Over the next year, I’ll be working as a postdoc with Regine Hock at the University of Alaska Fairbanks on modeling the evolution of High Mountain Asia’s glaciers for various climate scenarios. While I’m incredibly excited for the research that I’ll be doing, I’m equally excited to experience living in Alaska, and, most of all, to be doing so with Leigh. As this will be a unique experience for us, especially since we’re coming from the nice warmth of Austin, Texas, we decided to blog about it. Plus, we hope it’ll be a great way to keep friends and family up-to-date on all of our activities.
Before we could start living in Alaska, we had to get there. We heard that cars (and most other items) were less expensive in the Lower 48. Because of this, we decided to buy a car suited for harsh climate, pack in all our worldly belongings (and leave quite a few at our parents’ houses), and start our 4,000-mile road trip to Fairbanks.
We planned to make the trip over 11 days with three long days of driving at both ends of the trip and five days in the middle exploring national parks. We left on June 12 from Leigh’s home in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Fortunately, we were able to ease into the driving on the first day with a nice rest stop in Downers Grove, Illinois to visit my dad’s side of the family. After a wonderful visit and delicious dinner, we hopped back on the road and continued for three more hours to Tomah, Wisconsin to end the night. Our day-by-day destinations for the rest of the road trip were as follows:
Overall, we are quite happy with our road trip’s route and activities. While some days consisted of 10-12 hours of driving, the stops at national parks were filled with so much hiking and exploring that we felt rejuvenated. In the posts to follow, we’ll outline some of our favorite parts of our journey to Fairbanks and the sights we saw along the way.
Part 1: Theodore Roosevelt National Park
The first major stop was Theodore Roosevelt National Park in Medora, North Dakota. Although we considered this a major stop, we were camping overnight and only had about 14 hours to spend in the park. Because we had such limited time, we only planned to briefly see the park and visitor center and get a good night sleep. Despite our expectations, we found ourselves immediately captivated by the wildlife and primitive feel of the park.
As we pulled into the parking lot for the Painted Canyon Visitor Center, we were immediately greeted by a bison crossing the road in front of our car. Wild buffalo were re-introduced to Theodore Roosevelt National Park in 1956 and roam the park. After navigating around the buffalo road block, we walked to the edge of the Painted Canyon and were instantly struck by its beauty. The Painted Canyon is a northern portion of the Badlands and is one of the park’s main attractions. It features canyon-like topography and contains colors that reminded us of the Southwest landscape. We loved the view of the Painted Canyon so much that we decided to postpone our dinner in favor of taking a short hike to experience the canyon up close. To complete our hike, we had to closely pass by two bison (including the one that we met upon entering). We gave the bison a large buffer by walking off the trail and detouring through fields of long grasses on our way into the canyon. Though this seemed to work perfectly on our walk in, one bison did not appreciate our presence on our hike back out. This bison showed his displeasure by raising his tail and running in our direction for a few seconds. Though we were more than one hundred yards away, this was a definite warning sign to us and we diverted our path even further.
After our short hike, we drove through the small town of Medora, which looks like an old “wild west” town. On the drive to our campsite, we passed more bison, a group of wild horses, and large towns of prairie dogs. The wildlife, sunset, and beautiful scenery made for a lovely drive. Our campsite was equally as wonderful, with a large, flat space for our tent on a spot overlooking the Little Missouri River. We slept soundly, though David awoke in the early hours of the morning to see four more bison dozing across the river.
The following morning was spent packing up camp quickly and embarking on the 36 mile scenic drive offered by the park. The scenic drive took us about an hour to complete, although we would have spent much more time admiring the landscape and wildlife if our schedule was more flexible. After a brief stop in the visitor center, we continued our journey to Glacier National Park.
Part 2: Glacier National Park
Driving to Glacier National Park took us the better part of the day due to several delays for roadwork. By the time we reached the park around 7:00 PM, we were eager to get out of the car and stretch our legs. Our campsite was at Saint Mary, which is situated at the eastern entrance of the park. One great feature of the Saint Mary campsite is its location off of the Going-to-the-Sun Road (GTSR), which is a road that winds through the scenic, mountainous interior of the park. Because driving the GTSR is a major attraction, we decided to complete that activity with what little time we had left of the night. Though we originally wanted to stretch our legs with a short hike, the GTSR was so spectacular that we quickly forgot our frustration with being stuck in a car all day. We could only drive approximately 12 of the total 50 miles on the GTSR before it was closed due to snow, but the scenery was full of mountains, lakes, wildlife, and brilliant flowers.
