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Some things to keep in mind as you plan your next Alaska road trip

  • Author: Scott McMurren
    | Alaska Travel
  • Updated: May 12
  • Published May 12

Seventy years ago, in 1948, author Scott McMurren’s grandparents, Mary Benton Smith and Thor Smith, drove the Alaska Highway, which had just opened for civilian travel. It was an 8,900-mile road trip from San Francisco to Fairbanks and back. Thor Smith, assistant to the publisher of the San Francisco Call Bulletin, was on an assignment for the paper’s owner, William Randolph Hearst. (Photo courtesy of Scott McMurren)

Are you ready for your big Alaska road trip?

Road trips around the state take many forms. Some roads are paved. Some are not.

If you wanted to drive the Denali Highway, which goes from Cantwell (just south of Denali National Park) to Paxson, be prepared for a rough road. First of all, the road won't open until at least June 1 due to heavy spring snowfalls.

There are several gravel roads in Alaska that, though they are maintained by the state, require a different level of driving and advance preparation. This includes the last stretch of the Edgerton Highway from Chitina to McCarthy (also known as the McCarthy Road) and the Dalton Highway up to Prudhoe Bay.

If you're renting a car, truck or camper to cruise around Alaska, ask your rental company if they allow driving on gravel roads. Most don't, but some do. Alaska 4×4 Rentals offers trucks and SUVs that are designed for the gravel roads. The company also can provide satellite phones, full-size spare tires and GPS devices. They have an airport location in Anchorage's north terminal.

Arctic Outfitters in Fairbanks specializes in rentals for the Dalton Highway. It's sort of a techno-throwback, but a CB radio is included with all of the company's fleet of Ford Escapes. On the website, it says that's to communicate with other vehicles on the road, "a key element of safety on the Dalton Highway."

Arctic Outfitters provides a safety package with a full-size spare, a basic maintenance kit (including jumper cables) and a first aid kit.

For long-haul adventurers, there's the Alaska Highway, or "the Alcan." The highway officially starts at Dawson Creek, British Columbia, and ends in Delta Junction, Alaska — a total of 1,422 miles. But that's just the long middle stretch of any Alcan journey.

True confession: After almost 40 years in Alaska, I've never driven the Alcan. But that's going to change next week (fingers crossed).

Seventy years ago, in 1948, my grandparents drove the highway. My grandfather was assistant to the publisher at the San Francisco Call Bulletin. The paper's owner, newspaper icon William Randolph Hearst, was convinced that Alaska was going to be "the Pearl Harbor of World War III" and sent my grandfather to investigate. They drove 8,900 miles round trip from San Francisco to Fairbanks and back.

"Our new station wagon was equipped with two mounted spare tires, an extra can of gas, chains, a few vital spare parts, complete camping equipment, mosquito repellent and clothes for all kinds of weather," wrote my grandfather, Thor Smith. "Anyone who starts out with less is asking for trouble and possible delay," he added.

Fast-forward to yesterday, when Duncan Purvis pulled in front of my house hauling a boat. I rushed next door to get a current road report. Purvis had just arrived from Bellingham after driving straight through in three days. "I finally stopped at Young's Motel in Tok for a long nap," he said.

"Oh, don't drive at night," he said. "I almost hit a bull moose who jumped out in front of me."

Purvis prefers the wider road and shoulders on the eastern route, which goes north from Spokane through Banff and Jasper. The western route, known as the "Cassiar Highway," also is in good shape, he said.

"Really, the worst part of the highway is between Glennallen and Tok, because of the frost heaves," he said.

Even though it's not a dirt track like it was when it opened to tourists in the 1940s, it's still best to be prepared for your Alcan journey.

1. Don't forget your passport. You're traveling through Canada and everyone has to have a passport.

2. There are forms and fees associated with bringing rifles and shotguns through Canada. Don't take your handguns. As most Alaskans already are aware, travelers may not bring handguns into Canada.

3. Cell service can be spotty, particularly on the stretch from Dawson Creek to Delta Junction. Check with your cell provider (GCI, AT&T, Verizon) to determine how much extra it will be to use your phone in Canada. I opted for a "day pass" from AT&T for $10/day.

4. Stay current on road conditions in Alaska, in the Yukon and in British Columbia. Since I'll be heading through Banff and Jasper, I'm keeping an eye on Alberta conditions, too.

When Purvis got tired on his way up this week, he just pulled over and flopped the front seat down in his truck. I'm opting to hop, skip and jump from one motel to the next. One of my key resources so far has been the current issue of the Milepost, which has mile-by-mile descriptions of attractions and services along the way. There is also a good FAQ section.

Another resource is the "North to Alaska" planner, a cooperative planning site put together by tourism organizations in Alaska, Alberta, British Columbia and the Yukon. The site details several variations on three main routes: the "Rocky Mountain" route which I'm taking, the "Gold Rush" route, which includes the Cassiar Highway, and the Inside Passage route, which features the Alaska Marine Highway.

Scott McMurren is an Anchorage-based marketing consultant, serving clients in the transportation, hospitality, media and specialty destination sectors, among others. Contact him by email at zoom907@me.com. You can follow him on Twitter (@alaskatravelGRM) and alaskatravelgram.com. For more information, visit alaskatravelgram.com/about.

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