2012  HIKING, CYCLING,

& RV TRAVEL ADVENTURES

 

   
 
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   TRAVELING TO ALASKA, p. 4:  RESEARCH  
& PLANNING + ROUTING & ROAD CONDITIONS

 

TUESDAY, OCTOBER 9

 
"Our happiest moments as tourists always seem to come when we  
stumble upon one thing while in pursuit of something else."
 
~ Lawrence Block
 
 

No matter how much research and planning you put into a trip to a new place you're likely to run into some surprises.

Hopefully they will all be fun adventures that turn out to be delightful memories of your trip. We had enough serendipitous moments like this in Alaska and northern Canada to remember for the rest of our lives.


One of our serendipitous finds was the Russian Orthodox/Native Athabascan cemetery in Eklutna, AK with
"spirit houses." This little house on top of a grave is a replica of its deceased owner's real house.  (7-25-12)

Spontaneity and serendipity aside, some thorough research and planning is essential for a road trip of this magnitude. We made a lot of it up as we went along but we were armed with a lot of information before we even began the journey.

This page will cover some of the research and planning tools we used.

ONLINE SOURCES

I've read about traveling to Alaska all my adult life but didn't seriously research it until about a year before we began our trip. Most of the information came from online sources from the areas we'd be traveling through and websites of more than a dozen RVing individuals, couples, or families who made the trip between 2007 and 2011.

You can easily find numerous reliable sources of information by doing web searches for the locations and topics you are interested in. I focused more on official sites for towns, provinces, the state of Alaska, and parks than I did on commercial sites.


This museum on the Kenai Peninsula has several historic buildings and is free to tour with a guide. (7-12-12)

One basic site I found useful at the beginning of my research is northtoalaska.com.

You can download a free guide to your computer, order a paper copy, or just read the information online. There are maps of the various routes and side trips through Canada and Alaska, distances between cities and towns, points of interest along the way, lots of travel tips, and links to further information.

It's a good place to start.

RVers' TRAVEL JOURNALS

We subscribe to an internet list-serve for Cameo 5th-wheel coach owners. I knew some of those folks had gone to Alaska in their RVs so I began my search for trip journals there. I expanded my list with links from the free RVTravel.com newsletter I get online every Saturday.

I noted the routes each couple or individual took, places they found particularly worth their time to explore, campgrounds and day-tour companies they liked, and other comments relevant to our interests. None of the blogs I read were written by folks who are as physically active hiking and cycling as Jim and I are so we researched trails and bike paths by other means.


View of Twin Peaks in the northern Chugach Mountains from the trail on a nearby mountain (7-25-12)

I chose online journals written mostly by retired couples with RVs who had the whole summer to explore Alaska. I wasn't interested in what families with young children did, but there are plenty of sites that address activities for kids, too. You can fairly easily find personal websites and blogs written by people who share some of the same interests you do.

Just look around the internet and you'll be amazed at some of the great information you can find.

DIRECT ADVICE FROM OTHER RVers

We also picked the brains of everyone we met on our travels last summer and winter who has been to Alaska. Where did they go? What did they enjoy the most? What advice did they have for others planning their first trip to the Last Frontier?

Above and below:  We probably wouldn't have paid the hefty entry fee to the stunning Alaska SeaLife
Center in Seward if we hadn't gotten so many recommendations to go there.  We loved it!  (7-10-12)

By the time we left on our trip our questions had become very specific. I often took notes after talking with people because there was so much information to absorb.

RECOMMENDATIONS ALONG THE WAY

We continued gathering information from other travelers and from Canadian and Alaskan residents that we met during the summer. Almost everyone we talked with was friendly and more than willing to share their favorite places and activities.

Their recommendations re: which military campgrounds are nicest in Alaska, which day cruise to take out of Seward, which flight-touring company to see Denali from the air, which station has the cheapest diesel, which grocery has the best produce, and other information we received was invaluable.

Particularly knowledgeable were the campground hosts we met at JBER in Anchorage and Riley Creek CG at Denali. The couples who gave us the most information have worked those volunteer positions for the past 15-20 summers and are snowbirds during the winter months.


We lucked out in our timing at the Alaska SeaLife Center, reaching the Steller sea lion exhibit
just as two of the critters were being fed. They put on a great performance!  (7-10-12)

We also received a wealth of information at our very first campground in Alaska, the Valdez Glacier RV Park. The woman who was camped across from us is a military MWR (Morale, Welfare, Recreation) supervisor who is stationed at Fort Greeley near Delta Junction. The military FamCamp at Valdez is in her jurisdiction.

