The Cassiar Highway - Bikepacking infos
In September 2023, we rode the Cassiar highway. I hadn't found much information beforehand, mainly about where to get supplies. Here's some information you might find useful.
It's a mythical route in Canada, especially for those who cross the Americas by bike. Bikepacking is becoming increasingly popular in this part of the world, so in addition to the information, you'll find my general impressions at the end.
Some numbers/info :
- Distance: 720 kilometres between the junction of Highway 1 and Kitwanga
- Difference in altitude: +/- 6000m D+.
- One of only two roads crossing western Canada.
- It is known for being full of bears.
Note : - All this information is in the north-south direction, from Nugget to Kitwanga.
- The number of kilometres below are from the northern junction.
- All this information is based on my experience, which means that you can encounter completely opposite conditions, and have a completely opposite general feeling.
This is especially true as we arrived a little late in the season, and it was a little overcast and a little late to see much wildlife.
- The places listed below are not all the possibilities, all the campsites. Just the ones that stood out for me and probably the ones where I stayed. There are so many options.
As for places to get supplies, they're all there. Many things have been closed, or at least were closed when I visited.
From one year to the next, but also from one month to the next, things can change very quickly, so take what's written here with a pinch of salt.
- I specify 'garbage bin' not just as a place to throw your rubbish, but also and above all because it's where we stored our food to protect it from the bears.
Few marks : Before the Cassiar : - Watson lake
Supermarket, cafés, restaurants, launderette, dispensary. Free WiFi at the tourist office, and free camping in the car park in front. Shower for $6 next to the office.
The famous stop sign for cyclists and the sign on which passing cyclists write their names. Café, restaurant and hotel. Expensive and not the friendliest people.
On the Cassiar :
- Welcome to BC" sign: KM 3
Toilets, tables, bins and a bit of grass to pitch your tent!
- Boya lake: KM 87
The Cassiar's famous campsite, and the best-known lake. $20 per spot, and you can put up several tents. Doesn't live up to its reputation, in my humble opinion.
- Jade city: KM 119
Coffee and free wifi ! Toilets and potential phone-charging facilities inside. Nothing more than a jade jewellery shop, but with the coffee and wifi, everyone stops!
You can also pitch your tent for free.
- Simmons lake: KM 132
Great spot for free camping.
- Sawmill recreation site: KM 193
Free camping on the edge of a lake.
- Dease lake: KM 235
Hospital, café, hotels, supermarkets, petrol pump.
- Free camping available right next to the town hall.
- The campsite doesn't take tents, apart from being the most unpleasant guy in the universe. So don't even think about paying for a shower.
- Free Wi-Fi at the school between 8am and 5pm. And free Wi-Fi 24/24 just across the road, in the Service BC building.
- Morchuea lake recreation site: KM 298
One of my favourite camping spots on the Cassiar. Free camping, toilets.
- Iskut: KM 317
Supermarket and petrol station. Not as expensive as I was told.
Wifi not free.
- Kinaskan lake campground: KM 358
Fee-paying campsite, lovely view of the lake and swimming possible as the water is not so cold in summer/autumn. Toilets, drinking water and bins.
- Bob Quinn lake: KM 426
Not much apart from a roadside toilet where you can pitch a tent. We knocked on the door of the site workers a little further up, and they offered us a whole house with all the necessary comforts.
- Bell II: KM 473
Restaurant, café and a few cereal bars for sale. Wifi for a fee and petrol station. Camping not allowed but you can go up 4km to Mehan lake: free, toilets and bins.
- Bell I: KM 534
Free camping on the rest area. Table, toilets and bins. You have to climb down under the bridge to fetch water.
- Meziadin junction: KM 565
Restaurant, café and very basic grocery shop. Toilets and petrol station. Wifi not free.
- Stewart: KM 626
Café, supermarket, restaurants, hotels. The only place where you'll get a phone signal! A short diversions, but well worth it. The road is beautiful, and the area is full of bears. What's more, you can pass through Hyder, which is in Alaska! No border on the American side, but one on the Canadian side. You can go up to the Glacier too, but it's quite a climb on a bike. You can also hitch a ride, or take a bus for 100CAD.
- Bonus lake recreation site: KM 641
Nice little spot. Free camping and toilets.
- Gitanyo: KM 699
Native village with totem poles and museum. Small supermarket and fried snacks. Poor telephone network.
- Kitwanga: KM 717
The end! Free camping next to the supermarket at the top of the village. The supermarket is fairly new and well stocked. Petrol station, café and restaurants at the junction.
- Water : No problem there. Between lakes and streams, we never had to carry more than 3 litres of water. After that, it all depends on where you want to camp too. We've always tried to find somewhere close to a river or lake, so that we don't have to carry too much. In any case, it's easy never to carry the 10L water bag!
