The Many Faces of the Yellowhead Highway

Tour Map

Progress to date: 4 days, 204 miles

We step out into a crisp clear morning, with a definite chill in the air and low sunshine casing long shadows. The wind is calm, and the road deserted. The only sound is that of our tires rolling over the pavement. We are cycling down the Yellowhead Highway flanked by wilderness with lake views and mountains looming beyond. Most peaks are forested, but in the distance we see bare rocky pinnacles laced with glaciers.

Yellowhead Highway

Although Rich insists that this highway loses elevation overall in its course to the ocean, we find plenty of undulations along the way. Today's summits yield a panoramic view of the surrounding mountains. And we are not even close to the coastal mountain range yet.

Molly at summit
View west of Burns Lake

If only it could always be this way. Not every day on the Yellowhead Highway has been as serene as this Sunday morning. Clearly we are benefitting from the weekend lull.

Our first couple of days were quite the opposite, and we soon learned that we had totally underestimated the traffic we would encounter. The Yellowhead is a major highway. It's the only road to the coast in this part of British Columbia. In fact, there are few other roads to the coast period. So the heavy population of semis, logging trucks, RVs and car traffic is no real surprise. We just hadn't dwelled on that in our idealistic concept of this tour. The trucks thundering by are distracting and at times highly intimidating. But we have gradually adapted and learned to deal with it.

Rich and Yellowhead sign

Despite the traffic, the area is much as we expected – largely unpopulated and abounding in natural beauty. This is wilderness at its best. Towns are few and far between. In fact, our daily distances are entirely dictated by their location, generally 50-60 miles apart. In between, there is very little. We have to plan our food and water needs carefully, as some days there is not even a convenience store en route. My infamous bagels have come in handy now and then. And Rich is proud of his foresight to carry four water bottles this trip.

Molly approaching Fraser Lake
Molly's bagel stop

Surprisingly, we have passed through thriving farmland. The area west of Prince George is known as the high plateau, and it yields rich farm soil, something not found elsewhere in BC.

BC farmland

We haven't seen many other touring cyclists along the way. Perhaps that says something about our choice of route. But each time we cross paths with other cyclists it is cause for an impromptu gathering on the roadside. Meeting a couple from Spain we asked the usual question – how long are you touring? Their response – they've been on the road since 2007!

Meeting tourers from Spain
Our entire tour will be spent on this single road. It certainly is not boring; each day it delivers something new. Mile by mile we are experiencing the many faces of the Yellowhead Highway.


Worth the Effort

Sometimes you just have to go out of your way for a good thing. Even if it means extra miles and lots of hills. We could have stayed in a humdrum motel in Lake Fraser, but instead Rich found the Stellako Lodge. The only catch was straying off the highway for an extra 8 mile stretch each way.

Turning down the local road was instant relief from the busy highway. Rolling down the well paved byway we practically owned the road, luxuriating in its quiet width with only the occasional need to give way to a car. Typical of small roads it followed the contours of the land, which in this case meant going up and over a major hill between the highway and the resort. But the sunny afternoon and woodsy surroundings mitigated the pain.

Stellako Lodge proved to be as picturesque as its website photos. A rainbow of bountiful flowers with well kept cabins told us we were in the right place, and soon Trudy was checking us into the cabin “with the best view.” Indeed, we were right on the shore of Francois Lake.

Rich at Stellako Lodge
Cabin on Lake Francois

Our early start to the day paid off, giving us several hours to relax by the lake. As the afternoon wore on, the wind dropped leaving the lake still and peaceful. Situated next to the outlet, we could also hear the rush of the water flowing rapidly into the Stellako River. It was lovely white noise. The lack of internet also contributed to the quality of our downtime.

Finding dinner required little effort. A short stroll took us to the lodge dining room overlooking the lake. As in most mom and pop resorts, Trudy and her husband were cook and server, and their Swiss roots were reflected in the menu. Rich immediately went for the schnitzel while I savored the prawns in curry sauce. We strongly suspected that they lavished us with extra side dishes knowing that we had cycled our way there.

The low sunlight was warm and inviting on the bridge over the river after dinner. We lingered and watched the fish that were hanging in the current waiting for dinner to come their way. Our final hours were spent appreciating the view from our cabin.

