Two hundred and fifty years ago, the earth opened up in this little known corner of northwest British Columbia. Molten lava oozed and spewed from the pores of the earth, consuming some 2000 Nisga’a (pronounced nish-ga) people. And these days, in a delicately balanced shrine to those ancestors lost and a showcase of aboriginal entrepreneurialism, the Nisga’a people have created a self-drive tour to highlight the epic scenery, educate visitors about their proud aboriginal heritage, and create tourism employment for an oft forgotten demographic in Canada.
While the self drive tour is accessible year round, I highly recommend you avoid this as a winter outing. Late spring is best for flowers and the rebirth of a year. Summer is fabulous for sunshine. And autumn cannot be missed for the color changes. But winter? Not my cup of tea.
The easiest place to access this remarkably unique tour is from Terrace, British Columbia, the regional hub of the beleaguered economic area located just shy of 2 hours north of Vancouver by either of the two scheduled airlines. In your RV or car, drive northwest along the historic Yellowhead Highway (Highway 16). Terrace is approximately 7 hours drive northwest of Prince George, BC.
Stay overnight in Terrace. You will need a fresh start in the morning to be all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. The hotels in Terrace are your basic standard fare, none of which offer anything unique. Expect three star standard and nothing more. Ferry Island Municipal Campground (open May thru October) is my choice for an RV in Terrace. You can make Terrace your hub too. Plan day trips from this centralized location to ensure an easy pace. In future articles, I will guide you through daytrips to Prince Rupert, Kitimat, Stewart, and Smithers.
Picking up your rental the next morning will save you a few bucks. No sense in paying for a rental to sit in a hotel parking lot, is there? Take a taxi into the city ($15-$20), unwind, have a nap, check your camera gear (you remembered your camera, right?), grab a bite to eat at the independent restaurants such as Don Diego’s (Mexican fare) or Villa 46 (Mediterranean fare). Unfortunately there is no restaurant offering aboriginal cuisine in Terrace, an oversight not missed by my hungry eyes. You can walk just about anywhere in the city from your centrally located hotel. It’s one of the charms of Terrace and your reward is unique shopping at stores like Gemma’s Gifts or Spirit Bear Gallery, located across from each other on the 4600 block of Lakelse Avenue.
The self drive tour along the Nisga’a is anywhere between 4 and 9 hours, depending on the stops you make and the time you decide to spend at each of the 13 designated points of interest. Make a full day of it because you will encounter wildlife along the highway (perhaps even the rare elusive Kermode bear), be entranced by breathtaking scenery of mountains, water features, and forests, and you absolutely must make Vetter Falls your picnic stop. And that reminds me… go to Safeway’s sizable deli section, including a Starbucks kiosk, to assemble your picnic lunch as there are precious few opportunities during this self drive to purchase anything to nosh.
Driving northward on Highway 113, also known as the Nisga’a Highway, the windshield is perpetually filled with panoramic mountains and vistas beckoning you to drive further, explore more, and inhale. If you live and work in a concrete jungle, it is moments like these that propel you into a fantasy dream that will leave its mark on you forever. As privileged as I am to live in this area, I still crave this drive as a way to detach myself from the grind and to remind myself that I work to live, not live to work.
Each time I make this drive, I have a different experience. Of the thirteen official points of interest, I have four favourites that always seduce me. To me, stop number three (Crater Creek/Lax Mihl) is like a crop field of lava rock. And I can imagine how fertile the lava-infused soil underneath must be. The trees here in autumn beg to be painted, but not by my shaky hands. Bring your canvas and brushes if you are so inclined to capture this kaleidoscope of joy.
Vetter Falls /Ksiluuyim Agiiy is an unpretentious, quiet stop almost perfectly positioned along the highway to give your legs a stretch and be soothed by the flowing water. It is stop number 6 on the guide and I am hard pressed to think of a visit here that did not include at least one rainbow. Asylum, the worst guard dog in the world and my ever-present sidekick, loves it here too. Aside from its natural beauty, this is an unhurried exposure to the lava rock that remained after entombing the Nisga’a. You can touch it, walk on it, and almost imagine the havoc this pyre brought on an unsuspecting people two and a half centuries ago. Oh, don’t try to take any of it with you. It is considered a protected resource under law.
Moving further north, stop number 7 is the official visitor centre for the Nisga’a Memorial Lava Bed Provincial Park. With a traditional Nisga’a longhouse and some basic camping facilities, the visitor centre features historic and cultural interpretive displays, artifacts, and provides guided volcano cone tours. You will definitely want to engage the local staff in conversation, something they are pleased to do. Unlike the larger, more famous provincial and federal parks in Canada, the Nisga’a Memorial Lava Bed Provincial Park sees fewer than 5,000 visitors per year, which means they can spend the time with you to assist in making your visit special, unique, and memorable.
A short few minutes later takes you to my next favourite spot of New Aiyansh (pronounced eye-ansh)/Gitlaxt’aamiks, the cultural, economic, and political center of the Nisga’a people. The local gas station also serves as a convenience store. Restock your beverage and food requirements here.
From New Aiyansh, there are some options for further discovery. Head easterly to the Cranberry Connector, but don’t be fooled by the pleasant sounding name. This is a 55km dirt road, rife with potholes and peril that connects to Highway 37, also known as the Stewart-Cassiar Highway, which you can follow south and then west to form a looped drive down back to Terrace, or alternately, up to Stewart and onward to the Alaska Highway. The Cranberry Connector can be a rough ride that only camels, cattle, and horses should traverse. But in summer especially, it can also be another fantastic way to experience areas that few ever have, even in a car.
Heading back westerly from New Aiyansh, you can rejoin the highway to return to Terrace. Although this obviously takes you down the same highway from which you arrived, seeing this photogenic scenery from a reverse angle gives you an entirely new perspective of these majestic mountain views. If you continue west, rather than rejoining this highway, you will happen upon quaint aboriginal villages with traditional names you or I can never properly pronounce (such as Gingolx, Gitwinksihlkw, or Laxgalts’ap), but whose flavour you will not soon forget. Thankfully for me, they have Anglo names such as Kincolith, Canyon City, and Greenville.
Click this link for a bird’s eye view of the Nisga’a Memorial Lava Bed Provincial Park area… http://www.env.gov.bc.ca/bcparks/explore/parkpgs/nisgaa/nisgaa.pdf
Click this link to learn more about the Nisga’a people…
Click this link for tourism information for Terrace…