Adventure-Touring—Crossing The Yukon On BMW’s R 1200 GS

Borrowed bikes through Canada’s bucolic backcountry.

Motorcycles riding in front of the massive mountains of southern Alaska.
The massive mountains of southern Alaska turn even the boring straight roads into a visual feast.Mike Stoner

"I'm not going," one of our friends said. "It's nothing but days and days of flat road with nothing to see—except the blind corner with an elk or moose that you don't see until you hit it." He was the most experienced rider in our group. I was afraid he was right. Crossing the Yukon, from Alaska to British Columbia, might be a lot of very dull road.

But we had made the deal a year earlier, securing steep discounts on rented BMW R 1200 GSs from the tour company MotoQuest, as part of our "transporter" agreement to move five bikes from Anchorage, Alaska, to Portland, Oregon. Besides, I had loved riding in southern Alaska, and I'd spent some time in British Columbia. How bad could it be?

The Pine Valley Bakery and Lodge in Yukon.
Yukon food options are scarce, so we got lucky with the Pine Valley Bakery and Lodge’s bakery and creperie goods.Mike Stoner

It was 10 a.m. on August 29 before we really got started, leaving the light Anchorage traffic for a gas stop in Palmer and then a long loping ride along the Matanuska River for a lunch stop at the Long Rifle Lodge.

Steve, Chris, and I had ridden this stretch of road before. Mike had driven it. But all of it was new for Rene, and she was dazzled. With the yellowing aspens lining the highway and the Chugach and Wrangell mountains looming to the south of us, the weather was fine and we made good time.

Sandstorm in mountains.
A sudden and unlikely sandstorm reduced our visibility but made the sky magical.Mike Stoner
Kluane Lake with bikes riding beside it on the road.
Fair weather broke upon us as we came south out of the mountains to the shore of Kluane Lake.Mike Stoner

But leaving Tok, Alaska, the next morning and crossing into Yukon Territory, Canada, I began to worry Roger had been right. We rode out in 41-degree rain on flat desolate roads. I was concerned about what MotoQuest’s Kevin Hagerty had described as “buffalo fog,” the low-hanging clouds that hide small herds of buffalo gathered in low spots on the roadway. We’d seen bear and deer already. I didn’t want to see any buffalo unless I had time to stop first.

The weather improved, and the lunch stop was delightful. We ate quiche and Breton-style crepes at the Pine Valley Bakery and Lodge, south of Beaver Creek, and the road soon became interesting. We crossed the White River, and the Donjek, and then rode a long time beside the Kluane before stopping where it spilled into a mighty lake below Burwash Landing.

The rain had gone. The wind had died. We took the bikes down to the water and rode in the sand, and had a delightful visit with a genial fellow who’d traveled down from Whitehorse on a road-weary BMW attached to a jerry-rigged sidecar—which carried his two big dogs.

Tilting toward our overnight in Haines Junction, we skirted Kluane Lake, riding through a strange and sudden sandstorm, passing a juvenile grizzly bear digging for grubs by the side of the road, with the massive peaks of the St. Elias mountain range stabbing the western sky.

Boarding the scenic Alaskan ferry from Haines to Skagway.
Boarding the scenic Alaskan ferry from Haines to Skagway, we were pleased to find bikes board first.Mike Stoner

We overnighted happily in Haines Junction, and woke to find a blanket of fresh snow dusting the higher elevations, happy to find strong coffee and good pastry the next morning at the Village Bakery. The weather was chilly but clear, and improved. The road rose and fell and twisted before us, and the scenery was staggering. By the time we made Dezadeash Lake, we had stopped for photographs so many times that we were hours behind schedule.

After an overnight in Haines, Alaska, we caught the ferry for Skagway, chugging up the Chilkoot Inlet and then cruising historic State Street before catching the Klondike Highway north. Mid-ride, we crossed back into Yukon Territory, and found our beds in Teslin.

Near Watson Lake, we faced a decision. The busy, highly trafficked Alaska Highway was replete with services but said to be severely challenged by brush fires. The Cassiar Highway, though, was the road less traveled. We opted for the longer, lonelier way. We booked rooms in Dease Lake, then turned south onto Highway 37 and hoping for the best.

Salmon Glacier in Hyder, Alaska.
A dirt road climbing high above Hyder, Alaska, took us to the toe of the massive Salmon Glacier.Mike Stoner

We got it. The next two days brought some of the most scenic riding any of us had ever enjoyed. The Cassiar delivered miles and miles of gently swooping turns through some of Canada’s oldest old-growth forest. We had several bear sightings, but saw no ice road truckers and passed almost no other motorists. Dease Lake was a bit bleak, so we stopped for breakfast a bit south at the delightful Tatogga Lake Resort, eating a hearty meal in a knotty pine dining room surrounded by stuffed moose, elk, grizzly, wolves, and deer.

The late afternoon found us in Stewart, British Columbia. We checked into the moto-friendly King Edward Hotel, and those of us who weren’t too worn out by the day’s ride got back on the bikes for a little sightseeing.

We crossed Alaska’s southernmost border crossing, through the desolate town of Hyder, and climbed a long dirt road that took us back into Canada and climbed to the edge of the massive Salmon Glacier.

Motorcyclist rides along the waterfront.
Chris Day demonstrates his big-bike skills all along the waterfront.Mike Stoner

We parked the MotoQuest machines and stood watching the sun sink over the ice until the light had almost gone.

There would be more excellent riding ahead, as we left the Yukon for British Columbia. But when I was asked a few months later if I’d like to do the transporter ride the other direction, from Portland to Anchorage, it was the Yukon part I was most excited about repeating.

Motorcyclist riding on road in front of snowy mountains.
The snow poles along this scenic sweeper give an indication of the severe Yukon winters.Mike Stoner
Motorcyclists cross bridge.
Leaving Teslin, Yukon, under leaden skies, we were dressed for cold and wet—and got it.Mike Stoner
Cassiar Highway under cloudy sky.
Not all of the Cassiar Highway was tight and curvy, but the big skies made the entire route scenic.Mike Stoner
Cassiar Highway with motorcyclist riding in front of water and greenery.
Most of the Cassiar Highway is a narrow two-lane road, without a stripe down the middle. Luckily we encountered very little oncoming traffic on this little-used north-south corridor.Mike Stoner
Glacier Highway and motorcyclist beside river in Yukon Territory.
Yukon Territory is filled with rivers, which the roads often parallel—as on this stretch of the Glacier Highway headed south toward Stewart, British Columbia.Mike Stoner
Cassiar Highway passing through forest.
Sections of the Cassiar Highway pass through old-growth forest where commercial logging is forbidden, creating a dense covering for the wildlife there.Mike Stoner
Motorcyclists with their bikes beside the shore of Kluane Lake.
The author and Day, perhaps violating MotoQuest rules about staying on the pavement, took a spin along the shore of Kluane Lake.Mike Stoner
Group of motorcyclists in the northern Yukon Territory.
Morning riding temperatures were as low as 35 degrees, so we were happy with this splash of sunlight in the northern Yukon Territory. From left, Chris Day, Stephen Marks, Rene Tuchscher, and author.Mike Stoner