The Al-Can Highway: 1,400 Unbelievable Miles

The Al-Can Highway (aka Alaska Highway, Alaskan Highway, or Alaska-Canadian Highway) is a historic drive from Dawson Creek, British Columbia to Delta Junction, AK. Over the course of 5 days of steady driving, we covered the whole thing (plus a little extra distance to get from Grande Prairie, AB to Dawson Creek, BC and an extra 96 miles after Delta Junction to get to Fairbanks).

It’s really hard to describe the drive in words. Incredible, beautiful, jaw-dropping, unreal, and even holy s–t just don’t do it justice. The scenery is truly beyond belief.

At A Glance

From: Dawnson Creek, BC, CAN
To: Delta Junction, AK
States/Provinces: BC, YT, AK
Length: 1,387 miles (as of 2012)
Nearby Cities: Dawson Creek, BC; Fort Nelson, BC; Watson Lake, YT; Whitehorse, YT; Delta Junction, AK; Fairbanks, AK

The Road Is Built

The idea for a road connecting Alaska to the Continental US came about in the 1920s. But Canada had no interest. Why put up that kind of money to build a road that would benefit only a few thousand people in the Yukon?

Two decades later, however, there was an event that changed opinions about the road: the attack on Pearl Harbor and subsequent threats of attacks on the West Coast of North America and the Aleutian Islands. Because the road primarily benefited US interests during World War II, the United States paid for the entire cost of the road, turning over the road and facilities in Canada to Canadian authority six months after the war ended.

The dirt and gravel road was started in early March, 1942, and completed just eight months later, in late October, 1942. Consider that the original length was 1,680 miles and was completed in 8 months with crews working from both directions to meet in the middle. Even though it was just a gravel road, the terrain was incredibly tough and winter was still in effect when construction began. Now consider that it can take months (or years in the case of Southern Indiana’s I-65 work) for today’s road crews to lay a few miles of highway.

Upgrades & Improvements

While the road was officially completed in late 1942, it wasn’t generally usable until 1943. Even then, it was a treacherous road with inclines bearing names like Suicide Hill. Bridges were temporary log bridges and permafrost thaw in spring and summer made sections of the road impassable. From 1943 to 1946, contract road crews made improvements and shortened the road to 1,422 miles before handing it off to Canadian authority.

Funding for the continued rerouting of the road, even in Canada, is still funded (partially, at least) by the US government, for an obvious reason: the road largely benefits Alaska. There really aren’t many people in that area of British Columbia and the Yukon.

We actually talked to people that have spent their summers fishing in Alaska for several decades. They told us that when they started coming up 30-40 years ago, the road was largely still gravel, especially in Canada. The Alaskan portion was paved during the 1960s.

Today, the road is fully paved, around 1,387 miles (2,232 km) long, and steadily shortening. No, it’s not tectonic shift pushing Dawson Creek and Delta Junction closer together; it’s consistent rerouting and shortening. Through Canada, the road is thirty-five miles shorter than in 1947. It’s also shorter in Alaska, as well, though mile markers haven’t been updated in Alaska as they were in Canada.

Oh, What A Drive!

So what’s it like to take the incredibly long drive to Alaska? Well, it’s long. No doubt about that. There’s a lot of sitting and just plugging along. Most of the time, there are no other cars in sight. While a lot of people take the drive, it’s nothing to go 30-60 minutes without seeing another vehicle.

In a time of fast air travel where you can get from Atlanta to Anchorage in 10 hours of flying, traveling via road really gives you an appreciation for what the people that blazed these trails endured. There were native tribes thriving in these areas. Before the US Army built the road, there were trappers and gold rushers that crossed these hills and forests. And before today’s paved, well-maintained road was completed, there was a gravel road with hairpin turns and switchbacks without guardrails.

Parts of the road feel like you’re driving into a painting. It seems that every passing mile just gets more beautiful. Somehow, the scenery never gets old.

Along the way, you’ll drive through deep canyons and over steep mountain passes. You’ll wind down roads carved right into the rocks with 500 foot drops just off the edge, should you manage to miss the guardrail. You’ll run right beside Muncho Lake and Kluane Lake for several miles.