- Food At the beginning and end, Kitwanga and Watson lake will provide you with everything you need to take a few days' worth of food with you.
After that, you can fill up your panniers at Dease lake, Iskut and Steward. These are the only two places where you'll find a proper supermarket and not just a cereal bar or packet of crisps.
Speaking of which, you'll find snacks in Jade city, Bell II, Meziadin and Gitanyo.
I'd say that every 50km or so you'll find a rest area with toilets and bins. Often very clean and with toilet paper, almost too luxurious.
It's also perfect for hiding food at night or cooking under cover when it rains.
- Where to sleep
Just about anywhere. It's very, very easy to camp on the Cassiar. With a bit of planning, you can make the most of this route by aiming for places by the lakes.
In fact, you can camp anywhere and no one will tell you anything. Having water nearby is a small plus, and above all, a dustbin, so you can hide your food at night!
There are also plenty of official campsites. The 'recreation sites' are free and quite impressive. The sites are magnificent and you'll often have toilets, a fire ring and sometimes rubbish bins.
Others are not free. Pitches cost 20CAD, so if there's more than one of you, you can split the price, which is well worth it.
Forests as far as the eye can see, and wide gravel roadsides on a regular basis. Sometimes it's not very idyllic, but that's probably due to the fact that we were relatively slow, and didn't have to go to nice places every night, and also, I find the campsites north of the Cassiar nicer.
As a side note, you can sleep not too far from the road, traffic drops drastically after sunset.
Good to know: The Dease lake campsite doesn't take tents, but you can camp for free next to the town hall.
Apart from in the lakes, and unless you pay for a night in a hotel, it's hard to find a shower. Even when we offered to pay, we were always refused a shower. So
Between Bell II and Bell I, I found the road dangerous. Very beautiful, but dangerous. Little space on the sides, poor visibility and people driving fast!
Apart from that, no major problems, apart from bears and moose, see below!
Even though it's a little out of season, I found the traffic to be fairly heavy. I've heard that it's even worse in high season. Which can be handy if you need a hand, water or food. But otherwise, it's busy enough not to feel like you're in the middle of nowhere.
Some sections are more dangerous because of the visibility and the twisting road, so be careful, it's been close a couple of times...
Keep an eye and an ear on everything. The road may close because of the fire, but above all, try to get out of the affected areas. The air quickly becomes unbreathable, and the fire can spread at breakneck speed. The situation changes extremely quickly.
Avoid camping too close to these areas, and don't hesitate to stop a car to ask for information and to skip part of the road.
As far as fires in bivouacs are concerned, you should also keep an eye on the regulations, which change regularly. The fines for making a fire during a fire ban period are quite high.
No problem in September! But at the height of summer, here as elsewhere, they can be a real nuisance. A can of DEET and a mosquito net can save your trip.
In Alaska we also discovered Thermacell, a small device that repels mosquitoes. Everyone there swears by it, and the cost is certainly worth the peace it brings. I wanted to save money and not invest, but it could have been wonderful for peace of mind at the bivouac.
If you're in the wrong period:
The heat and direct exposure to the sun as well as the wind chase them away a little. Avoid the undergrowth (hell on earth), and cute spots where the water is stagnant.
Even though it's a toxic product, slathering on DEET like you would sun cream helps a LOT. It doesn't last as long as promised on paper, but I find that the smell disappears quickly, and you don't end up sticky in the evening because of the product.
- Wild animals
Mostly bears, elk and elk. If you keep your distance, you're unlikely to have any problems.
However, there may well be a bear munching away in a tree at the side of the road and you only see it at the last moment. This has happened to us several times, without any damage, but it's always surprising.
In reality, black bears are relatively scared, so they'll probably scamper off and keep an eye on you out of the corner of their eye while you're passing.
Grizzlies are not scared. At all. So stay away.
As a general rule, females with their young should be avoided at all costs. Keep your distance and don't try to take the selfie of the year, because given the size of these animals, it could well be your last.
The ones you least expect: mice and squirrels!
Don't leave anything lying around at night, not just for the bears, but especially for the mice. They'll nibble at anything and everything: water bottles, inner tubes, toilet paper...
Squirrels and some birds won't hesitate to help themselves to anything on the table if you turn your back while you're eating or cooking.
Summer is the best time in terms of weather, and also your best chance of seeing lots of bears and animals of all kinds. On the other hand, there are mosquitoes and an influx of tourists.
From September onwards, it starts to get cool, and to rain regularly. We had -2° in the early morning, just north of the Cassiar, and at the beginning of December. Apparently we were only a few weeks short of snow.
