Wednesday, September 25, 2013


Driving the Alaska Highway WITHOUT a Motor Home!

Natural Beauty and Animal Viewing

 Article and photos by John and Doreen Berg

Snow capped mountains, rushing swollen rivers, emerald green lakes, partially covered with frosted blue ice and numerous roadside animal sightings were to be the highlights of our Johnny Horton "North to Alaska" adventure.

When one thinks about driving the Alaska Highway, visions of motor homes chugging along the road with many pulling an extra vehicle, is the common denominator.  We elected to discover if the journey would be as successful using our 2006 Chevrolet Silverado 4x4 truck.  This provided us with an option for back road travel.  While we did not have the convenience of dragging our home behind us, we felt from a cost point, it was cheaper and made for a more relaxed, flexible drive.  We used the tailgate for picnic lunches.  We had an excellent two-way fridge in the backseat of our crew cab and took it into our hotel accommodations, making breakfast in the morning.  This cut the cost of our vacation by having only one meal a day in restaurants. From an economic budget perspective, we deemed the use of our 4x4 truck was a huge success.  For us, a motor home rental or a used motor home purchase was too costly.  Furthermore we were not left with a huge investment parked in our yard begging to be used again.  We found it easy to locate very adequate hotel/motel accommodations and concluded that our gas mileage savings off-set motel/hotel expenses.  A further plus was that our truck 4x4 provided us with easy and safe access to more remote spots.  Our trip provided a nice balance of outdoor activities, animal sightings and off-road driving.    For us, the holiday without a
motor home was a wonderful success.


Our May 15th to June 4th time line frame proved to be an excellent choice.  Except for the first few overcast or rainy days we encountered beautifully clear sunny days and cool nights.  We were too early to experience the distracting annual insect hatch and the daunting annual summer tourist influx!  The Alaska Highway was in excellent condition with few winter frost heaves and cleared roadside right-of-ways for easy sightings of numerous roadside animals. There are wonderful spots along our route and we particularly enjoyed the Stone Mountain and Muncho Lake areas with beautiful white-blue ice retreating and dramatic towering mountains shimmering in the brilliant sunlight.  The North Country was welcoming the birth of spring as we cruised along the Alaska Highway.

Initially we planned to include a Chetwynd family visit and then begin our Mile Zero Alaska Highway trip at Fort St. John.  But as events unfolded, our Mile Zero start became Chetwynd and Tumbler Ridge.

Larry and Penny, brother and sister-in-law, rolled out the red carpet.  Leisurely paced mornings began with morning coffee followed by scrumptious breakfasts.  Day One saw three of us drive to the nearby Windmill Electric Station which has more than 30 windmills perched atop Bear Mountain.  Speaking of bears, our first of many black bear sightings happened on the return from the mountain and Mr. Bear co-operated by hanging roadside long enough for us to capture excellent photos.

Northern spring mornings arrive early and our experience was no different with the brilliant sun pouring through the travel trailer's windows forcing an early departure from our cozy bed.  Shortly after a hearty breakfast we drove to visit Kinuseo Falls. A feature of the falls is its 60 metre height making it higher than Niagara Falls.  From the viewing platform you could feel the raw power of the spring runoff as tons of frothing water thundered into the river below.

We stopped at Jade Lake and decided to hike to a fossil find.  While the trail was clearly marked it was steep in spots and not sure how far, so most family members elected to return to the parking lot while Neveah (Larry and Penny's granddaughter) and I hiked further but after half an hour or more decided to return before the search and rescue team was sent out.   After a tailgate lunch we returned with stops at Tumbler Ridge and at a trail sign, outlining a hike to view dinosaur prints. Tumbler Ridge proved to provide ample opportunity to embrace the outdoors.

 All too soon our family visit and gourmet meals came to an end. Our Alaska Highway Mile One departure day featured heavy rain and a two centimetre snow warning for the Fort Nelson area.  Penny wisely suggested we delay a day but we felt a need to be on our way and thought, “What's a mere two centimetres of snow!”  How wrong this thought turned out to be!

