Driving on Highways in Alaska is quite different from many other US states because our roads and road network are different. Just imagine an unpaved highway. Or roads that only exist in winter. Read on to learn what you need to know for safety.
- Driving on Highways in Alaska – the Highway Network
- What You Need to Know When Renting a Car
- Alaska has Two Seasons – Winter and Construction Season
- What You Should Know when You Travel during the Construction Season
- Multiple Equipment at Work
- Save Fuel, and Shut Down the Engine
- Two Times Are Critical
- What to Know When There Is a Pilot Car
- On the Go to Go Off-road
- Keeping up with the 4×4 Crowd Is a Challenge
- Ten Minutes to an Eternity
- One Lane Constructions
- Driving on Highways in Alaska in Winter
- Snow is the Normal for Alaskans
- Why Is Driving Highways in Alaska Dangerous When There Is No Snow?
- Is Wildlife a Danger when Driving on Highways in Alaska?
- Snow Improves the Light Situation
- Driveways Are Easy Walkways for Wildlife
- Alaskan Travel Outfit
- Top of the World Style Linkup Party No. 317
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Driving on Highways in Alaska – the Highway Network
Alaska has only seven highways (!) and the normal European would not even consider them as such. Most of the highways have only one lane in each direction except close to the three major cities, Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau. Most of the highways are unpaved over long stretches, i.e. they are dirt roads – the Dalton Highway, Alcan, or the Denali Highway, for instance. Some of the highways have traffic lights or are even crossed by the Alaska rail road!
What You Need to Know When Renting a Car
When you rent a car, most contracts state that you are not allowed to drive unpaved roads. This statement includes also unpaved roads in cities like Fairbanks. However, be prepared that you have to travel an unpaved road in construction areas.
Alaska Has Two Seasons – Winter and Construction Season
Does it frustrate you when you are standing in a queue – one car after the other and nothing moves anymore because the road is one-lane-only due to construction? And of course, you had the luck to arrive when they just stopped the cars from your direction and now you have to wait two to five minutes until your direction gets the right-of-way? Well, then you have never seen road construction in Alaska! Road construction in winter is a total different game. They are just built as seasonal winter roads with ice bridges.Alaska has two seasons, winter and construction. #Alaska #travel Click To Tweet
Due to below freezing temperatures, construction is only possible during construction season, which starts in late May after greenup, which seems like pushing a button, and ends in September or early October when the first flurries fly and the temperatures stay below the freezing point all day long. However, due to the midnight sun, construction takes place 24/7 in three shifts from May to mid-August. In mid-August, nighttime work still continues 24/7, but with the night shift using float light.
Multiple Equipment at Work
When a paved road has to be re-paved, huge heavy equipment will take off the upper layer. Typically, there is not just one, but many of them working at the same time, and often they work on both lanes at the same time! Once the crew took the pavement off, they will put on the new layer, again with multiple equipment all working at the same time. Finally, the painting crew will draw the lines.
Save Fuel, and Shut Down the Engine
When you arrive at the construction area, there will be a flag man or woman holding a sign onto the ground. On one side, it says “slow” on the other “stop.”
Your likelihood to see the “slow” is less than maybe 2%. When you arrive at the “stop” sign you count yourself lucky when you see already cars arriving from the other direction. If not, the best you can do is to shut off the engine. Depending on the length of the construction area, you may have to wait 20 to 30 minutes. No, I’m not kidding!
Two Times Are Critical
Therefore, the driver of the car closest to the flag (wo)man typically asks “how long.” Once the next car arrives, this driver gives the estimate with the time of when the estimate was issued to the driver who just arrived. This driver then conveys the message to the next arriving driver and so on. The longest estimate I had been given so far was 25 minutes and we were the 5th car in line.
It is critical to convey both times, because on Alaska roads, one may drive for very long time without having any oncoming traffic. On the way from Fairbanks to Whitehorse close to the Canadian boarder, we had no oncoming traffic for over an hour in the middle of the day! Scary, or not?
What to Know When There Is a Pilot Car
The first car that arrives from the other direction is a pilot car. Think of it as a four wheel-drive SUV or pick-up truck with a yellow flash light on the roof, usually white with orange stripes. Typically, about 20 cars or so follow. They pass the pilot car that parks on the side upon its arrival. After the last car passed, the pilot car turns around and positions itself in front of the first waiting car. That’s when you have to start your engine.
On the Go to Go Off-road
The flag (wo)man will now turn the sign to “slow.” The pilot car will go off the road onto some provisional temporary path made up of dirt, gravel and stones. You have no other choice than to follow. This path may be parallel to the road under construction or farther away. In other words, you may not even see the road anymore. It just depends on what was the easiest way to drive thru the dirt off-road towards the other side of the construction area. Do I have to mention that sometimes the speed of the pilot car is not slow at all (more than 45 mph)?
