The Alaska Highway (a.k.a., Alcan), part one: Facts and tips

How easy is it to do the Alcan? How long does it take to complete the drive? What are the accommodations like along the way? Your basic Alcan questions, answered.


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This is one of three posts about our drive on the Alaska Highway.


From August 30 through September 3, 2016, we drove the Alaska Highway, colloquially known as the Alcan.  It’s been on our bucket list for a very long time, and we finally made it happen this year.  This is the first of several posts about various aspects of this fantastic trip.

But first, what is the Alcan?

It’s a road steeped in history, and you know I love my history, so I’ll share a little with you.

Before the mid-1940’s, the Alcan, along with many of the communities it passes through, didn’t exist.  It started out as a military highway during World War II.  The idea of an overland road connecting Alaska to the Lower 48 had long been discussed but never completed, but with the onset of WWII and later the June, 1942 Japanese invasion of the Aleutian Islands, it became an urgent priority.

Construction began on March 9, 1942, and was finished on October 25, with dedication and official opening of the highway in November of that year.  Canada, through which most of the road runs, provided the right-of-way while the U.S. funded and constructed the road itself.  Over 10,000 U.S. troops and hundreds of civilians were enlisted to complete the road as quickly as possible, and these men worked seven days a week in difficult conditions to complete the road in a little over eight months, an incredible feat of engineering and perseverance.

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Building the Alcan (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The soldiers forged a road in the middle of raw wilderness, with dense forests, extreme weather, frozen earth, and unfamiliar terrain as obstacles they had to push through.  The outcome was a road that connected the railhead at Dawson Creek, British Columbia, with the town of Delta Junction, Alaska.

So there you go.  History lesson complete!

Here are some of our general observations after driving the Alcan:

The Milepost

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We had originally planned to wing the Alcan, but when we hit Dawson Creek we ended up buying a copy of The Milepost, the ultimate Alaska Highway guide, or, as they call themselves, “the bible of North Country travel.”  The great thing about The Milepost is that it gives every single tidbit of information one might ever want to have about driving the North Country, right down to the mile, regarding lodging, gas stations, historical facts, cities, important landmarks, shopping, and so on.

I totally binged on the book and was ever poised with my purple highlighter, ready to highlight interesting factoids and share them with Dale (he’s a very patient man).  There’s so much to know about the Alcan that it was nice to have it all in one place.  In Canada, The Milepost also took the burden off of our limited cell phone data, eliminating searches I might have done online.

That being said, you could certainly get by without The Milepost.  We stopped at several tourist information centers along the route, and they all had materials about lodging, restaurants, and services.  Friendly staff was poised and ready to hand out bag loads of shiny brochures filled with information about their regions.

Driving the Alcan–is it doable?

After the war ended, the Alcan was opened for public use, but it was 1700 miles¹ of rough road, and for years it lived up to its reputation for being a dismantler of tires and windshields.  A trip on the Alcan was often slow-going.  Today, however, it’s an adequate, mostly paved two-lane highway, and we had no car or tire trouble.

That’s not to say the Alcan doesn’t have its issues.  The road requires constant repairs due to harsh weather conditions, and we faced multiple road construction delays.  The Milepost points out that, ever since the Alcan was completed in 1942, it has been under continuous repair.  This especially holds true the further north you go, through the Yukon Territory and into Alaska.  “According to Public Works Yukon,” the guide writes, “much of the soil along the north Alaska Highway is of glacial origin and unsuitable” for a road.

The problem is the permafrost (permanently frozen ground) on which much of the Alcan is built.  As temperatures warm, the top layers of the permafrost melt, and the melting process is accelerated when permafrost is covered by dark pavement, which absorbs heat.  When it melts, the ice-rich soil liquifies and settles; then, when it re-freezes, the soil expands or “heaves.”  The continuous collapsing and heaving of the permafrost means catastrophe for the pavement, which may develop cracks, potholes, washboard conditions, swelling, or ripples.  Hence you have the year-round construction on most stretches of road.

