Majestic Northern Rockies on the Alaska Highway

Stunning Northern Rockies on the Alaska Highway

After three hundred miles we are still on the Alaska Highway heading west from Fort Nelson and climbing into the Northern Rockies on the Alaska Highway. The road is getting steep and there are more scenic views of mountain tops covered with snow fields. Wild animals along the road are more numerous and bigger. Views of the lakes along the highway are stunning.

Crossing the Northern Rockies on the Alaska Highway from Fort Nelson to Watson Lake
Crossing the Northern Rockies on the Alaska Highway from Fort Nelson to Watson Lake

Departing Dawson Creek

One week after the first train load of Army Engineers arrived they kicked off the road building. Train after train arrived in Dawson Creek all loaded with construction equipment. More train loads of construction equipment followed the first train as fast as they could be loaded and then unloaded in Dawson Creek. The railyards at Dawson Creek had never seen this level of activity. Everything the builders needed for the first leg of road building needed to be in Dawson Creek before the weather warmed.

Vista of Muncho Lake in the Northern Rockies on the Alaska Highway
A stylized view of Muncho Lake in the Northern Rockies on the Alaska Highway. This picture is the same one as the following picture. The difference is that this is zoomed in and I softened the photo to make it blurry.

The equipment needed to be in Dawson Creek while it was still cold because the only way north out of Dawson Creek to Fort Saint John included crossing the Peace River. The Peace River was frozen solid and everything needed to be on the north side of the river. There was no bridge and the only way to cross the river was by ferry or, during the winter, by crossing the ice.

Vista of Muncho Lake in the Northern Rockies on the Alaska Highway
Muncho Lake in the Northern Rockies on the Alaska Highway. The watercolor is related to copper suspended in the water. The color is stunning. The color changes with light conditions and becomes a deeper green when the sky darkens. The road in the picture is the Alaska Highway.

In Fort Saint John

On both sides of the Peace River, they didn’t have to build a road. The road was already there leading to the ferry landing that connected Dawson City to Fort Saint John. Getting all the soldiers and construction equipment across the Peace River would have been impossible had they waited even for two months. Cold weather for the road builders was a major advantage for the first 300 miles going to Fort Nelson.

View of Muncho Lake from our Campground.
The view of Muncho Lake from our Campground.

Twenty-One Days and Three Hundred Miles Later

As supplies flooded in from every conceivable point in North America, the builders set out in bitter-cold weather to clear the road to Fort Nelson. Again the cold weather was an advantage. “Catskinners” plowed through the forest on their bulldozers knocking everything down and pushing everything out of the way. Snow, dirt, rocks, and trees all were pushed to the side to be dealt with later.

View of Muncho Lake on a cold morning from our campground.
View of Muncho Lake on a cold morning from our campground.

It only took twenty-one days for the bulldozers to arrive three hundred miles north in Fort Nelson. The bulldozers were followed by trucks carrying fuel and parts to keep progress moving. Equipment that failed was pushed off to the side and cannibalized for parts. Campsites for the builders were moved 15-25 miles a day to keep up with the bulldozers. Also pushed off to the side of the road were thousands of empty 55-gallon fuel barrels used to keep the machines going. Anything that caused delays in the building was immediately pushed out of the way and left for the cleanup crew.

Mid day view of Muncho Lake from our campground.
Mid-day view of Muncho Lake from our campground. Two weeks before our arrival this section of the lake shore would have been snow. Less than a month before our arrival the lake was covered with ice.

Turning West in Fort Nelson

I am picking up most of today’s article starting in Fort Nelson. You can call the previous section a preview. The route from Dawson Creek to Fort Nelson is the subject of last week’s article. Here is a link to the story. Going North on the Alaska Highway

Tami and Scott at the shoreline of Muncho Lake.
Tami and Scott at the shoreline of Muncho Lake. When you take the picture looking into the sun under an overcast sky you lose the color of the water in the reflection of the clouds.

From Fort Nelson, the Alaska Highway turns west climbing into the Northern Rockies. The terrain gently rises and the dense forests on both sides of the roads continue. In 1942 when the road was being built, I am sure they were very happy to be turning west away from the dense forest. As for the builders, they were very hopeful for the upcoming spring warm-up and being away from the cold and ice.

