Blazing a trail: An epic road trip down the Alaska Highway

75 years on from its construction, Phoebe Smith embarks on an epic Alaska Highway adventure from Canada’s remote Yukon to Alaskan wilderness, with lakes, brown bears and mountains along the way...

4 mins

"When I first came here there were no footpaths,” walking guide Brett Liddle’s words oozed out of his throat like thick treacle, his voice filling the wooden cabin with tones as rough as the tree trunks that held the room together. “Back then, it was a brand new national park, and part of my job was to designate the trails.” 

Liddle wore the stoic expression of a man who had told his story many times, but still seemed to linger over every word, as though laying the groundwork for something more.

Here in Kluane National Park, deep in Canada’s remote Yukon Territory and some 35 years on from Brett’s trailblazing days of the 1970s, there are still just 15 marked footpaths. Given that this park stretches an area spanning more than 22,000 sq km – larger than Wales – it shows just how difficult establishing those early routes had been. 

But, then, nothing comes easy to the residents of the Yukon, the north-westernmost of all Canada’s provinces and territories. I asked Brett, who lives 30 minutes’ drive from a hamlet called Haines Junction, where he did his weekly shop. The answer: 187km away in Whitehorse.

Bull elk near Haines Junction, Yukon (Neil S Price)

But such distances are considered easy by today’s standards. Before the 1940s, it was a different story altogether. Before, to travel from what would become Haines Junction to the capital of the Yukon would have taken several days’ ride on horseback through thick forest. The only ones making that journey would have likely been members of the First Nations, Canada’s indigenous people. But that all changed in 1942, as the realities of the Second World War hit North America.

The Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbour and Germany were marching on Russia (then allies of the US), so it was decided that a road was urgently needed to connect Alaska (via the Yukon and British Columbia) with the lower 48 states. Primarily, it would be a military supply route, one that could both help support the Russian war effort across the Bering Strait and defend against the threat of Japan, who would make inroads on Alaska’s Aleutian Islands later that year.

In under eight months, whole regiments of army personnel (around 11,000 men in total) paved their way across the permafrost, cutting down trees, establishing camps and boosting the populations of tiny one-horse towns from a handful of souls to bustling metropolises within hours, changing things for those who lived here forever.

“Many people didn’t even know that the Alaskan Highway was coming, and they certainly didn’t have a choice about it,” explained Janna Swales, president of the Alaskan Highway Heritage Society, Yukon, who I met, rather fittingly, at the Transportation Museum in Whitehorse, my start point. “I’ve heard stories about people who were out checking traplines and then suddenly Caterpillar trucks appeared, bursting through the trees. It must have been quite shocking, and it changed their way of life, literally, overnight.”

Looking around the Yukon capital today, I spied paintings and statues of can-can girls and gold prospectors declaring it a 'frontier town', despite the presence of North American chains such as Pizza Hut and Wal-Mart, and no shortage of people. 

It’s hard to believe this was just another outpost before the Highway arrived. Back then, it wasn’t even a capital. Only in 1953, after the road came, did it gain that title, highlighting the impact the route had on the area.

When I first heard about the Highway, which is little-known outside of Yukon or Alaska, I was gripped by fascination and wanted to drive the whole thing. But due to logistics (namely you can’t rent a car in Canada and drop it off in Alaska), I abandoned my plan to start at the road’s true beginning in Dawson Creek, British Columbia. 

Instead, from Whitehorse, I took a coach, then a train south across the border to pick up a car, intending to join up with the highway later. It was there I encountered another piece of historical trailblazing, recalling a time when this once remote region first opened up to the world: the Gold Rush.

Sitting on the tip of a finger of water known as the Chilkoot Inlet, Skagway feels every bit a tourist town. Today, its cluster of wooden shacks and Red Onion ‘brothel’ (now a local attraction, with girls offering tours, rather than ‘services’) draw visitors aplenty. Back in 1896, however, it pulled a different crowd.

Gold was found in the river, and over the next couple of years its population soared to over 10,000 (nowadays it’s just 1,000), made up of those hunting precious metals and others trying to sell them services and goods.

