What to Expect When Driving the Alaska Highway in Winter

Riley poses with her car at the signpost at the beginning of the Alaska Highway
The signpost at the beginning of the Alaska Highway

There aren’t many cars driving the Alaska Highway in winter. Construction hasn’t started, but occasionally semi-trucks will pass you at flying speeds in the middle of snow storms. Mostly, though, you’ll find yourself on safari, sharing the road with caribou, bison, and sheep. Essentially, you have the road to yourself.

In 2017, I accepted a new job in Alaska and had about three weeks to drive from South Dakota. I enlisted my favorite travel partner, my mother, and we were off on a 4,000-mile adventure across the continent. We traversed through some of Canada’s most beautiful mountain vistas and national parks to reach America’s 49th state.

There aren't many cars driving the Alaska Highway in winter. Construction hasn't started. Semi-trucks fly by during snow storms. You share the road with caribou, bison, and sheep. Essentially, it's all yours. Click To Tweet

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The MilePost

The 2017 edition of the MilePost guidebook
The 2017 edition of the MilePost guidebook

First thing’s first: If you’re going to drive to or around in Alaska, you need the MilePost. The handy guidebook is released annually and contains all the information you could ever hope for and more. Need to know where the next gas station is? The MilePost has you covered. Interested in a random fact about that bridge you drove over or the sign in front of that motel? The MilePost has that, too. It covers most of the major highways in Western Canada and Alaska, not just the Alcan. If only this existed everywhere. You can purchase the 2018 MilePost on Amazon.

With that covered, let’s hit the road.

Day 1: Jewel Cave to Yellowstone

The Indian Memorial at Little Bighorn Battlefield features men on horseback
The Indian Memorial at Little Bighorn Battlefield

On the first day, my mom and I set out from Jewel Cave National Monument with Yellowstone in our sights. We loaded some last minute things into the car as a light snow fell, causing us to worry about the roads ahead.

The snow stopped fairly quickly as we entered Wyoming, then headed north into Montana. We decided we had time for a stop at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, the location of Custer’s Last Stand. We visited Custer National Cemetery where Custer and his men perished, walked through the Indian Memorial, and looked out over Last Stand Hill. There is a 4.5-mile drive through the battlefield that offers trails and additional insights into the fighting that occurred here, which I saw the first time I visited the site. This time, however, we were only 273-miles into our journey and we had a long way to go.

We reached Gardiner, Montana late that evening. Driving into Yellowstone during sunset was quite magical; the colors were spectacular and the mountains featured beautiful alpenglow. Once the sun had set, however, it was a bit frightening. Wildlife roamed in the middle of the road and a lack of street lights made it nearly impossible to see. We were relieved to pull into town where better lighting illuminated our hotel for the night.

Day 2: Yellowstone to Missoula

Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park
Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park

We spent most of our second day in Yellowstone. It hadn’t been long since my previous visit in 2016, but my mom hadn’t been since she was a young girl. We enjoyed the peaceful quiet of Yellowstone in the winter, walking through the visitor center and to Mammoth Hot Springs with no other visitors in sight. Elk rested and grazed near the Roosevelt Arch. We drove a portion of the only road open to vehicles in search of wildlife and found more elk, bison, and pronghorn. We stamped our passports and took lots of photos, then continued on our way.

Originally, I planned to visit two more national parks in Montana today, but we enjoyed Yellowstone too much and lost track of time. This would have meant I’d have checked off all the national parks in Montana from my list, but who doesn’t want to spend additional time in Yellowstone when available? I’ll go back someday.

Fun fact about my mom and I: we love breweries. I won’t speak for my mom, but in my opinion, the beer is simply a bonus compared to the amazing food brewpubs whip up. Whenever we travel together, that’s where we tend to eat. That’s why I elected to stay in Missoula for the night: options. We went to Tamarack Brewing, Co. and were not disappointed.

Day 3: Missoula to Radium Hot Springs

Lake McDonald at Glacier National Park is perfectly still, beautifully reflecting the mountains on its waters
Lake McDonald at Glacier National Park

This was our first day of true winter weather that would basically remain until we arrived, give or take a few days. We drove through the beautiful Flathead National Forest on our way to West Glacier. Much of Glacier National Park is inaccessible in the winter due to snow, but you can still drive a small portion of the park road to take in the views.