Molly by Stellako River
View of Lake Francois

Morning brought clouds and a short shower soon after we started cycling. We took a different route back to the Yellowhead Highway, but inevitably it too was hilly. And we'd been warned. Almost immediately after leaving the resort we encountered the first hill – a 12% grade. It was followed by a second such climb. I'm proud to say that I conquered them both! The payoff was coasting downhill nearly all the rest of the way back to the highway.

Bike at Lake Francois
Molly 12% grade

The resort was a lovely oasis away from the busy highway. And far more memorable than a motel. Yes, it was definitely worth the extra effort.


Starting on Empty

In retrospect, we set ourselves up for disaster. Starting off the Yellowhead Tour after two nights of less than 5 hours sleep, and minimalist meals on board the ferry and train was not wise. Before we were even an hour into the first day's ride, Rich's body began to rebel. He lagged seriously behind, walked hills I knew he could cycle, and stopped frequently to rest. My queries after his well being were curtly rebuffed, but I knew we were in trouble when he stopped and put his head down on his handlebars.

It didn't help that we encountered several challenging climbs early in the ride and that we were cycling into a headwind. Factors that are magnified by Rich's larger frame. This did not look good. I seriously doubted we would complete the day's 56 miles.

I pressed harder and Rich finally admitted to being exhausted, and we put two and two together. Since I normally thrive on far less sleep and require fewer calories for my small stature, I was doing fine. Rich, however, was in a deficit state on both. Somehow having at least identified the malady helped. Rich managed to pull on some extra reserves, and muscled through the next 25 miles. Rich doesn't believe in carrying emergency food, but I do. Stopping to rest, I offered an elegant buffet of my stash – bagels, peanut butter, granola bars and a KitKat – and wouldn't take no for an answer.

Rich rest stop

The terrain flattened out half way through our ride. We were grateful for the relief, and our cycling cadence approached a near-normal level. Levity helped, and Rich added to his collection of wildlife signs. He's certain that these warnings mean we will see none of the pictured animals. So far, he's been right.

Molly on Yellowhead hwy
Rich and wildlife sign

By early afternoon I finally heaved a sigh of relief. We were going to make it. The tour was still on. We were still making slow progress, but it no longer felt desperate.

Felicity and Gordon farm

Our Warm Showers hosts for the evening turned out to be farmers. We arrived at the country location to find a beautiful log farmhouse and an energetic small farm in its first year of operation. Felicity and Gordon immediately put us at ease, and prepared a bountiful dinner of local ham and produce. The feast along with a long night's sleep had remarkable restorative powers. By morning Rich was raring to go. He may have started on empty, but there's still a tiger in that tank.



By Land, Sea and Rail

Yellowhead Tour Map

In the case of our Yellowhead Tour, the lead-in is as unique as the bike ride. From our family vacation on the Olympic Peninsula, the first leg takes us to the northern tip of Vancouver Island. As we drive, distant mountain ranges and snowy peaks stretch the length of the mainland. In front of the morning sun, their ghostly forms float eerily over the water. With each mile the remoteness increases as the pine forested mountains press in on our road. We have enough time for a pleasant morning bike ride in Campbell River.

Molly cycling at Campbell River
BC ferries

Early morning in Port Hardy finds us in line for BC Ferries, to take the Northern Expedition to Prince Rupert, British Columbia, just 15 miles south of the Alaskan border. It is a brand new ship, exuding efficiency and modern conveniences – quite different from the vessel we took for this same excursion 30 years ago. We are captives for 16 hours as the ship sails through the inland passage, a calm narrow route through the mountainous coastal islands.

The morning clouds and chill burn off to reveal a sunny day. Soon passengers alert one another to whale sightings, and we flock to the spot to catch sight of the spectacle. Orca blow sprays, breaches and tail fins are most common, and with the help of Rich’s binoculars I get some good views. It’s more than I’ve seen before, so I’m pleased with the experience. Then we get a real show. An orca jumps out of the water, exposing his whole body to view except his tale. While we are still reveling in our luck, he does it again. And then again! Too far away to get photos, we take joy in the sight as it happens. I also see an otter. A more knowledgeable passenger informs me that he is eating as he floats on his back. It feels like an adventure cruise, and I bask in the sun as I eat my lunch out on a deck chair.