We took in the gorgeous views and completed a short hike to a waterfall before realizing that it was much later in the evening than we thought. The sunset in Glacier while we were there was at about 9:45 PM, making it easy to sightsee until quite late. We headed to our campsite and quickly set up our tent, still marveling at the magnificent scenery and sunset. Though the night was a bit chilly (lows in the mid-40s) and windy (10-15mph), we slept relatively soundly and awoke ready for our first full day of hiking.
For our only full day in Glacier National Park, we opted to complete a hike to Iceberg Lake. This hike is in a portion of the park called Many Glacier, which was a quick 40 minute drive from our campsite. We chose this hike based both on its great reviews and its accessibility; while many of the park’s hikes are still snow-covered and inaccessible, this hike had only a small amount of snow near the very top of the mountain. After loading our packs with several different layers of winter and rain gear, lunch, and bear mace, we started the trail.
The path to Iceberg lake lead us up a moderately steep hillside featuring both forest and meadows. We climbed higher and higher, until eventually we were walking on paths of hard-packed snow and were wearing our hats and gloves. Iceberg lake is surrounded by peaks and high ridges, so it remains shaded from the sun for most of the day. Because of this, the lake was still completely frozen and covered in thick snow when we arrived. Even in the peak of summer, the ice on this lake never fully melts. We took some time to admire the beauty of the snowy landscape, ate our lunch, and then headed back down on the same trail.
Some brief rain showers and persistent snow cover prevented us from doing another hike to view Grinnell Glacier, one of the park’s most famous natural features. We drove back towards our campsite while we waited for the rain to stop. Once the rain showers diminished to sprinkles, we decided to embark on a 7.2 mile (roundtrip) hike to see Virginia Falls and round out our evening. The hike to Virginia Falls took us past several other spectacular waterfalls as we climbed through the heart of the park on a path right off of the GTSR. Virginia Falls was much larger and more powerful than we expected; we could not get within 20 feet of the falls before being soaked with mist and spray.
By the time we got back, it was nearly 9:00 PM and we had hiked approximately 16 miles throughout the day. Needless to say, we were craving a hot meal and some sleep, and we high-tailed it back to our campsite at Saint Mary. When we returned, a park ranger gave us some fantastic news – Saint Mary had hot showers available for campers! After postponing our plans for food and sleep briefly to indulge in a shower, we eventually went to bed clean, fed, and happy.
Part 3: Banff national park
Our trip to Canada began early on the morning of June 16, when we packed up our campsite in Glacier National Park and crossed the border into Alberta. Though we were briefly held at customs (for reasons we still do not know), we eventually began a 4.5 hour drive to Banff National Park. Banff is both a park and a city, so we were excited to see and experience both environments. Banff is also one of Canada’s most popular tourist destinations, drawing nearly 3.9 million people to visit last year. Because of Banff’s popularity with tourists and the timing of our visit on a weekend, we had to do some last-minute scrambling in April to reserve campsites on Friday and Saturday nights.
Our campsite on Friday night was at Johnston Canyon Campground which happened to be at the trailhead of one of the attractions we wanted to see: Johnston Canyon. After checking in and setting up our tent, we hurried to the Johnston Canyon trailhead and began the 3.4 mile (roundtrip) hike at about 3:00 PM. We soon realized that Johnston Canyon is one of the biggest tourist destinations, likely because of both its incredible beauty and accessibility. We wove our way through throngs of people while walking up the paved, gently-graded pathway. Though Johnston Canyon is incredibly popular, it was also gorgeous. The path winds through a narrow canyon and often protrudes over the flowing water below, allowing visitors to look straight down on its beauty. The trail leads to lookouts at the upper and lower waterfalls, which are both spectacular. Though there were many more tourists than we’ve ever experienced at a park, we still loved this hike and would recommend it to anyone.
