From Washington or Montana drive 1,000 miles north, then take a left and drive another 1,000 miles. Thatís the Alaskan-Canadian Highway (Alcan). The trip from the Lower 48 states to Anchorage encompasses more than 2,300 miles of road. You must drive through the Canadian Rocky Mountains, past hundreds of lakes and rivers and seemingly endless miles of flat, pine-forested land that appear to be totally devoid of human habitation. If Alaska seems remote to you now, just wait until you travel there by road.
Driving the Alcan is a long journey, to be sure, but it isnít the same rugged trip it was 20 years ago. Contrary to popular belief, the entire Alcan is paved with the exception of spots where road construction is taking place. Parts of the Alcan even have four lanes. There is no longer a need to bring along extra gas cans because gas stations abound all along the Alcan. And while much of the Alcan is still sparsely populated, it is possible to have repair work done in towns such as Whitehorse and Haines Junction. Thatís not to say extra precautions are not necessary. No matter how well paved the Alcan is, it is still a dangerous place to drive and an easy place to become stranded.
The Alcan is an adventure in and of itself. It is a remarkably beautiful drive with plenty of wilderness on either side of the road. The thing to remember is that there will be plenty of wilderness in front of you, as well. If you donít make good preparations, the trip can become disastrous. However, if you plan ahead and accept the fact that your car might never be the same, your drive up the Alcan most likely will prove to be a fond, enduring memory.
The first hurdle you will encounter when driving to Alaska is the necessity of getting through customs in Canada. For people who are just going to Vancouver for the weekend, itís easy. But if youíre going to Alaska by car or if youíre hitchhiking, you must jump through a few hoops in order to convince Canadian customs officials that youíll be able to make it to Alaska.
Funds: During the Klondike Gold Rush in the Yukon Territories at the turn of the century, new arrivals were required to carry with them a yearís supply of rations including 100 pounds of beans, 400 pounds of flour and 150 pounds of bacon. The rules have since been relaxed. Now you must have in your possession a minimum of $400 in the summer, $1,000 in the winter, or a major credit card to get through customs. If you do not have the cash or the credit card, you will be turned awayóeven if you are just hitchhiking. Donít lie. They probably will ask to see your money and, if you cannot produce it, youíll find yourself sitting for hours in a customs office while they run every search they can on you before they turn you away.
The reason for this rule is understandable. Every year many people drive to Alaska from the Lower 48 unprepared for what they are about to encounter. They end up breaking down, injuring themselves or running out of money and gas. They then become a Canadian headache. Canadian customs officials may ask you if you realize how far youíll be driving and what kind of trouble might be lurking out there. Heed their warning and consider it.
Documents: A passport is not necessary, but a driverís license is if youíre driving a car. Whether youíre driving or not, youíre going to need some sort of valid picture identification. Itís okay to bring a pet across the border, so long as you have a certificate for the animalís rabies shot that is not more than three years old.
Weapons: Unless you plan to hunt while in Alaska, donít bring a firearm. And if you do bring one, keep it unloaded in a case, and make sure you declare it with a customs official. Do not bring a handgun, automatic rifle or a weapon that has been altered in any way. Possession of these types of weapons is a felony in Canada, and you will not be allowed to enter the country with them. If they search your automobile and find a weapon after you told them you didnít have one, you will be arrested, your car will be impounded and you will have a criminal record in Canada. You also will lose your gun.
Canadian Customs can answer any other questions you may have about their rules and regulations. Telephone: (604) 666-0545.
Food costs about the same as it does in the U.S. in big Canadian cities such as Vancouver and Edmonton, but it becomes considerably more expensive the farther away you get from large population bases in Canada. The best way to save money is to grocery shop on the U.S. side or in larger Canadian towns and limit stops at fast-food restaurants, which are more expensive than cooking your own food. Tobacco and alcohol are taxed quite heavily in Canada. A pack of cigarettes will cost you as much as $6, so if you smoke, itís best to buy your supply before you get to Canada. In addition, the huge break on the price of gasoline U.S. citizens enjoy is not extended to the Canadians. As of this writing, the price of gasoline in Canada is about 60 cents a gallon higher than in the U.S.
You can spend U.S. currency anywhere along the Alcan, but you should convert your money to Canadian dollars anyway. Vendors will take your U.S. dollars but charge you the Canadian dollar amount. Since the U.S. dollar buys roughly C$1.40, youíll be overcharged as much as 40 cents per dollar if you spend your U.S. money. Considering the high price of gasoline in Canada, you will greatly reduce the amount of money you spend getting to Alaska if you use Canadian money. Or, you may want to use your credit card while in Canada. As long as you pay your credit card bill on time, youíll end up saving money because you will be charged in Canadian dollars.
