Wild Beauty of the North
The Alaska Highway is one of the true wonders of the world. It is vast, remote and entirely wild. For those who like road trips, driving the Alaska highway is one that you’ll never forget.
My wife is from Whitehorse and so a few times a year we truck up there to visit family. We could fly and be there in two hours while eating delicious home made cookies that are provided on an Air North flight, but where’s the adventure in that? Driving is more our style. It’s our time to fall in love even harder without any interruptions or distractions. Life isn’t just about the destination, it’s about the journey—and that includes sleeping in the back of our Subaru Forester and being eaten alive by mosquitos (in the summer that is)!
If you’re adventurous and love road trips, I recommend you jump in the car and go. The beauty lies in the remote and the fun lies in the fact that you need to be self sustaining just in case something happens. Personally, I love to be in a loaded up vehicle with enough to survive for quite some time should the zombie apocalypse occur. Usually when driving in the winter we pass cars every 20-30 minutes or so depending on which part of the route we’re on, but sometimes its hours before another vehicle comes along. However, the friendliness of the north means that if you pull over on the side of the road (even if just looking at a pine marten running through the brush), the next vehicle that comes by will stop to make sure everything is okay.
Most people think you need 4 spare tires, a satellite phone and 15 jerry cans strapped to your roof in order to safely drive the Alaska Highway, and while that may be handy, there are plenty of opportunities to fill up on gas and make the occasional phone call. Keep reading to find out my essentials!
The Road Trip
The Alaska Highway starts at Mile 0 in Dawson Creek and travels through Fort St. John and Fort Nelson before weaving it’s way in and out of BC and the Yukon. It is the most maintained and well traveled route in the winter, and the safest one to take. There are small towns dotted along the route, but also long stretches where there is nothing and no one for hundreds of kilometres.
The roads are in mostly good condition, but there are times and patches where it is gravel only. Of course in the winter you’ll never know that, but in the summer there is often never ending construction projects going on. The highway itself is mostly straight from Dawson Creek to Fort Nelson, but after that it crisscrosses it’s way through the Northern Rockies through Muncho Lake Provincial Park, and the road becomes narrow and very windy. There are definitely some hold-your-breath-kind of sections throughout the Rockies, but that comes with breathtaking scenery. I recommend you do not drive this portion in the dark as you will miss beautiful views and a lot of animal sightings!
After making your way through the Rockies, you’ll come out the other end at Liard River, where the most amazing hot springs are. After spending the last few days driving the Alaska Highway, you should stop here for a dip or as many as you can get it. It is revitalizing and so refreshing and the perfect place for some R O M A N C E. It’s best to go later at night or early morning as you’ll likely have the springs to yourself. From here it’s only another 8 hours to Whitehorse. This stretch of highway is famous for the endangered bison. This trip we saw so many youth and babies, which is fantastic as that means the population is booming! Next, you’ll pass Watson Lake, the Gateway to the Yukon and home of the signpost museum, which I’ll admit we haven’t yet stopped at. The roads on the final stretch are great and provide endless views of the low Yukon mountain ranges.
We have driven in both the winter and the summer numerous times and each season provides different beauty and animals to see. This winter when we made the decision to journey north we were aware it may be a little more treacherous than normal. There was very little snow this year and that left the roads very icy, or rather—like an ice rink the majority of the time. That added to our adventure, that’s for sure!
So here are the essentials needed for a drive up the Alaska Highway.
What You Should Bring for the Drive
01. A reliable vehicle. It doesn’t need to be a 4×4 or AWD vehicle, but that never hurts. I feel safe and secure in our trustworthy Subaru Forester but there are plenty of small cars up north who are getting along just fine. Just make sure it’s had a checkup prior to the trip as breaking down in the middle of nowhere would be a pain in the butt. I recommend CAA as well—even if you never need it. Having that peace of mind for me is worth the cost, and I’m sure a 300km tow to the nearest town would pretty much drain the accounts for the next 3 years. Also keep in mind that a bigger more powerful vehicle, ain’t necessarily better. 95% of the vehicles we see flipped or in the ditch are 4×4 trucks.
