The good news is that the highway is paved for almost its entire length. Because of Alaska’s punishing winters, there will always be construction delays, gravel, road slop, miles of no-passing zones and potholes galore but, thanks to a detailed guidebook, The Milepost, drivers can plan ahead for every sightseeing point, restaurant and gas station. They’re recorded to the tenth of a kilometer, an important point when you’re driving a big rig and must plan ahead for maneuvers and pull-offs.
Kilometer? Yes, because you’re in Canada most of the way. However, historic mile markers are still in place too, another reminder of the gritty story that goes with this ride.
The Alcan Remembered
When Pearl Harbor was bombed in 1941, the Allies feared that Alaska could be the next target for advancing Japanese forces. So in March 1942, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was sent to wrest a highway out of a wildness of mountains, swamps, forests and permafrost. Fighting a savage winter and summer bugs, teams of Americans and Canadians numbering in the thousands built 133 bridges and cut 50 miles of culverts to complete a rutted, muddy, one-lane, 1,500-mile road to carry supplies to lonely Alaskan defense posts.
The original Alcan ran from Dawson Creek in British Columbia to Fairbanks. Now, however, many loops, spurs and new highways allow travelers to combine runs on the old road with others including the Glenn Highway from Anchorage to Tok, the Mackenzie Route from Alberta to Yellowknife, the Silver Trail through the Klondike, and the scenic Yellowhead Highway from Prince George to Prince Rupert. We drove to Alaska one way, and then ended our adventure at Prince Rupert, where we headed back south on a ferry that carried both our RV and us.
Highlights on the Road
Dawson Creek in British Columbia is the site of Zero Milepost, where the original Alcan begins. The city’s old grain elevator is now a huge art gallery. Stop at the old rail depot to see tidbits from the town’s history including its Alcan connections. On summer Saturdays, a farmer’s market fills the park with flowers and fresh produce. Downtown, the Visitor Centre has one of Canada’s finest collections of old Alcan photos as well as free maps and brochures to guide you on your way.
Use The Milepost to find scenic turn-outs, places to eat or fuel up, historic highlights, natural wonders and visitor centers, where you will find free brochures and museum-quality displays. The Milepost also tells where to expect delays or road hazards, so it’s important to buy the new edition each year.
Plan short driving days, not just because of construction delays, but because so many unplanned sightseeing treats await. We stopped time and again to observe wildlife, hike roadside trails, take pictures, snack at rustic bakeries, and linger at museums where friendly locals had endless stories to tell.
There are many sights to see on the Alaska Highway and on other highways as you travel through British Columbia, the Yukon and Alaska.
In Anchorage, you will want to see the Alaska Botanical Garden, Anchorage Museum of History and Art, and the Alaska Native Heritage Center, where local tribes perform stories, dances and demonstrations. Within a day’s drive, you can be in Canada’s Yukon Territory with its gold rush sites, breathtaking scenery, bison and moose grazing along roadsides, and sapphire lakes leaping with fish.
Other “must” stops include Fort Nelson in British Columbia to browse a museum filled with vehicles, chain saws and memorabilia from the early 1940s. Fort St. James National Historic Park in British Columbia is a living history museum built on the site of an old fur trading post. Costumed interpreters operate the trading post and tend livestock as if it’s still 1890. Stop at K’san Historic Village and Museum near Hazelton to see a centuries-old Gitksan village on the Skeena River. Here, Native Americans (called First Nations peoples in Canada) sing, dance, and demonstrate their crafts. You will see communal houses, totems and rare artifacts.
Prince George, at the eastern end of the breathtaking Yellowhead Highway in British Columbia, has the superb Railway & Forestry Museum, which focuses on Canada’s railroad history. See a roundhouse, acres of rolling stock, restored depots, and memorabilia galore. In Prince Rupert, at the western end of the Yellowhead Highway, is the Museum of Northern British Columbia, where collections depict history back to the Ice Age. Save half a day for a trip to Pike Island with its ancient Tsimshian sites and several hours for Cow Bay, the picturesque dock area. It’s known for salty restaurants and trendy boutiques.
Just 12 miles from Prince Rupert is the North Pacific Historic Fishing Village. Now restored, it’s the last of many canneries that once prospered here. Most were dismantled or burned in the 1960s before locals realized that one piece of cannery history should be saved. See a live presentation, exhibits and the art gallery.
Today’s highways through Canada and into Alaska shepherd visitors past immense national and provincial parks, dazzling ice fields, natural hot springs, rugged trails, native settlements and modern cities. In Canada, the U.S. dollar buys bargains in smart shops and galleries at an exchange rate of 85 cents to the Canadian dollar. To vacation in Canada is to visit a friend next door; to drive Canada via the Alaska Highway is a look back at one of the greatest triumphs of World War II.
Gordon and Janet Groene are professional travel writers whose books include Living Aboard Your RV, Cooking Aboard Your RV and Great Eastern RV Trips. Contact them at CampAndRV-Cook.blogspot.comResearch Campgrounds, Plan RV Safe Routes & Turn your phone into an RV GPS.
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