Where is the end of the Alaska Highway? I guess it depends on who you ask. The southern end of the Alaska Highway is in Dawson Creek. The northern end of the Alaska Highway isn’t so easy to define. One thing is sure, the border from Canada into Alaska is not the end of the Alaska Highway.
The goal of the Alaska Highway construction project in 1942 was to connect Dawson Creek to Whitehorse and then to Fairbanks by road. In February of 1942, the road between Delta Junction and Fairbanks was 100 miles long. In the winter of 1941/42, the road started in Fairbanks and the end of the road was in Delta Junction.
What is the ALCAN?
ALCAN is an acronym adopted as an abbreviation for the Alaska Highway. Right after the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese in 1941 the United States and Canada decided that Alaska and northern Canada could easily be attacked by the Japanese and neither the United States nor Canada could do anything about it. In February 1942 President Franklin Delonore Roosevelt gave the order to the United States Army to start building the Alaska Highway. The Army shortened the name of the project to ALCAN (Alaska/Canada). The Alaska / Canada Border crossing on the Alaska Highway is called the ALCAN border crossing.
Construction began on the ALCAN in March 1942. In November 1942 construction of the new sections of the ALCAN were joined together and a military vehicle could (theoretically) could drive from any city in the lower 48 states all the way to Fairbanks. The intended end of the Alaska Highway was Fairbanks.
A year-round road
Because of the war with Japan, the Alaska Highway needed to be a road that could be used every month of the year. By November of 1942, the Alaska Highway was more than seventeen hundred miles long. It started in Dawson Creek and the end of the Alaska Highway was Fairbanks. Since 1942 several sections have been re-routed to save about two hundred miles.
Prior to building the Alaska Highway in Alaska, the “Richardson Highway” connected Delta Junction Alaska to Fairbanks. The Richardson Highway was started as a route to bypass Canada to the Alaska goldfields. When the Alaska Highway was built from Delta Junction, towards Canada, it incorporated this Fairbanks to Delta Junction section of the Richardson Highway into the Alaska Highway. This is the reason that the end of the Alaska Highway is claimed by Delta Junction.
Eventually, (in 1942) locations to the east of Delta Junction, all the way to the border with Canada were adopted into the Alaska Highway. South of Delta Junction, before 1942, the Richardson Highway between Valdez to Fairbanks was little more than a summertime truck trail. The Richardson Highway was frequently closed in the winter. The Richardson Highway crosses the Alaska Mountain Range south of Delta Junction. It was hard to call the Richardson Highway a highway especially south of Delta Junction. Still, freight was being moved from Valdez to Fairbanks.
Delta Junction insists that the end of the Alaska Highway is in Delta Junction. According to Delta Junction, the end of the Alaska Highway is where the Richardson Highway (Route 4) connects with the Alaska Highway (Route 2). The road from Delta Junction to Fairbanks (also named Route 2) carries the Richardson Highway name rather than the Alaska Highway name. The highway to the east carries the name Alaska Highway.
In Fairbanks, Route 2 heads north adopting the Steese Highway name. North of Fairbanks the Steese Highway goes north almost to the Arctic Circle. To the west of Fairbanks, Route 3 becomes the (George) Parks Hwy heading through Denali National Park to Palmer. In 1942 Delta Junction was a must-stop between Valdez and Fairbanks because in Delta Junction, they had a toll bridge on the Richardson Highway.
Delta Junction insists that since the Richardson Highway already existed between Fairbanks and Delta Junction the end of the Alaska Highway is in Delta Junction. There wasn’t any road at all to the east of Delta Junction. In 1942 Delta Junction was the start of the roadless section and thus claimed to be the end of the Alaska Highway. The same argument could be said for previous roads near Whitehorse and Dawson Creek that were included in the Alaska Highway but it seems that that isn’t worth arguing about. Except for the Whitehorse area and the Delta Junction route to Fairbanks, every other section of the Alaska Highway was built in 1942.