02. Supplies! I LOVE to be prepared. I’m not a doomsday prepper, but I was in Girl Guides for about 15 years and we all know the cardinal rule there is ‘Be Prepared’. We bring what we would for camping, and that includes a camp stove with extra fuel, our camping pots/pans/dishes/utensils, as well as fire starter and some kindling. I like to pack enough fresh food and veggies to make it through the 4 day drive, but also bring a ton of canned items for those just in case moments. We love Amy’s Organic Chilli’s and Soups, and Daiya Vegan Mac n’ Cheese. We bring lots of nuts for snacking, home made popcorn (that usually runs out within the first day), and oatmeal for breakfasts. If you’re a vegetarian or vegan on the road like us, A& W can be found everywhere up north with their Beyond Meat Burger and compostable straws for that famous root beer.
03. A Tent or a Place to Sleep. There are small lodges and motels dotted all along the Alaska Highway, but in the winter, very few of them are open. I am a lover of camping, so that means we get as close to camping as possible and sleep in our vehicle. I built a folding platform in the back of the vehicle that folds out to create a flat and long sleeping bed with storage underneath, and it is a lifesaver!
In the summer we can pull off wherever we want and not worry about setting up a tent and being eaten by a bear. And in the winter, once it’s 6pm, dark and heavily snowing, we’re able to stop anywhere and sleep for the night. We pack two -30 down mummy sleeping bags, as well as two other bags which the mummy bags go into. Even our pup Cedar has her own sleeping bag. We have blow up roll out mattresses as well for comfort, but as we learned this trip—they don’t stand up to the cold and both cracked open leaving us sleeping on the hard plywood platform. I’d recommend something like a foamy instead. Even when it’s -30 outside, we are toasty and warm inside the vehicle, safe and secure for the night. Except for that one night when someone was creepily watching us and I saw his flashlight nearby and we then jumped in the car and booked it back down the snowy road…but that could be another post on it’s own…
04. Miscellaneous Stuff. Other items we have tucked away include: a collapsable snow shovel, scraper, lock deicer, a hatchet, jumper cables and first aid kit. Extra gloves, socks, and those charcoal hand warmers are always in my bag too.
Things I Wish We Did Bring
(or brought more of)
01. Chocolate. I don’t know why, but munching on a nice piece of chocolate while on the road seems to be number 1 on my list of priorities.
02. Music and Podcasts. We pack all of our old CD’s but I’d recommend downloading a stream of your favourite podcasts or audio books. It’s a great time to really get into something cool. Any recommendations for our next road trip, give them below!
03. A Collapsable Table. Why? Because when we stop in the middle of nowhere and I’m cooking Mac n’ Cheese, I want a damn table to do it on! This feels like a luxury item, but one I’m totally down with.
04. TP. Enough said. Can’t recommend enough. Also, please be a decent human and either dig a hole or pick it up!
Driving the Alaska Highway as a Photographer
As a photographer, I did my best to document our journey from both inside the car and out. I packed all of my spare batteries fully charged, not knowing if there would be a chance to recharge them along the way, as well as most of my gear. I usually have a session or two booked when I arrive in Whitehorse so all my gear needs to come along. Bringing my tripod is also essential, as well as a remote (which I picked up in Whitehorse and had for the way home) for any star trail photos.
I bought a new to me DJI Phantom Drone this year too, and that was so much fun to have on the road, even if it meant another bag of gear. Word to the wise, fly the drone from inside the vehicle if you want to keep your fingers. The battery life in -30 on the DJI really surprised me, but how quickly I lost the use of my hands did not.
There are so many opportunities to photograph the beautiful scenery along the way, but most of the time that also means you need to get out of the car and into those frigid Yukon temperatures. Believe me, it’s worth it. If you’re lucky enough to have a sunroof, it’s a fantastic way to get up and high without really leaving the car and it’s perfect for getting a clear shot of reindeer on the road.
I have many many more tips on driving the Alaska Highway in the winter, but now onto the photos! Oh, and most importantly, don’t forget your winter tires!
Our final tally of animals and birds we saw this 2018/19 Winter road trip include:
- A Family of 7-9 lynx (super rare!!!)
- 7 Eurasian Doves
- Many white tailed deer
- 1 coopers hawk
- 5 female moose and 1 baby
- 1 light grey fox
- 16 reindeer
- 3 golden eagles
- 2 bald eagles
- 1 red fox
- 1 big ass coyote
- 1 great northern harriot
- 3 mountain goats
- 1 chipmunk