Keeping up with the 4×4 Crowd Is a Challenge
You must keep the speed of the car in front of you to stay on track, and to be able to get back to the road. In the taiga with lots of dry creeks that look similar to the temporal path, it is not necessarily obvious where to drive next when you don’t drive the construction area every day or when you fail to keep up with the car in front of you.
Ten Minutes to an Eternity
The next ten minutes can feel like an eternity, even longer than the 20 minutes wait before. Even when the pilot car moves slowly (35 mph) keeping up with the speed is challenging with a small regular (rental) car. If you drive a camper, you will sweat like in a sauna. The camper will swing in all directions. After being back on the road, you feel lucky, it did not topple over.
One Lane Constructions
Even when there is one lane left for the traffic a pilot car will exist when the beginning and end of the construction area are out of eyesight. Depending on whether the lane has already been finished or not, the drive thru such a construction area can be stressful too. You have to closely follow your front(wo)man. If it is a truck, it may throw split and stones at you.
When I was still a greenhorn in Alaska, I always wondered about the weird ads on broken windshields until we had travelled the haul-way and other unpaved roads.
“Then it will be slippy” my mother said in 2001 – the year we moved to Alaska – when I told her that we finally got snow.
When you come to watch the aurora, there will be most likely snow on the ground. Here is what you need to know when driving in winter.
Snow Is the Normal for Alaskans
Interior Alaska’s roads are icy and/or snow covered for about 7 to 8 months depending on altitude and position to sun exposure. Thus, drivers learn how to correct when the back of their car goes to the side whenever they drive around a curve. They have a box of sand, a shovel, a tow and blankets in their car in winter in case they go into a ditch or they have to support someone getting out of a ditch.
Insider safety tip: Never start driving just because the traffic light is green. First check that nobody is slipping into the intersection.
Why Is Driving Highways in Alaska Dangerous When There Is No Snow?
Despite icy roads, drivers in Interior Alaska looking forward to snow. It is not because they know better to drive on snow/ice than on dirt roads and/or wet asphalt. No, it is not because summer is construction season.
About three weeks after fall equinox, daylight hours plus dawn become shorter than the hours of complete darkness. Even under full moon clear sky conditions, it is dark – damned dark. The headlights just show a bit of the road. The boreal forest absorbs the light like a black body. Mail boxes along the road may look like moose.
Snow Improves the Light Situation
How does a scenic winter ride in Alaska look like? Is snow a danger when driving in Alaska? Sure, snow increases the length of your breaking distance. However, snow is white. It reflects the beams of your headlights. Thus, it is less dark. You can see farther than without snow. As you can see in the first photo of this post, the snow reflects the light and “lightens up” the darkness. Furthermore, you have a chance to see the moose against the white when the moose move. You at least have a chance to avoid killing them!
Is Wildlife a Danger when Driving on Highways in Alaska?
Moose are what Alaskan drivers are afraid of. Moose munch on twigs in winter. Therefore, they walk around scrub and permafrost areas, and the scrubs along the roads. Moose are brown like the ground and their surroundings. Thus, they are hard to see. They may enter the road out of the blue. If you hit a moose, you kill the moose. You consider yourself lucky when you survive with some injuries. Of course, your car is totaled. BTW never get between a moose cow and her baby.
In 2003, I drove from Goldstream to Fairbanks International Airport. When driving around a curve from a forest into an area with snow-covered permafrost I saw motion. I immediately hit the brakes and tried to keep the car straight on the icy road that had lower ground to its left and right. Upon standing, a moose cow and her calf jumped out of the ditch and crossed the road about 10 yards (9.14 m) in front of me.
Driveways Are Easy Walkways for Wildlife
Later in winter, when the snow cover is about one to 1.5 feet (30-45 cm), walking in the snow costs more energy than walking on trails. Therefore, moose walk on trails, driveways and even the roads. It is like the caribous using the haulway instead of migrating on the tundra.
One morning in December 2004, on our way to work I saw with a sudden a tiny motion in a driveway to the right 10 yards (9.14 m) in front of us. I shouted “Pass auf”, which means be careful. My husband immediately hit the brakes and stirred towards the other side of the street. Upon standing, a moose and I had eye contact thru the side window! We all three were lucky that the car passed the elk test without a problem and that there was snow. I would not have seen the moose and warned my husband if there had been no snow.
Alaskan Travel Look
I like comfortable travel outfits that look posh and don’t cut in. When wearing a dress when on the road, a wrinkle-free cotton dress fits the bill for me. In the Interior, having a jacket for layering is always required even in summer. And if it’s only because of the mosquitoes.
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