You can actually still find parts of the old road, either still in use in bypassed communities or waiting to deteriorate a few miles away. The current road runs within 10 miles of the original road at all points and within 3 miles at most points. There are numerous historic mileposts to stop at, such as Suicide Hill, The Kiskatinaw Bridge, and The Sign Post Forest in Watson Lake, YT.

You will definitely see wildlife. In a single day, we saw 10 black bears grazing by the roadside. Knox also saw them and was none too pleased. Caribou, moose, buffalo, wolves, and foxes are found here and there, too. You’ll see the cars stacked up with travelers taking pictures. Enjoy the wildlife, but don’t approach or feed it.

Over the course of our trip (all the way up and part of the way back), we saw:

  • A dozen or so black bears
  • 3 foxes, including Redd Foxx (or perhaps just a red fox)
  • Plenty of snowshoe rabbits
  • 385 squirrels 384 squirrels
  • A handful of deer
  • 1 caribou
  • 1 bull moose
  • A few elk cows
  • 8 buffalo
  • Tons of giant black birds (ravens, we think)
  • 8 horses that weren’t fenced
  • 3 big horn sheep
  • 1 dead moose cow
  • 1 dead bear cub
  • 107,632 mosquitoes, most of which were smooshed on our windshield

Another cool thing that you see along the route are names (or college logos, hometowns, etc) written in rocks and stones along the roadside. It’s yet another way that people make their mark on this achievement because it’s certainly not something everyone does.

In Delta Junction, you can actually buy a certificate declaring that you have endured “the trials and tribulations to reach mile 1422, the End of the Alaska Highway at Delta Junction, Alaska”.

Practical Advice

The first thing we’d advise: get gas at every opportunity. While there are gas stations regularly along the route, at places like Toad River and Coal River, these are tiny places that often aren’t open. You might end up going 250-300 miles without gas if these small spots are closed. If we were sitting below 3/4 of a tank, we filled up.

The speed limit over most of the road is 90 kilometers per hour (about 55mph for those of us on the Imperial system). You can most certainly speed through here, but we wouldn’t advise it. While we only saw 1 cop on the entire 1,400 mile stretch and didn’t see a soul pulled over, following the speed limit is for your own safety and enjoyment.

The road might be paved, but sections of it are certainly still somewhat treacherous. Around every bend, there’s the chance that a bear or a moose (or in some places, a buffalo) might be standing in the road. We crested a hill to find a caribou standing in the opposite lane. There are sheer cliffs that don’t always have guardrails and, at times, the road runs right beside a lake without a safety net and little margin of error.

Parts of it are being repaved, so you will change between pavement and gravel here and there. There are potholes-a-plenty and sections that make you feel like you’re riding Millenium Force or The Vortex at an amusement park. Permafrost heave in some parts of the Yukon will have you bouncing all over the place if you even go the speed limit.

Besides, why speed through scenery this amazing?

Common sense rules of having good tires and a well-maintained suspension are extra important on this road. If you want to see wilderness, this is where you’ll start to get a glimpse. For most of the drive, the highway is the only paved road in the area, with gravel and dirt roads shooting off this way and that every so often.

Construction, Construction, Construction

Much like the city of Chicago, this road seems to have two seasons: winter and construction. You will encounter road crews at least a half-dozen times where you might sit for 5-10 minutes waiting on a pilot car. Take the opportunity to shut off the car and stretch the legs.

One interesting thing we noticed about the road crews that we don’t see much of in the lower 48: attractive, college-aged girls on the crews. At first, we thought it was an anomaly. Then we noticed that throughout the drive and in much of Alaska, college students, both male and female, seem to take the opportunity to earn some cash on a construction crew.

The Long Drive In Pictures

Remember how we said words can’t do this drive justice? Neither can pictures. The scenery is too amazing, too deep, too colorful, and too vast to ever really capture with a camera. You really do have to see it to believe it. But until you can make the drive on your own, here’s a glimpse.