AlCan Routing Ideas

Despite a mini-trip next month, we’re all a little preoccupied thinking about our next major adventure this summer: picking up where we left off in Seattle and driving all the way to Alaska. We got together last weekend to suss out the higher-level decisions.

Big Questions

Where to?

This ended up being easy. For logistical reasons: flights, used car market, and friends in the area, we decided to end in Anchorage.

A “Finish Line” at the Arctic Ocean?

This would be so cool, but is not feasible within our timeline. If only we had a third week… We all want to do it one day, though.

Prudhoe Bay, AK adds a 1,000 mile paved (mostly?) roundtrip from Fairbanks to a town that is not actually on the Arctic Ocean. Deadhorse is as close as you can get in a private vehicle. The oil companies that operate along the coast run a tour bus over the last five miles to the beach, which looks unremarkable except for its location.

Tuktoyaktuk, NT (Northern Territories) is a 1,700 mile unpaved roundtrip from Whitehorse, YT (Yukon Territory), but it looks pretty and there sure is a burger joint on the beach that you can drive to. All the pictures on their Google Maps entry are dust-covered SUVs and bikes on the beach; no one mentioned the food. There is a route over a mountain pass that cuts some of the return trip out, so the net add would “only” be 1,500 miles.

Denali National Park & Preserve is between Fairbanks and Anchorage. And for complicated “there aren’t many roads in Alaska” reasons, we actually come out ahead on distance if we drive to Fairbanks and cut down to Anchorage, assuming we want to see Denali. So we’ll make Denali the big finish line; that also answers “which major Alaskan city do we want to visit” with “both, duh.”

Routing Options

Spoiler alert: We’re still undecided about this.

The AlCan Highway (Orange, 2600 miles)

The Alaska Highway was constructed during World War II to connect the lower 48 to Alaska across Canada, shortly after Pearl Harbor was bombed. Apparently there was concern that Alaska was at risk for invasion, and there was no way to get there by land from our side.

It begins at the junction of several highways in Dawson Creek, BC, and runs to Delta Junction, AK, southeast of Fairbanks. First completed in 1942, the highway opened to the public in 1948. Once legendary for being a rough, challenging drive, the highway is now paved over its entire length.

It is a stunning drive, and has also become very popular over the years. Many cities along its route have grown up with the increased tourism. We have several friends who have done it recently and by no means is it anything like our time in Big Sur, but we have gotten spoiled by remoteness.

“Yield to Bison,” The Alaska Highway, The Greatest Roadtrip.

Still, just searching for pictures of “AlCan Highway” on the internet will fill you with wonder. It is a historically and culturally significant journey, and if we stopped all our research now and said, “Let’s do it,” we would all be entirely pleased with our choice.

The Cassiar Highway (Green, 2500 miles)

The Cassiar Highway begins in Prince George, BC and joins with the AlCan Highway in Watson Lake. Looking at maps, it appears to spend much more of its route in the mountains and along waterways than AlCan proper before they meet up. It was originally constructed to connect the Cassiar Mining Company to the northern section of the AlCan before slowly being built out to the south. Cassiar Mining is now defunct and the town that shares the name is a ghost town, but the road and other settlements remain.

Bruce McKay, “Cassiar Highway” Flickr/Wikimedia

The Cassiar travels through a much less populated region, with fewer, smaller populated areas. That is decidedly more exciting than it is intimidating. But it is certainly both. It is apparently “almost” completely paved, but it is very rural.

The Prince Rupert Ferry / Cassiar Highway (Blue, 2550 miles)

On this route, we actually pick up where we left off by taking the Bainbridge Island Ferry out of Seattle back over toward Port Angeles and then riding the ferry to Victoria, BC like we’d wanted to on the first trip.

From Port Hardy on Vancouver Island, we catch the 18 hour ferry to Prince Rupert. And it’s not just a boat through nowhere — this ferry route weaves up a channel of islands! It runs from the end of the Johnstone Strait to just south of Alaska’s Inside Passage, but it doesn’t appear to have its own name.

