Tag Archives: Alaska

12 Wild Places Where I Have Spent the Night… in no particular order

For a guy who has spent much of his life on one adventure after another, this could be a really long list.  To narrow it down, I will post only my favorites…. and tell why they have special appeal to me.  Since I am a quiet laid-back guy, most of these are away from the crowds and the noise of the popular parks and resorts.

Valley of the Gods, Utah.

The desert landscape is remarkable enough; it is an extension of the iconic Monument Valley Tribal Park a few miles away.  But when the sun sets you discover you are in Dark Sky country.  The Milky Way is dazzling above and hanging over the nearby cliffs.

My free campsite was just below a huge butte and there wasn’t a level spot to park, so I drove onto some rocks to level the camper for the night.  Complete solitude.  And almost unnerving silence.

Valley of Gods pickup campsite crop

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Bob V.O.G. Milky Way corner fix 2

 

Hole-In-The-Rock Road, Escalante, Utah

After spending a rainy afternoon at Devil’s Garden, I drove a couple of miles farther down the washboard road and found a flat spot on the open prairie across from Dinosaur Tracks road.  This is boon docking – no facilities.  No problem, I am self-contained with the truck camper.  And all alone for the night.

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On a rainy day at Devil’s Garden near Escalante, Utah, I was glad not to be camping in a tent.

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Pacific Coast Highway, Seacliff, California

It is hard to find places where one can camp on the beach.  Especially on the west coast.  This park is two miles long and about 20 feet wide.  Everybody gets a 40-foot-long space to park for the night and our rig fit exactly from bumper to bumper.   You can walk the beach for miles.  No hookups.  Again, no problem.

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Coal River Lodge, Coal River, Yukon Territory

I think this was one of the most remote campsites we ever stayed at on our epic trek along the Alaska Highway.  At Milepost 533, Coal River is one of the original Roadhouses built to accommodate the construction of the Alaska Highway in 1942-1943 and is beyond the reach of the electric grid.  They were generating their own power while we were there.  We had the campground to ourselves with hookups to water and electricity.

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Denali Canyon “Glitter Gulch”, Parks Highway, Alaska

After driving up from southern California, we were fortunate to find a campsite at the Rainbow Village RV Park right behind the coffee shop where our daughter was working every summer.  We stayed half the summer, biking the canyon and hiking the ridges and peaks surrounding the village.  A highlight was backcountry hiking with two of my daughters inside Denali National Park.

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The RV was nestled snugly behind the row of log cabin tourist shops, a great base of operations.

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Wendi could write her own story about “wild” places she has stayed the night.  She spent 12 summers in a row in this dry cabin near Denali.

 

Dauphin Island, Alabama

One winter we set out to camp only on islands where we could walk the beaches all winter long.  Dauphin Island was our choice for the month of January and we were camped in the woods a short walk from the gulf beach and historic Fort Gaines.

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The beaches along the Gulf are white sand.  Dolphins cavort just offshore.

Dauphin Island campsite

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Fort Gaines surrendered to the Union Navy during the Civil War.

 

South Manitou Island, Leland, Michigan

This is one of my favorite backpacking spots that’s not far from my home in Michigan.  The island is part of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and is run by the NPS.  It is entirely covered with hardwood forests or perched sand dunes.  The extensive network of hiking trails can thoroughly exhaust even the most hearty of souls.  As a lifelong adventure sport director, I have been there several times with groups of kids.

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Hobo dinners are wrapped in foil and cooked directly on the campfire.  No pans, no grill, no problem.

 

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The Cove, Samana, Dominican Republic

What I liked about our winter vacation rental on the beach was not the infinity pool or the air-conditioned condo, but the close interaction with the natives.  Many resorts are isolated and walled away from the locals meaning you miss a lot of the indigenous flavor.  Our beach was shared with the fishermen and their kids.  We were able to walk to the local tienda for a cold Coke and provisions for cooking our own meals.  Local shuttles would take us to the nearest village for a few cents.

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Big Sable Point Lighthouse, Ludington, Michigan

The lighthouse is staffed by teams of volunteers who spend two weeks living in the original light keepers’ quarters and running the gift shop, museum and tower which is open for a fews hours every day.  The rest of the time we are free to hike the dunes or splash in the refreshing waters of Lake Michigan.

