Ten things to know about driving the Alaska Highway
On the road to Alaska
I've lived in the north for more than 40 years and I've driven the Alaska Highway dozens of times, so these tips are coming from someone who knows the road intimately.
This highway is spectacular and heading to Alaska really is the trip of a lifetime. Ahead, you'll find some tips to make your trip both safe and memorable.
This advice is not meant to dissuade you from driving the highway, but rather to help prepare you for a remarkable journey.
Alaska Highway Map
1. You're driving on history.
I first drove the Alaska Highway in the early 70s. The road was gravel and very dusty. It was also very curvy. That's because the road was constructed during World War ll and the curves were put in place to offer more protection to convoys that might come under enemy attack.
The highway is a miracle of modern engineering. In 1942, roughly 27,000 men completed the project in just 8 months, crossing five mountain ranges, thick forests and tundra in temperatures that dropped below -40.
Today the highway is no longer gravel and most of it has been straightened out, but when I drive it, I often think about the sacrifices that were made to build it.
Alaska Highway Construction
The history of the road
2. Fires along the highway
In 2015 two million acres of forest in Alaska were burned by wildfires and experts suggest that big fire seasons are here to stay. Fires respect no boundaries so some came very close to the highway.
There was not a lot of disruption of traffic. Keeping the highway open is an extremely high priority for firefighters.
You may experience some delay and be escorted through the fire zone by a pilot car. You will also experience smoke so if you have breathing problems I recommend picking up some inexpensive masks from your local drugstore before you leave.
One interesting thing about traveling through a fire zone is spectacular sunrises and sunsets.
"A report released Dec. 15, 2016 by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows that the likelihood of a severe fire season in Alaska, similar to 2015 when more than 5.1 million acres burned, has risen significantly – 34 to 60 percent – due to human-caused climate change. According to the Alaska Division of Forestry, the 2015 Alaska fire season burned the second largest number of acres in Alaska since records began in 1940" Source: BML Alaska Fire Service
Alaska firefighters conduct a controlled burn.
3. If not fires, then floods
Washouts on the highway are pretty rare. They can happen when large culverts collapse or mudslides cover the road. When that occurs you can expect delays of two to three days while crews fix the highway or build temporary roads around the affected areas.
As with fires, keeping the highway open becomes a major priority. Most of the north is not self sufficient in food or fuel supplies, so the highway is literally a lifeline for communities.
In 2012, a large washout south of Whitehorse closed the road for several days. It did not take long for grocery store shelves to become pretty bare.
A major grocery chain flew in supplies by Hercules aircraft (they are monster, big planes) with fresh produce and dairy to keep the Yukon's capitol stocked.
4. Get Ready For Construction
Picture a highway that's almost 70 years old. In the winter it can get down below -40 In the summer temperatures can rise up into to 80s. The ground builds up permafrost. It swells. It shrinks and it buckles.
Repairs can only be done in the short summer months.
You'll find construction on the way, but the work is well planned and delays are usually less than 20 minutes.
There's always a flag person on the road. Roll down the window and say "Hi". As a rule they are a pretty chatty bunch who can answer all your questions and want to know a little bit about you and where you are from
5. Why you can't get cell phone service
Cell phone service is available in the communities along the Alaska Highway, but once you're on the open road you may not get a signal. A Canadian company. North Peace Communications is planning on installing cell towers along the highway throughout northern BC and the Yukon, but there is no word when the project will be completed.
There may be a reason why you must keep in contact with friends and family back home. In that case, I would recommend renting an iridium satellite phone. The cost is about $15 a day and the phones are reliable and very easy to use.
Here's another tip: Many towns along the highway have a library equipped with internet stations so you can check your email and keep in touch.
6. Wildlife along the Alaska Highway.
If you are traveling along the Alaska Highway you WILL see wildlife. You may encounter moose, bears, elk, bison and lynx, just to name a few.
Fortunately there have been few tragic man-wildlife encounters over the past few years, partly I think because of better education. although I'm still shocked to see people get out of their cars to get a better view of a bear and her "cute" cubs.
Your best tool is a camera with a zoom lens. There are plenty of inexpensive models on the market and they are well worth the investment if you want to capture your Alaska Highway wildlife adventure.
One of the best places to see wildlife is in Kluane National Park, west of Whitehorse. It has the highest density of grizzly (brown) bears in the world. If you are planning an overnight trip you will have to register with Parks staff to make sure they know where you are going and to make sure you have the proper equipment.
Tip: Admission to all Canadian National Parks is free in 2017 as the country celebrates its 150th birthday.
Alaska Wildlife : Courtesy Brian's love of animals.
7. Why is there so much daylight?
Quite simply, if you are traveling in the summer, you'll find more sunlight, the further north you go.
In Whitehorse, on June 21 the sun rises at 4:27 am and sets at 11:37 pm creating 19:09 hours of daylight.
In Fairbanks, on June 21 the sun rises at 2:58 am and sets at 12:48 am creating 21:49 hours of daylight.
In mid-June the sun really does not set. It will be kind of gray outside, but not really black.
Some people find that the constant light makes it difficult to sleep. If you are traveling in a motor home, bring some blackout shades.
8. Is your vehicle tuned up?
You have a long (and beautiful) road ahead of you. Make sure your vehicle is in tip-top condition before you head out.
Check your fluids and belts. Make sure your spare tire is in good condition.
If you break down along the highway it will cost you hundreds, if not thousands of dollars to be towed to a large center. If you have problems in an isolated community it may take days or even weeks for parts to arrive.
However, people are friendly along the highway. They will stop to offer help if you are stuck.
It's a long, beautiful road
9. Spend some time in Whitehorse
The Yukon's capital is a great place to relax along the way. You'll find quaint local stores with local handicrafts and big box stores to help you restock and save money.
Rent a canoe or kayak and paddle down the Yukon and Tahkini Rivers. Rent a bike and explore immaculately groomed trails around the city.
You'll find a vibrant nightlife, restaurant and arts scene as well.
Whitehorse has much to offer.
10. Your guide to the Alaska Highway
I wish I could be your guide, but you'd probably get tired of me. This is the one guide I trust more than any other. Even after so may years of traveling the highway I still keep a copy of The Milepost in my truck.
It literally takes you mile by mile along the highway. You'll get schedules for the Alaska Marine Highway system, important information on medical services, radio stations, police and other services along the highway.