The Muskwa Valley

The construction crews turned west generally following the north side of the Muskwa River. This means that the only major river crossing on the Alaska Highway north of Fort St. John was the Muskwa River. In 1942, south of Fort Nelson, across the Muskwa River, there was no bridge. Everything needed for the road builders needed to be north of the Muskwa River before the spring thaw. Resupply from Dawson Creek, during the summer wouldn’t be possible until much later when a bridge was built — in June of the following year.

Liard River Hot Springs main pool.
Liard River Hot Springs main pool. Liard River is north of Muncho Lake as you descend out of the Northern Rockies on the Alaska Highway.

Airmail

Things changed dramatically starting in Fort Nelson. Instead of supplying the builders from the south, fuel and supplies were airlifted into Fort Nelson. While the trailblazers turned to the west, additional construction crews in Dawson Creek took to the task of upgrading the new road south of Fort Nelson. The trailblazing road-cutting crew turned west, getting their new supplies arriving daily by aircraft landing in Fort Nelson. Resupply from Dawson Creek to Fort Nelson for the trailblazers was finished for the rest of the summer.

This waterfall is part of the Liard River Hot Springs. The water in this waterfall is more than 120 degrees.
This waterfall is part of the Liard River Hot Springs. The water in this waterfall is more than 120 degrees.

Northern Rockies

Turning west into the Northern Rockies on the Alaska Highway from Fort Nelson, meant that the entire effort would change. South of Fort Nelson the bulldozers cut the road for nearly fifteen miles a day. Trees were not cut instead since they were frozen they snapped when hit with the bulldozer blade. Unlike the snow and stumps in frozen mud south of Fort Nelson, the rocks to the west of Fort Nelson, in the rocky mountains didn’t yield to the bulldozer blade.

The answer to the rock problem was dynamite and lots of it. Progress, after they turned west for the next 288 miles, took much longer. Eventually, the trailblazers building west from Fort Nelson met the trailblazing road builders from Watson Lake heading south. The two crews met at Contact Creek on September 24, 1942.

This campsite at Liard Hot Springs had a new problem. Notice the yellow blocks under the wheels. This is because a well intentioned person crowned the site from side to side.
This campsite at Liard River Hot Springs had a new problem. Notice the yellow blocks under the wheels. This is because a well-intentioned person crowned the site from side to side. When we used our jacks to level the coach, since they are between the wheels, the front tires came off the ground.

Slow Progress

Progress to building north to Fort Nelson was 15 miles per day. Progress west of Fort Nelson through the Northern Rockies on the Alaska Highway slowed to less than two miles per day. Cutting the trail for the Alaska Highway became very hard. The road became very difficult to build starting at the climb out of the Muskwa Valley towards Summit Lake and continued to be difficult for the next 140 miles, all the way to the Liard River. For the trailblazers, since the campsites didn’t have to move every day life became a little easier. At least they weren’t freezing.

Hot water flowing out of the Liard River Hot Springs fills this bog on the south side of the springs.
Hot water flowing out of the Liard River Hot Springs fills this bog on the south side of the springs. The place is known for moose. We didn’t see any. At this time of year the cows are hiding with their newborn babies and the bulls are hiding because their antlers have fallen off.

The Northern Rockies on the Alaska Highway, between the climb to Summit Lake to the Liard River, comprise 140 miles of very difficult terrain. From the Liard River to Contact Creek, the terrain was only slightly easier for the next 88 miles. Unlike the frozen forest south of Fort Nelson the mountains created huge cliffs and hundreds of stream crossings.

Not only was the terrain steep but the canyons were narrow. Some sections of the road had to be carved out of the side of the cliff. More dynamite.

Bison calf along the road north of Muncho Lake.
Bison calf along the road north of Muncho Lake. Unlike the hiding moose, bison are right out in the open and are proud to show off their babies.
Bison cow and calf along the road north of Muncho Lake.
Bison cow and calf along the road north of Muncho Lake.

Our Trip through the Northern Rockies on the Alaska Highway

We drove the first 300 miles of our trip up the Alaska Highway to Fort Nelson in one day. After visiting and resting in Fort Nelson for the next two nights, we departed early for our journey to Muncho Lake. The last 100 miles to Muncho Lake were very scenic going through the Northern Rockies on the Alaska Highway.

The northbound construction crew from Dawson Lake met up with the southbound crew coming from Watson Lake at Contact Creek.
The northbound construction crew from Dawson Lake met up with the southbound crew coming from Watson Lake here at Contact Creek. Of course, there wasn’t a gas station here at that time.