After our quick jaunt into Glacier, we headed north to cross over into Canada for the first time on this journey. We successfully crossed the border and we were off to Radium Hot Springs, British Columbia.

This adorable little town sits nestled at the gateway to Kootenay National Park, our first stop come morning light. For the evening, we headed to a local dive and watched hockey, as Canadians do.

Day 4: Kootenay and Banff National Parks

The Columbia Wetlands near Kootenay and Banff National Parks
The Columbia Wetlands near Kootenay and Banff National Parks

I’m sure Kootenay National Park is beautiful, but I wouldn’t know. Despite driving through it, I can’t tell you what it looks like.

This was one of our worst days in terms of weather. Driving through the Canadian Rockies was just plain terrifying. I could barely see the road in front of me, let alone the gorgeous mountains that I’m positive surrounded me. We left Kootenay as abruptly as we had entered it, unaware of what was shrouded in clouds behind us.

The only photo I have from Kootenay National Park is this one from the continental divide and border between Alberta and British Columbia
The only photo I have from Kootenay National Park

It cleared up a lot once we were lower in elevation. We saw some Bighorn Sheep on the side of the road, and two of the rams even began fighting. It was a truly magical experience to witness something I thought only National Geographic videographers were lucky enough to capture.

Next, we crossed into Alberta and were in the town of Banff. I immediately decided it was adorable and I wanted to live there. Due to the fantastic skiing, Banff is still pretty crowded in the winter months despite the cold temperatures. We were surprised at the number of people. Don’t expect to have it to yourself.

We saw what we could of Banff, but most of it was covered in snow and closed to vehicles. Still, it provided some breathtaking scenery as we drove to Lake Louise for the night.

Day 5: Banff to Jasper

Today was much better in terms of weather. It’s difficult to explain in words how beautiful the Canadian Rockies are. So, here are some photos instead.

A beautiful mountain view takes shape as the clouds clear in Banff
A beautiful mountain view takes shape as the clouds clear in Banff
Mountains along the river in Banff
Mountains along the river in Banff
Riley taking in the view from the top of the Lake Louise ski lift in Banff
Taking in the view from the top of the Lake Louise ski lift in Banff
Riley standing on a frozen Lake Louise
Standing on a frozen Lake Louise
Taking a ride on the Lake Louise ski lift
Taking a ride on the Lake Louise ski lift
The view from Field, British Columbia in Yoho National Park
The view from Field, British Columbia in Yoho National Park

After taking in the view from the top of the Lake Louise ski lift, we headed to Field, British Columbia to grab lunch and check out Yoho National Park. It was also gorgeous, of course, and a very cool little mountain town.

Jasper was next on the itinerary. This was yet another drive that left our mouths wide open in awe. Again, I don’t think I have the words; good thing pictures are worth 1,000.

The beautiful Rocky Mountains of Jasper National Park
The beautiful Rocky Mountains of Jasper National Park
A pristine blue creek flows from Athabasca Falls in Jasper National Park
A creek flows from Athabasca Falls in Jasper National Park
Riley's favorite Canadians: a black bear and moose dressed in Mounty outfits
My favorite Canadians
Athabasca Falls
Athabasca Falls
The Rocky Mountains behind a thawing river
The Rocky Mountains behind a thawing river

We stayed in the town of Jasper for the evening and watched hockey at the Jasper Brewing Company. The Edmonton Oilers had made it to the playoffs, and Jasper had quite a few fans from the nearby city there to watch. We searched for excellent Jasper souvenirs as well – I have a dog named Jasper, and although we got the idea for the name from the Twilight books, I’ve now decided he’s named after this place.

Riley's dog, Jasper
Riley’s dog, Jasper, totally (not) named after the national park

Day 6: Jasper to Fort St. John

Riley excited to finally begin the Alaska Highway drive
Excited to finally begin the Alaska Highway drive

Playtime was officially over. After visiting multiple national parks and experiencing all they had to offer, it was time to head for the Alcan.

We drove north through Alberta and over to British Columbia once again. Once we got to Dawson Creek, we were officially on the road. If you visit during the summer season, there’s a visitor center here to welcome you to the highway. In April, it was closed. But we did still have a chance to stop at the sign and take a picture. We were officially on the road!