Rain followed us to Fort St. John where we picked up some groceries and were soon traveling north.  By the time we reached Wonowon we were encountering snow!  As we traveled toward Pink Mountain the snow intensified and the road conditions became treacherous.  Finally, we decided to call it quits and returned to Fort St. John.  A stop at Wonowon confirmed our decision when checking with a truck driver he too was turning back and informed us that the road was temporarily closed near Pink Mountain as a freight truck had overturned.  That evening we were a bit discouraged and concluded that if the weather didn't improve we would select a more southern route and return home early. 


The next morning we woke to sunshine and clear skies!  And this weather was to continue for the remainder of our holiday!  Having learnt our lesson our next step was to consult the Fort St. John tourist bureau to obtain a current road report for Highway 97.  They reported that road crews were busy clearing the highway and we followed their advice to delay our departure until noon.  Our previous day's trials had taught us to respect northern weather conditions.  Much to our delight road conditions proved to be excellent with bare pavement and with snow roadside.  The only visual reminder of yesterday’s storm was the tractor trailer upside down in the ditch.  The drive to Fort Nelson was pleasant which comprised an early stop to enjoy our homemade bunwiches interspersed with photo stops of scenic sections.

We left Fort Nelson early for a brief drive to Liard Hot Springs where we planned a two night stay.  The drive was truly a North American Serengeti game drive!  Right on the outskirts of Fort Nelson we encountered our first animal sighting, three caribou grazing. Throughout the drive we continued to glimpse numerous black bear, more caribou, mountain sheep and several bison herds munching fresh willow shots and new grasses.  With little traffic it was convenient and safe to park roadside obtaining wonderful animal photos.  The sundrenched snow capped mountains and raging river runoff were an added bonus to our day's drive.

As well as enjoying the many animal sightings we stopped at such historic establishments as Tetsa River Campgrounds to enjoy their famous signature homemade cinnamon buns.  The delicious buns are now baked by a third generation Andrews.  Next stop was Toad River Lodge which looked inviting with new cabins facing a picturesque lake.  After viewing the 6 800 caps attached to the restaurant's ceiling we hit the road again arriving at Liard Lodge late afternoon.

After registering and depositing our luggage in the room, we grabbed our swim gear and walked the short distance to enjoy a hot soak in the Alpha Pool.  In the evening we watched the bison herd wander past the lodge as they munched the tender new grass shoots.  It was a novel experience, in the late evening, to sit reading near the window without the aid of an electric light bulb.

The next day we visited nearby Smith River Waterfalls and Whirlpool Canyon before returning to the lodge for lunch and an afternoon soak in the hot pools.  Liard Lodge was ideal as a place to relax and walk directly across the Alaska Highway to experience and enjoy the natural hot springs spa.  The 42 to 52 Celsius degree water bubbles from one end of the springs and flows into pools providing an outdoor spa for people to soak and relax.  We strolled along a wooden walkway that meanders through a swampy area.  We searched for the possibility of a moose sighting but alas we had to settle for a viewing of a variety of bird species.  We agreed that our Liard Hot Springs experience was a trip highlight.

Planning to reach Whitehorse the next day meant an early morning departure.  Very quickly we encountered bison herds and in fact traffic was stopped for a few minutes as an old bull and a few cows slowly wandered across the highway!  Our earlier black bear spottings had been so numerous that today's sightings only warranted a "There's a bear," comment and a brief glance!  We were "beary" spoilt.  A grizzly bear and cub did generate interest and an attempted photo through the windshield with the mother threatingly standing on her hind legs.  Fortunately she lost interest and raced into the roadside timber area.  We stopped for breakfast at Kathy’s Kitchen in Watson Lake and then went to the Visitors’ Center viewing a video on the building of the Alaska Highway in 1942.  We walked to see the famous signposts before heading on to Whitehorse.

Whitehorse boasts a vibrant tourist infrastructure with a welcoming Main Street ambiance, coupled with great restaurants, a fantastic tourist center, nearby hikes and numerous museums and a restored paddle wheel steamboat.  Leaving the tourist center with a city map and numerous brochures supplied by the exuberant helpful staff, we decided to use Whitehorse as our base and spend four nights exploring the many tourists' attractions being offered, plus providing us with a more intimate understanding of the workings of a northern community.