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Volunteers take turns preparing meals for each other in the old kitchen.  Also the best place to get wifi.

 

Port Crescent State Park, Port Austin, Michigan

We used to live about an hour’s drive from this park so we got to know it pretty well.  One of our favorite things was when we were lucky enough to get one of the campsites that are right on the shore with our rear bumper almost hanging over the beach.  The water is shallow and stays warm in the fall so we would often wait till after Labor Day when the kids were back in school and there was plenty of elbow room in the park.

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Sierra Madre Mountains Trek, Central Mexico

I usually avoid the resorts when I want an authentic experience and hiking in the mountains of Mexico is one I have been able to do several times.  Usually I have been directing a group of youths on a cross-cultural experience.  The organic nature of this kind of adventure means that we eat the local foods and use the local outhouses. –  if there are outhouses.  Fun!

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Redwoods National Park, California

Okay, I have spent the night in at least 15 of the most amazing national parks.  That could be a list all of its own.  But the Redwoods were so remarkable I had to mention them.  We pulled into a deserted county park in the redwood forest late at night and weaved our way between the giant trees that showed in the headlights.  We found a spot to set up the tents and went to sleep.  Climbing out of the tents in the morning, we were rendered speechless at the fantasy land that surrounded us.  Nothing tops this.  Huge!

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Well, this listing is just a sampling of the wild places where I have stayed.  It makes me sad to leave out a whole bunch of wonderful places.  Maybe I should  write a Part Two including Glacier National Park, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, the over-water bungalow in the Maldive Islands…  and so on.

I would be interested in hearing about a wild place you have stayed in the comments below.  Do tell!

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Note:  Header photo at the top is Butler Wash, Bluff, Utah, banked by cliffs on both sides and sheltering many ancient cliff dwellings nestled on the ledges and alcoves.

If Variety is the Spice of Life, I am a Well-Seasoned Soul

I have been skinny-dipping at night immersed in the glowing bioluminescence of an island lagoon in the Indian Ocean (Sorry, no photo).  Green “sparks” darted in all directions when I splashed my arms in the warm tropical water.

I have crawled around in the “wild” (non-commercial) caves of Southern Indiana and played fluorescent frisbee in the Monument Room, a cavern the length of a football field and over a mile from the entrance of Buckners Cave.

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Some of my sixth-graders posed in the Monument Room of Buckner’s Cave.

I have been frightened by the steep descent on the edge of the cliffs after topping Summit Pass heading across the Yukon Territory on the Alaska Highway, my 3-1/2-ton RV pushing me toward the sharp turn and the cold lake below the drop-off at the bottom of the grade, second gear engine braking all the way.  Whew!

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I guess I am one of those restless people who can’t sit still for too long before needing a change of scenery.  For most of my life I satisfied by wanderlust with summer camping trips and weekend getaways.  Later, Kaye and I took to the road full-time.

My kids loved all that “variety” and became world travelers.  And now my grandkids are getting a chance to experience the great wonders that our amazing world has to offer.

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I hope you are following your dreams – and the open road, if that’s part of it for you.

Have fun and be safe!

The Denali Back Alley

Milepost 9-2-14

“And where are you from?”  It is usually the first thing that comes out of anybody’s mouth as they are meeting someone new in Alaska, and all along the Alaska Highway, for that matter.  It seems that everybody there is from somewhere else.

Oklahoma, Ontario, Florida, Washington, California, Ukraine, Bulgaria.  We met people from all over the world.  But we only saw a few native Americans – or First Nation – as they are called in Alaska.

Wendi is a shift manager at the popular Black Bear Coffee House on the boardwalk.
Wendi is a shift manager at the popular Black Bear Coffee House on the boardwalk.

Our destination in Alaska was the Denali area because our daughter and son-in-law have lived and worked there every summer for the last nine years.  Wendi is a barista and shift manager at the popular Black Bear Coffee House, and Scott runs their adventure outfitter, Denali Adventure Tours.  The two shops are  located on the boardwalk in McKinley Park about 200 feet apart with about ten shops between the two.

Scott and Wendi own Denali Adventure Tours and supply the tourists with adventure trips from whitewater rafting to fly-overs of McKinley.
Scott and Wendi own Denali Adventure Tours and supply the tourists with adventure trips from whitewater rafting to fly-overs of McKinley.

