Why Alaska and The Yukon as the road trip of a lifetime? These places are remote, wild and vast. The ratio of land per human is 240 square kilometres (93 square miles) per person in Alaska and 13 square kilometres per person in the much smaller Yukon Territory. Jaw-dropping scenery and wildlife abound. What few people there are, are friendly. The food is surprisingly good. The stories are the stuff of legends. So here’s my story to add to all the other tall tales.
Once upon a time, three families set out to tackle a vacation as large as these lands. We drove three RVs, had three weeks and focused on three really big goals:
- Drive from Calgary to the start of The Alaska Highway in Dawson Creek, B.C, through Whitehorse,YK, past Delta, AK – where the Alaska Highway ends – and all the way to Fairbanks, AK.
- Then, visit both Denali National Park and Kenai Fjords National Park, AK.
- Finally, cruise the Inner Passage from Haines, AK to Prince Rupert, BC. and drive back home through Jasper National Park.
Five themes emerged on our journey:
1. Frontier life – when exploring it – size really matters.
2. Provisioning – “Alaskan grown” is more than a slogan.
3. Flora, fungi and fauna – there’s lots of opportunity for spotting wild things.
4. Field trips – whether you love hiking and the great outdoors or museums, there’s lots to see in Alaska and The Yukon.
5. Floating home – a gorgeous way to see the inside passage.
I’ll now share some highlights of our journey using these themes. I hope you’ll stay with me for this virtual version.
1. – Frontier life – In Alaska and the Yukon, Size Matters
We saw a lot of really BIG things on this trip. It started in tiny Beaverlodge, Alberta. Here, the town celebrated its 75th Anniversary by unveiling a Giant Beaver Sculpture. From our groggy early morning departure from Calgary, this was the first place where we understood we were headed to someplace where EVERYTHING WOULD BE BIG. Including GIANT roadside attractions.
The Beaverlodge Beaver is an engineering marvel. It weighs: 1,500 pounds and the log under it weighs another 1,500. It’s 18 feet long, 10 feet wide and 10 feet high. The log is 5 feet high and 20 feet long.
In Alaska, we saw a giant hammer at the Haines Hammer Museum. We also caught glimpses of Denali Mountain when we were in that state park. With a peak that reaches 6,190 meters (20,310 feet) above sea level, Denali is the largest mountain in North America.
My nephew Neil has lived in Alaska off an on for a few decades now. When we were planning our trip, he kept telling us, you’ll need to provision (supply with food, drink, or equipment, especially for a journey). We took him seriously and each of our three families, did three communal meals ahead for the trip (one fresh and two in RV freezers).
Then, we planned the rest of the trip around chances to provision in Whitehorse, Fairbanks, Soldotna and Juneau. We also stopped at small purveyors bearing signs saying “Alaskan Grown” and we were delighted to find a few fantastic farmers’ markets.
The farmers’ market in Homer, Alaska was the most outstanding. Homer is on the South facing escarpment of Kachemak Bay on the Kenai Peninsula. Here there are many family farms with people of Russian heritage. They aren’t recent emigrants but rather they are found here because Alaska was a Russian colony until 1867. The people speak an ancient Russian dialect and grow GIANT cabbages – among other things. It was fun to support them and some of the local native Americans. I bought a carved whale bone handled filleting knife that I still treasure.
When it came to provisioning in the cities of Alaska, I was flabbergasted that I could buy edible flowers and French lardon (cubed pork belly) when I can rarely find those things at home in Calgary. My nephew explained that the west coast grocery chain, Fred Myer, floats barges of goods to Alaska every week.
The Fred Meyer stores were MASSIVE. You could buy a canoe, get your watch fixed, pick out a diamond, update your cammo wardrobe, shop for rifles, watch fresh sushi being made and pick up some of those edible flowers and lardon and everything in between. Plus, there were better prices on the best California, Washington State and Oregon wines in Alaska then if you were buying them in their home states. Loved that!
3. Flora, Fungi and Fauna
The growing season for food may be short in the North but that doesn’t mean lots of things don’t grow there. It just means they grow fast and go away fast too. One of the favourite things we learned is how people of the North look to Fireweed flowers to gauge how much summer they’ve got left.
