How To Develop An Alaska Road Trip Plan:
Developing an Alaska road trip plan is an important first step in plotting a road trip to Alaska Knowing how you want to get there and where you want to visit are important things to establish early in the overall road trip planning process. This section will largely discuss the overall route for getting to and from Alaska. Our section on developing a road trip itinerary gets into the nuts and bolts of route planning.
Determining your basic route to and from will help you develop your entire Alaska road trip plan. Once you develop your preferred route, you can then figure out how to get to the entry points of these routes. From there, you can figure out what places in Alaska you want to visit. At that point, you more or less have a plan that can help you start plotting desired driving goals along the routes you’ll choose to take. These basic elements can then be used to develop your itinerary that can help you develop a schedule.
As far as the road routes to the great north, you don’t have too many options to get to Alaska. You can take the western route, the Cassiar Highway. Or you can take the eastern route, the Alcan Highway. Both will get you to the same place, and in fact, the Cassiar Highway intersects the Alcan Highway up in the Yukon. Both routes are enjoyable and for some travelers, you might even consider taking both routes to diversify your trip.
The overall distance and amount of time it takes for both routes to Alaska are surprisingly similar. The main deciding factor will likely be your distance to and from each of these routes. If you don’t mind racking up the miles, it might make no difference to you if you take one, the other or both. If you’re on a stricter schedule, it might be worth it to consider the shortest routes from your original starting point.
Keep in mind that Alaska and the geography you’ll go through to get there is very large. What might look like a short side trek on a high level map could really be a multi-day adventure in and of itself. For many, the entire road trip to Alaska will be greater distance than traveling coast to coast in the US and back. Always appreciating this scale in your planning efforts will ultimately result in a more rewarding adventure.
The Cassiar Highway technically starts just north of Smithers, BC and ends at Junction 37, shortly after your entry into Yukon, Canada. It largely follows the western section of British Columbia and is the least populated of the two routes. It is accessible via Highway 16 in British Columbia and this route can be accessed easily from either the south, west or east sides of the Canadian Province. Of the two routes, it’s probably the one least traveled.
This route is good for people who will be entering into Canada via the western US, such as via Washington or perhaps even Idaho. It is also rather accessible via Jasper/Banff National Parks in Alberta and eastern British Columbia. It features the most remote/isolated sections of the possible trip north and you can really get a sense of being out there when traveling this route.
On most of this route, services such as gas and groceries are less available, so it’s recommended that you keep aware of your surroundings and somewhat self-reliant when taking this route. The road is relatively good these days and no major issues would prevent most vehicles from making this trek without issue. A good section of the northern part of this route doesn’t even have painted lines on the roads, so it’s a fantastic experience if you want to get away from the rest of the world’s pace.
This route actually takes you near Hyder, Alaska and Stewart, BC, which allows you to take the quick side trip and be in Alaska sooner than you’d thought! This side trek is enjoyable any time, but highly recommended during salmon season, typically August through September. It also features several fantastic campgrounds and the journey to the Cassiar is almost as enjoyable as the route itself.
As you drive north, you’ll eventually merge with Highway 1/The Alcan Highway and head west into Alaska. This section will bring you into Whitehorse, Yukon and eventually Tok, Alaska. This route is well worth considering when you are developing your Alaska road trip plan.
The Alcan Highway:
The other possible route worth considering in your Alaska road trip plan is the “real” Alcan Highway. This route to Alaska will start in Dawson Creek, BC and end in Tok, Alaska. It is a relative straight shot compared to the Cassiar Highway and for some, it’s the only way to get there because of the historical significance.
The Alaska highway route is largely based on the original military highway proposed in the 1920’s and eventually finished in 1942. Over the years, this route has been adjusted in the interests of shortening the route, however remnants of the old highway sections are sometimes observable along the current highway system.
This route takes you through fantastic northern British Columbia and southern Yukon and takes you through many small towns, many of which have seen better days or have long since been closed down. This route, while slightly less barren than the Cassiar route, also features vast distances between civilized areas and will certainly convey the sense of being out there as well. Highlights of this route include the bustling oil town of Fort John, BC, Fort Nelson, BC and a lot of vast, untouched mountain land in between.
If you’re seeking a rich, authentic experience from your Alaska road trip plan, then this route is the better choice you’ll want to consider.
Regardless of which of these northern routes you choose in your Alaska road trip plan, there is a rather large common section of highway that you will be traveling. From Junction 37 at the Alcan/Cassiar junction into Tok, Alaska, you will have to drive Highway 1/Alcan Highway. This route takes you through Whitehorse, Yukon (a fantastic town) and up into the entry point into Alaska where you’ll eventually mosey on down to Tok, Alaska. From there, you have choices whether to head north to Fairbanks or south towards Anchorage and the Kenai Peninsula.