Rainbow Village, the RV park where we stayed, was right behind the row of shops, a virtual parking lot with utility hookups.  It was really handy to the back doors of the shops and helped us to see the back story of the lives of the seasonal workers, an intriguing sub-culture.

These young seasonal workers at the coffee house are all from somewhere in the lower 48 states.
These young seasonal workers at the coffee house are all from somewhere in the lower 48 states.

The village completely shuts down in the wintertime, so everybody has to go somewhere else.  Many of the workers get seasonal jobs elsewhere in the country, or like Scott, they are students or teachers at universities.  Wendi gets a temp job where they live in California during the  winter.  One of the pilots at Denali Air flies shuttles in the Philippines every winter, so he works the tourist industry in two hemispheres.

Pilot Bob flies tourists over Denali in the summer - and over the ocean in the Philippines during the winter.
Pilot Bob flies tourists over Denali in the summer – and over the ocean in the Philippines during the winter.

It was fun for us to stay at Denali for more than five weeks so we had time to get acquainted with Scott and Wendi’s friends and learn a bit about their lives at both ends, the summer at Denali and the other three seasons somewhere else in the world.

Kaye talks with Michelle, a shop owner from Toronto, about how she ended up in Alaska.
Kaye talks with Michelle, a shop owner from Ontario, about how she ended up in Alaska.

It’s a transient life for those guys, and I think we understand it a lot more now that we have lived on the road for the last seven months, covering 10,000 miles of contrasting geography from the Great Plains to the deserts of the Southwest to mountains of the west coast and western Canada.

Waking up every morning we have to look around and see where we are to get a sense of location.  The seasonal workers must have to often think about where they are at the dawn of every new day.  It’s an interesting way to live.  We loved getting behind the scenes while we were there.

Scott and Wendi live in a 10'x12' dry cabin during their summers up north.
Scott and Wendi live in a 10’x12′ dry cabin in the forest during their summers in Alaska.
Head space and elbow room are limited in the little cabins.
Head space and elbow room are limited in the little cabins.
The workers come to the "cook shack" for their meals which are prepared by a hired chef.
The workers come to the “cook shack” for their meals which are prepared by a hired chef.
"Cooky" makes sure everybody is well-fed with bountiful balanced meals
Bijan makes sure everybody is well-fed with bountiful balanced meals.
Keith is a performer at one of the dinner theaters...  and a salesman at a gift shop during the day.  He's from Washington D.C.
Keith is a performer at one of the dinner theaters (the beard is part of his stage persona)…  and he’s a salesman at a gift shop during the day. He’s from Washington D.C.
These performers stayed in small bunk rooms with common restrooms... down the hall or out in back.
These performers share small bunk rooms with common restrooms… down the hall or out in back.
Shop owners Andrea and Brandon are from Anchorage and Michigan but now spend their winters in Arizona.
Shop owners Andrea and Brandon are from Anchorage and Michigan but now spend their winters in Arizona.
Scott enjoys the view of McKinley Park and Mt. Healy from the front door of Denali Adventure Tours.
Kaye and Scott enjoy the view of McKinley Park and Mt. Healy from the front door of Denali Adventure Tours.
Get your adventure fix from Scott when you are in the Denali area.
Get your adventure fix from Scott when you are in the Denali area.

So everybody’s from somewhere.  Kaye and I had a great time this summer  discovering the back stories on our kids’ friends and fellow workers at McKinley Park near Denali National Park and Preserve.

 

Go Climb a Mountain

Milepost 7-7-14    McKinley Park, Alaska

“Climbing a mountain” is a figurative expression that is used to acknowledge the presence of a monumental challenge, something that we know will be difficult. It could be something like pursuing a college degree or quitting smoking or any of a thousand other tough quests.
For us three years ago, it was the process of downsizing and moving out of our house of 40 years so we could move into an RV and pursue life on the road. It was truly monumental.

This was the climb of a lifetime for me, the summit of the Mt. Healy Overlook.
This was the climb of a lifetime for me, the summit of the Mt. Healy Overlook.

