Western Canada can be described in one word—vast. The two provinces and two territories have a total land area of 3,440,000 square kilometers (1,327,000 square miles), approximately half the size of the continental United States. The Northwest Territories alone is double the size of Texas, yet has a population of just 43,000. British Columbia is Canada’s third largest province (behind only Ontario and Quebec). Covering 948,596 square kilometers (366,300 square miles), it’s four times larger than Great Britain, 2.5 times the size of Japan, larger than all U.S. states except Alaska, and larger than California, Oregon, and Washington combined.
Western Canada is a mostly arbitrary designation for Canada’s western regions. This travel guide covers the two western provinces—British Columbia and Alberta—and two territories—the Northwest Territories and the Yukon.
Mountainous terrain dominates western Canada, a continuation of the same geology that runs along the entire western margin of the United States. The mountain ranges run in a north–south direction, and are separated by a series of parallel valleys. In northern regions, the ranges are lower, wider, and less well defined; they rise to vast plateaus, then give way to endless rolling hills, and eventually to endless arctic tundra and the Canadian Shield.
The steep Coast Mountains, an unbroken chain extending for 1,500 kilometers (930 miles), rise abruptly from the Pacific Ocean and form a stunning backdrop to the seaside city of Vancouver and a winter playground for skiers and snowboarders at Whistler/Blackcomb alpine resort. Their high point, and the highest peak entirely within British Columbia, is 4,016-meter (13,200-foot) Mount Waddington. A northern extension of the Coast Mountains is the St. Elias Range, which pass through the southwestern corner of the Yukon. These remote mountains include 6,050-meter (19,800-foot) Mount Logan, Canada’s highest peak.
East of the Coast Mountains are the Columbia Mountains, the collective name for the Cariboo, Monashee, Selkirk, and Purcell Ranges. These ranges rise to their highest points in the south, where they’re separated by deep valleys and long lakes. To the east of these ranges are the Canadian Rockies, reaching a high point at the summit of 3,954-meter (13,000-foot) Mount Robson. Creating a natural border between the provinces of British Columbia and Alberta, the Rockies north of the 49th parallel don’t rise to the heights they do in the United States, but the national parks of Banff, Jasper, Kootenay, and Yoho combine to create one of the most magnificent and famous travel destinations on the face of this planet.
Western Canada has around 50,000 named lakes, rivers, and streams that lie in dozens of drainage basins separated from each other by divides, simply high points of land. The most important of these is the Continental Divide, atop the Rocky Mountains and the dividing line between British Columbia and Alberta. From this point all rivers flow either west to the Pacific Ocean or east to the Atlantic and north to the Arctic Oceans.
British Columbia’s largest watershed is drained by the Fraser River. With its headwaters at the Continental Divide in Mount Robson Provincial Park, this mighty river drains almost 25 percent of the province on its 1,368-kilometer (850-mile) journey to the Pacific Ocean at Vancouver. The Fraser is not the province’s longest river, though. That title belongs to the Columbia River, which follows a convoluted course through southeastern British Columbia before crossing the U.S. border and draining into the Pacific Ocean in Oregon, 2,000 kilometers (1,240 miles) from its source.
Central and most of southern Alberta are drained by the Saskatchewan River System, which eventually flows into Hudson Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. Its two notable tributaries are the North Saskatchewan River, originating from the Columbia Icefield, and the Red Deer River, which flows through “Dinosaur Valley.”
The Peace River, the only river system to cut across the Canadian Rockies, flows in a northeasterly direction from British Columbia and through northern Alberta to the Mackenzie River System (10th longest in the world), whose waters flow through the Northwest Territories to the Arctic Ocean. Also in the north is the famous Yukon River. Although its headwaters are high in the Coast Mountains, it heads north then west on a convoluted course to the Bering Sea.
© Andrew Hempstead, from Moon Western Canada, 3rd Edition