After our short hike was over, we debated whether to embark on another hike or relax for the rest of the day. We were both sore from hiking in Glacier, and we knew that we had big hikes planned for the following day. When we realized that there was an affordable hot spring in the nearby town of Banff, we instantly chose relaxation. The Banff Upper Hot Springs looks like a swimming pool, but is filled with hot water that emerges from a nearby spring. Though it was warm outside, soaking in the hot spring water was the perfect remedy for our sore legs and feet. When our fingertips were prune-y and our bodies on the verge of dehydration, we took complementary showers and headed off for dinner. To extend our night of relaxation, we decided to grab dinner and a beer in one of Banff’s many restaurants. We chose the Elk & Oarsman Kitchen and Bar, and our first non-camping meal in a few days was delightful. After eating and drinking, we headed over to an Irish pub for some live music before returning to our campsite to sleep.
The next morning, we woke up early to ensure we got a parking space at Lake Louise. Lake Louise is likely Banff’s most popular attraction, and we were not surprised to see the parking lot swamped with tourists early in the morning. We had plans to complete a loop hike that would take us to the mountains high above the lake, so we spent a few minutes making sure that we had all of our warm clothes, food, and water packed securely. Walking up to Lake Louise was an experience unlike any other; the water was such a bright, perfect aquamarine and the surrounding mountains were absolutely breathtaking. Once again, it was hard to mind the huge groups of tourists when we were in such a spectacular location. We took in the view, and then decided to get moving on our hike to get ahead of as much of the crowd as possible.
The first destination of our hike was the Lake Agnes tea house, which is a little chalet nestled into the mountains 1,300 feet above Lake Louise. The tea house was originally constructed in 1901 as a resting place for hikers, and it still operates with no electricity and running water. One big delivery of supplies is made by helicopter at the start of the season, but all trash and weekly supplies are carried up and down the trail by the staff. The hike to reach Lake Agnes and the tea house was slightly strenuous, but we were rewarded by beautiful views of Lake Louise below. At the tea house, we stopped for a hot drink and some tea biscuits, which was greatly appreciated after the steep, cold hike up the mountain. A word of warning for anyone who may want to stop at the Lake Agnes tea house – they accept Canadian cash only! Shout out to Leigh’s dad Mark for giving us some Canadian cash before the trip and allowing us to have a sweet treat in the middle of our hike.
We continued up to a feature called the Little Beehive, where we glimpsed the best views of Lake Louise and our favorite sights of the whole hike. After a brief stop to eat our lunch, we continued walking to intersect with another trail that would take us to our second destination, the Plain of Six Glaciers. This trail took us further away from Lake Louise and into a valley between several high mountains. We encountered quite a bit of snow as we walked and had to take care to prevent slipping on the icy trail. The scenery throughout this hike was beautiful, with more snow coverage and views of glaciers as we hiked further. We hiked out to the very end of the trail to see Victoria Glacier up close and were enthralled by its sheer size. After spending some time at the glacier, we turned around and headed back. There is another tea house located on the Plain of Six Glaciers path, so we stopped for a warm snack to prepare us for our chilly hike back to Lake Louise.
Upon arriving back at the shores of Lake Louise, we spent some more time admiring the scenery and watching a team of soccer players jump into the frigid water. After leaving Lake Louise, we drove a quick 12 miles to Moraine Lake, another beautiful glacial lake. Though we could have spent hours admiring the mountains and water, our hunger eventually tore us away. We grabbed another dinner in the town of Banff on the way to our second campsite of the park. We hopped in our sleeping bags after a quick shower to prepare for our drive up to Jasper National Park the following morning.
Part 4: jasper national park
Though we were quite excited to see Jasper National Park, we were equally as excited for the drive up to the park on the Icefields Parkway. The Icefields Parkway is named for the Columbia Icefield, which is the largest icefield in the Rocky Mountains. Driving the Icefields Parkway was a phenomenal journey; there were breathtaking views of mountains and wildlife around every corner. We stopped at the Columbia Icefields Discovery Center on our way into the park. At the discovery center, we learned about the Icefields Parkway and the glaciers surrounding it. We took a brief detour to walk up to the toe of the Athabasca Glacier, which was across the street from the discovery center. This glacier is one of the six endpoints of the whole icefield, and its enormous expanse was amazing to see up close. The Columbia Icefield is the origin of the Athabasca River, which flows northeast, and connects with rivers that eventually flow into the Arctic Ocean. We continued our drive north into Jasper National Park, with brief stops to see views of the Athabasca River and Athabasca Falls on our way.