From Prince Rupert, we drive inland, and join back up with the Cassiar Highway in Kitwanga, which seem to be where the best of Cassiar starts anyway.

The Northern View.

Drawbacks: routing wise, it’s the highest stakes because the route calls for three ferries total and the Prince Rupert ferry only runs on odd-numbered days in August. If we miss it or have to bail back to the mainland, we’d backtrack more than full day. Also, in looking for that picture, I sure did find a few headlines that called into question the reliability of the schedule. Also it costs a million dollars.

My view from a ferry from Gudvangen to Flåm through Nærøyfjord in Norway.

But as I think back on a long ferry ride I once took through Norway, I remember standing on the deck, totally entranced by the surroundings. What if this was even half what that was? I can’t help but ask, “How hard could it be?

What Next? Kinja has deleted its OppositeLock and Overland communities. Content Unavailable

So we know Arctic Circle is out, and that we’re going to route through Fairbanks and Denali to end in Anchorage. We’re also leaning toward taking the Cassiar to AlCan at Watson Lake, having decided that we can live with the rebuke, “but y’all didn’t do the entire AlCan!!” The big choice left is if we take the ferries through the islands and start in Prince Rupert or stick to pavement the whole way. Naturally, George has ordered a book that he will read aloud, to help us get informed.

We Have a Route

In between poking around Arkansas and driving through rivers, we’ve figured out a lot for the AlCan ride. As of last writing, we’d picked our endpoint and laid out a bunch of options, leaving some big questions to finish it up:

  • Do we take the Prince Rupert ferry or take the highway through Vancouver?
  • Should we drive all of AlCan Highway proper, or take some of the Cassiar Highway?
  • Do we want any beach days, and where?

The most consequential decision, by far, was whether or not we take the Prince Rupert ferry through the inside passage. That would dictate whether we revisit Port Angeles (the 2015 finish line) and also put a thumb on the scale in favor of the Cassiar Highway. It is also the riskiest option, logistically complex, involves a 4 a.m. wakeup call, and it is ruinously expensive.

Therefore, our choice is clear: we will take the ferry.

The Route!

We’ll start in Seattle then head back over toward Port Angeles and cross into Canada by ferry, landing in Victoria, BC.

Seattle, WA to Victoria, BC

Then we drive up Vancouver Island to Port Hardy for the eighteen hour all-day ferry ride to Prince Rupert. From there, the road inland looks incredible as it winds along the Skeena River through mountains and forests. At Kitwanga (more or less), we’ll join up with the Cassiar Highway.

Victoria, BC to Kitwanga, BC

We’ll follow the Cassiar Highway until its northern (and original) terminal at the AlCan Highway around Watson Lake in Yukon. The midpoint of this journey (in days, not miles necessarily) is Whitehorse, the capital city of Yukon and its largest city by far at 25,000 residents.

The 2016 census reported a Yukon population of 35,874, an increase of 5.8% from 2011.[2] With a land area of 474,712.64 km2 (183,287.57 sq mi), it had a population density of 0.1/km2 (0.2/sq mi) in 2011.

The city is situated along a river and looks like a lovely place to take a day off. Conveniently, because it is the only “large” city in wide rural surroundings, it has robust services for a city of its size, in the rare case that we need car parts. 🙃

Kitwanga, BC to the Alcan/Beaver Creek Border Crossing between Yukon and Alaska via Yukon.

From there, we head back into the US at the Alcan/Beaver Creek Border Crossing. Assuming they’ll let us in. That’s currently a not-entirely-straightforward question we’re researching.

Whitehorse, YT to Anchorage, AK.

The Alaskan segment is still a bit open ended. At the moment, we’re planning to continue on to Delta Junction, cut south, then head west toward Denali State Park, and finally down into Anchorage.

The Schedule!

