Shirley and I with a half dozen friends were having dinner and listening to the music of the Kurtz Brothers at Sandy Ridge Vineyards in Norwalk. Both the meal and the music were excellent. Our friends were curious about our travel plans. (Or said they were just to be polite.) When we confessed a desire to see Alaska yet again, it generated some curiosity about how long it takes to drive “all that way.”
Though we have done it twice before, the short answer is there is no way to tell how long it might take us. The question implies a destination reachable in a straight shot. You can say it takes about an hour to get from Toledo to Detroit or two hours to Cleveland. Most of us are accustomed to established departure and arrival times so we can grasp the magnitude of the undertaking. The question also implies that driving all that way must be rather daunting. From our point of view, what it really means is that we get to spend all summer doing it. Please don’t throw us in that briar patch!
Though we are always eager to get started, we may be in no particular hurry once underway. It is helpful to think of RVing the way you would a Caribbean cruise: you are buying the experience not just the destination. You don’t need Carnival to get to Aruba, Barbados, or Cartegena. You could fly there in a matter of hours, but that’s not the point of a cruise. In the same way, you could fly to Alaska or take a ferry or cruise ship up the Inside Passage and connect with a tour bus or train. If you chose to drive directly to Alaska from Toledo, Google Maps says it is about 3,500 miles and will take you 57 hours. You might want to pack a couple sandwiches and some bottled water.
On our first trip, it took 15 days just to get to Mile 0, the beginning of the Alaska Highway at Dawson Creek, British Columbia. On our second trip, it took 22 days. We spent that time in the Tetons and Yellowstone before continuing up through Montana to Kootenay, Yoho, Banff, and Jasper National Parks in Canada. This is not the most direct route, but we think the Icefields Parkway between Banff and Jasper is absolutely magnificent. The Parkway is only about 150 miles long, but we stop often to gawk at spectacular glaciers and alpine lakes and incredible waterfalls. Wildlife up the wazoo! Things just keep getting better and better the farther north you go. Theoretically, you could drive it in less than three hours. But why would you?
Then from Dawson Creek, it is only another 1,400 miles on the Highway to its terminus at Delta Junction where the whole of Alaska beckons. Visit Denali National Park to marvel at the biggest mountain in North America. See Matanuska and a few more glaciers, preferably at least one that is calving into the sea. Take a day cruise to view whales, orcas, sea lions and seals, sea otters, and other marine wildlife. See so many eagles it is no longer a big deal to have them perch right over the campsite. Watch some salmon swimming upstream. Talk a grizzly bear into posing for selfies. Dodge a few moose, caribou, bison, bighorns, and Stone sheep on the highways.
Then, on the way home, we came down through British Columbia and took Highway 101 along the stunning coast of Washington, Oregon, and Northern California before turning east. What the heck, we were in the neighborhood anyway. Speaking of which, the way we come home is usually just as convoluted and indirect as the way out. So, how long does all that take? How much time ya got?
Here’s a 100%, total coincidence. As I was writing this column, I received an email offering a 61-day guided RV tour to Alaska. This could be an option for RVers who prefer to have someone else do all the research and planning so they don’t risk missing anything on the “ya gotta see” list. Reviews by past participants say they appreciated the friends they made traveling with a caravan of RVers and that they didn’t have to worry about which route to take or where to spend each night. The tour leaves from the northwest corner of Washington and covers 5,165 miles roundtrip. The price is only $7,695 for one or $8,995 for two.
Those of you who know me as a parsimonious old curmudgeon are undoubtedly grinning at that reference to only $8,995. My valuable insight is included for free in the price you paid for Healthy Living News, so here it is.
Anyone leaving from NW Washington need not worry about which route to take because there really are not many options. See your atlas for highways in British Columbia and the Yukon. I bet you could figure out a route in way less than 60 seconds. The same holds true for Alaska itself. Though it is our largest state, we have already been everywhere the paved roads go. There is a lot to see but not many ways to go about seeing it because most is still unpaved wilderness. Thus, we have been everywhere on the tour itinerary and we did it without a tour guide except for The Milepost. This 750-page publication, updated annually, describes literally everything you will want to see along the Alaska Highway as well as all the highways connecting to it. The Milepost also includes detailed descriptions of all the campgrounds so even those of the meanest comprehension might be able to choose where to stay.
So, in our opinion, there is no need to spend $8,995 to determine your route, what to see, and where to stay. But that’s us. We have friends who travel extensively and always take guided tours whether it is to the Caribbean, Europe, or the Far East. They find it relieves the stress associated with planning. More importantly, it relieves them of the need to negotiate with each other every single day about what they want to do. They are quite content to have someone else settle the issue. It works for them and for the millions of other travelers who choose guided tours.
We, on the other hand, value the freedom to add or delete things from our itinerary based on a momentary whim. Back in our backpacking days, Shirley’s father asked that immortal question, “What do you do, just wander around in the woods all day?” Well, yes, I suppose you could look at it that way. I mention this because we have at least one friend who, after all these years, still insists that we just make it up as we go along. Not so. We may change our route, but it is never just random, blind wandering around in the woods all day. Before we leave on any excursion, I have invested considerable time choosing the most desirable route. For us. There is a lot to see in the US and Canada before you even get to Mile 0 of the Highway. So we seldom take the shortest or most direct route. Our first Alaska trip put 11,820 miles on the odometer. The second, 12,120.