Go ahead and picture in your mind what driving the Alaska Highway looks like. A pristine, empty roadway that you have all to yourself with beautiful mountains all around. Sound like what you’re picturing? I’m sure that’s accurate in summer when it’s driven the most. But here’s what the majority of our drive looked like:

Snow falling as we make our way up the Alaska Highway
Snow falling as we make our way up the Alaska Highway

It wasn’t much farther before we reached Fort St. John, our stop for the evening. It’s common to camp along the drive, but it was a tad too cold for our comfort. However, you can camp anywhere on the side of the road (as you can in Alaska). We opted for hotel stays in order to stay warm and relaxed on the long drives.

Day 7: Fort St. John to Watson Lake

The Sign Post Forest, a popular stop in Watson Lake
The Sign Post Forest, a popular stop in Watson Lake

We really pushed it today. We decided to drive for 10+ hours in order to reach Alaska as soon as we could. This was definitely our longest day on the road. It didn’t help that there’s pretty much nowhere to sleep between Fort St. John and Watson Lake if you’re relying on hotels like we were.

The other thing you should know about driving the Alaska Highway is the lack of diverse food. It may be better in the busier season, but in April it was horrid. The towns you go through will have a place to go, but the menu will be exactly the same: sandwiches and burgers. You may get a soup if you’re lucky and I may have scored pasta at some point. This was definitely our least favorite aspect of the trip.

The Forest's 30,000 signs welcome you to the Yukon while driving the Alaska Highway
The Forest’s 30,000 signs welcome you to the Yukon while driving the Alaska Highway

When we rolled into Watson Lake, Yukon for the evening, we were greeted by the infamous Sign Post Forest. Even if you hadn’t heard about it (seriously, buy the MilePost) you can’t miss it. This thing is enormous. I didn’t understand the big deal before we got there – it’s just a bunch of signs, who cares? There are 30,000 signs. This thing would span city blocks if there were any. It is massive, and it’s a blast to walk through. We found signs from my hometown in Florida as well as others supporting my alma mater, the Florida State Seminoles.

We stayed in Watson Lake for the night in a beautiful cabin that we found on Airbnb. It was gorgeous!

Day 8: Watson Lake to Whitehorse

Caribou staring Riley down
Caribou staring me down
A Wood bison grazes on the side of the road
A Wood bison grazes on the side of the road

Despite the snow falling as we left Watson Lake, we saw more wildlife than any other day on our trek to Whitehorse. We were excited – the animals were out and the northern lights were supposed to follow that evening.

We arrived in Whitehorse and made our first stop at the brewery. You’ve got to get your Yukon brews, right? Our plan was to stay here two nights and (hopefully) see the northern lights and enjoy some winter activities. Whitehorse had other plans.

We Americans had no idea that Easter Monday was a holiday. So when we arrived, everything was closed. We only found one restaurant that was open, and the food was terrible. After our strict hamburger and sandwich diet from the Alcan, we were hoping Yukon’s capital would offer some variety. We were very wrong.

Furthermore, as we walked through downtown only a few shops were open for us to peruse. There weren’t many others out and about, and those who were did not seem friendly. One gentleman, alcohol in hand, turned around and followed us at one point. We called it a night very early on and returned to our hotel.

Day 9: Whitehorse to Haines Junction

Riley and her mom entering Alaska
Me and my mom entering Alaska

We decided to forgo our second night in Whitehorse after our experience. Instead, we opted to drive to Skagway for a day and finally dip down into Alaska.

The drive to Skagway was absolutely stunning. I’d never seen anything like it. Apparently, it was too pretty for me to take photos because I can’t find any. It was mostly mountains perfectly blanketed in feet of white snow, but also included the world’s smallest desert, a pretty cool little spot.

Carcross Desert, the world's smallest, in front of mountains
The world’s smallest desert

Once in Skagway, we were thrilled to find a restaurant where we could order anything but a burger. It was still diner style, but at least we had a bit more to choose from.

We also stopped at Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park. They were completing some renovations so we couldn’t see everything, but we were able to walk through the museum. It was very interesting to learn the story of the Chilkoot Trail travelers took to reach Dawson City in search of gold. My favorite was a video of Charlie Chaplin on the trail (movie magic!) when hilarity ensued.

