We had a tiny front wheel drive car with nearly bald tires. Our route would take us through some remote country with the increasingly possibility of snow. What could possibly go wrong?
When we left Juneau at the end of the summer season in 2015, we had the option of either taking the ferry all the way back to Bellingham or driving down through Canada. Since we’d already taken the AMHS ferry, we opted for the drive. We’d heard awesome things about the ALCAN highway and we had the time so we figured why not.
Our journey started by packing everything we could fit into our Mini Cooper. We had basically become pros at this jenga-style game of packing efficiency. Although we would find out later that we’d been a little too ambitious with our cramming.
The ferry to Skagway is relatively fast, about 7 hours, and the view of emerald green water and snow capped peaks is stunning. This narrow passage is called the Lynn Canal and its surrounded by jagged mountains, which makes it extremely windy.
Skagway is a cool little town that was a big deal during the Klondike Gold Rush. It served as the jumping off point for miners and explorers who wanted to go up into the Yukon. Skagway was only recently connected to the mainland via the ALCAN highway in 1978. Before that it was only accessible by boat or plane, like Juneau.
As soon as we left Skagway, we crossed into the Yukon Territory and into an entirely different world. This part of Canada is harsh and beautiful. It was unlike anywhere I’d ever been.
That first evening was a bit harrowing. As we drove over white pass, it began to snow up in the mountains. Now, as I mentioned above, we were in a small front wheel drive car (packed to the brim) with balding tires. So, the sight of snow made us a little nervous and sweaty. Luckily, we made it over the pass without incident….until the sun went down and we nearly plowed into a small herd of grizzlies. A mother and three (!) cubs were leisurely crossing the road when we caught sight of them and slammed the brakes on.
After a cozy night in Whitehorse, we had to reevaluate our cargo situation. The car was packed way too tightly with far too much stuff. So, we found a post office, shoved some of our things into a big box and sent it away. Best decision ever.
Due to our post office detour, we got a late start out of Whitehorse. We had an idea of how far we’d get that day and where we wanted to stop. But upon reaching that destination, we found that both hotels were completely booked. We had to make a game-time decision: turn back to Whitehorse or continue to the next dot on the map.
We decided to push on.
The next dot only had one motel and it was booked, too. Sun had set and it was getting dark. Then…it started to snow. The snow began to stick to the road. I don’t know about you, but when I drive in the snow at night in the dark, I feel like I’m traveling through space at warp speed. John was driving and he was very nervous, which was not a good sign.
Fun fact: when it’s dark out and there are no street lights, and everything is white, you can’t see where the road ends and wilderness begins.
We white-knuckled it for another two hours before finally rolling into another dot on the map. This time, with a room.
Our excitement did not end there. I have a few more stories to tell before the journey ends, so stay tuned!
Tips for Driving the ALCAN
- Drive a reliable vehicle (or be sure you bring spare parts). Preferably with AWD or 4WD.
- Don’t be like us- make sure you have good tires!
- Fuel up at every opportunity. Gas stations are few and far between and most aren’t open after dark.
- Go in late summer, or be cool with the possibility of driving in snow
- Bring camping gear.
- Pack lots of food. You might not always find a town to re-stock or have a meal. In fact, most of the time you won’t!
- Do your research. The Milepost magazine is an OK enough resource, but we didn’t find it super useful for our route. For example, all of the hotel listings are paid, so not all accommodations are included. Definitely worth purchasing, but I think it would be best to augment with some other guide books or online research.
- Be flexible! Part of the fun is discovering new and unexpected experiences.