Northwest Staging Route
The purpose of the Alaska Highway was to establish a road between the airports along the Northwest Staging Route. Major airports in the Northwest Staging Route include Calgary, Edmonton, Dawson Creek, Fort Nelson, Watson Lake, Whitehorse, and Fairbanks. Come. Come to think about, it this was our route across Alberta, British Columbia, Yukon, and now across Alaska. The declared purpose of the Alaska Highway was to build a road along this route from Dawson Creek to Fairbanks. When possible, the Alaska Highway was to incorporate existing roads and trails. Where existing roads and trails didn’t exist to carve the road out of the wilderness.
Using the “declared purpose “argument, the end of the Alaska Highway would be Fairbanks. The Northwest Staging Route continues to the west of Fairbanks including both current military airports in Fairbanks all the way to Nome Alaska. Smaller airfields along the Northwest Staging Route include the Big Delta Army Airfield near Delta Junction. The reason the Alaska Highway was built from Dawson Creek to Fairbanks along the path of the Northwest Staging Route, was to get fuel and supplies from Dawson Creek, Whitehorse, and Fairbanks to airplanes using the Northwest Staging Route.
The purpose of the Northwest Staging Route was to supply airplanes from the United States, across Canada and Alaska, to the Soviet Union to help fight Germany in World War II. Crossing the Yukon and Alaska, using these remote airports was a monumental feat for the airplanes and pilots. Before building the Alaska Highway, the failure rate of these airplanes exceeded 70%. Airplanes crashed due to poor weather and landed due to mechanical failure and were scattered at rough backcountry airports across Canada and Alaska.
Destruction Bay to Tok
After about 135 horrible miles across the Yukon, starting at Destruction Bay on the Alaska Highway, we crossed the border into Alaska. After being in the good old USA, the road didn’t improve. If anything the road was worse. We had almost 50 more miles of horrible road to cross before we got to the first Alaska town in Tok.
As I described in my last post about crossing the Yukon from Destruction Bay to Tok “This road has always been horrible. Much of it is a nonstop pothole. This section of the Alaska Highway crossing the Yukon was the hardest to build and the hardest to maintain. Every year major sections of the road are under repair and this year is no exception.”
All about permafrost
Much of the road from Destruction Bay to Tok is built on frozen mud that never thaws. Or at least it didn’t thaw until the road was built. Not far below the roadbed, there was a layer of dirt saturated with ice. As long as this ice doesn’t thaw then the road is on very solid (frozen) soil.
The problem is as the frozen soil thaws in the summer and the previously frozen water moves to create a softer surface than before. Then that winter, water in the soil, below the road, freezes and expands. This creates a frost heave and raises the road slightly. It doesn’t take long before the ice melts and the cycle repeats. The heave turns into a depression destroying the asphalt. After only a few freeze-thaw cycles the road crumbles into a continuous pothole.
The best way to drive to Alaska
Still, the Alaska Highway remains the easy way to drive to Alaska. I go into depth about this subject in my last article and contrast the Alaska Highway route to the road that includes going through Dawson City. If you missed it, here is a link. Across the Yukon on the Alaska Highway
Our previous articles about our trip northbound on the Alaska Highway are in these two links. Going North on the Alaska Highway and Stunning Northern Rockies on the Alaska Highway. Last week I ended the story after crossing most of the Yukon on the Alaska Highway. This story (number four in the series) is about crossing into Alaska on the Alaska Highway and going through Delta Junction.
All roads lead to Tok
If you are going to drive to Alaska, you will be going through Tok. This includes if you go the dirtier, harder, and longer way through Dawson City. Tok is the first city after the border between Canada and Fairbanks. Until I started planning our trip to Alaska I had never heard of Tok. Now we have stayed there.
Tok marks the end of the worst part of the Alaska Highway. Or, going to Canada, Tok marks the start of the worst part of the Alaska Highway. Northbound the bad section starts at Destruction Bay and continues almost all the way to Tok. In my previous article, I mentioned that “The most difficult part … started at Destruction Bay and led to the Alaska Border.” After that part of the bad road, you cross the border and are treated to more bad road. The distance from the border to Tok is about 80 miles. Of this distance, thirty miles are bad and twenty miles are really bad.
