On July 26th, while talking with some friends about life, work, families, and road trips, my friend Greg mentioned that he was thinking about a road trip to Alaska (about 2800 miles from Portland, which is ~= to a drive from San Francisco to New York City), but didn’t know if his wife and kid would want to go.
On August 9th, the border between the United States and Canada opened up for the first time in over 16 months.
On August 16th, at about 1:30pm, Greg and I drove through the Canadian border crossing on our way up to Alaska. The plan:
came together pretty quickly. We wanted to drive all the way to Fairbanks, hit Denali & Anchorage, drive back through Jasper and Banff, doing as many hikes along the way as we could.
We originally planned on going up the westernmost route (Vancouver to Prince George to Prince Rupert to Dease Lake) so that we could see some of the Canadian coastline but after looking more closely at the route above Prince Rupert, we decided to head up to Whitehorse through Fort Nelson.
We got back home a little after 1am on Saturday, August 28th. We drove about 5800 miles in 12 days. Here’s a day by day recap with pictures and video.
We collaborated on a Google doc that had sections for “Crossing the borders” (lots to plan for here because of Covid, example 1 & 2), “Personal Items”, “Food and water”, “Vehicle”, “Sleeping gear”, and “Other” (things like binoculars, camp chair, etc). The REI camping checklist is pretty similar, minus the things we thought about for driving more than 5,000 miles on super remote highways.
The plan was to car camp as much as possible with hotels as a backup, which we were definitely prepared to do. We both had tents, coolers (with only dry stuff until we got past the Canadian border), drinking water (these are great), hiking backpacks with the ten essentials, and maybe most crucially, the 2020 version of The Milepost.
We both scheduled our molecular Covid test (can’t do the antigen tests) for the day or two before departure. I got my results pretty quickly but Greg’s didn’t come back until after we got through the Canadian border, more on that later. I luckily had gotten new tires on the truck a couple weeks previous and had a recent service / oil change.
Online tools that were helpful:
- https://www.gi.alaska.edu/monitors/aurora-forecast – a great website that can help you see where and when you’ll be able to see the Northern Lights
- ArrivCan – technically not a website… an app, but crucial for getting into Canada
- Roadtrippers.com – I’ve used this app more than a couple times, it’s really helpful for finding (and remembering) places that you want to see, and for sketching out various scenarios.
- AllTrails – we’re both subscribers, we found some great hikes, more on those later.
- Alaska Marine Highway System – kidding, this is actually a horrible website that makes it
impossiblereally really hard to figure out how to travel along the Alaska coastline. We thought about trying to take the ferry back from Anchorage but abandoned the idea after a couple of hours of trying out various routes and schedules.
Day 1 – Monday, August 16th, 2021
Gassed up at 7:30am, arrived at Greg’s house shortly after, made it to Bellingham by 12:30pm, got lunch, and then an hour later got in line at the US / Canada border. Up until this point everything had gone very smoothly. Greg’s molecular test results from Sunday hadn’t been emailed to him yet (and we both had to have negative tests before hitting the border) so he found a place near SeaTac that had a 1 hour turnaround on Covid tests and while it did take more than an hour, he got the negative result that he needed. But then we met with the most friendly Canadian Border Services agent. I thought we said all the right things (no alcohol, no fresh fruits, no weapons) but we apparently gave the wrong answers to the “what is your quarantine plan?” We both had just received negative tests and figured that this portion of the ArrivCan app questionnaire and the agent interview was perfunctory, something that someone would have to have who tested positive. Either way, the first bump in the road. The agent handed us 2 Covid test boxes and told us to pull over about 50 yards ahead to take yet another Covid test, whose results we’d get somewhere between 24 and 36 hours later, and most importantly, if positive, would require us to quarantine somewhere in Canada (he said it was a federal crime to go back to the US if we tested positive and didn’t quarantine), without moving, for 2 weeks. So that was stressful.
We made it through though, got groceries for the next week in Vancouver, and headed up to Whistler, where we intended to camp for the night before a hike the next morning. Speed bump number #2: they were doing road maintenance on the Sea to Sky highway, which added 2 hours of bumper to bumper traffic.
Speed bump #3: while sitting in bumper to bumper traffic and looking at The Milepost to figure out the camping spot for the night, the sky opened up and poured giant buckets of rain down, which put a damper on our camping plans. We finally got into Whistler, had dinner at La Cantina – Urban Taco Bar, and hoped that the weather would change, which it didn’t. So on the first night, after hoping to camp most nights, we ended up in a hotel called the Blackcomb Lodge. So ended day 1.
Day 2 – Tuesday, August 17th, 2021
A hike and a drive day, so up at 6:30am, at the trailhead by 7:15am, hike starts at 7:38am. The first 3 miles are effectively straight up hill, without much scenery, you’re in the trees for the most part. But then the trees opened up near the top of the climb to views of the west like this:
and then after you crest the last hill, you get views of at least 4, maybe 5 different glaciers that all feed into Wedgemount Lake.
There are a bunch of great campsites for backpackers (in some places with wooden decks), and a couple of bear bag hangs, which I’ve never seen in the US. We had lunch at the lake, hiked to the eastern side to see how close we could get to the glacier, and then hiked back down to the car. Total time: almost 7 hours.
After the hike we drove north and east on Highway 99 for a couple hours until we hit Highway 97 and then hightailed it to Prince George, hoping to score a tent site somewhere on the outskirts of the city. This was the only part of the drive that we hit smoke on, as there were fires to the east of us. The drive on Highway 97 felt eerily similar to a drive on Highway 97 through Oregon: very dry, small trees, high desert.
Speed bump #4: driving late at night in places that have lots of “Watch for Moose” signs and no other cars on the road is spooky and it turns out, arriving at 10:30pm means none of the campgrounds were open. We lucked into the last room at a brand new Best Western, ending day 2.
Day 3 – Wednesday, August 18th, 2021
We got up, we drove all day on Highway 97 east and then turned north, arriving in Fort Nelson about 600 miles later. We got a tent spot at the Triple “G” Hideaway RV Park & Campground, had a run down main street to stretch our legs, had dinner outside at the onsite restaurant, and then hit the hay to get ready for another long day of driving.