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North to Alaska: Traveling the Alaska Highway

Photo by Julie Irvine

The Alaska Highway goes by many names. Some people call it the Alaska-Canadian Highway, but most Alaskans just call it the ALCAN, which is the shortened form of the name.

The Alaska Highway is famous because it is the only highway that connects Alaska to the contiguous United States. First completed in 1942, the highway spans an incredible 1,400 miles from Dawson Creek, British Columbia, to Delta Junction, Alaska. With approximately twenty-five hours of drive time, this highway is perfect for a multi-day summer road trip through historic and breathtaking sections of Canada and Alaska.

Dawson Creek, British Columbia

Travelers at mile 0 will find themselves in Dawson Creek. The city has a rich World War II history and offers a walking tour of historical sites in the Walter Wright Pioneer Village. The village provides a preserved perspective of what Dawson Creek looked like before the Alaska Highway was constructed. The village is open from May to September and features original early 1900s buildings, including a church, schools, and a general store, as well as original farming equipment. Dawson Creek allows travelers to step back in time and envision this classic pioneer community.

West of town lies another World War II-era holdover, the Kiskatinaw Bridge. The bridge was built by civilians in 1942 over the Kiskatinaw River to allow for military travel between Dawson Creek and Delta Junction. Kiskatinaw Bridge, measuring 534 feet in length, was one of many timber bridges built during that time period, but it is the only bridge still in use today. Though the bridge was originally part of the Alaska Highway, it has since been bypassed by a newer section of the highway. Visitors are able to access the bridge today through the Kiskatinaw Provincial Park.

Watson Lake, Yukon Territory

Located at mile 635 is Watson Lake, a small town in the Yukon Territory with beautiful scenery and a lively history. Watson Lake is most famous for its Sign Post Forest, an eclectic collection of signs from throughout the world. In 1942, an American soldier inadvertently began the sign forest when he posted a sign that pointed toward his hometown in Illinois. Since that time, visitors to Watson Lake have been adding their own touches of home to the existing eighty-five thousand signs—everything from road signs to license plates.

Photo by Julie Irvine

Watson Lake is also home to the Northern Lights Space and Science Center. Aurorachasers and admirers alike will love the beautiful panoramic video and interactive displays that the center offers. Other notable sites around the town include Lucky Lake, Wye Lake Park, and the Watson Lake Airport, which houses the original BC-Yukon Air Service hangar. These sites provide a perfect afternoon excursion. The BC-Yukon Air Service hangar was the first hangar built on the Alaska Highway in response to the United States’ lendlease program during World War II. Lucky Lake and Wye Lake Park are also great options for families with children, and travelers can spend their afternoon birdwatching and walking the trails around the park.

Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska

Only eight miles across the border of Alaska lies one of the thirty-two wildlife refuges that call Alaska home. The Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge sits at mile 1229 on the Alaska Highway and runs alongside the highway for almost sixty-five miles. Travelers can access the refuge through overlooks, which provide stunning views of the surrounding terrain and wildlife. Careful observers will be able to see moose, Dall sheep, and wolves, along with many species of waterfowl, bears, and caribou.

For those interested in staying longer, the refuge also offers three cabins and two campgrounds, open from April until October. Two of the cabins, located on Wellesley and Jatahmund Lakes, are accessible only via float plane. The third, Nabesna River Cabin, is accessible only by boat. Each cabin requires a reservation, so plan ahead! The campgrounds located in the refuge, however, are first come, first served in designated areas. Deadman Lake Campground boasts fifteen campsites, and Lakeview Campground holds eleven. These lakeside campgrounds offer hiking trails, boating, and fishing. The quarter-mile Taiga Trail at Deadman Lake ends in an observation deck that allows for waterfowl viewing.

Delta Junction, Alaska

Another small community, Delta Junction, marks the end of the Alaska Highway at mile 1422. Delta Junction also acts as the crossroads between the Alaska Highway and the Richardson Highway, which leads south to Valdez, Alaska. Since the town truly is a junction for travelers from various places, Delta Junction bustles with activity each summer—featuring the Deltana Fair at the end of July and the local Highway’s End Farmers Market throughout the summer months. Travelers interested in fresh and locally produced goods will find these summer events well worth the trip.

Historic sites in Delta Junction include the Big Delta State Historic Park and the Sullivan Roadhouse Historical Museum. The park lies north of town and hosts Rika’s Roadhouse, a central part of the park’s rich history of goldminers, soldiers, and other travelers. Modern-day travelers are able to camp in the park in either campsites or the Ferryman Cabin. The Sullivan Roadhouse is also an homage to early prospectors. Today, it features antiques from its days of operation in the early 1900s. Finally, for those interested in wildlife viewing, the Delta Junction State Bison Range spreads southeast across ninety- thousand acres and hosts a herd of about three hundred bison. Viewers can see the bison through lookouts along the highway.

Photo by Julie Irvine

The Alaska Highway invites travelers young and old to step back in time and out of the bustle of city life to fully appreciate the beauty and simplicity of the north. Start planning your next summer vacation, and put the Alaska Highway on your list.
—Julie Irvine