2012  HIKING, CYCLING,

& RV TRAVEL ADVENTURES

 

   
 
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   FAREWELL TO ALASKA - THE JOURNEY SOUTH,
DAY 1: FAIRBANKS TO SNAG JCT. CAMPGROUND, YT

THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 6

 
"Last one out of Alaska, turn off the lights." 
~ my recurring thought on the lonely Alaska Highway today
 
 

This was our last day in Alaska. We left the campground at Fort Wainwright in Fairbanks about 9 AM Alaska Time and reached the Snag Junction Yukon government campground at 3:50 PM Alaska Time (4:50 PM Pacific Time -- we lost an hour). We had a couple sight-seeing stops along the way.

Total miles today = 332, with only about 30 of them in Canada.


Colorful trees east of Fairbanks

It was rainy and in the mid-40s in Fairbanks this morning; the rain mostly stopped by Delta Junction, the official end (beginning for us today) of the Alaska Highway. The sky got more clear as we drove east and south toward Canada. The weather was very pleasant by the time we got to the Canadian border.

That's the short version of today's road trip. Keep reading for more details and photos. Despite mostly overcast skies it was a scenic drive with all the brilliant fall color -- and early snow on some mountainsides.

ROUTE & TRAFFIC CONDITIONS

We drove approximately 96 miles on the Richardson Hwy. (AK 2) to Delta Junction. At that point the Richardson Hwy. goes south to Valdez. These two links are for pdf. maps on The Milepost website.

We continued east and south for another 233 miles on the Alaska Hwy., also called AK 2 until we reached the Canadian border, where it becomes Yukon 1. Snag Junction CG is just off the Alaska Hwy. about 30 miles inside the Canadian border.


Scottie Creek, near the Canadian border -- finally some blue sky!

The Richardson Hwy. is four-lane until Eielson AFB, about 20 miles east of Fairbanks. The remainder of our route today was two-lane with lots of straight stretches for faster vehicles to pass.

However, traffic today was minimal to almost none at all. We saw the most vehicles between Fairbanks and Delta Junction. There were very few between there and Tok. East of Tok and in the Yukon we practically had the road to ourselves.

All day I had the feeling that we were the last ones out of Alaska this year! Where's the light switch??


Sign on the door to the visitor center at Delta Junction, AK

We saw several signs at visitor centers, RV parks, lodges, and other businesses that said they were closed for the season.

That seems premature to me. I know there are other folks like us who stayed long enough to see the fall leaf colors on our way out of the state and through Canada.

ROAD CONDITIONS

Road surfaces varied from very good to very poor. That was today's biggest surprise.

The pavement on the Richardson Hwy. was fine from Fairbanks to Delta Junction. The Alaska Hwy. was the problem. The farther east we drove, the more deteriorated it became. There were good parts, then suddenly bad ones. Driving took a lot of concentration, not because of traffic but because of the  numerous potholes, permafrost waves, and gravel breaks.

The gravel breaks were packed down better than they were in most places in June but oncoming and passing vehicles still throw up rocks. So far on this trip we haven’t had any windshield chips, thank goodness, although we’ve been hit with some rocks.


Nice smooth pavement east of Fairbanks

The worst places on the route today were in the Yukon; we noticed the difference as soon as we crossed the border into Canada. The Alaska Hwy. still isn’t in very good shape most of the way from Tok to the border, either. We drove that section in June. This was our first time on the section from Tok to Delta Junction so we don't know how it compares with earlier in the summer.

We were hoping that the Alaska Hwy. would be in noticeably better shape than it was in June. We naively assumed that both Alaska and the Yukon would have done more repairs this summer. We certainly expected more in Alaska.

 
There are several places along the Alaska Hwy. in the Yukon and Alaska where special vents
like the ones on the left are used to prevent or reduce heaving of the permafrost under the roadway.
This is a long gravel break near Beaver Creek, YT; most aren't as smooth as they look from a distance.

There were only two areas today where road crews were working. We had a three-minute stop at one and didn’t have to wait at the other.

When we got to the campground and opened the refrigerator we could see what all the rough road did – two shelves in the main compartment were bent and had come out of their places on one side (we re-arranged all the shelves so the milk is on the bottom, right above the meat/veggie drawer).

When the milk fell on a shelf in the door, it broke the support so we also had to rearrange those shelves and food items. Thank goodness the refrigerator door didn’t open! None of the food spilled and Jim was able to straighten out the shelves.