Here, as so often, it's hard to have it all!
- The rubbish bins
In this part of Canada, all the rubbish bins are bear-proof. There's a mechanism at the back of the bins that allows you to open the doors to access the bin liner.
So you can open them to store your food bags, which protects them from bears, but also from rain and mice.
So I tried to find a place with a bin not too far away, especially when we had too much food and it didn't all fit in the kevlar bag.
- The wind
Heading south, we had a headwind every day. For what it's worth.
- Road quality
Perfect asphalt. Nothing to complain about. No real option B for escaping via the secondary roads.
- Physical preparation
Fairly easy on the whole, no big passes, no infamous slopes. So you need to be in good shape to cycle, but you don't need any military training beforehand.
- Mental preparation
It's all about accepting the wilderness. There are bears everywhere, and you have to be clear about that. Apart from that, it's not a very wild part where you'll be living in solitude. There are a lot of tourists and the scenery changes relatively often.
- Getting there
Chances are you'll already be cycling in the area, in which case there's nothing special about it.
If you only want to cycle this section, the easiest way is to arrive in Whitehorse to the north, or Terrace to the south. Both towns have international airports. And if not, a ferry goes from the north of Vancouver Island to Prince Rupert, from where you're not far from Kitwanga, and the road is very beautiful!
- Phone service
No phone service from north to south. Get ready for a good dose of detox, which will do you a world of good.
Notes and general impressions : - Scenery
It's quite nice, but a lot less spectacular than I expected. Some people prefer the northern part, others the southern part.
I really liked the north, and the south was cool too. However, it got really overcast in the south, and I don't think I saw as much as there was to see.
There were a few peaks around, some beautiful valleys and a few nice lakes. Nothing extravagant, but enough to make you happy every day. Don't expect the clichés of Canada though, these aren't the lakes or mountains of the Rockies.
This is a relatively straightforward route. Quite flat, with just a few days' food to carry, and water everywhere!
One of the great things about this part of Canada is that there are bears everywhere. That's if you're there at the right time of year. From September onwards, the wildlife is a little more sporadic. In the space of a few weeks, you go from bears lying by the side of the road to the occasional discreet bear.
Watch out for headphones with the music too loud, watch out for roadside bushes, watch out for bends. There can be animals everywhere, and the trick is not to surprise them.
The same goes for food. You have to be rigorous throughout the journey, which is difficult in my humble opinion. Eat away from the camp, put the food away, and don't drink coffee or eat inside the tent, whatever the weather.
- The essentials
DEET and head mosquito net in summer, anti-bear bag and pepper spray. A little room for a few days' food.
- The detour to Steward/Hyder
A well-known diversions is the one from Meziadin junction to Steward in Canada, and Hyder in Alaska. There's a tiny piece of Alaska where you won't have to cross a border post. Not on the US side, but there is a border crossing into Canada.
It's well worth the diversions for several reasons:
- The road is beautiful
- There are glaciers everywhere
- On the Alaskan side, there's the famous salmon river where the bears come morning and night to feast.
- You can go shopping!
- There's a telephone network
- It's far from being a big diversions, and you can hitchhike on the way up!
25km north of Kitwanga is Gitanyo. Here you can eat a few chips and buy a bag of rice, but above all it's home to the largest collection of totem poles in British Columbia. It's well worth a coffee and a closer look.
- How long
It can be done in a good week. This reduces the need to carry too much food, but it also reduces the time on the road and the chances of seeing many animals.
As the profile of the route is relatively flat, 7 or 8 days is sufficient. With the diversions to Steward, allow an extra two days, and this is probably the only diversions you'll make.
Does it worth it ?
Let's just say that if you're crossing the Americas, or Canada at least, you can only choose between the Cassiar and the Alaska Highway. The Cassiar is apparently much more interesting, which I can easily believe.
So it may be that you don't really have a choice, but on top of that, the road is beautiful. It's not a diversion, it's the next logical step, but on top of that, it's surely the most pleasant road around.
This road had been sold to me as being wild, full of bears and very beautiful. Then, the cyclists I met along the way were a little less optimistic.
There are lots of cars, and it's hard to see the wild side of this road. There's a lot of life, that's for sure, but that's especially true before September, and after the high season, the road loses a bit of its charm. There are fewer animals, and the weather becomes seriously overcast.
In the knowledge that everything goes together to some extent. The good weather with the animals, with the mass of tourists and the traffic on the road that goes with it.
It was nice, some very beautiful places, but not as grandiose as I'd been sold at the start, as is often the case.
If you've enjoyed this article and/or found it helpful, there are ways you can support my journey.
In the about section, you'll find the link to Paypal and Patreon.
Thanks a lot!