We decided to continue our pattern of hiking to waterfalls in Jasper National Park by completing the Maligne Canyon hike. We parked and began our hike at Sixth Bridge picnic area. The path took us over Sixth Bridge and onto a beautiful woodland trail that followed the Maligne River. As we walked, we encountered the beginning of a canyon and passed over two other bridges called Fifth and Fourth Bridges. The beauty of the canyon and our curiosity about Third, Second, and First Bridges compelled us to walk beyond where we originally planned. We were not disappointed by the resulting views of the steep canyon, fast-moving water, and increasingly higher bridges.
By the time we returned from our hike, we had walked about 4.5 miles and were eager to grab some dinner. We stopped at the Jasper Brewing Company for dinner and a drink, and we loved the ambience, food, and beer. After hanging out for a while, we drove to our campsite and found that it was on the banks of the Athabasca River. Our journey northward had steadily increased the length of day, and we spent some time marveling at how light it was at 11:00 PM before finally conceding to our sleepiness and going to bed.
On our last full day exploring national parks, we were deciding between completing the Edith Cavell Meadows hike or the Sulphur Skyline hike. Both were listed as some of the best hikes in Jasper National Park, but the trails were long enough that completing both in one day seemed too ambitious. We first drove to the Edith Cavell Meadows trailhead, intending to hike at least a portion before driving over to Sulphur Skyline. Upon reaching the trailhead, we talked with a park ranger about the large amount of snow still covering much of the path at Edith Cavell Meadows. Our decision was thus made, though we spent some time hiking to Angel Glacier, Ghost Glacier, and Cavell Pond, which are all within the first half mile of the Edith Cavell Meadows hike. In 2012, part of Ghost Glacier broke off and fell into Cavell Pond, triggering a small outburst flood. It was quite interesting to learn about this event and see the resulting natural features, particularly because David studies glacial lake outburst floods in the Himalaya.
Eventually, we made our way to the trailhead of Sulphur Skyline, which was conveniently located next to another hot spring and only a few miles from the night’s campsite. Though the trail was only about five miles long, the steep, rocky climb up the mountain was definitely still a challenge. Along the hike, we encountered a beautiful alpine meadow and several hordes of school children on field trips. Reaching the top of the ridge gave incredible views of the surrounding mountains, although the wind was so intense that we found ourselves ducking behind stones for relief. The trip back down the mountain was simple in comparison to the trip up, although the weather threatened to rain throughout the journey back.
After we reached the parking lot, we decided to eat an early dinner before heading to Miette Hot Springs for some relaxation. We ate our camp dinner in an adjacent park and spent our time watching a group of more than 30 mountain goats wander around the parking lot. We loved Miette Hot Springs because it offered four pools with different temperatures: very cold, cold, hot, and very hot. Jumping in and out of the different pools while admiring the mountainous surroundings was the perfect end to our time in the national parks. As we drove the few miles to our campsite, we were stopped behind several cars that were admiring a grizzly bear on the edge of the road. Though we had seen many bears at this point in our journey, this was an unsettling sight because our campsite was less than a third of a mile away! That night marked the first night that we slept with bear mace in the tent (at Leigh’s request). That night was also the first night that we went to bed before it was dark outside – we were simply too tired to wait until 11:30 PM to sleep.
Part 5: Alaska Highway
Although we were sorry our time exploring national parks was over, we woke up on the ninth day of our trip excited to drive on the Alaska Highway. The Alaska Highway was completed in 1942 and spans about 1,700 miles from Dawson Creek, British Columbia to Delta Junction, Alaska. The road was only fully paved in 1992 and is notoriously difficult to drive on due to potholes, damage from extreme cold, wildlife, and the fact that it is a single-lane highway. The Alaska Highway is so infamous that there is a book published every year to update travelers on the road’s condition at each mile (the book is called The Milepost, and we highly recommend it for anyone driving up to Alaska!).
