Riding a motorcycle to Alaska from the Lower 48 is often described as a "trip of a lifetime", at least that's what some people have told me. And sure enough I'll probably remember it forever.
Here's some observations of mine...
- Give yourself lots of time. Canada and Alaska are huge. There's actually quite a bit to see. We only allotted 30 days, with "only" being the key word. That's roughly two weeks to ride up to Fairbanks. What you find is that we had to spend some days riding 500-750 miles. You get really tired, and you end up passing up a lot of great places to visit. Try 60 days, ride for about 200-300 miles in a day, and see stuff.
- It's going to take longer than you planned. You might have plotted out the route and figured out the time, but you'll find the scenery so stunning that you have to pull over and get photos. You'll find moose, bears, bison, along the side of the road, and you'll want to stop to photograph them. You'll meet other motorcycle riders doing the same ride as you, and you'll end up chatting with them for awhile. Before you know it, it's 7:00pm and you're not going to make your destination in time.
- Expect lots of rain. Even if you ride during the summer months, just know that this time of year is the wettest season for Alaska and the northern areas of Canada. Definitely bring rain gear, you're going to wish you had it. I brought my Frog Togs. You can also use a leather jacket, it'll keep you dry and keep the air from penetrating.
- Bring heated gear. When it rains all day long, which you will experience, you'll get very cold. And there's no way to ride to Alaska without having to ride up into higher elevations where temperatures drops into the 30s. I brought my Gerbings heated gloves and jacket liner, and was so glad I brought them.
- Dirt roads. There is simply no way to ride to Alaska without having to ride on dirt and gravel roads. The Alaska Highway is the main highway into Alaska, and at the Alaska/Yukon border is a 5-mile stretch of gravel road that they simply don't pave. Also, all along the Alaska Highway they're constantly doing repairs due to the frost damage. When they repair it, they pull out the asphalt in five kilometer, or three mile sections. You'll encounter at least four to five of these sections. Prepare to ride on a minimum of 40 miles of dirt road, round trip.
Most of this stuff is easy to ride on; the dirt and gravel is well packed, and even in the rain there's good traction. But some of it gets hairy. When raining, I found some dirt sections quite slick and felt the back end sliding. I also rode over some loosely packed gravel and felt the front end trying to wobble out of control. Yet still, I managed to keep the bike up.
- Metal and wooden bridges. There are several bridges in Canada where they use metal grates instead of pavement. Every time I rode over one it was dry. But in raining conditions, I imagine these get pretty slippery. There are also several bridges where you ride over wooden planks. But these too were always dry when I rode over them. I don't know what it's like to ride over them when wet.
- Bring Deet. British Columbia, Yukon Territory, and Alaska are chock full of mosquitoes. If you have to stop your bike along the shoulder for any reason, the mosquitoes zero in on you and are relentless. I also brought all the deet-free mosquito repellents, including the bracelet, the incense, and a couple of others, and they only worked partially at best. But deet always worked well for me. I bought a can of 40% deet.
If you don't want to spray it on your skin, then wear a hooded sweatshirt, and spray it all over that. Spray the arms, the hood, the front and back. It'll keep the mosquitoes about 12 inches away from you. You'll still see them flying all around you, but they won't land.
- Waterproof boots. I bought a brand new pair of boots for this trip, and got a pair of Wolverines, waterproof. Mike didn't have waterproof boots, and when it rained his feet were soaking wet the whole day.
- Brand new tires. Buy a brand new set of tires for your bike before you leave. Even if you have a tire with only a couple thousand miles on it, replace it anyways. You can still keep your old tires in the garage. Paul wore out a front tire by the time we headed north to Fairbanks, and had to buy a new one at the Honda dealer.
- Full face helmet. Definitely bring it. On those times I needed to pull over for something, maybe to get a good photo, or put on my heated gloves, I was attacked by mosquitoes. I found I could keep my full face helmet on, with the faceshield down, and those little suckers couldn't get me. It'll also keep your face dry when it's raining all day long.
- Wear sun protection. Consider that if you're riding for 30 or more days, that's lot of outdoor time, plus the sun never sets up there, and you can get really sunburnt. If you don't like to put on sun block, always wear long sleeves and gloves.
- Cash and credit cards. Many gas stations in British Columbia and Yukon don't accept American Express, and hardly any accept Discover. But they all take Master Card and VISA. They all seem to accept US dollars, on the other hand. You don't really have to exchange your cash into Canadian. But if you use US dollars, they're going to give you change in Canadian.
