Driving the Alaska Highway
From British Columbia through the Canadian Yukon into Alaska and Fairbanks, it's a safe and relaxed adventure by car that you'll remember forever.
The hardest thing about traveling the Alaska Highway (better known as "the Alcan") is deciding what to gawk at. In the middle of the road are animals that look like a cross between a goat and a sheep designed by Walt Disney. The mountains all around are a stark, rocky brown, as if the glaciers pulled back just minutes ago. More surprising still is the color of the lake behind the sheep. It's a shade you could only get if you melted a clear-blue-sky day with a box of purple crayons. It's a color that couldn't possibly exist in nature, but there it is: Muncho Lake, British Columbia, right about the halfway point of the Alcan. This is why you come this way: simply to be amazed in the last great frontier. And all the while, in the center of the highway, a Rocky Mountain variety of wild sheep lick salt off the pavement.
You and the Alcan
Once you've done the Alcan, you have permanent bragging rights any time your friends start to talk about road trips.
You can drive the Alaska Highway in under a week, but what fun is that? It's made for lingering, fishing in clear lakes, hiking on moose trails through spruce forests, or just spending quiet days watching the sun hit glaciers.
The practicalities are simple, and the trip can be surprisingly cheap-made all the more affordable by the fact that two thirds of the road is actually in Canada, and exchange rates are very, very good. Right now, you can get nice hotel rooms for under US$50, fine meals for US$10. Except for the price of gas-which is significantly higher in Canada-the Canadian portion of the trip is a bargain. There are small, friendly towns and regular services along the way. Whether your taste runs to intimate hotels or remote, pristine campgrounds, you'll find the nights are as good as the days.
The Alcan, then and now
The Alcan was built over eight frenzied months, from March 9 to November 20, 1942, to protect the northwest flank of the continent from Japanese invasion. War fears meant the road had to be built, no matter what. During the peak of construction, more than 17,000 men were using over 7,000 cars, trucks, and dozers to build the road, putting up 133 bridges along the way.
Conditions were a little less than ideal. An ad for workers placed in the New York Times read, "Temperatures will range from 90 degrees above zero to 70 degrees below zero. Men will have to fight swamps, rivers, ice, and cold. Mosquitoes, flies, and gnats will not only be annoying but will cause bodily harm."
The highway has never shaken its early, rough reputation, but everything has changed for the better. Today, the entire length of the Alcan is paved, and highway speeds are not a problem. I've driven the road in everything from a subcompact car to a hugely overpowered motorcycle and have never had any trouble. As far as condition goes, the Alaska Highway is no different from any blue highway in the lower 48. And as far as scenery goes, there's nothing like it in the world.
The first stretch of the road is through low, rolling hills, covered in trees to the horizon, but the real northern scenery begins about 370 miles north of Dawson Creek, at Stone Mountain Provincial Park and the turquoise waters of Muncho Lake Provincial Park (Mile 454). The rivers run north here, crystal clear, their banks lined with berry bushes.
Liard Hot Springs Provincial Park (Mile 496) was the most popular posting during highway construction because of the 127-degree Alpha pool. It's still churning out hot water, as is the 104-degree Beta pool. Thanks to the warm air, the ecosystem around the pools is an oasis, with more than 250 species of plants, 14 of them as far north as they grow. Look for orchids, ferns, and the carnivorous butterwort. The pools are free, but if you're hoping to stay at the nearby campground (CAD$12/US$8), stake out your spot early: This is still a highway must-stop.
Leave British Columbia and enter the Yukon near Watson Lake (about Mile 630). The main reason to stop here is for the signpost forest: more than 60,000 signs-road signs, name signs, markers, and mottoes-from around the world. The first sign was put up in 1942 by a homesick G.I., and now the stop here is a tradition. The hotels in Watson Lake are pricey, so after a visit to the signpost forest and the multimedia aurora borealis presentation at the Northern Lights Centre (CAD$10/US$6.60), it's time to hit the road again.
The Yukon River, the lifeblood of both Alaska and the Yukon, comes into view at Mile 895. During the time of the Klondike Gold Rush, hopeful miners would build rough boats-rafts, really-above Skagway, Alaska, and float north on the river, hoping to strike it rich. Miners would get as far as the rapids at Whitehorse (Mile 915) and then transfer to riverboats for the last stretch to Dawson City (not to be confused with Dawson Creek, where the Alcan begins). At the height of the gold rush, as many as 100,000 people-30,000 in one year alone-passed through Whitehorse on their way to the Yukon gold fields. Today, Whitehorse is the capital of the Yukon Territory, and its main attraction is the dry-docked Klondike II, a restored stern-wheel riverboat that ran the river for more than 15 years. In its prime, it carried 300 tons of cargo and 75 passengers for the 36-hour run to the gold fields (tours CAD$4/US$2.65). Right outside of town, check out the Yukon Beringia Interpretive Center (CAD$6/US$4), which shows what the Yukon was like during the Ice Age: scimitar cats (a saber-toothed tiger with attitude), short-faced bears (bigger than grizzlies), and a whole lot of cold.