We’ve narrowed it down to two schedule options based on a handful of conflicting constraints:

  • George, having twice needed substantial service at the start line, pointed out the value of having a weekday in the starting city (or thereabouts) for any last minute repairs.
  • Buying and selling cars private party is easier on a week end, but dealing with a dealer, commercial buyer, nonprofit donation broker, or scrap yard is much easier on a week day.
  • We want to avoid assuming that the Canadian (and US…) border crossings would happen quickly, given rising tensions at borders everywhere. And that we’ll likely have to explain why these cars would be new to us.
  • The Prince Rupert ferry only runs on even numbered days in the summer.
  • A coworker informed me that Labour Day is a real “Statutory Holiday” in Canada, so like back home, many businesses will be closed.
  • Most flights from Anchorage back to Austin or Tulsa are overnight red-eyes.
  • Among us, we have to consolidate this into a limited window of vacation days, knowing: Labo(u)r Day is a freebie, Evan can occasionally vanish early, I can work remotely but workdays are full-days, and George’s employer is moving to a new PTO management system so nothing is certain. That has led to a back-and-forth of “one or two days, plus two weeks, plus zero or one day minus one bank day plus…?” The whole bourbon-soaked squabble sounded a lot like that scene from Clue, but I think we’re close to having it figured out.
1+2+2+1 or 1+2+1+1… (and if you don’t get the reference, you have homework.)

And when considering the “work remotely at the start or end” option, I have already cheated that way…

So that leaves us at:

Ultimately, we’ve boiled down the two best options to:

  1. Arrive on a Thursday night to spend Friday and Saturday in Seattle to buy cars and hit the road. We’d have a full-day Monday in Victoria for car needs and sightseeing before a Tuesday drive up the island for a Wednesday ferry. Our beach day in Whitehorse would be on Labour Day. We’d arrive into Anchorage on a Saturday night and have Sunday and Monday to sell cars before flying out on a Monday night red-eye arriving home on a Tuesday.
  2. Arrive on a Wednesday night to spend Thursday and Friday in Seattle to buy cars. We’d get to Victoria on a Saturday for just the night, then drive to Port Hardy on the Sunday for a Monday ferry. Our beach Day in Whitehorse would be on a Saturday. We’d arrive into Anchorage on a Thursday night, leaving Friday and Saturday to sell cars and fly out Saturday (or Sunday?) night on the red-eye.
View of the Alaska Range from Denali State Park, 1brownsfan, Wikipedia.

So I think we have no bad option here, but we do need to pick one. I think we’ve got enough info consolidated into two solid ideas that we should be able to nail it down this week. Then we dive into sightseeing, hiking, weird local stuff, exciting places to stay, and cars. And that’s the fun part.

And now we have a schedule

So we finally finalized our route the other day. Here’s the recap of that:

But when last we left off, we still weren’t sure about the schedule. There were two competing options which boiled down to “the original plan” and “move it up half a week” so that some weekday/weekend logistics would be easier. Selfishly, that was difficult for a number of reasons, mostly because of how busy we all are in August.

The solution, gracefully obvious but entirely illusive, was simple: push it out half a week instead. And here we have it:

We’ll probably swap out a few of these stopovers as we figure out where to actually do things and what we want to see. Between books and maps to pore over and a few locals to talk to who’ve made the trip.

A thing I said to George that freaked us both out when he dropped me at the airport on Tuesday:

See you in Seattle!

Shit. August has thirty-one days.

Triumphantly, we sorted out the schedule situation and made all the pieces fit together, finally! Except that the reason the Prince Rupert ferry runs every other day is because it turns around on the “off day” to go the opposite direction. So it runs on even numbered days… In August.

Ferry schedule from BC Ferries

We were so focused on the schedule constraint that the ferry runs on even numbered days, that we designed The New Schedule! ™ around taking the ferry to Prince Rupert on Labour Day, September 2nd.


No. A non-resident can’t do anything.

