To begin the Alaska leg of our journey, we first needed to get there. We could fly, though that method isn’t in keeping with our goal to experience the Greatest American Road Trip. We could ferry Wally the Airstream from Washington State northbound through the Inside Passage, a very popular option for the beautiful scenery along the northern Pacific Coast that it provides. Or we could travel the Alaskan Highway—a highway of dreams for road trippers. The two-lane highway winds 1,520 miles from Dawson Creek in British Columbia (about 825 miles northeast of Seattle) to Fairbanks, Alaska. It is perhaps one of the most beloved routes to take to get into the great state of Alaska, also known as The Last Frontier.
The Alaska Highway was built in 1942 as a result of the bombing of Pearl Harbor the year before. The American government and military feared an overland invasion by the Japanese of the Aleutian Islands, which sits just 1,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean from Japan. American engineers planned and constructed the Alaska-Canadian Military Highway to provide a main vein from the contiguous United States into Alaska if Japanese forces entered in on foot. It was then called the Alcan Highway – The Alcan, a conjunction of Alaska-Canada.
The highway is known for its ruggedness—at one time the unpaved road had wild turns, steep grades up to 25%, and dirt and gravel breaks that would kick up thick clouds of dust, quashing visibility and revealing cracks in car windshields after the dust had settled. It is still rugged (sure enough, we got a crack in our windshield that remains today); though times have changed for the storied highway. Engineers have been working to improve it continuously since the mid-20th century to benefit travelers, and to improve the time-distance continuum for truckers bringing supplies into Alaska. Today, it is today almost entirely paved.
It took us four days driving 12-hour stretches to make our way from North Cascades National Park in Washington to Skagway, Alaska, from where we would fly by bush plane to hit our first park in Alaska: Glacier Bay. For most, traveling the highway and exploring the vicinity is the adventure itself and endures on average seven to ten days. At waypoints, there are museums, restaurants, historic gold rush sites, and wilderness areas ripe for fisherman, paddlers, hikers, and campers.
As mentioned before, we pushed through the area quickly… but there is no love lost; we experienced many amazing things along the way. We saw countless black bear, bison (the most beastly of all animals, they are huge!), caribou, moose, stone sheep and incredible bird life. Vast rivers roll right alongside the highway, impeccably clear and vibrant in color, and all around is this incredible wilderness totally unique to the region. And best of all for us during this very long and logistically intense adventure: there are no off-ramps, no choices to be made of which way to go, the road just travels on endlessly through beautiful stretches of western Canada, the Yukon Territory, arriving finally in Alaska. People often ask us when we get to enjoy off-time this year, and we really don't to be perfectly honest – but on long drive days we have a chance to talk, listen to music and podcasts, and read about upcoming parks on our itinerary.
So with that, onto Alaska! With eight of the most remote national parks in the system, it's about to get wild. First up: Glacier Bay.
Tips for travelers on the Alaska Highway:
· MILEPOST is considered the bible for road trippers traveling the Alaska Highway. It is the most comprehensive tool for planning and navigating that there is, offering four basic routes as a starting point to work from, and providing details on everything in between.
· There are nearly 2,000 kilometers (kilometers, remember, half of the road is in Canada) between the starting point at Dawson Creek and the end point in Fairbanks. The best advice we got and can pay forward is to fuel up nearly every time you see a gas station – even if you are full 3/4 of a tank. You never know when gas stations along the route will be closed for any number of reasons, as we found to be true on our overland journey.
· Make sure you have a full tank of wiper fluid. While the highway is mostly paved, there are still gravel breaks that will cloud up your windshield in an instant. Not only is this a hazard in seeing other motorists, but wildlife is everywhere – and you don’t want to be the person to hit an endangered bison or any other wild creature.
· Because there are few services on the highway, including emergency services, stopping to offer help to failed motorists is generally the right thing to do if you are in a position to offer assistance. Karma baby!
· Even with big advances improving the highway, bringing not one, but two spare tires is still recommended as services along the highway can be fleeting, and it is doubtful they will pop up exactly when you need them.
· If starting your adventure at the official starting point in Dawson Creek, B.C., make a stop at the symbolic sign post. When we were there to catch photo ops with Wally the Airstream, a car packed with locals drove by and shouted “welcome to Dawson Creek!” It was awesome to receive such a warm welcome before starting out this very intense leg of our journey.
· Another great stop on the famed Alaska Highway? Check out the Sign Post Forest in the Yukon Territory. With 30,000 signs from all around the world, it one of the finest road trip stops for road sign aficionados.