Return to Alaska’s raw, natural side by visiting this tiny town next to an ocean inlet.
By Mark J. Schechinger
Hyder, Alaska, may be one of the few places in the United States where nature still rules. It is a place to wake in the morning and breathe pristine pine mountain air, and at the same instant see bald eagles soar through a misty sky. It is where one of the world’s largest glaciers seeps ever so slowly down a meandering valley, and where the world’s tallest ferns thrive along a mountain hiking trail. Grizzly bears fish in a shallow creek to catch the world’s largest chum salmon, and North America’s steepest vertical mountain range looms wide across a remote fjord. And it is a place that seems to exemplify Alaska’s nickname: “The Last Frontier.”
This tiny town in southeast Alaska is approximately 1,000 miles north of Seattle, Washington. The drive to Hyder from the United States through British Columbia is rife with Rocky Mountain splendor. Take the Cassiar Highway, Provincial Route 37, beginning at Kitwanga, British Columbia, and head north.
Some portions of the Cassiar Highway are paved and other portions consist of coated gravel, which can become deteriorated by weather and traffic. Exercise caution, and beware that the road also has some 8 percent grades. Occasionally you may encounter sections of the road that are being repaired. Logging and freight trucks travel it frequently. The Milepost provides mile-by-mile descriptions of the Cassiar Highway and can be helpful when planning your trip.
The Cassiar Highway passes between the Coast and Skeena mountains, which harbor more than two dozen glaciers. But before you get that far, you will turn west at the Meziadin Junction onto Route 37A for the final 40 miles to Hyder. Be sure to stop and see Bear Glacier, a rare blue glacier that is one of the few in the world with road access.
You will pass through Stewart, British Columbia, 2 miles before you reach Hyder. The two towns may be in different countries, but they are combined in many ways. Hyder uses the same telephone area code as Stewart, and, for practical purposes, most clocks in Hyder are set to Pacific Time (as is British Columbia), not Alaska time. But you’ll know you’re in the United States again when you reach the border, for the road is no longer paved. Yes, Hyder’s main thoroughfare is gravel (but drivable).
The entrance to town displays a banner that reads, “Welcome to the Friendliest Ghost Town in Alaska.” Beyond that sign, the horses, dogs, and bears run wild. Most yards need grooming. Many homes and commercial buildings need painting. And several pickups need tuning up. It all may remind you of the television program “Northern Exposure.” Indeed, the 85-or-so year-round residents seem as friendly and laid-back as the locals portrayed in the TV show.
The Hyder area was first explored by Nass River Indians, who picked berries and hunted birds there. In 1896 a United States Army Corps of Engineers captain named D.D. Gaillard explored the Portland Canal in search of gold. He constructed the first building in town, but found very little gold in the Bear or Salmon rivers. Ten years later, small gold and silver lodes were found, but they were not as full as regions like the Klondike.
Hyder was named in 1914 after Frederick Hyder, a Canadian mining engineer. By 1917 it was the main ocean port and supply point after the surrounding Canadian regions were found to be rich with silver. A post office was built, which also assisted with prospectors’ needs and valuable commerce. A historical museum in Stewart contains in-depth prospector tales and numerous artifacts. A walking tour leads past frontier landmarks.
Hyder reached the climax of its boom years in 1929 when its population reached 250, and the Riverside Mine produced zinc, silver, gold, copper, and tungsten, which became especially valuable during World War II. But by 1945 only 17 people lived in Hyder, and it was considered one of North America’s ghost towns. But somehow, Hyder survived. Today, tourism is one main source of revenue, as is a new water-bottling facility that capitalizes on the pure glacier water that flows nearby.
But tourists rarely fill the town’s three restaurants, two hotels, or one campground, except during what is known as North America’s longest Independence Day celebration. This year, from July 1 through July 4, patriotism is expected to be at an all-time Hyder high. Visitors agree that this may be the most festive place in Alaska, or North America for that matter, for both Stewart and Hyder celebrate their respective countries’ births: Canada Day on July 1, and Independence Day three days later. The International Days celebration includes parades, fireworks, carnival attractions, children’s games, and sporting events. A “bush woman’s” competition and axe throw contests are popular events. The renowned International Bed Race is most probably the only one of its kind. In fact, only one thing makes the event seem even more emblematic of the United States. To find it, visitors only need to look skyward — to find resident bald eagles.