Items in every cupboard were also “rearranged.” Again, good thing we have extra latches on some of those.

 
Good pavement repair job on the Alaska Hwy. between Delta Junction and Tok

We know to drive even slower tomorrow. Jim tried to be careful today but he couldn’t always see rough spots ahead of time.

I don’t remember any particular bump or hole as being particularly egregious. I think it was just the continual shaking that caused the problems.

TERRAIN & SCENERY

The road seemed fairly flat from Fairbanks to Tok although we gained about 1,800 feet elevation gradually on the way to the border. There were some hills where we crossed rivers , as in the next photo, but the terrain wasn’t really mountainous.


One of many bridges today; this one is east of Delta Junction.


View from that bridge

We could see many mountains in the Alaska Range to the south between Delta Junction and Tok, and the Wrangell-St. Elias Mountains farther to the south as we approached and passed the Canadian border.

Although it was cloudy, we could see the summits of most the mountains. Some have “terminal dust,” their first light coating of snow. Low clouds appeared to be dropping more snow as we watched.

Winter will be here soon. That's why we're heading south!

 
Terminal dust in the Alaska Range between Delta Junction and Tok

The Richardson Hwy. follows the Tanana River valley most of the way from Fairbanks to the Canadian border.

In addition to views of the river all day we also crossed it and numerous other streams that flow into it. There are a lot of bridges on the entire Alaska Highway through Alaska and Canada.


Where the Tanana riverbed is really wide it has more gravel bars than water this time of year.

There were also a lot of pretty lakes and wet areas still full of waterfowl between Fairbanks and the Yukon.

Our first stop today was at Birch Lake, a scenic rest area about 56 miles east of Fairbanks:

 

This is a day-use area only. Note the no-camping sign in front of our truck.

The birch and aspen trees became more colorful the higher elevation we got. They still have quite a bit of green on them at Fairbank’s low altitude. They are closer to peak color above 1,5000 feet. We were at or above that most of the time today.


More terminal dust + bright fall colors

The roadside and hills are much more interesting with all that color than when they are just shades of green.

The golds and oranges really contrast nicely with the dark green of the spruce trees. They would have been even more striking if the sky had been blue while we were driving through Alaska. We finally saw blue sky when we got closer to the Canadian border.


There were some red leaves on the mountainsides as we approached the Canadian border
but not near like the amount we saw at Denali National Park last week.

The only reds we could see in the taiga at even higher elevations were farther away and not very colorful on this mostly cloudy day.

CRITTER COUNT  

We didn’t see much wildlife today other than birds.

Some trumpeter swans haven't flown south yet. I saw these two far across the lake at Snag Junction where we stayed overnight:

We saw two large female moose by the road a couple miles east of Delta Jct. Two cars were stopped to look at them; we didn’t stop and I didn’t take a picture of them.

Ironically, the most animals we saw today were in the barnyard at the historic Rika's Roadhouse at Big Delta, between Fairbanks and Delta Junction on the Richardson Hwy. The critters were domestic, not wild. I'll give you a tour of the buildings and grounds in the next entry.

DELTA JUNCTION

There is another roadhouse farther east at Delta Junction, where we stopped in the empty visitor center parking lot to eat lunch in the camper.

It’s near the bright red visitor center, which was closed for the season:


Visitor Center at Delta Junction

Although the building is closed for the season we walked around to see some other things on the grounds, such as the mile post marking the official end of the Alaska Highway:

The unofficial end of the Alaska Hwy. is Fairbanks.

Since we did the section between Delta Junction and Tok today we can now say we've been on the entire Alaska Hwy. 

Here are some other attractions on the grounds of the visitor center at Delta Junction:


Example of a typical Alaskan hunting/fishing cabin; note the grass on the sod roof.


These 8-foot-high metal fly sculptures are comical! I assume they are a tongue-in-cheek reference
to Alaska's notoriously large flies in the summer, although we were never bothered by them.

NORTH POLE

If it hadn't been raining when we left Fairbanks I might have asked Jim to stop at the North Pole.

North Pole???

Well, sorta. The town of North Pole, AK is about thirteen miles southeast of Fairbanks on the Richardson Hwy. As you'd expect, there is at least one Christmas store open all year and this large statue of Santa Claus:


I left the car in for scale; Santa is BIG.

Ho, ho, ho. Maybe next trip . . .

