David and I have had some time to reflect on our Alaska Adventure. We returned to the lower 48 several weeks ago. Since then, we have had a number of conversations with people who are interested in traveling to Alaska. We thought we would answer a few FAQs and offers some insights in this blog post. Standard disclaimer: The information provided here is based on our experience. Other folks who have traveled to Alaska may well have had other experiences and will have additional advice to share.
How long did you spend in Canada and Alaska? We spent 4 months traveling through Canada and Alaska. We left Montana on May 10th and returned to Washington on August 27th.
How long did it take you to drive to Alaska? We traveled at a slower pace than most. We took 3½ weeks to get to Tok, AK, this is the first Alaskan town on the Alaska Highway. We spent one week in Alberta’s Jasper NP on our way north. We found that Canada was as beautiful as Alaska. We took our time and enjoyed the journey. Getting there was half the fun!
How were the roads? We were warned about driving the ALCAN and the highways in Alaska. Many people scared us saying that they were horrible. What we found was that you cannot expect the roads to be like the interstate highways in the lower 48, although there are a few four-lane highways near Anchorage and Fairbanks. Most of the roads are two lane roads and there are very few roads in Alaska. Some have potholes and frost heaves so you should expect to drive slower than you would otherwise. This is especially true on both sides of the Alaska/Canadian border on the ALCAN. If you slow down and are not in a big hurry, the roads are more than fine. We did not have any problems navigating them with our fifth wheel. That being said, if you are not on a primary road, be prepared to travel on gravel roads. As a result, we chose not to go to some places in Alaska that would require towing the fifth wheel over gravel roads, e.g. the Top of World Highway. Other friends of ours did drive their RVs to more remote locations and had no problems. We did drive on some gravel roads in our truck but not while we were towing. We found that there were plenty of other places to explore.
We considered purchasing a GPS like a Garmin but were glad we did not. With so few roads, navigating them is really not an issue. While in the cities like Anchorage or Fairbanks, the GPS on your phone works fine.
How many miles did you drive?
We started in Pahrump, NV and our first stop upon our return was in Anacortes, WA. The total miles in the Silver Fox was was 8,929.
Where did you camp? We camped in a variety of places. We stayed in a few private campgrounds but mostly we dry camped in the state and provincial parks. In general, we prefer these parks because we do not need all of the amenities that a full-service campground has to offer. There are plenty of full-service campgrounds in Canada and in Alaska, if that is your preference. They will be more expensive than the provincial or state parks. If you chose to camp in the state or provincial parks, be aware that there are no dump stations, electricity, or running water available in most campgrounds. Gas stations and visitor centers with dump stations are very popular and busy.
Did you make reservations? We did make some reservations for popular places like Denali National Park. In general though we did not because many campgrounds were “first come, first served.” We would try to stop early in the afternoon, before 3 PM, and we did not have a hard time finding a campsite. We did find that by early evening many locations did fill up. Some of the more popular destinations such as Liard Hot Springs in British Columbia have overflow areas for camping if the campground is full.
Did you have trouble finding accommodations for your fifth wheel that is 35 feet long? We did not have much difficulty finding camping spots but we also relied heavily on Frank Church’s book, Rving to Alaska, in which he indicates which parks are Big Rig friendly. There were lots of other RVs that were much larger than ours. There were also many that were much smaller, too. Obviously, the smaller your rig the more options you will have. One thing you will quickly notice is that there are many “truck campers” in Alaska. These campers that fit on top of a truck bed are especially popular.
What were your favorite places in Alaska? This is a question that we are asked most often. Upon reflection, we would have to say that our favorites were: Denali NP (the wildlife and the view of Denali), Seward (the Major Marine boat tour), Homer (the day trip to Seldovia, the Spit, and the town itself is very quaint and friendly), Haines (a very typical Alaskan town and the local wildlife), and Valdez (the scenic drive to Valdez with its glaciers and waterfalls and the salmon hatchery in the town itself).
What was the weather like? This year was a very cool and rainy summer. In previous years, it has been warmer but we wore our long pants and fleece pullovers and rain jackets most of the time. We did have sunny days but they were usually cool. Later in the summer we heard that it got into the 90’s in Fairbanks but we did not experience those temperatures while we were in Fairbanks in June.
Did you get to see much wildlife? It is possible to encounter wildlife everywhere – in and along the roads, in the bays, in the national parks, just about anywhere you go. While we were in Alaska we saw the following animals: Grizzly bears (19), Bighorn sheep (25+), Dall sheep (45+), Caribou (100+), Elk (11), Pronghorn deer (10), Black bears (15), Ptarmigan (2), Marmot (2), Coyote (2), Bison (10), Moose (21), Trumpeter and Tundra swans (38), Arctic rabbit (100+), Fox (2), Golden Eagle (1), Falcon (1), Snowshoe hare (6), Mountain goats (5), Bald eagles (6+), Humpback whales (5), Porpoise (2), Steller Sea Lions (25+), Puffins (25+), Seal (1), Common Murr (10+), Beaver (1), and Orca whales (6).
