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John and Mandi

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Alaska and Canada, Our Opinion

Nov 6, 2015
by John

It's been roughly 2 months since we concluded the Alaskan portion of our trip. We traversed somewhere between 7,500 and 8,000 miles in Canada and Alaska during the 10 weeks we spent there. While mathematically that breaks out to be less than 120 miles driven per day, it in no way properly represents how much time was spent driving. Alaska, the largest US state (twice that of Texas, three times California), and the areas in Canada we explored are huge.

Subtracting out the days we didn't travel, roughly 28, our daily mileage was closer to 180. Factoring the days we spent driving under 40mph, some around 25mph, we end up with a mixed bag of several days under 60 miles and others well over 300. What we didn't track was time spent behind the wheel, the real variable of overland travel.

We've struggled with the idea of outlining what we think would be a better experience in the great white north. Everyone's trip is their own, there's a fine line between suggestions and influence. While we thoroughly enjoyed our time above the lower 48, some of the best places we explored were in the high north, we aren't rally drivers. For us, time exploring on foot or relaxing in camp is far greater than time spent driving...we're too old for that shit.

So, we're whiny babies that prefer to drive less and happen to have an idea of which places we'd prefer to explore in Alaska. Take our opinion as just that. Exploring the vastness is part of the Alaskan experience. As the locals put it, your first trip to Alaska is to figure out your second trip. While it is fresh in our minds, and our backs still aching, we figured we should jot it down.

Instead of attempting to layout an actual route, we decided to list our favorite places. Yeah, it's a cop out to some degree, but more of a guideline which is what most of us are after anyway. Breaking up Canada and Alaska into two separate trips would be ideal to us. Two to three months to explore each would be divine. Doubling or tripling the time we spent in Canada and Alaska could have us singing an entirely different tune.

What We Loved

Banff/Jasper

The stretch of parks from Grand Teton in the States up into Canada are phenomenal. We spent over a week in Banff National Park, it was absolutely wonderful. We could have easily spent two more. Wildfire smoke blew in to the Icefields Parkway and Jasper while we were driving up so our time was cut short. A two to three month trip from northwest Wyoming into Canada would be epic, it's on our to do list.

Lake Agnes, Banff National Park, AB, Canada

Lake Agnes, Banff National Park, AB, Canada

Dempster Highway

We loved the 457 mile one way gravel highway. Doing it again, we would probably turn around at the first ferry and forego the last 140 miles to Inuvik. The 87 mile extension to Tuktoyaktuk, which is supposed to be completed in 2016, could change our minds. We will always remember and refer to the Dempster Highway, the landscape is spellbinding. Living alongside the highway is one of the biggest highlights of our trip. Getting to the start of it requires a lot of driving from the States, a lot! Maybe ferry to Skagway and drive the 440 miles to the start from there (still would result in 1,500-1,800 miles round trip). Mandi loved the Dempster but she is not entirely convinced it's worth the drive to get there.

Dempster Highway, Canada

Dempster Highway, Canada

Liard Hot Springs

A must stop when traveling through, but it isn't worth a trip on it's own. We spent one night camping and we visited the hot springs three times. It's a great place and probably worth a couple of days to recharge for the driving ahead. It is in the middle of nowhere so if you are there you are still days away from Alaska.

Denali National Park

Visiting Denali is a no-brainer, it is the crown jewel and rightly so. While we were there it snowed, it was the beginning of August. We are from Florida and aren't very fond of the extreme cold. That didn't matter, the natural beauty and amount of wildlife is awe inspiring. We recommend spending as much time in the park as possible. Our time was short due to limited campsite availability. In hindsight, we should have considered tent camping as an alternative to extend our stay.

Denali National Park, AK, USA

Denali National Park, AK, USA

Kenai Peninsula

Fishing was nearing its peak, tons of vehicles on the road, the weather perfect. The Kenai is the other side of Alaska. Inlets with snow capped mountains framing them out, perfectly picturesque. Birds, whales, sea lions, seals, and so much more. We missed the bears feeding on wild salmon, a great excuse to go back. Our favorite was Seward, Hope not a far second. They are completely different, both the essence of the Kenai. While Homer wasn't exactly our speed it was still fun to scope out. Three to four weeks could easily be devoted to the wonders hidden within the peninsula.

Resurrection Bay, Seward, AK, USA

Resurrection Bay, Seward, AK, USA

Glenn Highway

Having driven almost every mile of Alaskan highways, the Glenn Highway was one of our favorites. Not every inch of every highway up north is beautiful. There are many miles of forests, just like every other state in the US. Mundane stretches precede the unprecedented. For us, the section with the backdrop of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park was absolutely fabulous. Photos couldn't properly capture it, purely encapsulated within our memories.

Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve, AK, USA

Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve, AK, USA

Valdez

The drive into Valdez was one of the most beautiful during our time in Alaska. The last 50ish miles were stunning. The amount of forest roads outside of Valdez is unbelievable. Weeks could be spent exploring them. Worthington Glacier is on this route, worth a stop and a hike. An alternative to driving the entire distance to and from Valdez is to take a ferry. It is a more expensive option but a way to eliminate some miles and gain an extra day or two of leisure.

