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 Highway 97 in British Columbia -- has become something of a pilgrimage route. The vast majority of people who make the trip are recent retirees, who take their newly purchased RVs and head up north; it's a rite of passage.
Strictly speaking, the Alaska Highway starts at the 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. As recently as 25 years ago, much of the talk of the Alaska Highway had to do with conditions of the road itself, the freak rain and snowstorms, and the far-flung gas pumps. However, for the road's 50th anniversary in 1992, the final stretches of the road were paved.
While the days of tire-eating gravel roads and extra gas cans are largely past, there are several things to consider before setting out. First, this is a very long road. Popular wisdom states that if you drive straight out, it takes 3 days between Dawson Creek and Fairbanks. But much of the road is very winding, slow-moving RV traffic is heavy, and considerable portions are under reconstruction every summer. 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; depend on lengthy delays and some very rugged detours. Visitor centers along the way get faxes 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.
While availability of gasoline isn't the problem that it once was, there are a couple of things to remember. Gas prices can be substantially higher than in, say, Edmonton or Calgary. Although there's gas at most of the communities that appear on the road map, most close up early in the evening. 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 start from, Dawson Creek is a long 590km (367-mile) drive from Edmonton or a comparatively short 406km (252 miles) from Prince George on Highway 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 Woodlands Inns and Suites (3995 50th Ave.; tel. 866/966-3466 or 250/774-6669; www.woodlandsinn.ca). At Fort Nelson, the Alaska Highway turns west and heads into the Rockies; from here, too, graveled Liard Highway (BC Hwy. 77; Northern Territories Hwy. 7) continues north to Fort Liard and Fort Simpson, the gateway to Nahanni National Park, a very worthy 284km (176-mile) side trip on an unpaved road.
A breathtaking, unspoiled wilderness of 4,766 sq. km (1,840 sq. miles) in the southwest corner of the Northwest Territory, Nahanni National Park is accessible only by foot, motorboat, canoe, or charter aircraft. Within the park, the South Nahanni River claws its path through the rugged Mackenzie Mountains, at one point, charging over incredible Virginia Falls, at 105m (344 ft.), twice as high as Niagara Falls and carrying more water. Below the falls, the river surges through one of the continent's deepest gorges, with canyon walls up to 1,333m (4,373 ft.) high. For most travelers, a flight-seeing day trip to the falls is adventure enough, though white-water raft trips from the base of the falls through the canyon (requiring 6 days or more) may be tempting to enthusiasts. South Nahanni Airways (tel. 867/695-2007; firstname.lastname@example.org); Simpson Air (tel. 867/695-2505 or www.simpsonair.ca); and Wolverine Air (tel. 888/695-2263; www.wolverineair.com), in Fort Simpson, offer charter drop-offs to various park destinations or sightseeing day trips to the falls; a 3-hour flying-only tour costs C$1,095 for up to five people, while a 5 1/2-hour flying tour with a stopover at the falls costs C$1,295 for up to three people. For a full listing of licensed rafting outfitters and for details about the park, contact Nahanni National Park (tel. 867/695-3151; http://www.pc.gc.ca/pn-np/nt/nahanni/index.aspx).
From Fort Nelson, the Alaska Highway through the Rockies is mostly narrow and winding; you can depend on finding a construction crew working along this stretch. The Rockies are relatively modest mountains in this area, not as rugged or scenic as they are farther south in Jasper National Park. 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 lodge rooms and log cabins for C$105 to C$125 and campsites for C$35.
At the town of Liard River, stop and stretch your legs or go for a soak at Liard Hot Springs. The provincial parks department maintains two nice soaking pools in the deep forest; 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 Belvedere Motor Hotel (609 Frank Trail; tel. 867/536-7714) is the best spot to spend the night, with a restaurant and coffee shop on-site and rooms starting at C$89.
The long road between Watson Lake and Whitehorse travels through rolling hills and forest 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. See the Whitehorse section (below) for lodging suggestions.
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.
Because Kluane is largely undeveloped and is preserved as a wilderness, casual exploration of Kluane is limited to a few day-hiking trails and aerial sightseeing trips on small aircraft and helicopters. The vast expanse of ice and rock in the wilderness heart of Kluane is well beyond the striking range of the average outdoor enthusiast. The area's white-water rafting is world-class but likewise not for the uninitiated.
Purists may object, but the only way the average person is going to have a chance to see the backcountry of Kluane Park is by airplane or helicopter. Located at the Haines Junction airport, Trans North Helicopters (tel. 867/668-2177; www.tntaheli.com) offers a 1-hour flight into Kluane Park and over Lowell Glacier and Lowell Lake. The fare is C$319 per person, based on a minimum group of four (for a minimum total cost of C$1,276).
The park's one easy day hike is at lovely Kathleen Lake, where there's an interpreted hike which is several hundred meters of boardwalk or a longer 10 km trail along the lake's south bank. Rangers at the visitor center (Haines Junction; tel. 867/634-7250) can offer advice on other hikes; they also show an award-winning audiovisual presentation on the park. For more information on recreation in Kluane, see the website at www.pc.gc.ca/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 crossing to Fairbanks, it's another 481km (299 miles).
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.