I found you can pretty much get by with just credit cards, but you'll definitely want cash. You need cash to pay the park attendants at Jasper and Banff National Parks. If you're camping, you need cash for the self-pay kiosks (assuming you're honest), and fast food restaurants in Canada seem to only take cash.
Interestingly, while I was up in Alaska, someone told me a story that a guy was not allowed to enter Canada because he didn't have enough cash. He had only brought like $40.00, and the rest in credit cards. I had $800.00 in cash with me. And when I entered Canada through Abbotsford, BC, the customs agent asked me how much cash I had with me. I'm wondering if Canada doesn't want you in their country if you don't plan to spend any money.
And by the way, I still came home with about $250.00 in cash.
Oh, and don't worry about trying to spend all your Canadian currency before returning to the USA. I found that most American businesses in the bordering states take Canadian money.
- 87 Octane Gasoline. A lot of the gas stations in the tiny towns throughout Canada only offer 87 octane gas. Honda says to use exclusively 91 octane or higher in the ST, but I found 87 octane worked just fine, with no knocking, no pinging, and I think I actually got better mileage.
- Gasoline is lot more expensive in Canada. They sell gas by the liter and priced in Canadian dollars. One liter is equivalent to roughly 1/4 of a gallon. As of this writing, British Columbia has gas going for about $1.10 per liter, so consider that about $4.40 per gallon. Alberta has the cheapest at about $0.90 per liter, Yukon is more expensive around $1.30 per liter. Right now, the US dollar is valued the same as Canadian dollars.
- Fuel up as often as you can. In many places along the Alaska Highway we'd go a hundred miles before seeing another gas station, and some of those gas stations looked like they were not doing business. I saw one gas station that was open in Kitwanga, BC, but didn't have any gas. There were RVs stopped there waiting for the next delivery.
- Not all gas stations are open 24 hours. In the small towns, they have old pumps where you pump first and pay later. These require employees on hand to collect money. So when the day ends, they simply close up the station. It can become tricky because up in Yukon and Alaska during the summer months, it never gets dark. At 10:00pm at night, the sun is still up and skies are bright blue, and you think that you can still keep riding, yet everything is closed at that time.
- Gas canisters. I didn't bring a gas canister or jug, but Mike and Paul each did. And they needed it too since they rode up to Deadhorse and back. But even riding back home through Montana, Paul ended up running out of gas. That wasn't because there are no gas stations in Montana (there are plenty), it's just that over a 30 day period of riding across North America, it's easy to make a misjudgement on your gas situation.
Even though I was able to get 340 miles on a tank with my Honda ST, all that does is make me ride for longer periods of time. I still pass by several gas stations thinking I have plenty of gas. There were a couple of moments when I milked it down to just a few more miles left in the tank, but was constantly recalculating my range and knew where the next towns were.
- Everything is metric in Canada. Distance signs are measured in kilometers. A kilometer is roughly 2/3 of a mile. If something says "300 kilometers to Whitehorse", then convert it to miles by cutting it into one-third (100) and then doubling it (200). 200 miles is what it converts to.
- 30kph speed rule. We didn't encounter any problems with cops in Canada, and hardly saw any. But Mike learned from one of the locals that if your speed is 30kph over the posted limit, they take that as a very serious offense. As it turns out, speed limits in most places in Canada are a little bit lower than what you find in the USA.
- Bring camping gear. I know a lot of riders don't like to camp, and I'm not necessarily an avid camper either. But I found that it's difficult to predict where you're going to end up at the end of the day. It's good to know that I had my tent and sleeping bag with me. Yukon provides a lot of campgrounds located right off the highway, specifically for tired travelers.
Also, the motel rooms in Canada and Alaska are expensive. The Motel 6 in Anchorage charged $140.00 a night, and then tacks on 12% room tax. Some of the most run down motels in Canada are still charging $100.00 a night. You're going to go broke if you think you can motel the entire trip.
There were a few nights where I looked for rooms in the town I ended up at but could not find any vacancies. I had to pitch my tent, and was glad I had that option.
I probably camped half the nights, and roomed the other half. I think Mike got a room on six or seven of the nights, while Paul camped the entire time, going so far as to find free camp spots. At one night, he asked if he could pitch his tent behind a gas station.
- Bring only what you absolutely must have. The more you bring with you, the more you weigh yourself down, and the more work it's going to take unpacking and repacking all your stuff. Certain things you can always pick up at gas stations and stores along the way, like food, maps, toiletries, medicine, bug repellent, batteries, etc.
