The boundless spaces of the American continent inevitably inspire travel on the road and the great north is no exception. The long distances of Alaska are ideally suited to driving for hours in unknown lands, admiring wild landscapes and hoping to encounter wild animals here and there. Desire, that of running into some animal, which is fulfilled more often than imagined.
Unfortunately, the impervious conditions of the territory and the low population meant that a large part of the state remained without road links. But fear not, the existing roads are more than enough for you to engage in a trip of many days in Alaskan land.
- When to plan a road trip to Alaska?
- Itinerary 1: 7/8 days in Prince William Sound
- Itinerary 2: 10 days between Prince William Sound and the Kenai Peninsula
- Itinerary 3: 10 days in central Alaska from Anchorage to Fairbanks
When to plan a road trip to Alaska?
If you've already read my article on the Alaskan climate, you will have realized that not all months of the year they are ideal for traveling by car in this cold northern state. In winter, many roads are closed to traffic due to excessive snow or because it is too dangerous, considering that even some of the main routes are not asphalted. If the streets in the city are kept clean, long journeys by car for non-local people can be dangerous even along roads open to traffic. If you go to Alaska in winter, I therefore suggest that you choose other means of transport: take a look at the article dedicated to how to organize a trip to Alaska.
left between May and September, you should not encounter any problems and you can rent a car in total freedom. Unless you plan to take the Dalton Highway, or are coming from Canada, the best place to fly and, consequently, rent a car is Anchorage. I then thought about 3 possible itineraries which will allow you, depending on the days you have available, to discover the best of what Alaska has to offer. In my article on Anchorage instead, you will be able to discover some short day trips that depart from the city, perhaps useful to integrate your itinerary.
Itinerary 1: 7/8 days in Prince William Sound
Il Prince William Sound it is one of the most interesting regions of Alaska, where land and sea form an indissoluble union, with glaciers that flow into the ocean and the possibility to choose every day between excursions in the mountains and paddling in a kayak along the coast. Looking at the map, one immediately realizes how this recess in the gulf (about 50x112km large) is full of fjords and islets, which make it the perfect habitat for numerous marine and terrestrial species. But also man has chosen these lands as his home from time immemorial: the tribes of the Ahtna, the Alutiiq and the Eyak have for centuries settled in the areas of St. Elias National Park, the southwest coast and the Copper River Delta, respectively. An itinerary by car in these lands will certainly not leave you disappointed.
Days 1 and 2: Anchorage
Dedicate the day of your arrival and the following day to Anchorage. You will need them to recover from the long flight, but also to settle in and start orienting yourself. Find out here what you can do in the city along with some tips on where to sleep.
Day 3: along the Matanuska
Hop in your car early in the morning and leave Anchorage behind heading north on the Glenn Highway. In less than half an hour you will reach some interesting sites to choose from in the morning: the Thunderbird Falls (which involves a 3-4 km trek), and the village of Eklutna, where you can discover the culture of the natives. With just a few more minutes on the road, you will cross the Knik and Matanuska rivers, which join right here.
The road then turns east following the course of the latter, which will be your travel companion for a long time. If you travel in late August, a little further on, precisely in Palmer, you will find signs for the Alaska State Fair: a large fair full of events, which can be an interesting stop to discover and try local products and attend shows and concerts.
Following the course of the Matanuska, the road crosses the valley that divides the Alaska Range from the Chugach Mountains, thus offering spectacular views from both sides. One of the most interesting areas to stop is the Matanuska Glacier State Recreation Site (about 2 hours from Anchorage), where the river originates from the homonymous glacier. River and glacier excursions are organized in the surrounding area. If you don't stop in the morning, you can head directly here to dedicate the day to an excursion.
With only 10 minutes of driving more, you will reach a rest area (obviously called Glacier View) with a refreshment point. The Lionhead Mountain Trail, a path of about 2 km on one of the most famous rocks in Alaska (the 'Lion head') from which you can enjoy a breathtaking view from over 600 m overhanging the glacier.
Returning to the road, you cross an area where Dahll sheep roam numerous and it is really easy to spot them. Once in the village of Glennallen (3h from Anchorage) you will have a scenic view of Mount Drum, which stands out in front of you at the end of the road. Here the Glenn ends at a T-junction on the Richardson Highway: turn right, south, and look for a place to stay overnight in one of the first villages, such as Copper Center.
