Alaska: ‘Best Road Trip Ever’

In May of 2019 we set off on a one-month trip to both the American and Canadian Arctic Ocean communities—Prudhoe Bay in Alaska, and Tuktoyaktuk in Canada’s remote North West Territories province. It was planned as the first step of a much longer, Arctic to Antarctic overland expedition during which we expect to travel approximately 25,000 miles over 12-15 months, ending in Tierra Del Fuego, Argentina. The whole trip, which is being made in our Outfitter Caribou Lite 6.5 camper, is being documented on our blog site called oneendlessroad.com.

From our home city of Kelowna in southern British Colombia (BC) there were some long stretches of driving just to get to the far north of this province. The route took us initially via the Yellowhead Highway with stops in Valemount, BC, then Grand Cache-Alberta, Fort Nelson, and Liard Hot Springs in BC and on to Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory. With those miles under our belt we were ready to start exploring “the far north.”

Not that southern BC lacks attractions, but we’d simply seen most of it before. Intermittent rain and low cloud marked during the first two days made planned detours in the scenic Jasper area somewhat pointless. Shortly after leaving Jasper the wildlife got more interesting with significant herds of mountain sheep by the road—and one lonely moose!

Rather uneventful and very easy driving took us through Dawson Creek (starting point—or “Mile Zero” of the Alaska Highway) and Fort St. John but the scenery improved noticeably as we neared Fort Nelson—signs warning of wildlife on the road proved timely and much excitement accompanied our first black bear sighting. Hours later we had stopped counting as we had seen so many—deer were also in abundance. Camped in Fort Nelson for the night and we met “Rick,”  a true “Sourdough” (one born in the Yukon) who helped with some invaluable Yukon Highway tips when I asked questions about our proposed route. “Take plenty of spare tires on the Dempster,” he said, and seemed relieved when I told him we had two. “You’ll need them both,” he predicted. Hopefully not, I thought.

Stone Mountain, Northern BC

Stunning views views from Summit Lake Pass were an early highlight on the road from Fort Nelson to Liard Hot Springs but more was in store—caribou, more bears, mountain sheep and other wildlife were seen often as we drove on through some of northern BC’s most beautiful scenery (and best campgrounds) especially in the area around Muncho Lake.

On a previous trip to Alaska, we’d stumbled across Liard Hot Springs and vowed to revisit if we ever had the chance. With no hard schedule we stayed a couple of days this time and, apart from some irritating smoke in the air from an Alberta wildfire, found it as relaxing and beautiful as ever. License plates are a great guide to how famous a place is and a quick perusal of other campers’ vehicles showed plates from as far afield as Florida, Ontario and Georgia. A great place, off-the-grid, and a welcome respite from miles and miles of endless highway driving. Well, not everyone was driving. Standing out front of the campground was a young man with his backpack and dog, waiting to hitch-a-ride west to Dawson City. Unsuccessful the previous day he had slept overnight by the road side and stood forlornly waiting for that rare driver that picks up a hitchhiker—certainly an adult male. I approached and asked where he had come from and where he was going. Montreal to the former and Dawson City (home) to the latter, he answered. I suggested that hitching with a a dog could not be increasing his odds of a ride. Indeed not, he replied, ”but it keeps the bears away!” Of course.

Liard Hot Springs

Well and truly rested after a couple of days at Liard we followed the Alaska Highway westward as it zig-zagged between BC and the Yukon, crossing the Continental Divide and several markers of note attesting to various aspects of the construction of the famed road—built in just nine months between 1942 and 1943 as a supply road to Alaska in response to fears of a Japanese invasion in the north. it never came, thankfully, but the road was a catalyst for much of the subsequent development of this formerly remote region.

We managed to make Whitehorse at the end of the first week and had lots of shopping to get caught up on (big towns are sparse up north so one saves one’s ‘to do’ list for when you pass through them).