On the morning we left our last campsite at Jasper National Park, we expected to reach Dawson Creek and the start of the Alaska Highway within 5 hours. However, our plans were delayed a bit when a truck kicked up a large rock into the windshield of our Subaru. The rock’s impact made a sound like a gunshot and left a circular crack about the size of a golf ball. Luckily, the crack was on the bottom of the windshield, so it didn’t prevent the driver from seeing the road. As we drove, we debated what to do about the crack and whether we could continue driving the whole way to Fairbanks with a slightly shattered windshield. On the roadside, we began to see aptly timed billboards advertising businesses that could fix cracked and broken windshields in the next town. Apparently, broken windshields were quite common on this portion of the road.
We made a quick appointment with a windshield-fixing company to see what they thought about our new crack. The employees said the windshield crack was no big deal and were quite amused by our anxiety over it. One employee eagerly explained, “I’d wait to fix that windshield until you have so many chips that you can’t see the road!”. Another employee chimed in, “You’ll fit right in in Fairbanks with that windshield!”. We waited while one worker smoothed over our crack with glue so that it wouldn’t tear up our windshield wipers. After that quick fix, we hopped back on the road and drove to the start of the Alaska Highway.
The start of the Alaska Highway is marked by an arch and a few informational plaques. We stopped briefly for a photo and met a couple completing a similar journey to ours, but in reverse. The couple had lived in Anchorage for several years and were making their way back to Pennsylvania. They gave us some information about what to expect on the rest of our journey and shared that they were sad to be leaving Alaska. While speaking with them, we also met a man from Pittsburgh who was riding his motorcycle over the entire Alaska Highway. After some brief conversation, we got started on the last leg of our journey.
That day, we drove another 5 hours on the Alaska Highway with no major issues. Along the way, we drove through many little towns and saw a multitude of wildlife. We stopped in Fort Nelson, British Columbia and enjoyed the first time in a week not sleeping in a tent.
On the following morning, we woke up feeling refreshed and ready to take on our longest day on the road. We had planned for 12 hours of driving, and we got an early start to begin traveling the nearly 600 miles that would take us to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory. Our only big stop of the day was at the Sign Post Forest in Watson Lake, Yukon Territory. The Sign Post Forest is exactly as it sounds – an enormous area of land covered in posts with signs attached. Anyone can attach any sign that they want, and there were thousands of signs from towns, cities, states, and countries. We saw a few photos of the Sign Post Forest prior to arriving and were expecting a modest area with a few rows of posts. When we actually saw the exhibit and began to walk around, we were shocked by the sheer size of it.
We almost immediately found a sign designating Austin, Texas. We were pleased to see that it even had a sticker from one of our favorite Austin breweries, Adelberts, attached. After taking a photo, we wandered in separate ways to look for other signs and appreciate the variety. In the twenty minutes that we spent in the Sign Post Forest, we found signs from Connecticut, Pittsburgh, and even Penn State. Although we had looked at just a small portion of the entire forest, we decided to press onward in the spirit of time.
We arrived in Whitehorse at about 6:00 PM, which was much earlier than expected. After spending about an hour sorting through some hotel booking confusion, we finally had a room and were desperate for some dinner. While in the Sign Post Forest earlier, we met a man from Whitehorse who strongly recommended a restaurant called Klondike Rib and Salmon. When we realized it was one block away from our hotel and packed with people who had received similar recommendations, we decided we had to try it. Klondike Rib and Salmon was a fantastic choice, with excellent meals featuring beef and various fish. Dave went all out and ordered a meal featuring ribs AND salmon, and he was not disappointed. In addition, getting a taste of the local beer was pretty great, too. We highly recommend visiting this restaurant if you are ever in the Whitehorse area; it was easily our favorite meal of the journey.