Regardless, we managed the road well in our small, all-wheel-drive Subaru.  It’s probably a different experience in an RV, but we saw plenty of RV’s and 18-wheelers returning east as we headed west, and the Alcan is manageable for even the biggest vehicles. (But do your own research before setting out!)

Solitude… long stretches of solitude

The Alcan is known for isolation and empty roads.  We never went a full day without seeing anyone else, but on long stretches of road we might go hours without passing another car, especially the farther north we went.  It often felt as if we were very, very far away from the Lower 48.

This sometimes meant long stretches without services as well, and many of the “communities” on the map are little more than businesses that offer one-stop shopping for Alcan travelers, including gas, food, and lodging.

We began to appreciate the “big” towns–even a place with a few hundred residents started feeling big–and when we came to Whitehorse, the capitol of the Yukon Territory, it couldn’t have felt any more cosmopolitan than if we had arrived in New York City.  OK, that’s an exaggeration, but the amount of stores, restaurants, and conveniences were staggering after several days of backcountry driving.

Despite the limited resources along the way, we never had difficulty finding a campsite or place to resupply, as long as we were flexible as to the amenities and accepting of the “rustic” nature of some places.  Mostly it was just nice to be alone, on a long stretch of road surrounded by trees, for long periods of time each day.

Time

A couple of points about time related to traveling the Alaska Highway:

First, we had to decide how long to spend on the Alcan.  Dale read that you cover the area in as little as five days but that you should allow longer if possible.  We didn’t have that luxury–we spent so much time at the beginning of the trip in four national parks that we were pressed for time on the Alcan, so we did it in five days.  This length of time actually turned out to be adequate, only because we had four straight days of clouds and rain, which obscured the scenic views and thus limited our stops.  We missed some of the most breathtaking vistas along the route, including the northern Rocky Mountains, the St. Elias Mountains and glacier field, and Mount Logan (elevation: 19,520 feet), Canada’s tallest mountain.  If we would’ve had more flexibility, we could have holed up at a scenic campground and waited out the rain, but that wasn’t the case.  We also missed out on some interesting museums and side trips, including the Klondike and Top of the World Highways, which pass through beautiful terrain as well as interesting sites, such as the center of the Klondike Gold Rush, Dawson City, Yukon, but this would’ve required an additional two days, minimum.

So yes, you can do the Alcan in five days, but allow yourself extra time if possible so that you can travel slowly and see everything you want to see.

Next question: when’s the best time to do the Alcan?  Do some reading and research before you make a decision as to what time of year to go, but believe it or not, you can drive the Alcan year-round.  It’s open and maintained regardless of weather and is rarely closed.

There are some variables to consider: in the summer, the road gets very crowded with travelers, and construction will likely be ongoing all summer.  And if crossing in the winter, you should have serious winter preparedness so that you can survive sub-zero temperatures should something happen to your vehicle.  That being said, the roads are supposedly better in the winter, as snow becomes hard-packed and fills in potholes, therefore making for a smoother ride.    The time that we chose was perhaps close to ideal—we missed most of the summer crowds, and the heaviest road construction had already been done.  We did run into the rainy season, however, so I suppose there’s no 100% perfect time to drive the Alcan, but no matter when you go, it’ll be a remarkable road trip.


In upcoming posts, I’ll talk more about the route that we took, the towns that we passed through, the wildlife, and some of the interesting experiences that we had.  It was truly a one-of-a-kind experience.

Notes:

How long is the Alcan?  The original route was about 1700 miles long, but constant reconstruction over the years has led to rerouting and straightening of the road so that it’s now about 1400 miles long.

“Alaska Highway” or “Alcan”?  The highway was originally called the Alaska-Canada Highway and shortened by the military to Alcan, but not too long after, it was officially renamed the Alaska Highway.  The nickname stuck, however, and many people use the term Alcan to this day.  In our posts, I’m going to use it as well.

The story behind the Alcan truly is fascinating, and its construction, an engineering feat.

Whether you’re serious about doing the Alcan or just want to learn more, start with The Milepost website.  It’s a great resource.