She spent an hour with us our first evening in Valdez answering our questions and making recommendations for places to camp and things to do in all the places we told her we wanted to visit in Alaska. She also offered some other suggestions that turned out to be some of our most memorable experiences in Alaska. I took two pages of notes while we talked so I could consult them later.

WRITTEN MATERIALS WE USED

Some written materials were indispensable before and during our trip, including the AAA maps we used through Canada and Alaska. We used the AAA camping and tour books less frequently than the maps.

It would have been preferable to have the latest maps; ours were two or three years old because we let our membership expire after gathering regional and state maps, tour books, and camping guides for 49 states while our membership was valid. Our topo/street software was also a few years old but mostly accurate when we used it.


My two favorite birds in the sea bird enclosure at the Alaska SeaLife Center were the  
puffins and this adorable King Eider, which looks exactly like a stuffed toy!  (7-10-12)

We also purchased two books last year that were quite helpful.

Almost every RVer we talked with who's been to Alaska or whose blog accounts we read recommended the next book:

THE MILEPOST

The best planning tool we found for anyone driving to Alaska (not just RVers) was The Milepost, a thick, 784-page paperback book that has been published by William S. Morris since 1949. You can easily purchase it online for under $20 at places like Amazon or in stores like Walmart.

You can also get it in digital form.

The information in this book is updated annually. New paper editions come out sometime in the spring. We used the 2011 edition, which was based on 2010 information, because we began planning our trip a year in advance and didn't see the need to buy the 2012 edition when it came out a couple months before our trip began. It worked (mostly) very well for our 2012 trip.

The Milepost has detailed mile-by-mile highway logs of 30 major routes through Alberta, Northwest Territories, British Columbia, Yukon Territory, and Alaska., 60 different side trips you can take, numerous maps of routes and towns, road conditions (usually from the previous summer or fall), campgrounds, other accommodations, places to eat, ferry schedules, sightseeing opportunities, fishing information, and more.

So many people consider The Milepost essential (including us) that it's been dubbed "the bible" of North Country travel. We consulted it so frequently that it's totally dog-eared now and some pages have come loose. It was lying in my lap every time we drove anywhere in Canada and Alaska.

The only problems we had with it were an out-dated map of the route through Edmonton (because our edition was two years old) and a lot of advertising.

The ads are fairly subtle, though, and in some cases they were quite helpful.

THE TRAVELER'S GUIDE TO ALASKAN CAMPING

We supplemented The Milepost with another paperback book some folks recommended and we were very pleased with it -- the 5th edition of the Traveler's Guide to Alaskan Camping by Mike and Terri Church. We got ours at Amazon for less than $15 (+ free shipping) when we ordered it with The Milepost.

This book focuses on RV and tent camping in Alaska and the Yukon. It doesn't cover Alberta or British Columbia.

It includes useful information about each camping place that is available at the time the book is updated each year, whether the campground advertised in the book or not. It has many more campgrounds listed than The Milepost, with details about location, facilities, cost, whether there are  sites for big rigs, and much more.

Fore example, we probably wouldn't have found the serviceable Tags RV Park hidden behind the Tempo fuel station in Watson Lake, YT without this book; it wasn't listed in The Milepost. It was less expensive and more spacious than the only other RV park open this summer in that town. We stayed there five days in June when the Alaska Hwy. was shut down and again overnight in September on our way back to the Lower 48.


The boreal forest surrounding Wye Lake in the town of Watson Lake, YT
looked different in September, dressed in fall colors.  (9-8-12)

Alaskan Camping has lots of other helpful information for travelers about the terrain, road conditions, locations of dump stations and potable water supplies, places to get fuel, where to view wildlife, and good places to fish, hike, and cycle.

Most of those things are useful to anyone traveling in their own vehicle to Alaska, not just folks who are camping along the way.

FREE PROMOTIONAL MATERIALS

Then there's all the free promotional stuff from state and local chambers of commerce and other tourist organizations. You can order brochures ahead of time and/or gather them along the way through Canada and in Alaska.

I can guarantee you that there is no shortage of such literature! Each one tries hard to reel you in.

We picked up a lot of tourist information as we traveled through Alberta, British Columbia, the Yukon, and Alaska. Every town we drove through on the eastern route and the Alaska Highway had a visitor center full of glossy guide books and maps with enticing pictures and descriptions of what their locale has to offer tourists.


Impressive visitor center and museum in Grande Prairie, AB  (6-4-12)

We picked up only a few brochures in Grande Prairie, AB, Dawson Creek, BC, and Watson Lake, YT since we didn't spend much time there.