Dozens of these regal birds fly above the town, perch in Sitka spruce trees, or wait on the banks of Portland Canal for fish. Since Hyder lies along the Northwest Migratory Flyway, more than 350 other kinds of avian species delight bird fans as they make their temporary homes around the canal and area lakes.
Aside from the International Days festivities and eagle edification, visitors like to explore Salmon Glacier Road, which emphasizes the “really” part in “really getting back to nature.”
Salmon Glacier Road is gravel and travels past a popular bear viewing area, terminating at a glacier viewpoint. It is best taken in a towed vehicle; motorhomes should not be driven all the way up to the glacier. If you do not tow a car, you may want to use the daily shuttle bus service that takes visitors up to see the sights along this road. The bus is run by Seaport Limousine of Stewart; phone (250) 636-2622 for information.
A fine guide and map of Salmon Glacier Road is available at the tourist information centers in either Stewart or Hyder. Titled “The Salmon Glacier Self Guided Auto Tour,” it provides detailed information that is matched up with numbered markers along the route. The stops in this brochure cover almost all there is to see in the area.
As you begin the route north of Hyder, Moose Pond comes into view. It may not harbor moose, but the pond is known to be home to ducks, Canada geese, beavers, red squirrels, and spotted frogs. Bald eagles and seagulls are usually seen here, too, as well as bears.
The most popular spot to watch bears in this part of Alaska is a mere 2 miles farther up the road at the Fish Creek Wildlife Viewing Area. Last summer, a new observation deck was built there to accommodate the curious humans who want to see black bears and grizzly bears. Primarily from July through September, the bears take daily meals out of the salmon-rich Fish Creek. Forest rangers stand guard nearby, helping to ensure that bears feed only on fish and that humans behave in a responsible manner. Fish Creek Wildlife Viewing Area is open during daylight hours only. Folks who travel with a pet are urged to keep it in the vehicle when they stop here, as doing otherwise can lead to very dangerous circumstances. Admission is free.
The Titan Trail, your next stop, is a hiking path that leads to rare, 7-foot-tall ferns. During the first mile, hikers use a fallen tree that acts as a natural bridge to cross a wide, shallow stream. The next mile is lush with foliage and forget-me-nots. Panoramic views of the valley’s glacial landscape and of the misty mountaintops will make you stop and stare. After about 2 miles, the trail is flanked by hundreds of ferns that are taller than basketball players — and cover an area the size of a basketball court. The trail continues another 4 miles to an old cabin and on up to an old gold mine. The trail is open year-round.
Salmon Glacier Road continues to Nine Mile, where the Texas Creek joins the Salmon River. At this point the road climbs abruptly, and this is where it is recommended that you turn around, if you’ve decided to take the motorhome. If you have a car, sport utility vehicle, or truck, you will be fine. Photo opportunities are abundant from this point. The road gradually climbs to almost 4,400 feet, and motorists should travel at speeds less than 20 miles per hour — both to take in the incredible scenery and to make for a smoother ride on fairly rough gravel.
A few miles past Nine Mile the trail reaches Silver Heights, the international border between Alaska and British Columbia. Miners working in this area from the 1920s to the early 1950s had to stop at this point at a Canadian Customs building. The boundary line is on the east side of the road, marked by a small cairn. Premier Mines, one of British Columbia’s richest mines, was once located in this region, and in 1921 alone yielded $1.5 million in gold.
Finally, the first signs of Salmon Glacier come into view. Till, a combination of silt, sand, gravel, and boulders, is dumped as the glacier head alters the landscape. The pools of water are called kettles, which result from melted ice when the glacier recedes. Crevasses form in the glacier as its mass moves at different speeds, with the center being the most mobile.
Five miles farther up the road is the summit of Salmon Glacier. Salmon is the fifth-largest glacier in Canada, with depths ranging from 500 feet to 1,000 feet. As the sun melts its surface, aquamarine pools of water form. This bluish-white glacier flows for 10 miles. Over the horizon is the area’s most prominent body of water, Summit Lake. Natives called the lake Jokulhaups (pronounced Yuck-a-lups), meaning “cork that falls out.” It still overflows every year when warmer temperatures melt the ice dam that builds up during winter. At some point, usually in August, the waters cascade under Salmon Glacier, down Salmon River, and gush into the Portland Canal. When this happens, the river sometimes floods, and nearly always changes its course, and icebergs from the glacier join the deluge. Locals say the sound it makes is “awesome.”
