In 2015 Steph and I undertook our most daring road trip to date. We decided to drive from our house in Chicago all the way to Alaska, spend a few weeks driving around the state then drive all the way back. A seven week, 10,000 mile drive.
Do you want to travel to an epic location with once in a lifetime environments and wildlife encounters that you didn’t think were possible? Great! Then let’s kickstart your plan to hit the Alaska Highway.
Can you even do it?
Yes you can. I asked the same thing more than once back when I first contemplated the idea, but the answer is a resounding yes. Not only can you do it, but you have a number of options in terms of how to do it. There are two main road-only routes into the state, you can also cheat and ferry hop up and in. If you want to drive to the biggest and best state of them all, you just have to get hold of a car and keep rolling.
Our trip remains to date, our most epic, awe inspiring and longest road trip. It is a trip i’d advise any road-tripper to undertake, it isn’t going to be easy, and at times you’ll have white knuckles, but man is it worth it!
Your Vehicle Choice will have a major impact on your trip. The smaller and more pedestrian your vehicle, the more limited you will be, in the same vein moving in an RV or pulling a trailer will impede you. Scrap that, pulling an RV might be absolute hell. The road to Alaska is glorious and beautiful, but despite guidebooks telling you it’s now much improved, large swathes of “road” are still unpaved, often little more than mud tracks riddled with stones and large rocks and large pot holes. Though we met people doing it, I wouldn’t want to pull an RV through those conditions for five minutes, let alone 5 hours at a time.
We took a mid range saloon and 70% of the time it was great, fuel efficient and comfortable, but the other 30% was a white knuckle ride spent wondering how many more miles we’d get before a tyre went. If I went back, i’d take a small 4×4.
Insurance… unfortunately you’ll want it. Now, in the blog posts i’ve talked about the benefits of having your travel credit card, such a s the Chase Safire keep you free of rental insurance, but not here. It’s true that many credit cards will give you primary coverage now, but even the best ones have limits. For example; if you rent and pay with the Chase Safire travel credit card you will get coverage for up to 30 days on a continuous rental, and thats if you’re in the US. So if you’re driving over the border, or going for upward of 30 days, you’ll need to get covered.
Coverage was our largest expense on the entire trip, the only major one in fact. Its the one bitter pill you have to suck up, it will be worth it.
Number of Drivers
It is a long way.
Something to bear in mind when you plan the trip is that distance factor. When you look at Alaska and its limited road system on a map, easy to become over confident. Distances might look nice and manageable on a little map, where Alaska is often shrunk to fit it on a page, but don’t be fooled, those are great distances. Most trips between locations take a full day at the wheel, and if you’re driving up into Alaska then this is ever more exaggerated. On our 10,000 mile journey I spent most travel days running eight to 10 hours driving per day on move days. To get through Canada’s Yukon it was basically a week of all day drives, spectacular but long and taxing. On this section of the trip we were, most days, hundreds of miles from the nearest village or town, driving sometimes two or three days non stop between small settlements. its absolutely epic, but not to be underestimated.
I drove the distance on our trip, but looking back if you can afford multiple drivers, use them! If you’re renting a car then the chances are your rental costs will almost double, however if you are using your own vehicle then multiple drivers would be a no-brainer. Consider getting a vehicle that has some space in the back, perfect for rotating drivers and sleepers.
When talking to people about a trip to Alaska the first thing that I hear is often “how do you even get there?” The belief that most people have before researching is that Alaska is an extremely hard state to get to, and in one respect; that being distance, they are correct. However, the logistics of a trip to Alaska are actually nowhere near as complex as one might first think.
Essentially that five possible ways to get from mainland USA up into this glorious state; the first is a long drive through the Yukon territory heading south to the town of Tok. The second is a long drive through the Yukon and then north along the famous top of the world highway. Third is to take a ship or ferry along the inside passage and I arrive in Haines, Skagway or any other number of coastal towns. Then of course that is the final option of flying into Anchorage and renting a car from there.
