Driving The Alaska Highway...Is Not For Everyone!
Driving to Alaska on the Alaska Highway has always been a rite of passage for those who want to experience North America at it's wildest from anything resembling a major roadway. It would be an extreme mistake on your part to plan for that particular trip using just a travel atlas or some electronic service to find out what you think you know about most USA and Canadian roads up that way. The Alaska Highway is an experience unto itself. There is none like it (that I know of) on any major roadway in North America, and that is the first mistake made by most people that want to drive on it.
The Alaska Highway not a highway in the conventional sense, but a frustrating path that wonders through wild parts of Canada and Alaska. At it's best, the Highway will afford you bumpy stretches of paved road with spectacular views. At it's worst, the path is merely uneven oiled or un-oiled shale under constant repair with the most primitive of services. Almost any vehicle can expect to slip and slide on flat terrain or up and down extreme heights. Windows damaged by road debris or rocks are a guarantee.
Adding insult to injury, the people along this test of one's sanity will tell you there are only two seasons on the Alaska Highway: Winter and Construction. Summer is the only time that tourists who are foolish enough to try should attempt to navigate this disaster in the making. Be ready to share the road with construction crews that will cause you hours and hours of delays. You'll find yourself escorted through what you are certain have to be the remains of nuclear test areas by escort vehicles and WILL learn the meaning of patience as only one direction at a time is allowed through the war zone (at a very slow pace). Trucks as big as four story buildings fly by you as their frustrated drivers seek the amusement of scaring tourists to death.
As if the punctuate the foolishness of an Alaska Highway trek, you can expect minimal services along the stretch. While in Canada, you'll find a level of service that actually manages to surpass the complete lack of interest shown by Russian Waiters for Western Tourists during the height of Soviet domination in Moscow. An occasional town with a population of more then ten or a reasonably equipped Truck Stop will lull you into a false sense of security which will quickly vanish as you attempt to order lunch at the next dismal shack called a restaurant.
The Highway is definitely not a place for motorcycles. Having driven the monster myself, I saw several cyclists wipe out while making a sudden transition from pavement to shale (with no warning afforded). Only experienced RVers should attempt this feat. Driving some of the back mountain roads in California (that recommend No RVs) would be a reasonable practice, but nowhere near the torments that the Alaska Highway can and will dispense to you. While my assessment of the Highway and it's services may seem a bit over the top, I can assure you I am being conservative and even polite! This is not a trip for part-time tourists or people who only have a couple of weeks available for vacation.
It would be wise to allow one to two months to travel the entire length, enjoy Canadian and Alaskan tourist sites and get back. Using the Alaska Marine Highway system of Ferries and some of the available train routes can lighten the load and temper the frustration, but not by much. If you have a short time and still want to experience some of the beauty and natural majesty of Alaska, fly into Fairbanks and rent a car or RV. Take any one of the many credible tours and enjoy the culture. Visit the State of Alaska web site and get what you can from there before you contact travel agents or plan your trip.
While I will say that traveling on the Alaska Highway was an experience I would not want to have missed, it's also one I would never want to repeat. If you plan such a trip, be aware that most publications paint a rosy picture of the highway and it's tourist services that is very undeserved. Publications like 'The Mile Post' are far more honest and are something you'll want on your dashboard every inch of the way. Just don't accept their assessment of the highway's condition or the services you can expect to find along the way as necessarily up to date or correct. With regard to simple economics, everything along the highway will cost you dearly. You will pay a lot for very little, especially when it comes to the primitive lodging.
Those with younger children should avoid this trip. Not only is there is a real danger when it comes to dealing with bears and other wildlife, but you will not find the kind of services you are used on a normal family vacation adventure. Lodging along many parts of the Alaska Highway amounts to little more than overnight sleeping shacks with no televisions or phones. In almost civilized areas, things often taken for granted at USA hotels and motels like cable and in-coming phone service may cost extra at Canadian facilities. For example, the free breakfast bar offered at most Comfort Inns in the USA will cost you at Comfort Inns throughout Canada. Be ready to spend much more for gas, food and lodging than you are used to spending on trips throughout the USA.
Never travel to populated areas of Alaska without confirmed sleeping reservations. Start very early in the morning and stop in the mid-afternoon. Given the never ending construction on the Highway, do not use preset travel goals on a daily or even weekly basis. You'll find the Highway unforgiving when it comes to any plans you make apart from getting up in the morning and driving. If only one person drives in your party, expect them to be thoroughly worn-out and stressed beyond imagination every day.
The most frustrating leg of the Alaska Highway is one situated between the U.S. and Canadian border, with a very long drive between any real services or lodging. While Border Guards tend to be friendly on the American side, daytime crossings will involve a wait. Most crossings are closed at some point. Check the border crossing operational hours before you head out and expect delays at all hours.
Some areas allow RVs to overnight in rest areas simply because there are never enough services to meet the traffic, but be careful. Animals will visit. People can also be a problem. Law enforcement in these areas is scant and crime not well documented or reported. RVers can expect to be the most hated people on the Highway as steep inclines will cause long lines of traffic on often single lane roads. It's not unusual to find broken windows or even vandalism on rigs after a food stop. So, if you RV, be extra courteous and careful.
While I found people in almost every part of Alaska to be friendly and helpful, there is an undercurrent of resentment among native populations for non-natives that travel into or through their areas, so be respectful and kind. Crime is a problem in the downtown or older areas of cities like Fairbanks. Use inside ATMs for cash or credit/debit cards whenever possible. You will need cash or traveler's checks along many parts of the Highway, so be careful how you carry and store it. People in Canada are generally disinterested in your travel plights and most services are not open twenty four hours. Expect little in the way or gas or food after six or seven at night along the highway and remember that during Summer the sun never really sets. If you need dark to sleep, stay in a hotel with blackout drapes.
Because the Alaska Highway experience is so different, I strongly suggest that you carefully choose a time that is right for you to attempt this adventure. This is not something anyone should enter into in a half-hearted way or with others who are unsure. Once you are on the highway, there is no quick or easy way to change or alter your plans. It's a very long drive back to what almost anyone considers a normal vacation.