This is a guest post by fellow RV travelers and bloggers Ben and Rebecca of His and Hers Alaska. Having moved to Seward, Alaska a few years ago from the lower 48, their willingness to share their experiences and advice has been instrumental in helping us plan our own trip up there this summer. When they asked us if there was anything they could do to help us and our readers who might be interested in making a similar journey, a guest post about what it’s really like in Alaska instantly came to mind! We hope you enjoy it and be sure to follow their blog for tons more information. We can’t wait to finally meet these guys in person this summer!
There are as many myths about driving an RV to Alaska as there are salmon in the rivers. Alaska is a popular destination, but the magnitude of the journey can be intimidating. We’re going to shed a little light on the common tales about driving to Alaska. Hopefully a few of you jump in your RV and come on up for a visit! It’s a trip you will never forget.
Alaska Myths Versus Reality
- Road Hazards: No matter where you are coming from, it’s a long drive to Alaska and those miles will put wear and tear on your rig, but I have yet to hear of someone completely destroying their RV. Most people get home with a few new squeaks and rattles, but those can usually be fixed with some felt tape and tightening a screw (or few). Some get flat tires, and unfortunately a few have accidents, but that can happen anywhere. In the end, we feel life is short and ultimately about experiences. Alaska is worth it! Here are a few things to watch out for.
- Frost Heaves: These occur when freezing soil and ice buckle the road. Most frost heaves are marked with signs, flags or cones. Take them seriously, they are hazardous and just when you get comfortable going over them a big one will sneak up on you. As summer progresses, heaves recede and lose their intensity.
- Potholes: The Alaska and Canada DOT do a great job of maintaining our roads and filling in potholes. Most of them show up in the spring as the ice melts and get filled in during the month of May.
- Soft Shoulders: Many roads in the northern latitudes were built on top of swamps and uneven surfaces. This means there can be a 4 foot drop if you get too far off the road! Just try to stay on the roads and use pullouts whenever possible.
- Road Construction: There is a fair amount of road construction in Alaska. The winters are long and hard on the roads, and summer weather is favorable to construction. Occasionally, you will see DOT paving sections of previously gravel roads. For example, the newest paved road in Alaska is a 14 mile stretch west of the Canadian border on Top of the World Highway.
- Windshield damage is inevitable: “Break” is a strong word, but you will probably get a rock chip or two on the journey. It’s one of those things you will have to accept. In Alaska, we can tell the tourists from the residents by the cracks in their windshields. If you make it to Alaska and back home without a rock chip, buy a lottery ticket! After 4 years of RV’ing in Alaska, we’ve had a several chips and one busted windshield, which happened in Anchorage – not the middle of nowhere like you would expect.
- Tip: If it’s small, put a piece of clear tape over the star to prevent dirt from getting inside the damaged area and making the repair more difficult. Try to get it fixed ASAP. If your windshield can’t be repaired and still functions, report it to your insurance and wait until you get home to have it replaced. The last thing you want is to chip up a new windshield on the way home. Anchorage and Fairbanks have windshield repair companies and sometimes you can find one in a mid-size town along your route. We have even seen a guy on the side of the road with a spray painted “Windshield Repair” sign.
- Gravel roads: The ALCAN is completely paved, with the exception of segments of road construction and maintenance. You will still find plenty of gravel side roads. If you decide to go down some gravel roads here are a few we recommend:
- Denali Highway: 135 miles through some of the most beautiful land around. The Denali Highway connects Paxson to Cantwell and is one of our favorite places in the world. Every fall, we make the trip up here and harvest a caribou to feed our family for the year. Tangle Lakes has excellent kayaking, grayling fishing, and an endless supply of blueberries free for the picking (in August and September).
- McCarthy Road: This 60 mile dirt road through Wrangell-St. Elais National Park leads to the historic Kennecott Mine. We visited the mine in 2013, choosing to take our ATV down the road (we left the motorhome at the campground in Chitina). If you have a toad, this drive is no problem. There is also a shuttle bus if you want to visit the mine but don’t have a toad or tow vehicle. This was one of our all time favorite trips in Alaska!