- Shoot photos while you ride. There's going to be so many things you'll want to photograph, you'll be wanting to stop every 10 minutes. So what I did was put my camera on a chain and hang it around my neck. I could photograph stuff riding down the road, and if I needed to put my hands on the grips immediately, I could drop the camera and know it's still hanging there.
Mike put his camera a long leash and kept it in his pants pocket. He has riding pants with wide pockets and made it easy to pull out. Between the two of us, we shot about 4,000 photos.
- Passport. Canada will ask you for it when you enter their country, and the USA will require it to get back into the country. If you don't already have one now, go to a post office, they usually have the forms to get one. Expect anywhere from 3 to 4 weeks to get your passport, though they say it can take up to 8 weeks.
Get the passport card in addition to the passport booklet. The card costs extra but is a lot more easier to manage.
- The ranger stations are your friends. I stopped at a few of these places on the way back through Canada and the USA. They give you free provincial and state maps. They'll tell you about the road conditions and construction work. They'll tell you about the best places to camp, and if you want to find free camping, they'll tell you where to find it.
In Montana, some bikers told me that the Beartooth Highway was closed. So I stopped at the next ranger station, and the ranger there called the station in that area, and found that it was closed the day before, but is now open. In the Yukon, under the pouring rain, I stopped at one and the people there offered me free coffee, and told me about the closest places for camping or motels.
- Bring tools and learn as much about taking your bike apart as possible. I was fortunate my Honda ST never had a problem, and no flat tires. But if I had a flat out in the middle of Yukon or Alaska, more than likely I'd have to remove the wheel, and take it someplace with a tire changer. So, at least bring the tools to remove a front or rear wheel, and know how to do it.
Paul discovered his front brake pads wore down unusually quick, and by the time he reached Whitehorse on the way back home, they were just metal against metal. He found a Honda dealer in Whitehorse and installed new pads himself. He actually had several new pads at home, but just didn't think about bringing extra brake pads with him. You just don't know what's going to happen.
- Don't eat the same chains you find back at home. Take the time to experience the stuff unique to the area you're visiting. I found a restaurant in Whitehorse that served Muskox, and I wouldn't have experienced that if I opted for something familiar. This is why you ride to Alaska, to find out what the world is like way the Hell up there.
- Talk to the locals. Go into the bars and cafes, talk to the servers, and chat with the other customers. You get to learn so much from them. I bought beers for some of them and had a great time hanging out with them. They told me the best places to visit, where to get the best chow, and learning about the area adds another dimension to your experience.
About my trip to Alaska
At first I thought spending a month on this trip was going to be a lot of time, but going to up Alaska and back, it's actually not enough time. There's so much ground to cover, that we were riding 300 to 750 miles a day. It would have been best to cover 300 miles at the most, and spend more time visiting places.
But when you ride with other people, you find yourself having to compromise. As it turned out, each of us took opportunities to split off on our own ways at various points, and then reconnect at other points. It gave us more freedom.
So if you want to read about my trip, here are the day-to-day ride reports...
- Monday, June 14, 2010 - Menifee, CA to Siskiyou Lake, CA. All slab up through the San Joaquin Valley, with a burger stop in Dunsmuir.
- Tuesday, June 15, 2010 - Siskiyou Lake, CA to Bellingham, WA. All slab up through California, Oregon, and Washington. Picked up Paul in Tacoma.
- Wednesday, June 16, 2010 - Bellingham, WA to McLeese Lake, BC. Entered Canada through Abbotsford, rode the Trans-Canada Highway, explored Highway 8, dined at 70 Mile House.
- Thursday, June 17, 2010 - Lake McLeese, BC to Hyder, AK. Lunch at Houston, BC, jumped on the Stewart-Cassiar Highway, saw Bear Glacier, camped overnight in Hyder, AK.
- Friday, June 18, 2010 - All day in Hyder, AK and Stewart, BC. Lunch at the Seafood Express in Hyder. Visited Bear Glacier. Explored back roads around Stewart. Rode 40 miles of dirt up and down from Salmon Glacier. Partied with the locals at Sealaska Inn.
- Saturday, June 19, 2010 - Hyder, AK to Big Creek Campground, YT. Rode the Stewart-Cassiar Highway. Lots of great scenery. Wildlife along the road. Chatted with other riders on their way to and from Alaska.
