The Yellowhead Highway, part of the Trans-Canada Highway system, is in western Canada (the Prairies and British Columbia). It is not the Trans-Canada mainline (which originates in Victoria in the west) but an alternate, northern route through Edmonton with Prince Rupert as its western endpoint.
The 2,660 km (1,650 mi) Yellowhead Highway is one of multiple highways which compose the Trans-Canada Highway system; in all four western provinces (BC, AB, SK, MB) it is numbered as provincial Highway 16, with exception of the easternmost 100 km (62 mi) which follows Manitoba Highway 1. The route leads through remote and sparsely-populated areas due to its more northern alignment, including many native First Nation communities; in BC it is known as the Highway of Tears due to a number of hitchhikers missing or dead over the years.
In the prairies, the Yellowhead Highway beings in Winnipeg (population 700,000) and passes through two large cities: Edmonton (metro population 1.1 million), Saskatoon (population 250,000). Prince George is accessible from the BC Lower Mainland via BC Highway 97 (which extends US 97) but further west the route is isolated. In Terrace, the only other highway (BC 37) runs north through mountainous terrain to the Alaska Highway in the Yukon; in Prince Rupert, the only access is by coastal ferry, by air or by following the Yellowhead Highway's path by road or rail. No road follows the rugged BC coastline north from Powell River to Prince Rupert. While this itinerary describes travel by road, it is possible to make the same trip by rail by taking the main Vancouver-Toronto train, The Canadian, in Winnipeg to to the town of Jasper (in Jasper National Park) and transfer to the two-day Jasper-Prince Rupert train.
The Southern Yellowhead Highway (BC Highway 5), is spur route which runs from Tête Jaune Cache, a small village west of the Alberta border, south to Kamloops and the Lower Mainland, and is the shortest highway route between Edmonton and Vancouver. The section south of Kamloops is a 4-6 lane freeway known as the Coquihalla Highway, which also functions as the preferred route to the 2 lane Trans-Canada Highway between Kamloops and Hope.
This itinerary is based on travel by motorcar. There is limited access by public transit:
- By train: VIA runs The Canadian from Winnipeg to Jasper. From there, one can can transfer trains and head onward to Prince Rupert.
- By bus: While Greyhound Canada withdrew from western Canada in 2018, much of the Yellowhead highway remains accessible via a string of regional carriers. Rider Express also offers bus service between Saskatoon and Edmonton. Cold Shot runs Jasper-Edmonton and Edmonton-Lloydminster, connecting to KCTI's shuttlebus to Saskatoon; Sun Dog runs from Edmonton to Jasper. There's a 100 km (62 mi) gap between Jasper and Tête Jaune Cache then BC Transit runs Valemont-Prince George and Prince George-Prince Rupert.
This is a northern route which leads through isolated communities and through the Rocky Mountains in British Columbia. It requires at least thirty-two hours of continuous driving and road conditions may be treacherous in winter. Be sure that your vehicle is in top mechanical condition; do not set out on this route in winter without snow tires and emergency equipment for winter driving.
While the majority this route may be taken from either endpoint and incorporated as part of a longer Trans-Canada trip, the westernmost 830 km (520 mi) is very difficult to get to by car without taking the Yellowhead Highway itself. This route can be joined at any intermediate point (such as by taking Alberta Highway 2 from Calgary to Edmonton or Saskatchewan Highway 11 from Regina to Saskatoon), so this itinerary describes a trip from east to west, starting in Winnipeg and ending at Masset. The Southern Yellowhead Highway can be accessed Trans-Canada Highway in either Hope or Kamloops before it continues north to the main Yellowhead route.
See Trans-Canada Highway for a description of the main route.
Prince Rupert, as BC's northernmost seaport, is accessible by ferry from Port Hardy, from Alaska or from Haida Gwaii (the Queen Charlotte Islands). BC Ferries operates the Northern Expedition, a car ferry from Port Hardy on north Vancouver Island which costs $450/car + $200/passenger for a 520 km (320 mi), seventeen-hour journey.
1 Winnipeg, Manitoba is the eastern terminus of the Yellowhead Highway and the provincial campital, beginning at historic Portage and Main in the city's downtown. Nearby at The Forks, there is a display commemorating the Yellowhead Highway at Johnston Terminal. The Yellowhead Highway travels west on Portage Avenue, with Trans-Canada Highway mainline (Highway 1) joining route a few blocks to the west, leaving Winnipeg to 2 Portage la Prairie (population 13,000). Portage la Prairie was built around 1838 fur trade post Fort La Reine (now a 25-building museum); canoes were carried overland from Lake Manitoba to the Assiniboine River. The city became a railway crossroads; between 1942-1992, a military base trained fighter pilots. As passengers left the rails to take to the open road, Trans-Canada Highway 1 followed the Canadian Pacific rails, while Yellowhead Highway 16 followed the Canadian National line west to Prince Rupert. The Yellowhead Highway leave the four-lane divided highway and joins Trans-Canada Highway 16, passing through 3 Neepawa (population 4,600) and 4 Minnedosa (2,400), with Riding Mountain National Park located 30 minutes north of Minnedosa on Highway 10 for those wanting to make a detour. The highway continues through 5 Russell (population 1,400) before crossing the Saskatchewan border.
The highway continues into Saskatchewan to 6 Yorkton (population 15,000), and agricultural community and regional service centre that's home of the Yorkton Film Festival. The highway passes through Wynyard, Lanigan, and north of 7 Watrous-Manitou Beach, located on Little Manitou Lake which is known as the "Dead Sea of Canada". It becomes a four-lane, divided highway and passes through 8 Saskatoon (pop. 325,000), the province's largest city located on the banks of the South Saskatchewan River and home to the University of Saskatchewan. The highway continues to 9 The Battlefords, consisting of North Battleford (population 14,000) and Battleford (population 4,000) which are separated by the North Saskatchewan River, to the provincially-divided city of 10 Lloydminster, where the Alberta-Saskatchewan border runs right down 50th Avenue (Meridian Avenue) in the centre of town. Unlike other twin cities, such as Niagra Falls Ontario/New York or Kansas City Missouri/Kansas, Lloydminster is legally one city (pop 30,000) despite being in two provinces. Its primary industries are petroleum refining and agriculture.
