In a state where the journey is as often as absorbing as the destination, the temptation to draw up a challenging, action-packed Alaska itinerary is more than compelling. Routes here take in everything from Panhandle forests to frigid Arctic tundra.
However, with a road network only slightly larger than that of Rhode Island, there’s a limit to how far you can get with a car. Fortunately, many of the state’s more remote corners are accessible by plane, train, or ferry.
Remember, Alaska is two-and-a-half times the size of Texas. If it were a country, it would be the world’s 17th largest. Even a two-week sojourn only offers a small taste of this great unsullied wilderness, but what a taste it is!
Try these four busy itineraries that take you to Alaska’s most dramatic sights and experiences.
Fairbanks to Seward by train – 5-day itinerary
This land-based itinerary takes advantage of the beautifully maintained Alaska Railroad. Start out in Fairbanks, the railroad’s northernmost terminus, where you can spend a day exploring the museums and a night appreciating the remarkable phenomenon of a sun that barely sets.
Hop on the train to Denali National Park, and enjoy a good day hike on the Triple Lakes Trail. The next morning, take the extraordinary eight-hour ride to Anchorage. Along this stretch, the tracks leave the road and probe into asphalt-free wilderness, paralleling rivers instead of the highway, with the icy mass of 20,310ft Denali in view if you’re lucky.
Spend two nights and one full day in Anchorage, taking advantage of its surprisingly sophisticated shopping and dining scene. Check out the world-class Anchorage Museum, or rev up for a salmon bake with a bike ride along the Coastal Trail. Then hop aboard for another spectacular journey to Seward.
Again, the train deviates from the road and takes you 10 miles into the Chugach Mountains. Seward is the southern terminus of the railroad, ending at gorgeous Resurrection Bay. Be sure to take a tour of Kenai Fjords National Park to spot sea lions, sea otters and whales before you leave.
Wildlife watching from Katmai National Park to Anan Creek – 10-day itinerary
One of the fastest-growing activities in Alaska is bear watching, and the state has no shortage of bears, nor tourists wanting to see one – preferably catching and devouring a salmon. Make it to at least one of the following destinations and you’re likely to spot one.
One of the most famous bear-viewing sites is our start point: Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park & Preserve. Here you can snap the ultimate Alaskan photo: a dozen grizzlies perched on the edge of a waterfall, snapping salmon out of the air as they leap upstream. There are so many bears here in July, in fact, that the moment you step out of your floatplane at Brooks Camp, you’ll be ushered into the national parks office for a mandatory bear orientation (likely passing a grizzly or two ambling up the shore of Naknek Lake on your way).
A bit more accessible than Katmai is Denali National Park, which is accessible by road after the plane ride to Anchorage. Here you can jump onto a park shuttle bus and press your face against the glass as you scour the sweeping landscape for both brown and black bears. Not only are you likely to spot one of these legendary beasts, you’ll also probably catch sight of caribou and moose too (note that the 92-mile road is only open up to mile 43 until summer 2023).
You’ll need to fly again to get to Utqiaġvik and Point Barrow for a chance to spot a polar bear at the top of the world. Photographing one of these massive white predators in the wild is an experience few will ever have. A guided tour will take you out of town where you might also catch sight of walruses near the water.
For a more urban experience, fly on to Juneau. The most affordable bear-watching in Alaska is found here, since you don’t have to travel far from the city to catch black bears feasting on salmon. Just head to Steep Creek near the Mendenhall Glacier. Time permitting, you can also make a short out-and-back hop in a seaplane to Pack Creek on Admiralty Island.
Finish off in the southern panhandle at the Anan Creek Wildlife Observatory 30 miles southeast of Wrangell, one of the only places in Alaska where black and brown bears coexist. Get here from Juneau by air.