Blessed with gorgeous sunny days we donned our summer clothing and spent our time hiking well-defined local trails, visiting the excellent museums and wandering through the interpretive center capping the busy day with an authentic Mexican dinner!


A highlight to our Whitehorse visit was a day bus/train excursion to Skagway, Alaska.  The White Pass and Yukon Route of 1898 is a rare story in the world of railway constructions and was built as a result of the human stampede caused by the discovery of gold in the late 1800's.  Over the years the narrow gauge railway has been kept busy transporting war supplies, ores and today's payload of tourists.   Many travellers arrive in Skagway's harbour by cruise ships and elect to take the popular train trip.

The bus departed Whitehorse at eight in the morning and our first stop was at historic Carcross a picturesque village and home to the Carcross/Tagish First Nations.  Carcross was first named Caribou Crossing for the caribou herds that swam across the narrows between Bennett Lake and the Nases Lakes.  Like all tourists we photographed some of the Yukon's oldest buildings in Carcross dating back to 1898.  We entered a few to browse the souvenirs and purchase a coffee.  We remounted our bus and enjoyed scenery on the drive to Fraser, BC.  Upon our approach I counted 21 parked coaches with more arriving.  The parking lot and railway platform looked like total chaos with countless hundreds of smiling tourists disembarking from the train cars searching for their bus to return to their cruise ship in Skagway.  When the time came for us to board the train, I thought we would be running, pushing and scrambling to gain a preferred right side for the best view!  This proved not to be as the train's loading and unloading systems were cleverly organized.  We were assigned a car and since there were few people on our bus we found ample available space in our designated car, a pleasant surprise compared to some of our earlier world travel experiences.

Leaving Fraser behind for our 27.7 miles trip to Skagway, expectations were high and we were not to be disappointed.  As the train twisted along its narrow gauge track we were treated to a yawning chasm of gaping gorges and beautiful waterfalls crashing from glaciers.  A much photographed steel bridge constructed in 1901 was the tallest cantilever bridge in the world.  Its usage was discontinued in 1969.

A black cross at Mile 10.4 marks the final resting place of two railway workers and their horses, buried under a 100 ton rock.  Their deaths in 1898 were the result of a blasting accident.  All too soon we were passing the maintenance sheds and rolled into the Skagway station.  Our exhilarating train trip was over.


Armed with a city map and inside information supplied by our motor coach driver, we set off to capture Skagway's touristy atmosphere with the main street featuring a wide variety of shops, three or four selling diamonds, and numerous restaurants.  As there were four cruise ships in port, approximately 7000 tourists provided a brisk business for the shops, restaurants and tour agencies.  With our limited two hour time in Skagway we browsed a few shops and decided to sample a locally brewed beer.  Finding no space downstairs, we wandered to an upstairs room and played a game of shuffleboard before heading back to explore the Skagway harbour and a walk back to the train station to locate our bus for our return trip to Whitehorse to complete a brief but enjoyable introduction to Skagway, Alaska.

Again, we enjoyed the drive with panoramic views, a stop at Fraser to pick up passengers and to clear customs.  We've now returned to Canada!  It was a full but relaxing worthwhile day trip concluding with an evening meal at the excellent Klondike Rib and Salmon Restaurant, housed in the two oldest buildings still in use in the Yukon’s Capital.  Doreen had oven roasted veggies with mashed potatoes and bannock and I had elk stroganoff with sourdough and a Caesar salad.  We enjoyed the restaurant's ambiance and food while re-living the day's many highlights.  The White Pass train day excursion proved to be another trip highlight.

The following morning saw us being on our homeward journey.  Arriving in Watson Lake we again visited the signpost display and attended an evening Northern Lights Show.

Our plan was to return via the Cassiar Highway # 37 stopping overnight at Stewart and possibly Smithers.  The morning drive was pleasant with excellent road conditions encountering few vehicles.  We stopped at the Beaver Dam Restaurant for breakfast and were informed the Cassiar Highway was flooding and closed to all traffic.  No wonder we hadn't encountered trucks!  One needs to check road conditions before departures. Again we were reminded that the north's weather conditions can be more severe than the coast.  It was a two hour return drive back to the Alaska Highway and then south to Fort Nelson where we once again stayed at the Shannon Motel.  That night we decided to travel directly home via Whistler and not wait for the Cassiar Highway to re-open. As we later discovered this was a wise decision as the Cassiar stayed closed for several more days.

