The Alaska Highway
Constructed as a military freight road during World War II to link Alaska to the Lower 48, the Alaska Highway -- also known as the Alcan Highway, and Hwy. 97 in British Columbia -- has become something of a pilgrimage route for recent retirees.
Strictly speaking, the Alaska Highway starts at Mile 1 marker in Dawson Creek, on the eastern edge of British Columbia, and travels north and west for 2,242km (1,393 miles) to Delta Junction, in Alaska, passing through the Yukon along the way. The Richardson Highway (Alaska Rte. 4) covers the additional 158km (98 miles) from Delta Junction to Fairbanks.
Popular wisdom states that if you drive straight out, it takes 3 days between Dawson Creek and Fairbanks. However, this is a very long winding road, and RV traffic is heavy. If you try to keep yourself to a 3-day schedule, you'll have a miserable time.
What to Expect
Summer is the only opportunity to repair the road, so construction crews really go to it; you can count on lengthy delays and some very rugged detours. Visitor centers along the way get notifications of daily construction schedules and conditions, so stop for updates, or follow the links to "Road Conditions" from the website www.themilepost.com. You can also call tel. 867/456-7623 for 24-hour highway information.
Although there's gas at most of the communities that appear on the road map, most close up early in the evening, and gas prices can be substantially higher than in, say, Edmonton or Calgary. You'll find 24-hour gas stations and plenty of motel rooms in the towns of Dawson City, Fort St. John, Fort Nelson, Watson Lake, and Whitehorse.
Try to be patient when driving the Alaska Highway. In high season, the entire route, from Edmonton to Fairbanks, is one long caravan of RVs. Many people have their car in tow, a boat on the roof, and several bicycles chained to the spare tire. Thus encumbered, they lumber up the highway; loath (or unable) to pass one another. These convoys of RVs stretch on forever, the slowest of the party setting the pace for all.
Driving the Alaska Highway
This overview of the Alaska Highway is not meant to serve as a detailed guide for drivers. For that, you should purchase the annual Alaska Milepost (www.themilepost.com), which offers exhaustive, mile-by-mile coverage of the trip (and of other road trips into the Arctic of Alaska and Canada).
The route begins (or ends) at Dawson Creek, in British Columbia. Depending on where you join the journey, Dawson Creek is a long 590km (367-mile) drive from Edmonton or a comparatively short 406km (252 miles) from Prince George on Hwy. 97. Dawson Creek is a natural place to break up the journey, with ample tourist facilities. If you want to call ahead to ensure a room, try the Ramada Limited Dawson Creek, 1748 Alaska Ave. (tel. 800/663-2749 or 250/782-8595).
From Dawson Creek, the Alaska Highway soon crosses the Peace River and passes through Fort St. John, in the heart of British Columbia's far-north ranch country. The highway continues north, parallel to the Rockies. First the ranches thin, and then the forests thin. Moose are often seen from the road.
From Fort St. John to Fort Nelson, you'll find gas stations and cafes every 65 to 80km (40-50 miles), though lodging options are pretty dubious. Fort Nelson is thick with motels and gas stations; because it's hours from any other major service center, this is a good place to spend the night. Try the Fort Nelson Travelodge Hotel, 4711 50th Ave. S. (tel. 888/515-6375 or 250/774-3911).
At Fort Nelson, the Alaska Highway turns west and heads into the Rockies; from here, too, graveled Liard Highway (B.C. Hwy. 77; Northern Territories Hwy. 7) continues north to Fort Liard and Fort Simpson, the gateway to Nahanni National Park, a very worthy side trip.
From Fort Nelson, the Alaska Highway through the Rockies is mostly narrow and winding -- and likely to be under construction. Once over the Continental Divide, the Alaska Highway follows tributaries of the Liard River through Stone Mountain and Muncho Lake provincial parks. Rustic lodges are scattered along the road. The lovely log Northern Rockies Lodge, at Muncho Lake (tel. 800/663-5269 or 250/776-3481; www.northern-rockies-lodge.com), offers lakeside lodge rooms, log cabins, and campsites.
At the town of Liard River, stop and stretch your legs or go for a soak in the two deep-forest soaking pools at Liard Hot Springs. The boardwalk out into the mineral-water marsh is pleasant even if you don't have time for a dip.
As you get closer to Watson Lake in the Yukon, you'll notice that mom-and-pop gas stations along the road will advertise that they have cheaper gas than at Watson Lake. Believe them, and fill up: Watson Lake is an unappealing town whose extortionately priced gas is probably its only memorable feature. The truth in advertising award goes to A Nice Motel (tel. 867/536-7222), a very nicely furnished lodging that's easy to miss behind the local Petro Canada gas station at 609 Frank Trail, where you sign in for the motel. Don't worry -- the rooms are easily the best in Watson Lake.
The long road between Watson Lake and Whitehorse travels through forests and rolling hills to Teslin and Atlin lakes, where the landscape becomes more mountainous and the gray clouds of the Gulf of Alaska's weather systems hang menacingly on the horizon. Whitehorse is the largest town along the route of the Alaska Highway, and unless you're in a great hurry, plan to spend at least a day here.
Hope for good weather as you leave Whitehorse; the trip past Kluane National Park is one the most beautiful parts of the entire route. Tucked into the southwestern corner of the Yukon, a 2-hour drive from Whitehorse, these 22,015 sq. km (8,500 sq. miles) of glaciers, marshes, mountains, and sand dunes are unsettled and virtually untouched -- and designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Bordering on Alaska in the west, Kluane contains Mount Logan and Mount St. Elias, respectively the second- and third-highest peaks in North America. (Denali is the highest.)
Because Kluane is largely undeveloped, casual exploration is limited to a few day-hiking trails and aerial sightseeing trips. The vast expanse of ice and rock in the heart of the wilderness is well beyond striking range of the average outdoor enthusiast. The area's white-water rapids are world-class but, likewise, not for the uninitiated. For more information on recreation in Kluane, see the website at www.pc.gc.ca/eng/pn-np/yt/kluane/index.aspx.
After Kluane, the Alaska Highway edges by Kluane Lake before passing Beaver Creek and crossing over into Alaska. From the border to Fairbanks is another 481km (299 miles).