The next few days saw us camping at the always magnificent Kathleen Lake (Kluane National Park), still in the Yukon and just bordering Alaska, soaking up some great weather and enjoying a couple of hikes. We largely followed a fairly well-worn path on through the aforementioned Alaska Highway but diverting south from Tok down the Tok Cutoff to Gakona, before turning north up the Richardson Highway to Paxson at the eastern end of the famous Denali Highway. A seasonal road only, we’d missed it on our last trip up so made sure we took it in this time. Camping there overnight, we saw plenty of wildlife, stunning vistas of the Alaska Range and, nearing the western end of this 135-mile gravel track, peek-a-boo views of Denali Mountain itself.

Enjoying the views at Kathleen Lake.

Denali National Park was, of course, the main attraction—we had hoped to see a grizzly bear this time and while it was distant, with binoculars we managed to get as clear a view of a grizzly bear in the wild as we had ever seen. Not the kind of thing you want to be much closer to! A large female moose with two newborn calves was another highlight.

The Dalton

Heading north again we got to Fairbanks and used it to resupply ourselves for the next three to four days on the Dalton. Reaching Deadhorse (or Prudhoe Bay) would put us as far north as it is possible to drive in North America and at the very northern end of the famous Pan American Highway. Save for a short shipping detour around the impassable Darien Gap in Panama, it is possible (and we plan) to ultimately drive all the way to Ushuaia, Tierra Del Fuego, at the very southern tip of Argentina. For those unfamiliar with the road, the very word ‘highway’ is a real misnomer—415 miles of potholed, washboarded, and frost-heaved mud track would better describe the Dalton highway. Lois had suggested that we change the name of our blog to “OneHorrendous Road” in its honor!

Sign marking the beginning of the Dalton Highway, Gateway to the Arctic – the Road to Prudhoe Bay.

The weather was on our side as we set off and made Coldfoot our first stop—it’s always a bit risky this early in “the season,” but hey, traveling now you avoid the brutal mosquitoes that are out in force by mid-June. More or less half way up “the track,” and a dusty, muddy camp more than a town, it famously got its name during the gold rush era when some of the prospectors got ‘cold feet’ on the long trek north and turned for home at this point. It was here that we met Cristiano and Maria, a Brazilian couple (along with their teenage daughter) traveling the Pan American highway in a camper, coming (obviously) from south (in Brazil) to north. Our paths crossed often in the next few days as we followed the same and only route north and back to Fairbanks again. The route is truly remote, but the scenery stunning—wildlife was not as plentiful as the last trip up in 2011 but we managed to see moose, black foxes, caribou and the amazing musk oxes. Sadly, the road is now much more traveled (likely in part to the fame has received often being the subject of the “Ice Road Truckers” series)—still very driveable, but, at least at this time of year, was is in much worse shape than on our last trip up. Given that we were especially happy to complete the return trip with neither a flat tire or a cracked windshield—two of the most common souvenirs one takes away from the Dalton Highway (I claimed it it as the result of my fine driving, Lois attributed it to her repeated advice to “just slow down, Jeff!”).

Fresh from almost 1,340 kilometers up and back the Dalton Highway in Alaska it was time to rest up and recharge in Fairbanks. After a few fairly exhausting days of long, dusty, potholed roads the comforts of Fairbanks were a welcome relief—hot showers, laundry facilities, a great selection of food and drinks, and a Japanese restaurant were all enjoyed before heading east and ultimately back into Canada.

Atigun Pass, Brooks Range, Alaska
“Signpost” for the town of Chicken, Alaska (Top of the World Highway).

The “shortcut” back to the north Yukon took us over the scenic “Top of the World” highway via the quaint community of Chicken—last stop in Alaska before crossing the US/Canada border. The highway got its name due to the unusual nature of the road—unlike most roads through mountains which follow the valley floors, this road (for the most part) hugs the high ridges giving it a ‘top of the world’ feel. Chicken is an old gold mining center (still actively mined) with only basic facilities, but what must be one of the coolest bars in all Alaska—local legend has it that the town got its name when town founders could not agree on the spelling of “Ptarmigan,” the name originally proposed!

