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
One of our serendipitous finds
was the Russian Orthodox/Native Athabascan cemetery in Eklutna, AK with
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.
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
One basic site I found useful at the beginning of my research is
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
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
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
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
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 best planning tool we found for anyone driving to Alaska (not
just RVers) was
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
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
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
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.
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.
route we took goes through Coutts, Calgary, Edmonton, Grande
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
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
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. 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 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.
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
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
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
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
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil,
and Cody the ultra Lab
© 2012 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil