Best Road Trip: Alaska On The Alaska Highway
Road Trip 2007: Alaska!
In 2007 I had the summer off and decided to pack up the car and go on a road trip with my younger brother. Our plan was to head west from New Jersey and visit the northern states of America on the way to California, then turn around and come back through the southwest and central plains states.
We left the day after Memorial Day, and by the end of June we were in Montana at Glacier National Park. The next logical move, of course, would have been to head slightly south to Wyoming to visit Yellowstone National Park. But it was the week before July 4th, and I had read somewhere along the way that Independence Day was the peak of summer tourism at Yellowstone, and I despise crowds (especially when I'm trying to enjoy some nature!)
So I was sitting at the picnic table in the campground in Glacier National Park, looking through the road atlas, wondering where we could go next and how we could loop back in a few weeks to visit Yellowstone after the peak was over. At a loss for a new plan, I flipped to the front of the atlas to the map that showed the whole country, and my eyes wandered up towards Canada. Glacier National Park is right on the border with Canada, and what's at the northwestern edge of Canada? Well, Alaska!
I turned to the back of the atlas and looked at the map of Canada. With my finger, I traced a route from Montana to Alaska: a straight shot north through Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada, then a left hook over to British Columbia to the Alaska Highway, then a northwest jog into the Yukon Territory, and bam! We'd be in Alaska!
The atlas didn't actually have a map of the Yukon Territory, and the B.C. map was cut off about halfway across the province. But on the national map of Canada, it looked pretty easy. I did the conversion from kilometers to miles in my head, and then it really seemed do-able!
So we were off to Alaska...
Shock at the Border
Our first stop on this new adventure was Banff National Park.
The first order of business was to change our cash into Canadian dollars - we stopped at the first small city we came to and went into the bank. Turns out that either Canada was experiencing a a great economy or America a weak one - the exchange rate was nearly one-to-one. So much for wielding our almighty American dollars in the Great White North!
That was the first of many eye-openers that came along during this spur-of-the-moment trip...
On the way out of town, we stopped for gas, and I was puzzled. In the U.S. at that time, gasoline was around $3.00 a gallon, but all the Canadian gas stations had signs outside with prices of $1.29 and $1.36 and other ridiculously low prices. Being a typical American, it didn't occur to me until I was pulling into the station that we were dealing with the metric system here! And the moment I made that connection, my stomach rose up to my throat. I did the math - I even did it a second time - and realized that gasoline in Canada was more than twice as expensive as it was back home! And there wasn't even a favorable currency exchange rate to soften the blow...
It was right around this time that I also realized that I had severely underestimated the distance. I guess my mental metric conversion skills weren't quite as good as they should have been!
Surprise at Banff Park Entrance
While traveling thus far, we had visited quite a few U.S. National Parks, and had bought a Park Pass: a discounted card that gives you unlimited entry into all the Parks in America for a full year. One Pass is good for any number of people, and we had gotten more than our money's worth. It was a great investment, especially with the rather tight budget I had allotted for the trip.
So naturally, Canada has a similar deal, right? Wrong!
When we arrived at the park entrance I got a look at the entry fees: about $10 per person, per day. The route we were taking towards Alaska required at least three days' driving time inside the Park. So for the two of us, the entry fee was $60, and that left little time to actually visit the sights inside the park! They did offer a Park Pass program, but unlike the American version, the Pass only covers one person - we would need to buy two of them - and they cost about $70 each. Oh, and the campgrounds inside the park cost from $15 to $40 per night, plus an extra $9 for a fire permit if we wanted a campfire. But they did provide free firewood with that permit fee...
Good Thing Banff Was So Beautiful!
The only saving grace in this whole expensive drama was the amazing natural beauty of the Park! We ended up overstaying our Park Pass by a day; the place was just so astounding that we had to spend an extra day taking in the sights.
More Photos of Banff National Park
Off to Alaska!
So after Banff we headed north through Alberta and into British Columbia. We met some lovely Canadians along the way when we stopped to camp. I've traveled all over the world in my life, and I'd rank Canada as one of the top four friendliest places I've ever been!
The Alaska Highway, Including Wildlife
Once we reached Dawson Creek, we got onto the Alaska Highway and headed north. The road through British Columbia and the Yukon made for a beautiful drive, but the money was so tight at this point that all we did was drive! We stopped as little as possible and managed to make it to Tok, Alaska, about 5 days after we left Banff. Along the way we stopped at some amazing little Canadian campgrounds along the Alaska Highway and saw some breathtaking mountain scenery, as well as some of the native wildlife...
Alaska, At Last!
When we finally arrived in Alaska, it was stunningly pretty! The mountains are as amazing and as numerous as you would expect, and the wilderness there is truly wild in many places.
We decided to first head north to Fairbanks (the car needed new tires), then south to Denali National Park, then back east again along the mostly-gravel Denali Highway.
Oh, and did I mention that we were traveling the Great North in the summer? And did I mention that the sun never really sets for more than a couple of hours during the summer? And that we were camping in a tent? Outside?
By the time we reached Fairbanks I was desperate for a dark place to sleep. We were lucky enough to find a B&B with an available room - in the basement!!
More Pictures From Alaska
After a couple of days in Fairbanks and a set of new tires from the WalMart, we headed south for Denali National Park. Apparently, other folks plan a trip to Alaska for months in advance, and there was not a single campsite in all of the Park for us. On top of that, only a small portion of the Park is visitable in a private vehicle without an expensive and scarce reservation. There are trains and tour buses available, but they are outrageously expensive; it was like a flashback to the Banff episode! We ended up staying at Denali State Park about an hour's drive away.
Overall, Denali was a disappointment. If I'd known in advance what was in store, I would have just skipped it all together...
The drive along the Denali Highway was great, though! It's an unpaved road for the most part, and so not a whole lot of tourists. Plus, there are some very cheap campgrounds along the way, where we got to explore some of the wilderness on offer.
Yet More Pictures From Alaska
Back to the Lower 48
The drive back south was mostly the same as the one headed north. We switched routes at the B.C. border and headed south towards Vancouver and Washington state. It rained for a good part of that leg of the trip, so it was mostly just straight-on driving, stopping only to camp each night.
By the time we reached the U.S. border, I was many hundreds of dollars over budget and wondering if this whole Alaska trip had been a viable alternative to avoiding a crowded few days at Yellowstone. What do you think?
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