Fort Nelson to Muncho Lake

As we departed Fort Nelson, we immediately began to see more bears along the road. South of Fort Nelson, on the first 300 miles we saw 3 bears. The last one was just to the south of town at the end of our drive for the day. I had to hit the brakes for that one. When he saw me he ran back into the forest. When we departed Fort Nelson, we saw three more bears in the first half hour of our trip. In the next half hour, I had to report to Tami that I lost count. Was that six? I don’t know.

Most of the bears we saw were close to Fort Nelson. Near Summit Lake we started seeing caribou. Later still north of Muncho Lake, we were greeted by Stone sheep and more caribou. The bison count started going up very fast west of Liard Hot Springs.

Entrance to the Signpost Forest in Watson Lake, Yukon Territory
Entrance to the Signpost Forest in Watson Lake, Yukon Territory

Muncho Lake was stunning. After our 150-mile total for the day, we were looking forward to a long relaxing visit. Our campground was at the Muncho Lake Provincial Park (McDonald Campground), right on the edge of the lake with a view of the beautiful water from inside our RV. The weather was on the cold side, even though we were at the end of May.

The Signpost Forest at Watson Lake has more than 80,000 signs. Who counted them anyway?
The Signpost Forest at Watson Lake has more than 80,000 signs. Who counted them anyway? I wouldn’t want to count the posts.

Mucho Lake to Liard River Hot Springs

Even though it was only thirty-five miles away, it was too good to be true and we had to stop for the night at Liard River Hotsprings. No trip through the Northern Rockies on the Alaska Highway (in my opinion) should be done without stopping both at both Muncho Lake and Liard River Hot Springs. Camping at the hot springs was just too tempting to pass up.

Caribou north of Muncho Lake,. Photo Credit Kimberly Seager
Caribou north of Muncho Lake. Photo Credit Kimberly Seager, one of the members in our group of travelers.

Liard River Hotsprings to Watson Lake

Liard River marks the end of the Northern Rockies on the Alaska Highway at milepost 600. The Alaska Highway follows the Liard River west until the road connects to Watson Lake. This section of the road was easy and our campsite was a few miles west of Watson Lake at the Baby Nugget RV park. We should have stayed in town. Our campsite was good enough and way better than the parking lots you find in town, but it lacked one thing that we really like. Again, we had no cell phone service.

Mounting our sign at the sign at the Sign Forest in Watson Lake.
Mounting our sign at the sign at the Sign Forest in Watson Lake.

The Sign Post Forest

Watson Lake is home to the Sign Post Forest and the tradition is that travelers are encouraged to leave their mark by posting a sign at the Sign Post Forest. Currently, there are more than 80,000 signs in the signpost forest. The sign can be pretty much anything you want. One member of our group was able to obtain stainless steel signs, which we mounted on the posts with stainless steel screws. Our signs should outlive the posts. I think it would be cool to go back with a new sign on each visit and then remove your previous sign and then mount it and your new one both on the same post.

Bill and Kathy's sign at the Signpost Forest is one of the biggest.
Bill and Kathy’s sign at the Signpost Forest is one of the biggest. Bill is our friend whom we met up with in Montana and is going to Alaska a little slower than we are because he is visiting the Provincial Parks in Canada. We are on a mission to get to Alaska and are planning to visit Canada again next year.

Video

I love this documentary video about building the Alaska Highway.

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The start of our Alaska Highway story. Going North on the Alaska Highway

Milepost Guidebook found on this website is updated annually and you can use the book even without internet data. First published in 1949 it is the bible for travel in Alaska and northwestern Canada.

Historic Mileposts on the Alaska Highway website with key mileposts

Alaska Highway Canada

Alaska Highway 75th Anniversary

Summit Lake British Columbia

Northern Rockies Lodge Muncho Lake

Liard River Hot Springs Park

Contact Creek Yukon Territory

Signpost Forest Watson Lake

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8 thoughts on “Stunning Northern Rockies on the Alaska Highway”

  1. So glad you are enjoying the trip…we felt everything was just larger than life! You are making me want to go again.

  2. Yes, we went to Laird Hot Springs, loved it! I think it was at Muncho Lake that we saw reindeer! Yes, we brought a green, license plate-style Colorado sign when we were there in 2010, and hung it at the signpost village.

    What a great trip, to travel along the Alcan Highway! Since there is only one road, everyone who chooses to travel to Alaska through the interior sees similar things, like we are made family by that experience. Enjoy each mile, brother Scott and sister Tami❤️

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