Dawson City, Yukon, home of the 1898 gold rush, never disappoints and probably has one of the best visitor centers we have come across—that and a visitor center for the North West Territories (across the street) where we stocked up on tips about our planned run up to Tuktoyaktuk on the Dempster highway in the days to come. The mandatory warnings ensued…drive slowly, watch for wildlife, take extra tires, extra fuel and be prepared for long distances between services—hey, that’s what make it such an adventure! Jokes aside we were very much looking forward to the Dempster Highway and already knew much of what had been explained to us in Dawson (the jumping off point for the trip).

We met many people with rented truck campers here at Eagle Plains Camp, Yukon.

In the past days we had started bumping into other travelers at campsites with the same route in mind—getting to the Arctic now that Canada finally had an all season regular road to travel on. Seems that remote, hard-to-get-to-places, will always attract a diverse assortment of visitors—we’d already met three young Dutch travelers sharing (and sleeping in) in a mini-van, a retired single lady from Ontario (driving a Toyota Sienna with regular tires—you don’t need a truck!), a couple of Americans on motorcycles, several Swiss and Germans in large, custom ‘overland’ vehicles shipped to Canada for the adventure and more New Zealanders in rented truck campers than we have ever met in one place! These would all become friends in the coming days as we traversed an almost identical route north—on 900 kilometers of very dusty, rough, unforgiving gravel road.

The Dempster was just as dirty as the Dalton!

Out of Dawson and on the Dempster our first stop was to be the very famous Tombstone Territorial Park—alas, the weather was not in our favor so rather than linger we pushed on to Eagle Plains pushing the Tombstone stop out to the return journey. “Fair” would best describe the road conditions—lots of loose gravel, and in some places severe washboarding reminiscent of the Dalton just a week before. Nothing like a trip up the Dempster to remind one just how big this country is with every few miles bringing something different. One surprise—and we could not help but compare the road to the Dalton (as everyone did)—was the relative lack of bigger wildlife; no moose all the way up and just a black bear and two cubs and a fox on day two, yet it made the scenery no less stunning.

Day two took us all the way to “Tuk,” crossing the Arctic Circle, the Continental Divide, Yukon/NWT border (gaining both an hour and an appreciation for their markedly better roads!) then passing through both Fort McPherson and Inuvik. Doing so involved  crossing the Peel and Mackenzie rivers on seasonal ferry’s which  had only started operating a few days earlier—one can’t arrive here before June 1st or it’s a long boring wait at the Eagle Plains campground (a trap many fall into every year we are told).

The “Tuk” is now a popular Canadian tourist destination.

Finally, at around 7pm on Wednesday, June 5th, and after over 4,500 miles of driving (including our detour via Alaska) we pulled into the “Hamlet of Tuktoyaktuk” right on the shores of the Arctic. We’d made it—no flats, no broken windshields (and praying we could duplicate that feat on the way back). That all said there is really not much in “Tuk”—a very small community and still getting used to the fact that they are now ‘connected’ by road to the rest of Canada (the all season road was completed only in November 2017). The tourism infrastructure, while very limited, is not stopping a throng of adventurous types from making the pilgrimage north—it remains to be seen how this tiny community will cope with their sudden fame. Like all before us we made the requisite photo ops at the “Welcome to Tuktoyaktuk” sign and the Arctic Ocean signs on the waterfront, dipping our feet in the cold Arctic for good measure. Today, as far from Kelowna as we would get and, like Prudhoe Bay in the US, as far north in Canada as it is possible to drive—tomorrow would begin the long journey back.

Turning South

Like anywhere, heading back never holds quite the same appeal as arriving at a new destination, but we made great use of the time spent retracing our steps (at least as far as the Klondike highway, at which point we would explore some new territory). As always, we bumped into many of the same folks at campgrounds on the way back as we did on the way up, so renewed those acquaintances and compared experiences—these usually related to road conditions and wildlife sightings, or particularly appealing territorial park walking trails. By unanimous agreement, Tombstone Territorial Park was the standout highlight park/campground on the Dempster…definitely a park not to be missed for any that come this way.