The road north of this site is not maintained, so motorists are warned to travel at their own risk. But the adventuresome are surely rewarded. The path leads to the 28-mile point and the abandoned Granduc copper mine, reputed to have the longest tunnel ever dug through a mountain.
Next to the mine is the Berendon Glacier, which is accessible by foot. While you’re traversing it, you may hear popping sounds, jokingly called bergy seltzers, coming from the ice. It’s only air, being released as the ice melts.
Salmon Glacier Road ends a mile farther at a place called Happy Valley, where photographers can spend a great deal of time. The road ends but the sights do not, as the road back down the hill offers different angles and a new perspective as it heads back into town.
Other activities in Hyder include fishing. The Salmon River is home to the largest chum (or calico) salmon in the world. These fish typically average 19 pounds, but in Hyder, they weigh in at approximately 40 pounds. Swimming beside the chums are pink and coho (silver) salmon, plus steelhead and Dolly Varden trout.
To fish in the Portland Canal, charter boats and guides are recommended, especially if you want to catch monster-sized halibut and the state fish, the king salmon, which is known to exceed 25 pounds. Although Hyder has no such commercial boat operators, several work out of Stewart.
From July through September, the intersection of Salmon River and Fish Creek is popular among anglers, for that’s where steelhead trout instinctively reverse life’s course to return home to spawn, then get hooked or end up inside the belly of a hungry bear.
After a day of nature adventure, more civilized options in Hyder beckon. Curio shops purvey a multitude of area crafts, including Tlingit Indian artwork. The Northern Stars gift shop and other locations in town offer walking tour maps that lead to such places as the Old Stone Warehouse, which is on the National Register of Historic Sites. It was the first masonry building made in Alaska.
For dining, Sealaska Inn offers a regional favorite: baked stuffed halibut. Suggested picnic choices include fresh smoked salmon from the Smokin Salmon store, and fresh breads and pastries from Wildflour Coffee Shop.
When nature and RVers end their day, Camp Run-A-Muck offers a place to retire. Located on the edge of town, the campground contains 65 sites. Some sites at this campground are deep in the woods, and the entire camp is cradled by titanic mountain ranges displaying glacier-capped peaks. The campground is open from mid-May through the end of September.
The prime time to be in Hyder depends upon your own interests. Wildflower aficionados should arrive between May and September. Salmon Glacier is most accessible from July through October. When salmon spawn, bears feed from Fish Creek between July and late September. Cross-country skiing, bird watching, and trips to Bear Glacier are available year-round.
When you visit, beware that average summer temperatures range from 55 to 70 degrees. (Average winter temperatures rarely go below 26 degrees.) Hyder does receive its share of rain in summer, but only half of what nearby Ketchikan receives, where the average rainfall is 151 inches each year. Flora remains green and lush, but trails are generally dry enough for hiking.
Regardless of the weather, while you’re in Hyder, you’ll discover that its riches are in nature itself.
Alaska Division of Tourism
P.O. Box 110801
Juneau, AK 99811-0801
Fax: (907) 465-2287
Hyder Community Association
Visitor Information Center
P.O. Box 149
Hyder, AK 99923
Fax: (250) 636-2714
Stewart Visitor Information Center
225 Fifth Ave.
Canada V0T 1W0
Stewart-Cassiar Tourism Council
P.O. Box 14
Canada V0T 1W0
Camp Run-A-Muck, C8484
1001 Premier Ave.
Hyder, AK 99923
E-mail: [email protected]
This facility offers 65 sites with water and 30-amp electrical hookups. Some sites also have sewer hookups. Amenities include a coin-operated laundry, showers, a dump station, e-mail and Internet access, and a public pay phone. Discounts are given to FMCA members.
Rainey Creek Municipal Campground
Canada V0T 1W0
This campground, operated by the town of Stewart, offers 108 wooded sites, some with 30-amp hookups. Amenities include tables, a public phone, showers, a playground, stream fishing, and other recreational opportunities.
Bear River RV Park
2200 Davis St.
Canada V0T 1W0
This facility offers 57 sites in a mobile home park, 43 with full hookups (30-amp electric) and 14 with no hookups. Amenities also include tables, ice, cable TV, modem hookups, and showers.