Driving the Alaska Highway

roadtrip_app_alaska_highwayemerald, lake, yukon, territory, alaska, highway
Sdbower / Dreamstime.com

Emerald Lake, yukon territory, off the alaskan 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.

Roadside attractions

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.

Entering Alaska

Kluane/Tatshenshini-Alsek Wilderness Park complex, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the largest protected wilderness area in the world. It's so big, it has mountains over 10,000 feet that nobody has even bothered to name. Take one of the free, self-guided hikes at the Kluane National Park Visitor Center, just east of the highway, and get off the road for a little while.

Cross the Alaska border near Mile 1,200. Now's the time to fill up the gas tank, as prices take a dramatic drop on the Alaska side.

The Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge (Mile 1,223) is Alaska's first attraction. It's three quarters of a million acres of protected wetlands and mountains, and a breeding ground for trumpeter swans. By the road, you'll see stunted-looking trees leaning at odd angles: These are black spruce trees, growing in permafrost-setting their roots into permanent ice.

Tok (Mile 1,310) is Alaska's major crossroads: Stay straight for the final miles of the Alcan, or head south for Valdez, on the edge of Prince William Sound, or Anchorage, the state's largest city. Or just get off the road for the night and watch the nightly, free sled-dog demos at the Burnt Paw Motel (907/883-4121).

There's a constant battle between Delta Junction (Mile 1,422), the next town up the line, and Fairbanks, with each claiming to be the official end of the Alaska Highway. Technically, Delta Junction is it: This is where the World War II construction crews stopped, but that's only because there was already a road from here to Fairbanks-the larger town was always the goal.

In Delta Junction, you can look at the bison that range outside town, buy an official "I Drove the Alaska Highway" certificate for a buck from the Tourist Info Center (907/895-5069), or take a gander at the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, which is visible from the highway near town. Stretching more than 800 miles, from the oil fields of Prudhoe Bay to the dock at Valdez, the pipeline carries more than two million barrels of oil a day. It's 48 inches in diameter, insulated with three-and-three-quarter inches of fiberglass. All that is jacketed in galvanized steel and, in some sections, refrigerated with a brine mixture to keep the line from melting through the permafrost.

Fairbanks is the end of the line. Home to the University of Alaska, the town sits on the banks of the Nenana River, just 200 miles south of the Arctic Circle. As with any university town, the best things in life are cheap: Go to Creamer's Field for a free nature walk-over 100 bird species migrate through here-and to the University of Alaska campus to see the musk ox herd (there's a free viewing platform, or you can take the US$6 tour; call 907/474-7945 for times). Musk ox are a species as old as the woolly mammoth; their hair is eight times warmer than a sheep's, and it's soft enough to make cashmere feel like steel wool.

Road nights

Best-and cheapest-are the government-run campgrounds along the entire length of the highway. In these, you really never need to spend more than US$8 to US$12 (CAD$12 to CAD$18) per night for a place to stay. Although none have hookups for RVs, they're all clean, some have flush plumbing, and in B.C., you can buy bundles of firewood for only CAD$3.50 (US$2.30). The campgrounds are very scenic, and frequent: It's rare to go more than 30 miles or so without passing one.

Campers in B.C. should try Prophet River Wayside Provincial Park (Mile 217), or camp by the green-blue waters of the Tetsa River Provincial Park (Mile 365)-good Arctic grayling fishing, in season. In Yukon, there's the perfectly quiet Squanga Lake campground (Mile 848), or Congdon Creek (Mile 1,070), just past Kluane Lake, where rangers give free interpretive talks in summer. Once across the Alaska border, some of the best campgrounds include Tok River State Recreation Site (Mile 1,309), Lakeview (Mile 1,249, inside the Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge), or Delta State Recreation Site (Mile 267 on the Richardson Highway, a mile west of the Alcan), for views of the snow-covered peaks of the Alaska Range.

There are also privately run campgrounds all along the highway. These are usually more developed-with hot-water showers and RV hookups-and more expensive. They're also fairly interchangeable: gravel lots, trees, a few outbuildings. Figure US$15 for a tent site, US$20 to US$25 for a fully serviced RV spot. Tent campers should really stick to the government-run places, though-there you'll get more quiet, more privacy, and more grass and trees.

If camping out isn't your thing, you can find a nice hotel room for CAD$60 to CAD$105 (US$40 to US$70) in Canada, or US$75 to US$100 in Alaska. Prices do rise the further north you go.

