Wood Bison Trail
Driving north from the city on Highway 63 gives you a chance to view the mining operations (albeit at a distance), plus make a few interesting stops. Up to 40,000 vehicles a day traverse this route, including 400 buses filled with workers, so be prepared for a lot of traffic, especially during shift changes.
Make your first stop 27 kilometers (17 miles) north of Fort McMurray at the Wood Bison Trail Gateway, where there is an impressive wood bison sculpture made from oil sands. Also on display is a 100-million-year-old cypress tree found fossilized in the oil sands. This pullout is also the starting point for the Matcheetawin Discovery Trails, two interpretive loops over a reclaimed mine now covered in a mixed forest of aspen and spruce. The longer of the two passes a lookout over the Syncrude development.
Continuing north three kilometers (1.9 miles) is a turn to the left that climbs to a viewpoint over a herd of 300 bison. The road then parallels a reclamation pond to the Giants of Mining exhibit, comprising some of the original machinery used in oil sands development. This is the beginning of the Syncrude spread, and as the road loops around the pond, you begin to get a feel for the scope of the operation.
Around 55 kilometers (34 miles) from Fort McMurray, the road forks. To the left is Fort McKay, and to the right Highway 63 crosses the Athabasca River and continues 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) to a dock. Here, supplies such as petroleum and building materials are loaded onto barges and transported downstream (north) to remote communities such as Fort Chipewyan.
This is the end of the summer road. Between December and March, a winter road is built over the frozen muskeg and river 225 kilometers (140 miles) to Fort Chipewyan and up the Slave River to Fort Smith in the Northwest Territories.
© Andrew Hempstead, from Moon Western Canada, 3rd Edition