It's still a great adventure
So, you are wondering about driving the Alaska Highway. Perhaps you are asking yourself:
What are the road conditions? When is the best month to go? How much time is needed?
Should I drive the highway and cruise home aboard an Alaska ferry? Is gasoline available all along the highway -- and how about camping and lodging? What items should an emergency kit include?
The Alaska Highway, nicknamed the Alcan Highway, is still an adventure road, but the degree of difficulty has eased sharply in recent years as more and more sections have been straightened and paved.
Today, almost all of the two-lane highway is surfaced with asphalt. But its no freeway. There still are stretches where the highway is narrow and curvy, where it lacks center lines and ample shoulders. Also, watch out for sudden loose-gravel breaks where the pavement has failed or is under repair. Sometimes the gravel gaps are marked with little, red flags; sometimes they arent. And that asphalt paving can ripple like a roller coaster track in places where frost heaves are caused by seasonal freezing and thawing of the ground.
Maintainence crews do their best to patch the annual outbreak of frost heaves, but its a never-ending, high-cost job. Long dry spells can make the gravel portions of the road dusty, and if it's extremely dry, you may have washboard and roughness problems. Drive with your headlights on at all times as it is easier for oncoming vehicles to see you.
For those travelers with vehicles in good condition and who drive sensibly, the Alaska Highway is a pleasure, not an ordeal.
For sure, the modern Alaska Highway is a far cry from the pioneer road that was cut through the bush during World War II by Army Corps of Engineers units. That was a muddy, twisting, single-lane trail fit only for trucks and bulldozers. Today's highway is mostly smooth going all the way. In Canada, it's paved or packed gravel with a tar base, which makes for a smooth ride. The Alaska Highway is entirely paved in Alaska.
An upgrading process has been under way ever since the road was created, and considering the regions weather and difficult terrain, todays Alaska Highway is a wonder of the north.
Some people still have the perception that theyre going to be driving up through the wilderness and they need 17 spare tires and armor plates to punch their way through, says Lynn Gabriel, deputy director of the Great Alaska Highways Society. We want people to know that you dont need a surplus army tank.
MANY VISITORS combine Alaska Highway trips with Alaskas state ferries. Its an ideal itinerary; One way on the open road with no
Route numbers: BC Highway 97, Yukon Highway 1, Alaska Route 2
Route numbers: BC Highway 97, Yukon Highway 1, Alaska Route 2
Alaskas ferries operate on two separate routesthe mainline between Bellingham, Prince Rupert and the southeastern ports; a seperate network in the southcentral region of the state that includes stops in Valdez, Cordova, Whittier, Seward, Homer, Kodiak and other points. The two systems do no connect.
The ferries are crowded in summer, so early reservationsare essential.
Alaska Highway specifics
Delta Junction, Alaska, 98 miles south of Fairbanks, is the official northern end of the highway, but Fairbanks is the destination for most Alaska Highway motorists. The Richardson highway, in place for decades before the Alaska Highway was opened, is the route north to Fairbanks from Delta Junction.
Driving distance from Dawson Creek to Fairbanks is 1,488 miles. Distance between Seattle and Fairbanks is 2,313 miles.
The western acess route to Dawson Creek and the Alaska Highway from Seattle is by way of Interstate 5 to the BritishColumbia border, then through the Cariboo country of British Columbia to Prince George, B.C. From Prince George, the 250 mile long Hart Highway leads to Dawson Creek and milepost 0 of the Alaska Highway. Distance from Dawson Creek is 817 miles.
Approaching from the east, the access route to Dawson Creek begins in Great Falls, Mont., and extends through Calgary, Edmonton and Grande Prairie, Alberta.
DRIVING TIME: Unless you are in a hurry, allow at least 7 to 10 days for the trip from the Seattle area to Fairbanks. Double the time to allow forfishing, hiking and camping.
Suggestion: Take some extra days in Canadas uncrowded Yukon. Much of the best mountain scenery alongside the highway is in the Yukon, and the territory has a network of excellent camp grounds.
BEST SEASON: Peak season for highway travelers Is June through August, just as it is with the cruise ships that roam Alaskas waters. May, although a bit iffy on the weather, is a good time to see wildflowers along the route.
Suggestion: Consider early September, when traffic is lighter, mosquitoes are gone and leaves have turned gold.
WEATHER: Summertime weather in Alaska and the Yukon can range from cool to hot. Average high temperatures in Fairbanks, for example, are about 70 degrees in June and 72 in July. But there can be summer days where the temperature passes the 90 degree mark.
Long hours of daylight also surprise visitors. There really is a midnight sun. Fairbanks enjoys almost 24 hours of daylight in late June.
Suggestion: Northland weather, even in summer, can be unpredictable. Carry clothing for chilly, wet daysand for hot, sunny days.
Suggestion: Dont count on gasoline (or diesel) stations being open in early morning or late at night. Fill fuel tanks before pulling off the road each evening.
MECHANICAL HELP: While gas stations may be plentiful along the Alaska Highway these days, mechanics can often be 100 miles away or farther. So be sure that your vehicle is in top shape before leaving home. And a good emergency road service plan is essential, as towing services have been known to charge more than $5 a mile.
LODGING: RV parks have replaced many of the old time lodges along the Alaska Highway, but there is no shortage of motel-type accomodations. Government-operated campgrounds are available in British Columbia, Yukon Territory and Alaska, as are picnic areas. There are quite a few privately maintained campgrounds, and most lodges have space for campers.
Suggestion: Stay flexibledont bother with lodging reservations except in busy visitor centers such as Whitehorse and Fairbanks.
FOOD: Meals can be expensive along the highway. Bestfood in all 1,390 miles of the Alaska Highway is at Rikas Roadhouse, just north of Delta Junction, Alaska. Save up an appetite for home made chicken noodle soup and turkey sandwiches . Another good lunch stop is Talbot Arm Motel at Destruction Bay, in the Kluane Lake area of Yukon Territory where the chili is excellent. Also recommended arethe Westmark Toy and Fast Eddys Restaurant, also in Tok.
Suggestion: Buy groceries from time to time for light breakfasts and picnic lunches. Easier on the budget, and its a way of getting an earlier start in the morning.
SAFETY TIPS: Be sure your vehicle -- especially tires -- are in top condition. Check tire pressure frequently.
Install plastic headlight covers or a screen to protect headlights from flying gravel. Consider a wire mesh screen across the front to help prevent damage to radiators and paint.
For those who tow trailers, experts recommend a piece of plywood over the front of the trailer to shield against rocks.
If planning to drive on tributary highways especially those surfaced with gravel you might want to carry a second spare tire. Dont depend on those little donut spares to get you through long drives between garages.
Dont overload your pickup or trailer -- hard going on frost heaves which can break axles and springs.
And dont drive too late and fall asleep at the wheel. The northlands generous hours of summer daylight can be deceptive.
EMERGENCY KIT: First aid supplies, tire gauge, flares, flashlights with extra batteries, a sturdy tire jack, lug wrench, some travelers checks or cash for garages that dont take credit cards, blankets or sleeping bags for emergencies, rain gear, an extra set of car keys -- and plenty of mosquito repelent. And dont forget your fishing pole.
Reading up before you go and on the road: The best guide to the Alaska Highway (and other northern highways) is The Milepost, which is updated annually. To see the road the front window of an RV via DVD, we recommend Bob and Judy Howens "Alaska By RV."