On this and the next page, we ride along with Craig Keener over the Alaska-Canada Highway and enjoy several of the hikes he stopped to take along the way between Alaska and Pennsylvania.
The Alaska-Canada Highway, or Alcan, stretches from Dawson Creek, British Columbia, to Delta Junction, Alaska – a small frontier town about 90 miles from Fairbanks, Alaska. According to the Alaska Highway bible, The Milepost, it is 1,422 miles from start to finish, with the bulk of the road cutting through northwest Canada. Travelers intending to drive the road in its entirety require a passport for crossing the Yukon-Alaska international border.
High points on the road revealed swaths of untouched wilderness larger than many of the lower 48 states, with rocky peaks covered in snow well into the summer.
Here, windshield cracks and tire blowouts were a dime a dozen (we dealt with both). Gas stations were over-priced and primitive, but well-stocked with highway junk food and bad free coffee. While it was not a necessity to carry a spare gas can, many drivers do, as stations can be spaced up to 100 miles apart.
As the hours turn to days, the immense and starkly beautiful landscape can become monotonous, with few landmarks to gauge progress. Ramshackle villages with names like Watson Lake, Beaver Creek, Fort Nelson, and Destruction Bay came and went in the time it takes to change tracks on the iPod®1. American bison, grizzlies, black bear, and moose freely roamed the narrow strips of grassland next to the highway.
Passersby often would park their cars on the road for 20 minutes or more to take photos without another vehicle interrupting a shot, like we did when a mother grizzly and her two cubs drank from a small stream 10 feet from our driver’s side window.
Gems like Signpost Forest – an eclectic tribute to the many origins of Alcan drivers – and the almost painful thermal waters of Liard Hot Springs offered a reprieve from 16-hour days pinned behind the wheel.
Despite the remoteness of the only land route to the 49th state, the road was surprisingly well-maintained. Aside from brief stretches where the freeze-thaw cycle had contorted the highway into a rumble strip, it was adequately paved, free of debris, and begging to be driven – at the recommended Canadian highway speed limit of 100 kilometers (60 miles) per hour, of course.
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Not a trail at all, I imagine East Rim Drive was not always a scenic walk through Crater Lake National Park, with motorists passing by every few minutes. However, the area’s impressive snowfall totals (averaging 533 inches per year, according to the National Park Service) often keep the higher elevation drive closed well into the summer, with high drifts still blocking parts of the road into July.
Pets also are permitted at Crater Lake, as long as they stay on the road. So our dog was able to do the hike with us, a rarity at national parks.
We left from scenic Skell Head pullout, which overlook the deep blue waters of the lake, for the highest point on the rim drive – 7,960-foot Cloudcap Overlook, about four miles one way.
Later, at Cleetwood Cove, the cliffs of the rim stood high above us, and the abyss-like depth of the lake was more apparent as we got ready to take a swim. The hike down was steep and fairly direct – a series of switchbacks that went on for about a mile or so. At the bottom, my fiancee and I took the plunge into the lake’s notoriously frigid waters, only about 50 degrees or so in the summer. We walked back at dusk, our damp bodies a magnet for a nasty swarm of mosquitoes that seemed to follow us all the way to the car.