Every Star Trek nerd knows the opening line to the show’s intro: “Space… The Final Frontier.” Well, clearly, Captain Jean Luc Picard has never been to Alaska. As every off road enthusiast from the north will be happy to tell you, this is utter nonsense. Alaska is known as The Last Frontier for a reason. Even the most dedicated Alaskan riders could spend their entire lives trying to traverse every trail, back road, and park in their home state and not even come close.
The list of tours and guided rides for visitors to partake in is seemingly endless for visitors and natives alike. Hunting and fishing experiences are one-of-a-kind. It is the perfect atmosphere for winter sports or a snowmobile ride. Not least of all, visitors are drawn to the challenges and landscapes that only a trip through Alaska can provide. And whether you prefer testing your 4×4 with the mud-bogging thrills of off-roading, or you’re more drawn to taking in the terrain on a thought-out overlanding trip, Alaska is one destination that simply delivers. So, let’s cut to the chase, talk some numbers, swap a few brand names, and share trail tales about the real frontier. Because quite literally, it can be a matter of do or die out there – let’s explore what it means to off road Alaska…
A State Like None Other
Alaska is far and away the largest of all 50 states, containing over 663,000 square miles. It is also the third least populous state, with the most sparse population. Of its 738,000- or so residents, nearly half reside in the Anchorage metropolitan area. Long story short, this leaves very few people with a LOT of wide open space, a sprawling terrain that can be as harsh as it is wondrous.
Books and movies (and reality shows, more recently) have fetishized its combination of grit and undisturbed natural beauty since the days of the 19th century gold rush. Jack London was inspired by Alaska to pen the classic White Fang. And from an anonymous former vice presidential candidate’s Alaskan home, there is allegedly a striking view of neighboring Russia.
Pair Alaska’s sheer size and abundance of untamed public land with its breathtaking scenery. Throw in its sterling reputation for unadulterated wildness, and it would be hard to argue that it is not the greatest state in the union (or in all of space, for that matter) to get that rig away from the pavement and explore some of the most majestic American terrain in existence. Speaking of which, I’d like to see Picard get the Starship Enterprise across the muddy Dalton Highway in January…
Any discussion of Alaska would be incomplete without mentioning the Dalton Highway, which is over 400 miles of mostly gravel road. It stretches all the way to Deadhorse (a truly solid name for a town, don’t you think?) on Alaska’s northern coast. Originally a service road for the Trans-Alaska pipeline, this famous strip through the heart of the wild is no easy joyride. Lack of cell phone reception and virtually no travel amenities makes this a dangerous run that’s not for beginners.
But some people just wanna get their 4×4 muddy, and Alaska has more than its share of places to do just that. As you can imagine, there are too many trails, parks, and public lands in the enormity of Alaska to mention.
Captain Cook State Recreational Area near Kenai, Brenwick Craig Road outside of Anchorage, and Fish Creek Trail near Fairbanks are just a few of the big names. However, on 4×4 forums and message boards all over the web, the sentiment is pretty much the same when the topic of “the best trails” comes up. Find a town. Take a road out of that town. Turn left or right off of that road. And practically without fail, you connect to a network of paths that only locals frequent. Each one of these is a best kept mud-bogging secret waiting seemingly everywhere you turn. Just watch out for grizzly bears. And wolves. And moose.
Overlanding Up North
Not everybody has pure off-roading at the top of their agenda. You have a capable vehicle, maybe something a little older that you know how to wrench on if something goes wrong, but don’t feel the need to trench through bodies of water to get your kicks? You don’t mind if it gets dirty, of course, and its prime real estate for personal fabrication. An overlanding trip across any portion of Alaska offers amazing scenery and experiences. There are things here that simply do not exist anywhere in the Lower 48. No matter what destination you set your sights on, the journey there can be the experience of a lifetime with some planning and the right gear.
Plan for June through September, when days are long and the temperature gets into the low 70s. Jot down a route to the Denali National Park, a six million acre landscape that is vast and without blemish. Map your way to the Kenai river to fish for king salmon. Make time to stop at Brooks River Falls in Katmai National Park and see Brown Bears is their native Alaska. As you can tell, the problem with overlanding in this state is having to whittle down the options because there is simply too much to do.
One thing that is for certain, a reliable vehicle is an absolute necessity. It is a tough task to find any rural Alaskans existing without four-wheel drive. A resourceful people, Alaskans with vehicles modified for the elements are a common sight. They may not be the kind of cosmetic upgrades that get mall crawlers all hot and bothered, but their “homemade” mods will get that rig unstuck when the sun is setting and you are 30 miles from civilization.
Necessities In Alaska
Alaskan off roaders buy stock in dependable mud- or all-terrain tires (think Pro Comp, Kumho, or Pit Bull) for when the gunk gets knee deep. An engine snorkel can bring peace of mind when stream crossings bring the threat of a hydrolocked engine, a death sentence in almost all cases. Nobody has ever gone into the heart of Alaska and wished they hadn’t brought that Warn winch along. Rock solid suspension and shocks by big guys like Old Man Emu and Bilstein are a must. And rock sliders and rails from trusted brands like Rugged Ridge and N-Fab make sure that everything underneath your ride remains unharmed when the going gets bumpy.
Alaska is as big as it is wild. There are more adventures in this young state than any one person could hope to take on in a lifetime. Part of the fun of an overlanding trip is choosing which of these quests are best for you, and making sure your vehicle is up to the challenge. With preparation and the right gear, an unparalleled experience awaits anyone willing to look for it on The Last Frontier.