- Skilak Lake Road: An 18 mile loop through the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge and off the beaten path. When the reds are running, the Kenai Peninsula is a bustling place, but here you can find peaceful and secluded campgrounds and cabins. Be prepared for a bumpy ride, the few times we’ve been down this road, it’s been washboarded with potholes.
- Top of the World Highway: Don’t miss out on this great experience. It can be a little rough in spots between Chicken and the start of highway. In 2014, the Canadian side was gravel, but very smooth. You will experience crossing the Yukon River on a ferry (its free and accommodates rigs up to 81 ft long!) and the historic town of Dawson City. We recommend taking this route back home. There will be less traffic, the road will have been maintained through the summer, the fall colors are beautiful, and you will find blueberries and cranberries in the hills.
- Spare tires: Carry your usual spare tire for your rig and anything you’re towing. If you have room for two, it doesn’t hurt but isn’t necessary anymore. You can usually get a damaged tire fixed or replaced in the next town. Don’t be too picky about getting a matching brand replacement tire.
- Tip: Be sure to check the air pressure in all your spare tires before leaving.
- There is wildlife everywhere: Wildlife is everywhere but it is also not a zoo, so you need to know where and when to look. There is definitely an art to spotting wildlife and with time you will train your eyes.
- Tip: If you really want to see wildlife; find a nice view, get out of your vehicle, use binoculars, sit quietly and glass the hills. Don’t forget to look for the little guys such as birds, fox, and porcupine.
- Rivers full of salmon: Keep in mind, timing is everything when it comes to salmon runs and it is not a year-round event. Most of the places you see on the Discovery Channel are off the road system and the salmon may only be there for a couple weeks. There are a few fish viewing platforms right off the highway.
- Tips: There are places where you can watch Alaskans being Alaskans. Residents hold nets in the water and salmon swim right into them, it’s called dipnetting!
- It’s light all the time: This is true in the summer months. The longest day of the year (Summer solstice) is on June 21st. If this is your first time in Alaska, it’s a unique experience when the sun slightly sets and reaches a state of twilight for a few short hours. After a long winter the sun gives us a boost of energy. For some it drives them crazy because they need complete darkness to sleep. Many first-time Alaska visitors lose track of time and have difficulty sleeping.
- Tip: Cut sheets of reflective insulation to fit your windows and if needed, use Velcro strips to hold them in place. This blocks the light and will also keep your RV warm or cool depending your environment. This is handy early and late in our RV season when temperatures dip well below freezing.
- It’s cold up there: Keep in mind temperatures are all relative, after a long winter anything above freezing feels warm. The interior of the state will reach the 80’s in the summer. Coastal sections of Alaska will get rainy days in the 50’s and sunny days in the 70’s. Traditionally, June and July are the warmest months. The odds of experiencing snow from May 10 to August 15th are very slim.
- RV Season: Traditionally, travelers from the Lower 48 start arriving in June and most are heading south by the middle of August. If you want to arrive earlier, we are usually out and about by the middle of April. If you choose to stay later, we are still camping well into October.
- The mosquitoes: The bugs can be thick, but some places are worse than others. For example, in urban areas bugs are not a problem because humans have built streets and buildings over their habitat. When you are in the middle of nowhere, expect to see tons of bugs. Bugs are worse in the morning and evening, and swampy areas are obviously going to have more bugs. A nice breeze can help keep the bugs at bay.
- Tips: We don’t like harsh chemicals so we use Burt’s Bees repellent. Bugs also don’t like campfires. At the end of the day, use an electric bug racket to kill all the bugs that have made their way into the RV. Also try to avoid heavily-scented personal care products.
- The distance between gas stations: If your vehicle can make it over 200 miles on a tank of fuel, you will be just fine.
- Tip: Drive on the top half of your fuel tank. You know how far your rig can go on a tank, use your best judgment when passing a fuel station. The popular Milepost Alaska travel planning book will also tell you where all the fuel stops are along the way.
- Driving to the Arctic Ocean: The Dalton Highway (aka The Haul Road) leads north to Deadhorse/Prudhoe Bay, it is a 500 mile journey from Fairbanks and almost all gravel. For security reasons, the public cannot access the coast unless on a tour. I feel the public should have a special place to access the ocean, but alas, no one has asked for my opinion yet. All side roads leading to the coast are restricted to personnel working in the oil industry. The Haul Road is an epic drive and travelers with a truck and cabover regularly make the trip, but you would be hard pressed to find my motorhome up there. I can almost guarantee your motorhome will never be the same after this trip. It is easier to catch a flight in Fairbanks and book a tour.
