Alaska Highway

I am finally getting around to posting about our epic journey during the summer of 2019.  This will be part one, of a six part series that tells the story of our trip to, through and back from Alaska.  

To begin with here are some of the statistics from our trip.  It is hard to tell when ours began and ended, as we live full-time in AIROSMITH.  So to bookend it, we started our trip from Great Falls, Montana as it was our last stay in the lower forty-eight on the 25th of June.  We ended in Sandpoint Idaho, as it was our first stay back in the lower forty-eight on the 15th of September.

We pulled the trailer 6,460 miles over those 86 days, staying at 35 separate sites.  A full 2,125 of those miles were inside the State of Alaska driving mostly on primary paved highways.  The remaining 4,300 plus miles was the trips through mostly British Columbia and Yukon Territories in Canada.

The official Alaska Highway runs 1,387 miles between Dawson Creek, British Columbia and Delta Junction.  Our route back from Alaska was on the Cassiar Highway, officially running 541 miles from Watson Lake, Yukon Territories to Kitwanga, British Columbia.  From there we turned east towards Vernon BC, and then south into Washington.

Our longest drive was the 418 miles on our way north from Fort St. John to Laird Hot Springs in British Columbia.  This was a stretch for us, as we normally drive no more than 200 miles in a day.  Our trip north, through Canada was quicker than what we had first planned.  We started the trip about three weeks later than planned, so we couldn’t take the time we wanted traveling through Canada.  Fortunately, we have visited Banff and Jasper in the past and didn’t feel like we missed a lot through that, not to be missed, section of Alberta and British Columbia.

An essential piece for planning an Alaska adventure, especially if you are driving it, is to get the most current copy of the Milepost.   First published in 1949, it is the definitive guidebook for driving to Alaska.  It describes the various routes to Alaska from the lower forty-eight.  It is updated annually so be sure to get the current copy for your planning.


Great Falls Montana

 We headed north from Colorado on June 20 taking just 4 days to get to Great Falls Montana.  We planned on roughly taking the Eastern Route suggested by Milepost, crossing the border at Sweet Grass, but then taking the Rockies Route through Banff and Jasper.  This first leg extended 2,423 miles from Great Falls to Fairbanks.





This was our second visit to Great Falls.  This is where the Lewis and Clark Expidition took 30 days to portage around a ten mile section of the Upper Missouri River on their way to the Pacific Ocean.

We kept the Milepost book with us as we drove because it almost literally describes each mile/km post along your route.  This lets you plan your fuel and rest stops, as well as overnight stays.  You can locate grocery stores and interesting places to visit.  The book would be our constant companion for most of the next three months.


Our first stop in Canada was just outside of Canmore at the Bow River Provincial Park.  Canmore is just below Banff National Park. We modified our route following Canada’s Cowboy Highway avoiding Calgary.  The Rockies Route follows the Icefields Parkway from Banff through Jasper.


 



Our campsite allowed for a quick visit to Banff as it was close enough.  We resisted the temptation to visit Lake Louise and Moraine Lake because of our late start.  It was an easier decision as we have visited the area twice before.
A two night stay did allow us to enjoy the beauty of the Valley.




We were camped close enough to allow a quick trip into Banff and enjoy a stop at the Park Distillery a local favorite of ours.  Banff is a city entirely contained in a National Park.

We had a spectacular drive up the Icefields Parkway under cloudy skies.  None the less we enjoyed driving along and seeing the many hanging glaciers.  We arrived in Hinton under very heavy rain that followed us all the next day through Grande Cache, Grande Prairie toward our next stop at Fort Saint John.  The section of road between Hinton and Grande Prairie in Alberta is called the Big Horn Route which connects the Rockies Route to the East Access Route.
You drive through Beaver Lodge just before leaving Alberta and entering British Columbia.  One must stop to take a picture of the Giant Beaver.

 Mile zero of the Alaska Highway begins in Dawson Creek British Columbia.  Officially it extends to Delta Junction, Alaska.  Built by the Army as a supply route, construction began in March of 1942 and completed in October.  Seven months to complete through extreme terrain and under harsh conditions.

Between Fort Saint John and Laird Hot Springs you pass the Tetsa River Lodge. It being the “Cinnamon Bun Center of the Galactic Cluster” you are obligated to stop.  You will not be disappointed. 


Leaving our campsite in Fort St. John we spoke to a fellow traveler who reported seeing at least twenty-one black bear along the highway between here and Laird Hot Springs.  We only saw about a dozen, with this one giving us time to capture a photo.  It is spring and the bear favor the blooming Dandelions along the road side.


This section of the highway also provided our first look at Caribou. This cow was among a group of other cows and calf’s browsing along the highway.