Here’s the connection they make. A Fireweed plant blooms from the bottom of its petal stalk to the top. Northerners know when Fireweed blossoms reach the top, summer is over.
In the three weeks we travelled through the North, I watched those flowers closely. When a Homer, Alaska native told us, only 21 more sleeps until moose-hunting season, I gauged that was about what the Fireweed was saying too.
I took dozens and dozens of photos of mushrooms and wildflowers as we travelled. And, we were incredibly fortunate to see much fauna too. This is definitely one of the thrills of an RV trip. Here’s a few of my favourite photos.
4. Field Trips – there’s so much to see and do in Alaska and The Yukon
When you drive the Alaska Highway, there’s a must-get, must-read book or app (though the app gets bad reviews) called “The Mile Post.” For every mile of that highway, there’s a story, a marker and general demographics and information. I was chief navigator in our RV so it was my job to keep my husband entertained with these stories. Since 1949, it’s been known as the bible of North Country travel. We thoroughly enjoyed it and found it delivered a lot of serendipity too.
For example, The Mile Post said to stop at Trappers Den (mile 293) outside Fort Nelson. This is something we would NEVER have done! It really didn’t look like much from the road. But, it was completely wonderful. The owners, John and Cindy Wells, were fantastic ambassadors of the north and gave us salient travel advice.
We had planned to drive the whole way from Whitehorse to Watson Lake. They advised us to stop over and enjoy Liard Hot Springs. They also told us where to expect to see the most wildlife. Their store was a really interesting collection of hunting supplies, furs for trading, jewelry and books on history, wildlife, nature, cooking, hunting, hiking and plant identification. I picked up a copy of I Married the Klondike by Laura Beatrice Berton there. If you haven’t read that, it’s the perfect introduction to what lures and keeps people in the north. You can also find hunting couple wedding cake toppers at Trappers Den! Who knew?
If you go, definitely choose Liard over Watson. Because it’s the land of the midnight sun, we enjoyed dipping in the Liard Hot Springs at midnight in full light (see photos below). And that’s something I’ll never forget. Thanks to John and Cindy.
When you hit Whitehorse, the cultural capital of the North, there are some fascinating museums to check out. We loved both the Transportation and Beringia Museums. The Transportation Museum documents the urgent construction of the Alaska Highway during WW2 and also the narrow rail trains that made it over the passes to the Yukon during the gold rush era. Beringia illuminates how this area escaped an ice age. We also loved shopping in downtown Whitehorse, riding bikes through town and hiking the Miles Canyon Loop.
In Denali, we’d made advanced reservations to take a 40 kilometre day-long bus ride into the park. From my comfy couch in Calgary, I couldn’t compute why 40 kilometres would take 12 hours until we actually did it.
The old school buses are the only vehicles allowed on these roads and the going is SLOW. The bus drivers are interpreters. They stop for frequent wildlife sightings. And, because the buses are the only vehicles the wildlife have ever been exposed to, the animals have learned they are not a threat and pay no attention to them.
Imagine seeing mother bears with cubs digging in the earth metres from you. We saw 8 grizzlies! We also watched a bald eagle trying to knock baby Mountain Goats off the cliffs. Dall Sheep were plentiful as were snowshoe hare. We saw a red fox hunting and a big old lone wolf sleeping in a patch of sun. Moose drifted in and out of the dense brush – at once massive and then gone like ghosts.
Because the sun was also drifting in and out that day, we were among the fortunate few who go to Denali National Park and actually see Denali. Summer is rainy season and that makes it iffy. People climb it April to June when it’s sunnier. The women on the bus beside me had been four previous times but this was her first sighting. The only other place I’ve been that felt as vast was the Grand Canyon.
For another outing in Denali, we visited the Sled Dog Interpretation Center. I now understand why there is a five year wait list to adopt retired sled dogs. They are magnificent, friendly and thoroughly gentle. Born to pull, they come alive and howl for a chance to pull the sled during the interpretive presentation. In between shows, they’d let you curl up and use them for a pillow if you wanted to nap. Their trainers make sure they have no alpha system and are truly gentle team players.
