I have a great love of getting off the beaten path, especially when it comes to roads. There is something about driving a lesser known road that makes it seem more real. It feels more like I’m an explorer, seeing new sights that few before me have seen or even heard about. The main touristy routes are more manicured and have all the best sights marked, whereas side roads are rougher and require you to make your own way. The views do tend to be better on the main roads, but there is something more intimate and powerful about back roads.
As a kid, there were several routes we used to drive to get to church. There was the most straight forward way, and there were several other “scenic routes” that went down some back roads through farmland. The scenic routes were always longer, and I remember that we would every now and then clamour to take the long way home…I don’t remember why. I also remember trips to Grandma’s cottage. Dad liked taking back roads to get there and we always seemed to get “lost”. I was quite young, but I’m sure there were a few times where Dad was just following his sense of direction, and making it up as he went. Interestingly enough, I enjoy doing the same thing…exploring an area and taking a random road just because it looks interesting and sort of goes in the direction I want to go.
The first summer I had a car, my brother and I drove to Algonquin from the cottage. It’s somewhat common in northern Ontario to pass an entrance to a road, and then to pass another link to the same road further down the highway. It makes it easy to find scenic routes to drive, although they aren’t always the most interesting. On the way to Algonquin, we passed an entrance to Old 127 and then, further down the road, we passed it again. So on the way back, we drove it. It was just an old gravel road that went by a few lakes, but it was remote and quiet, with no traffic.
I really discovered the joy of the scenic route on my first real road trip, which was to Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. The map we had of the National Park showed some alternate routes that one could take instead of the main road. The alternate routes followed the coast, and looked interesting, so I drove them. They weren’t as well maintained as the Cabot Trail was, but the views were great, and there was very little traffic. There was a small road with a sign for White Point, so we took it and discovered a sleepy little fishing village. Beyond the village was a trail that led to a small, grass covered peninsula with rock cliffs on either side and a view of the highlands across the bay. Generally the Cape Breton Highlands are a busy place, but there was no one at White Point. It was as though we had discovered a hidden gem that no one knew about yet and we had it all to ourselves.
We also drove to Meat Cove, which is the northern most community on Cape Breton. It’s a little more well known than White Point, but it still had that remote feeling to it. There was very little traffic on the gravel road there, and there weren’t many people around once we got there. The road there was an adventure in itself as it turned to rough gravel, with beaten up guardrails and steep hills. I think part of the draw to these places is the feeling that I am entering something that is authentic and real. There’s always a sense that the normal tourist attractions have been modified and smoothed over to enhance the experience. When you get off the beaten path, you are experiencing things the way they are and always have been. It’s not always like this, as even the most remote attractions have typically been spruced up a bit, but there’s always that difference.
My next few road trips, I was always searching for random roads to drive. In PEI, I was always taking random roads to see where they would lead. I even found a few nice beaches that were otherwise unmarked. On a trip to Lake Superior, I took a random road because there was a sign for a waterfall. The waterfall wasn’t that interesting, so I took the next road over. That led over an interesting wooden truss bridge, and eventually to a really nice beach that was empty. So we watched a storm roll out over Superior and then the sun set.
As I planned my big road trip to western Canada, it slowly became all about the backroads. Sure, I visited Banff and Jasper and drove the Icefields parkway, but the real trip began when I started up Highway 37(the Stewart-Cassiar Highway) in Northern BC. That was truly off the beaten path. Hundreds of kilometers of wilderness with a few tiny villages, seemingly untouched by modern civilization. There’s just something awesome about being in the middle of nowhere. It’s like going back in time and seeing the land, untamed, as though mankind had arrived and merely built a road, then moved on. Of course, chances are, most of the trees along the Cassier highway have been logged at some point, and there are mines and towns along the way. But there’s a sense of wildness, like the land hasn’t been manicured or modified unless it absolutely had to be. It’s incredibly hard to explain why I love these areas so much…
Of course, the Cassiar Highway was practically an expressway compared to the sideroads I drove off of it. The road to the Salmon Glacier, near Stewart, was a rough gravel road that slowly wound out of the valley into the mountains above. Part of it was under construction, which out there meant I was pretty much driving through an active construction zone, with nothing separating me from the heavy machinery. The view of the glacier at the top is one of the best views to be had in Canada, and yet so few people see it or are even aware that it exists.
The road to Telegraph Creek is the ultimate in back roads. 112 km of gravel that leads to a ghost town. It winds through the mountain side in a way that suggests they modified the land as little as possible. Often there is rock on one side, and a long way down on the other side, with no guardrails and 20% grade hills. You don’t drive Telegraph Creek for the view as much as you drive it for the experience.
Everything I’ve described about back roads applies to my time in Yukon. And I was on the most well known, main road there: the Alaska Highway. It’s just so hard to describe the immense, vast, wilderness that is Yukon. All I can say is even after all the roads mentioned above, the Alaska Highway completely blew me away. It makes me want to actually drive the various back roads in Yukon. If the main route is that amazing, the back roads must be beyond imagination.
Of course I also recently enjoyed some back roads in Labrador, where I also plan to return some day. My future trip plans tend to be built around these scenic routes that I enjoy so much. Planning to go to all the more well known places that everyone goes to just doesn’t draw me the way these off the beaten path locales do. I feel like this entry is missing a conclusion…and I guess part of what’s missing is a real explanation for why I enjoy the scenic route so much. To be honest, I don’t really know. All I can say it, it’s amazing. I’ll let the pictures speak to that.