Beautiful Beaches in Northern BC
It’s hard to get away from the water in northern BC…as if anyone would want to. If you’re not living on the coast, odds are you’re living near a river or a lake. Historically, waterways offered a path of least resistance for explorers and settlers, a way of moving people and goods without having to force one’s way over troublesome geography. As a matter of convenience, our northern towns took root on riverbanks and in sheltered harbours. Nowadays roads and highways make travel much easier, but we still find ourselves attracted to the water’s edge.
In a landscape that is exceptionally forested and mountainous, there is something magical about bursting out of the trees onto the bank of a glimmering body of water. Whether fresh or salty, there is promise and possibility in those liquid molecules. Children turn into tiny human sponges, soaking up the freedom of a sweeping strand, the excitement of a rushing river or the wonder of a teeming tidepool. Rubber dinghies and inner tubes become vessels of discovery, canoe paddles dip and thrust, and meals become fragrant driftwood affairs, with conversation punctuated by the sound of waves on the shore.
Within the boundaries of many northern BC towns, parkland has been designated along lakes and rivers, making them natural places to gather for picnics, family time and community events. The Irish poet W.B. Yeats wrote of being able to tap into his memories of time at a remote lakeside to soothe his soul from the burrs of city living. We northerners are no different: access to lakes, rivers, and ocean waterfront is prized for its recreational possibilities, for the opportunities to fish and gather seafood, and just for that sense of being on the edge of something so much bigger and more powerful than oneself.
Northern BC has innumerable lakes and rivers, and at its western border the magnificent Pacific Ocean. Many spots can be accessed with a decent vehicle by venturing off the main highways onto secondary roads. A good resource is the Backroad Mapbook series that shows roads, waterways, and some topography in decent detail—but be warned that roads may have been deactivated or bridges washed out since publication. Forest Service roads must be treated with special caution if active logging is taking place. Also, be prepared for emergencies; if something goes wrong you may be in for a bit of a wait until someone comes along.
For precise instructions on how to get to any of the places mentioned, please consult with the appropriate tourist office, a friendly local, or one of many internet guides. Finally, please note that this list is only a scratch on the surface of possible lakes, rivers, and beaches to explore in Northern BC.
McBride Lasalle Lakes Recreation Site, 40 km east of McBride, is accessed via a spur road off Highway 16. Look for the distinctive Forestry signs (brown paint with white lettering) to guide you. This is a great place to swim out to the anchored platform on a warm summer day as the lake is closed to motor craft—paddle-power only please. About twenty campsites and pit toilets are available.
Closer to McBride, only 10 km out of town, is the Beaver River Recreational Site, situated on the east bank of the Beaver River. In the fall, a nearby spur channel of the river is a great place to watch salmon swimming upstream to spawn.
Prince George It takes about an hour to drive north on Hwy 97 from Prince George to Crooked River Provincial Park, but once you get there, the beaches at Bear Lake, one of three lakes within the park, are well worth it. Sandy and well-kept, they are ideal for swimming, and the day-use area on the north side includes an adventure playground for children. All the lakes in the area are great for fishing, but again, canoe or kayak only.
To get to Stony Lake means going a bit further afield. Head south from Prince George on Hwy 97, then east on the Willow Forest Service Road for more than 80km. A vehicle with good clearance is recommended, but once you get there, you have your choice of where to plunk the trailer as there are four rustic BC Forest Service campsites on the shores of the lake as well as two cartop boat launches. This is a much more remote location, with all the usual pleasures and challenges of such a place.
Wells If you have the opportunity, the Bowron Lakes are not to be missed. Even if you don’t paddle the whole lake chain, you can still experience the gorgeous scenery of Bowron Lake itself; a gravel boat launch is available at the north end and power craft are allowed. The drive-in campsite nearby is available on a first-come, first-served basis.
Fort St James Practically right downtown, Cottonwood Park is a gem on the shore of scenic Stuart Lake, with benches and picnic tables on a grassy sward and sand at the water’s edge, making this an excellent place for families with small children.
Paarens Beach Provincial Park, a few kilometres southwest of town, sports a long, narrow sand-and-pebble beach perfect for swimming and sunbathing. The lakefront campground is well appointed with great views from each site, a boat launch, change house and playground, and has a reputation for being refreshingly uncrowded. Vanderhoof area
Vanderhoof Riverside Park on the banks of the Nechako River in Vanderhoof provides riverside water access to the community, with an unsupervised swimming area and beach volleyball nets. In the spring and fall, this is a great place to view migrating birds, including trumpeter swans, from the nearby observation tower.