So while I was busy realizing my calendar blunder, George was doing some research about buying cars in Washington. Last week, he revealed that plates go with the owner, not the car in Washington, which made us all nervous, but he said he’d keep looking.

You see, in California, there is a significant grace period for how long a driver has to register a recently-purchased vehicle. And we’re Texas and Oklahoma licensed drivers, which also have some areas of flexibility. So either way, we were in a justifiable legal grey area. Further, in California, the plates stay with the car, so we were less likely to attract attention. On both previous trips, we just drove with our open titles in our suitcases and old plates on the bumpers and that was legal, if not entirely wise, in the short-term. (Except when Evan got pulled over for it in Utah…) Also we weren’t driving through a foreign country.

In Washington, the “Correct” way to buy a car private-party is in the parking lot at a licensing office because the seller rips the plates off the car when they sell it to you. Further, I would imagine that the “correct” way to cross an international border would be in a car with a plate on it or some significant volume of official state-issued paperwork. We can’t register cars in Washington because we don’t live there, but George found two things that would be helpful!

A Trip Permit would allow us to legally drive an unregistered vehicle. There’s a 60-day option that provides temporary plates. Also, Washington even offers Quick Titles which are print-on-demand when re-titling a vehicle. That would make selling so much easier! Private parties have been wary of open titles, and reputable dealers won’t take them. So this is a perfect find, and it makes me feel a lot better.

On the phone with a Washington State Department of Licensing Subagent.

Except for the part where we can’t do it.

Risk Mitigation

Well that all had us feeling rather despondent. Between a torpedo to the schedule and then sudden uncertainty about vehicle titling and registration, we were stuck, silently wondering if we’d even be able to put this trip together at all. Normally the vehicle registration wouldn’t be quite so concerning, but we’re talking international borders here. And Washington is a whole lot more strict about this than California or our home states. Surely, someone has done this* before, but we couldn’t get good answers to “how?” Everything we looked into was anecdotal that we couldn’t find documented, or something the Washington Department of Licensing told us wasn’t possible for non-residents.

*And not even “this whole cheap car challenge 3,000 mile roadtrip.” Just “I don’t live in Washington but would like to buy a car there, and leave with it.”

Borrowing from risk management, George popped the sad balloon of our remaining hopes with “risk equals likelihood times impact.” Ultimately, we could probably talk our way through the border crossings… but the ferry terminal would be Canada’s judge on that. And the cross back into the US — they may be obligated to let citizens come back in but they have no obligation to admit cars they don’t like. And if Barney Fife of Yukon gets a bee in his bonnet about it, what’s the resolution to “I own an unregistered car that has been impounded in a foreign country for not being legal to drive in a that country?” The likelihood of actually losing the cars is ultimately quite low, but the impact would be pretty extreme. And Evan did get ticketed for it last time. So what could we do to fix that?

That left us with, as Evan put it:

  1. Ship cars from the Pacific Coast Roadtrip (which we still have) to the start line, and back from the finish line.
  2. Buy cars at home and ship them to Seattle.
  3. Buy cars in Canada — but importing them into Alaska would be complicated, further still to re-sell before they could be titled in the US.
  4. Buy cars in Oregon or Idaho, who may be less strict with plates.
  5. Re-plan trip entirely to travel these dates domestically.
  6. Reschedule and replan trip entirely.

Then he went to complain on the internet. Kinja has deleted its OppositeLock and Overland communities. Content Unavailable

The comments section echos our sentiments: this can’t be that hard. And yet.

But he and George have also turned to Tulsa Craigslist and have started to like the sound of Option 2. It does mean a one-way ship, but it also means we can have some fun with it, too. And we would have home-based titles and plates on the cars, making the border crossings and resale super straightforward. I wonder what’s hiding on Austin’s Craigslist these days?

I took a vacation from vacation planning. A lot happened.

Epic (and potentially staged…) photo by Steven VanHorn.

