What do I need to know when driving to Alaska?

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Answered by: Christian, An Expert in the Alaska Travel Guide Category
Driving to Alaska--an Alaska Travel Guide

Introduction (abridged version)

I write this introduction to my Alaskan Travel Guide with a specific character in mind. For sure, the traveler I am writing for is bold. He or she carries only a small reserve of cash, has no bills to pay, and no foreseeable obligation. Foremost, the traveler must own a reliable vehicle with space enough for sleeping. As a side note, I highly recommend dogs as copilots—especially the hardy, even-tempered, non road-sensitive kind.

In the spirit of the approach itself (and because the journey upon which this memory is based is roughly fifteen years old) this travel guide will be short on detail. If I were to advise every secret camping hole, cozy hotel, and family restaurant to patronize, then there would be little adventure in the thing. Instead, what I am providing for you, the traveler, is a general idea, a faded treasure map, so to speak, and leaving it up to you to live the details for yourself.

There are basically three routes to take when driving to Alaska (once you have arrived in British Columbia): the ferry from Prince Rupert, the “Sea-to-Sky”, or the “Al-Can” highway. For the weary road traveler, maybe as a return trip, the Alaska Marine Highway System is a nice option, especially when traveling in a larger group. The ferry provides (depending on the time of year/weather, of course) late cocktails on the top deck under the glow of the aurora borealis, decent fare, and (if your lucky) the occasional whale sighting. The Sea-to-Sky is strictly for the seasoned road traveler and completely fantastic from beginning to end. The road is not well maintained and the options for fuel are not frequent. But wildlife abounds and rustic camping is free and undisturbed. This route is also the only option for visiting the town of Hyder, Alaska—a very interesting place including a large in-town dump, residential bears (surprise, surprise), and an opportunity to get “hyderized”(I must refrain from explanation here on account of a rather serious oath). These two intriguing—if they are not, then you are not my traveler—options aside, as a first time road-traveler to Alaska, it is absolutely imperative to your overall opinion of the great land that you postpone these two options, and go the way of the truckers: The Alaska-Canada Highway.

(A Partial) Section One

When I first drove to Alaska, it was in search of a final frontier, somewhere far beyond the shopping malls, concrete parking structures, and precisely mown lawns of the lower 48—specifically Los Angeles, CA. Traveling through the lower half of British Columbia is in itself a pleasant break from the states below: steep, slippery mountain passes lined with slow moving semis; an old man stretched out underneath his battered Chevrolet truck in a motel parking lot with a half a case of empty beer cans strewn about him, carefully brewed cups of coffee in quaint towns nestled among rolling hills amid the towering mountains of the great Canadian Rockies. And then beyond into the vast expanses of Northern BC and the almighty Yukon that will make you feel as small as you really are; and wildlife, wildlife, wildlife—moose standing like totem poles, indignant in response to the audacity of your intrusion; a herd of bison, half settled in the road and 90 percent oblivious to your (no longer shiny) car and its idling motor. From border to border it might be four or five, 12-hour days, depending on your speed (Take it slow!). If you are lucky enough to cross into Alaska in early spring, your doorman will be the unbelievable Wrangell Mountains. Utterly astounded, you might find yourself thinking that you are done, that you should find the nearest realtor and settle down. But do not stop now, for this is only the lobby. Another two days of easier travel (and many moose, bear, and maybe a wolf or so later), and you will come to the southern tip of the Kenai Peninsula.

Your final approach is a slow descent into the heavenly Kachemak Bay. Here lies the town of Homer, Alaska. Surrounded by towering mountains of pristine wilderness. This is a place to set down your luggage once and for all. A place where you can do very little, yet feel completely satisfied. In whatever order you like, I recommend the following: 1) Walk on the beach at low tide in mid-summer (I assure you this will be nothing like any low tide you have ever experienced before). 2) Watch the fish pitchers toss around halibut the size of small sharks. 3) Drink local beer at the Salty Dog Saloon in barstools atop a floor carpeted with hay. 5) Join a surprisingly lively open-microphone style music scene at the Crystal Palace. 5) Spend a night at the Driftwood Inn (if it still exists). And then, if you like this place as much as I do, if you have the time to stay awhile, find a kindly little ad posted in the local newspaper by a kindly old lady named Marsha (the real Marsha may not be around anymore [if so, may she rest in peace], but there are more like her I am sure) and rent yourself a cabin for a few hundred dollars a month. There will likely be no running water and only a wood burning stove to keep you warm, but if you last through the winter, you may never want to leave.

Happy Trails!

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