This route features a very nice side trip option on “Highway 2” via Dawson, Yukon. This old gold mining town is well worth the journey, but the term “Highway” used to describe its access is the most loosest sense of the term. Much of this road is not improved to highway grade and the overwhelming bulk of it is actually gravel. But, it’s a good way to break up the trip in and out so you’re not seeing the same highway twice. In Dawson, there’s plenty to check out and it’s well worth a night’s stay, if anything to check out the rather mystic Sour Toe cocktail that you can learn about, or even drink, in this remote, northern town.
Which Route Should You Take?
Deciding which northern route you take in your Alaska road trip plan will largely be determined from what you want out of the trip and how much time you have available.
If you have a choice and the option, taking both routes is certainly a recommended journey. In most cases, you can make a very nice loop such that you could take one going up and the other coming back. In some cases, this can increase trip mileage by a lot! If you do choose both, we’d recommend going up on the Alcan Highway and coming back on the Cassiar route. The less traveled route will be more appreciated and allow you to gradually come back into real civilization. The other way around works, too, but you’ll abruptly find yourself in big city country after a very relaxing and hopefully decently long rural road trip.
If you can take only one route, the Cassiar route would be enjoyed by people who are looking to get away. The Alcan is better for people who really want to dive into the historical aspects of the Alcan Highway and experience the most authentic Alaska road trip experience.
If you have an extra day, the trip into Dawson is well worth the side venture although if you’re short on time, skipping this won’t ruin the journey overall. If you decide to take the Cassiar route, definitely plan on making the trek down into Hyder, AK and Stewart, BC. This is a relatively short and enjoyable side trip that will bring you face to face with glaciers and if you time it right, more than a few grizzlies and a river chock full of salmon!
Regardless of the route you take, you can expect to have a great time well away from the hustle and bustle of the mainland US. There are plenty of things to see and do along both routes, so don’t feel like you’d be cheating yourself if you can only make one work. It might be just as enjoyable to consider a ferry ride up or back, allowing you to see the pristine coast lines of soutwestern Alaska. It’s up to you and you no matter what, this road trip doesn’t disappoint!
What To Expect of Road Conditions:
Both routes are in relatively good condition, with paving completed along both highways. Both routes are follow somewhat winding paths, so expect to drive alert much of the time. Both will bring you into contact with wildlife once you leave civilization, with moose and bison being more common along the Alcan and grizzly bears being found more commonly along the Cassiar. When you’re in the wilderness, always be aware of any animals on or near the road and slow your speeds appropriately. A moose, bison, or bear collision could easily cause severe damage to a vehicle, even making it undriveable.
The route out of Whitehorse and into Tok is likely the most arduous of the trip. Frost heaves heavily affect this area from the deep freeze and thaw that occurs every year. So be aware in this area! If there’s anywhere along the trip you’ll have difficulty, this will be it. Even as well as the Yukon road maintenance crews keep up on the task of road repair, there’s some things they just can’t prevent and it will create chaos for you if you’re not paying attention. This section in particular is why you need to pay special attention to the suspension on your vehicle as it will get a workout, and if not up to snuff, could leave you in a tough spot.
Other than that, it’s not very many towns and a lot of open space. You’ll see remnants of aging, Alcan Highway towns that have seen better days. You’ll catch glimpses and breathtaking views of fantastic vistas worth a pause to take it all in. You’ll see more trees than you ever thought existed, probably millions of them. On your journey, expect many, many hours of relative peace and quiet and while you’ll experience traffic, it’ll be more like a car every minute or ten than anything we can expect further south.
We don’t want to pick favorites here, but there’s a few things worth mentioning along these routes.
If you have the time, a trek through Banff/Jasper National Park in eastern British Columbia and western Alberta is well worth the trip. In many ways, this place is even more stunning and beautiful than Alaska itself, minus the coastal influences, and is well worth a stay if you can swing it. Fortunately, this area is almost directly on the path that you could take to get to the epic Cassiar route, so it could actually be on your way.
Smithers, BC is a great little town with nice mountain views, plentiful fishing opportunities and it features a Bavarian themed downtown shopping area. We really enjoy using this town as one of our resupply stations and spending a few hours or more here will likely be a fulfilling experience.
Laird Hot Springs on the Alcan is a must-stop. Whether you’re returning from Alaska and want just one more epic night or you’re going to and need something to get in the mood of relaxation, this is hands down a place to stop. A quaint, relatively non-built-up hot springs along the way, it gives an opportunity to soak for a couple of hours and rejuvenate your spirits. If you can, stay the night here and enjoy a late night soak…you’ll sleep better than you ever have and if you’re lucky, the northern lights will peek out while you’re enjoying a hundred degree natural bath. If you do stop for the night, be sure to plan on getting here early since the campground commonly fills up and there’s little surrounding it.
Whitehorse offers plentiful opportunity and likely, you’ll be through here twice. This north of north town is bustling with activity, filled with nice people and is a great resupply place if you’re getting low on things or need to pick something up you can’t find elsewhere. There’s plenty to see here, especially if gold rushes, salmon or northern living is of interest to you.