In my humble opinion, renting a car and driving through the Yukon is one of the most epic, intense and unforgettable experiences you will ever have the joy of experiencing. Leaving towns behind for days and camping in basic campsites or on the roadside as you go, is nothing short of mind blowing. That’s something spine tingling and also unnerving about driving for eight hours and not seeing another vehicle or human being (though potentially quite a few black bears and moose). The evergreen trees look like an ocean of green rolling and eventually disappearing over the horizon in every direction you look. There’s nothing like driving through the Yukon to give you a grasp of the enormity and inconceivable vastness of the Canadian wilderness.
Where to Sleep
Alright, you decided to go, got your car and you’re heading into the wild, further from civilization than any road trip before… have you packed your tent? I hope so. Camping is the only ways this works. Don’t be afraid to do it, embrace it, it’s a massive part of why you’re going to do this. All the way along the road from the lower 48 up to Alaska and all around the state, you’ll find more campsites than you can fit in a travel guide. Sites are usually $10 a night, or are free entirely. Its pretty cool to roll off the road and into an empty campsite, get your fire going and relax with a great view and no noise. Now and then you’ll encounter a fellow road warrior and talk a few tales, but you will often have it all to yourself. It keeps the cost down to almost nothing and adds to the adventure. Besides, you’ll not find any other accommodation for days on end, so you’d better pack those sacks.
There are places on the route in which you’ll both need and want to take advantage of the hotels, hostels or Air BnB’s. On our trip, we left the tent in the car when we dropped into Dawson Creek, Dawson, Whitehorse, Fairbanks and Anchorage. Theres a few reasons to take a shower and sleep in a warm bed in these places. First, they are truly frontier towns, they are absolutely historic and so are the buildings, so how can you not stay in one? The hotels in Dawson are stunning, we loved the vintage feel and the chance to experience what it must’ve been like living in such a remote town. In the other towns we usually used hostels or budget hotels. In Fairbanks we made a point of spending a little more time and so rented an apartment for a few days on Air BnB. Outside of these locations, there is no reason to spend more than a few campsite pennies.
Trip Highlights: Through the Canadian Territories
I would argue that the stretch of Rocky Mountains on the Canadian side of the border is the most stunning region in all of North America. With Banff, Yoho and Jasper National Parks all sat along a chiseled landscape covered with turquoise lakes, the journey through here is one of the top highlights of the entire trip. The roads are stunning, the hiking is phenomenal and the campsites are truly beautiful.
Liard Hot Springs
What a sneaky surprise. We were planning stopping at Muncho Lake after a very long day driving, when we stopped into the only gas station of the day and two bikers told us to push on an hour and we’d come across these springs. They’re open, natural and due to the complete remoteness, uncrowded. The campsite is cheap, and you get free access to the springs if you camp. Perfect. We spent hours in the water here, and loved it so much we drove a day off our route on the return leg just to hit it again!
Just outside of Watson Lake (a town largely worth missing except for ‘Kathy’s’, an absolutely devine little eatery which makes insane burgers. After days of driving through wilderness and eating camp food, it will taste like the best thing you’ve ever eaten) there’s one of the Alaska Highways more quirky sites; the Signpost Forest.
This place has organically grown from a few posts to what you see here. Go for a walk and stretch your legs.
One of the two magical towns you’ll pass through if you drive the Yukon. This historic town is bigger than you’d think and yet retains it’s frontier feel. In the centre are wonderful eateries, coffee shops and a theatre where you can go see cabaret shows. Its a place to hang out for a couple of days to fully explore before you do the big drive to the second amazing town on this stretch, Dawson.
Dawson might be the town I remember most fondly from our trip. We’d finally hit twenty-four hour daylight, though the sensation of it being mid afternoon at 2am had yet to fully embed itself and become normalcy.
We arrived after days of endless gravel tracks and conifers, the single road split into two and then three gravel streets lined with elevated wooden boardwalks. Of the many small towns I’ve driven though in America this one was the first to be a true frontier town.
We pulled into our special treat, a hotel! The Westmark Hotel was something special, a period hotel, wooden, colorful and absolutely gorgeous. It’s upper level balconies provided views of the gritty beauty below and the room was a luxury following the long period of roadside camping which proceeded our stay.
Great local run pubs, open for the fertile summer months after half a year of hibernation, steam boats puffing along the riverfront and ancient theaters made this perhaps the most unique and authentic town anywhere in the nation.
