Northern Alaska Road Trip 2008

The past winter Brenda had bunged up her knee skiing and that put an extended wilderness expedition out the question for the year. What to do? Well how about a road trip! We can car camp along the way, take short walks into the bush to explore and see the diversity of ecosystems of the north from the highways and back roads that extend all the way from Haines to Prudhoe Bay at the Arctic Ocean. Click to view photos full size

Fall is by far the best time to travel in interior Alaska, spectacular fall colors, fewer tourist (campgrounds are less crowded) and the migration of birds and animals make the last two weeks in August and the month of September the “golden time” in the north. Best of all cooler temperatures mean an end to the clouds of mosquitoes that can torture both man and beast!

From the ferry dock at Haines Alaska we drove north to Haines Junction in The Yukon and passed an experimental solar car that was on its way to setting a world record. We waved as we passed and wished them well, would we be using the power of the sun to fuel our next road trip? The Alaska Highway took us back across the border and the Taylor Highway brought us to the remote village of Eagle on the Yukon River. Eagle is situated in the heart of the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve and this classic Alaskan community is well worth a stop. Unlike so many places Eagle was free of gaudy tourist trap commercialization just a simple general store, small café and rustic hotel faced the river on the main street of town.

Fireweed, ablaze in fall colors lined the road as we drove east towards Dawson in The Yukon.

We had stopped in Dawson briefly once before at the end of a 460 mile kayak trip down the Yukon River from Whitehorse in 2007. Now we had time to explore this community and take in its rich history and culture dating back to the great gold rush of 1898. Some Dawson attractions worth mentioning are the Dawson Museum, Dänojà Zho Cultural Center and Diamond Tooth Gertie's Casino replete with cancan dancers. You may also want to take a stroll down 8th Avenue and see the early haunts of authors Jack London, Robert Service and Pierre Berton.

While in Dawson we stayed at Bombay Peggy's Inn on 2nd Avenue and Princess Street, once a brothel during gold rush times today it is a charming inn with a homey little pub down stairs. Dawson in the summer definitely has a bohemian vibe with a lively collection of artist and musicians; maybe that’s why the Dawson City Music Festival is so well attended.

The following morning we took the tiny George Black Ferry across the Yukon River to the start of the Top of the World Highway. This ferry is a free service that runs 24 hours per day except Wednesday mornings, when it is shut down for servicing.

The views from the Top of the World Highway were amazing as we headed towards Tok and Delta Junction.

The road conditions over the Denali Highway were very good considering it was near the end of the season but all of the camp sites and pull outs were already staked out by hunters looking for caribou and moose. Most Alaskans hunt and fish, not for sport but to put meat on their table, the methods and the means have changed some over the years but subsistence hunting, fishing and gathering is still a vital part of life in the far north. Eventually we found small lodge to stay the night near this tiny lake.

The fall colors were in full swing and the beauty of the land had us stopping to look at every opportunity.

After passing through Cantwell we made our way to Denali National Park and Preserve and spent the day arranging permits and transportation into the park. The next day we took the bus into the park to camp by Wonder Lake. Please see our post on Hiking in Denali NP 2008.

After our strenuous hike we drove to Alaska’s second largest city, Fairbanks, for a little R&R and some big city culture. We stayed in a beautiful and historic bed and breakfast near the center of town. The Alaska Heritage house is listed in the National Registry of Historic Places, it was built in 1916 and all 4,000 square feet of it arrived via sternwheeler. The house has been meticulously restored and furnished with antiques from the period, it felt like we had stepped back a century to a simpler and yet more elegant time. Fairbanks has many interesting places to visit; some of our favorite stops were bird watching at Creamer’s Field Migratory Waterfowl Refuge, University of Alaska’s Museum of the North, the sternwheeler Discovery and the Alaska Aviation Heritage Museum.

Although it was getting late in the year we made the decision to brave the Dalton Highway and cross over the Brooks Range to see the Arctic Coastal Plain and the  Arctic Ocean. Once called the North Slope Haul Road it was built as a supply road to support the Trans-Alaska Pipeline running from Prudhoe Bay.  Frequented by huge trucks hulling oversized loads north on a gravel surface often with icy conditions we preceded with caution, our first goal was the Arctic Circle at Latitude 66° 33′.

On the south side of the Brooks Range Spruce Trees of the Boreal Forest dominate the landscape as we head towards the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve

On the other side of Atigun Pass, elevations 4739 feet, all the trees are gone as we descend out of the books range and onto the gently rolling hills of the Arctic coastal plain. Here the Dalton follows the Sagavanirktok River as it winds its way to the Beaufort Sea.

Small bands of Caribou crossed the road on their yearly migration from the caving grounds on the coastal tundra to their winter quarters in the boreal forest (taiga).

Muskoxen also graze and rear their young on the coastal tundra and can readily be seen from the road. We observed them at a safe distance to avoid becoming the target of their famous charge.

At the end of the road; Deadhorse Alaska and the Prudhoe Bay oil fields, we stayed at the Arctic Caribou Inn along with the roughnecks working on the oil rigs. Accommodations were Spartan in trailer like structures elevated off the ground. Meals were served cafeteria style and arrangements could be made at the front desk to take a two hour tour of the oil field facilities and a short stroll along the Arctic Ocean.

Snow was just beginning to fall as we turned south for the long drive back home. We did not want to get stuck this side of Atigun Pass and made good time on the drive back. By the time we reached Fairbanks our reliable Subaru Forester definitely had the Hall road look covered top to bottom with a sticky coat of mud.

"The world is your playground, the question is, are you getting dirty enough?" – Subaru