What are the Alaskans like? We found that the Alaskans were very friendly and very proud to be Alaskans. They were happy to help us and to share information about Alaska with us. They are also a very resilient people. There is also a lot of pride in the First Nations people groups. That is not to say that everything is perfect. With high expenses and not compensatory incomes, many are struggling to provide the basics for their families. In general, we were very impressed with the Alaskans that we met.
Were you able to find fuel easily? How much did it cost?
We carried a five gallon “emergency” can of diesel and never needed it. Having said that, you have to plan your fuel stops and try to travel on the “top half” of the fuel tank. The Silver Fox has a 36 gallon diesel tank and that helped us avoid some of the most costly fuel. Prices for fuel varied greatly, but was very high in remote areas, especially ones that were off grid and depended on diesel generators for electricity. We saw diesel for over $5.50 a gallon US equivalent, in some of these locations. Diesel and regular unleaded was comparably priced for most of our trip. Our average diesel fuel price was $3.73. Prices in Anchorage, AK for example, are cheaper than in Seattle, WA. In the three months on our Alaska trip we spent $3,182 in fuel for the Silver Fox.
How much did groceries cost? Were grocery stores readily available? Groceries were available in towns and cities but in general groceries were more expensive than in the lower 48. Also there were not many fresh vegetables. There were times when we saw prices that were outrageous like a small watermelon that was $15 and a gallon of milk was $6. These are extreme examples but we do recommend that you stock up on frozen food and canned goods prior to traveling to Canada and Alaska.
Did you have cell phone service everywhere? No, we did not have cell phone service in many places in Canada and Alaska. Our carrier is Verizon. Usually we had service in the cities but in between many of the towns our cell signal was very weak or non-existent. We were able to contact our family on a regular basis but you should not expect to have connectivity at all times. We have been told that ATT works more reliably in Alaska. Also, most visitor centers had free Wi-Fi for guests.
Did you have any major repairs on your trip? We had one flat tire on the camper (Montana) and one tire on the truck (Fairbanks) that we had to replace. Fortunately, we were able to get these repairs done quickly since we were in larger towns. Other folks had gravel fly into their windshields and these had to be filled in or replaced. There are many miles of highway where there are no repair shops or even gas stations but the Canadians and Alaskans are great about stopping and helping you out should you encounter a problem on the roads.
What was some of the best advice that you got before going to Alaska?
- Get a copy of the current year Milepost book. It is usually published in March of each year. It is the “go to” book to find out about where to get fuel, campgrounds, attractions, information centers, etc.
- Join an Elks Lodge or a Moose Lodge. There are Elks and Moose Lodges in Alaska that offer camping. We found them to be very friendly and helpful.
- Find out where the caravans are going. There are folks who choose to “caravan” to Alaska and these groups will often reserve many of the sites in a campground and you will not be able to get a campsite there. Groups like Fantasy RV, Alaskan Discovery, Adventure Caravans, and others will travel in large convoys to Alaska.
- Information Centers are a very good place to go to get information and get oriented when you arrive in a new area.
- Always stop at a gas station when you come across one because you do not know when you will be able to get fuel again. The Milepost book indicates where the gas stations are located but we found that sometimes they were closed or did not have diesel fuel. We tried to keep our fuel tank topped off.
- Plan to stock up on necessities in cities such as Whitehorse, YT, Fairbanks, Wasilla/Palmer, and Anchorage. Prices are much cheaper and selection greater in these locations. Remember, Alaskans do the same thing, traveling hours to go shopping where it is cheaper.
- Seriously look into purchasing the “Alaska Tour Saver” coupon book. We were able to save significant money using this book. They can be purchased on-line, but we purchased ours at the Fairbanks Safeway store.
- Don’t assume a Walmart in Canada will have items that you are familiar with in the lower 48. Ironically, the closest to a Walmart in Canada is a store called Canadian Tire.
- RV rentals in Alaska is big business. While driving around in the state you will see hundreds of these units on the road and in campgrounds. We even met couples that were “ferrying” new units from the lower 48 to Alaska for the season. We also talked to folks who were driving one way and going to fly back from Anchorage.
- Be prepared for some wet weather. The coastal cities can have significant rain for multiple days and if you are only staying a day or two you can miss out. The best approach is to act like an Alaskan and just get out regardless of the weather.
- If we are able to make a return trip, we would purchase some boots like the XTRATUF boots that so many Alaskans were wearing. These all weather boots are great in the wet and muddy conditions that you will undoubtedly encounter.
- Take your time and enjoy the journey. Don’t worry about the details because things will work out if you remain flexible.
Would you go back again? Absolutely! We thoroughly enjoyed our adventures in Canada and Alaska. We would like to return there in the future. We are not alone because we met lots of campers who had come to Alaska multiple times. Canada and Alaska are beautiful and wonderful places to explore.