It’s hard to imagine that hundreds of people arrive daily in Skagway on cruise ships in the summer. The cute little town must be packed! For us, it was again as if we had it to ourselves, joining the locals on shopping trips before heading back to Canada.

The mountain view over Kluane National Park from the Mount Logan Lodge
The view over Kluane National Park from the Mount Logan Lodge

We decided to stay in Haines Junction for the evening. As my mom drove I tried to find hotels in the MilePost (another reason to purchase this handy book), and only a few were listed as open year-round. I stumbled upon a true gem with Mount Logan Lodge. We were the only tenants, so the owner granted us the executive suite for the price of a regular room. His hospitality was remarkable, the cabin was gorgeous, and we saw the northern lights for the first time! I highly recommend a stay here if you’re passing through.

Day 10: Haines Junction to Fairbanks

The only time we had clear skies while driving the Alaska Highway was when we drove passed Kluane National Park. Its mountains are pictured here.
Clear skies finally showed for the first time in Kluane National Park

Originally, we were going to drive to Tok for the night but we were ready to be done driving the Alaska Highway. Mostly due to the food – we could make it to Fairbanks where true diversity awaited.

We had the greatest weather on our entire trip today. There was not a cloud in the sky as we drove by Kluane National Park. It was astounding. If we had had weather like that for our entire journey, I’m not sure we would have rushed our drive like we did. It was so clear that we even caught a glimpse of Mount Logan, Canada’s highest peak.

Riley poses with a sign marking the end of the road, 1,422 miles later
1,422 miles later at the end of the road

Soon enough, we had reached Alaska and the end of the Alaska Highway followed. We took photos at the sign, 1,422 miles after we had started our journey in Dawson Creek. Now, onward to Fairbanks.

A friend of mine happened to be in Fairbanks for work, so the three of us had dinner at Silver Gulch Brewing in Fox, Alaska. It’s one of my favorite places near Fairbanks and is also the northernmost brewery in North America. They even had salad on the menu! Along with the best beer cheese soup in the state.

We stayed at an Airbnb once again in Fairbanks. It’s without a doubt the best one I’ve stayed in. Our kind host and her family welcomed us and gave us expert advice on the northern lights. We were able to get amazing views from her backyard, where the pictures were taken. I’d never photographed the lights before, but she was very talented and gave me tips and additional equipment to help me shoot amazing images. It was one of the best aurora shows she had ever seen, bright enough that some were seen in daylight.

Photos of the northern lights over our Airbnb in Fairbanks

Photos of the northern lights over our Airbnb in Fairbanks

Photos of the northern lights over our Airbnb in Fairbanks
Photos of the northern lights over our Airbnb in Fairbanks

Day 11: Fairbanks to Denali

Denali,
Denali, “The High One”, towers over the Alaska range

And two hours later, we made it. Our journey to Denali National Park was complete! With one little problem – we arrived one week before I started work. But is it really a problem if you get to spend more time exploring?

So, we spent some time in the park before heading south to see more of my favorite state.

Day 12: Denali National Park

A moose down the street from our lodge in Healy, Alaska
A moose down the street from our lodge in Healy, Alaska

Visiting Denali in winter is…. interesting. Unless you have snow machines, a dog sled team, skis, or snowshoes, it’s difficult to get around. My mom and I were able to hike around a little, but not as much as we might have liked. It was exciting, however, to drive thirty miles of the park road. Normally, the road is only open for fifteen. My mom was really hoping to see bears, but it seemed that they were still hibernating. We did see some caribou and moose, though. One was right down the road from our lodge.

We saw the northern lights again that evening, and it was another stunning show. The aurora borealis does not disappoint, and I hope everyone has a chance to see them in their lifetimes.

The aurora borealis dance over Otto Lake in Healy
The aurora borealis dance over Otto Lake in Healy

Day 13: Denali to Talkeetna

My mom and I had heard nothing but great things about Talkeetna. One of my favorite things is how quirky the small town is. For example, they have an annual ski race that’s very long and hard, so they called it the Oosik. If you don’t know what that is, google it and you’ll understand why it’s hilarious and awesome.