- Overnight tip: An interesting place to sleep is the Copper River Princess Wilderness Lodge.
- All accommodations available in the area
Day 4: Wrangell-St.Elias National Park & Preserve
Spend a day visiting the Wrangell-St.Elias one of the most beautiful parks in Alaska. Halfway between Tazlina and Copper Center (about 10 minutes from each) you will easily find the park's visitor center, where you can acquire all the information you need to embark on a day tour. Stay overnight in the same place as the night before, to have the full day at your disposal. Only a small part of this boundless territory can be visited without difficulty on foot. If you can afford it, board a tourist airplane to see the mountain range from above.
Days 5 and 6: Valdez
The Richardson Highway runs parallel to the pipeline, which runs from Prudhoe bay to the port of Valdez. It takes two hours to get from Copper Center to Valdez and I recommend a stop on the shore of Willow Lake and at the Worthington Glacier State Recreation Site. Valdez is worth a visit, especially for the suggestive Valdez Glacier Lake: the lake that forms immediately under the glacier due to its melting, and in which it is possible to see icebergs breaking off. In the city do not miss the Whitney Museum with walrus ivory engravings. You can stay overnight in Valdez and dedicate the next day to a boat excursion to the Columbia Glacier (one of the largest in Alaska) or perhaps a shorter kayaking excursion around Valdez.
Columbia Glacier Cruise from Valdez
- Overnight tip: a good solution within walking distance of the port is the Best Western Valdez Harbor Inn, while those who prefer the atmosphere of a bed and breakfast to those of a large hotel chain can opt for theHouse on the Rock.
- All hotels in the area
Day 7: Cordoba and the Copper Delta
Note: for the next 2 stages you need to move by sea and you need to be strategic in planning: by checking the ferry timetables you will notice how, unfortunately, the Aurora ferry (the one serving the ports of Cordova, Valdez and Whittier) is active every 2-3 days depending on the month, this means you will have to organize your itinerary according to the departure of the ferries themselves. The only other alternative (aside from going back all the way back and driving for over 5 hours) is to fly from Valdez Airport to Anchorage in about 40 minutes. To shorten the itinerary by 1 day and have more variables in the choice you can also consider skip this step and take the Whittier ferry from Valdez, availability permitting.
Cordova it is one of the homelands of salmon, being located at the mouth of the river Copper, and the great delta is definitely worth a day of touring. If you come here in May, you will come across the migration of millions of waders, to whom a festival is dedicated: Copper River Delta Shorebird Festival.
- Accommodation tip: the Cordova Rose Lodge it is built on a structure that resembles an old moored barge, around which birds and otters nest. Don't expect a shack: sauna, library and patio with barbecue are just some of the services it offers.
Day 8: Across the Prince William Sound
From Cordoba you can take a ferry to Whittier, the western port of the Kenai Peninsula. The crossing takes several hours (7 from Cordoba, 6 if from Valdez), but it's worth it both for the scenery and for the chance to spot whales directly from the ferry. Disembarked at Whittier Harbor, in an hour and a half drive you will be back in Anchorage.Any alternatives?
You can spend more days to this itinerary, perhaps inserting various excursions in the places you prefer or embarking on a tour in search of whales in the gulf. At the same time, can be shortened taking the Valdez-Whittier ferry directly, thus excluding Cordoba and the Copper Delta. In any case, always check the ferry timetables: it may be more convenient for you to make the journey in the opposite direction.
Itinerary 2: 10 days between Prince William Sound and the Kenai Peninsula
One of the reasons why Alaska is worth visiting is the Kenai Peninsula, bird watchers' paradise ed elk's favorite habitat that graze undisturbed in the large swampy areas, but above all home to the most beautiful fjords of the American continent (I already mentioned it in my Alaska Top 10). Easily reachable from Anchorage by car, and partly also thanks to the railway, the Kenai Peninsula also perfectly matches a wider on the road, like the one I have already suggested in the previous paragraph.
Days 1-5: Anchorage-Valdez
Consider the previous tour up to Valdez, an ideal stop to visit the spectacular glaciers of the Prince William Sound.
