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Call of the road: With gas prices plummeting, this could be year to drive Alaska Highway – if border opens

The Alaska Highway is perhaps the ultimate road trip, spanning 1,387 miles in British Columbia, the Yukon and Alaska. (John  Nelson / The Spokesman-Review)
The Alaska Highway is perhaps the ultimate road trip, spanning 1,387 miles in British Columbia, the Yukon and Alaska. (John Nelson / The Spokesman-Review)
For The Spokesman-Review

This could be the summer for your ultimate road trip – the Alaska Highway. Think about it: Fuel prices have plunged to the lowest level in years, making the 2,400-mile drive from Spokane to Anchorage much more affordable.

And if you’re looking for a place to be socially isolated, you can’t do much better than the Yukon Territory, where as of early May there were just 11 cases of COVID-19. For that matter, British Columbia and the state of Alaska also have very few cases of the disease compared with the Lower 48 states.

Of course, before anyone can hit the road, two major caveats must be considered. The U.S.-Canada border is temporarily closed to nonessential travel because of the virus, and no one really knows what will happen with the pandemic as summer approaches.

But let’s hope for the best. Taking an adventurous road trip to Alaska this summer might offer cooped-up travelers the perfect way to make lemonade out of coronavirus lemons.

Long, winding road

My wife, Leslie Kelly, and I traveled the Alaska Highway in August 2018, and memories of that incredible journey remain fresh today. The epic views, the immense scale, the wildlife and the joyful discoveries are unlike any road trip we’ve ever taken.

The history of the Alaska Highway begins in 1942 when the U.S. government funded its construction stretching 1,500 miles from Dawson Creek, British Columbia, to Delta Junction, Alaska. The original road, a notoriously rough gravel route, has since been shortened to 1,387 miles and is now fully paved.

The first thing you have to wrap your head around before hitting the highway is this: You will need to drive for most of two days from Spokane through Western Canada just to reach Mile 0 of the highway in Dawson Creek. (It’s more than 800 miles from the Inland Northwest to this northern British Columbia outpost.)

But once you get to the starting point, those previous miles will soon be forgotten. As I wrote in my travel journal at the time, “The Alaska Highway gets better and better the farther we go.”

Fantastic camping options

For those who enjoy camping, the Alaska Highway is truly a treat, offering dozens of beautiful public parks in British Columbia and the Yukon along with some very nice commercial campgrounds in communities along the way.

Stone Mountain Provincial Park (Mile 365 from Dawson Creek) is one of the first you’ll come to and boasts the Alaska Highway’s highest point, Summit Pass at 4,250 feet.

We stayed a bit farther down the road at another stellar location, Muncho Lake Provincial Park (Mile 436), camping right on the shoreline where we ate dinner in 70-degree weather as the sun set.

This area of northern British Columbia is filled with attractions. Nearby Muncho Lake is Liard River Hot Springs Provincial Park (Mile 477) featuring a series of steaming pools set amid a lush boreal forest. We spent the morning soaking away our travel pains in this idyllic place.

Back on the road, you’ll soon hit the Yukon Territory in Watson Lake (Mile 612), where an Instagram-worthy photo op awaits. It’s called the “Sign Post Forest,” started by a GI working on the original highway who posted a sign from his hometown in Danville, Illinois. In the years since, more than 80,000 signs from around the world have been added by travelers, creating a forest of colorful markers.

As you gaze at the endless array of town names, you might start feeling a little nostalgic for urban adventures. Thankfully, the city of Whitehorse (Mile 887) is nearby and ready to help.

Situated on the banks of the mighty Yukon River, this territorial capital is surprisingly sophisticated with lots of shops, bars and restaurants, and it might tempt you to splurge on a hotel and go out to dinner, as we did on our second night traveling the highway.

But wilderness attractions remain the best part of the adventure. Just down the road from Whitehorse is Kluane National Park and Reserve (Mile 985) featuring towering Mount Logan (19,551 feet), the second-highest peak in North America.

We booked a memorable night at the park in something called an oTENTik, a cross between an A-frame cabin and a prospector tent that comes with a stove and comfortable beds. It was nice to sleep indoors in this grizzly bear habitat.

And speaking of bears, we saw them regularly during our Alaska adventure. In one memorable encounter driving through Kluane National Park, a young grizzly stood just off the road and watched us roll by as if to say, “Hey, Washingtonians! Welcome to the Yukon!”

You’ll cross into Alaska at Mile 1,186. From here, it’s about 200 miles to the official highway end in Delta Junction, where travelers can head onward to Fairbanks, Denali National Park or Anchorage.

Klondike side trip

The Alaska Highway is long and difficult, but if you have the time, consider taking a detour to historic Dawson City, a journey that includes two other memorable highways.

The Klondike Highway travels northward from Whitehorse along an old gold rush route to Dawson City, where writer Jack London (“Call of the Wild”) once lived as a prospector. We checked out the Jack London Museum and walked the streets of this bustling tourist town, ending up at an artsy farmers market.

Take the free ferry across the Yukon River, and you’ll jump onto another famous route, The Top of the World Highway, which ascends for incredible views, crosses the international border and then drops into the quirky town of Chicken, Alaska, where you absolutely must stop if only to snap a photo of the giant hen statue that watches over the town’s seven full-time residents.

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