The Next Frontier: How to Plan the Ultimate Alaska Road Trip

Take these highways, byways and side trips for an unforgettable adventure in the Last Frontier.

By Gwen Pratesi, ContributorOct. 13, 2017
U.S. News & World Report

The Next Frontier: How to Plan the Ultimate Alaska Road Trip

A van parking with lights on and the northern light, Fairbanks, Alaska, USA

Explore spectacular rugged landscapes, diverse cultural attractions and wildlife viewing sites on a once-in-a-lifetime drive.(Getty Images).

To fully appreciate the wonder of Alaska's vast, pristine and rugged wilderness, plan a road trip to the Interior and Southcentral regions of the state. While many travelers opt to visit by cruise ship, independently driving these scenic routes and byways is the best way to experience the northern territory. On a drive to remember, you can marvel at the dramatic scenery and extraordinary beauty of the Last Frontier, explore more remote areas and meet with passionate residents to learn more about local customs and cultures. Plan to spend a week traveling from Fairbanks to Anchorage, Alaska, and arrange side trips by boat or plane for another unique perspective of the state's spellbinding natural scenery. Read on to start plotting your road trip.

Start in Fairbanks, Alaska

Known as the Golden Heart of Alaska, and located about 200 miles south of the Arctic Circle, Fairbanks is considered the gateway to the Interior and Far North and is the ideal base camp to begin your Alaskan adventure. In town, visit the University of Alaska Museum of the North, with its contemporary Alaskan art, history, wildlife and artifacts. The Riverboat Discovery, a paddlewheel cruise along a tributary of the Yukon River, is also a worthwhile tour operated by a local family that's worked on these rivers since 1898. Highlights include a visit to see the champion sled dogs and kennels of the late four-time Iditarod winner Susan Butcher and a visit to the Chena Indian Village to learn about the ancient Athabascan Indian culture.

Fairbanks is also one of the best places in the world to view the northern lights during aurora season, from Aug. 21 to April 21. If the skies are clear, you may catch a nightly light show that you'll never forget. From Fairbanks, head to Denali National Park (by car or train), travel to the Arctic Circle or visit Chena Hot Springs, with its healing mineral waters and numerous outdoor activities.

Tack on a Side Trip

The six-hour Alaska Marine Highway ferry ride across Prince William Sound allows you to travel by boat with your car from Valdez to Whittier, Alaska, while enjoying coastline views surrounded by mountains, glaciers and marine wildlife.

Meanwhile, the half-day Major Marine Tours catamaran cruise, departing from Seward, Alaska, sails through the beautiful fjords. Typically shrouded in a light mist, the focus of the cruise is on wildlife viewing. Watch as majestic humpback whales surface and plunge into the chilly waters fed by glaciers in the Harding Icefield. Listen closely, and you might even hear their mesmerizing sounds. On the expedition, you can also enjoy a chorus of seals serenading visitors along the jagged rocks in Resurrection Bay, watch sea otters playfully romping in the water or listen quietly to the eerie cracking of blue glaciers as they calve into icebergs.

Drive from Fairbanks to Chitina and McCarthy

Most of the highest summits in North America are in full view as you travel along the Richardson Highway and the Saint Elias Mountains, the world's highest coastal mountain range. With snow-capped peaks and dramatic colors intermingled with the glistening and surreal icy blue glow of the glaciers, you'll want to stop at every scenic overlook. There are also many viewing points of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System on this route.

From the small fishing town of Chitina, famous for its access to the Copper River, take a shuttle (rental cars are not allowed on this unpaved road) to the remote town of McCarthy. Better yet, for a jaw-dropping 35-minute aerial view, book a small plane with Wrangell Mountain Air for a true adventure. This thrilling ride through the peaks and valleys of the Saint Elias Mountains and over rivers and the Kennicott and Root glaciers will be one of the highlights of your trip. You might even see Dall sheep, bear and moose from high above.

Plan to stay two evenings at nearby Kennicott Glacier Lodge. Located in an old mining town that is now a National Historic Landmark, Kennicott became a ghost town in 1938 when the mill was suddenly closed and abandoned. While in town, cross a glacier hike off your bucket list with a moderate half-day or more strenuous full-day outing with St. Elias Alpine Guides and hike the massive Root Glacier to gaze at its impressive icefall. Then, take the Kennicott Mine Tour to learn the fascinating backstory of this former copper mining town. In the evenings, relax on the front porch of the lodge before dinner, overlooking the mountains and glacier, followed by a hearty feast served family-style and prepared by the lodge's talented culinary staff.

Stay in Girdwood, Alaska

Alyeska Resort, a luxury property and one of the state's premier lodges, is also the largest ski resort in Alaska. Located in the quaint town of Girdwood and just an hour's drive from Anchorage, Alyeska Resort offers an ideal place to hang your hat at the end of the day. Make a reservation here for at least one evening after your catamaran cruise in Seward and en route to Anchorage. And for a memorable dining experience, ride the tram to the top of Mount Alyeska and dine at Seven Glaciers restaurant, an AAA Four Diamond restaurant. In the morning, take the road less traveled and hike Winner Creek Trail. Hidden behind the tram, the trail through the forest to Winner Creek Gorge is worth exploring; from there, you'll discover a different kind of tram, a hand-operated version to continue onto the trailhead on the other side of the gorge.

Finish Your Trip in Anchorage

End your road trip in Anchorage, the largest city in Alaska. With many hotels, museums and restaurants, Anchorage makes it a cinch to ease back into your routine. It's also a great home base for daytrips, such as the Spencer Whistle Glacier Stop on the Alaska Railroad, just two hours north and reachable only by train. Don't leave without visiting the Alaska Native Heritage Center to learn the significant historical and cultural imprint of Alaska's indigenous people.

Plot When to Take Your Trip Wisely

The best time to visit Alaska is late spring and summer, when the temperatures are warm and the midnight sun shines for nearly all hours of the day. With the short window, it's wise to make travel arrangements far in advance. Labor Day weekend signals the end of the season, especially in the remote areas, when tour and wilderness guides depart for warmer climates and hotels, restaurants and other attractions close. When the sounds of the migrating geese are heard overhead and the clear cool night skies are filled with dancing northern lights, it's a sure sign that fall, and very quickly, winter, are just around the corner, ushering in a very different travel experience.


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About En Route

Practical advice on the art of traveling smarter with tips, tricks and intel from En Route's panel of experts.

Contributors have experience in areas ranging from family travel, adventure travel, experiential travel and budget travel to hotels, cruises and travel rewards and include Amy Whitley, Claire Volkman, Holly Johnson, Marsha Dubrow, Lyn Mettler, Sery Kim, Kyle McCarthy, Erica Lamberg, Jess Moss, Sheryl Nance-Nash, Sherry Laskin, Katie Jackson, Erin Gifford, Roger Sands, Steve Larese, Gwen Pratesi, Erin Block, Dave Parfitt, Kacey Mya, Kimberly Wilson, Susan Portnoy, Donna Tabbert Long and Kitty Bean Yancey.

Edited by Liz Weiss.

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