How the Alaska Highway Is Different

Sure, in the last three years we’ve taken several road-trips through picturesque mountains, with glacier-fed lakes and all manner of wildlife around us. So, how is this trip to Alaska different, at least so far? 

One Road; Everyone’s on It

We’ve just entered Yukon at Watson Lake, which is pretty much the only place you can enter this territory from the south, seeing as how there’s just one road over here. As we continue north, other roads branch off the Alaska Highway, but for the past 570 miles, this one road’s been it for nearly everyone. (There’s the Cassier Highway to the far west, but we’re coming down that after Alaska.)

In most places the famed Alaska Highway is two lanes with painted lines and pavement, but it’ll suddenly be nothing but dirt where the road has been washed out due to a landslide or flooding.  

And when signs say watch for wildlife on the road, they mean it.  We’re all like ants on a trail here, tourists of all ilks marching alongside bison grazing at the highway’s edge and bears in the shrubbery.  Everyone’s on the Highway.

Pull-offs Rule

Need to pee? Time for lunch? Want to stop for the night? There aren’t many gas stations, restaurants, hotels, anything up here (of the few, some seem to have closed during Covid).

So, just pull over.  Gravel pull-offs dot each side of the road, and all vehicles use them without hassle (just don’t pull into a side road that’s gated). 

These pull-outs are even listed in the ubiquitous Milepost book that I keep on my lap instead of my iPad while we’re traveling. There is no cell signal for days, no matter your carrier, so forget Google Maps unless you’ve downloaded each segment previously. In the Milepost book, though, nearly each mile is annotated.

It’s actually easier to navigate this way than using online maps and googling places, because I get warnings about specific wildlife that are likely to be in the road, plus historical and geographical facts, and of course notes about these helpful pull-offs.

Caravans Are the Norm

Lots of RVers travel to Alaska in groups.  You need to take resources with you because of the scarce services, so the more rigs at your disposal the more resources you have in an emergency.  Plus, it’s fun!

Tracy and Doug went fishing last night and Melanie and I learned to play Mancala, and we’ve all hung out in the trailer during the cold storms listening to music, trading stories, sharing special beers.

On the highway and in pull-offs, we see people in big Class As all together, lots of the truck campers together, Europeans traveling together in twin, fancy, off-road Overlanders.  And then weirdos like us with polar-opposite rigs. 

The Weather Is Ridiculous

Everywhere we go, locals like to say: “If you don’t like the weather, wait an hour.” Here it’s more like five minutes.  

Melanie and I were sitting on the shore of Muncho Lake, looking out at the sun on the mountains, when suddenly I see her stand up in a rush, and when I look back here comes a giant storm front bearing down on us. It poured within a few minutes, barely as we stow our stuff.

We wear tank tops under long underwear so we can strip down all the way, then put it all back on again in a few minutes. It seriously feels like a 20-degree temperature change when the sun goes behind clouds. In Edmonton, I bought a pair of insulated ski pants I wear every single day, with leggings underneath that work on their own when the sun is out, plus I knitted a hat right before we got here that pretty much stays on all day long.

Other People Are Booking It

I bet this is a peak travel year for Alaska, seeing as how, for the first year (or two?) of Covid, the Canadian border was essentially closed, and then last year you had to show proof of your Covid test to get through. Only this year is travel between Canada and the U.S. back to normal. We kind of wish we’d gambled in our planning and taken this trip last year before everyone came up, but then we wouldn’t have traveled with Doug and Melanie.

My guess is lots of people have a set few weeks to spend in Alaska, so they’re traveling quickly up and back.  They arrive at campsites late in the day, then take off at 6 am. There are no weekend warriors here. 

The easiest way for us to find a good camping spot is to arrive mid-morning right after folks pull away.  Then, we have our pick of spots, plus the trails and campground to ourselves.  We’re not in any hurry; our only reservations are in Denali in July.  

Nevertheless, even we’re traveling faster than we usually do mostly because there are so many places we want to see, and the summer is just not long enough. Here we go!

Post script: If you’d like to read about Liard Hot Springs where Doug took the best of these photos, plus see more, click here for Doug’s post in his blog.

6 thoughts to “How the Alaska Highway Is Different”

    1. Thanks! I feel like a shmuck for having restricted the post by accident, and then it’s not even a great one. Glad at least you can see the pics 🙂

    1. Melanie introduced me to the brilliant practice. I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of it before!

  1. Drove to Alaska twice; 1980s. Once with a rusting VW bug I found in Boston. Mostly gravel in those days, and thre bug died 4 miles from the Destination near Fairbanks. Second tiem was with a tiny Datsun (yes they were stil lcalled that back then). Did the carpet under the gas tank to protect it, screens over the headlights, etc. Went form Portland to Fairbanks with my dad via the newly opened Cassiar Hwy, that (at the time) had only two gas stops, hundreds of miles apaprt. Such wild and wonderful country (amid the sometimes tedium of endless miles).

    1. I’ve seen photos of when Tracy made the trip with his family in the 70s when it was all gravel. A flood wiped out the highway so a new road was quickly bulldozed and vehicles were hauled over it. Those were wild times, indeed! Your two vehicles sound like troopers.