2021 Canada & Alaska Road Trip: The Drive Up

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:

Alaska Roadtrip on Roadtrippers

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.

Trip Planning

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:

  1. 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
  2. ArrivCan – technically not a website… an app, but crucial for getting into Canada
  3. 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.
  4. AllTrails – we’re both subscribers, we found some great hikes, more on those later.
  5. Alaska Marine Highway System – kidding, this is actually a horrible website that makes it impossible really 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 made a decision to not drive after dark for the rest of the trip and 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 515 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.

Day 4 – Thursday, August 19th, 2021

Up early for a longer day of driving, this time almost 600 miles. I finally got the GoPro time-lapse going for this part of the drive, but you have to deal with the bugs and the rain:

which didn’t do the scenery justice. I think we both agreed that the prettiest part of the entire drive was through Stone Mountain Provincial Park, which had a bunch of potential hikes and camping spots, but wasn’t in the cards for us with our timeline. The wildlife and scenery were amazing:

I really wanted the Northern Lights Centre in Watson Lake to be fun but it was either a 1 hour movie… or a gift shop. Could be so much more!

600 miles later, we made it to Whitehorse, a great little city bisected by a gorgeous river. We stretched our legs on a walk around said river, had an amazing dinner at Klondike Rib & Salmon, and then camped at Hi Country RV Park.

Day 5 – Friday, August 20th, 2021

Friday, early start, Greg said he saw the aurora just before the sun was coming up. Breakfast at Tim Horton’s, 2 hours later we arrive at our second hike of the trip, this one called Sheep Creek Trail, which is supposedly teaming with bears. We didn’t see any sheep or bears.

On a clear day, you can see for miles, deep into the Kluane National Park & Reserve… but it wasn’t clear. Either way, we had a great hike, spending the first half of the hike letting the bears know that we were there.

The drive from Whitehorse to the hike, and then all the way to Fairbanks, was gorgeous in the morning and then monotonous for the last couple hours:

but we made it and crashed at a Best Western near the airport in Fairbanks. Next time it’d be great to spend a couple days exploring Wrangell – St Elias National Park & Reserve and more of Kluane National Park, but of which look to be covered in glaciers and tall peaks.

Day 6 – Saturday, August 21th, 2021

Later start (time change), target for the day was Denali National Park. The guidebook did say that Denali was kind of a crapshoot in terms of being able to see, you know, the actual mountain, but we tried anyway. The park is similar to Glacier or Yosemite in that there’s a drive in to see the sights, but different in that in order to actually see the sights, you need to get on a bus for anything past the initial 15 miles that you can drive, which is substantial as the non-drivable part is almost 80 miles long.

The combination of the cloudy / rainy weather and Covid (not going to ride on a bus with 20 other people for 4 hours) meant that we got in a nice hike (half of the Savage Alpine Trail and the entire Savage River Loop Trail) at the very end of the 15 miles that you can drive, broke out the binoculars and spotting scope to look at the mountains and wildlife, and decided to make haste for Anchorage, only a couple hours south. I’d love to explore Denali again, but I’d bring a bike or ride the bus to get into the backcountry.

Day 7 – Sunday, August 22nd, 2021

Made it to Anchorage on Saturday night, “camped” at a hotel again. Up early for a 2.5 hour drive from Anchorage south and east, on the Seward Highway, which hugs the shorelines of Turnagain Arm, “…arguably one of the most beautiful stretches of highway in America”.

Our goal for the day was to hike what looked on paper / mobile devices to be a breathtaking hike alongside a glacier, up to the originating ice field (“… a large area of interconnected glaciers”), on a trail called the Harding Ice Field Trail in Kenai Fjords National Park. We finally go to the trailhead at about 10am, started up about 25 minutes later, and then after 5 hours later, and almost 10 miles and 4k feet of vertical gain, we were back in the parking lot. The trail is surreal: the first couple miles feels (at least in August) like you’re in a rain forest. You’re only at a couple hundred feet above sea level, it’s humid, and the trail is surrounded not conifers, but by cottonwood trees and then higher up by taller shrub bushes that aren’t dissimilar to plants you’d see on a hike in Kauai. But then you get above tree line and the plants disappear and it turns into a moonscape, an ice field that stretches north, west, and south for miles. We had a quick lunch at the top, descended down on some sketchy loose rock to get closer to the glacier, and then headed back out for the descent. Definitely a top 10 hike for me even though it was, yet again, overcast.

After the hike we had a nice drive through Seward, ate an entire pizza at Klondike Pizzeria, and drove back to Anchorage. Notably, on the way back, I’m 99% sure that we saw beluga whales in Turnagain Arm and spotted my favorite overlanding blog / instagram / youtube peeps (actually their amazing Tundra rig) from Bound For Nowhere, who are simultaneously on a trip through Alaska.

Day 8 – Monday, August 23rd, 2021

We’re starting to think about heading back and in order to get back through Canada to the United States, we again have to get a negative molecular Covid test. Reservations procured a couple days earlier at Walgreens, we showed up on time, did the nostril swab dance, and had our negative results with an hour. We took got some quarters to do laundry at the hotel, got the laundry done, and then did a long trek from the hotel into downtown and back, procuring gifts for the family back home. I had dinner with an old highschool / college friend I hadn’t seen in years, and then before we knew it, it was time to start heading back, which is posted here.