FAQ: Driving the Alaska Highway

Whether contemplating a trip up the Alaska Highway, or already packed and ready to go, travelers ask The MILEPOST pretty much the same questions each year about what to expect along this pioneer road. And no wonder there are questions: The Alaska Highway traverses a vast wilderness in a remote expanse of North America, from Mile 0 at Dawson Creek, BC, to Delta Junction, AK, at Mile 1422, official end of the Alaska Highway (which is 96 driving miles from Fairbanks, the unofficial end of the highway at Historical Mile 1523). Such a trip requires planning.

Following are the top ten most-frequently-asked questions about driving the Alaska Highway, and our answers.

1. Is the Alaska Highway paved? and 2. What are road conditions like?

The short answers are “yes” and “mostly good.”  The last section of original gravel road on the Alaska Highway was paved by 1992. That being said, you will still come across gravel road— “gravel breaks” that are anywhere from a few feet to a few miles long—where road repairs are under way. Road construction is a fact of life here in the summer, although delays are usually minimal.

The asphalt surfacing of the Alaska Highway ranges from poor to excellent. Much of the highway is in fair condition, with older patched pavement and a minimum of gravel breaks and chuckholes. Recently upgraded sections of road offer excellent surfacing. Relatively few stretches of road fall into the “poor” category, i.e. chuckholes, gravel breaks, deteriorated shoulders, bumps and frost heaves. Damaged road is usually flagged with small orange flags or cones.

There’s a lot of straight road the first 300 miles of highway, between Dawson Creek and Fort Nelson. North of Fort Nelson, the Alaska Highway crosses the Rocky Mountains: Expect about 150 miles of narrow road with curves and hills and few passing lanes. This stretch of road crosses Summit Pass (Historic Milepost 392), highest summit on the Alaska Highway at 4,250 feet elevation. After winding through the MacDonald River valley—no guardrails and watch for caribou and stone sheep on the road—the highway straightens out again for the next 140 miles into Watson Lake, YT.

The stretch of road between Watson Lake and Whitehorse, approximately another 300 miles, is in fair to good condition, with easy curves through wide river valleys and along lakes.

From Whitehorse to Haines Junction, a distance of 100 miles, it is straight road with fair surfacing. The next 200 driving miles, from Haines Junction to the Alaska border, consists of long straight stretches of improved highway with wide lanes and generous shoulders; a short, winding section along the shore of Kluane Lake, which has recently been improved; followed by a long stretch of road through the Shakwak Valley—between Destruction Bay and the Alaska border—that is subject to frost heaving and potholes. Reconstruction and maintenance on this stretch is ongoing. From the Alaska–Yukon border to Delta Junction, the Alaska Highway is in fair to good condition, with occasional frost heaving and shoulders ranging from narrow to generous. There are short straight stretches and easy curves along here. Watch for moose.

3. What kind of vehicle should I take?

Drive what you want to drive, just make sure it is mechanically sound with good tires (and a spare). You will see all sorts of vehicles traveling the Alaska Highway in summer, from bicycles, motorcycles, vintage and compact cars to pop-up trailers, motorhomes, 5th-wheelers towing passenger cars and plenty of trucks, big and small.

The MILEPOST field editors have driven a variety of vehicles on road logging trips, from a VW Eurovan to a Saturn, Subaru wagon, Honda CRV and Pontiac Grand Am pulling a small trailer, to a 28-foot Class C motorhome. Field editors out of the Anchorage office currently drive a truck/camper.

4. What do I need to know about crossing the border?

U.S. and Canadian citizens are required to present one of the following travel documents as identification when crossing the U.S.–Canada border: U.S. or Canadian Passport, valid for air, land and sea travel; Passport Card (U.S. only), valid for land and sea travel; Enhanced Driver’s License (EDL), available in some states and provinces, valid for land and sea travel; or a Trusted Traveler program card (NEXUS, SENTRI or FAST/Expres), issued to pre-approved, low-risk travelers and valid for sea and land use. (NEXUS can also be used at participating airport kiosks.) If you are traveling with minors, you must carry proper identification for each child such as a birth certificate, passport, citizenship card, permanent resident card, etc.

U.S. motorists convicted of a criminal offense, such as Driving Under the Influence (DUI), may be refused entry into Canada or may be required to apply for admittance permits and pay fees.

Canada vigorously enforces its firearms importation laws. Border officials may search any vehicle for undeclared firearms and seize any vehicle and firearm where such firearms are found. Firearms in Canada are classified as restricted, non-restricted and prohibited. ALL handguns are either restricted or prohibited. Visitors CANNOT import a prohibited firearm into Canada. Fireworks are not allowed in Canada. Visit the Canada Firearms Centre and Canada Border Services Agency for details.

The U.S. and Canada have restrictions and limitations that apply to importing alcohol, tobacco, meat, eggs, dairy products, fresh fruit, vegetables and other food and non-food items. Details on these items may be found at Canadian Customs and U.S. Customs. Canada also follows CITES guidelines regarding the import/export of endangered species of wild fauna and flora including parts or products.

Dogs and cats require proof of current vaccination against rabies and health certificates issued not more than 30 days prior to crossing the border stating that your pet is healthy. While these certificates are not always reviewed, the lack of them may result in longer wait times at the border and inadmissibility of your pet

Visit the Canada Border Services Agency online for more information. Access detailed information for both U.S. citizens and international visitors under the Travel menu on the U.S. Customs and Border Protection website.

5. Are cell phone and Internet service available?

There are long stretches of the Alaska Highway without cell phone service. Service may also depend on your U.S. provider’s coverage in Canada or your Canadian provider’s coverage in the U.S.