Muncho Lake British Columbia


The Milepost suggests you keep your eyes open for the Bison herd that frequents the area  before arriving at Laird River Hot Springs.  The wildlife count on our travel day were these Bison, 10 Black Bear, 6 Caribou, and 3 Moose.


A visit to Laird River Hot Springs is a must on the way to Alaska.  It is a provincial park and has an associated campground.  Alas we were unable to find a site there, so we parked at a commercial park directly across the street.  It’s a nice stop to take several days to rest and relax.


Between Laird River and Whitehorse, in the Yukon Territory, you pass through Watson Lake and the Sign Post Forest.  It is one of the most famous landmarks along the Alaska Highway.  Though we were driving long days, there wasn’t a question that we would stop and visit.




Tradition requires that you leave your own Sign Post in the forest.


 




After spending a night in Teslin, Yukon Territory located along the banks of Teslin Lake, we made our way into Whitehorse.  Whitehorse is the Capital of the Yukon Territory and the largest city in northern Canada.  As such we could stock up on groceries and get the truck serviced.  Many hopeful people passed through Whitehorse on their way to the gold fields in the Klondike.







A major access route into the Klondike gold fields was by the Yukon River.   The SS Klondike was a steamboat that moved supplies and people between Whitehorse and Dawson City.  The Yukon River flows north until it reaches the Pacific Ocean.  Travel on the river was unique in that people would be talking about taking the river “south up to Dawson City” or “north down to Whitehorse”.  The rebuilt and refurbished boat it an Historical Historic site managed by Parks Canada.  On the tour, docents in period dress explain the historical significance of river traffic to the gold rush.







Whitehorse is home to the McBride Museum located right downtown.  It recounts the amazing history of the area and of the Gold Rush.  Robert Service called Whitehorse home, and the museum has an exhibit from one of Service’s most famous short stories, the Cremation of Sam McGee.





Another Whitehorse landmark is the Worlds Largest Weathervane.  It is a retired Canadian Pacific Airways DC-3 that needs only a 5km/hour wind to rotate.  Pilots use it to determine wind direction and is located at the Whitehorse International Airport.

Heading west from Whitehorse takes us closer to Alaska and the St. Elias Range and the Kluane Mountains that form the border between Canada and Alaska.  A beautiful drive, you see extensive icefields and Mt. Logan which at 19,545 feet is Canada’s tallest.  Along this stretch of highway we cross over Bear Creek summit which at 3,294 feet is the highest point along the Alaska Highway Dawson Creek and Fairbanks.


We pulled over on the shores of Lake Kulane to visit Soldiers Summit.  Initial proposals for the Alaska Highway dated to the early 1920’s.  The attack on Pearl Harbor, and the threats to the Aleutian Islands prompted the decision to build the road as a supply route for the US Army.  Construction began in March of 1942.  Units from the Army Corps of Engineers began building the road from two directions, Delta Junction in the Alaska Territory and from Dawson Creek, Yukon Territory Canada.  Alaska was not admitted to the Union until January 1959.  The road was completed in October 1942, and dedicated and opened here at Soldiers Summit on November 20, 1942.


Soldiers Summit


At camp in Destruction Bay

Burnwash Landing provides the opportunity to view the worlds largest gold pan


July sixth, just shy of two weeks after leaving Great Falls, we cross the border into the 49th State.  To do this trip along the highway any justice, the trip should have taken us twice as long.


Our first stop in Alaska was Tok.  Tok is called Mainstreet Alaska because if you drive into, or out of Alaska you must pass through Tok.  From here, you can continue on the Alaska Highway to Delta Junction and on to Fairbanks.  Or, you can take the Cut Off on the Glenn Highway to Anchorage.  Heading that way you can also connect to the Richardson Highway and continue south to Valdez.

Before we began out trip we got some wise advice from a woman who had lived in Alaska.  She suggested not making many reservations for flightseeing, glacier or wildlife tours in advance.  She said that often the weather will cause a cancellation, and you might not be able to re-book your tour.  She suggested that we watch the weather closely, and upon getting into Alaska at Tok look at the weather and decide if you want to head south from here toward Valdez or the Kenai or continue west to Fairbanks.  It was good advice, but our issue wasn’t the weather.  It was fire.  When we arrived in Tok, the Seward Highway and the Kenai Peninsula were closed due to a major fire burning in the area.  Looks like we were headed to Fairbanks.

We were in Tok for several days.  We were waiting for some mail to catch up, and decided to wash and wax AIROSMITH.  We were camped at the Sourdough Campground which has a long tradition of entertaining folks on the road, including having the chance to win breakfast at the Famous Pancake Toss.



