Highway #4 - Robert Campbell Highway

Robert Campbell Highway (Watson Lake)

Photo from Robert Campbell Highway (Watson Lake)

Early Routes

In the 19th century the Liard River was a highway into the Yukon interior for the Hudson's Bay Company (H.B.Co.) traders. Robert Campbell established the first Yukon H.B.Co. trading post in 1842 at Frances Lake; four years later he built a second post at Pelly Banks on the Pelly River. Both posts were inside Kaska territory but also attracted Slavey and Mountain people, whose traditional lands were mostly in what is now the Northwest Territories.

In 1848 Campbell and his men travelled farther into the interior, paddling down the Pelly River to its confluence with the Yukon River, where they established Fort Selkirk. The Robert Campbell Highway parallels Campbell’s route for much of its length and many place names date from that time.

From the turn of the century until after World War II, First Nations people sold their furs at trading posts at Ross River, Pelly Banks, Sheldon Lake, and on the Macmillan River. A late winter visit to the posts became part of their yearly round of activities.

In the 1960s the Robert Campbell Highway was built, travelling through the traditional territory of the Kaska and Northern Tutchone people. It is 583 km/350 miles long and extends from Watson Lake to Carmacks.

“We don’t stay in one place. We travel around all over the place. Whatever we have, we share.”
- Grace Sterriah

In the Kaska worldview, "humans live on earth in concert with all other living creatures." It is possible to reconnect with the ancestors and to live with a sense of lineage where the past and the future merge with the present. (Valarie McDonnell, Remembering Mac Bob.)


This dinosaur footprint was recently discovered in the Ross River area. It was made by a hadrosaur, a duck billed dinosaur. More than 65 million years ago, hadrosaurs travelled in herds though parts of Yukon, which was then much warmer and wetter than it is now. The hadrosaur that made this footprint probably weighed about a ton; the pick shown beside it is about 70 cm (28 inches) long.


The Campbell Highway area has been one of the Yukon’s important mining regions. The lead-zinc deposits in Faro discovered in the 1960s underpinned the territory’s economy for nearly 30 years. In the mid-1990s major deposits of silver, copper and gold were found, leading to a huge staking rush. These deposits are of the volcanogenic massive sulphide (VMS) type and formed around underwater volcanoes between 360 million and 200 million years ago. In addition to VMS deposits, the area also contains coal, as well as a recently discovered emerald deposit. Serendipity played an important role in this find, as it often does in prospecting; the geologist was actually searching for VMS deposits when he found the emeralds.

Tintina Trench

The Tintina Trench is one of western North America’s most important physical features, visible even from the moon. It is a straight valley over 1500 km long that extends southeast from Alaska, across the central Yukon and continues into British Columbia. The valley overlies a fault line that is part of a global system of faults that break the earth’s outer shell into a mosaic of giant plates. It is the movement of these plates - toward, away from or parallel to each other - that produces geological phenomena like earthquakes and volcanoes. Between 55 million years ago and 40 million years ago plate movements shifted the rocks on either side of the Trench in opposite lateral directions, displacing the rocks on the southwest edge of the trench more than 400 km to the northwest.

Frances Lake

The Tu Cho (Frances Lake) area has been an important harvesting site for the Kaska people for generations. They would fish there in the summer and hunt caribou and mountain goats in the fall, activities that continue to this day. Traditional trails traversed the Kaska homeland, extending from Frances Lake as far as Ross River to the north and Liard River to the south.

The Robert Campbell Highway

The Robert Campbell Highway travels northwest from here, bisected by the Canol Road and connecting with the Klondike Highway North at Carmacks. It was constructed in the late 1960s as part of the federal government’s Roads to Resources program.

The region it traverses is rich in wildlife, mountains, lakes and rivers as well as minerals. For much of its length the highway follows the historic Pelly River, used by fur traders in the 19th century. The area is also rich in human history: the Campbell and Canol highways travel through the traditional territories of four First Nations: the Liard First Nation, the Ross River Dena Council, the Teslin Tlingit Council and the Little Salmon Carmacks First Nation.

Canol: Road to Oil

During World War II the United States government developed the Canol - or Canadian Oil - pipeline project to provide a secure supply of oil for its operations in Alaska. The pipeline was designed to bring oil from Norman Wells, in the Northwest Territories, to a refinery in Whitehorse, Yukon. Construction began in secret in 1942 and continued for two years. An 825 km/515 mile road link along the pipeline was also built, from Johnson’s Crossing on the Alaska Highway, through Ross River - on what is now the Robert Campbell Highway - to the NWT border.

Workers had to contend with frozen antifreeze in winter and mosquitoes in summer. The harsh terrain and permafrost also added to their difficulties. The controversial project cost many times its initial estimate, tied up valuable workers and resources, and produced very little oil. The road and pipeline were abandoned soon after they were finished, although part of the road re-opened in 1950.

The North Canol, from Ross River to the NWT border, is a “drive at your own risk” highway. It is accessible to all-terrain vehicles, hikers and cyclists. The South Canol, from the Alaska Highway to Ross River, is open to general traffic.

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