But yesterday, “climbing a mountain” was not figurative language for me but an actual event.  After a couple weeks of consideration and a practice run at it, I took on the challenge of the difficult hiking trail to the Mt. Healy Overlook.   A week before, I had hiked the first half of it then turned back, deciding it was too strenuous. Finally, I was able to view the first attempt as conditioning for yesterday’s ultimate climb. And it worked; I made it to the top, a vertical climb of 1,700 feet over 2.3 miles!  In fact, I cut a bit of time off the predicted duration of 4 to 5 hours for the round trip.

At higher elevations this trail didn't appear to be much more than a mountain goat path.
At higher elevations this trail didn’t appear to be much more than a mountain goat path.

Arriving back in the canyon in the late afternoon, I went to see Scott at Denali Adventure Tours to update him on the details of the climb (Yes, I decided that the steep trail would be more accurately described as a “climb” rather than a hike).   That’s when I discovered that my first information ranking the difficulty of the climb as “moderate” was bad intel.  Sure enough, Scott’s vast encyclopedia of adventure knowledge pegged that trail as “strenuous”.   Now I could believe that!
As I had been scrambling over large boulders on the upper slopes I had heard myself grumbling under my breath about the guy who must have ranked the trail without ever climbing it. “Only a 16-year-old athlete would call this a “moderate” hike!” I fumed.

Having brought along their camp stove, these climbers rewarded themselves with a hot meal at the summit.
Having brought along their camp stove, these climbers rewarded themselves with a hot meal at the summit.

In terms of “Climbing a mountain”, this one was the real thing! The truth is, I would definitely not have taken on that climb if I had known up front what a grueling challenge I was in for.  But now that I’ve done it, I’m happy about it…  and happy to still be alive!

Here are more photos of my adventure:

The climbers swapped cameras to photographically document their accomplishment.
The climbers swapped cameras to document their climbing accomplishment with photographs.

Climbers at the Mt. Healy summit

Wow, the trail on the ridge leads into the distance.  I'd love to follow it, but not this time.
Wow, the trail on the ridge leads into the distance. I’d love to follow it, but don’t have any strength left…  and there’s still the descent ahead of me.
Mt. Healy beckons from across the canyon from Denali Adventure Tours where owner and answer man, Scott, takes it all in.
Mt. Healy beckons from across the canyon where Denali Adventure Tours  owner and answer man, Scott, enjoys the panorama.

What is your next mountain that needs climbing?

 

Rock and Snow – Mt. McKinley Fly-By

Milepost 7-1-14   Mt. McKinley, Alaska

“Tree line is at 3,000 feet,” said our pilot, Dan.  “Above 7,000 feet there’s just rock and snow.”  We had just taken off in a little 8-seater plane for a fly-by of Mt. McKinley, the highest point on the North American continent, and Dan was already sharing his comprehensive knowledge of the mountain geography, naming rivers, glaciers and mountains as we skimmed over snow-capped peaks on a bee-line for Denali.

An aerial view of the Polychrome Mountains also reveals a distance glimpse of the Parks Highway on the other side of the valley.
An aerial view of the Polychrome Mountains also reveals a distant glimpse of the Parks Highway skirting the other side of the valley.

At first there was a lot of color as we climbed out of the dark green forest, but before long there was only snow and rocky cliffs, sure enough.  There were glaciers by the dozen, some of them perched in hanging valleys, others stretching into the distance like long wide rivers of ice.

Denali panorama

Mountains with glacier

Our flight took us delightfully close to the jagged peaks as Dan zig-zagged his way between spires and pinnacles all along the way.  We soon reached Mount McKinley itself, a huge, disorganized heap of rock with all sorts of cliffs and mounds facing in all directions and several glaciers oozing from its high canyons and valleys.Denali glacierHigh peak near DenaliPretty soon we made a wide banking turn over a massive glacier and headed back through the dizzying maze of peaks as Dan pointed out a trail across a snow field left by the last team of climbers on the mountain.  I wondered how they knew where it was safe to cross; I was seeing dozens of crevasses from the air.Denali crevasses

Eldridge glacier is 35 miles long and hundred of feet thick.
Eldridge glacier is 35 miles long and hundreds of feet thick.

