Alaska Highway Road Trip and Inside Passage Cruise

It feels good to not live out of a suitcase after 33 days of doing so, BUT… it was an amazing trip! Our little (not-so-little) guy was a trooper. On the very last day the plains of Saskatchewan and North Dakota got to be a bit too much and we made a 12 hr push in the car, so that’s when he cracked. Find out how we were able to road trip not only the Alaska Highway but also the Inside Passage of Southeast Alaska too.

Somehow, a stretch of highway with some trees is just more beautiful when you’re on a road trip than a stretch of utterly similar surroundings on your average morning commute at home. It’s just like how peanut butter and jelly sandwiches always taste better outside than they do at the kitchen table. Think you can’t take an epic road trip just because you have young children? Think again. Our three-year old did better than many teens I know would. So maybe (just maybe) NOW is the time to travel — when those kids are still wide-eyed and innocent.

Expanding Horizons Canadian Rockies

Great Northern North – An Epic American Road Trip

Thirty-three days on the road and on a boat. Calling the Alaska Marine Highway System ferry a boat is a gross understatement. We were on a sizable ferry with dozens of vehicles, hundreds of people, and even pets. From the Lake States of the USA through the Dakotas, crossing into Canada at Saskatchewan and then blazing the open [very open] road west to Banff and Jasper National Parks marked the first week of this journey. The only deadline we had to keep was making it to the coast at Prince Rupert in time to board the ferry. So, in eight days we saw as much as we could and made it to the ocean. (We also celebrated Canada Day in Canada) and got to see some amazing countryside. 

We experienced new plant communities, got into the alpine, explored tidal pools and coastal zones, forests, marine animals, wild edibles, hikes, fishing expeditions, and even some fun tourist-type attractions. So, our goals were about 95% met, I’d say.

The Inside Passage

The Salmon Capital of the World and Little Norway

Our journey from Prince Rupert in British Columbia took us north on the Alaska Marine Highway to Ketchikan, our first stop on our Southeast Alaska do-it-yourself “poor man’s cruise.” Next came Wrangell, where we had a wild and for me, nostalgic time. Onward a short ride to Petersburg, the town I lovingly call my second home. We spent four glorious house-sitting for a  friend who incidentally was traveling to the Canadian Rockies in the opposite direction and who we very likely could have met on the highway, unknowingly. We were in a float house, so we expereienced the ebb and flow of the tide each night!

Sitka

Bidding Petersburg farewell, we boarded the ferry for Sitka. All of these ports, might I add, were better explored since we had our own wheels. Something you don’t get so easily with large cruises. I must admit, for all the fuss folks make about Sitka, and perhaps because we had some incidents which dampened our mood there, but this city would be one I’d skip if I had to. [We would however go back for the birding, an activity we were sad to miss.]

Juneau

Juneau, the Capitol of Alaska, was a blast. We were able to buy fresh crab from the local seafood market and boil it up in our hotel. We reached the alpine area with the assistance of the Mt. Roberts tramway. [A welcome aide since I was 6 months pregnant and we had a preschooler in tow.] It’s not a rough hike, but you do need to be dressed appropriately and many times visitors from a cruise will not have enough time to get up and back down. Having spent much time previously in the town while living in Alaska, I appreciated seeing it from the perspective of a tourist and not a local. The only place which we would leave off the itinerary next time is the famed [and over-rated] Red Dog Saloon.

Haines and Skagway – Gold Rush Country!

Our final stops on our Inside Passage “cruise” were Haines and Skagway. Though it is the lesser-known, smaller town without the huge push of gigantic cruise ships, Haines was our breakaway favorite. We all loved the Takshanuk Mountain Trail mule ride. My only regret is not seeing Haines sooner — my great uncle used to have a fly-in cabin and it would have made a fantastic side-trip! Skagway was our best area for Brown bears (even better than Anan in Wrangell in my opinion) and we had the mud flats to ourselves near Dyea (pronounced “die-ee”) where we also padded the shoreline sand with some fool’s gold for our kiddo to find in his little gold panning plate!

From there, it was bub-bye ocean and with a heavy heart, one I always seem to suffer when I wave goodbye to Southeast, we were on to the Yukon Territory! This was exciting and brand new for all three of us.