Alaska cell phone service providers include AT&T, GCI and ACS. Coverage is for the most part confined to the highway system, although there is no coverage (outside major communities) along the Denali, Elliott, Steese or Dalton Highways (except for Deadhorse/Prudhoe Bay). There are also dead spots on the Tok Cutoff, Alaska, Richardson, Parks, Glenn, Seward and Sterling highways.

Alaska provider coverage is spotty to nonexistent along the Alaska Highway in the Yukon and northern British Columbia outside major communities like Whitehorse, Fort Nelson, Fort St. John and Dawson Creek. There is coverage in major communities from the Yellowhead Highway south along the West and Central Access Routes in British Columbia. Coverage is good in Alberta along the East Access Route. Canadian travelers in Alaska and visitors from the Lower 48 in both Canada and Alaska will need to check with their cellular service providers regarding coverage and application of roaming and/or international rates.

Cellular service in western Canada is provided by Bell and Telus. According to Travel Yukon mobile phone coverage is available in all Yukon communities, but they suggest you check with your own mobile service provider to find out if yours will work in the Yukon. “For the technically minded, the Yukon's mobile service is CDMA (code division, multiple access) compatible. Satellite phone networks are accessible across the Yukon and satellite phones can be rented in Whitehorse.”

WiFi and hardwire Internet access are available at many hotels/motels and campgrounds along the Alaska Highway, as well as at some visitor centers, libraries and coffee shops/cafes.

6. How far apart are services?

Gas, diesel, food and lodging are found in towns and cities along the Alaska Highway, as well as at smaller unincorporated communities, roadhouses and lodges located between the larger population centers. With the closure of several long-time roadhouses in recent years, and the seasonal nature of others, motorists can be looking at 100 to 150 miles between services on a couple stretches of highway. Pay attention to your gas tank and fill up when near a pump. Motorists should also keep in mind that not all highway businesses are open year-round, nor are most services available 24 hours a day.

Remember that you will be driving in 2 different countries that use 2 different currencies: For the best rate, exchange your money at a bank. There are banks in Dawson Creek, Fort St. John, Fort Nelson, Watson Lake, Whitehorse, Tok, Delta Junction and Fairbanks. Haines Junction has banking service at the general store. Most businesses (but not all) will take major credit cards. Be aware that credit card companies tack on a fee for foreign currency transactions.

7. How about lodging? Do we need reservations?

It’s always a good idea to call ahead for a room. Small to mid-sized communities along the Alaska Highway often have limited accommodations that can fill up with gas patch and road crews as well as tourists. It can get just as busy at the larger communities along the highway during the summer. If you don’t want to plan too far ahead, at least call a day or two in advance to arrange for accommodations.

8. How about campgrounds?

There are many private RV parks and campgrounds along the Alaska Highway, as well as government campsites. British Columbia has 5 provincial park campgrounds on the Alaska Highway; Yukon maintains 8 government campgrounds; and in Alaska there are 10 state and federal recreation sites for camping along the Alaska Highway.

Plan to pull in in the afternoon to make sure you get a spot. During the high-season (mid-summer), certain campgrounds can fill up early in the day, for example if a large caravan groups arrives; most of the time campers find a site.

The weather can be quite cool the first part of May, with some campgrounds in some areas of Yukon and Alaska interior still closed in mid-to late May because of frozen water lines.

9. When is the best time to go? and 10. What are winter driving conditions?

The Alaska Highway is driven year-round, although most tourist traffic hits the road between May and September. Expect ice on Kluane Lake in May, and there’s always the possibility of a brief snow or hail storm—even in mid-summer—around Summit Lake in the Rockies, although we’re talking about only a few miles of extreme weather.

It “greens up” in the latter part of May in the North, and the leaves begin to turn as early as August in the Interior. Expect cold nights (freezing and below) by early September in parts of the Yukon and Interior Alaska. Keep in mind that some attractions and businesses in the North operate seasonally, opening around Memorial Day weekend and closing after Labor Day weekend.

June and July offer lots of daylight, with summer solstice on or around June 21st, this gives you extra-long days for driving, fishing, hiking and sightseeing. May and June tend to be drier than July, but in the North as elsewhere, weather is unpredictable: we’ve had cold wet Julys and dry sunny Julys, and everything in-between.

Questions about driving the Alaska Highway in winter frequently come up, often from military families making the move to Alaska in the off-season. Long-time MILEPOST field editor Earl Brown suggests that the roads are smoother and the wildlife viewing just as good in winter, making it an excellent time to drive the Alaska Highway, as long as you gas up frequently, phone ahead for lodging, have a block heater and carry emergency road gear.

Motorist Stephen Graef has driven the Alaska Highway 4 times in winter in a Chevrolet Metro and has never experienced a traction challenge (he has studded tires), even when dragging the undercarriage in deep, unplowed snow on the Cassiar Highway, a favorite short-cut of his. “But don’t take the Cassiar in winter without either a full gas tank and the range to make it all the way, or a spare can of gas,” Graef warns. “Twice I’ve had to roust people in Good Hope Lake to open their pump.” Many Alaska Highway businesses are seasonal as well, and even those that advertise year-round service may close for holidays or for other reasons, so in winter never pass a gas station without topping off your tank, even if it’s only a couple of gallons.

Despite whiteouts and below zero temperatures, Graef enjoys the winter drive. "I find it safer to drive in the dark of winter more than in any other season. You'll never be surprised by an oncoming car, thanks to their headlights and the reflective quality of snow. Animals stand out better against the snow, too. And traffic is lighter in winter by far, compared to summer."

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