The age-old advice about driving long distances applies to your journey on the Alcan: take your time and rest often. The advice may be old, but it is important enough to reiterate here. If you travel too long and too far without rest, the sheer monotony and exhaustion will take its toll. People flip their cars into ditches every year because of this, and help is not necessarily close at hand. It is easy to keep on driving when the sun refuses to set and three oíclock in the morning looks like the middle of the day. If youíre tired of traveling and want to get the trip over with, resist the urge to push on through. You can make the drive in five days, but in doing so youíll ruin the fun and, more importantly, youíll put yourself in danger. Itís very easy to fall asleep at the wheel. In addition, large frost heavesóbumps in the road caused by extreme temperature changeóseem to come out of nowhere in the Yukon and Alaska, and moose frequently amble across the road. That daze you didnít realize you were in will slow down your reaction time. Before you realize whatís happening, you could flip your car into a ditch or careen into a 1,000-pound moose. It could be an hour or more before someone even drives by your car, and once youíre found, it could still take a while for emergency crews to reach you.
Before you head out, inspect your car or have it inspected. It will cost you much less to fix something in your hometown than in Whitehorse, and doing so could help you avoid a hefty towing bill. Make sure your tires are in good condition, and do not leave without at least one full-size spare tire thatís also in good condition. Bring a jack and tools. Inspect all the hoses and belts on your car, and bring spare hoses and belts along. Invest in a set of jumper cables. Take extra windshield wipers, a roll of duct tape and a few quarts of oil. Also, consider purchasing a CB.
While on the road, inspect your car frequently. Look at the tires and keep an eye on your oil level and temperature. The Alcan is exceptionally dusty. Every now and then take a look at your taillights to see if they need to be cleaned. You will have to clean them at least once during your trip or your brake lights will get completely covered with dust.
At times, the road conditions are excellent. At other times, it might take you two hours to travel 12 miles. The earth and the elements do violent things to roads in Alaska and Northern Canada. Theyíre usually in constant need of repair, and the Alcan can only be worked on during the summer. You will frequently sit idle waiting for what seems like an eternity for road construction workers to let you pass by. Much of the road under construction will be dirt and rock and you can bet that one of those rocks will fly up and hit your windshield at least a few times during your trip. Many cars in Alaska have cracked windshields, and there is a good chance yours will be one of them if you drive the Alcan. So, before you decide to take your car on the Alcan, consider the wear and tear a 4,600-mile round trip on the Alcan will put on it. After thousands of miles of rough terrain, your shiny new car may never be the same.
If your vehicle is not in good working order, donít take it. Many miles stretch between one car-repair shop and the next, and if you break down in between them you may end up dumping your entire budget into transporting your car to a repair shop and getting it fixed. A membership with the American Automobile Association (AAA) will reduce the risk of an outrageous towing bill if you get stranded. If you are an AAA Plus member, AAA will tow your car up to 100 miles for free. Your membership with AAA is good with the Canadian Automobile Association (CAA) as well. Neither AAA nor CAA guarantees that towing service is provided in every area, so be prepared to pay your own way. The office in your home state will reimburse you after your trek. However, keep in mind that your tow could very well exceed the amount of miles covered under your plan. If that is the case, expect to pay out big. Since many places in the Yukon can only be reached by long road travel, it stands to reason that prices will be higher for everything, including towing. It is most certainly true of auto parts, which can double in price in places like Whitehorse.
There are plenty of gas stations on the Alcan, so it is no longer necessary to bring fuel with you. But you should never let your fuel tank get lower than half a tank. Itís always possible that the next station will be out of fuel or closed if youíre driving at night.
Diesel fuel is readily available all along the Alcan, but you should bring a large fuel funnel because many of the pumps are built for semi trucks.
If youíre thinking about taking a bus to Anchorage or Fairbanks because you want to travel in the cheapest way possible, you should consider flying instead. Not only is flying cheaper, but itís much fasteróby about five days. Then you can take all that money you would have spent on a long, grueling bus ride and travel around Alaska at your leisure.
If you decide to take the bus because you want to travel the Alcan, then consider getting an AlaskaPass. The pass gives you the freedom and flexibility to explore Western British Columbia, the Yukon and Alaska by providing access to ferry systems, bus systems and train systems in Western Canada and Alaska. The AlaskaPass is accepted by the following carriers: Alaska Marine Highway; Greyhound Lines of Canada; Laidlaw Coaches (Vancouver Island Coach Lines); British Columbia Ferries; Gray Line of Alaskaís Alaskon Express; Norline Coaches (Yukon); and Alaska Railroad. A pass for eight days of consecutive travel costs $499; there is an additional $50 surcharge if you use the pass in Bellingham to board an Alaska Marine Highway ferry. The best overall deal is the 12/21-day pass (travel 12 out of 21 days) for $729 or the 21/45-day pass for $999. You can buy a pass ahead of time from most travel agents or by calling AlaskaPass Inc. directly at (800) 248-7598. Rates, routes and travel options also are available online at www.alaskapass.com.