Alaska Road Trip Highlights
One of the two “big” towns in Alaska, Fairbanks is the northern of the two and my personal favorite. With a University overlooking the town and a wealth of little coffee shops, the town has a young and intellectual vibe.
Just north of the town is the Chena River area, where you can rent cabins, see amazing ice sculptures and hike. The town is home to the Eskimo Olympics, which brings together participants from the various tribes in the Alaskan wilderness, essentially the only time this happens. Tickets are cheap and it’s a fascinating watch.
The botanical gardens are superb and display the extent that plants are able to exploit the twenty-four hour daylight Alaska provides. Some of the largest fruits and vegetables grown in the world are right here.
My advice would be to spend three days or so here, explore, take advantage of the unique attractions and nearby excursions and soak up the unique atmosphere that seems to linger in the town’s very bohemian air.
For most visitors to Alaska, Denali is the main event, so it was for us.
The most famous Alaska national park on offer, containing the world’s largest mountain is every bit the Alaskan experience you’d hope for. You’ll see Grizzly Bears, you’ll see wild Moose, you’ll see Elk and though rare, we saw…more than just saw, Wolves. For more on our insane wolf encounter click HERE for our article on that very experience, but for now lets just say that a few days camping in the wilderness of Denali is a gift that keeps on giving.
The park is bigger than 11 states, giving you an idea of its vastness. A backpacker bus drives the brave campers in the wild along a dirt road that only the park bus can use. You hop off anywhere along the ten hour journey and wander out into the wild. Be prepared, have the right gear and know what you’re getting into and you will come away with an experience you’ll never forget!
After the week of hiking and wilderness camping, a couple of days in the calm and tranquil village of Talkeetna was exactly what we needed. This little patch of perfection can be found about an hour or so south of Denali, let me describe the scene. Imagine a beautiful wooded area, picture a calm, quiet street with perhaps 15 buildings along it, mostly beautiful little cafe’s, a brewery, some little stores, then at the end of the street a patch of grass to prop up a few tents. Just beyond the camping area you’ll find the powerful and wondrous Susitna River. Sound pretty perfect? It is.
Just outside of the village is the terminal for the Hurricane Turn train. We advise you to hop on one of these rides. It’s such a fun experience, the train is one of the world’s last flag down trains, and you can hop off along its route, camp out and flag it down a day or a few days later to return. We rode it for the day, met homesteaders, saw the crazy Hurricane Turn bridge and essentially stared in wonderment while resting our sore feet.
Be sure to get up and see a sunrise by the river one morning, you’ll get epic views of the south face of Mt Denali from here, and its not to be missed.
Make time for this region of Alaska, its varied from glacial landscapes to temperate rainforest, mainland to islands and has some of the highest bear populations anywhere. From Anchorage onwards your Alaskan experience changes. People often write about the south coast, being an entirely unique area, with its own climate. I can confirm this. Driving from Talkeetna to the coast you’ll find the clouds begin to form, the air becomes humid, a few more mosquitoes show up, and the land becomes lush. Now and then you’ll see a huge glacier appear as if pouring from the skies and eagles fly by the car with a regularity that shocks.
Anchorage is the first coastal highlight, and its impossible to miss being the largest hub of civilization for well over a thousand miles. Forty percent of the state’s entire population resides within its limits, and by the time you reach it after weeks of relative isolation, that alone will shell shock a little.
Anchorage is bigger than we assumed, and does have nicer and rougher areas to consider. We found a cheap hotel here and made the error of assuming it would be fine. This is a city which suffers from dual personality disorder. One one hand its an outdoor lovers dream, with excursions in every direction, outdoor stores galore and beautiful scenery beyond in every direction you glance. On the other hand, it has a large population by Alaska standards, and issues of homelessness and alcoholism do mean that there are certain areas to avoid if you can. Our hotel was west of downtown and seemed more like a longterm housing project than a vacation spot. Go with a reputable chain and head close to the centre.
Downtown anchorage is great fun, markets, events, phenomenal cuisine and opportunities to see shows mean there’s always something to do, plus if you love a tacky gift shop, you’ll be busy for days.
