Eight months of circuitous travel around the United States delivered us to our most challenging journey yet: driving to Alaska. Most of the stories we heard from other travelers were of fairly successful trips with the occasional speed bumps, but it still didn’t quell the fear that comes with a such a journey. But the time was here and curiosity could not be tamed.
As we headed up from Seattle, our point of entry to Canada was Vancouver. We found two major routes – straight up the Alaska Highway (sometimes called the Alcan) or a “kinda” shortcut on the Stewart-Cassiar highway that would meet back up with the Alaska Highway in the Yukon. Stewart-Cassiar was even more remote with increased wildlife sightings but decreased reception and service stations, but as we were ready for adventure, we chose the latter.
We left Vancouver and stocked up on supplies before the trip. We filled up with groceries in Washington before crossing the border which was a good idea because Canada was more expensive. I was pretty sure our monthly expenses were going to double when factoring in the more expensive groceries and gas, so this was okay.
We made the difficult decision to skip Vancouver island and head north as fast as we could. The 40-50 hours of driving was already daunting enough, but when combined with questionable road conditions and infrastructure, the anxiety could only be answered by charging north as fast as we could. We drove around 16 hours in two days with a quick rest stop in between before slowing down for a day.
As we headed north, the road conditions were better than we expected, but we weren’t on the Stewart-Cassiar yet. The drive up Hwy 97 to Prince George was pretty, but it could’ve been the same drive found in many places throughout the US with pine forests covering small mountains. However, when we left Prince George to head west and saw a bear grazing on the side of the road, our expectations began to change. We entered the mountainous town of Houston and we knew we were in for a treat as snow-capped mountains sprang up in the distance.
We were now on to the legendary Stewart-Cassiar Highway. It didn’t seem much different than any two lane road we had been on previously. It wasn’t exactly a highway and there wasn’t much of a shoulder, but it was easy to drive. We continued up the Stewart-Cassiar highway, past small First Nations towns, and spent the night in a free pull off next to a lake – or was it a marsh. The views were incredible and we had the place to ourselves… along with two million mosquitoes!! It was shocking and expected at the same time, but we feared what it meant for the rest of the trip. We sealed up the Airstream as tightly as we could and cringed as the swatted mosquitoes splattered bright red blood across the clean aluminum.
We hurried out the next day and drove to Merizda Junction to drop the camper before heading west and getting our first steps into Alaska: Hyder. If you’re looking for the easiest way to say, “I drove to Alaska”, Hyder is the town to visit because it’s so far south it’s not even connected to any other Alaskan land.
The drive was one of the most incredible we’ve seen anywhere in the world. It was like New Zealand and Iceland, or maybe Nepal. Incredible mountains on both sides with glaciers hanging over the tops and coming down the sides. If this was what we were in for during the rest of the trip, it was going to be a good one!
We stopped by Fish Creek Observation Area where you can watch grizzlies feed on salmon, but we were about two months early since the salmon wouldn’t run until the end of July. We did meet two interesting guys who worked for the national forest. They looked like the Alaskans you’d expect to see – long grizzly beards, tough faces and mountain man dress, but as soon as we started chatting, they were as nice and friendly as could be.
I asked him if there was “color” – gold – in the streams (because what else would you ask an Alaskan?) and he said an old timer told him there was, but that it takes two weeks of work to get an hour’s worth of pay! I guess we won’t fund our trip by panning. The towns were very small, but exactly what you’d think if you thought of a small Alaskan now.
We also had some pleasant surprises along the way. I expected to pay an egregious amount on gasoline, but in most places throughout British Columbia, it ranged between .99 to 1.37 per liter. This is equivalent to $4 to $5.48 per gallon, but when considered against the exchange rate, this comes down to around $2.70-$3.75, which was similar to many parts of California. It might not be as killer of an expense as we thought!
The drive continued through the vast distances of the Cassiar highway where it feels like a combination of an outdoor safari and a scenic byway. The beautiful vistas in all directions of snow covered mountains can only be interrupted by the occasional animal sighting. “BEAR” – one of us would yell as the other quickly darts our eyes to find it. If Jocelyn saw it first, she went for the camera, and if I saw it first, I’d see if I could stop fast enough or need to look for a turnaround spot so we can come back and get some pictures. Most of the time the bear would take off if we had to loop back around, but occasionally, they’ll continue on grazing as if no human was bugging them.