So the past two weeks or so, I’ve been off on yet another roadtrip. Over the past three thousand miles or so, I’ve taken the Xterra through three states I’ve never been to, over the Smoky Mountains National Park Newfound Pass and up a section of the Blue Ridge Parkway to a climbing event in West Virginia. And by the time I get home, I’ll have put thirty-thousand miles on my new friend.

Pardon me while I photo dump here since I didn’t write up this trip:

As cars are part of the narrative around here, I’d like to point out that the Xterra has served as not only prize-winning transportation, but also as an apartment, office, wardrobe, equipment drying rack, electronics charger, rope oven, vanity, sit-upon, and currently as a shipping barge since many of our Austin-based climbers sent heaps of luggage home with me.


A lot has happened without me (but with my full blessing and absentee buy-in) on the AlCan Roadtrip planning! I am getting excited and also intimidated at how soon it is.

The car situation

As I pointed out last week, we’d started to look at the potential of buying locally so we could be sure of the legalities around the border crossing. As it turns out, Tulsa is a fantastic starting market for a trip like this and George and Evan both found their cars in secret last week and have them ready to go. So this weekend is my moment. Austin, as it turns out, is a shitty market for such an endeavor…

We’re keeping the cars secret from each other and trying to retain as much of the original “cheap car challenge” experience intact. And we really don’t know a lot about what each other are looking at. But looking at the Austin Craigstlist, I think my car genre is “whatever I can get my hands on,” since it is slimmer pickin’s.

Thankfully, Evan has leaned upon his network of gearheads to help me out: Kinja has deleted its OppositeLock and Overland communities. Content Unavailable


We’ve also booked the ferry! On a day when it actually runs! And we have a few of our lodgings sorted: AirBnBs, little inns, and even a historic brothel. This is starting to feel super real. Also it is coming up very quickly. Kinja has deleted its OppositeLock and Overland communities. Content Unavailable

The only change here is that we’re starting in Tacoma — it’s a new place to see, it’s less expensive, and there are more AirBnB options with parking and room to spread out.

Red pins are newly booked while I was out, though I did get a chance to look at each on my phone. I’m looking forward to being around more next week to help out with the rest of it. Still lots of nights up for grab, and many adventures to pin along the way.

Cars acquired. Again. Kinja has deleted its OppositeLock and Overland communities. Content Unavailable

Well, it was a wild weekend between helping to build a float, go climbing, attend a little family get together, and buy a car. But I pulled it off, which means now all three of us have wheels. They are —

Animated GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY
Clue (1985).

A surprise. We’ll see if George and Evan don’t find a way to screw that up because they live together, but I think we’re all kinda enjoying the uncertainty of really not knowing what each other has. Last we spoke about it, Evan was looking for a giant barge of a sedan (like a Cadillac), George seemed fond of a light-to-medium pickup (so jealous), and I really didn’t know what I wanted. I’ve looked at everything. (Or, more to the point, I’ve tried to look everything, but no one in Austin returns inquiries; more on that after the reveal.)

We kept a record of all the Craigslist ads we saw, though I think we may have some non-CL players this time. An assortment:

And in response to Evan’s call for help on my behalf, someone suggested this:

Evan’s 1986 Honda Civic Wagon 4WD from Easter, which he is now selling.

I quite like the Civic, and I think he should take it on this trip, if it is to be set free in the near future. But I can’t escape the notion that if I bought it, I’d be constantly accused of mistreating it. And while the idea of traveling alongside the mechanic who rebuilt it seems like a great lifeline, I bet the assistance would blow my beer budget. Also it’s overbudget. 😜

So I bought something else. And it is a secret. And with the Xterra currently caught up in “car shuffling purgatory” (it’s at my parents’ house), the Mystery Machine has had to cart me a couple places already and it is fun.

Planning update: Accommodations look good. Shipping looks bad.

We’re now booked half-way! We have accommodations all the way from the start line in Tacoma through our half-way beach-day in Whitehorse, the capital city of Yukon province.