Rich inland passage
Inland passage ferry
Inland passage lighthouse

Clouds roll back in as the day progresses, and daylight ultimately fades to darkness. It is 11:30pm by the time we drive off the ferry. A mere six hours later we will be up and moving again.

It is time to abandon the car, one step closer to bike touring. We cycle our first 1.3 miles to the train station in the damp cloudy morning dimness. There we are greeted with good news. This VIA Rail train has a roll-on baggage car for bicycles. Since it was a possibility but not a guarantee, we sigh with the relief of being spared a last minute frenzy boxing our bikes.

Rich boarding the train

With a tip from the baggage handler, we score seats on the right side of the train with a full window view. We follow the Skeena River, which lives up to its meaning, “misty river.” But as we move inland, the clouds lift to nearly clear the tops of the mountains we pass, and frequent bursts of sunshine enhance the views out our window.

A companionable voice comes over the PA system periodically to alert us to upcoming views and fill us in on the history we pass. The mountains are a constant, green forest or rocky with glaciers. Rivers, wildflowers, lakes and occasional towns populate the foreground. When we get only a fleeting glimpse or the sun doesn’t cooperate for a picture, I remind myself that I will be back to see it all again at 12 miles an hour.

In contrast to the gleaming ship, the rail cars are old and tired. Going to the take-out counter for coffee feels like an undercover encounter with the cook in the kitchen who is swabbing the floor. Sharing the same space for 12 hours, we can’t help but overhear snipits of others’ lives, and an odd camaraderie develops.

Skeena river
Molly on train
View from train

My body aches to be active. For two long days, our greatest burst of activity has been the anxious dash to get up at an absurd hour and rush to queue up for the day’s transport.

Now that we have reached Prince George, I am raring to hop on my bike and do the whole trip again in reverse. Enough of land, sea and rail travel, it’s time for the Yellowhead Cycling Tour!

Yellowhead Tour Jersey


Living in the Moment on Dungeness Bay

Time is too precious to squander a single moment. With one week to spend with my three adult children, spouses and youngest grandchild, all I want to do is soak up their presence and savor this rare time together. My natural instincts are to write about the experience. To blog, share on Facebook and text friends. But I refrain. For a week I shun social media and focus purely on life as it happens. And it is sweet.

Reviving the concept of a family vacation, we are all gathered on the Olympic peninsula in Washington. Settling into a spacious house on the coast in Dungeness, we are surrounded by mountains, hiking trails, beaches, tide pools, wildlife and birds. It is the perfect setting for this assembly of active people intent on enjoying the outdoors.

Dungeness Bay Manor

The week is deliberately unstructured. Couples or individuals are free to choose their activities each day, and different groups form depending on interests. The only stipulation is that we all reconvene for dinner. There stories of the day's adventures are shared, and plans begin to form for the next day's outings.

Dinner on the deck

Hiking is high on the priority list, and there is one destination on everyone's must-do list – Hurricane Ridge. On a crystal clear day with mountains visible in all directions, we all hike Hurricane Hill. It is an easy, unhurried trek as we take in the colorful array of wildflowers along the trail, the rich green of the pine trees contrasting with the deep blue sky, and the snow covered peaks that surround us. Being flanked by family clinches the moment.

Hurricane Hill wildflowers
Maren atop Hurricane Hill
Family on Hurricane Hill

Our two boys have been harboring plans for a challenge hike, and head out early one morning to tackle a steep and rugged trail. In contrast, some of us girls decide on a day at Rialto Beach where we scramble between enormous rocks known as “stacks” and spend hours peering into tide pools.

Rialto Beach

Rich naturally gravitates to areas for birding opportunities, and spends a couple days exploring the majesty of Cape Flattery – the most northwestern point of the US.

Cape Flattery

A visit to the HOH Rain Forest is another popular choice. Those of us who make the longer trip to get there all agree it was well worth the drive. We revel in the green toned wilderness, where mosses drip from every available branch, pine trees tower overhead and tangled tree trunks form intricate patterns. An encounter with two imposing elk bucks hold up our hike while they graze lazily in the woodlands. We wait as long as it takes them to eat their fill.