To us, it'd be more "cool" to say we'd been to the real North Pole. More likely is that we might drive up the Dalton Hwy. to the Arctic Circle next time. It's only 60 miles north of Fairbanks. How many people do you know who've stood on the Arctic Circle?

FUEL STOPS

We stopped in Tok for fuel. Prices there ranged from $4.36-4.46/gallon for diesel. We hoped that would get us to Haines Junction, YT but decided to get 25 liters more at the Fas Gas at Beaver Creek, the first town we came to in the Yukon. We stopped there in June, when it was $1.559/liter. The current cost is $1.599/liter.


Colorful terrain a few miles inside the Canadian border

That should get us to Whitehorse, where prices are lower. We also have five gallons in a spare can if we get desperate somewhere in Canada.

Note that prices are higher the farther you get from Fairbanks (or Anchorage). Diesel at Big Delta was $4.24 today, compared to $4.05 to $4.19 in Fairbanks a couple days ago. I didn't write down the prices in Delta Junction.

BORDER CROSSING 

Unlike our crossing here on our way to Alaska in June, there was just a two-minute wait at customs going eastbound today. The station is about 18 miles inside Canada. It felt a little weird being in Canada that long without "checking in" first but that 18 miles is just a lot of wilderness. 

This was the most cursory of the three border crossings we’ve had -- and the third time our RV has not been inspected.

Thank goodness. What a hassle that would be. In all of our travels, the only time our camper has been inspected was at the White Sands Missile Site in New Mexico, a military base.


Southbound side of the AK YT border station on the Alaska Hwy.

We got to the border station just before 5 PM their time. Only one vehicle was in front of us and no one was behind us. The agent asked for our passports (although a driver’s license would have sufficed), where we’re going, how long we’ll be in Canada, and whether we have an animal (he wanted to see Cody’s vet papers, which I had handy).

There were no questions about the amount of money we were carrying, types of meat/fish/produce we had, amount of alcohol, whether we had any firearms, vehicle registration, drugs/prescriptions, or anything else he could have asked us.

That’s fine with us; we knew we were within the regulations on everything -- although we ate our last five tangerines in transit, just in case they’d be a problem. (That's probably more of a problem going into California than Canada!)

This time we stopped at the Welcome to Alaska sign down the hill from the border station and took photos:

I missed that on the way to Alaska because we saw the long line of vehicles ahead of us waiting to go through customs and didn't want to have to wait behind any more that would pass us if we stopped for a picture.

SNAG JUNCTION CAMPGROUND @ KM 1850

When we left Fairbanks this morning we had some ideas about where to camp tonight but no clear plan. We really liked the government campground at Congdon Creek (KM 1666) but it was a little far for us to drive today.

Like most of the rest of this trip, we just played it by ear.

We saw numerous parking areas along the road in Alaska where we could stay overnight between Fairbanks and Tok. There were fewer between Tok and the Canadian border. Through the Yukon there are signs at most rest areas that say no parking overnight; there are fewer pull-offs but some where we could stay close to the road.

Soon after Beaver Creek, YT we checked out the Snag Junction Government Campground at KM 1850 and decided to stay. That's the entrance sign above.

There are about fifteen sites for RVs and/or tents. Most are back-ins. There were only a few large enough or accessible enough for us and fortunately one of those was open, a pull-thru site at the bottom of the loop:

The campground was about two-thirds full when we arrived. A couple more RVs came in after we arrived.

The campground doesn't have hookups and we don't have any Verizon phone service. We plan to use our cell phone only in case of an emergency in Canada anyway -- and will get online only where we can find free WiFi.

Snag Jct. has pit toilets, a water pump, and free firewood. There is no dump station. Generator hours are generous – 7 AM to 11 PM.  The cost is $12 Canadian. We put $12 American cash into the envelope like we did in June at Congdon Creek. The exchange rate is similar to three months ago, with the dollar worth just a little less than the loonie.  

The campground is quiet, about half a mile off the highway. Most sites, including ours, are down the hill toward the lake where there is no road noise.

 

Our site is about 150 feet from Small Lake via a trail through the woods. I walked Cody on the campground loop road and down to the lake twice, enjoying the sunshine, light breeze, and exercise after riding in the truck all day.

The second time down at the lake there was a hint of sunset:

It was a nice ending to a mostly good day on the road.

Daylight is getting shorter and shorter, quickly. We miss the long hours of sunlight we had in June and July.

Next entry:  a tour of historic Rika's Roadhouse & Landing

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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