They lie on the edge of the province’s collective memory like a dream scarce remembered; mythical and elusive, full of meaning and great beauty, yet incomprehensible to the waking mind. Impossible not to marvel at, and revel in, these are the Queen Charlotte Islands (Haida Gwaii), arguably one of the most beautiful and diverse landscapes in the world. This group of islands nestled under the Alaska panhandle is the ancestral home of the Haida – the West Coast Aboriginals who have lived here for thousands of years.
The Queen Charlotte Islands were officially renamed Haida Gwaii in December 2009 as part of an historic reconciliation agreement between the Haida Nation and the province of British Columbia. Haida Gwaii was created as an alternative name for the islands to acknowledge the history of the Haida Nation. The name Haida Gwaii translates as “islands of the people” in the Haida language.
According to Haida legend, Haida Gwaii is the place where time began. There is an older name for this place, a name that comes from the mists of time and seems to be the most appropriate name of all: Xhaaidlagha Gwaayaai – Islands at the Boundary of the World. Certainly it is not hard to miss the spiritual, even mystical nature of the place. The unusual and abundant flora and fauna that thrive in this Galapagos of the North and the marine and wildlife diversity of the surrounding waters and forests make it an ecological marvel.
There are 1,884 islands in the archipelago, a mixture of snow-top mountains and fiords that plunge into the sea, mist-enshrouded forests and windswept sandy beaches. The seven largest of the islands are – from north to south – Langara, Graham, Moresby, Louise, Lyell, Burnaby, and Kunghit Island. They rise as peaks of a submerged mountain chain, with the tallest peaks perpetually capped in snow. Just 2 or 3 kilometres offshore, the continental shelf falls away dramatically to the immense depths of the Pacific Ocean. Haida Gwaii is the most active earthquake area in Canada. Natural landslides are a common occurrence, and scarred mountainsides are visible from the fjord-like inlets. The total land area of Haida Gwaii is approximately 3,840 square miles; 156 miles (250 km) from north to south.
Haida Gwaii has been home to the Haida people for as long as oral history and archaeology have recorded occupation of the islands – at least 7,000 years. At least 14,000 people have lived in over 126 known village sites. Following first contact with Europeans, the population plummeted to 589 by 1911, all resident in either Skidegate or Old Masset. Today, the Haida Gwaii islands are less populated, at 6,000 people, than they were a century ago when Haida communities thrived along the shores. Today, two out of three Haida live off-island, many of whom are planning to return.
The islands were the first place in British Columbia discovered and recorded by Spanish explorer Juan Perez in July 1774. Fur traders followed a decade later and were the only visitors for the next 100 years, with a major impact on Haida culture. In the 18th and 19th centuries the area was a thriving fur trading centre, as the Europeans arrived in huge sailing ships to trade in the Haida villages.
The islands were named after HMS Queen Charlotte, Lord Howe’s flagship named in honour of Queen Charlotte, wife of King George III. Dispatched by King George’s Sound Company to trade in sea otter furs between the Pacific coast of America and China, Captain George Dixon named the islands after his vessel in the summer of 1787.
There is a continuum of rich and lively history here that belies the quiet wilderness of the islands today. The people still make their living in traditional ways – off the land. Each island community has its own unique features that reflect the richness of the culture, geography, and history. A microcosm of the British Columbia coast, these sparsely populated, beautiful islands offer an escape to a rough-edge paradise. There are countless beaches, streams, fishing holes, coves, and ancient First Nation villages to explore. Many unique subspecies of flora and fauna share these islands with the residents. Visitors to these enchanting islands will never forget their visit.
In spite of modern transportation and communication, the islands are still relatively isolated, an attraction in itself, and recreation and native culture are the main attractions. Sport fishing, hiking, camping, kayaking, boating, whale watching, beachcombing and sightseeing are the major recreational activities.
Haida Gwaii is largely a resource-based economy. The main industries are logging, commercial fishing, mining, and tourism. The local economy is heavily dependent upon the forest industry, located primarily on the east and west sides of Graham Island, with a smaller portion on northwest Moresby Island. The timber supply area is around half a million hectares of western hemlock (49%), western red cedar (30%), Sitka spruce (21%), and yellow cedar (less than 1%). Salmon, herring, halibut, black cod, and crabs are the main products in commercial fisheries. In addition to these industries, employment is also high in the service industries and government, which employs 32% of island residents.