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This flight to the Mountain was certainly the pinnacle of my Alaska experience.  We are just about halfway through our summer in the land of the midnight sun and realizing that it is such a vast area that we will not get to see everything; there is just no way.Denali glacier verticle

Seeing it from the air certainly covers a lot of territory in a short time.  Maybe I’ll get to catch another flight around the Mountain before my time is up here.   What a natural high!

Dan was my pilot on Denali Air.
Dan does a great job as pilot and owner of the flight-seeing company, Denali Air.

 My flight was arranged by my son-in-law, Scott, the owner of Denali Adventure Tours.  It’s just one of many adventure trips they provide.

(Click on any of the photos in this post to see a larger view.)

The Alaska Vibe

Milepost 6-23-14   Denali Park, Alaska

We have been at Denali for a few days now and are enjoying the international flavor of the tourist scene.  Not only are the tourists from every place you can imagine, so are the seasonal workers.  We are camped right behind the ice cream shop where several Bulgarians are working this summer.  It’s one store in a long line-up of services offered along the boardwalk, from souvenirs to adventure trips to salmon bakes and pizza.

My daughter has worked 9 years as a barista and manager at the Black Bear Coffee House on the boardwalk at Denali.
My daughter has worked for 9 years as a barista and manager at the Black Bear Coffee House on the boardwalk at Denali.
Scott and Wendi own Denali Adventure Tours and supply the tourists with adventure trips from whitewater rafting to fly-overs of McKinley.
Scott and Wendi own Denali Adventure Tours and supply the tourists with adventure trips from whitewater rafting to fly-overs of McKinley.

Any day on the boardwalk or the campground we may hear an assortment of languages spoken, from German to Japanese to Russian.

Not only are the inhabitants of this community a very diverse bunch, so are the sights and surroundings of the area.

This morning I went for a bike ride through the canyon where the whitewater rafters and kayakers venture, while on the high bluff above a train went by loaded with sightseers, and a helicopter took off to fly over the ridge to a glacier landing in the next valley.

Bikers, kayakers, bus and train and plane sightseers may all be seen in the same panorama.
I biked through the canyon of the Nenana River where the whitewater rafters do their stuff.

It is a delightfully eclectic mix of sights and scenes here, that makes every day interesting in its own way.  It is very much unlike our environment in Michigan.  Even the wildlife is foreign to us.  We haven’t seen a whitetail deer in months, but yesterday were up close and personal to the caribou in the Denali high country.  Weird.

The hiking trails in the area offer close-up encounters with caribou, mountain sheep, moose, bears and more.
The hiking trails in the area offer close-up encounters with caribou, mountain sheep, moose, bears and more.

Summer solstice was a new experience for us, with a beautiful sunset after midnight that didn’t turn into nighttime…  the sun skimmed along sidewise just behind the mountain ridge and then came back up at around 3 am!

Nighttime never came at our little town at Denali on summer solstice.
Nighttime never came at our little town at Denali on summer solstice.

Every morning when I wake up I have to remind myself where I am… or just look out a window and let the mountains above the RV park do it for me.

I finally got to photograph Mt. McKinley yesterday – from 75 miles away with a telephoto lens!  I’m hoping to get closer on a flight-seeing trip sometime in the next few weeks.

Mt. McKinley (Denali) from a distance of 75 miles on the Parks Road.
Mt. McKinley (Denali) from a distance of 75 miles on the Parks Road.

So the Alaska vibe is a very eclectic one.  I’d say that if variety is the spice of life, the flavor of Denali is seasoned to perfection.  Great fun!

The Alaska Highway – The Adventuring Persona

Milepost 3395  Dawson City, BC, to Delta Junction, Alaska.

Everywhere we stopped along the Alaska Highway we met people, and here’s the thing:  They were all originally from somewhere else.  Texas, Utah, Ohio, Ontario, Ireland or parts farther removed, they gave varying answers to the first question that we all asked each other at every new stop: “Where are you from?”  Not until we reached the most remote settlements in the Yukon did we encounter the First Nation folks who would answer, “Here.  Always been here.”

Donna at Coal River Lodge at Milepost 533, was the owner and chief cook.  Her lodge is up for sale.
Donna at Coal River Lodge at Milepost 533, was the owner and chief cook for 14 years. Now her lodge is up for sale.