Staying in Tok
After driving the worst part of the Alaska Highway we stopped in Tok for three nights at the Tok RV Village. Tok is a great place to wash off the road grime. Our RV park had an RV wash station with a pressure washer for both the car and RV. Tok is the only RV park that I have ever been to that has an RV wash station with a pressure washer.
At Tok, they don’t charge by the minute. I gave the car a good scrubbing right after our arrival in Tok. It was important to be able to see out the windows. Just as we departed the RV park I gave the RV a good scrubbing. Both were dirty within the next thirty miles.
Kayaking on Moon Lake
Even though we only stayed three nights at Tok, we made small excursions each day to have some fun. Tok is in a large flat valley and has bicycle trails leading both to the west and south on dedicated bicycle trails. The trail we took headed to the south on Alaska Route 1.
Alaska Route 1, known as the Tok cutoff, leads to the south to Glennallen where it turns west to Palmer. We will be taking Alaska Route 1 back to Tok on our departure from Alaska. As I said, all roads lead to Tok. We will be headed south at the end of summer on the Alaska Highway, and back across all the bad sections of the road into and crossing the Yukon.
To the west of Tok, along Alaska Route 2 (the Alaska Highway), the road follows the Tanana River. About twenty miles west of Tok is a small section of the Tanana River that was an oxbow cutoff from the main channel of the Tanana River. Moon Lake is our first Alaska State Park. It has a small campground and beach launch for our kayaks.
Our stop in Delta Junction
As you know, we don’t always do things the same way that other RVers do things. This was true in Delta Junction. Instead of staying at an RV park or state park, this time we stayed at a cattle ranch to the north of town. Staying at the cattle ranch was plan A. We also had a plan B. Plan B was to spend the night at a meat packing house. We didn’t have to go to plan B because staying at the cattle ranch was so nice. Overall it was a good stay at the ranch.
Our host for the night was Scott Mugrage owner of Mugrage Hay & Cattle. Scott with his family, including his son and grandsons run the family business and let us park the RV out with the other farm equipment. If you buy beef or elk in southern Alaska it is likely that Scott and Mugrage Hay and Cattle were involved. We had a great night.
During our drive through Delta Junction, I was convinced that maybe we could see all the way to Denali. We had good weather and could see some snow-capped mountains to the southwest but we couldn’t see the big mountain. With more than one hundred miles of visibility, you can frequently see the big mountain from surprisingly distant locations. Since then I have learned that Delta Junction isn’t typically one of them.
The Alaska Range
The mountains we saw south of Delta Junction were the eastern section of the Alaska Range with numerous peaks more than 12,000 feet high covered with a number of large glaciers. The snow cover on the Alaska Range was obvious. The Delta River sources in and cuts through the Alaska Range south of Delta Junction. All the rivers in this area feed the nearly 2000-mile-long Yukon River which starts in Canada and flows to the Bering Sea. We saw the Yukon River at Miles Canyon while we were in Whitehorse almost two thousand miles upstream from the Bering Sea.
Denali is also in the Alaska Range to the southwest of Delta Junction and Fairbanks. Perhaps if I knew what I was looking for I may have seen Denali from near Delta Junction. Usually, Denali is surrounded by clouds and the estimate is that only 30% of the visitors to Denali National Park get to see the 20,000-foot mountain. Even then, most visitors only get a glimpse of the big mountain in the clouds.
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About our links
As you know, our blog income is zero – this allows us to be independent and just tell the truth. We do not get income or commissions. No, we don’t make paid endorsements. We don’t make recommendations but instead, we will tell you what we like (or dislike). The links are only provided as a quick reference to help our readers.
The start of our Alaska Highway story. Going North on the Alaska Highway
The second leg of our Alaska Highway story. Stunning Northern Rockies on the Alaska Highway
Milepost Guidebook found on this website is updated annually and you can use the book even without internet data. First published in 1949 it is the bible for travel in Alaska and northwestern Canada.
Historic Mileposts on the Alaska Highway website with key mileposts