It continues west through 11 Vermilion (population 4,000) to 12 Vegreville (population 5,700), an agricultural community with strong Ukrainian immigrant heritage and home of the world's largest Ukrainian Easter egg. The road continues through 13 Elk Island National Park, home of aspen wilderness parkland and protected wildlife which is less than an hour from the sprawling city. It leaves the park and passes through the bedroom community of Sherwood Park to 14 Edmonton, the provincial capital. The northernmost city of at least one million people in North America, Edmonton was initially built around the fur trade in 1795; it became an oil boom town after prospectors struck black gold in nearby Leduc County in 1947. The city is home to the University of Alberta and a military base, CFB Edmonton.
It leaves Edmonton and passes through bedroom communities of Spruce Grove and Stony Plain, the recreational lakeside village of 15 Wabamun, and the twin communities of Entwistle and Evansburg before entering the Rocky Mountain foothills at 16 Edson (population 8,400). The road passes over Obed Summit (elevation 1,164 metres or 3,819 feet), the highest point on the Yellowhead Highway mainline despite not being in the mountains, and through 17 Hinton (population 9,900), located on eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains. The road becomes a two lane highway west of town and enters Jasper National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Jasper National Park covers 10,878 square kilometres (4,200 square miles), containing more than 1,200 kilometres (750 miles) of hiking trails, glaciers, mountains, valleys, meadows, forests and rivers; the town of 18 Jasper (population 5,200) is located inside the park and is the northern terminus of the iconic Icefields Parkway. The route then crosses Yellowhead Pass (elevation 1,131 metres or 3,711 feet) into British Columbia.
Upon entering British Columbia, the passes though Mount Robson Provincial Park (also a UNESCO World Heritage Site), home of its namesake mountain which is the tallest peak in the Canadian Rockies. The highway meets up with its southern branch at 19 Tete Jaune Cache and then continues west through McBride to 20 Prince George (popuation 72,000), the main northern service centre and forestry community on the confluence of the Nechako and Fraser Rivers. It continues to 21 Vanderhoof (population 4,500), a farming town on one of the few flatlands in the area; 22 Smithers (population 5,800), an alpine-themed town with lakes and a ski hill; as well as New Hazelton, Kitwanga, and 23 Terrace (population 12,500 people), which features significant Indigenous culture. The highway arrives at 24 Prince Rupert, a small port city of 13,000 people, many of them Indigenous. It serves as a connection point for BC Ferries, Alaska Marine Highway System, Air Canada, Hawkair and seaplane operators to offload passengers and cargo onto road and rail, but also hosts various museums (railway, First Nations, canneries) and provides a port of call to cruise ships.
From Prince Rupert, BC Ferries offers a 6½ hour ferry to Haida Gwaii (formerly known the as the Queen Charlotte Islands); the sparsely populated islands are located 40–65 kilometres (25–40 miles) off the coast of British Columbia and are the westernmost point on the Trans-Canada Highway system. The ferry lands in 25 Skidegate and travels north on Graham Island to the western terminus of the Yellowhead Highway at 26 Masset.
South Yellowhead/Coquihalla Highway
The Southern Yellowhead Highway (Highway 5) leaves the main branch of the Yellowhead Highway at Tete Jaune Cache and heads south 27 Valemount (population 1,000) and 28 Clearwater (population 2,300), which is the access area to the 5,220-square-kilometre (2,020-square-mile) Wells Gray Provincial Park. The highway continues to 29 Kamloops (population 90,000), billed as the Tournament Capital of Canada, passing the turnoff to Sun Peaks ski resort at its northern boundary. It joins Trans-Canada Highway freeway, and continues as the Coquihalla Highway where the Trans-Canada Highway branches west. The highway passes over Surrey Lake Summit (elevation 1,444 metres or 4,738 feet) and through 30 Merritt (population 7,000) in the Nicola Valley, where travelers can detour onto BC Highway 97C and connect to the Okanagan, a popular vacation region. The highway continues through Cascade Mountains, through Coquhalla Pass (elevation 1,244 metres or 4,081 feet), to its southern terminus in 31 Hope (population 6,100) on the far eastern boundary of BC's Lower Mainland, where the Trans-Canada Highway (BC Highway 1) continues along the freeway towards Vancouver. A scenic alternative to the Coquihalla Highway (freeway) between Kamloops and Hope is to take the Trans-Canada Highway (Highway 1) through the Fraser Canyon.
Cellular telephone coverage in the mountains is sporadic, with countless dead spots in each valley. A long stretch of British Columbia highway between Prince George and the Alberta border has no coverage from any carrier. Do not assume that roadside assistance will be just a telephone call away when needed. In adverse winter conditions, portions of the road may be closed in order to clear snow or due to avalanche risk.
Despite the Coquihalla Highway being a modern freeway, extra precautions should also be taken. The highway was constructed through mountainous terrain and is subject to sudden weather changes, especially the section between Hope (located around sea-level) and the Coquihalla Pass. Travellers can experience clear weather at lower elevations but heavy snow at the higher elevations. The section of highway has gained notoriety for its winter collisions and is the backdrop for Discovery Channel's TV series Highway Thru Hell.
This is sparsely-populated country and not without risks when hitchhiking. Use public transit as an alternative, if it is available.