Route overview

We’ll be staying at the greatest one-stop-shop I’ve ever seen after our ferry into Victoria, BC: a brewery, pub and grill, liquor store, and hotel in Chinatown!

We’re staying near ferry terminals on those days, otherwise we opt for little cabins of local flare when we can, but some of these tiny towns only have motels. It’s also clear that most of these properties don’t have to compete on quality of listing photo… So far, I’m pleased with the variety we’ve found:

We’ve also identified Nisga’a Highway as an even-more-scenic alternate between Prince Rupert and Stewart.

Nisga’a Highway is the alternate route on the left.

That all started when Evan found this on Google Street view. How could we not?

Nisga’a Highway runs through several first nations communities and national/provincial parks, but is quite rural and runs along even more lakes and rivers, in higher mountains. It looks incredibly beautiful and I’m so excited. But while it appears to be a road at least popular enough to have landed on Google, it does appear to be gravel. I’m now even more curious about what cars the other two have.


So as we’ve now lamented many times, we’re buying cars at home and getting them to the start line. The current shipping method appears to be “hopes and dreams” because, as Evan has summarized: Kinja has deleted its OppositeLock and Overland communities. Content Unavailable

I never wrote about that time we shipped home the cars from the first trip because I could not believe our lunacy had descended so far. We were all prepared for about that price point. Looks the other two might be able to hold onto the same effective rate by shipping together because the first car costs a fortune to ship but the second is a cheap add.

Unfortunately, shipping solo, I’m looking at double what I paid last time, which is shockingly close to what I paid for the car. A good friend who moved from Austin to Seattle shipped his boyfriend’s car up in their move and he paid about the same prices I’m seeing. I need another option.

Fully Committed

First, I was out of pocket for a while, then they were. And in their absence, I booked a few of the remaining accommodations! We now have thirteen hotels/cabins along the way.

Picking up after Whitehorse:

We decided to shorten the drive after Whitehorse by a day, which buys us a finish-line day in Seward instead. I’m really excited about this because it means I can drag them to Kenai Fjords National Park! That means we leave from Whitehorse and head directly to Beaver Creek, which is the AlCan Highway border town on the Canadian side. From there, we go pretty remote to Paxson (population 40), to an overnight stay in Denali State Park, and finally down to the finish-line in Seward.

I’m pleased with us — mostly cabins in interesting places on this leg of the trip. And the “cabin” in Anchorage has its own airstrip, which, like, how could we not?! I wonder if we can race on it… Kinja has deleted its OppositeLock and Overland communities. Content Unavailable

I’ve already started cataloging hikes and roadside points of “Taylor made us stop again,” since that is usually my job. I found an ICE CAVE! yesterday, so we’re definitely doing that. Might make a good picnic place, if we can find… food… which seems in short supply on this route.

The shipping situation

George and Evan have finalized an arrangement for shipping. The bid went higher than they had hoped, but shipping together, it’s not catastrophic. I got a few bids, but they either “ruinously high” or they were “very high” but with caveats about needing upgraded service if I wanted guarantees with regard to damage in transit.

So what am I supposed to do with that, exactly? You’ll take my money… but only in exchange for even more money will you actually deliver the vehicle undamaged? I think the Emily Post approved response to that is “oh, fuck off.” Or, in illustrated form:

Yes, I have lost my mind and am prefixing an ambitious roadtrip with an arguably even more ambitious roadtrip — I will be alone on a highway hell-ride in a still-new-to-me (but decidedly used) vehicle. And to make this work around my job and the meet-up in Seattle… I have to make it to Roswell on the first day and Moab on the second.

On the bright side, if I make it that far, my confidence in this vehicle will be sufficiently rock-solid. And if I mostly make it that far, what better place to have a car repaired than in Moab? According to shopping math, I earned nearly two thousand dollars making this decision… that’s enough for more car parts, right?

So with that settled, I booked one last piece: a one-way flight home from Anchorage.

And with that, we’re fully booked. And I leave in ten days.