Most of my turnarounds were simply a quick u turn in the middle of the road – that should show you how lightly traveled it is!
After five days of heavy driving, we were successfully through the Stewart Cassiar and onto the Alaska Highway. Right away there was more traffic and things felt more “developed”, but that’s just because we had spent so much time in remote country. The Alaska Highway threads through British Columbia and the Yukon territories and includes spurs where you can drive south to additional Alaska towns of Skagway and Haines.
It was a pretty mean thing the US did – let the Canadians keep the interior, but take the valuable ports – or maybe it was the Russians who did it and we inherited it after the Alaska purchase.
The drive into Skagway was even more beautiful than the first trip into Hyder. We also had an experience that reminded me of when we when we traveled the world in 2013, and on the second to last night before our trip ended, we were finishing our driving tour around Iceland. Almost ending poetically, we had an incredibly beautiful display of the Northern Lights. Fast forward to our current trip. We were already enjoying the scenery as we drove to Skagway, Alaska when alongside the road I saw a furry hump… sure enough it was a bear – and even better, a grizzly bear! It wasn’t until we pulled over we learned the gravity of the situation.
As if lined up to reveal themselves one after the other, we saw a second grizzly, then a third grizzly, then a fourth grizzly! If the trip would have ended right then, we would’ve been happy as it was that powerful (as long as it didn’t end with us getting eaten!). We were within 20-30 feet of them as they grazed along side the road on dandelion flowers. A few times they thrust their noses in the air to get our scent, but they weren’t too worried about us. We didn’t know if it was because they were simply unaware of any threat, or because they knew they could deal with any threat we could present! We think it was a momma grizzly and her three adolescents. We stuck around for probably ten minutes as we took some fantastic photos and just sat in awe. Sitting in awe was easy to do as we were safe in our cars, but we couldn’t imagine how scary it would’ve been if we were hiking and ran into them.
Skagway seemed like a great little Alaskan town until you drove into it. The “frontier” buildings were connected by boardwalks that were nothing more than an amusement park for visiting cruise ship passengers. A visitor center volunteer told us in one day they could be flooded with over 10,000 tourists looking to get the “true Alaska experience”. Their thirst was quenched by the dozens of shops offering beaver skin hats, gold nuggets and authentic Alaska tourist gear. Walking through the town reminded us of many foreign cities where shop hosts do anything they can to get you to visit their shop.
We continued out of town, back to our camper we had left halfway up the road. The drives from the Alaska Highway into Skagway and Haines take between 3-4 hours, so we usually found a spot to camp somewhere at the top. And the campsites were quite easy to find. British Columbia has free government campgrounds along the way and the Yukon has $12/night sites that offer free fire wood. Our expenses were continuing to be much mellower than I expected.
As we headed out of Haines and back to the Alaska Highway, we drove along the northern border of the Canadian Kluane National Park and shortly after the US Wrangell – St. Elias National Park. The views were incredible as massive mountains hovered to our south with rivers of ice hanging off of them. Wrangell-St. Elias contains nine of the sixteen tallest mountains in the United States, with the tallest (Mt. St. Elias) measuring just over 18,000 feet. It was an easy distraction for the long distances of travel, until we experienced true arctic frost heaves.
The twenty remaining miles as we crossed out of the Yukon and back into the US were some of the roughest roads we had ever experienced. At times, we couldn’t go over 20 mph because the heaves would first swallow our car and camper until we emerged out of the other side like a bike over a ramp. These were some seriously bad roads! It continued as we crossed into the US and felt like there was a standoff to see who could have the worst roads going into the other country. They were brutal, and we actually got excited when we saw gravel stretches of the highway because it usually meant smoother roads – even if it meant 30 miles of gravel, or under construction, roads.
It didn’t matter though because we officially made it into the Alaskan mainland. All of the fear and anxiety before to the trip was worth it because it encouraged us to be prepared – both from a supplies standpoint and a mental capacity to endure the long stretches of highway. We saw many vehicles with spare tires and extra gas cans strapped all over, but we were lucky enough to get through without needing either.
We’re glad we made the drive and I jokingly told Jocelyn we could drive it next time in a Prius. Okay, that’s probably a little too far as the frost heaves could swallow one, but the drive was pretty doable with sufficient service stations, decent enough roads and the safari-like experience.