With swirls of steam rising and the crystal-clear water of Liard Hot Springs embracing me, I know there’s no more soothing antidote to my long day’s drive. What a reward! Soaking up its heat, in this oasis in the forest alongside this historic roadway is a little bit of magic that no-one driving the Alaska Highway should miss.
Certainly, the Alaska Highway is one of the world’s most amazing constructed wonders, bulldozed and blasted through Canada’s remote British Columbia and Yukon into the USA’s Alaska in 1942-43.
Why drive the Alaska Highway?
In its day, its construction was equated, in terms of challenges, to the building of the Panama Canal.
Built in a mere eight months, it was a joint US-Canadian imperative conceived as a direct result of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour on December 7, 1941.
Afraid the Japanese would invade Alaska, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King agreed a highway would be design-built to carry munitions and men to America’s northernmost state, through Canada’s British Columbia and Yukon Territory.
Today, road improvements have trimmed the length to a still-respectable 2,224km (1,382 miles).
Happily, there was no Japanese invasion and today, the recreational Alaska Highway awaits. It’s one of the world’s most spectacular recreational road trips.
Whether you choose a motorcycle, RV or car, stunning natural scenery awaits. Then there’s the possibility of seeing the Northern Lights and plenty of wildlife viewing.
75th Birthday Celebrations
Because 2017 marks the 75th anniversary of its construction, driving the Alaska Highway will be particularly intriguing as communities celebrate its history.
From Dawson Creek to Delta Junction and all points in between, every museum and town will be pulling out the stops to celebrate their history.
Driving the Alaska Highway
En route, you will pass actual “mile posts.” Even though Canada uses the metric system, the historical imperial system of measures remains along the Alaska Highway.
So watch for the Mileposts because they mark scenic lookouts, historic sites, and more.
Incidentally, although technically the Alaska Highway runs from Dawson Creek to Delta Junction, it connects another 158km (98 miles) on the Richardson Highway (Alaska Rte. 4) to Fairbanks, Alaska.
Mother Nature rules
These days, the paved surface affords a great drive. However, Mother Nature rules, especially in the North, where winter’s freeze-thaw action and other season’s washouts and other events create havoc.
Yes, summertime is the best season to drive the Alaska Highway. But remember it’s the only season road crews can make improvements.
Expect highway construction and gravel stretches, while pavement is repaired. How to judge what you’ll encounter? Check all visitor’s centres en route for current road conditions or online at drivebc.ca; Yukon 511; or Alaska 511.
And another thing, as you travel, always watch for wildlife, which can wander the roads at any time but more at dusk. Take binoculars to spy critters like bald eagles and bears up close and personal.
Oh, and never, ever (please!) get out of your cars to photograph, feed or (horrors!) pat wild animals. Habituation of animals to human contact and food always ends poorly. In Canada we say “a fed bear is a dead bear” so please, however cute the critter, leave it be.
Mother Nature may delight you with a display of Northern Lights. Aurora Borealis’ spectacular shimmering drapery can be white, green, magenta, and crackle with other-worldly sounds.
Services along the way
As you drive, lodgings from resorts (Northern Rockies Lodge, Muncho Lake) to campgrounds and RV parks await you on the highway. And naturally, at cities such as Dawson Creek, Fort Nelson, and Whitehorse there’s ample choice.
We like to look for non-chain accommodations so we support local families so for instance, you might try the Woodlands Inn in Fort Nelson, where comfy rooms, laundry facilities, a good restaurant and lounge await.
Tip: 2017 will be a particularly busy summer so if possible, make reservations ahead of time, including for RV Rental. Rental of RVs can be done in Whitehorse, Yukon or in British Columbia.
Getting to the Alaska Highway
If you’re driving the entire stretch, you’ll either approach from Dawson Creek (Mile Zero) in northern BC or else in Fairbanks, Alaska. The two times my husband and I have driven, we’ve approached from Dawson Creek.