The Alaska Highway

The Yukon

The first stop in the journey north from Skagway was Carcross in the Yukon Territory of Canada. This was our roundabout way of getting to the Alaska Highway while seeing more of what we were interested in since we’d come thousands of miles! We didn’t end up seeing this route by train, due to mechanical issues and an unfortunate but thankfully minor derailment, so it was all new countryside for us. However, I’ve heard that the train trip is very different than the car route, so even if you do both it’s worth it!

We stopped (right at nap time) in Carcross. This cannot be skipped. You’ll have to share the “World’s Smallest Desert” with tourist buses, but if you have your own wheels, you only need to endure the selfie snapping crowd for about 15 minutes. Try climbing to the top of the dunes–it’s a real workout and further than you’d expect! Carcross is really your only opportunity to use facilities between Skagway and Whitehorse (about 2.5 hours) unless you happen to find a trailhead pull out with an outhouse.

Whitehorse is a super city which doesn’t get enough credit. It was jam-packed with fun things to see and do and we were really regretful we’d only given a day and a half to explore. We weren’t up against a ferry departure deadline like we were coming westward but we still needed to scuttle along. Stops to make certain you enjoy are the Yukon Wildlife Preserve, Sundog Retreat (for nice digs while in the area), and the Yukon Beringia Interpretive Center. We also stopped at the Canada Games Centre in town, to enjoy some much-needed pool time for the preschooler!

Heading Home Via The Alaska Highway

The Yukon was hard to depart, but on we traveled, hoping for Watson Lake. We stopped at the Signpost Forest which is a necessary leg stretch and bathroom break. Honestly, this western stretch of country wasn’t that remarkable and was pretty boring to be honest, until we hit Liard Hot Springs. If you’re a hot spring enthusiast, this tops them all. Seriously, the only thing that even comes close is Chief Shakes in Alaska, but even that has a more “civilized feel” to it. And the springs in Banff and Jasper? Forget about it. Bonafide hot tubs compared to this open river of hot water! I was very nervous about being mauled by a bear in my maternity suit and I could only dip for a bit then tap out, as to not hard boil the bambino. But, it is still one of the very best soaks we’ve enjoyed as a family.

Banff and Jasper National Parks

This really marked the end of our Alaska Highway adventure. Field Guide Dad was shot at this point. He had something of a shit fit upon forgetting spoons in the van when we decided to sit down for a pint of Sorbet in the hotel. See? The preschooler was a beast to endure all this road-time and outlast even the adults!

These UNESCO World Heritage site adventures were epic and could be an entire vacation on their own, to be sure.

The Budget

Totally blown. We went to see Planes: Fire and Rescue in Canada — it was only about $30 but it was not planned. We ate a TON of Haagen-Daas. Since they only sell pints of Sorbet, it was about $5 every time someone had a hankering. Worth it? Yes! But, again, not planned. Parking, day use fees, camping in designated areas a lot of the time… All things that I didn’t plan for. [I was hyper-focused on budgeting for our gas costs and transportation fees and neglected to include LIFE expenditures!] So, we’ll be paying this one off for a while too. But, again, TOTALLY worth the adventures we had as a family.

Road Trip Tips and Reflection

You ALWAYS need more time. We planned a few days in each port and respective town and inevitably we always left sad, saying we could have “used a day or two more in this place…” Realistically, I think that had we spent a month in each place, we’d still be saying that–it’s just a badass area that is fun to play in!

Lighten Your Load

The part we grew tired of, even with the best luggage ever, was packing and unpacking. Whether setting up camp or enjoying a rare hot shower and soft bed in a hotel, we just didn’t like the daily grind (and the wasted hour or so) of packing, cleaning gear, organizing, etc. So, though we really enjoyed the challenge of a rigorous road-trip itinerary with our little one, we decided we’d like to camp in ONE place for at least 4-5 days at a crack next time. We also grossly over-packed. Our first month-long excursion was intimidating and we didn’t want to be caught off-guard on the Alaska Highway without something. So we looked like the Clampett’s going down the road, only missing Granny hanging out in her rocking chair on the rooftop! Don’t be afraid to lighten the load.

To hear about each individual adventure and how-to’s about making it better for YOU when you go, based on our experiences (read: mistakes), keep checking back. I will be reflecting upon my trip journals and sharing the adventures with all of you in the coming weeks! Gear, stories, fun and even some crazy mixed in. We had it all.

Adventure on, families!

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