- Sunday, June 20, 2010 - Big Creek Campground, YT to Tok, AK. Riding the Alaska Highway (AlCan), bison burger at Kluane Lake, rough road through the border, raining in Alaska.
- Monday, June 21, 2010 - Tok, AK to Anchorage, AK - More rain, some decent twisties into Anchorage. Beer at the Peanut Farm and Moose's Tooth.
- Tuesday, June 22, 2010 - Anchorage, AK to Seward, AK - Boat cruise of Resurrection Bay, beer at Seward Alehouse, Summit Lake Lodge, pizza at Uncle Joe's, Glacier Brewing.
- Wednesday, June 23, 2010 - Anchorage, AK to Willow, AK - Snow City Cafe for breakfast, Chilkoot Charlie's, Iditarod National Headquarters in Wasilla, Willow Creek Trading Post.
- Thursday, June 24, 2010 - Willow, AK to Fairbanks, AK - Wal-Mike's, Petersville Road, Denali National Park, Paul heads for Deadhorse, dinner at Pike's Landing.
- Friday, June 25, 2010 - All day in Fairbanks, AK - Pioneer Park, downtown Fairbanks, oil change at the Harley dealer, Alaskan Pipeline, Howling Dog Saloon, Silver Gulch Brewing.
- Saturday, June 26, 2010 - Fairbanks, AK to Chena Hot Springs, AK - Mike takes off for Deadhorse, hiking around Chena Hot Springs, relaxing in the hot springs, beer at the bar.
- Sunday, June 27, 2010 - Chena Hot Springs, AK to Congdon Creek Campground, YT. Rode the Richardson Highway, raining all night on the Alaska Highway, killed my camera, brief respite at the Koidern information center.
- Monday, June 28, 2010 - Congdon Creek Campground, YT to Whitehorse, YT - spending all day and night in Whitehorse, YT.
- Tuesday, June 29, 2010 - Whitehorse, YT to Skagway, AK - Visited Yukon Brewing Company, met Harley riders from Colombia, rode the Klondike Highway, Skagway Brewing Co, Red Onion Saloon, camping in Skagway.
- Wednesday, June 30, 2010 - Skagway, AK to Whitehorse, YT - Spent all day in Skagway, rode back to Whitehorse.
- Thursday, July 1, 2010 - Whitehorse, YT to Takhini Hot Springs, YT - Bean North Coffee roasters, Yukon Wildlife Preserve, relaxing in the hot springs.
- Friday, July 2, 2010 - Takhini Hot Springs, YT to Fort Nelson, BC - Raining most of the day on the Alaska Highway, northern Canadian Rockies.
- Saturday, July 3, 2010 - Fort Nelson, BC to Dawson Creek, BC - Reached the end (or start) of the Alaska Highway, expensive rooms in Dawson Creek.
- Sunday, July 4, 2010 - Dawson Creek, BC to Jasper, AB - Can't handle the high price of everything in Canada, entered Jasper National Park, Maligne Lake, bar hopping in Jasper.
- Monday, July 5, 2010 - Jasper, AB to Banff, AB - Rode the Icefields Parkway, Lake Louise, Bow Valley Parkway, Johnston Canyon, bar hopping in Banff, Mike heads for home.
- Tuesday, July 6, 2010 - Banff, AB to Browning, MT - Kootenay National Park, entered Montana, Glacier National Park, dinner in Browning, MT.
- Wednesday, July 7, 2010 - Browning, MT to Red Lodge, MT - Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center, Harvest Moon Brewing Co., Lewis & Clark National Forest.
- Thursday, July 8, 2010 - Red Lodge, MT to Victor, ID - Rode the Beartooth Highway, visited Yellowstone and Grand Tetons national parks, sampled beer at Grand Teton Brewing, Paul heads for home.
- Friday, July 9, 2010 - Victor, ID to Salt Lake City, UT - rode Teton Scenic Byway, toured through Idaho Falls, visited the Potato Museum, slabbed to Salt Lake City, beers at Red Rock Brewing and Squatters Pub Brewing.
- Saturday, July 10, 2010 - Salt Lake City, UT to Las Vegas, NV - Visited Bonneville Salt Flats, Wendover, UT, rode Great Basin Highway, visited Cave Lake, Cathedral Gorge, Lages Station.
- Sunday, July 11, 2010 - Las Vegas, NV to Menifee, CA - Rode I-15 south, Hwy 247 into Big Bear Mountain. World's Largest Thermometer and Alien Fresh Jerky in Baker. Big Bear Mountain Brewing. Finally back home!