Location: Haida Gwaii is located in British Columbia, west of the northern BC town of Prince Rupert. Two Islands, Graham Island to the north and Moresby Island to the south, comprise the majority of the land mass.
View map of the area
Graham Island is the largest of the Haida Gwaii islands, covering 2,500 square miles (6,500 sq km), and is the most accessible and populated of the islands, with most of the significant communities.
Moresby Island is the smaller and less accessible of the two main islands, with less than 18 miles (30 km) of public roads.
The hamlet of Sandspit, on the northeastern tip of Moresby Island, is the Gateway to Gwaii Haanas. The only settlement on Moresby Island, Sandpit is the location of the main airport for Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands). Sandspit’s history goes back to at least one ancient Haida Village, Kil, which was situated east of Haans Creek. The first settlers at Sandspit established farms and ranches around the grassy flats.
Queen Charlotte City
The first registered town site on the Islands, the laid-back fishing village of Queen Charlotte City is located along the shores of Bearskin Bay, 5 kilometres west of the ferry terminal at Skidegate Landing. Known as Queen Charlotte or just Charlotte by the locals, the administrative centre for Haida Gwaii is a small thriving village of government offices, a hospital and a variety of shops and accommodations.
The Haida community of Skidegate, on the shores of Rooney Bay, was known for years as Skidegate Mission. Located 2km north of the ferry terminal at Skidegate Landing, Skidegate is the cultural centre of the Haida, where the visitor can examine art and cultural artifacts first hand. The two ferry docks at Skidegate Landing serve ferries to Prince Rupert on the BC mainland and to Alliford Bay on Moresby Island.
Originally a Haida fish camp, and eventually established by ranchers and farmers from England, Tlell is now home to a colourful collection of artisans, earning the reputation of being the heart of the islands’ art community. Located 43 kilometres north of the ferry terminal at Skidegate Landing, Tlell is a scattered settlement along the east coast of Graham Island, marking the southeast corner of Naikoon Provincial Park.
At the estuary of the Yakoun River, on Masset Inlet, the logging and fishing village of Port Clements is a wonderful place to observe the giant trees of the temperate rainforest. Established in 1907, Port Clements became the first incorporated town in the Queen Charlotte Islands in 1914. Port Clements became the supply centre for giant spruce trees used in the construction of First World War military airplanes.
Located off Masset Sound on Graham Island, south of Port Clements, the logging camp of Juskatla was established on Mamin Bay in Juskatla Inlet in the 1940s, to supply spruce for warplanes.
The small village of Masset is the largest town on Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands). Located a few kilometres south of the Haida village of Old Masset, at the northern end of Graham Island, Masset is the northern gateway to Naikoon Park.
The ecologically unique Masset Inlet is a large protected saltwater inlet with a rocky shoreline located to the south of Masset Sound in the centre of Graham Island. Connected to Dixon Entrance by Masset Sound, Masset Inlet features many rivers, estuaries and bays, including Juskatla Inlet and Delkatla and Kumdis Sloughs.
The Haida village of Old Masset, also known as Haida, is located on the east shore of Masset Inlet, on the site of three ancient Haida town sites. Old Masset is the administrative seat of the Council of the Haida Nation, and is home to about 600 Haida, including some well-known native carvers.
The fabulous North Beach in Naikoon Provincial Park is accessed from Masset, along scenic Tow Hill Road that cuts through a rain forest. At North Beach, according to Haida legend, raven first brought people into the world by coaxing them out of a clam shell, making North Beach the site of creation.
At the head of Virago Sound on the north coast of Haida Gwaii is pristine Naden Harbour, the remote location favoured by fishing lodges that attract sports anglers to the world-class salmon fishing offered by the islands.