For us the Alaska Highway’s appeal was its breath-taking scenic vistas and its fantastic road side animal viewing plus the visits to historical towns. Our road trip took in only a small portion of the many locations leaving more for a future visit!  We certainly enjoyed our experience plus found lodging, food and fuel easy to obtain.  A trip we recommend for others to explore.

General Information


Our accommodations were budget, central, quiet and clean.  Prices are Canadian dollars plus 15 % in taxes must be added to the price. The hotels/motels, unless noted, provided television, coffee makers, refrigerator and internet.

1)       Fort St. John

a.       Blue Bell Motel, 9705 Alaska Road, Telephone: (250) 785-2613,

b.      email:

c.       Reservations: 1 866-833-2121

d.      Description:  Basic motel but was clean and well appointed, bed was comfortable. Motel was close to stores and restaurants.  Easy to access the Alaska Highway from motel.

2)      Fort Nelson

a.       Shannon Motel, 5473-50th Avenue south, P.O. Box 480, Fort Nelson, BC, V0C1R0

b.      Description:  Located next to the Alaska Highway on a lateral road.  Although an older motel it had excellently appointed rooms with separated sitting area.  Friendly helpful managers. Rooms have been recently refurbished.  Excellent value and our favorite accommodation.

3)      Liard Hot Springs

a.       Liard Hot Springs Lodge, Mile 497 Alaska Highway, Liard River, BC

b.      Telephone: (250) 776-7349

c.       Reservations:  1 866-939-2522

d.      Description:  The Liard Hot Springs Lodge and campgrounds are ideal for visiting the hot springs.  Liard River Hot Springs Park is the reason to relax and utilize the lodge’s comfortable basic rooms.  Rooms lacked televisions, coffee makers and refrigerators.  A Wi-Fi system was being installed.  The lodge’s restaurant provided wholesome home cooked meals.  This was relatively an expensive basic lodge, but the only lodge accommodation located near the popular hot springs.

4)      Watson Lake, BC

a.       Air Force Lodge, Watson Lake, BC

b.      Telephone: 867-536-2890

c.       Description:  Air Force Lodge is a restored pilot headquarters used during the construction of the Alaska Highway and W.W.II.  The Lodge is quiet and spotlessly clean.  The lodge is similar to a hostel with shared washrooms and showers.  The basic rooms were comfortable with televisions only.  Complimentary tea and coffee were always available in the reception area.  Helpful friendly management.  Excellent value at $75.00 for a single person and $85.00 for two people.

5)      Whitehorse, Yukon

a.       Stop In Family Hotel, 314 Ray Street, Whitehorse, Yukon

b.      Description:  Hotel was reasonably priced, clean and comfortable and has been recently renovated.  Our room was well appointed with a comfortable queen bed plus table and chair set.  We received good service at reception desk.  The hotel’s Indian Restaurant was not open as the chef was holidaying in India.  Lodging is expensive in Whitehorse so we found The Family Hotel to be good value.  The hotel is centrally located, close to tourist bureau and excellent restaurants.

c.       Restaurants in Whitehorse we enjoyed.

Klondike Rib and Salmon Bake

                2116 2nd Ave.,

                Whitehorse, Yukon

                Telephone:  (867) 667-7554

This restaurant was busy with a casual restful ambience.  Service was excellent with fresh and flavorful food.   The varied menu featured seafood dishes.

Sanchez Cantina

                211 Hanson St.

                Whitehorse, Yukon

                Telephone: (867) 668-5858

                The popular restaurant featured authentic Mexican food with a varied menu.  Small restaurant, brightly decorated with Mexican ambiance.

Gasoline Prices -The Alaska Highway

                Gasoline was readily available along the highway and in the towns.  The price was a high of $179.9 per liter at Coal Lake with $149.9 per liter being the most common price.