Driving the Haines Highway: The Most Scenic Route in Canada
Designated a National Scenic Byway in 2009, the Haines Highway’s eerie seclusion is tempered by its unusual beauty—and the photo opportunities are endless.
An impromptu drive down the Haines Highway
In July 2015, I embarked on a solo drive up the Alaska Highway from Fort St. John, B.C., to Haines Junction, Yukon, to attend a family memorial. It had been many years since I had driven the Alaska Highway, which stretches some 2,200 kilometres northwest from Dawson Creek B.C., to Delta Junction, Alaska. I remembered it as a ribbon of asphalt lined by spruce and poplar forest.
In 2014, some of the worst forest fires on record had reduced much of the dense forest to blackened stumps and spires. From the burnt earth along the side of the highway, brilliant scarlet fireweed had sprung up in a jubilant celebration of renewal and the resilience of the natural world.
While staying with family in Haines Junction, I decided to take an impromptu drive south down the Haines Highway, which links Haines Junction and Haines, Alaska. This drive turned out to be one of the most memorable parts of my trip.
The most surprising thing about most of this drive through the mountainous north was the absence of mountains. This approximately 250-kilometre single-lane highway is a strangely isolated drive. There are no towns or settlements, no gas stations and very little traffic. A short distance out of Haines Junction, the mountains suddenly retreat into the distance and I found myself wondering, “Are we still in Canada, Toto?”
Unlike Dorothy’s yellow brick road that led her into quite a lot of trouble, the Haines Highway wanders peacefully through a countryside that gives the distinct impression that you just may have been transported to somewhere else. I found myself almost expecting to see a herd of Highland cattle grazing in the heather or a lonely shepherd tending his flock on the moors. Was that Frodo from The Lord of the Rings scampering through the shires of Middle Earth?
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The only human being left
Rolling hills in every shade of green in the spectrum fold in on one another. Streams spring up seemingly out of nowhere and tumble down the ravines in between. Stunted evergreens have given up the attempt at being a forest and are content to hang out in small clumps. Shrubs and grasses complete the mosaic in shades of green, brown and orange. Scarlet fireweed lines the highway, but for reasons of its own does not venture out into the hills.
At some point, I started to feel as if I might be the only human being left in the universe. My only company was the wind outside the car. Then almost as quickly as it appeared, this landscape disappeared and I was surrounded by mountains once again.
Back in 2009, the Haines Highway was awarded the distinction of National Scenic Byway. It follows the original trail used by the Chilkat and Tlingit First Nations for trading with the Athapaskan First Nations in the interior of the Yukon. It is now part of the Golden Circle Route, which links Whitehorse, Skagway, Haines and Haines Junction. There are three campgrounds and approximately six rest stops equipped with toilets and garbage cans.
If you make it as far as Haines Junction, whether you’re heading for Alaska, or you simply take a wrong turn and realize you’re lost, the journey down the Haines Highway is well worth the time it takes to drive it. The eerie seclusion is tempered by the serenity and the unusual beauty. And the photo opportunities are endless.
If you have a fantastical turn of mind, you might just see that herd of Highland cattle stampeding through the heather, or that lonely shepherd daydreaming on the moors; I know I did. And I’m pretty sure that was indeed Frodo on the roadside, trying to sell some old ring. Yes, the Haines Highway really is worth the drive!
Next, find out what it’s like driving the Highwood Pass—the highest paved road in Canada.