From Great Falls we drove up the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains to the border of Canada. After answering the border guard’s questions we were on our way to Alaska!
We stayed the night on the outskirts of McLeod, Alberta. The next day was a long one, on the side roads west of the freeways past Calgary (we had decided to visit Banff and Jasper in the fall due to the snowy weather, see our Trip from Alaska) and on to Whitecort west of Edmonton.
The next afternoon, we reached the start of the Alaska/Canadian Highway (Alcan) in Dawson Creek, British Columbia.
North on the Alcan for 332 miles to reach the top of Steamboat Mountain, we had left the plains of Canada and entered the Canadian Rockies. Steamboat is the highest pass that we encountered and it was the first mountain that we climbed. The Canadian Rockies are not like the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. The peaks aren’t as high and they are spread over a longer area. Once you pass over the first mountain, you are up high making your way through the mountains with beautiful, clear, sparkling streams, forests and lots of wild animals.
The first animals we encountered up high were the bighorn sheep. It wasn’t long before we started seeing lots of Caribou.
They looked pretty scrawny and rough with their winter coats shedding and their horns were just spikes. There were open areas along the road in many places where the new spring grass was growing and the Caribou were concentrating there.
One group of about ten decided to run down the middle of the road ahead of us. We of course just followed along with them waiting for them to move off the road. We probably saw thirty Caribou in different groups through a section of about 50 miles.
As we got down lower in elevation, the grass along the road became more plentiful and we began to see large numbers of buffalo. This is a wild herd that I would see every year when I used to drive to and from Alaska. They are free to roam the area although they seem to stay close to the highway where the grass is always plentiful.
We had seen several moose also on this part of the drive, but hadn’t been able to get photos of them. After a comment that we had seen everything but a bear, a few miles on we saw this black bear standing along the side of the road waiting for his photo opportunity.
Nestled in the mountains is this beautiful lake called Muncho Lake. It is a bright green from the copper and iron in the soil.
We filled with gas at a Lodge near the far end of the lake since we still had 177 miles to get to Watson Lake (the nearest town).
We stopped at Laird Hot springs. This is the lower hot spring that is much lower in temperature and used more often. The hot spring is in the lower foreground where the blue ripples are. There is a large number of people in the water at the other end—the further away from the hot spring, the cooler the water. The warmer (about 120 degrees) upper spring is more remote and less popular.
Watson Lake was our stop that evening. Don’t miss the visitor center and their film about the construction of the Alcan Highway.
The Sign Post Forest is in the center of town and was started by one of the American Servicemen building the highway in 1942. He made up a sign identifying his hometown in the lower 48 and hung it on a post in the town park. It caught on and other visitors added their signs to it. There are now over 54,000 signs in the park. Jan found a sign that says, ‘Jan Lake 4 km’ right in the front of the park sign at the end of the boardwalk.
Back on the road again, our next stop was across the Nisutlin River from the small village of Tinglit Indians called, ‘Teslin’. There is a neat little museum there that highlights the life of the local celebrity, George Johnson. He was Tinglit Indian that became a very well known photographer who used his proceeds to provide a taxi service for the town.
We left our camper outside of Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, to make a side trip to Skagway. We took the White Pass & Yukon Route railroad. On the way one of the stops was at Emerald Lake. The minerals in the water cause the unique colors in the lake water.
White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad
Fraser, BC hosts the Canadian Customs and is the first train stop from Alaska. The inside of the parlor cars had been restored to their vintage condition except the seats had been upgraded and the restrooms were modern. The train is used strictly for sightseeing now. It was fabulous trip and we highly recommend it to any traveling the Inside Passage or driving down from Whitehorse.
The train route from Skagway climbs 3,000 feet from sea level to the summit of White Pass in just 20 miles, a grade of almost 3.9 percent. Thirty-five thousand men constructed the roadbed and tracks starting in May 1889. During World War II, the railroad was instrumental in carrying supplies and men to build the Alaska/Canadian Highway.
The scenery was absolutely magnificent, with breathtaking views occurring over and over again.
Sawtooth Mountain was one of the more beautiful and interesting of the mountaintops seen from the train as we proceeded through the range to White Pass summit.
Further down the mountain, just beyond the Skagway river delta, we got our first view of the Skagway Harbor. Although they are hard to see in this small photo, there are three cruise ships in the harbor.