HOH Rain Forest hike
Elk in rain forest
Rain forest hikers

Dungeness Spit is in our own back yard, which beckons for another all-family walk on its sandy shore.

Dungeness Spit
Family on Dungeness Spit

It is a week of making memories. A week of carefree vacation time with family. A week of sunshine and beautiful scenery. A week of activity. Best of all, I haven't missed a single moment.


Revisiting Old Favorites

They say you can never go back. I too have concerns about trying to recreate an original good experience. But on this trip we have successfully enjoyed things a second time around.

The journey is from Duluth to the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state. While Rich and I drive across country, our three grown children and their spouses are packing their bags to fly out and meet us there on Saturday. A week's family vacation awaits us there.

The prior trip was to begin our Glaciers to the Sea bike tour. We followed much the same route, although in the three intervening years Rich has become passionate about staying off the interstate. Back roads rule. But still, we managed to hit some of the same spots en route.

It was a marathon first day's drive, but we were determined to get to Medora ND. That allowed us to get out first thing the next morning to cycle through Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Our rewards for rising early were empty roads, frisky wildlife and a quiet ride. It was a much more up close and personal experience than driving in the car last time – especially passing right by a bison on the side of the road! The next one we saw was moving rapidly with purpose. Mid-stride, he suddenly stopped, dropped and rolled – right on top of a prairie dog hole. There were numerous deer with large ears and active prairie dog towns with yipping dogs gathering breakfast and popping in and out of holes. Despite the cloudy day, the land formations were still impressive and other worldly.

Rich Molly T Roosevelt Park
Rich cycling by a bison
Molly Teddy Roosevelt Park

Cycling along the Clark Fork River remains one of our best memories from our Glaciers trip. So we selected another section of the river for an afternoon ride. Although this road was busier and we sweltered in 96 degree heat, the river was as beautiful as we remembered it. And we enjoyed the journey through lush forest land.

Molly cycling Clark Fork River
Molly cycling Clark Fork River 2
Rich cycling Clark Fork River

There was only one remedy for our overheated bodies at the finish – a huckleberry shake, of course. Clearly we are back in huckleberry country, where you can buy anything flavored with them. But nothing beats huckleberry ice cream.

Huckleberry Shake

I guess I'm a convert. These old favorites have all been worth revisiting.



I'll be the first to admit, birding is not my thing. I have tremendous admiration and respect for Rich's dedication and boundless patience in pursuing his birds, and the amazing photographs that he captures. But he no longer asks if I would like to come along. He knows better. Loons, however, are a whole different matter.

I spent several hours in the kayak today, cruising the calm water of the lake in the afternoon sun. On my travels I spotted several loons with baby chicks. The fluffy little fledglings paddled behind mama, an entrancing sight.

Rich was thrilled with my reconnaissance efforts, and was eager to photograph the young loons. Immedately following dinner he announced he was heading out in the boat to look for the loons. This time he asked, would I like to come? The answer came without hesitation. Yes!

The sun dipping low in the sky lent a beautiful golden hour light to the scene. Evening's calm stilled the waters, and the waterskiers had been replaced by boats claiming their fishing spots. All was quiet on the lake.

We found mama loon and her twins in the same bay where I'd seen them. At first, they were hidden in the reeds, but they soon obliged by swimming out into the open where they didn't seem to mind us watching. We could hear soft sounds made by mama to her chicks – something entirely new to me. Never before had I been close enough to hear their nurturing murmurs.

Loons 1

Papa soon materialized and proceeded to hunt for dinner. He repeatedly returned with food to feed the chicks. We could tell when he was coming as he would swim under water but near the surface, creating a v-shaped wake above him. By this time the chicks were nestled on mama's back, well situated for papa to bring them tasty treats.

Loons 2
Loons 3

As we watched, a chorus of frogs suddenly broke into song, croaking mightily around the bay. It was magical witnessing nature in the warmth of the setting sun.

Loons 4

There is something deeply compelling about loons. From their haunting cries to their mottled black and white coats, they are are undeniably special. It is an honor to share our lake with them. I never tire of their majestic presence. I may not be a birder, but I'm always game to go looning.