What it's Like to Drive the Alaska Highway


January 13, 2017

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By Celia Shatzman

Driving the Alaska Highway - also known as the Alcan - isn't your average American road trip. You won't find diners and motels along the 1,387 miles of subarctic wilderness. But you will find astounding vistas that encompass snow-covered glaciers and roadside attractions like eagles, bears, caribou, moose and bison against a backdrop of tundra, forests, and wildflowers.

Alaskan Highway

"Crossing the Robertson River in the spring is spectacular," says Dennis Bishop, a superintendent with the Alaska Department of Transportation. "The melting ice takes on a deep shade of blue."

To make the most of a trip on this road, "take your time," advises Kris Valencia, editor at The MILEPOST, the classic Alaskan travel guide. “Driving the Alaska Highway is like traveling back to a simpler time. On some stretches of the highway, you may drive for a half hour and not see another vehicle. Or you can come around a corner and find caribou in the middle of the road."

But traveling the two-lane highway wasn't always so smooth. It was built in just eight months in 1942, authorized by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as part of plans to defend America from a feared Japanese invasion during World War II. The Alaska Highway was so treacherous when it opened that sometimes even Military vehicles couldn't traverse it. Yet today it's considered one of our country's greatest construction projects.

How to get there? "There are many access points and routes," says Sarah Leonard, president and CEO, Alaska Travel Industry Association. The Rocky Mountain Route starts on the Montana-Alberta border and offers a massive stretch of some of the world's most beautiful wildlife preserves. The Gold Rush Route begins in Vancouver, B.C., and takes drivers through the epicenter of the Klondike Gold Rush in Dawson City, Yukon, while affording views of coastal fjords, mountains and glaciers.

To savor the views, heed Bishop's advice: Drive slowly, and don't stop in the middle of the road, no matter how deserted it seems. "Large trucks can't stop quickly. Pull off to the side of the road or use rest areas," he says. "There's no rush - you're on vacation!"

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