A boat trip to see the Aialik glacier calving icebergs in the Kenai Fjords is another must-do adventure for anyone checking out that area of Alaska. The Aialik is part of the Harding Ice-fields that covers over half of the National Park. Hearing the thunderous crack and rumble of ice splitting and crashing into the ocean as a visible waterfall of ice is unforgettable.
The boat trip is 110 miles round trip. We saw humpback whales, pods of orcas, Dall porpoises, sea lions, Kittiwakes, Murres, Bald Eagles and Horned Puffins. On our return, we also ran into a storm in the Gulf of Alaska.
Though the older kids sat at the front of the boat and enjoyed the 10 foot swells, some of the more seasick-prone spent that part of the journey sweating it out on the back rails. We were all happy to be back on dry land in Seward and walked straight to Ray’s Waterfront restaurant. Ray’s is a former winner of Best Restaurant in Alaska and we found out why. Between us, we feasted on local beer, chowder, hot crab dip, crab cakes, halibut done every which way, Alaskan King crab legs and fish and chips. All were delicious.
After Seward it was time to make our way to Haines and the Inside Passage. We’d booked our passage on the ferry system known as the Alaska Marine Highway.
5. Floating Home
Lots of people take cruises on the Inside Passage from Alaska down to British Columbia or Washington State. We took the Alaska Marine Highway. The overnight ferries have staterooms so we told our children we were on a cruise.
We all loved it. Of course, it helped that our days onboard were warm and sunny with views of land, sea and marine wildlife in all directions.
Landing in Juneau and Ketchikan for a few days stay at each was also fun. Though we learned that many of the stores in these port cities do not stay open when the cruise ships pull out. For RVers, that’s a bit frustrating but we managed.
We were shocked to learn that Juneau has much milder winters than we do in Calgary. Over the course of a year, temperatures typically fluctuate between 25°F to 65°F but it’s rarely below 7°F or above 75°F. We found Azaleas and Rhododendron growing.
A great highlight here was visiting Mendenhall Glacier. You can practically walk right up to it! Downtown Juneau is also fun with great handicrafts, breweries and restaurants.
From Juneau, we took an overnight ferry to Ketchikan. The state rooms were comfortable and spotless. The kids watched movies in the movie theatre while the adults enjoyed more Alaskan microbrews in the bar. The next day was a dream. Nothing but blue. Blue skies. Blue ocean. Greenish blue shawls of Sitka Spruce laying on the shoulders of much softer coastal mountains. Silver blue salmon runs jumping in the sun on their way to streams and rivers.
We pulled into Ketchikan and managed to get dinner at the Ketchikan Crab Shack where we split Fishermen’s Feasts. Clam chowder, halibut, salmon, three kinds of crab legs and fries with Alaskan brews to wash it all down, it was a great welcome to the town.
Downtown Ketchikan is very photogenic. Lots of the shops are on interconnected docks. Native carvers have studios where you can watch them work on soft yellow cedar. The only drawback here was because it was not a government town like Juneau, when the cruise ships pull out of harbour, the businesses all shut down. That could have been devastating. But, we went hiking and were rewarded with panoramic views of the Inside Passage.
Finally! – The Unexpected delights of Alaska and The Yukon As The Road Trip of a Lifetime
From Ketchikan, we took another overnight ferry. But this time we got up at 3:30 a.m. to prepare to disembark in Prince Rupert, B.C. at 4:30 a.m. The trip was winding down and as we made our way along the Yellowhead Highway back to Alberta delightful moments and learnings from the trip kept popping into our conversation.
- HOSPITALITY AND GENUINE CONCERN was number one. Wherever we roamed, we felt the people of the north were on the lookout for us. Owners of RV campgrounds, waited up for us. Other RV-ers were delighted to find families travelling together. We had never thought about it, but families don’t typically have the time it takes to do such a marathon trip. We three families stood out and were truly welcomed. It makes sense that living in such a harsh environment, Northerners live the value of interdependence. It was so refreshing to be the recipients of that care and the immediate inclusion into community just by showing up in that place.
- STRENGTH IN NUMBERS AND GOING WITH OUR STRENGTHS. We were all impressed with ourselves because of how well we got along. We were six adults and six children. One thing that really helped us is that in planning the trip, we discussed each others strengths and then played them like a great hand of poker. Richard Seto and I love to cook. We happily got on with supper each time we hauled into a new campsite. Richard Hogan loved to bartend. Nora Seto and Todd Anderson were great at camp set up. Kelly Hogan had three weeks of fun games and little prizes planned out for each time we had to set up camp. She kept the kids busy when they might otherwise have been underfoot and “hangry.’
