Alaska is one of the most beautiful and wild states in the US, but since it is so massive and largely inaccessible, it would take months of travel to see even a fraction of what the state has to offer. Realistically, most people don’t have more than a week or two to get away from work, so you need to budget your time carefully. Many visitors choose to experience the coast by taking a cruise through the Inside Passage, but this type of trip completely misses out on the state’s rugged, mountainous interior, That’s not a knock on Alaskan cruises because I’m sure they’re fantastic trips, but the best way to experience Alaska is to rent a car and take a road trip. Inevitably many amazing destinations will be missed during a one-week road trip, but the itinerary below hits many of the high points and is a tried and true way to experience the Last Frontier.
Alaska Road Trip Map
Assuming you arrive in Alaska by plane, there’s a very good chance your road trip will begin in Anchorage. From our brief experience in the city, we wouldn’t recommend spending a significant amount of time there. The mountainous landscape around the city is incredibly beautiful, and the occasional moose can be spotted wandering the streets, but it’s all child’s play compared to what you’ll see later in the trip. On a longer trip, sure, Anchorage has plenty to offer; but with time being a scarce resource, you’re better off allocating your time elsewhere.
Denali National Park
The drive from Anchorage to the park entrance takes just under four hours, but you can break up the drive by stopping to see Sarah Palin’s house in Wasilla (we hear she loves visitors taking selfies in front of her house), or by taking a lunch break in Talkeetna. How you spend your time in Denali is all a matter of how adventurous you are, but the massive park abounds with opportunities for mindblowing hikes, camping, and wildlife viewing. If you want to venture deep into the park, the system of shuttle buses is really the only way to go any farther than the Savage River Campground. If it’s a clear day, the views of Denali, the tallest peak in North America, are astounding, but regardless of the weather, you’re sure to have some memorable wildlife sightings. We spent three nights camping and hiking in the park, but easily could have spent three weeks there.
The Denali Highway
As long as you rented a car that’s up to the challenge of unpaved roads, the Denali Highway is not to be missed. The 135 mile drive from Cantwell to Paxson takes about 4 hours to traverse and there isn’t a single bad view for the duration of the drive. Apparently people see animals off the side of the road but we had no such luck. In the summer, this is the most direct and most scenic route between Denali National Park and Wrangell-St. Elias National Park.
*Note: The Denali Highway is closed from October to mid-May.
Chitina isn’t a town that will be on most people’s radar, mainly because there’s pretty much nothing there. So why on earth would we specifically recommend Chitina as a destination? For one, it is the perfect home base for anyone visiting Wrangell-St. Elias and it is a good place to catch a flight into or around the park. This sleepy mountain town may seem like a place you simply drive through and leave in your rearview mirror, but spending a day or two here rather than inside the national park gives you a less touristy perspective of living in Alaska. The town is surrounded by massive mountains and moose are said to regularly wander the streets. There are also plenty of good hikes and a nice B&B right in the center of town.
Wrangell St. Elias National Park
Wrangell-St. Elias is every bit as breathtaking as Denali but far less visited. One of the best ways to experience the park is by flying overhead in a single engine airplane. Wrangell Mountain Air offers round-trip flights from the Chitina Airport that land in McCarthy. Once on the ground, the park offers a multitude of hiking trails, glaciers, and the chance to walk through an old mining town.
Valdez – Whittier (Ferry)
The drive from Chitina to Valdez takes about two hours, but the scenery along the way makes the time fly by. There are several waterfalls and glaciers that run down the mountainside just off the side of the road. The city of Valdez doesn’t offer much in the way of tourist attractions, but it’s a good place to catch a ferry across Prince William Sound. The ferry ride doesn’t necessarily save time or money compared to driving around the sound, but it offers a more maritime perspective of the state that stands in contrast with the earlier stops on the road trip. It basically condenses the Alaskan cruise experience down to five hours. The views of massive mountains that seemingly sprout out of the ocean last for the duration of the ferry ride and there are several impressive glaciers along the way. We saw seals and sea lions but some people are lucky enough to catch a glimpse of whales and bald eagles. Once you arrive in Whittier, it only takes about an hour to drive back to Anchorage.
Like we said earlier, with limited time, there were some places that didn’t make the cut. If we had a few more weeks to explore, here’s where we would have gone.
- Kodiak Island
- Katmai National Park
- Glacier Bay National Park
- Anywhere where we could see polar bears
…I guess we have an excuse to go back again.