Richardson Highway, AK, USA

Richardson Highway, AK, USA

Haines

Haines was probably our favorite seaside town outside of the Kenai Penninsula. It is full of quaint little shops, cafes, and has great grocery options. We had our best wild brown bear encounter in Haines and the hiking opportunities were plentiful. There are ample pullouts for free camping, it's a less frequently visited cruise port with a great vibe. Nice and slow, just the way we like it. The only problem with Haines is how far it is from everything else, but the 40 miles of highway just outside it are spectacular.

Battery Point Trail, Haines, AK, USA

Battery Point Trail, Haines, AK, USA

Juneau

We were entirely surprised by Juneau. It is a great town with a wonderful health food store - argh the coconut macaroons! Getting to Juneau requires a ferry ride, an Alaskan experience in and of itself. There are almost endless hiking opportunities, Mendenhall Glacier being the superstar (West Mendenhall Trail was totally worth it). We didn't do enough research and missed out on the glacial caves, a reportedly tough hike that leads underneath Mendenhall. Luckily we didn't drive into town in our big ass van during the work week.

Mendenhall Glacier, Juneau, AK, USA

Mendenhall Glacier, Juneau, AK, USA

Wrangell

Mandi was able to lower our ferry costs by adding a couple more ports, doesn't make sense but it worked. At the last minute we switched our final port from Ketchican to Wrangell. We would not recommend Wrangell as a trip on its own but if the opportunity presents itself, it is definitely worth a stop. Don't expect a red carpet from the locals, don't let that dissuade you either. Petroglyph Beach was unbelievable, camping in well established free campgrounds at Nemo Point was bar none.

Petroglyph Beach, Wrangell, AK, USA

Petroglyph Beach, Wrangell, AK, USA

What Should You See and Do?

Whatever the hell you want! Our next trip to Alaska, if there ever is such a thing, would focus more on the Kenai and Denali. We'd spend the money to ferry in and to ferry out. While the cost in fuel is much less than the cost of the ferry, time is ultimately the true expenditure. Most other living expenses are a wash, eating happens whether you're sitting in a free campsite or driving for three days. We prefer to hike and relax rather than to drive, drive, drive.  We would also research additional areas reachable only by plane or boat, like the Aleutians and the western coast, primarily because we didn't visit those spots yet.

In Canada we'd spend a lot more time around Banff and Jasper. There are many more parks in Alberta that we didn't get to explore. Everyone knows that Canadians are friendly, Albertans the most so. The Yukon and the small part of the Northwest Territories we explored were remarkable. We'd need to do quite a bit more research before we decide to re-venture to that part of the world. In a heartbeat, I'd fly in to drive the Dempster again, in case anyone's putting a team together ; )

In short, we've already driven it all. We can draw from our experience and personal preferences to decide a different course, that doesn't change the fact of what we've already done. Each traveler has to decide for themselves. We now know we are not fans of driving almost 8,000 miles in a little over two months. The distance of almost 40,000 miles in one year, definitely not our thing. For anyone planning the Pan-Am in one year, that kind of mileage could be the reality. We're proponents of slow travel, a much more palatable pace for us.

We also know we don't like being locked into a location. While we recommend Juneau for those deciding to take the ferry, we'd probably limit our time to just that city and ferry all the way out from there. The other southeastern ferry ports were fantastic, yet something we'd forego the second time around. We didn't like being stuck in a roadless situation, unable to change course, and entirely at the mercy of the ferry schedule.

Unless you want to drive 8,000 miles in 60 days, don't follow the rough itinerary in the Church's Traveler's Guide to Alaskan Camping. We've been there and done that. Our next trip will be more focused on spending quality time than on glimpsing each and every location. It's who we are so it's what we evangelize. Less is more, in all things...at least for us.


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Say what? (6)
Sri
Nov 6, 2015 at 10:56 AM
This post is very informative. Congrats on your six months on road :) Keep going
Nov 6, 2015 at 11:27 AM
Thanks Sri!

This was a hard post since we loved our time in Alaska, not all of the driving. Hopefully it'll help someone else or at least paint a picture of how big that region really is.

6 months is a major milestone so we might do a 6 months in review post. Flipping back through the pictures has us almost in denial regarding how many places we've already been. In a few weeks we'll cross into Baja and start an entirely new journey, crazy cool.

We hope all is well and we'll keep in touch about visiting some ruins together!
Jeremy
Nov 6, 2015 at 07:25 PM
Thanks very much for the recap you two!!
Nov 7, 2015 at 01:14 PM
Thanks Jeremy!

Hopefully this is helpful for someone else. It's what we realized we were looking for when trying to decide our northern route.
Graeme
Nov 7, 2015 at 09:44 PM
Unsubscribe me from email notifications! aaaarrrghhh too many! Enjoyed the blog btw
Nov 8, 2015 at 11:12 AM
I removed you from the comment notifications Graeme. I guess we need to start locking things down since comment spammers have decided they like our site. Thanks.
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