Days 6-7: Seward
It takes about 6 hours by ferry from Valdez to Whittier, but it will seem short to admire the unique landscapes that stand out in one of the most evocative gulfs in North America. From Whittier, you can reach Seward in a couple of hours by driving along the Seeward highway, perhaps the most spectacular road in southern Alaska. Kenai Lake is just one of the viewpoints where a stop is inevitable. The town is small but lively, especially in the marina area. In addition to the pleasant walks along the promenade, it is worth renting a kayak to paddle around and visit theAlaska SeaLife Center: museum and research institute among the best in the state, and certainly the most popular for discovering the secrets of the Alaskan sea.
- Overnight tip: theHotel Seward is a hotel with a gold rush atmosphere, next to the Alaska SeaLife Center.
- All accommodations in the area
Day 8: Kenai Fjords
Book a day tour to discover the Kenai Fjords, one of the wonders of Alaska. You will not regret!
- Kenai Fjords National Park Cruise: this is a full day cruise along the spectacular Kenai fjords and its glaciers thanks to which you will also have the opportunity to spot some specimens of local fauna in their natural habitat such as whales, killer whales and Sea lions.
- Half day cruise between Kenai fjords and Resurrection Bay: if you do not have a whole day to dedicate to the cruise this could be a solution for you as the whole excursion will last only three and a half hours while still allowing you to see the best that the area has to offer.
Giorno 9: Kenai National Wildlife Refuge
If one of the reasons why you came to Alaska is the moose, dedicate a day to this park, inside which there are several trekking routes and, above all, for getting around in a canoe. The 'Kenai national wildlife refuge canoe trail'is considered the best in the state, not wrongly. It will take you around 2 hours to drive from Seward, and I also suggest a quick ride to the nearby town of Kenai, famous for its Russian Orthodox community. In the evening, head to Homer, just 1h30m by car.
- Overnight tip: Homer has B & Bs, chalets and sea-view apartments that offer splendid views over Kachemak Bay. Check the availability ofOceanhouse, of the chalet Alaskan Suites, or of Land's End Resort; the latter boasts a truly fabulous location, at the extreme edge of the peninsula.
- Other accommodation in the area
Day 10: Homer and the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge
Homer is the city of shellfish and, as with many other Alaskan towns, it lives thanks to the sea. Why stop here? Because it is the privileged point to discover the colonies of seabirds (Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge), millions of specimens of dozens of different species. The most comfortable and agile way to enjoy this reserve is to participate in one of the free activities organized by the rangers, including the search for shellfish and sea creatures (tidepooling) or the simple walk Beluga Slough Trail.
In the afternoon, you can head back to Anchorage (it will take 4 hours by car), or you can choose to spend another night here and take your time off the next day. The town of Homer also has an airport that can be used to get to Anchorage in about forty minutes, although it will probably not be very convenient compared to continuing the journey by car.Any alternatives?
If you have a few days to spare and are inspired by the Kenai Peninsula, you can reach it from Anchorage by dedicating 3-5 days to this area alone. You can also choose to reverse the direction of the itinerary (especially according to the ferries), as well as to dedicate more or less days to one or the other area according to your preferences.
Itinerary 3: 10 days in central Alaska from Anchorage to Fairbanks
If what you are looking for is the long roads that cross boundless lands, you can make a loop from Anchorage that touches the Nordic stronghold of Fairbanks. This will allow you to experience mountains, woods and wilderness like you've never seen before.
Days 1-3: From Anchorage to the Richardson Highway
Consider Route 1 to the edge of the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve, where the Glenn Highway crosses the Richardson Highway, which connects Fairbanks with the southern port of Valdez. Here the mountain landscapes are incredible and a stop on the slopes of the mountain range is already worth the stage. However, if you plan one or more excursions, add days to the itinerary.
Day 4: To Fairbanks on the Richardson Highway
Early in the morning he takes the Richardson northwards: with the pipeline as a faithful travel companion. It takes about 5 hours to drive to Fairbanks, but there are many spots along the way where it may be worth stopping to stretch your legs and maybe take some impressive photos.