Remains of a pier at the ghost town of Dyea (Neil S Price) 

At the museum in town, a sepia photograph showed a queue of ill-prepared souls battling their way up a snow-plastered hill pass as they embarked on their search for gold. I yearned to see the real thing for myself. So, on choosing my vehicle, before heading to Whitehorse to pick up the Highway, I made a short detour to the ghost town of Dyea. It was here that the gold miners’ perilous route had begun.

Now a peaceful, almost eerily silent place by the water’s edge, all that remained of the old Dyea pier that I’d seen in pictures were the legs that supported it, now green-covered stumps. Like the town, the original prospectors’ route (the Chilkoot Trail) into the hills became redundant soon after 1898, abandoned in favour of Skagway where the water was deeper and could accommodate bigger boats. 

I hit the trail and headed into the spongy forest, its floor coated in a thick quilt of moss. Depressions in the ground marked where storerooms and homesteads had once stood, while further on, beneath the trees, an old wooden frontage was the only piece of this puzzle left standing.

The drive back to Whitehorse was one of the prettiest I encountered, weaving through trees coloured golden by the fall and shimmering emerald lakes. Finally, I reached the turning onto the Alaska Highway, now a ribbon of black asphalt that was easy to follow and easy to drive. 

I headed north-west, spotting a herd of elk as I bound for Haines Junction and the gateway to Kluane National Park. En route, I crossed the Takhini Salt Flats, passing tundra pockmarked by circular depressions, and spotted a turn-off for the ‘Old Alaska Highway’ – a leftover loop from the original route before it was improved in 1943.

“It was a real adventure road at that time,” explained Whitehorse local Doug Bell, who I had spoken to while planning my route, and who had driven the road in 1946, while working as a radio operator. “People say you needed a permit, but we never had one, or were never asked. There were lots more twists and turns, ups and downs, and what we called ‘washboards’, when the rocks just chewed the tyres right up. We got flats all the time and had to stop every 20 or 30 miles, meaning it took a long time to drive it.”

Nowadays, the 2,288km (1,422 mile) Highway is a lot smoother and quicker, meaning there are fewer places to stop, especially when, as I did, you drive it in early September. 

At Haines Junction, I met walking guide Brett, who, as a former park ranger, had been responsible for establishing trails in the national park and was just getting ready to close for the season and travel to warmer climes. When I asked if I might see bears, he shook his head sceptically. “No bears and no aurora. They need to stop putting them on the brochures. It’s hard to see both.”

As I drove into the tiny town that evening, I began to think he might be right, especially as the only migration I seemed to be witnessing was human, all heading south for the impending winter. However, as the night fell and the stars came out, I began to make out a green smear on the inky sky. It wasn’t a good showing but it was the northern lights, and that gave me hope.

The following morning, as I left for Kluane National Park, a black bear strolled casually across the road in front of the car and I screeched to a halt to watch its big brown bottom bound into the forest, a wide green plastered to my face. Further in, I spied moose, while trumpeter swans swam on the little lakes that glowed amber and purple in the early morning light. 

Glaciers at Kluane National Park (Neil S Price)

At Kluane Lake I swapped the car for a plane. But it was no ordinary plane. This one came equipped with a pair of skis. “People don’t appreciate what’s right near the Highway when they drive,” said pilot Tom Bradley, as we soared above the summits of the now tiny-looking peaks that, just minutes earlier, had dwarfed me as I drove on the road beneath. Behind these, and revealing themselves slowly as we climbed, lay a teeth-like range of cloud-scratching pinnacles, all capped with snow and surrounded by tongues of crevasse-ridden glacier ice. 

The little plane bumped and rumbled as we cut close to the knife-edge ridges, then somehow, magically, we were granted a hole in the clouds to enable Tom to skilfully land at the foot of Mount Logan, Canada’s highest peak at 5,959m.

“We’re standing on the largest non-polar ice field in the world,” said Tom, as we jumped out of the plane. I felt the wind cut through my layers of clothing with a biting nip. “There’s 700m of ice beneath our feet. You’ve got enough water here to fill every lake and river in Canada, and all of North America’s highest mountains, with the exception of Mount McKinley, are right around us.”

I looked about me, a true 360-degree panorama of rock and ice, and felt privileged to be standing in this secret snowy world, beyond the asphalt of the Highway.

