Driving the Alaska Highway (casually called the “Alcan”) is the ultimate road trip: more than 1400 miles of road, filled with mountain ranges,spindly boreal forests, po-dunk diner-and-gas-station towns, bison herds, scenic detours and flying gravel. Constructed as a link between Alaska and the contiguous US, the highway was completed in 1943, though the regions harsh environment forces nearly-constant upkeep.
If you decide you need a vehicle in Alaska, which is wise for extended stays considering the lack of decent transportation and the vast expanse of the state, you’ll need to get it up here. You’ve got three options: put your car on a barge and fly up, drive your car onto the ferry and ride up, or drive the Alaska highway.
The last option is likely the least expensive, and gives you a sense of just how remote Alaska is. Though the Alaska highway officially starts in Dawson Creek, Canada, and ends in Delta Junction, Alaska, your drive will be much longer. With gravel sections, frost heaves, inclement weather, and long stretches between towns, it’s important that you’re fully prepared for the unique conditions of driving to Alaska.
- First, when planning your road trip make sure you give yourself enough time. You’ll likely be averaging less than 60 miles per hour on the trip – count on 40mph when you calculate your driving time. I’ve driven the Anchorage-Seattle route five times, and each trip has taken me at least three days; it’s around 52 hours of driving. On these drives I’ve encountered snow, road construction that held me up for at least an hour, full hotels, and a dead iPod battery that left me in radio silence for hours.
- Even if you’re planning on staying in roadside motels — and have booked rooms in advance — bring a warm sleeping bag in case you break down. My first two trips I got rooms at the last minute, but now I usually set my tent up on the side of the road, out of view, somewhere. It’s much cheaper and I’m less tempted to sleep in and get the day’s driving started later.
Ditto for food; consider making up a batch of sandwiches before you leave so you’ll have something besides Doritos to dip into while driving.
- Make the usual preparations such as checking your oil, filling your tires, making sure your spare tire is full and that your car is in good shape.
- Have a detailed map so that you can gauge your next gas stop. Remember that from September to May, many small gas stations and motels close for the season. Your best bet is to fill up whenever you come across a gas station.
No trip up the Alcan is complete without a soak at Liard Hot Springs. An almost ethereal environment, with turquoise soaking pools, gentle waterfalls, and steam blurring the leafy green trees above, Liard feels worlds away from the endless highway.
A long, scenic side trip is up the Stewart-Cassiar Highway, which winds 450 miles east of the Alcan. The Cassiar is narrower and than the Alaska highway, twistier and with fewer services. However, a cool detour (from the detour) is the border downs of Stewart and Hyder. These little towns sit next each other from across the Canadian-American border, and the only access to the American Hyder is either threw Stewart or up the narrow, 70-mile Portland Canal.
For more dispatches from the 49th state, click here!