The remote and rugged Langara Island at the northwestern tip of the archipelago has a couple of small native villages, ancient rain forest, an impressive colony of seabirds, and a beautifully restored 1913 lighthouse. Langara has luxurious fishing lodges, and sportfishing companies abound, offering fabulous salmon and halibut fishing.
Amidst unparalleled scenic beauty, and some of the most rugged shoreline on the west coast of the Haida Gwaii islands, Port Louis serves as a comfortable home base for adventurers seeking world-class sports fishing.
Rennell Sound is the largest sound on the west coast of Haida Gwaii, cutting 18 miles (29 km) into Graham Island, the larger of the two main islands that comprise Haida Gwaii. Bounded by the snowcapped Queen Charlotte Mountains, the deep inlet offers wonderful recreational and sightseeing opportunities. The rugged coastline, beautiful crescent beaches and excellent beachcombing along the gravel shoreline, great hiking, camping, fishing and kayaking make the trip very worthwhile.
The beautiful Kano Inlet is located on the west coast of Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands), near the southwest end of Graham Island. There are no communities in this area, which includes the western portion of the Queen Charlotte Mountains.
On the north coast of Moresby Island is Alliford Bay, the southern terminus of the important inter-island ferry between Alliford Bay and Skidegate Landing on Graham Island. Alliford Bay is located a 15-minute drive from the airport at Sandspit.
The ancient logging site at Moresby Camp is the closest road access to Gwaii Haanas National Park. Moresby Camp serves as a floatplane and kayak departure point for those venturing into the park, 30 miles (50 km) to the south.
Louise Island is enveloped by Moresby Island, Hecate Strait and other islands on the east coast of Haida Gwaii. The mountainous Louise Island is home to the ancient Haida village of Skedans, and one of the largest displays of totem poles in these mystical islands.
Kiusta and Lepas Bay
The old villages at Kiusta and Langara Island were the original trading centres for sea otter furs between the Europeans and Haida for this part of the Pacific Northwest Coast. Today, the site of the ancient Kiusta village is part of the Rediscovery Program, a youth program that encourages the young people of the province to get in touch with their cultural heritage. Some of the earliest contact between native Haida and whites occurred at Kiusta and Yaku. The first Rediscovery camp for local youth is located at Lepas Bay on the northeast tip of the Queen Charlotte Islands.
Mushrooms: Skidegate Lake is the heart of a thriving industry for the harvest and export of Chanterelle mushrooms, primarily for the Japanese market. Mushrooms are an annual, if totally unpredictable, harvest on Haida Gwaii. They only grow in second-growth timber, requiring careful management of crown lands to the benefit of both loggers and mushroom pickers. With 60 to 70% of the harvest coming out of the Skidegate Lake and Mosquito Lake areas of Moresby Island, up to 200 pickers can be working in and around Skidegate Lake during August in a bumper crop year.
Totem Poles: In June 2001, six new cedar totem poles – each 13 metres or higher, were pulled upright on the shores of Skidegate on the Queen Charlotte Islands, ancestral home of the Haida Nation. These poles are the first to be raised here since 1978. They honour six major southern Haida villages, five of which were devastated by smallpox before the 20th century.
Totem poles are wonderful examples of aboriginal art. The ancient practice of totem carving has been handed down through generations as a way of preserving the history of local native heritage as well as honouring tribal rituals and sacred spirits of people. There are many ways to experience the rich culture and native heritage of British Columbia’s most fascinating people. For your own exploration of some of the best totem poles and aboriginal art in British Columbia, embark on the Native Heritage Circle Tour.
Haida Nation: This string of islands is the ancestral home of the Haida, a nation legendary for its art. The Haida carve rare black argillite, found only on these islands, into miniature totem poles, jewelry, and boxes. A few artists’ studios may be open for you to visit, or purchase the art at one of several gift shops, including the one at the Haida Gwaii Museum. Many visitors come to the islands to see the ancient villages on Moresby Island, accessible only by boat, and reservations are necessary, before you visit any of the protected sites.
Parks and Camping: There are two large parks in Haida Gwaii; Naikoon Provincial Park in the north, and the remote Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve in the south. There are two campgrounds in Naikoon, two near Queen Charlotte City, and two in Rennell Sound. Moresby Island has campgrounds at Gray Bay, Sheldens Bay, Mosquito Lake, and Moresby Camp. There are no formal campgrounds in Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site (managed by both the Government of Canada and the Council of the Haida Nation).