Back on firm ground and in the car, a brief stop allowed some dall sheep to cross the road and for me to make the short ascent to the top of Soldier’s Summit. This was one of the trails originally established by Brett, and it was also where the Alaska Highway was officially opened in 1942.

View from Soldier's Summit in Kluane (Neil S Price) 

I noticed more and more abandoned homesteads, motels and gas stations as I ploughed on. I passed through Burwash Landing where a giant gold pan marked the entrance to the town (another place that swelled with people during the highway’s construction but is now down to an average population of just 95) and finally reached my cabin in what would be my last stop in Canada, just outside Beaver Creek.

Here, owner Amanda Harris showed me around the grounds where she stored an impressive collection of old military vehicles that were left behind to rust when the road was completed. “This lodge was built in 1942, during the construction of the Highway by the US army. It was the officers’ quarters, and the troops would have been in the Quonset huts outside in very cold conditions.” She gestured to what looked like war bunkers.

“Everything found on the Canadian side is in two parts because the agreement was that everything had to be destroyed and unusable,” Amanda continued, as we wandered by an old medical jeep emblazoned with the army insignia. “I met a man who helped build the road. He used to go ahead and mark the trees with blazes to show the route,” she explained. “It was so cold (the route was built between March and November), he said that by the time he took his breakfast from the mess tent to his seat, the egg was frozen to the plate.”

Despite the milder autumn air, I shivered. Even walking the woods close to the road felt wild. It was hard to imagine what it would have been like cutting this route in winter with no one to follow.

I gained an hour the next morning as I passed the International Boundary and crossed into the USA. Here, the landscape opened up into wide valleys with russet-coloured peaks either side. Shingle rivers trickled under bridges, most of which dated back to the time of the Highway’s construction.

Reaching the small town of Tok (pronounced ‘toke’ – as in Tokyo Camp – so called by officers building the road here in the 1940s), I was greeted by a Main Street offering an array of husky sled rides, hunting shops and a wooden case with a stuffed moose inside. While in my cabin that night, I heard the dogs of a local outfitters howling at the moon. It may have all the trappings of a well-served tourist spot but this place still felt deliciously remote.

My final day on the Highway took me through more dramatic landscapes and deposited me, with very little fanfare, into the town of Delta Junction, where a simple post informs drivers that they’ve ‘survived’ the Alaska Highway at this: ‘Mile 1,422’. 

The gift shop was already closed for the season, so I didn’t linger and instead headed on to Fairbanks, where I could drop off the car and catch the Alaska Railroad down to Anchorage for my flight home.

Alaska Railroad from Fairbanks to Anchorage (Neil S Price)

The total train journey takes 12 hours, so I decided to break it in Talkeetna, a tiny but hip town where the mayor for the past 15 years has been Stubbs the Cat, a rather-pleased looking feline. The time it took to get there passed quickly as the tracks cleaved their way through mountain passes, over gorges and through the tundra of Denali NP, where moose and bear watch on as you clatter through.

Finally, I found myself wandering the pretty streets of the town, where the wilderness of the woods never sits far from the pavements. I stumbled into a clearing where I discovered a memorial to climbers lost on Alaska’s Mount McKinley (aka Denali). 

It seemed a fitting end to my journey on the trail of Alaska and the Yukon’s trailblazers. It was a reminder of the spirit required to come to the furthest reaches of North America and attempt anything, whether climbing mountains, building a road or cutting a footpath. Those who came and those who lived here were true pioneers. Thanks to the Alaska Highway, for a few short days, I got to be one too.


The author travelled with Audley Travel, who offer two-week self-drive trips along the Alaska Highway, including an outgoing flight from the UK to the Yukon and a return flight from Anchorage, 12 nights’ mid-range hotel accommodation on a room-only basis, an intermediate-grade hire car on an all-inclusive basis, travel on the Yukon and White Pass railroad from Whitehorse to Skagway and travel on the Alaska Railroad from Fairbanks to Talkeetna and on to Anchorage. See their website for pricing and more information. 

Main image: Alaska Highway, Kluane National Park in Yukon, Canada (Neil S Price)

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