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Searching for the Big Five in Northern BC’s wilderness

posted September 18, 2017

wildlife in british columbia

Imagine the creak of cedar in a dappled forest, or the cool spray of a waterfall. The sweet, earthy smell of woodland or the sharp, salty tang of the sea. When you travel through Northern British Columbia’s rich wilderness, you need all your senses. And along with keeping your eyes peeled for fantastic scenery, you’ll need to keep a close watch for some of the fantastic wildlife that lives there.

If you’d like to see impressive and iconic wild animals in their natural habitat, then you can’t do better than getting off the beaten track in BC. Here, the Canadian wilderness boasts its own Big Five roaming among unspoiled mountain ranges, untouched rivers and untrodden forests.

What are Canada’s Big Five?

wolf in british columbia

The Big Five of the Serengeti are world-famous. Tourists have flocked there for decades to see lions, leopards, rhino, buffalo and elephants. But don’t be fooled into thinking that Africa has a monopoly on safaris. Only a couple of hours north of Prince Rupert in British Columbia is the Muskwa-Kechika Management Area, dubbed the “Serengeti of the North.” In this wilderness region the size of Ireland, moose, deer, caribou, Stone’s sheep and bison can all be spotted from the highway.

In Canada, the Big Five animals that top everyone’s bucket list are:

  • • Bear
  • • Wolf
  • • Moose
  • • Elk
  • • Deer

bald eagle british columbia

Spotting any one of those majestic animals would be an unforgettable moment for the memory book. But that list doesn’t do justice to the wealth of wildlife that calls British Columbia home, particularly in the untamed north. BC has more species in total – and more unique species of birds and mammals – than any other part of Canada. In all, 183 mammal, 536 bird, 24 reptile, 23 amphibian, 515 fish species live in or travel through the province.

The diversity of the landscape means you can see big animals like bald eagles, humpback whales, orcas, seals and mountain goats as well as little ones like chipmunks and ground squirrels.


Where is best to see them?

caribou british columbia

You’ve got a very good chance of spotting elk and deer simply by going for an early-morning walk in the woods. They can often be found grazing in the dawn mist by campsites and quiet towns, or even by the roadsides. For black bears, grizzlies and wolves your best bet is to join a wildlife tour. These licensed companies have the expertise to guide you to the secluded forests, coves and mountain passes where these animals are likely to be.

Nestled into the vast swathes of BC countryside are a few well-placed towns that provide invaluable bases for getting to those lesser-known wilderness areas. The Big Five can be spotted throughout British Columbia, and although visitors spot bears and elk close to busy centres like Whistler, you’ll have the best chance in quieter regions.

moose in british columbia

We’ve picked a few of our favourite off-the-beaten track towns that provide perfect bases for wildlife viewing. Even better, these regions of Northern BC are rich in the culture and heritage of Canada’s First Nations people. With such a warm welcome and so much to capture your interest, you won’t be disappointed even if you don’t manage to tick all the Big Five off your list.


Prince George

prince george british columbia

This is the largest city in Northern British Columbia. Although, thanks to its surrounding of picturesque wilderness and outdoor activity centres, it doesn’t feel like a big city. There’s plenty to do in town as well as tons of hiking, biking and wildlife opportunities in the region. You can get here easily on a connecting flight from Vancouver which takes around 40 minutes.


Wildlife spotting

grizzly british columbia

One of the biggest draws of Prince George is its location surrounded by old-growth cedar forests. Boardwalks such as the Ancient Forest trail just outside of town wind their way through nature’s giants, which can grow over 200 feet tall. The Forests of the Worlds walk is another path which takes a varied route through different tree species. These walks are a good place to start looking for wildlife, as woodland creatures include beavers, deer, moose and bears.

For a different experience, head to El Shaddai Ranch which offers serene horse-riding tours through Prince George’s lush natural places. From this unique viewpoint, you can traverse the forests, streams and meadows of the Omineca Mountains which characterise the region. Revel in the cathedral-like silence of the woods as you ride quietly past. Keep a watch for elk, deer and bears on the way.

elk in british columbia


In the town

You’ll find plenty of shopping and dining options in Prince George, but one of the real treats is its history. Treat yourself to one of the fascinating museums on offer, like The Exploration Place or the Central BC Railway & Forestry Museum which is stacked with vintage locomotives. Learn about the historic fur trade and the Hudson Bay Company at the Fort St. James National Historic Site. Breathe in more than 200 years of history as you step into one of the original wooden buildings from 1806.



smithers british columbia

Whatever this little town lacks in size, it makes up for with a huge dose of personality. It might only have a population of 6,000 but the welcome couldn’t be warmer. Smithers is located a few hours northeast of Prince George, nestled against the backdrop of the snow-capped Hudson Bay Mountain.