However, I came out with an armload of tourist magazines and brochures at Tok, the first major town we hit in Alaska. They have a big, comfortable visitor center right next to one of four large Public Lands Information Centers in Alaska. Both places supply information for all areas of the state, not just the Interior.

We didn't need to supplement our pile of information very much after that but we continued to enjoy the visitor centers in most of the other towns we visited. They are full of interesting interpretive exhibits about local history, culture, wildlife, etc. and knowledgeable, enthusiastic volunteers or employees who want you to stay as long as possible in their area.

After all, tourism is one of Alaska's and northern Canada's major industries. I think the residents are probably glad when we all go home at the end of the season, though.  <grin>

ROUTING & ROAD CONDITIONS

Since there are so many different routes to take to Alaska you need to do some homework to see which is most convenient and/or appeals the most to you. We chose the traditional eastern route to the Alaska Highway because we were coming from the east. We could have gone farther west and taken other routes up or back.


The main routes to and within Alaska from Montana and Washington State

This is one place where I think some pre-trip research and planning is needed. Read as much as you can about the different routes, pick one, and then stay updated about road conditions before and during your trip.

Each of the Canadian provinces has a website that gives detailed, updated road information. We didn't consult those sites adequately until we discovered from a fellow camper in Watson Lake -- as we were getting ready to pull out of the campground -- that the Alaska Highway was closed 75 miles to the west. We could have found that information online if we'd looked online that morning.

After that we remembered to do our research before planning our next move. When we didn't have an internet connection we listened to the radio, watched TV news, or asked locals and other travelers about conditions up the road. We never ran into such problems again.


The eastern route we took goes through Coutts, Calgary, Edmonton, Grande Prairie,
 Dawson Creek, Fort Nelson, Watson Lake, Whitehorse, and Beaver Creek to Tok, AK.

Some of the routes listed in The Milepost have paved roads. Some have dirt/gravel roads. None are perfect.

That's life above the 60th parallel, where winters are long and rough and not even the brightest engineers have figured out how to build roads that withstand permafrost conditions -- or if they have, neither country wants to foot the bill!

For various reasons the scope of this trip is probably not like any road trip you've ever taken in the Lower 48 -- and the farther you start from Alaska, the more complicated it will be.


We made it!!  We missed a photo of this sign when we entered Alaska
east of Tok in June so I took this photo on the way back in September.  (9-6-12)

I talked with a retired couple who drove to Alaska from southern Florida. I don't think there is anywhere in the U.S. that is farther by land from Alaska than the Florida Keys! They traversed most of the U.S. diagonally before they even reached Canada. They still had about 1,800 miles through Canada before reaching the Alaska border. They had even farther to go than we did roundtrip from Virginia.

Don't underestimate how long it takes to drive from one place to another in northern Canada and Alaska, where the roads aren't conducive to high-speed travel. Alberta, British Columbia, and the Yukon are each larger than most U.S. states. Alaska is bigger than any of those provinces and twice the size of Texas.

This map piece showing South Central and Interior Alaska is just a part of the entire land mass of the state. I highlighted most of the roads we drove in yellow (there were some additional dirt roads on day trips):


I photographed this map from The Milepost book.

You can make better time on the eastern route through Alberta than farther north and west in British Columbia and the Yukon. Our route through Alberta (Lethbridge-Calgary-Edmonton-Grande Prairie) was similar to driving through the Lower 48 -- some freeways, mostly smooth pavement, lots of services along the way.

We were able to comfortably drive 400-450 miles/day with our 5th-wheel coach on these roads in Alberta, although we drove fewer miles than that when we wanted to stop to see/do something touristy, like check out the great bike path in Grande Prairie.


Hay fields along our route in western Alberta  (9-11-12)

From what we've heard and read the more westerly routes through British Columbia are slower and/or more primitive. They include the Icefield Parkway through Banff and Jasper National Parks (drop-dead scenery, but slow in the mountains), and the Yellowhead and Cassiar Highways in British Columbia (also beautiful, but the roads are reportedly more primitive and remote than the Alaska Hwy.).

Roadways -- including the Alaska Highway -- generally tend to deteriorate the farther north you go and there are fewer and fewer services along the way. 

Your trip will be a lot more pleasant in northern BC and the Yukon if you reduce the number of miles you drive each day -- more like 200-300 miles/day and even fewer if you want to go to visitor centers and local attractions, do something recreational, or just hang out in nice provincial or private campgrounds along the way.