The next morning, we woke up feeling relieved to have reached our last day of driving and incredibly excited to see our new home. We got an early start to the day and hoped to get into Fairbanks during the late afternoon in time to explore and see some potential housing options. We left our hotel around 7:00 AM and drove the five miles out of town with no trouble. As we continued driving on the highway for a few miles, we were overwhelmed by several police cars racing down the highway in quick succession. Within another few miles, we reached a short backup of four or five cars that had been stopped on the road. We stopped warily and braced ourselves for waiting on the inevitable construction that happens all throughout the Alaska Highway. On previous days of driving, we were stopped for up to a 45 minutes due to roadwork, and we were not looking forward to waiting around in Whitehorse.
Little did we know that, only 10 minutes before we got there, a fuel tanker carrying jet fuel had taken a turn too quickly and overturned on the highway. While the truck luckily did not explode and the driver was reportedly okay, the jet fuel was leaking from the tank into the ground and nearby stream. This was particularly bad in an area like Whitehorse, where many people get their drinking water from wells that could be contaminated by the spill. We heard from a police officer about the accident after waiting for a few minutes. The officer told us that the road would not be clear for at least three hours.
As the news of the several-hour delay spread throughout the line of traffic behind us, many cars turned around and headed back towards Whitehorse to grab some breakfast and kill time. Though we debated doing the same, we ultimately decided to stay in the line of traffic for two reasons. The first justification was that we thought three hours would go by relatively quickly – we could walk around, read, and chat with other people on the road. The second reason was that there was already a long line of cars and RVs waiting behind us, and we wanted to get on the road before them to avoid having to pass on the two lane highway.
The first three hours of waiting went by relatively quickly. We talked with people from all around the United States and Canada that were on the road for various reasons. We were lucky to be halted right next to a highway rest stop, so there were outhouses available for bathroom breaks. We shared candy with people, read our books, and David even completed a few edits for a journal article he was writing. When the three hours of waiting were almost over, however, there was no indication that the cleanup was coming to an end. We were disappointed but unsurprised to hear that the road would remain closed for at least another 1-3 hours.
Knowing that we had at least another hour to wait and a promise from an officer to save our spot in the line of traffic, we headed back ten miles to the nearest gas station to buy lunch and gear up for a longer night of driving than previously anticipated. As we drove to the gas station, we passed at least three miles of stopped traffic and were quite happy with our decision to stay at the front of the line. We returned back to our spot at the front and geared up for a long afternoon. Leigh read her book and walked around for most of the time, while David chatted with all the other people who were stopped.
The three additional hours of waiting passed with still no indication that the road would open soon. After waiting for six hours on the highway, we were frustrated with the situation but had no other options. The only road to Fairbanks from Whitehorse was on the Alaska Highway, so we resigned ourselves to waiting out the accident cleanup. Eventually, after 7.5 hours of waiting, we saw the cleanup crew haul away the truck and received word that we would be allowed to pass through soon. They set up a crew to monitor traffic because one lane of the road was still taken up by cleanup and environmental testing vehicles. After a total of eight hours waiting on the highway, we were the first car to drive past the accident and away from Whitehorse. As we drove, we passed a line of cars equally as long waiting on the other side of the accident. Everyone cheered as we drove through because we were all so thankful to be moving again.
We re-started our driving at 3:00 PM, which was nearly the time we were originally hoping to arrive in Fairbanks. Although we discussed driving part of the way and staying for one more night in a different town, we really wanted to make it to our new city. Luckily, our last day of the drive was the second-longest day of the year, and we had daylight for the duration of our drive. We also drove through some magnificent scenery and focused on finishing an audiobook we were listening to throughout the journey.
We reached the official end of the Alaska Highway in Delta Junction, Alaska around 11:15 PM. Although we were eager to get to Fairbanks, we couldn’t resist a quick stop to take our photos with the official sign. We pressed onward and eventually reached Fairbanks at 12:45 AM. We were staying with David’s new advisor, Regine, for a few days. She graciously made up a bed for us in her guest room, but was asleep due to our very late arrival. As we got ready for bed, we marveled about our journey – 11 days, 4,200 miles, 75 hours, 4 National Parks, 50 miles of hiking, 1 cracked windshield, 2 moose sightings, 13 bear sightings, hundreds of buffalo sightings. There was so much to reflect on that we could have talked for days, but as soon as our heads hit our pillows we were asleep.
Leigh joins me in writing about our adventures living in Alaska.