RVs & Alaska – Are Made For Each Other

It’s Nickname is “America’s Last Frontier,” and for Good Reason. A Person Could Spend Months Exploring Alaska’s Sights.

Flying to Alaska and renting an RV is a great way to explore the 49th state without making the long drive to its border (and back). There’s no better way to amble about the state than in an RV that lets you bring food and shelter with you. Restaurants and lodging can be few and far between, which is part of the state’s wide-open appeal. With an RV, you’re totally on your own schedule. And there’s something special about enjoying the comforts of an RV with miles of wilderness on the other side of the door.

Travel down any highway in Alaska and you’re likely to encounter lush forests, breathtaking mountains, pure white glaciers punctuated by light blue ice, spectacular waterfalls and a menagerie of wildlife from soaring bald eagles and leaping salmon to lumbering moose.

Alaska bald eagleIt’s a pristine environment just begging to be explored. And there’s no better way to experience Alaska’s 656,425 square miles of back country than with an RV. There is often a significant distance between communities – and the services they provide like restaurants, hotels and restrooms. But, on any highway, there are ample places for RVers to pull off to enjoy the view, catch a nap, make a meal, or simply to let other vehicles pass in order to continue a leisurely journey.

Before beginning an Alaskan adventure, the essential first step is to acquire a recent copy of Milepost. The annual trip planner and travel guidebook lists every possible thing you’ll encounter along all of Alaska’s major highways.  Its authors have meticulously researched every turnoff, restaurant, store, and out-of-the-way scenic spot to the closest tenth of a mile. So, when the book suggests that you look for moose in the evening at milepost 101.4, bring a lawn chair and wait for them to arrive. The book is available at Amazon.com, or for checkout from most public libraries.

Drive or Fly?

There are two primary ways to get to Alaska – either drive up from Canada along the Alcan Highway, or fly up and rent an RV in Anchorage. Driving up is an adventure in itself. It all begins at Mile 0 in Dawson Creek, British Columbia. You’ll travel on a two-lane highway through some of the most primitive wilderness areas in the world. Although the road surface is paved, road conditions vary greatly.

“We traveled up from Dawson Creek and it was like going over the world,” said RaeJean Brown, an RVer from California, who was touring Alaska in a rented Class C motorhome. “There is so much to see and do. The best you often do is stay a day and get a flavor for the area before moving on.”

Make sure you check with locals regarding the route you plan to take. They’re likely to know what roads are best for RV use. For example, the state of Alaska calls the 133-mile gravel road between Paxson and Cantwell a highway, but unsuspecting RVers found it to be a slow, bumpy dusty grind.

Traveling on gravel roads can be problematic for RVs. Not only will the dust permeate every crevice of the vehicle, but the shaking, rattling and rolling as you navigate around potholes, washboards and fist-size “gravel” can put stress on the RV’s windshield and suspension. Towing on gravel is even more challenging due to added stress on the tongue and tow bar. But, by keeping your speed under 20 mph, you can enjoy the view without damaging your RV.

Alaska RV's mountainsThe near constant daylight is one of the first things new visitors to Alaska will find almost unworldly. Anchorage has nearly 19 hours of sunlight daily during summer months, while Fairbanks will see the sun 21 hours a day. The sunlight will disrupt sleeping patterns. Who thinks it’s time for bed when you can still see across the campground at 12:30 a.m.?

Even with the seemingly endless sunlight, you’ll find there’s more to do and see than time allows, especially if you are an outdoor enthusiast. Fishing is one of Alaska’s largest industries, and sport fishing is a popular tourist activity. Trout, pike and halibut can be fished year-round, while salmon are generally caught in early spring or midsummer.

There is so much water in Alaska that it’s a kayaker and canoeist’s paradise. The mountain streams, interior lakes and ocean coves offer splendid opportunities to explore the state and view wildlife in their natural surroundings.

But whether you adventure over land or water, you’ll greatly enhance the experience if you bring along quality binoculars.

Amazing Anchorage

As Alaska’s largest city, Anchorage is a must-stop on any itinerary. It’s the best place to stock up on provisions before launching your journey. Prices are a little higher in Anchorage than you’ll see in most other parts of the lower 48, but they are lower than you’ll see most anywhere else in the state.

With more than 1,250 rental RVs available in the community, residents are quite used to seeing RVs on the road and are willing to give tourists some latitude as they navigate the streets. Parking is relatively easy to find everywhere, except downtown. But even then “downtown” is only 10 blocks long by five blocks wide, which puts it within easy walking distance from side streets.

