If you plan your trip up the Alaska Highway (the Alcan) correctly, you'll include one of Canada's most incredible drives: the Icefields Parkway.
We started our journey north in Spokane — heading over to Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, before turning due north to Canada. The scenery was beautiful, but nothing special for a couple of seasoned Alaska travelers. That changed when we turned off of British Columbia Route 95 at Radium Hot Springs and headed east toward Banff.
This is the entry to Kootenay National Park. The road narrows and turns steeply uphill, climbing across the Continental Divide. Our 75-degree afternoon cooled by about 20 degrees quickly. After we crossed over the summit and headed into another valley, we came to the junction with the Trans-Canada Highway. You should turn right and head to Banff. The ski season was over last month, but the Banff Gondola was open. I wanted to take the eight-minute ride up to the top of Sulphur Mountain for a million-dollar view.
Unless you have lots of time, your Alcan trip is going to be a lesson in learning to say "no" to spectacular adventures. So, we turned left and headed north to Lake Louise.
The Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise is an object lesson in the three rules of hotel marketing: location, location and location. Built in 1911 by the Canadian Pacific Railroad, the hotel has more than 500 rooms. But it's set at the end of a glacial lake with an incredible view of jagged peaks. In May, the lake still was frozen over, although the ice had melted around the edges. Our room had a lovely view of the parking lot, which was the perfect prompt to get outside and stroll on the lakeside trails. Still, it was a beautiful view, and there are more trails that lead to glorious overlooks. Last month, though, hikers had to be prepared for melting snow and muddy trails.
After breakfast, we hit the road going northwest toward Jasper. "Today, you should be prepared for the most beautiful drive of your life," said the bellman. He also advised us to gas up at the bottom of the hill, since there were limited services between there and Jasper.
While Alaska's mountains and lakes are beautiful, you often have to take a plane or hike for a long time to access them. In Canada's Rocky Mountain parks, now designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, there are roads right up to the edge of mountains, lakes and rivers.
Going north from Lake Louise to Jasper, the road follows the Bow River, which provides excellent contrast against the mountains for photos. Thankfully, there are pullouts everywhere, otherwise you'd stop traffic when taking photos!
If you want to get out on a glacier, make plans to go on a big glacier buggy to the Athabasca Glacier. You can see the glacier from the road. If you look closely, you can see where the buggies drive out on the glacier.
It's hard to break the cycle of drive-stop-take photos-repeat. But eventually, you start to get hungry or thirsty — or you get tired of driving. We made it north to Jasper. Like Banff, you can get there by car or rail. Also, there is a tramway to take you up into the mountains for a great view.
Across the Athabasca River from Jasper is the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge. The collection of cabins and lodges is set on Beauvert Lake ( "pretty green" in French). Most folks come for a few days. There are canoes and bicycles available. There's a golf course and riding stables. It's a lovely setting between the lake and the mountains — fit for royalty. In fact, Prince Harry and his American bride, Meghan Markle, are honeymooning there! We just stayed overnight and, sadly, not in the "Royal Cottage"!
North of Jasper and the park, the mountains flatten out a bit. As we made our way to the "official" start of the Alaska Highway at Dawson Creek, there's evidence of the oil and gas boom in Alberta, with plenty of rigs on either side of the road. But there still are spectacular lakes, framed by glorious mountains.
Muncho Lake is a provincial park in British Columbia, 756 miles northwest of Jasper on the Alaska Highway. To get there, we spent the night at an unremarkable hotel in Fort Nelson. But the color of the lake and the beautiful mountains surrounding it made it a beautiful place for a park — and a nice stopover for tired highway drivers.
It's a long drive from there to Whitehorse, in the Yukon. But finally, we were getting close to home. Skagway is just 60 miles away! We parked the car at the Westmark Hotel, then walked along the banks of the Yukon River downtown. Right around the corner from the hotel, we had a delicious Bison Burger at the Burnt Toast Cafe. I washed it down with a glass of Yukon Gold, brewed locally by Yukon Brewing. It was delicious.
After passing through Haines Junction the next day, we drove by Kluane Lake. This was a completely different view than I had earlier in the month. Then, everything still was frozen. Now, there were just a couple of patches of ice in the lake. It was glorious. Coming from the east, you can see the giant mountains from Kluane National Park in the background, including Mount Logan, at 19,551 feet.
The Alaska Highway is a long, beautiful drive. Like many folks on the road, we were on a schedule. The list we made is of the places where we'd like to spend more time: Banff, Jasper and the other beautiful lakes along the way.