Beachcombing: When you stand on the west coast of the Haida Gwaii islands, nothing lies between you and Japan except the great expanse of the North Pacific Ocean. Currents from across the ocean kiss the shores of Haida Gwaii, washing up all kinds of interesting treasure.
Fishing is the most common sport in Haida Gwaii – the Queen Charlotte Islands – and fishing is exceptional year-round fishing. Anglers are drawn by the world-class salmon fishing, as the island archipelago is the first land mass on the migratory path of the Pacific chinook, coho, and chum salmon as they journey from the Arctic feeding grounds to their spawning grounds in the Pacific Northwest. Fishing guides abound, and luxurious fishing lodges, floating lodges and sportfishing motherships provide the ultimate fishing experience in this last frontier.
Canoeing and Kayaking: The entire cluster of islands has been circumnavigated by kayak, and is open to the seafaring explorer. The southeastern side of Haida Gwaii, rife with tiny islands, secluded coves, and lots of sheltered coastline, is the most popular kayaking destination. That said, Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve is by far the most popular kayaking playground, with such destinations as Hotspring Island, Burnaby Narrows, Windy Bay, Anthony Island (Ninstints), Tanu, All Alone Stone, Rose Harbour, St. James Island, Flatrock Island, Echo Harbour…the list goes on and on. You could spend months, even years, exploring the coasts of Gwaii Haanas, stopping to investigate the many onshore and inland attractions, and still not feel that you knew the place. But that’s part of the magic and appeal of the Charlottes.
Hiking and Backpacking: There are four trails running through Naikoon Provincial Park, and hiking time ranges from a few hours to a few days. Many of the Forest Service recreational sites on Graham Island are located along beaches, with long stretches of open sand before your wandering feet. If level, sandy beaches aren’t your cup of tea, try the Sleeping Beauty Trail, which leads up to the top of Mount Genevieve near Queen Charlotte City. It’s not a long trail, but it is steep. Over on Moresby Island, The Gray Bay-Cumshewa Head Trail leads along the shoreline of Cumshewa Head, on the eastern points on Moresby.
Golf: Haida Gwaii, formerly the Queen Charlotte Islands, offers two golf courses; the par 69, 18-hole Dixon Entrance Golf & Country Club in Masset, and Willows Golf Course in Sandspit, a pulic 9-hole course carved through both exposed and forested terrain. Golf Vacations in British Columbia.
Wildlife: Haida Gwaii is rich in wildlife in the sky and sea, and on the ground. Many of the animals are native, but some – blacktail deer, elk, beavers, raccoons, and even wild cows in Naikoon Provincial Park – are introduced. Among the native species, expect to see black bears, and river otters, birds such as bald eagles, Steller’s jays, and peregrine falcons, and all kinds of ocean creatures, from grey and killer whales to jellyfish and starfish. One of the best places to see the latter is in Burnaby Narrows on the east side of Moresby Island, accessible only by boat from Moresby camp. Visitors in this area can never be sure what manner of creature will show up – a gang of Dall’s porpoises, numbering up to 300 strong, may escort you as you sail or paddle along in the southern section of Gwaii Haanas.
Because the islands are situated along the Pacific flyway, dozens of species of migrating birds stop here in spring and fall, providing a fabulous opportunities for birdwatching. A good place to go is the Delkatla Wildlife Sanctuary near Masset, at the head of the Delkatla inlet. Sandhill cranes stop here in spring and fall on their migratory routes, and tundra swans stay for the winter. Dozens of other birds can be found here at different times of the year. Other common nesting spots for migrating birds are the Rose Spit and Tow Hill ecological reserves in Naikoon Provincial Park, and Yakoun River Estuary near Port Clements is also a good place for birding.