Major points of interest in Anchorage include:

• Earthquake Park, where a series of interpretive trails describe the effects of the devastating 9.2 magnitude earthquake that rocked the state on Good Friday in 1964. The park also offers a great biking trail that affords exceptional views of the Cook Inlet, one of Alaska’s busiest ports.

• Lake Hood is the world’s busiest float-plane airport. Watch bush pilots as they shuttle passengers and goods to and from remote parts of the state.

• The boardwalk at Potter’s Marsh is known for its great view of nesting birds and spawning salmon.

• The Alaskan Aviation Heritage Museum displays memorabilia pertaining to Alaska’s historic bush pilot industry.

• The Tony Knowles Coastal Trail is an excellent biking and hiking trail that winds its way along the city’s western coast. There are excellent vantage points for viewing moose and other wildlife, as well as the ocean. Leashed pets are also allowed on the trail.

Alaska mountainsSeward on the Sea

Seward is a nice day trip from Anchorage, and a great way to start exploring the state. The community is named after former Secretary of State William Seward, who secured the purchase of the Alaskan territory for $7.2 million in 1867. The trip takes 2.5 hours by RV or 4.5 hours via the famed Alaskan Railroad.

The small coastal community features a collection of quaint shops and art galleries. It’s also known as the Gateway to Kenai Fjords National Park and the Harding Icefield, a family of glaciers, many of which calve icebergs into the ocean.

Along the way, you’ll pass the Turnigan Mud Flats created by glacial sediment flowing into the Cook Inlet. But, don’t walk on the mud no matter how solid it appears. It can act like quicksand, trapping people in the mire.

Also check out the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center where orphaned, injured and ill animals go to recuperate. You may see all types of animals including elk, bison, bears, coyotes and caribou while driving in the park.

The Alyeska Tram in Girdwood lets you soar 2,000 feet above sea level to enjoy a bird’s-eye view of the mountains. Take time to hike on Crow Creek Trail, a leg of the famous Iditarod snow-dog race trail. Or walk along the easy Winner Creek Trail to see one of Alaska’s lush rain forests.

Photograph the ghost town of Portage, which was submerged by 8 feet of water after a tsunami slammed into the community following the 1964 earthquake. You can also drive the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel, which at 2.5 miles is the nation’s longest.

In Seward, there are enough activities to keep everyone busy. Its port is the starting point for deep-sea salmon and halibut fishing charters and glacier cruises. Tour Iditarod champion Mitch Seavey’s racing kennels where 100 excited dogs are available to take guests on a two-mile dog sledding adventure.

The Alaska SeaLife Center offers a window to the sea with up-close views of marine wildlife from underwater viewing windows.

Denali Dominates

Alaska is home to the nation’s highest mountain. Call it by its official name, Mount McKinley, or Denali, the name favored by locals. The peak in Denali National Park and Reserve rises 20,320 feet above sea level to dominate the landscape for hundreds of miles.

With more than 6 million acres – bigger than the state of Massachusetts – the park is the fifth largest in the National Park Service. Nearly one-third of the acreage is designated as wilderness. Cars and RV’s can’t travel into Denali beyond Mile 15 without special permission. However, there is plenty to do within that short distance. The Savage Patrol Cabin gives visitors a glimpse into the winter lifestyle of park rangers. This active cabin serves as a stopping point for dogsled teams traversing the park in winter. Located near the end of an easy .5-mile trail, the log cabin is open for public viewing. Look for owls’ nests and an abundance of white-tailed rabbits near the trail entrance.

Alaska mountains lakeAt the end of the 15-mile road, plenty of wildlife can be seen along the Savage River Loop Trail. For those not inclined to hike, there are ample places to pull off along the road that afford a spectacular view of the mountains and wildlife grazing in the meadows. It’s an ideal place to spot caribou and moose. As you drive across the streams, look for bears trolling for food in nearby berry bushes.

“We love touring Denali. You really get to see a lot of animals in their natural environment,” said Kirk Brown, who took four weeks to deliver an RV from Indiana to an Anchorage rental dealership. “One afternoon we saw a mother Grizzly bear and her two cubs feeding on a caribou that five wolves brought down. It was amazing to watch as one wolf would try to entice the bears into a chase so the other wolves could come down and get their share.”