As we got into Skagway, we were greeted by the Skagway tour bus. Started in the early 1900’s the buses have been renovated and are now again hauling tourists around Skagway to see the city sights.
The downtown area of Skagway has been restored to the era of the gold rush days and is a very popular cruise stop.
The brothels in Skagway had a Can-Can show every day for the gold rush miners. Prior to the shows, the girls would come out on the second floor porch or hang their mesh hose covered leg out the window to attract the men on the street. Now the Eagles Club recreates those shows four times a day with a story about the notorious Soapy Smith who ran a bar/gambling hall/brothel with the intent of scamming the miners.
We also enjoyed the old gold rush cemetery outside of town which has a monument to the Hero of Skagway, Frank Reid. Seems like he and the notorious hoodlum Soapy Smith got into a gun fight over Smith stealing a miner’s gold. Reid killed Smith with a shot through the heart but was fatally wounded himself, dying a few days later.
We left Skagway that afternoon, after a very special trip, back to our campground where the truck and camper were parked.
Leaving Whitehorse we traveled off the Alcan to visit the Klondike gold fields in Dawson City. The Yukon River was very pretty as it meandered through the valley. As we proceeded up toward Dawson City, the river increased in size and the road moved away from the river. Soon we began to see smaller spruce trees and more alpine type vegetation. It didn’t seem that the area was getting that much colder, but we were obviously traveling north toward the Arctic Circle. We arrived in Dawson City in mid-afternoon and stayed in the RV Park right in the town.
Dawson City has also been restored to the gold rush days, like the Palace Grand Theatre, a restoration of the original Opera house.
Almost all the buildings on Main Street have been beautifully restored. Many of them hadn’t opened for the summer yet when we were there or were closed for the day by the time we were walking around that evening.
The sign to the left of these two buildings indicated that it was typical of what happened in northern climates where the ground freezes and thaws every year. If the buildings don’t have adequate foundations to a depth below the freeze line, they will eventually lean or sink. (Try as I might I couldn’t straighten them back up).
Top of World Highway
The next morning we were first in line to take the free ferry across the Yukon River to the start of the Top of the World Highway. The river was high and running swift.
It didn’t take to long to reach the Top of the World Hiway and from up there, I could have sworn that we were in fact there. The road climbed right up to the tops of the mountains and ran along to the tops. The road was in pretty good shape with some broken spots. The snow had mostly melted although there were banks along the road occasionally.
Looking back down into the Yukon valley below you could realize how high we had climbed and in fact, this road was at the top of the local world. There were no guardrails on the side of the road and the shoulders were very narrow. There were some places along the road where it wasn’t wide enough for two vehicles to pass. Fortunately by leaving early there was very little traffic on the road. It was an interesting drive with beautiful scenery and we were glad we did it.
On to Alaska
We reached the Alaskan border, a very lonely outpost for the custom officers and families that lived there. The closest town, Dawson City is 65 miles away on the Canadian side although you have to travel the Top of the World Highway or you could drive 122 miles to Tok on the American side. However, the roads on the American side were mostly gravel and had not been well maintained.
We then proceeded to Chicken, The story of how chicken got it’s name is pretty funny. The townspeople decided that they would name it after a local game bird called a Ptarmigan. Unfortunately none of them knew how to spell it… so they ended up calling it ‘Chicken.’ (One of our favorite books ‘Tisha, about a school teacher going to teach in Alaska, is set in Chicken- we highly recommend it!)
The people of Chicken are still having fun with their name. The four stall outhouse erected away and down wind of the business district is called ‘Chicken Poop’. There are other buildings in the area that are also decorated with chicks and chickens, but not quite as funny.
On our way out of Chicken, we had to stop in the Post Office where they postmark the cards and add chicken tracks. The Post Office was a neat small log cabin that serviced the local area.
After the trip to Dawson City and Chicken, we came back to the Alcan Highway just 12 miles east of Tok at Tetlin Junction. From there over to Glen Allen was another rough ride with lots of patchy roads. From Glen Allen the next day, it was a short drive to Anchorage and down to the Kenai Penninsula.
We so enjoyed our journey from the lower 48 through Canada and on to Alaska. Our side trips made it truly extraordinary. We hope you have found some inspiration for your own trip here.