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Think you’ve driven crazy roads? Just wait till you try driving the Fraser River Valley

  • Author: Scott McMurren
    | Alaska Travel
  • Updated: May 26
  • Published May 26

Driving east from Prince Rupert, B.C., you can see giant waterfalls tumbling off the mountain cliffs into the Skeena River Valley. Photo Scott McMurren

"The journey knows what the traveler does not," said a wise wayfarer.

This is one of my favorite travel quotes — and I still don't know who first said it.

Most of my research for my road trip this month was for a northbound trip from Spokane to Anchorage, retracing part of my grandparents' journey 70 years ago. Along the way, though, I learned about a couple of raging rivers, plus some long and winding roads.

Although I've "driven" the Alaska Marine Highway many times, my first call in Prince Rupert, B.C., was last week. The first thing I noticed about this port city was the railroad tracks that went right up to the terminal. In addition to its bustling harbor and access to the road system, Prince Rupert serves as a vital Pacific port.

Prince Rupert also is where the giant Skeena River meets the Pacific Ocean. Driving east on the Yellowhead Highway (Canada Highway 16) toward Prince George, you pass miles of smooth granite cliffs. Waterfalls tumble thousands of feet to the valley floor, where the giant river makes its way to the sea. The Skeena has the same "big muddy" feel as rivers like the Stikine and the Taku in Southeast Alaska. But here, there are roads that lead to campgrounds and hiking trails all the way up the valley. As you start gaining elevation on the way to Prince George (an eight-hour drive), the landscape changes from river delta to rolling, forested hills. This road goes through timber towns like Smithers and Terrace. The lumber mills are pumping out boards and paper products for use at home and for exports to the Lower 48 and Asia.

There are beautiful lakes throughout northern British Columbia, but the ones I could see from the road were particularly nice, especially since it was warm and sunny outside. You'll follow the Skeena River Valley northeast from Prince Rupert for about half the journey to Prince George. Then, at Hazelton, the river valley turns north and drivers head south following the Bulkley River Valley. You can't miss the lakes. I was in a hurry — but seeing the beautiful river valley near Prince Rupert and the lakes up-country makes me want to come back and explore.

Prince George is northern British Columbia's largest city (about 86,000 people). It's a major timber products and transport hub. It's where, after an overnight stay, I headed south on Highway 97, which follows the Fraser River most of the way to Vancouver, before merging into Highway 1, the Trans-Canada Highway.

The Fraser River starts out big and just gets bigger. While the Skeena flowed through the lush, rainy coastal mountains, the Fraser starts up high in dry country: There's sagebrush lining the banks for many miles.

Then things start to get crazy on the Fraser River. The canyon walls start to close in. I looked down from the road above to see the railroad snaking along the banks. It's been a particularly wet spring — and the river was running very high. I could see big, standing waves churning as the mile-long train worked its way up the valley. It was a steep grade.

From time to time the road would descend to the valley floor to cross over — and the river was just a foot or two from the road surface.

I've driven on some crazy roads in Alaska, but the Fraser River Valley got my attention. The valley kept getting deeper and the water kept getting bigger. Eventually, there's a place called "Hell's Gate," where there's a tram to take you across the river.

By that time, it had started to rain, and the last thing I wanted to see was more raging water. I was not-so-silently praying to just get down the valley without running into a boulder that fell from a cliff or a mountain goat that jumped in front of the car. Everyone else on the road, by the way, was all "ho hum" about the twists, turns and sheer drops into the abyss. This clearly was my problem … and mine alone.

Finally, the road flattened out near Chilliwack. At Abbotsford, which is just east of Vancouver, I took a left-hand turn and crossed the border back into the U.S.

Two new roads offered some thrilling views, thankfully without incident. They were not part of my initial journey — I was headed somewhere else in a hurry. Now that I've seen the beauty with my own eyes, I look forward to returning once again at a more leisurely pace. For more information on British Columbia — from Prince Rupert to the lakes, to Prince George and Vancouver — check out the online visitors guide, hellobc.com.

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