- DESPITE THE AMBITIOUS MILEAGE, WE STILL ENJOYED BREAKS. Walks on beaches, casting a fishing rod in a pond, picnics in the open air, going out of the way to a reindeer farm because kids like reindeer – these are the things that made our ambitious 8000 kilometres (5000 miles) of travel relaxing. It can’t be all push, push, push. The pull of and need for rest must always come through for balance (admittedly, we could have used four weeks to tip the scale more in this direction).
- FOOD IN THE NORTH IS PRETTY FANTASTIC. Though we couldn’t buy fresh fish in either the Halibut Capital of the World (Homer) or the Salmon Capital of the World (Ketchikan), we were given halibut by locals who overheard our dilemma in Homer (thank you Smokey!) and we found plenty of salmon in a great local restaurant in Ketchikan. We discovered every small town had its own microbrewery and they ALL had Growlers for refilling long before that was a trend anywhere else. We also made a rule: NEVER PASS A SOURDOUGH BAKERY WITHOUT TRYING THEIR CINNAMON BUNS.
- TOP EATERIES & PURVEYORS INCLUDE: Miner’s Daughter in Whitehorse (eat there and hang out at Dirty Northern Bastard tavern next door for live music after; Village Bakery in Haines Junction (BIG CINNAMON BUNS!); Sourdough Cafe at Sourdough Campground in Tok, AK (the sourdough starter for the pancakes is from 1948 (good pancakes and reindeer sausage in a cheery vintage cafe); Delta Meat and Sausage, Mile 413, AK Highway (McCollum family run since 1997 – bison, elk, yak, reindeer and grass-finished beef provisions); Fat Olives, Homer, AK (Very classy yet casual, 42-inch pizzas, Homer Brewing beers on tap, homemade desserts like Caramel Carrot Cake – to die for!); Captain Pattie’s Fish House, Homer’s Spit (Great Smoked Clam Chowder and Beer Battered Fish and Chips plus amazing location on the ocean); Salty Dawg Saloon, Homer’s Spit (ATMOSPHERE – it’s all about rubbing shoulders with the locals over a few pints); Two Sisters Bakery, Homer, AK (White Trash Bread! – so soft, sweet and white and just amazing, especially when they make it in buns and add chocolate, their sticky buns are legendary, bagels and filled croissants also incredible.); Ray’s Waterfront, Seward (see notes above); The Lighthouse Restaurant, Haines, AK (Tender, flavourful calamari, Halibut Fish Tacos, Halibut and Snapper Fish and Chips – little run down but friendly with great view on dock); and Crab Shack, Ketchikan (see above).
- RVs ARE THE BEST WAY TO SEE ALASKA AND THE YUKON – Before this trip, my family had never been in an RV. We were tenters. I cannot imagine a better way to see these wild places though. It rains a lot in Alaska in summer. Every time we went to bed at night to the sound of rain on the roof, I smiled a happy smile and snuggled in deeper to my comfy, warm RV bed. We also loved being able to bring our own food, provision and store food and stop when we wanted.
There is so much to explore in Alaska and The Yukon. I hope you will venture there yourself sometime – as travel restrictions are lifted.
The north is BIG. But, I think, this very long post has made it clear time spent in the north makes your LIFE even BIGGER. That’s the real reason for: Alaska and The Yukon as The Road Trip of a Lifetime.
Thank you for reading this saga. This was NOT a sponsored post. It’s more of a keepsake for my friends and family and I dedicate it to Todd, Cole and our friends The Setos and Hogans. Thank you for one of the best times in my life.
Wonderful Karen – sounds like one amazing trip!
Bless you for reading it Penny! Hugs, K
Loved hearing about your trip. A special place. Made me think more about Kristin Hanna’s book, The Great Alone.
The Great Alone – what a great title Shawnee. I’ll look for it. Have you ever read, I married the Klondike – by Laura Beatrice Berton? It’s wonderful. Hugs,