If you decide to take the bus the whole way from the Lower 48 to Alaska, you must buy a combination of tickets from three different bus lines. From Seattle you will ride Greyhound Bus Lines to Vancouver for $25 one-way. Call Greyhound at (800) 231-2222 or in Seattle at (206) 628-5530 for exact departure times; a minimum of five buses depart for Vancouver each day. If youíre departing from Butte, Montana, you will take a Greyhound bus from Butte to Coutts, Alberta, Canada. Greyhound buses leave Butte at 3 a.m. daily and arrive in Coutts at 11:30 a.m. The trip costs $42 one-way.
Once you arrive in Vancouver or Coutts, you must switch to Greyhound Lines of Canada for the next leg of the journey to Whitehorse. The bus trip from Vancouver to Whitehorse costs $146 if you buy your ticket at least seven days in advance. (If you buy the ticket when you get there it will cost you $196.) The bus leaves Vancouver at 7:30 a.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and the trip takes 44 hours. Buses depart from Coutts to Whitehorse at noon on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Cost is $200 if you purchase your ticket seven days in advance. The trip takes 41 and a half hours. The telephone number for Greyhound Lines of Canada is (800) 661-8747.
From Whitehorse to either Fairbanks or Anchorage, you will switch to Gray Line of Alaskaís Alaskon Express bus. The bus leaves Whitehorse at noon on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. It spends one night in Beaver Creek in the Yukon Territory so you will have to, as wellóat the Westmark Inn for $43. When the bus arrives in Tok the next morning, it splits into two runsóone going to Fairbanks, the other going to Anchorage. The trip to Fairbanks costs $165, and the trip to Anchorage costs $195.
Going from Whitehorse to Skagway or Haines is much easier. The Alaskon Express bus to Skagway leaves everyday at 4:30 p.m., takes two hours and costs $56. The bus to Haines departs Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays, leaves at noon and takes five hours. Cost is $86. For more information, call Gray Line of Alaska at (800) 544-2206.
It is not possible to take a train all the way from the Lower 48 to Alaska, but it can be done for part of the trip. An Amtrak train travels from Seattle to Vancouver daily at 7:45 a.m. and arrives at 11:40 a.m. The trip costs $31. Telephone: (800) 872-7245.
VIA Rail Canada offers train trips from Vancouver to Prince Rupert for $95 if you buy your ticket at least seven days in advance. However, the journey requires you to pay for two overnight stays at hotels in Jasper and Prince George along the way. Once you arrive in Prince Rupert, you can catch an Alaska Marine Highway ferry to several destinations in Southeast Alaska. VIA Railís trains leave Vancouver for Prince Rupert on Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays. For more information, call VIA Rail at (800) 561-3949.
If you are heading south from Fairbanks, consider taking the Alaska Railroad, which runs from Fairbanks to Seward on the Kenai Peninsula and to Whittier on Prince William Sound. The train makes stops in Denali National Park and Anchorage. It is an extraordinarily beautiful trip that is well worth the $240 fare from Fairbanks to Anchorage. For specific information on rates and travel routes, call Alaska Railroad at (800) 544-0552 or visit the companyís Web site at www.akrr.com.
People savvy in the ways of traveling on the cheap often hitchhike to their destination, forgoing the expense of fuel or tickets altogether. While many people successfully hitchhike the Alcan, it is important to remember that youíre looking at 2,300 miles. If you have a prearranged job waiting for you in Alaska, you should be very realistic in your estimate of how long it might take you to get there. Be prepared to get on a bus if necessary. Stories abound of people getting rides from Vancouver all the way to Anchorage, but there are just as many stories of days spent on the side of the road in the rain. As any experienced hitchhiker will tell you, patience is the key to enjoying a trip when the main source of transportation is the extended thumb.
Hitchhiking is dangerous and you must be cautious. While predation on the Alcan is rare, it does happen. If you are even slightly suspicious about the person offering you a ride, trust your instincts. If you feel certain that a ride is friendly and well-meaning, check your instincts and look for ways he or she may try to steal from you. Maybe itís cold-hearted to be suspicious of everyone you meet while hitchhiking, but it is what you must do to protect yourself. On the Alcan, you can be a long way from anywhere, and that makes you particularly susceptible to being targeted. If you sense a ride might be shady, turn it down politelyóvery politely. If you donít trust the ride, ask them where they are going and then tell them you are going someplace else. If they argue with you, remain polite. It is easy to conceal a weapon in a car, so it should be assumed that anyone who is driving a car has the capacity to victimize you.
You can greatly improve your chances of getting a ride by paying attention to your appearance. If youíre wearing a baseball cap pulled way down over your head, sunglasses and a flannel shirt and youíre sitting on an old duffel bag, expect to be there a while. When you are picked up, expect it to be by somebody who looks like you. If, however, you are clean and presentable, drivers can see your eyes and youíre sitting on a bright, shiny new backpack from REI, your chances of getting a ride will be greatly increased. It might anger you that your choice not to look like an affluent urban product denies you quick travel, but keep in mind that picking up a hitchhiker is both dangerous and generous and no one owes you a ride.