal pass and I’d work myself to a frazoo for the weekend. Wow, those steaks, though! Cassiar employed top-level cooks. You’d walk into the cookhouse and feel 400 pairs of male eyes staring at you in wonderment and heaven knows what other emotions; the hell with them and their fantasies! The cooks would slap a plateful of juicy steak onto your tray, and you’d snort through 2,000 calories of incredible food before keeling over into bed to do it all over again the next day. Now that’s what I call gladiatoral retailing!

    Now Whitehorse has a WalMart, no doubt full of the same cheap crap available everywhere…sigh!

  4. Thank you for this fascinating post. Question for you: I am intending on finally coming to the region in the 2nd and 3rd week of May – the roads that north are clear of snow by then correct?


    • By the middle of May, snow in the passes isn’t unknown, but is unusual, and melts off quickly. By the third week, no problem – May is a time of huge change in the North.