Wandering the West
July 5, 2011
At the KPCW bash last Friday I bumped into old neighbors who were embarking on North America’s ultimate road trip the next day. They had their sights on Great Falls, Montana, Banff, Alberta, and Fort Nelson, British Columbia, in the near term, followed by the journey north to Alaska.
I’m always full of advice, solicited or not, and I had plenty for the Alaska trip. Years (OK, several decades) ago, I saved up my earnings, bought an old pickup, and took the great Alaskan road trip myself, accompanied by the young lady I would marry in Park City soon afterwards.
The trip is easier these days, but it’s still no Sunday drive. If you started in Park City, it’s 2,835 miles to Delta Junction, Alaska, the official endpoint of the road. And when you get to Delta you’re still miles from nowhere. That just means you’ve reached the point where you can branch out onto other Alaskan highways.
The official start of the Alaska Highway is at Dawson Creek, British Columbia, at the "Mile 0" signpost. From there it’s 1,422 beautiful miles to Delta Junction. Today the highway is paved end to end. During our long-ago trip, only the first 300 miles were paved, with the rest gravel. Veteran travelers (or simply paranoid drivers) rigged elaborate screens to protect their windshields from flying rocks. They also strapped extra spare tires to the roof along with those 5-gallon Army surplus gas cans.
We elected to skip all that and came through unscathed. The truth is, none of that crazy combat-ready rigging was necessary back then, and it’s certainly not now. At most, the biggest gap between gas stations is about a hundred miles. If you start out with good tires, one full-sized spare is plenty. But I would recommend you find gas before you pull in for the night. A lot of the gas stations are mom-and-pop operations and, if you hit the road early, they might not be open yet. I’d also pack lots of food, especially for breakfast and lunch. The farther out you get, the more expensive the food (and gas). It’s fun to end the day with a burger or perhaps a moose steak at one of the funky roadhouses that are scattered along the way, and get a chance to talk with a local.
Much of this road trip is through dense, tall evergreens, limiting the long views. When you get to high clearings, most of the land you see is unsettled, roadless wilderness.
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You can pick your stops as you see something you like, and campgrounds operated by private citizens and provincial governments are plentiful. As with food and gas, overnight lodging can be pricey.
The must stop along the way comes in northern British Columbia, near the Yukon border at Milepost 475. Liard Hot Springs is the largest natural hot-springs area in Canada. Because the springs create a tropical mini-ecosystem, you can find orchids growing wild among the mosses of the boreal forest. The warm springs make it so lush, it is a wildlife magnet as well. The best features, though, are the Alpha and Beta pools, left natural except for some wooden walkways and occasional handrails. Alpha is merely warm, but the challenge is in Beta, where the water boils out of the ground at one end and cools at the other. If you want to shake off road weariness, this is a place to lay over and relax.
Another great layover is at Kluane National Park in the extreme southwestern corner of the Yukon. Kluane, home to Canada’s tallest mountain, has a gorgeous lake of the same name where you can camp and rent bikes, kayaks and the like, with fabulous hiking to glaciers. Kluane and the border regions in Alaska are lumped together in a two-nation UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s worth another day or two’s layover.
Originally the highway was called the Alcan and was built inside of a year by the U.S. Army as an overland supply route in the early days of World War II. It was really tough driving in those first years, when entire trucks could be swallowed in melting permafrost. Today, frost heaves break the pavement, revealing the sub-layer of gravel. It’s still nothing like interstate highway travel, but if you’re an adventurous Parkite (and who among us isn’t?), the Alaska Highway goes onto the bucket list.
Next week: a column about how to drive back over the Pacific Ocean.
Writer, filmmaker and author Larry Warren has made the West his beat for the past three decades. He is the general manager of KPCW.
The vitals: Park City to Delta Junction — 2,835 miles. Plan on 10 days’ drive time one-way for a leisurely trip
Insider tip: A highway guide, "The Milepost," is the Alaska Highway driver’s best friend. It is updated every year and covers everything along the route.