Tok is also known as the sled dog capital because so many competitive mushers live in the area


One of the iconic roads into Alaska is along the Top of the World Highway from Dawson City to Tok, traveling through Chicken.  To take this route, you leave the Alaska Highway in Whitehorse and take the Klondike Highway to Dawson City.  At Dawson City you wait for the ferry to carry you accross the Yukon river, where you follow the Top of the World Highway, crossing the Border near Eagle and drive to Chicken.  At Chicken the highway becomes the Taylor Highway that joins the Alaska Highway just outside of Tok.  The highway is about 190 miles and  80% of it is gravel providing a significant risk of damage to your rig.  We chose not to pull the trailer over the highway for that reason.

However, if you do not drive the highway, you would never have the opportunity to visit the unique town of Chicken, Alaska.  The town got its name because the miners who settled it could not agree on the proper spelling for Ptarmigan, which were prevalent in the area.  They settled on Chicken as it was easier to spell.



We didn’t want to miss out visiting Chicken, so having the time, we took the drive from Tok to Dawson City planning an overnight trip.  That way we would also be able to visit the historic gold mining town, where we would spend the night and return to Tok.  The drive was uneventful, and really must be done, though for us, not towing a trailer.




Dawson City was the northern terminus of the sternwheelers that ran between Whitehorse and the jumping off point for the Klondike Gold Rush.



Many of the town’s buildings remain standing, but not without showing the impact of age.  If interested, the town has many venues that provide a taste of the Gold Rush period.


The Jack London Museum


Jack London made his home in Dawson City living and writing in this small cabin.  The Klondike was the location of many of his novels and short stories.

As you would expect, the Top of the World Highway provided an opportunity to see Caribou grazing in the Tundra like this bull and cow. 


The US/Canadian border crossing is unique.  You will find Poker Creek Alaska along the Top of the World Highway.




On our way to Fairbanks we travel through Delta Junction which is the official end of the Alaska Highway.   We stopped to celebrate the accomplishment.






Arriving at Fairbanks we settled at the Riverview RV Park for a week.  Unplanned and unexpected we connected with Jenny and Dixon, friends from Boulder, who just happened to be visiting their friends who live in Fairbanks.  That happy connection added to our visit.

Again wildfire and not weather determined where we would travel in Alaska.  We headed to Fairbanks as active fire had closed access to the Kenai.  However we found smoke in the air after arriving in Fairbanks.  It turned out that the largest fire in the nation was burning about 80 miles north of Fairbanks.  It was burning in a remote area that required little suppression effort.

We had the rare opportunity to visit the Poker Flat Research Range, located north of Fairbanks.  Dr. Don is the Optical Science Manager and hosted a visit for Jenny and Dixon.  We were fortunate to be invited to tag along.  The work here is fascinating in that they research the Aurora Borealis.  One way that they do that is to launch rockets containing an array of sensors and cameras, and then process and study all of that data.  They assemble, launch and monitor the rockets at the facility



The Arctic Circle is is located about 200 miles north from Fairbanks.  Deciding not to drive the Dalton Highway, we looked for another option.  We settled on a flight to Coldfoot Alaska with Northern Alaska Tour Company.




The flight in was smoky due to the large fire.  We were missing the anticipated views of the Brooks Range and surrounding area.  Because of this our pilot sought out several lakes where he believed that we would see moose from the air.  He didn’t disappoint.

We crossed the Arctic Circle while flying to Coldfoot.  We were at about 9,000 feet when we crossed 60° 33’ North Latitude.



 Coldfoot is above the Arctic Circle and is a truck stop on the Dalton Highway about halfway between Fairbanks and Deadhorse, Purdhoe Bay.  Coldfoot has an airport where we landed.  The flight seeing tour included a short stay in Coldfoot, and a driving tour of the mining town of Wiseman.




Wiseman has a population of 14, but many do not overwinter there.  And exception is Jack Reakoff, who moved there, as a boy with his family, in 1971.  Jack serves as the local historian and conducts a walking tour through the old gold mining town.  He lives a subsistence lifestyle with his family, gardening in the summer and spring, hunting in the fall, and surviving the winter.

Coldfoot and Wiseman are situated at the foot of the the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, consisting of over 8,000,000 acres of pristine wilderness.  The park is undeveloped and it is nice to think that there is not a single road, trailhead picnic table or toilet anywhere within all of that land.

The Dalton highway was the haul road used during the construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline which runs 800 miles between Purdhoe Bay and the terminus at the Port of Valdez.  We saw a section of this massive structure just off the highway between Coldfoot and Wiseman.


Another day trip out of Fairbanks was the 60 mile trip to the Chena Hot Springs for a nice soak and meal.
This day trip only gave us a reason to return.  We would love to visit during winter and 
soaking in the warm water while looking up at the Northern Lights.

Having spent a busy week in Fairbanks we hooked up AIROSMITH and headed down the Parks Highway to Denali National Park.


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