The Alaska Hwy. is a roller-coaster in eastern Alaska. Note the patches ahead; you usually
can't tell until you're right on them if they're going to be smooth or rough.  (9-6-12)

The best advice I can give in this regard is to not only allow a cushion of time when you're planning a trip in the Far North, but also to take your time on the inevitable rough roads. Sometimes we had to creep along at 15 or 20 MPH to avoid wrecking the Cameo over potholes and washboard gravel breaks.

Even if the speed limit for passenger vehicles is the equivalent of 55-60 MPH in the more remote areas, you'll probably have to go substantially slower in an RV to avoid surprises.

Remember that speeds are in kilometers per hour in Canada, not miles per hour:


Reminder just inside the Canadian border on the Alaska Highway  (9-6-12)

Build in extra time in your itinerary not only for things like mudslides and washed-out bridges, but also for the inevitable road and bridge work. We often had to wait from two to twenty minutes for one-lane traffic with pilot vehicles, sometimes over several miles of rough dirt or gravel surfaces. That wasn't just at the beginning of summer; the same thing happened in the fall on our return trip.

I've already mentioned the joke that there are only two seasons in Alaska and northern Canada -- winter and road construction.

Thing is, they aren't joking! The only time the weather allows for road work to be done is during the same time the majority of tourists are visiting. You'll find just about the same thing in most northern states in the Lower 48, so that shouldn't come as a big surprise.


Warning sign in both English and French in British Columbia  (9-9-12)

Deal with it. Realize that it's going to happen and consider it part of your Great Alaskan Adventure.

Besides, you're more likely to spot a grizzly bear or moose or nesting trumpeter swan when you're driving more slowly.

Remember to enjoy the journey, not just the destination.

WILDLIFE HAZARDS

A moose or bison in the middle of the road is even more hazardous to your health and your vehicle's welfare than hitting an unexpected rough spot. We saw this graphic sign near Delta Junction, AK:

We saw numerous signs warning us of moose, elk, caribou, and bison in the roadways all through northern Canada and Alaska -- but we didn't usually see them anywhere near the signs. As if . . .

In addition to the interior park road at Denali, we were especially likely to see large game animals on or right next to the Alaska Highway through the wilderness areas of northern British Columbia and the Yukon.

We learned to be careful everywhere we drove, however, because we couldn't predict when we'd round a curve or top a hill and discover a big critter on the road.

We had a red-letter day on September 9 between Watson Lake, YT and Fort Nelson, BC. The next seven photos are ones I took that day. We encountered a total of nine stone sheep in two places, over a dozen caribou in three or four spots, a very large herd of about 100 bison on both sides of the road (and in the road), another lone bison earlier in the day, several mule deer, four free-range horses, and a large black cat-like animal running across the road with a dead animal the size of a woodchuck in its mouth. It was gone before I could get a picture of it. If I thought panthers live in the Yukon, that would be my guess as to its identity.

All of the bison we saw that day, even the calves, were essentially oblivious to several RVs (including ours) and other vehicles that were stopped along the road, their occupants fascinated by this spectacle. We watched them for about ten minutes as they grazed or slept. As we slowly crept past the parked vehicles in front of us Jim could see one of the bison in his side mirror wandering across the road behind us.

On our way to Alaska we had to stop for a lone bison making its way across the road. We saw only small groups of them along the roadways in June.

All it takes to ruin your day is to run into just one of them, so be careful.

That September day we felt enriched to see so many free-roaming buffalo in one place where they aren't fenced in like they are on bison ranches or parks such as Custer State Park in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

Several stone sheep in a group of seven we saw that day at Muncho Lake were more skittish around traffic, running up a steep cliff as we approached:

Three others in that group continued to graze on a narrow strip of land between the road and lake, less concerned about our truck and 5th-wheel camper several feet away.

This female stone sheep and lamb we saw earlier that day also posed calmly a few feet away from us. Although wary, they are clearly used to some traffic on "their" road:

Above and below:  stone sheep mom and lamb in the Alaska Hwy. east of Watson Lake (9-9-12)

Most of the groups of caribou we saw that day were as indecisive as squirrels, going back and forth across the road as we approached and waited for them. These caribou were along the scenic Toad River:

Above and below:  we just can't decide . . .

It was fun to watch them for a few minutes as we waited for them to make up their minds which way they were going to go!

The critters are out there. Beware.

Much of the time you'll drive by without even seeing them. It's memorable when you do. I never tired of seeing bears, moose, caribou, deer, Dall and stone sheep, fox, wolves, bald eagles, swans, cranes, and other regal creatures we saw along the roadways on this trip.

Next page:  timing your trip to Alaska -- crowds, weather, road conditions, and other factors to consider

Happy trails,

Sue
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, and Cody the ultra Lab

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2012 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil

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