Twice the size of Texas and then some, the largest of the 50 states is undoubtedly the most daunting. Exploring Alaska isn’t your regular weekend getaway. But if the travel bug’s been biting, why not go big this time?
It’s obviously pretty impossible to see the entirety of The Last Frontier in one go, but if you want to take in as much as you can, hitting the road is probably your best bet. Not to mention, the most fun. And yes, the Alaska Highway is entirely paved (quality ranges from terrible to excellent at random intervals), and the road conditions are mostly good, and more than likely, you won’t be eaten by a bear. But such a trip requires some planning, bears or not. We recommend concentrating on one region and experiencing it for all it is; no need to check off all the essentials as the fly on the other side of your window.
Two weeks is a reasonable amount of time. The drive we like best focuses on the Interior, featuring all the musts, plus your required fix of a few hidden gems. Here’s your itinerary.
Day 1: Fairbanks
This is where it all begins. Fly into Fairbanks and rent a car, minding that if you are opting to take some back roads, you’ll need to make sure the rental company is cool with that. You can catch some z’s in Fairbanks and get ready to hit the road in the morning.
Day 2: Fairbanks
You’ll need the day to explore your starting zone. Canoe or hike through the Chena Hot Springs and boreal forest of the Chena River State Recreation Area, and head back to the hotel in Fairbanks. Tomorrow it gets real.
Day 3: to Copper Center (260 miles)
This is the scenic route, if there ever was one. Stop to see the historical park at Rika’s Roadhouse and Landing at Delta Junction. Take the Richardson Highway south, where the highway rises up over the Alaskan Range along the silver Alaska pipeline. Stay the night in the Athabascan Village.
Day 4: to Kennecott (85 miles)
Travel East on the Edgerton Highway to Chitina, and catch the 8:30 am Backcountry Connection shuttle to the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. Here’s what’s in store: an abandoned copper mine from the 1930s, a wobbly footbridge and the ghost town tour of a lifetime.
Day 5: to Valdez (190 miles)
Return to Chitina to grab the car. And air-taxi is your best bet (as long as you’re not afraid of tiny planes!). The view from the sky is breathtaking. Drive south on the Richardson Highway – a rugged expedition through the Thompson Pass – toward Valdez, where you’ll stay the night.
Day 6: Cordova Ferry
Put your car on a boat and float across the Prince William Sound to the quaint town of Cordova, complete with backwoods bars and artist markets.
Day 7: Cordova
Cordova Coastal Outfitters will take you on the sea-kayaking adventure of a lifetime. You’re basically guaranteed to spot some otters and sea lions.
Day 8: Copper River Delta
Today you’ll hit some gravel. The Copper River Delta is a massive wetland full of wildlife – lots of waterfowl and trumpeter swans. At the far end lies the Childs Glacier; if you listen closely, you might be able to hear the groan of the moving ice. Head back to Cordova for one more night.
Day 9: To Whittier and Anchorage (60 miles)
Take the ferry once again, but this time to the quirky port-town of Whittier, only accessible through a three-mile one-lane tunnel. Once you exit the tunnel, you’ll be along the Turnagain Arm en route to Anchorage (about 50 miles away).
Day 10: Anchorage
Learn about Alaskan culture at the Alaska Native Heritage Center, and experience the history at the Anchorage Museum. If you prefer the outdoors, there are countless hiking, biking and fishing excursions offered in the city. And don’t forget to stop for some salmon.
Day 11: Mount McKinley (262 miles)
Make it to Talkeetna in the AM for a morning flight over North America’s tallest peak. (The clouds build up in the afternoon, so the earlier, the better.) Leave time to wander around town in the afternoon; Talkeetna is a pretty hip place for such a remote location.
Day 12: Denali National Park
The park shuttle will take you deep into the wilderness; this is your day for bear and caribou. They’re most active in the morning, so catch the bus early, and be sure to pack snacks; this is an all-day affair. Reserve your seat far in advance (months is not too soon.)
Day 13: Denali and Back (122 miles)
Since the drive is only a few hours, stop for some whitewater rafting on the Nenana River, a nature walk in Pioneer Park or a program at the Murie Science Center. Arrive in Fairbanks this evening.
You have accomplished an Alaskan adventure unparalleled, and it’s time to go home and tell everyone about it.