Off the Dempster (and another self congratulatory high-five for completing both the American and Canadian Arctic highways with no vehicle damage), the Klondike Highway took us south to Carmacks and on to Whitehorse. Notable really for a lack of vehicle traffic more than anything else (but perhaps more wildlife sightings as a result—five bears in all), the Klondike Highway was our first paved road after almost 1,200 miles of dust and gravel. While that’s tough in a truck and camper, spare a thought for those doing it on a bicycle—and yes, like the Dalton, we passed a few hardy cyclists while on the Dempster. Most notable was “Kamran,” a fellow from Pakistan who had cycled all the way from Ushuaia at the bottom of Patagonia in Argentina (our own longer term destination) and, after almost three years in the saddle, was about 10 cycling days away from his destination in Tuk. Read his blog here ( www.kamranonbike.com )…..fascinating chap!

Kamran had cycled from the bottom of Argentina, here on the Dempster Highway.

Soldiering-on south took us back through Whitehorse where we replenished our supplies, serviced the truck, topped up the propane tank, and rotated the tires (the combination of Dalton and Dempster gravel had really chewed up our rear tires, while the fronts were in relatively good shape).

Whitehorse had typically not delivered us good weather and apart from some sunshine as we drove in, this stop (our third there) was no exception. The drizzle that we experienced throughout our stay continued as we headed east towards Boya Lake Provincial Park in BC. The long drive was uneventful apart from the many bear sightings, this time including four browns—rarer than the blacks it seems (one of the sightings included a brown and a black bear seemingly playing together, something we had never seen before). I can only say that Boya Lake lived up to its reputation—known as one of BC’s most beautiful provincial parks, we had to agree. Probably the prettiest park we had ever visited in fact.

Boya Lake is at the very top of the Cassiar Highway, a route we had not taken on our previous trip north due to forest fires there at the time. We were very much looking forward to our trip on the 875-kilometer-long Route 37 that would take us south through Boya Lake, Dease Lake, Meziadin Lake (our next camping stop—almost as stunning as Boya Lake) and on to the intersection with the Yellowhead Highway (Route 16). It did not disappoint—in places, far more stunning scenically than the better traveled and more populated Alaska Highway that brought us north. The Cassiar going south, like the Alaska Highway we had taken north, delivered a comparable abundance of wildlife but perhaps, due to less commercial traffic, gave a slightly smoother ride; most go up one route and back the other and both are great road road trips!

For the RV’er who has everything—a helicopter! Seen on Cassiar Highway, BC.

Like many readers of this magazine, we’ve seen many monster RV’s and often marveled at how much “stuff” and how many “toys” some folks traveled with; RV’s pulling boats, Jeeps, quads, small cars, some carrying motorcycles and the like. Not unusual at all. But, just outside Meziadin Junction, while taking a break at a rest stop, this pulled up beside us. Look closely—yes, an RV (from California), pulling its own helicopter no less!

Our last few days brought us back down Highway 97 through Prince George, Williams Lake, Clinton, Merritt and home to Kelowna, all areas we knew well so we simply motored through. Looking back over the 6,900 miles we had traveled we both agreed it was our best road trip ever. If you can find the time, we’d thoroughly recommend doing both the Dempster and the Dalton highways and if you only have time for one—take your pick, you won’t regret either one!

You can follow Jeff and Lois’s travels on Instagram at 1endlessroad or you can subscribe to their weekly blog at www.oneendlessroad.com.

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About Jeff Gunn 3 Articles
Jeff Gunn is a retired banker and avid truck camper enthusiast who enjoys exploring with his wife, Lois. The couple recently completed a trip to Alaska and are currently in Mexico with plans to visit South America. The two have put over 12,000 miles on their truck and camper.

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