No amount of planning, though, can account for all the variables. On that second trip, we detoured a couple hundred miles because wildfires had blocked our primary homeward route through northern British Columbia. Weather is another significant consideration. Most of the time we deal with meteorological unpleasantness simply by moving on. Last October, for example, we planned to visit Savannah via Colonial Williamsburg, the Outer Banks, and Charleston. We were hoping for four or five days near Nags Head, but the sky turned black and the wind, like the bully in old Charles Atlas advertising, kept kicking sand in our faces. The forecast was not encouraging, so, after only one night, we continued to Charleston then Beaufort and Savannah.
In the winter, like many geezers, we are eager to leave gray, dreary Northern Ohio for someplace warm and sunny. But even Southern Arizona can have disappointing weather. Last year it snowed in Tucson, for crying out loud! The only place in the country that is reliably warm in early January is the very tip of Florida.
As we pull out of the driveway right after Christmas, Shirley is making one last check to see if there is ice at Jellico Pass and to help determine whether we will be headed all the way to the end of I-75 or making detours and layovers along the way. How are things looking for Pensacola, St. Augustine, or Alexander Springs near Ocala where we might spend several days or a week before continuing to the Everglades? Notice that options are built right into the plan.
Our first objective, whether we are headed to Florida, Arizona, or both, is to get as far south as quickly as possible. This generally turns out to be Chattanooga or Atlanta or Birmingham. We expect it to be a little cool on the first night out, but the RV furnace takes care of that. Besides, we count on it being quite nice (compared to Toledo anyway) by noon of the second day.
We had neighbors who drove to their condo in Punta Gorda in far less time than you would think possible. They could have flown, of course, but Martha insisted on taking all her house plants with them. They illustrate the point that how long it takes often depends on your motivation and the emotional bond you have forged with your potted ferns.
In recent years, our ultimate destination is probably Arizona. Even so, like this year, we may head to the Everglades for two or three weeks before following the Gulf Coast around to spend another week or so on Padre Island. At Padre, Shirley checks the long-range forecast for San Antonio, Big Bend, Cave Creek Canyon, Tucson, and finally Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, right on the border with Mexico.
So, how long does that take? Going to Organ Pipe by way of the Everglades is more than 8,000 miles. Google Maps says the direct route from Toledo is a little over 2,000 miles with a driving time of 30 hours. But the direct route goes right through Blizzard Central. If you absolutely have to drive to Arizona in a hurry, you might just swallow a bottle of NoDoz, cross your fingers, and go like crazy. If your objective is to have a good time, you would probably find the southern route via I-10 through Baton Rouge or New Orleans, Houston, and San Antonio far more agreeable than I-40 through Amarillo way up in the Panhandle.
Ah, but there is another fly in the ointment. Though I avoid commitments because they ruin travel flexibility, the huge increase in the number of visitors has caused more national parks to require campground reservations. This obviously makes sense in famous places like Yellowstone or Yosemite, but these days you may need them even in parks you never heard of. For example, in 2013 on our way from the Everglades to Arizona, we stayed four nights at Fort Pickens in Gulf Islands National Seashore near Pensacola and returned there for another week on our way home. Just pulled in, picked a campsite, and registered. Won’t be doing that this year. The campground has been booked up since I started planning back in September.
At Organ Pipe, unlike Fort Pickens, the campground has never filled since 1937 when the park was established. So far, that is. A significant percentage of RVers stay there just a night or two on their way to the resort town of Puerto Penasco on the Sea of Cortez. Even so, in all its bureaucratic wisdom, last year the National Park Service decided that requiring reservations sounded like a great idea. A ranger came to tell us about the new policy and suggest we log on to recreation.gov to book the campsite we were currently occupying. Too late! Somebody had already rented it right out from under us. There were still plenty of other options, but we had to hopscotch around the campground every few days. Just picking a site and staying in it for the duration became nigh unto impossible.
The definition of “for the duration” has changed as well. When dealing directly with rangers at Everglades or Organ Pipe, we could stay as long as we wanted regardless of the official limitations. They knew we weren’t going to cause them any grief. (Well, Shirley wouldn’t, so they made allowances for me.) And it was better for them to get $10 a night from us (with my geezer pass) than to get $0 for an empty site. Besides, they seemed to enjoy casually dropping by our site just at cocktail hour. But you can’t sweet talk the computer at recreation.gov if the algorithm insists 14 days is the limit. Fortunately, Shirley also has a senior pass so, between the two of us, this year we will get a month in Organ Pipe. Thanks to that algorithm, we also know when we will get there and when we will depart. (God willin’ and the creek don’t rise.) In view of that, we have adjusted our route both going and coming.
So, how long does it take to drive all that way to Organ Pipe? This year the answer is 46 days. But we expect to spend those 46 days in really nice places, so all is still just a walk in the park.
LeMoyne Mercer is the travel editor for Healthy Living News. There is limited space here for LeMoyne’s photos. You might want to see more at anotherwalkinthepark.blogspot.com. Please leave comments on the site. ❦