Wildlife spotting

smithers waterfall british columbia

Smithers is a favourite with its local ‘Smithereens’ thanks to its easy access to the outdoors. The town is encompassed on all sides by rolling farmland, mountain ranges and lush forests, interspersed by streams and creeks. Imagine spotting a mountain goat perched on an impossible cliff face, or a grizzly swiping salmon from a rapid. From otters to moose, Smithers has a wealth of iconic wildlife to spot.

Alpine Lakes Air offers floatplane tours which depart from Tyhee Lake just outside Smithers. Soaring over mountain ranges like the Babine or Telkwa offers otherworldly views of sprawling glaciers and glittering lakes. This is a fantastically different way to try to spot a mountain goat or a bald eagle – and hopefully one of the Big Five too! These tours can also drop you off for a scenic canoe paddle across a remote lake.

hiking smithers british columbia


In the town

There’s magic in the misty mountain vistas and the bubbling brooks. It draws in artists to the town and transforms into incredible talent. Make time to visit the Smithers Art Gallery while you’re here, and pop into the Bulkley Valley Museum too. The First Nations Wet’suwet’sen peoples have lived in the Bulkley Valley for thousands of years . Delving into their rich cultural heritage will add another dimension to your visit.


Prince Rupert

prince rupert british columbia

This little marine city perches on the secluded Kaien Island, a slice of Pacific Coast paradise. It sits in the Skeena River estuary, surrounded by the blue waters of Chatham Sound and small, uninhabited islands. Though Prince Rupert might seem remote, it’s the ideal gateway city for cruises to Haida Gwaii, Alaska and Vancouver Island.


Wildlife spotting

whales british columbia

Prince Rupert is one of the best places in BC to join a whale watching or bear watching tour. Khutzeymateen Sanctuary lies around 28 miles northeast of the city and is a real treat if you’re after those close-up snaps of grizzlies. The park’s First Nations name means “sheltered place of fish and bears” and it really lives up to it. The park contains one of BC’s largest populations of grizzly bears. Because it is a sanctuary, it offers the best of both worlds. It allows the bears to live wild in their natural habitat, but still provides good access by boat to view the bears feeding on the shoreline from the water.

In the summer months, you can join a tour to see migrating humpbacks, orcas, gray whales and minke, although you could even spot them from the shore. Prince Rupert’s superb access to the ocean means there are a host of wildlife tours available in boats and floatplanes, to spot everything from eagles to seals. Even in the city itself, tame deer roam some of the streets. There is hardly a better place anywhere to capture unforgettable views of Canada’s most beautiful wildlife.


In the town

Haida Gwaii totem poles

Beyond the spectacular wildlife watching, Prince Rupert and its surrounds have more treasures to bequeath. The city was home to the Tsimshian and Haida nations for 5000 years and their legacies can be seen in the totem poles of Service Park, Roosevelt Park and the Sunken Gardens. Also in the city itself, you can tour the National Historic Site of the North Pacific Cannery – an impressively preserved site that gives an insight into the region’s economic heritage.

Haida Gwaii chief

Jump on a cruise sailing a little further west and you’ll discover the home of a storied First Nations history in Haida Gwaii. This archipelago is one of the most remote in Canada and is filled with a serenity and a cultural richness that is unrivalled anywhere else. The authentic First Nations village of SGang Gwaay is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is the perfect place to learn more about totem pole art and tradition. Make sure you come away with some souvenir carvings from the Haida Heritage Centre at Kaay Llnagaay.


Try it yourself

smithers british columbia

The riches of British Columbia’s remote north only reveal themselves to those intrepid adventurers who make it there. Yet, it really couldn’t be easier to get there. Prince George is a quick 40-minute internal flight from Vancouver, or you can take in all three cities on a fly drive holiday from Vancouver.

With our Mountain Country holiday, you’ll enjoy an epic 20 day journey through some of the best parts of British Columbia. As well as Prince George, Smithers and Prince Rupert, you’ll also take in Port Hardy and Campbell River on the Pacific Coast, and Harrison Hot Springs and Penticton in the BC Interior.

mountain holiday map

The tour includes flights, car hire, hotels and ferries. Find out more here.


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