Just south of Anchorage you hit the Kenai area, now you’ve hit coastal Alaska proper. The region is a lush, green rainforest-like environment which surprises you at every turn. Head to Ninilchik to do some clamming, to Homer to peruse the ocean front stores and drive through the Anderson Memorial Tunnel —the longest (2.5 miles) in North America, to reach Whittier; a gorgeous fishing town, which doubles as your ferry port to the rest of your island adventures.
Take a detour through Moose Pass and the Chugach National Forest to see Seward, another great town (with another superb microbrew) which gives access to one of the areas coolest glaciers. We camped here in a lovely campsite (and experienced a 6.4 earthquake one night), before heading back up to our ocean voyage.
I’m making a special note here on Valdez, as we used this as a base for a particularly epic excursion, and one which may not be possible to far into the future from now. Valdez is on the ferry routes, so we loaded up the car, took the overnight ferry from Whittier and camped here for a couple of nights. Valdez is a hotspot for glacier walks and kayaking, so we went on an expedition which combined both. We kayaked to a glacier, went inside and then pulled up and hiked above. It was a full day and worth the couple of hundred dollars and so much more. Make a point of stopping here.
Inside Passage & Islands (Sitka)
Depending on your Alaska route, this area maybe the first area you hit or the last. Its truly a different world to the tundra wilderness of the mainland and north, but no less unique and certainly no less special.
We drove to Haines, a town which doesn’t allow cruise ships to dock and so retained its soul and character. Its a gorgeous place to relax and has a huge eagle population to admire. After two nights in some cabins just north west of town, we left the car, loaded up the packs and hoped on board a ferry for a week of inside passage exploration.
Alaska’s state capital is the only capital not connected to the national road system. Given the chance to have a connecting road build through the mountains, local residents voted it down. This town enjoys its isolation, it loves its aloof nature and it benefits greatly from it. Hanging out in Juneau is so refreshing, there people here love their town and love being on the frontier, they show off their world will an infectious fervor that leaves you feeling welcomed and strangely jealous of their lifestyle. I remember contemplating what life would be like living in such a place an feeling pretty exited about the fantasy.
We took an expedition to Tracy Arm glacier, avoiding the Glacier Bay crowds, may have been the best decision of the whole trip. We saw humpback whales on hour hour long journey down the coast, seals in the bays, bears on the cliffs and then killer whales on the way back. The whole thing was topped off with by sailing right up to the wall of a glacier and then witnessing a 200ft calving event. Not a bad day out!
The inside passage of Alaska is made up of a collection of islands and mainland towns, non of which are connected by road. If you want to visit, you’ll be hopping on a boat. The key locations we visited were Juneau (which we’ve discussed), and Baranof Island. We took the ferry out to the island and found a hostel kin the historic town of Sitka.
Sitka is a stunning island, and the journey to it is fun and visually stunning in itself. The town is the site of a historic battle between local tribes and invading westerners. The main features for us however, were the totem pole museum and Baranof Brewery.
The outdoor museum is a collection of authentic poles spread through a forest with an informative self guided tour detailing their origins and meanings, and the brewery boasts what is to this day, my favorite beer of all time; Baranof’s Spruce Tip, found no where else but on island.
Sitka itself is adorable, and well worth a relaxing couple of days hanging out in its coffeeshop/bookshops and fun eateries.
If you’re feeling brave before you leave Alaska, when driving north from Valdez you’ll wind through the mountains and glacial vistas, at some point you’ll pass a small sign for McCarthy. On a map, it seems odd, as the town is perhaps 100 miles from the main road, and there is no connecting road on the maps, and thats true, there isn’t. You’ll turn off and end up on a gravel and rock covered track, which covers the original train line to this mining town from 1911. You will question your decision to go from the first mile, but if you make it without loosing your tires, and arrive in McCarthy, there is a small campsite, and a bridge across to Kenicott, the historic mining town. Tour the mine, the miners houses and hike the local trails. This is a real, self sufficient town cut off from the world, and was one of the coolest things we saw on the whole journey.
If you want to see it but can’t face the drive, most visitors fly in on small air taxis!
So thats it, some things to consider, some ideas for highlights and a few tips. Now all thats left to do is plan!