Coal River Lodge

The other unique trait of these immigrants to the great north was their eccentricity.  It seems that the sort of people who would answer the call of the wild are the sort that are essentially non-conformists.  Undaunted by solitude and the lack of conveniences, they had settled into the most unwelcoming locations this side of the border where services were limited and dangers were high.

Paul has spent his life servicing the heavy equipment at the lodges along the Alcan Highway.
Paul has spent his life servicing the heavy equipment at the lodges along the Alaska Highway.
Alfred, born in Texas, was perpetually cycling the Alaska Highway, at 71 years old sometimes pedaling all night to reach the next outpost.
Homeless Alfred, born in Texas, is perpetually cycling the Alaska Highway, at 71 years old the constant wanderer sometimes pedaling all night to reach the next outpost.

Every roadhouse and lodge was operated by displaced or re-placed  – or maybe mis-placed wanderers.  We met RV park owners who had come out from the city to start a new life, we met university students working a summer job in the tourist industry, and there were cooks and heavy equipment repairmen helping to keep the outposts operating for one more season.

Toad River Lodge has 7,000 hats attached to the ceilings.
Toad River Lodge has a collection of 7,000 hats attached to the ceilings.

The other thing that was unusual about these unusual business owners was the quirky attempts they made at competing for the diminishing tourist dollars.  Chainsaw carvings were popular, Old West themed RV parks, the “world’s largest weathervane (a DC-3 airplane mounted on a post)”, a museum of stuffed trophies from musk-ox to moose, or left-behind WWII vehicles (the troop transport still operating for bear tours through the forests out in back).

The western saloon-themed RV park at Fort Nelson, BC, had chainsaw-carved benches and rifles for door pulls.
The western saloon-themed RV park at Fort Nelson, BC, had chainsaw-carved benches and rifles for door pulls.

Log Bear Bench

So, one of the off-handed delights of the Road Trip of a Lifetime along the Alaska Highway is the quirky and tenacious proprieters of the entire 1,500-mile-long complex who are keeping it all going.

Or not.  Perhaps two-thirds of the lodges we passed were closed and boarded up, some a long time ago, some last year.  It’s a rough life up here, and it’s a rougher job trying to keep the outposts open when the tourist revenue is diminishing year by year.

We developed a deep appreciation for these tough folks who serve the would-be adventurers like us, keeping us safe for the night and fueling us up for the next stretch of highway.  Mighty good folks there, all along the way, and we enjoyed meeting them!

The Signpost Forest was started by Carl Lindley, a US soldier who was helped construct the Highway.  We added our sign to the 72,000+ collection.
The Signpost Forest at Watson Lake, Yukon, was started by a US soldier who helped construct the Alaska Highway. We added our sign to the 72,000+ collection.
Can you find our sign at the Sign Forest?  (Just left of and slightly below center.)
Can you find our sign at the Sign Forest? (It’s just about in the center.  Click on photo to enlarge.)

Here are a few more photos that we captured along our transit of the official 1,488 miles of the Alaska Highway from Dawson Creek BC to Delta Junction, Alaska:

The second log bridge at Canyon Creek was designed to carry military vehicles and civilian traffic alike.
The second log bridge at Canyon Creek was designed to carry military vehicles and civilian traffic alike.  It would have easily supported our pickup and RV but we crossed a newer one.
Canyon Creek bridge 2
Kaye studied the ingenious log engineering of the early bridge builders.
I explored the ruins of Silver City, Yukon, a once-thriving mining town of 3,000 residents.
I explored the ruins of Silver City in theYukon Territory, a once-thriving mining town of 3,000 residents, now empty.
The roadhouses were built to service the traffic along the Alaska Highway in 1942-1943. The one at Prophet River closed many years ago.
The roadhouses were built to service the traffic along the Alaska Highway in 1942-1943. This one at Prophet River BC, closed many years ago.
“Lum and Abner’s, Since 1942” says the sign on the truck door. It’s part of highway history now.

We finally reached Denali, a day’s travel past the end of the Alaska Highway, beyond Fairbanks.  We have found a campsite right behind The Black Bear Coffee House where our daughter, Wendi, works every summer.  I’ll be writing about their transient lives next.

We caught our first glimpse of Mt. McKinley (Denali) from 150 miles away before we reached Fairbanks.
The Alaska Range looks majestic from the highway east of  Fairbanks.