9 Days | 2,360 Miles Round Trip *
There's no water. We’re parked at an empty campground in Alaska, the Arctic sun refuses to set over the Sitka spruce, and our water bottles are empty. The last civilization we passed was hours back in Canada’s Yukon Territory province, where we purchased fresh pasta (expired, but not by too much). Other than cans of cruddy Canadian beer and the gas in our car, we don’t have a drop of liquid. It’s not quite a Jack London story yet—we won’t starve—but we’re hungry and bummed out by the spartan conditions.
So we boiled the pasta in beer over the campfire.
That’s how it works on the Alaska Highway, a fabled route known as the Alcan. The road meanders from the Lower 48, through Canada’s western flank, and into Alaska, the rare road link to our coldest, weirdest state. At times—most of the time, really—it’s a barren, beautiful road uninterrupted by buildings, people, hotels, gas stations, traffic, speed-limit signs, water sources, and value meals. Up here desperation is the mother of invention: hence the beer and expired linguine.
The trials were a little harsher when the Alcan was just a bumpy dirt road built by armies during World War II. Purists brag about navigating the route before it was fully paved in the early 1980s. Today it’s easier. For the first day north of Vancouver, the land is pastoral, not wild; farms dot the side of the narrow highway, and there are Dennys at dinnertime. That doesn’t last long.
The Alcan is the Northwest, but on steroids. Mountains are wide and widely spaced, and massive lakes are electric blue. We kept the wildlife count—three bears, five moose, endless mountain sheep—on the cover of the Milepost, an annual publication that catalogs every pullout and roadhouse on the route. What civilization you do find is truly civilized: Our only gas emergency was averted by friendly folks at a pipeline-workers camp.
At one time, roadhouses were evenly spaced up the route, offering reliable company and unique tourist quirks (hey, the world’s largest glass beehive!); now most are shuttered and rotting. Still, standouts remain, some with bare-bones lodging, and the quirky stops are a welcome break from all that endless jaw-dropping scenery. The Toad River Lodge, with its froggy figurines, is a staple at mile 422, and at mile 1,147 the Pine Valley Lodge dishes up flaky cinnamon buns the size of a toddler’s noggin.
Towns along the route—Fort Nelson, Watson Lake, tiny Tok—have little more than gas stations and RV lots; only Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory deserves a full-day stop. The 26,000-person burg is surprisingly funky for its isolation, boasting a reputable craft brewery (don’t boil the excellent Yukon Brewing beer), a vegan bakery, and a hikeable riverfront park at Miles Canyon. It’s about a day past the Liard River Hot Springs, also a highlight, where the Alcan builders left boardwalks and changing rooms around naturally heated pools.
The haul may be 2,360 miles of postcard fodder, but it’s hardly boring. Drivers can pull into Anchorage within four long days of leaving Vancouver, but it’s best to meander; a five-day ferry run returns the car to the Lower 48.
Take time to enjoy the view, boil some beer, or just read the roadside: Wherever the Alcan blacktop passes a talus slope of gravel and gray rock, passersby gather white pebbles to spell out messages to their fellow travelers. Our carful, all essayists and novelists, climbed one such incline to painstakingly spell out some rock graffiti. We crafted our punny message while on an Alcan-driving high: “Write On!”SLEEP
Toad River Lodge
Mile 422 Alaska Hwy, Toad River, British Columbia,
411 Alexander St, Whitehorse, Yukon,
Pine Valley Lodge
Mile 1147 Alaska Highway, Beaver Creek, Yukon
102 Copper Rd, Whitehorse, Yukon,
Liard River Hot Springs
497 Alaska Hwy, Muncho Lake, British Columbia,
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Alaskan Side Trips
Jasper National Park Alberta’s Rocky Mountain wilderness is close to the Seattle-to-Alaska route only if you think in Alcan dimensions. Make the trek if your appetite for peaks, lakes, and waterfalls is a strong one. Jasper, Alberta, 780-852-6176; pc.gc.ca
Knik Glacier The 28-mile-long ice sheet is located near Palmer in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley (you’ve probably heard of the town next door, Wasilla). Tours use ATVs, boats, or planes to tour the glacier. 26326 E Buckshot Dr, Palmer, Alaska, 907-745-1577; knikglacier.com
*All distances measured from Seattle.
Updated April 11, 2012. This version corrects the round-trip travel time from Seattle. Originally, we stated the trip would take six days, including a four-day drive North on the Alcan highway plus a two-day ferry trip back. However, the ferry trip is five days, for a total travel time of nine days.