Cruising Southeast Alaska – 2-week itinerary
One of the most exciting trips is taking the Alaska Marine Highway from Bellingham, Washington, to Skagway. It’s an easy-to-plan journey through a scenic region of Alaska, although you should reserve space on the Alaska Marine Highway ferry if you want a cabin.
Board the ferry in Bellingham and enjoy the coastal scenery of Canada – including lonesome lighthouses – for a couple of days before disembarking for two days at Ketchikan. If it’s not raining, spend a day climbing Deer Mountain and enjoy lunch on the peak with panoramic views of the Inside Passage.
Head out to Totem Bight State Park to see carved totems and a colorful Indigenous community house. If it is raining, book a flightseeing tour of Misty Fjords National Monument, an almost-mystical landscape of steep fjords and waterfalls running off foggy green mountains.
Catch the ferry to Wrangell and take a wild jet-boat tour up the Stikine River, North America’s fastest navigable river. Be sure to visit Petroglyph Beach, where ancient rock carvings of faces and spirals emerge at low tide. Continue to Sitka on the ferry for an afternoon at Sitka National Historical Park and another on a whale-watching cruise.
Head to Juneau and sign up for a walk across the beautiful ice of Mendenhall Glacier. Top that off the next day by climbing Mt Roberts and then having an Alaska-brewed beer (or two) before taking the Mt Roberts tramway back to the city. In the evening enjoy one of the city’s salmon bakes and indulge in the cheerful tourist trap that is the Red Dog Saloon.
Climb aboard the high-speed Fjord Express catamaran for two days in Skagway, the historic start point for the Klondike gold rush. Board the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad for a two-hour trip to the summit of White Pass and in the evening catch the rollicking Days of ’98 Show back in Skagway.
If you can eke out another day, take the fast ferry to Haines, a quiet, local-loving Alaskan town with some fine hikes and a great brewery. After returning to Skagway, you’ll need to backtrack to Juneau if you want to fly home – or you can jump back on the Alaska Marine Highway ferry in Auke Bay.
Burning rubber on Alaska’s uncrowded roads – 2-week itinerary
Driving the very wide open roads in such a dramatic landscape is what road-tripping is all about. Get yourself a rental vehicle and stick on some Springsteen: you’re in for an amazing ride across Alaska.
Fly into Anchorage and pick up your car (make sure you book well in advance). Stop at one of the city’s large supermarkets, stock up with road-trip goodies and some liquid refreshment and then beat it out of town.
Head north and take the George Parks Hwy through Wasilla. Turn at the Talkeetna Spur Rd and hang out in Talkeetna, a laid-back climbers’ town. Spend the day on the last flag-stop loco in the US, the Hurricane Turn Train. In the evening, be sure to check out the antics at the historic Fairview Inn’s bar.
Head back to the Parks Hwy and continue north to the Denali Highway. Open only in summer, this 134-mile dirt road traverses the foothills of the Alaska Range. Take your time – the going is rough and the scenery stunning. Pitch a tent along the road wherever it feels right, preferably next to a rushing stream, and then continue heading east in the morning until you hit the Richardson Hwy.
Travel south and then follow the McCarthy Rd east to the Kennicott River, 127 miles from Glennallen. Spend the next day exploring the quaint village of McCarthy and the amazing mining ruins at Kennecott. Return to the Richardson Hwy and head south and then west.
Continue into Valdez and stay an extra day to splurge on a Columbia Glacier cruise. Drive onto the Alaska Marine Highway ferry (reserve this in advance) and sail across Prince William Sound to Cordova. Spend 24 hours dissecting the Sound’s most attractive town and its free-thinking locals, incorporating a hike around the Copper River Delta with its many bird species.
From Cordova, take a ferry to Whittier. On the same day drive 90 miles to Seward, passing through the 2.5-mile Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel. Stay two days in Seward; book a boat tour or kayak in Resurrection Bay, but on the afternoon of the second day hightail it back to Anchorage (127 miles) to turn in your hire car before the dealer closes.