You won’t want to hop into this water for a swim, but Kenney Dam and Cheslatta Falls, 80 km south of Vanderhoof, are awesome places to get a sense of the immense power of rushing H2O. Kenney Dam was the largest earthen dam in world when it was first built. A picnic site along the Cheslatta River is a lovely spot for a break before you head downriver a kilometre or so to see the falls.
Burns Lake Forty-five kilometres north of the town of Burns Lake lies the Babine Lake Marine Park. You can launch your boat at Pendleton Bay for a day on the water, but it’s not recommended to leave your boat trailer there overnight. This is another good opportunity to pull out the fishing rods and try for some trout or char for dinner. If you’re lucky, you can pitch your tent for free at the first-come, first-served campground.
Houston When the weather is cookin’ hot and a serious cool-down is in order, locals head to the bridge over the Bulkley River on the east side of town. The water is cold and the swimming is not supervised by lifeguards, but for a quick dip it’s a popular option.
For more of a day trip, head west of Houston about 15km until you spot the “Irrigation Lake” sign on your left. Follow this short road about 500 meters to Dunalter (a.k.a. Irrigation) Lake, an excellent spot to cast a line, paddle a canoe, or enjoy a family picnic. The lake is a bit weedy, but has a shallow, gradual bottom, making it a safe swimming area for small kids.
Smithers and Telkwa Take a break on the shores of Tyhee Lake at the provincial park there, just one km from Telkwa off the Telkwa High Road. Framed on either side by snowcapped mountains, Tyhee Lake is a lovely spot to soak up some sun and go for a swim. The sandy beach and lakeside playground make it a popular family destination.
There is no shortage of water access in the Smithers area. Just a short drive from downtown, Lake Kathlyn is a beautiful place for swimming and canoeing. The banks of the Bulkley can also be accessed in a number of places for fishing, rafting, and swimming. Or check out Chapman Lake, about 38 km from Smithers on Babine Lake Road, with its cartop boat launch, small float dock, and decent fishing.
Hazelton and Kispiox The Sweetin River Recreation Site is a pretty place to have a campfire on the gravel beach near the confluence of the Sweetin and Kispiox Rivers. There are only three campsites, but if you can snag a spot you have it for free. This is a good opportunity to skip stones and go wading; keep an eye out for wildlife and be bear-aware, especially during salmon spawning season.
Terrace-Kitimat The perfect place to spend a sunny day in Terrace is at Furlong Bay on Lakelse Lake. Located between Terrace and Kitimat on Highway 37, it’s a popular spot for families, with a boat launch, designated swimming area, and large campground featuring nature trails through old-growth trees.
North of Terrace off the Nisga’a Highway is Ackerman’s Beach on Kalum Lake. It’s a small forestry site with stunning mountain views on a clear day; it fills up quickly with trucks and trailers, but those willing to pack their gear a short distance can camp just as comfortably a few hundred metres away, on the beach or up in the trees. The sandy beach is clean and the water, while cool, is refreshing on a warm day.
Prince Rupert and Port Edward Prince Rupert has the good fortune to be situated right on the ocean, but you actually have to leave town to find a beach that isn’t rife with sharp and rusty remnants of the city’s industrial past. Grassy Bay is a good place for kids to explore the rocky seashore, swing on rope swings, and hunt for crabs at low tide. Get there via the Butze Rapids walking trail about 5 km from town.
If you have access to a boat, I hope you can get out to Lucy Island, about 16 km from Rupert. It has white sand beaches, a trail to the now-automated lighthouse, and fabulous views of Dixon Entrance and beyond.
Haida Gwaii The northern edge of Graham Island is unparalleled among northern BC beaches for its sweeping scale and precipitous nature. It’s great for experiencing storms and the surging power of Pacific swells as they make landfall. The 10km trek to the very tip of Rose Spit, the most remote part of North Beach, allows you to dip your toes in the place where the waves from each side of Haida Gwaii meet.
The beaches on the eastern side of Haida Gwaii also have much to offer explorers. See the shipwrecked Pesuta near Tlell, wonder at the balancing boulder near Skidegate, and hunt for abundant fossils pretty much anywhere in between.