- Tip: If you don’t want to pass up this opportunity and you have a toad, the trip can be done in 2-3 days. In the peak of summer you will not want to stay outside for very long, the bugs are very intense. Camping is available everywhere, with lodging in Coldfoot and Deadhorse. Make sure you have reservations before hitting the road. I’ve been up there a couple times and use the term lodging loosely, as it’s a camp for housing people working in the oil industry.
- Alaska can be expensive: Everything from fuel to groceries is more expensive up here, it is just something we accept. Participating in tourist activities also adds up.
- Tips: There are a lot of little ways to save money including the Northern Lights Coupon Book, this saves us hundreds of dollars every year. It’s full of 2 for 1 discounts to restaurants, tours, and activities. There is even a 50% off coupon to fix that windshield chip you got on the way up! Remember some of the best stuff in Alaska is free, it doesn’t cost money to take a hike or walk on the beach. Some state parks require a small access or parking fee. You can also save money and have a gourmet dinner by catching some salmon.
- You can pull off the highway and camp anywhere: Boondocking is one of the best things about Alaska! Unless you are in the urban areas, you can use highway pullouts to camp for the night. It’s great when you are looking to cover some ground and need to sleep and get back on the road in the morning.
- Tips: If you are looking to park for the night at a big box store like Wal-Mart, we have a handy summary of who is and isn’t RV friendly in Alaska.
- How much time to spend in Alaska: If you want to make the most of your trip, plan on spending 6-8 weeks. This allows you to get on “Alaska Time”, a state of time that doesn’t necessarily involve a clock! Alaska is not just a destination, it’s a mindset.
- Flying up and renting a motorhome: This is an excellent option if you are unable to dedicate your summer to Alaska. The biggest mistake people make is trying to do EVERYTHING in a 7 day rental period. They end up spending the whole time driving. It is hard to grasp the size of this state until you have been here. For your first trip, we recommend 7 days on the Kenai Peninsula. It is a great place and the perfect balance between finding that Alaska state of mind and time spent driving. If you have 3 extra days, drive to Denali, if you have 4 more days, head to Fairbanks.
- Cell phone service: All things considered, Alaska has great mobile coverage. Set realistic expectations and you won’t be disappointed. Cell phone signal boosters also help improve your coverage area.
- Bear protection: If you are used to being on top of the food chain, hiking in Alaska could make you uncomfortable. The thought of a bear encounter is frightening and many people want to carry a gun. Aside from the issues of getting a gun through Canada, if you are not properly trained it’s not your best choice.
- Tip: Knowledge and education about staying safe and how to handle wildlife encounters is your best weapon, the second best is bear spray.
- What to expect in Anchorage: Anchorage isn’t any different from cities in the Lower 48, aside from it’s surroundings. It’s in a strategic location for commerce and has all the normal issues associated with larger populations of humans. I cannot lie to you, we are not big fans of Anchorage. We are used to camping or being at home in our quiet town with no stop lights, so the city is overwhelming. We primarily go to Anchorage for business appointments, the airport, and Costco, which means we are always busy running around – not fun. You will find nice restaurants, museums, shopping, and movie theaters in Anchorage. There are also places that I really would not recommend going after dark. Use your best judgement and remember, Alaska is 30 minutes away from Anchorage.
- Tips: Never leave Anchorage empty handed, we always stock up on supplies and fuel before leaving town. It will save you money! In our opinion, there is only one habitable RV park in Anchorage and that’s the Golden Nugget. Please make sure you lock everything up. There are also alternatives to staying in an Anchorage RV park.
Alaska’s state motto is “North to the Future” but, in many ways it’s a blast from the past. It’s the way life used to be when you worked hard and still had an ability to live off the land. Aside from visiting international destinations, an RV trip to Alaska is guaranteed to be one of the most amazing experiences of your life. We hope you enjoyed our post and be sure to follow our adventures at His & Hers Alaska.
Jason and Kristin, thank you for the opportunity to guest post on your beautiful blog. We look forward to sharing a little bit of Alaska with you this summer!