Whale Watching: No visit to Haida Gwaii will be complete without whale watching. Resident and transient killer whales can be viewed, and gray whales pass by the islands during spring as they migrate from their calving and wintering grounds in the lagoons of Baja California to their summer feeding grounds in the Bering Sea and Arctic Ocean. Humpback Whales can also be seen on the surface, engaging in spy-hopping, flipper-flapping, tail-slapping, and breaching.
Weather: The climate of the Islands is typical of British Columbia’s outer west coast – cool and wet at virtually any time of year. May, June and July are generally the driest months. The rainy season can begin as early as mid-August. The east side of the islands is considerably drier than the west, which can receive 500-800 cm of rain a year. Sea fog can be a hazard. In summer, it occurs frequently along the west coast and throughout the Houston Stewart Channel area, but less frequently on the east coast. The moderating influence of the Pacific Ocean ensures that there are no extremes of temperature, summer or winter. Average annual temperature is 8 degrees Celsius (46 degrees F).
Northwest and westerly winds prevail in summer and these can blow strongly for a lengthy period of time. These winds often funnel over the island and down the inlets of the east coast creating gusty local conditions that can be a hazard to kayakers. Storms associated with the passage of a frontal system hammer the Islands from the southeast and southwest. These occur frequently throughout the winter and are not uncommon in the summer months. There are no guarantees here, but in general, the best months for paddling are from mid-June through mid-August, October is the wettest. Along BC’s west coast, much of the rhythm of travel is determined by the BC Ferries’ schedule. Make sure you build enough time into your plans for the days you may be “weathered in” and unable to travel.
Tidal Range: In this part of the world there are two high and two low tides every 24 hours and 50 minutes. The tidal range on the east side of the islands is large, especially around the time of new moon and full moon, ranging from 4 to 8 metres (13 to 26 feet). It can make a vast difference to access to landing spots, to passage through certain areas and to choosing the best time to travel. Currents in the narrows can run up to 6 or 7 knots. These sea conditions are challenging to even the most experienced commercial boat captains. Mariners need to respect the powerful winter storms that pound the high-energy coastlines of Haida Gwaii.
Circle Tours: See the best of Northern BC and Haida Gwaii on one of the Circle Tours that capture the wonders of the north. The Inside Passage Circle Tour and the Native Heritage Circle Tour include Haida Gwaii by catching a ferry from Prince Rupert to Haida Gwaii (formerly the Queen Charlotte Islands).
Circle Tours in British Columbia.
Getting to Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands): There are only 120 kms of paved roads in the Haida Gwaii islands, and the cost of transporting your car on the ferry is high, so you could consider leaving your car behind and letting boats, foot, or taxi be your mode of transport.
Paved Highway 16 serves the two main islands, running from Sandspit to Alliford Bay on Moresby Island, continuing from Skidegate to Masset and Old Masset on Graham Island (71 miles/113 kms). Alliford Bay and Skidegate are connected by a ferry across Skidegate Inlet. On the way the highway services Port Clements, Tlell and Queen Charlotte City, the navel of the Charlottes. The logging companies have extensive road systems, principally in the plateau areas from Juskatla to Moresby, with a private road connecting Juskatla with Port Clements. Across Skidegate Inlet on Moresby Island, a logging road runs 40 kms south from Alliford Bay to Moresby Camp, or via Sandspit and Gray Bay, the first 15 kilometres of which are paved.
From Vancouver: The Charlottes are northwest of Vancouver, about 770 km by air. Year-round air service is available from Vancouver International Airport to Sandspit.
From Prince Rupert: Take the six to eight-hour ferry crossing from Prince Rupert to the Skidegate Landing Ferry Terminal on Graham Island (93 miles/135 km). BC Ferries operates 6 round-trip sailings per week during the summer months, and 3 weekly round-trips in winter. Reservations are strongly recommended. A 20-minute ferry ride connects Graham and Moresby Islands and their communities. You can also fly from Prince Rupert to Sandspit on Moresby Island.
Getting to Prince Rupert
Drive the Yellowhead Highway 16 from Prince George to Prince Rupert
Travel by VIA Rail to Prince Rupert
Sail with BC Ferries to Prince Rupert, from Port Hardy, on Vancouver Island
Alaska State Ferry to Prince Rupert from Alaska