A couple of examples are the Richardson monument (qui le coordinate) or the Rainbow Ridge: a mountain ridge so named for the red and green colors of its volcanic rocks (it is clearly visible from this point on). This afternoon will be enough to visit the small town of Fairbanks and the ice sculpture museum.
- Accommodation tip: if you want a truly unique accommodation choose theAurora Express: a B&B created inside 7 railway carriages from the early twentieth century, placed in the heart of the forest and transformed into elegant accommodation. To those who want to sleep surrounded by nature I recommend the Fairbanks Moose Manor, a simple but well-kept bed and breakfast.
- Other accommodation in the area
Days 5 and 7: to the Arctic Circle or other excursions from Fairbanks
The city is an excellent base for many interesting excursions or activities. So I suggest you spend a couple of nights here and give you some suggestions.
- For an adventurous trip, but which will surely remain as an indelible memory, take a first section of the suggestive Dalton Highway, but consider that if you want to reach the Arctic Circle 5 hours of driving await you and the same amount to return (in the article just linked you will find information on the possibilities of staying overnight along the road); if you want to simplify things you can join an organized tour.
- For something shorter, you can opt for a day at Chena hot springs: natural thermal water springs, just over 1 hour from Fairbanks. The road through the tundra is worth the walk and plunging into the steaming waters, while outside even in the summer the air is cold, it is definitely a good feeling.
- A third option to consider is a visit to the Creamer’s Field Migratory Waterfowl Refuge: an oasis of over 800 hectares right next to the houses of the city, where thousands of migratory birds gather in spring and autumn.
Many other experiences will help you to spend this stage in Fairbanks pleasantly: a ride on sled dogs or a visit to the Museum of the North; a walk in the northernmost botanical garden in the world, or in the Large Animal Research Station, where musk oxen and caribou await you. If the most popular proposals do not satisfy you, you can always improvise yourself as a gold digger and venture into an abandoned mine: along the Steese Highway you will find signs for the Gold Dredge N.8, an old mine now reachable via a short railway line, where you can try your luck trying to sift the gold.
Days 8 and 9: Denali National Park
The Parks Highway connects Fairbanks with Anchorage, but halfway along you will find one of the best stops you can do in Alaska: Denali National Park, which I recommend dedicating at least a couple of days, considering that the first will not be complete due to the journey .
Before arriving, make a stop at Nenana: this village of 400 inhabitants has little to offer other thanAlfred Starr Nenana Cultural Center (a museum that tells the history of the natives), but it is interesting for its location. From here, across the Yukon and Tanana rivers, boats depart to supply the most distant villages during the thaw period. In the months of February and March (300.000 lottery tickets detached every year), the exact time when the ice will melt free Nenana; identifying the moment is a tripod placed on the shore, which makes a clock stop when it falls.
Another suggested stop is little Healy, where you can see the bus used for the movie Into the wild. To plan a visit to the park in detail, I refer you to my guide on how to visit Denali National Park. (Updating June 2020: unfortunately due to the constant requests for help from inexperienced tourists who were trying to reach this place, the bus has been removed definitely. At the time of writing this update, a possible new location has not yet been decided)
Day 10: Return to Anchorage
It takes about 4 hours to get to Anchorage and to make a stop just over halfway I recommend Talkeetna, a characteristic town famous above all for having had as mayor… a cat! With 900 inhabitants, it has practically more animals than inhabitants and is located at the end of a road with no background that branches off from the main road, nestled at the point where the Talkeetna River flows into the Susitna. If you come here hungry, stop by the West Rib Pub & Grill and try one of the typical musk ox burgers! If you have more time, you can book a tour on the Hurricane Turn: a train that shuttles between the town and the suggestive Hurricane Gulch, passing over a bridge that is definitely unsuitable for those suffering from vertigo.Any alternatives?
If you have a few days to spare and are not interested in getting to Fairbanks, turn left from Richardson onto Denali Highway (the detour is less than a 2-hour drive from Copper Center). This road, which is only partially asphalted, is closed during the winter and is largely isolated. However, it leads in about 4 hours to Denali National Park and in the last stretch you will feel like you are hitting straight into the mountains. If you have more days, you can join part of the route suggested in itinerary 2, perhaps with a short ride on the beautiful Kenai Peninsula.