9 sights you must see while driving the Alaska Highway
1Alaska Highway House, Dawson Creek
Dawson Creek is a must-see and frankly that’s because of the history of the highway to see at the Alaska Highway House. And who doesn’t want to get that primo photo souvenir of a picture at the Alaska Highway’s Mile Zero? Also, provisioning is excellent in town: lots of shops for food and last-minute items.
2Fort Nelson Historical Museum
Fort Nelson Historical Museum just west of Mile 300 makes my list primarily because of Marl Brown, curator.
A bone-fide Alaska Highway character if there ever was one, this locally renowned, bearded tale-teller will captivate you as he spins stories of the Highway, the North, and his fantastical collection of cars. Fitting, for an Alaska Highway museum, don’t you think?
Don’t miss touring the buildings on-site, including a trapper’s cabin and seeing the astonishing collection of memorabilia (including an albino moose) plus a black-and-white video of how the Highway was built in ’42/43. Stretch your legs and go on a very easy hike in town, at the Demonstration Forest.
3Muncho Lake Provincial Park
Muncho Lake Provincial Park is home to one of Canada’s famous turquoise-blue lakes and what’s absolutely fabulous is that the highway runs alongside it. (Milepost 463 marks the viewpoint of the lake.)
Sure there are fabulous hikes here for every level of hiker. But also, for those who simply want to chill at Strawberry Campground or picnic, lake-side, you’d be hard-pressed to find a prettier spot.
Yearning for luxury? Stay at Northern Rockies Lodge, which offers flightseeing trips, too, so you can be wowed by northern BC’s landscape of mountains, forests, rivers and always, that sinuous highway from aloft.
4Liard Hot Springs Provincial Park
Liard Hot Springs Provincial Park at Milepost 496 gives you the best soak you’ll likely have in these natural pools ringed by the silent forest.
Go early in the morning for the quietest time – this is a popular spot and if you’re travelling in the high season, you’ll likely have lots of company.
A boardwalk trail allows easy access to the pools whose temperatures range from 42° C to 52° C. Camping available.
Wildlife tip: Locals know to watch for and dodge Bison (mistakenly commonly called Buffalo) around here and, in nearby passes, maneuver around Stone Sheep enjoying the road salt.
Yukon Border at Milepost 603. Continue west to Watson Lake (Mile 635) where you’ll see the Signpost Forest where, since 1942, roadies have brought and placed here signs from all over the world.
Whitehorse, Milepost 918, is Yukon’s capital city. It was a favourite of that Northern Canadian wannabe, Englishman Jack London, author of White Fang and The Call of the Wild who like many other souls, sought his fortune in the 1890s Klondike Gold Rush.
7Yukon Beringia Centre
Visit Yukon Beringia Centre showcasing life as it was 4,000 years ago when eohippus the ancient horse, woolly mammoths and more strolled about.
Paddle the Yukon River, visit the longest wooden fish ladder in the world, visit Parks Canada’s National Historic Site, the SS Klondike, one of the steamers that plied the water here.
8Kluane National Park
Consider hiring a plane to buzz over the icefields of nearby Kluane National Park’s glaciers where, from above, you can lose yourself in the sight of seas of ice-draped ranges and swirling moraines.
Before leaving Whitehorse, pop into Mac’s Fireweed Books to catch the vibe of town and get maps and local lore.
9At the border
Welcome to the USA at Milepost 1221, the Canada-US International Border marking another selfie-op at Port Alcan. The Alaska Highway is sometimes called the Alcan Highway.
Delta Junction (milepost 1422) marks the junction of the Alaska and Richardson Highways. From here you will continue to Fairbanks while knowing that Delta Junction marks the official termination of the Alaska Highway.
Naturally, it’s time for another photo opportunity here before driving on to Fairbanks.
Katharine and Eric Fletcher are keen outdoors enthusiasts who love driving the highways of Canada.
A driving holiday in Canada is a great way to really get to know the country. If you’re contemplating a driving holiday in Canada read this post for more information first.
Wondering where to stay? Fort St James and Barkerville are two fabulous BC historic parks.