If you have the time, it’s advisable to spend several days exploring Denali. The Riley Creek and Savage River campgrounds are easily accessible by RVs. Teklanika River campground will require you to drive over 14 miles of gravel road to reach the site.

Riley Creek campground is located next to the park’s general store and is within easy biking distance of the Visitor’s Center. A shuttle bus also makes frequent stops at all the campgrounds.

To keep vehicular traffic to a minimum, the park maintains a fleet of tour buses that take visitors deep into the park. For a fee, guests can take a shuttle bus on an 11-hour trip to Wonder Lake. Tour guides are not provided, but bus drivers will point out key highlights along the route and stop frequently for passengers to view wildlife.

Four to eight hour fully narrated cultural history tours are also available, and all depart from the Visitor’s Center.

Veritable Valdez

The trip from Anchorage to Valdez is among the most stunning in all Alaska. You’ll pass an active volcano, towering waterfalls, an advancing glacier and the great Alaskan oil pipeline.

Traveling east across the Glenn Highway, you’ll pass Palmer, the site of the annual Alaska State Fair which takes place the last week of August and the first week of September.

Adventure seekers will want to stop in Chickaloon to board a whitewater rafting tour. The Glacier Run Float Trip is suitable for adults and children over 5. The easy float trip begins at the Matanuska Glacier and features a dash of light whitewater. The Lion Head Raft trip offers more challenging rapids as well as some great wildlife views along the 27-mile glacier. An evening raft trip is available from mid-June to mid-July, which includes dinner and the soft hues of Alaska’s midnight sun.

Top off your fuel tank at Glenallen and head south. About 15 miles south of Glenallen, take time to pull off and admire the Mt. Wrangell volcano, a geothermal active mountain that often has steam rising from one of its craters. At 14,163 feet, it’s one of the largest active volcanoes in North America and located in the nation’s largest national park, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve.

Alaska MooseNear mile 48, you’ll enjoy a dramatic view of Mt. Billy Mitchell, named after the “father of the modern U.S. Air Force” who also supervised construction of the telegraph connecting Valdez with the rest of the United States.

Further along the Richardson Highway, you’ll have several opportunities to photograph the Alaskan pipeline before it terminates in Valdez. Also stop at the Worthington Glacier State Recreation Site. Once the snow melts in early June, there are interpretive shelters and displays describing how glaciers are formed.

As tempting as it might be to walk or climb along the glacier, state officials warn against it. The ice is highly unpredictable and it’s possible to slip into a deep crevice.

Near mile 15, read about the hand-carved railroad tunnel immortalized in Rex Beach’s novel The Iron Trail. One mile later, the stunning Bridal Veil Falls often displays rainbows in the cascading water’s mist. The mountain rocks themselves demonstrate the dynamic power of earthquakes with rock walls jutting at 45-degree angles toward the sky.

In Valdez, enjoy a video tour of Alaska’s petroleum industry at the Prince William Sound Community College.

The Stan Stephens cruise line offers half-day and full day excursions to the Columbia and Meares glaciers, along with some great tasting clam chowder. Cruise ships travel past the Alyeska oil terminal where tankers are loaded with oil delivered via the pipeline. You’ll also view plenty of sea otters, sea lions and bald eagles. Sheep and bears are often spotted along the shores or in the bluffs. Depending upon how the ice flows away from the glaciers, the ships can often get within a few miles of where the ice calves.

Perhaps the most important single Alaska travel tip is to make sure you stock up on film or digital memory cards for your camera: There will be a different “Kodak moment” around every turn. And yes, Virginia, there is a North Pole — it’s located 19 minutes south of Fairbanks along Alaska Highway 2.

“We love visiting Alaska in an RV,” said the Browns. “You can take the trip on your schedule, making up your mind that day what you want to do. You can stay longer if you find something interesting. Some people choose to put their money in airfare and get to Alaska quickly. We choose to put the money in gas and take time to enjoy the scenery and wilderness.”

The Oversea Route to Alaska

The Alaska Marine Highway System runs 11 ferries serving 32 communities in Alaska plus Bellingham, Wash., and Prince Rupert, B.C. The service saves you the long drive through British Columbia and gives you the unique perspective of British Columbia’s and Alaska’s inside Passage with its awesome rain forests, mountains and glaciers.

For more details on reservations, fares and schedules, view the system’s website at www.ferryalaska.com or call central reservations at (800) 642-0066.

RV's and Alaska Northern Lights


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