SBS Mag Destination Guide: Alaska

SBS Mag Destination Guide: Alaska

 FELIX BILLINGTON

As spectacular destinations for motorcycling go, Alaska is one of the most alluring. Tour leader Felix Billington explains the essentials of a trip to the Arctic Ocean…

Why would I go there?
Alaska is one of the most rugged, wild and adventurous places on earth. It has glaciers of epic proportions, insane mountain ranges that make you feel like you’re on the way to Mordor, some of the most extreme weather conditions known to man, unrepressed wildlife, the northern lights and a pure uninhibited beauty. Enough for you?

Spanning around 663,268 square miles, Alaska is larger than all but 18 sovereign countries. You could fit the next three largest states of the USA (California, Montana and Texas) into its vastness and have room to spare. In other words it’s big with a capital B!

Where is it?
The largest and most northerly state of the USA cut off from the lower 48 by Canada.

What is there to do?
There are a world of opportunities. Here are some of the highlights…

The Kenai Peninsula
Lying south of Anchorage, this is one of the few places in Alaska that’s very easy to access and by Alaskan terms it’s pretty well developed, seeing tourists flood in year upon year to take in the monumental mountains and glaciers.

It’s also the place for wildlife, especially whales. Numerous tours go out each day to see these wonderful creatures in their natural habitat, although if you’re lucky you can spot them from the side of the road.

The Kenai is coastal and you’re surrounded by water on three sides, making the scenery vastly different with wide open lakes and soaring snow-covered mountains. There’s quite a strong Russian influence in parts of the Kenai, as this is where fur traders settled after arriving over the Bering Strait. As you ride through towns it’s interesting to see the Russian architecture of the original settlements dotting the landscape.

Homer Spit
On the shore of Kachemak Bay, the spit is often referred to as ‘the end of the road’ and you soon find out why when you arrive. A long, narrow strip of land 4.5 miles long protrudes its way out from the mainland, decorated with interesting shops, seafood restaurants and fishing boats lining the dock. Armed with spectacular views out to the mountains and glaciers, beautiful beach walks where you can spot sea otters chilling out and seafood so good it will ruin you for life, the Homer Spit is a must for anyone visiting Alaska.

Hatcher Pass and Talkeetna
Located in the Talkeetna mountain range, the Hatcher Pass is a 49-mile gravel road that thrusts you into the wilderness and onto an area famed for being the third-largest lode-gold producing district in Alaska. It takes about an hour and a half to complete and you are afforded spectacular views of the jagged mountains and serene lakes surrounding you. Once off the gravel, the road opens out over pine forests and sends you down on some impressive twisties before reaching the flatlands and the charming wild west town of Talkeetna.

Fairbanks and The Dalton Highway
Known as The Gateway To The North, Fairbanks is the most northerly city on the paved road network in Alaska, it’s also the last town before you get to the mighty Dalton Highway. The Dalton will be no stranger to fans of the show Ice Road Truckers; it’s one of the most notoriously dangerous roads in the world and leads to the Arctic Ocean. The catch? It involves 414 miles off road with deep gravel, huge ruts and massive trucks coming at you in the other direction.

Starting on the Elliott Highway, a beautiful, desolate road through a forest of pine trees with mountains in the distance, you are flung around lovely sweeping bends for about two hours until the tarmac suddenly disappears, being replaced by gravel. This is the start of the Dalton Highway. From here the road goes into the wilderness, up to Prudhoe Bay Oil Fields and eventually to the Arctic Ocean.

The Denali Highway and Paxon
There are only really two main roads in Alaska: one up and one down. Linking them is a 135-mile stretch of off-road goodness called the Denali Highway. The gateway to this beautiful road through the mountains is Paxon, which you reach by following a gorgeous highway from Delta Junction, past the Trans Alaska pipeline and round a series of impressive twisties. From here it’s a 20 mile journey on paved roads into the mountains before you hitting the gravel marking the start of the Denali Highway.

McCarthy
McCarthy is a very rare town. Its population in 2010 was recorded at just 28 and because the only way to reach it is by a bridge just wide enough to squeeze a motorcycle down, there are no cars. In order to get to the bridge you either have to ride 60 miles off-road through utter wilderness, charter a plane and fly in or get driven in courtesy of a 4×4. The tiny town is a popular tourist attraction with people coming year upon year to take advantage of the endless hiking opportunities and scenery.

The Thompson Pass and Worthington Glacier
The Thompson Pass is a 2600ft high gap in the Chugach Mountains northeast of Valdez. A gorgeous, twisty road passes imposing snow-covered mountains and through a deep eerie canyon with waterfalls and glaciers along the way. On the pass there’s the opportunity to stop at Worthington Glacier and take a 1.5-mile walk to experience the glacier up close and personal – the only place in Alaska where you can get this close to a glacier and not pay for it. Two minutes along the road from the glacier there’s a beautiful viewpoint where you can look back and see the utterly jaw-dropping mountain range.

The Glenn Highway
Named as one of the top ten roads in North America, the Glenn Highway is one of the most scenic and twisty rides in Alaska. Starting in the heart of the Matanuska region with views out to a horizon littered with Lord of the Rings-esque mountains and beautiful glaciers, this spectacular road zooms down the mountainside and through canyons to reach Matanuska Glacier. This is one of the few places you can actually walk on a glacier; for the small price of $16 (of course, worth every penny!)

Know before you go…
A satellite phone is a must. Alaska only has two main paved roads and the service is patchy at best. The rest of it is off-road, meaning hours in total wilderness, if your bike breaks down etc… a satellite phone could save your life.

Buy bear and bug spray. If you come off or stop for prolonged periods of time you will encounter curious and hungry bears. Out in the sticks some of the mosquitos can be relentless and big, so have some repellent to hand.

Carry puncture repair kits, tyres and fuel if you’re going unsupported. For the most part you may be a long way from the next settlement, sometimes a full day away from the nearest town, so carrying these bits is good travel sense.

Don’t expect five-star digs. Motels are are comfortable and clean but come at a cost. For a standard, basic room you could easily pay $250 a night.

To experience Alaska at its best, you don’t need to be an off-road god but some experience would be a massive plus. If you’ve never been off road before maybe do a course before going. It can be intimidating, especially on the Dalton where huge trucks fire rocks at you.

Carry cash; not all places have the phone service for a card to work.

Phil Freeman’s book The Adventure Motorcyclist’s Guide to Alaska is well worth a read before you decide on riding in Alaska solo.

Best time to go?
July and August are the only months you’ll experience marginally nice weather and even then it can easily drop below freezing with very little notice. It’s pretty inhospitable the rest of the time if you’re on a bike.

Top Tips…
1. Do a flightseeing excursion, this worth doing to see the epic Mt. Mckinley from Talkeetna. There are also excursions with options to walk with bears, which is terrifying and amazing in equal measure.
2. Eat lots of fish, as it will be the best you’ve ever had.
3. Fill up whenever you see a gas station. Deliveries can be infrequent and just because the map says there is a gas station it doesn’t mean you can fill up there. The same goes for restaurants and cafes: there is no guarantee they will open up on the day you pass through.
4. Alaskan roadworks are pretty slick operations but be prepared to ride below 10mph in sand, mud and ruts.
5. Get out of Anchorage asap; it’s great for stocking up on supplies but it’s pretty soulless and very expensive compared to the rest of the state.

About the author…
Felix Billington runs Magellan Motorcycle Tours, who offer guided and self-guided tours across Europe and the world. Click here for more info.