A few of my favorite stops include Liard Hotsprings Lodge (250/776-7349; doubles from CAD$75/US$49); the basic but clean Cozy Corner, in Haines Junction (867/634-2511; doubles from CAD$73/US$48); and Burwash Landing Resort (Mile 1,093, 867/841-4441; rooms from CAD$65/US$43). In Alaska, no trip seems complete without a stop at Tok's Golden Bear (907/883-2561; US$90); and in Fairbanks, there's nothing finer than a stay in the beautifully restored train cars at the Aurora Express (907/474-0949; from US$115).

Road practicalities

Canada has a 7 percent goods and services tax, which is refundable to visitors. But there are a couple of conditions: You need to spend more than CAD$50 per receipt, and the refund, although valid on most purchases-including hotel rooms-is not good on things such as gas and car rentals. Be sure to pick up a refund flyer at any local bank or Tourist Info Centre, and save your receipts for the border crossing.

How to budget the trip depends largely on your time and inclination. A carload of people could easily travel for under US$50 a day-that's total. Keep it to one tank of gas a day, a nice campsite, and a couple of picnic meals, and you'll be enjoying the best bargain travel has to offer. If you're stretching the days out with more driving or looking for more luxurious accommodations, prices rise accordingly. Even on long days, when we ate only in restaurants before collapsing in hotels at night, we rarely spent much more than US$100 a day for two of us.

The longest stretch of highway without services is about 100 miles, in northern B.C., and it's very well posted. Most towns have good mechanics, but it can sometimes take a few days to get parts, so make sure your vehicle is in top repair. Keep an eye on tires, fluids, and anything else that could ruin your trip.

Many of the hotels, restaurants, and outfitters along the Alcan are seasonal, open only from mid-May through mid-September. If you're traveling outside the summer months, call ahead to make sure the businesses you're interested in are open.

When driving, keep your headlights on at all times. It's the law in Yukon and much of B.C., and it's a good idea besides: It's almost impossible to see a dark car coming out of a background of dark trees.

Almost anywhere along the road, you've got a good chance of seeing wildlife. Bald eagles-and 200 or so other bird species-are common, as are black bears. Grizzlies, although more scarce, come down to the road from time to time. Moose are everywhere, and there are sections of the highway where you can see Dall sheep, mountain goats, and more.

When you stop anywhere on the highway to watch animals, pull all the way off the road. Never leave the car to get a better look. Bears will just run away, and moose might charge. My wife and I once had a moose come after us because she thought our motorcycle was a threat to her calf. Trust me on this one: Watching an enraged, nine-foot-tall animal run at you is not fun.

Side trips and the round trip

It's a day's drive from Fairbanks south to Anchorage. However, it's better to spend a couple of days, stopping at Denali National Park and Preserve, home to North America's highest mountain, Mount McKinley, at 20,320 feet. If you want to camp in the park-most sites are US$6 to US$18-you'll need to make advance reservations (800/622-7275). The most coveted campsites are at Wonder Lake, 85 miles from the park entrance and only 25 miles from the base of Mount McKinley. From here, the mountain is so big, it's like camping next to a wall.

There's a loop road that runs roughly from Watson Lake, Yukon, to just outside Tok, Alaska, heading north to the mining town of Dawson City. Once the focus of wanna-be miners from around the world, today the town's still got that gold-rush vibe, with a casino, cancan shows, regular readings of Robert Service's poetry, and a bunch of 100-year-old buildings falling down. A really fun place.

The Alcan connects to the Inside Passage in two places via short roads to Skagway and Haines. Even if you've been glutted on spectacular scenery from the Alcan, the Haines Highway is an eye-opener: wide, gently curved, running between glaciers and mountain peaks before dropping down to the banks of the Chilkat River. From Haines or Skagway, you can get on the Alaska Marine Highway ferry system to points south (see the April 2003 issue of Budget Travel).

Or try British Columbia's other great highway, the Stewart-Cassiar. This goes further inland than the Alcan, starting near Prince Rupert, B.C., meeting the Alaska Highway outside Watson Lake in Yukon. The Cassiar is a little rougher than the Alcan and considerably more remote, with services in only a couple of places. Gas prices are much higher than they are on the Alcan. However, the Cassiar is shorter, quicker, and more dramatically scenic. The Cassiar offers more of the remote, wilderness experience-I've seen ten bears by the roadside before most people are up for breakfast-but it's a highway for people who are camping out. If you're looking for good hotels, stick to the Alcan.

The Alaska Highway is a road straight into the heart of the last frontier, the greatest drive on the continent.

Visitor info

Related Content