We stayed at the cutest little Airbnb, a small cabin walking distance from downtown. We quickly fell in love with Talkeetna. The restaurants were great, including the Denali Brewing, Co. (of course). It’s also very scenic with views of Denali and the Alaska range down by the river.

Day 14: Talkeetna to Anchorage

We decided not to drive too far today and stopped in Anchorage for the night. This was my first (and so far only) poor Airbnb experience. We requested to book, were approved, and showed up to an empty house. Somehow, they didn’t realize we were coming. We ended up staying at a hotel downtown instead.

For dinner, we enjoyed delicious food and beer at the 49th State Brewing, Co. There’s a location near Denali National Park as well in Healy, possibly best known as the final resting place of the bus used in the film Into the Wild. They also have great food and tasty brews.

Day 15: Anchorage to Seward

Mountains rise up from the sea
Mountains rise up from the sea

If you ever have the opportunity to drive this stretch of Alaska’s road system, it’s strongly encouraged. Every inch of Alaska features breathtaking beauty, and this is some of its best. Towering peaks grow right up against the beautiful blue ocean as you make your way south on winding roads.

The town of Seward is one of Alaska’s best if you ask me. I really enjoy the vibe of this small, close-knit town. The locals are also extremely nice, as most Alaskans are. We spent the evening eating yummy seafood and strolling through the few open shops before playing trivia at a local bar (and losing).

Day 16: Kenai Fjords National Park

A tour boat sails through Kenai Fjords National Park
A tour boat sails through Kenai Fjords National Park

My mom and I visited Kenai Fjords together in 2013 when I worked at Wrangell-St. Elias. The first time, we walked around the Exit Glacier area and explored a bit more. We also book a boat tour that included kayaking on Fox Island.

This time around, Exit Glacier was inaccessible and our only option was a boat tour. This is where most of the park’s wilderness lies anyway. Plus, in the winter it is nowhere near as crowded as in the summer!

The highlights of the tour were the beautiful views and unique wild animals. Often times throughout the year, Seward is very cloudy, similar to Valdez and other coastal towns. On our first visit, we barely saw the mountains around us. This time the weather was much better. In terms of wildlife, we saw a couple whales, otters, and many, many sea lions. Typically, you can also see porpoises and puffins, a common favorite.

Steller's Sea Lions
Steller’s Sea Lions
Spire Cove, where giant rock spires stick out of the ocean
Spire Cove
A sea otter swims next to our boat
A sea otter swims next to our boat

After our boat tour, we stayed in Seward for a second night to rest up before another day of adventures.

Day 17: Seward to Homer

A bald eagle, sea otter, and gulls off the coast of Homer, Alaska
A bald eagle, sea otter, and gulls off the coast of Homer, Alaska

My mom had always wanted to live in Homer even though she’d never been. I told her about visiting for a day in 2013 and she heard from others about the milder weather as compared to many other places in Alaska. She was hooked before she arrived.

Homer is much quieter in April compared to August, when I visited previously. One of its most popular locations for tourists is the spit that juts out into the water and is littered with shops, restaurants, and bars. On my first visit, I had a hard time finding a parking space and maneuvering through the crowds of tourists. In April, you can park anywhere you like since most of the places aren’t open for the season yet. We did have delicious, fresh seafood at one of the spit’s few open restaurants and had a drink at the Salty Dawg Saloon, a famous bar.

Day 18: Homer to Anchorage to Denali

The final day! After our time in Homer, I drove my mom to the airport in Anchorage and headed north to Denali, ready for a new adventure.

2 Comments

  1. wherervnow1

    Love your travels and iformation, your photos are beautiful. I grew up in Alaska but living in Florida. My husband and I are traveling to Alaska at the end of April in our rv. We will be workamping in Kenai for the summer. And yes I do have the milepost😊 . check out our blog wherervnowusa.com
    Thanks again for the great information. Hope to see you on the road.
    Pam and Terry Pumphrey

    1. Too funny! I grew up in Florida and live in Alaska, the exact opposite! Enjoy your drive and stay safe, roads are pretty rough. We saw some trucks and RVs with flat tires. Glad you have the milepost! Maybe I’ll see you in Kenai.

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