Alaska is known as America’s most distant and remote state, located far to the north and physically separated from the rest of the country by Canada. Many visitors or migrants to Alaska prefer to visit by air or sea, but not many people know that it is also possible to reach Alaska by car. Car travel in Alaska is fraught with risk due to extreme temperatures, rugged terrain, and poor infrastructure (by continental U.S. standards), but it is still possible to drive there if you so desire.
Given Alaska’s distance from the U.S. and the layout of its road network, you will need to take certain precautions and select certain routes depending on where you want to go. Here is a brief guide on how to visit Alaska by car.
How to Visit Alaska by Car
Alaska is by far the largest of the U.S. states, with a land area more than twice as large as Texas, the second-largest state. Alaska is also marked by vast mountain ranges, glaciers, permafrost, and wildlife, and much of the state is sparsely inhabited due to its small population. As a result, many smaller communities—as well as larger ones—are entirely cut off from the greater North American road network. For example, Juneau, the capital of Alaska, can only be reached via air or sea.
By far the easiest way to visit Alaska by car is driving to the town of Hyder. Located in the southeastern corner of the Alaska Panhandle, Hyder is a popular tourist attraction for those looking to visit Alaska by road without having to brave the Alaska Highway. Hyder is unique in that it is physically separated from the rest of Alaska by the Boundary Ranges, a mountain chain in the Alaska Panhandle that few physical vehicles can cross.
As a result, Hyder has no road links to the rest of Alaska; the only road connecting Hyder with the outside world is from Canada, leading to the city of Stewart, British Columbia. Travel to other parts of Alaska from Hyder is only possible via a twice-weekly floatplane from Ketchikan. While Hyder is situated along the Portland Canal, there are currently no scheduled ferry services between the city and other parts of the state.
Hyder is also unique in that it is one of the few locations along the U.S.-Canadian border that does not have border controls. While the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) maintains a border post for entrants to Canada, the U.S. side is completely unmanned. As a result, floatplane journeys out of Hyder are treated as international flights and all passengers, including Hyder residents, are required to undergo immigration checks when flying to other parts of Alaska.
More than 100,000 tourists visit Hyder every year, and the city is also known for the Hyder Seek motorcycle race. Due to its proximity to Canada and lack of connections to other parts of Alaska, Hyder shares many commonalities with Stewart, the closest major town; both cities have the same Chamber of Commerce, businesses in both cities accept Canadian and American currency, and both using the same area code and time zone.
Other Alaska Panhandle cities that are more accessible by road to Canada than other parts of Alaska are Haines and Skagway. Located in the north-central part of the Panhandle, Skagway is connected to Canada via the Klondike Highway, while Haines is connected via the Haines Highway. Both highways allow access to the Alaska Highway. Both cities are important ports of call for cruise ships and are also connected to other parts of Alaska via the Alaska Marine Highway, a ferry service that runs between Anchorage and Seattle.
The Klondike Highway, connecting Skagway and Dawson City, Yukon, is a significant artery for transportation into Alaska and northern Canada. The highway runs through the Yukon territorial capital of Whitehorse, where it intersects with the Alaska Highway. Further north, at its terminus in Dawson City, the Klondike Highway intersects with the Top of the World Highway, another route into Alaska.
The Alaska Highway is by far the most important and well-known land route into Alaska, allowing road access to Fairbanks and Anchorage, its two largest cities. Extending from Dawson Creek, British Columbia to Delta Junction, Alaska, just south of Fairbanks, it was constructed during World War II as a military route and was the first land connection between Alaska and the lower 48 states. While originally 1,700 miles when it was completed, it has since been shortened to 1,387 miles due to re-routings by the Canadian government. The Alaska Highway is largely paved, but is still considered a challenging ride for inexperienced motorists.
Finally, the Top of the World Highway and Taylor Highway connect Dawson City to the rest of Alaska. The Top of the World Highway runs west from Dawson City to Jack Wade Junction, Alaska, and is noted for its scenic vistas and for having one of the only joint-use customs buildings along the U.S.-Canadian border. The Taylor Highway runs from Eagle to Tetlin Junction, along the Alaska Highway, and intersects with the Top of the World Highway at Jack Wade Junction. The Taylor Highway is closed to automobile traffic between October and April, but is open to snowmobiles during those months. The vast majority of both the Taylor and Top of the World Highways are unpaved gravel roads.
Due to frigid temperatures much of the year, unpredictable weather that can change on a dime, and large sections of uninhabited road, traveling to Alaska via car can be dangerous for unprepared motorists. Travelers are advised to pack survival gear, including blankets, flashlights, and first aid kits, as well as supplies so they can stay safe on the road. Bringing maps and compasses is also a good idea due to a lack of cell phone reception and Internet access along large portions of the route.
Traveling to Alaska by road is a difficult and risky process, but it can be done. Driving to Alaska allows you to partake in the gorgeous scenery of the state and northern Canada, as well as visit tourist attractions that you wouldn’t have been able to access otherwise. So long as you are prepared and know where you’re going, driving to Alaska can be an enjoyable experience and one of the most memorable road trips of your life.