How to Plan an Alaska Road Trip

by Christina Uticone on July 27, 2011

 

Denali

I lived in Alaska for almost three years, during which we traveled extensively within the state, often by car. You see, I lived in Fairbanks, which is in the interior, and without a substantial budget for airline travel the only way for us to get anywhere was by car. Car tripping Alaska takes longer, but it allows you to see things you would miss when traveling by air. Alaska is the most beautiful place I have ever lived or visited, and I want to share a few tricks for road tripping the 49th state that I learned along the way.

About Alaska’s Highways

Follow these signs to navigate Alaska highways.

Alaska’s highways are numbered and named. While routes are given Interstate names in certain written materials and maps, all posted highway signs are designated as Alaskan state routes, so don’t look for the Interstate “shield” symbol—rather, keep an eye out for the square, white-and-black state route signs featuring the Big Dipper/North Star emblem of the Alaskan state flag.

Here are some of the main highways you should consider when planning your road trip:

  • Parks Highway (#1 and #3): The Parks Highway – or simply, “The Parks” – is probably the easiest road to travel in the state, being large and relatively well-maintained. The Parks will bring you from Anchorage to Fairbanks, and winds directly through Denali National Park, the home of Mt. McKinley. At 358 miles, the Parks makes for an excellent road trip; in optimal summer conditions you can make the trip from Anchorage to Fairbanks (or vice-versa) in 7-8 hours, but I recommend taking your time and stopping frequently to take photos.
  • Richardson Highway (#2 and #4): Stretching from Valdez to Fairbanks, the Richardson is the access road to Wrangell St. Elias National Park. The town of Valdez is small but very scenic, and a popular destination for travelers, particularly in the summer.
  • Seward Highway (#9 and #1): One of my favorite stretches of road in Alaska, the Seward is also known for being dangerous in spots so drive carefully and pay attention to road conditions. The 127 miles of highway that make up the Seward are a designated National Forest Scenic Byway so plan on stopping frequently for photos! The Seward will take you from Anchorage, south through the Chugach Forest and Turnagain Arm, and through the Kenai Peninsula to the coastal town of Seward, named for statesman William Seward who orchestrated the purchase of Alaska from Russia. Stop in Girdwood for great food, Whittier for boat tours, and then spend a few days in Seward, camping, kayaking, hiking, and wildlife viewing.
  • Sterling Highway (#1): Continue on from Seward, heading west and then south, to visit the fishing village of Homer, at the southern tip of the Kenai Peninsula. If you visit Homer don’t forget to stop at the Salty Dawg Saloon, where you can leave your signed and decorated dollar bill on the wall or ceiling – it’s a Homer tradition! Mine is up there, dated 2007.

Park your car and walk out onto the "spit"--a skinny stretch of beach--in Homer, Alaska.

The Milepost

The Milepost will be your best friend on an Alaskan road trip. It’s an incredible resource for road travelers, and while the online version is quite good I highly recommend picking up a hard copy to keep in the car (and as a souvenir). The Milepost is updated every year, but we’ve used several older editions and it’s always served us well; if you can pick up an old edition for free at a local bookstore, go for it – any edition published within the last five years will contain accurate information. If you want a new edition, it’s $30 well-spent. The Milepost details the Alaska Highway as it runs inside the state, as well as the greater ALCAN (Alaska-Canandian) Highway as it runs through Alberta, British Columbia, the Yukon and the Northwest Territories. You will find information on all Alaska roads in The Milepost, as well as useful information for travelers about safety, camping, attractions, dining, and more.

Coastal towns along Alaska highways offer charter glacier sightseeing trips. This photo is from a cruise on Prince William Sound out of Whittier, Alaska.

Planning your trip

Anchorage and Fairbanks are the two largest cities in Alaska, although the state capital of Juneau is a close second. Juneau is only accessible by air or water, so if you want to include it in your road trip you will have to make part of the journey by ferry. Juneau and Anchorage will both be a bit colder and wetter in the summer months; by comparison, Fairbanks is quite dry and sunny, with temperatures usually falling in the 70s or even low 80s. Decide what your priorities are and plan your trip accordingly.

If your priorities are:

  • Spectacular mountain  views: A trip from Anchorage on the Parks Highway, north to Denali National Park is a good bet; if it is a clear day, and if she’s in a good mood, you might even get a look at the crown jewel – Denali herself (Mt. McKinley to Lower 48-ers; Alaskans call the mountain Denali).  A drive to Valdez (val-DEEZ) on the Richardson is also a sure bet for mountain vistas.
  • Warm, dry weather: Spend your time in and around Fairbanks. You will still have distant views of the Alaska Range, but the weather will be warmer and drier than it will be in and around Anchorage or the Kenai Peninsula. Fairbanks has plenty to do: hiking, fishing, museums – even a natural hot springs at Chena Hot Springs Resort, about an hour outside of the city.
  • Marine wildlife and/or glacier viewing: Seward and Whittier are both excellent places to take charter tours for wildlife and/or glacier excursions. Ride in luxury on a heated boat while you eat crab cakes and sail past glaciers, or get up close and personal with glaciers on a kayaking trip.
  • Bears, bears, bears: Your best bet is to spend a few days in Denali National Park. You are not allowed to drive around the park freely in your vehicle – the park restricts the use of personal vehicles to preserve the road and to protect wildlife – but once you are in, visitor buses will bring you all over the park. Igloo Creek is a great area for bear sightings.

A field of wildflowers outside of Sutton, Alaska in July.

A Few General Tips for Travelers in Alaska

Being outdoors in Alaska requires additional caution. Extreme weather and dangerous wildlife should make you careful – don’t be scared, just be cautious!

  • Bears are only cute from a distance: Bear safety is serious business, so read up on best safety practices when enjoying the outdoors. If you are camping and hiking, invest in a can of bear spray, and secure all food, drink, and personal grooming products.
  • Be prepared for cold, wet weather: Even in the summer, even in the Interior, you want to be warm and dry. Bring rain gear, long underwear, and proper footwear.
  • Stay full … youuse the next gas station is not always around the corner.
  • Camera – bring it: It goes without saying that you will want to take a lot of photos. Bring plenty of film or extra memory cards. I also recommend bringing a journal and recording the photographs you take, and the impressions you get along the way. I promise that an Alaskan road trip will be the trip of a lifetime.

Photo credits:  Alaska Highway shield SPUI; all other photos property of the author.

| Christina loves travel writing, and she has a particular interest in writing about adventure travel, food and drink. In addition to writing Christina works as a social media manager and consultant, helping people tell their stories online. In her spare time Christina enjoys reading, yoga, and spending time outdoors. Christina lives in Houston with her husband Josh and their dog, Sandy. You can follow her on Twitter @snowcones. Her top three travel spots are Alaska, Paris, and Western Canada.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Nancy August 2, 2011 at 11:26 am

Thanks for this information! We are Planning a road trip there next summer and I am full of questions. What’s the best way to tour on a budget? Rent a car and get lodge rooms or rent an Rv? Any tips for getting up to Barrow cheaply or at least inside the Arctic Circle? Will definitely use your advice!

Reply

Christina August 3, 2011 at 5:49 am

Nancy–So glad you enjoyed the piece–I can’t wait for you to get to Alaska! (I leave tomorrow for Anchorage on vacation, and can’t wait for ME to get to Alaska, too!) Peak tourist season is very expensive, and hotel rooms are at a premium–you won’t find a major chain room in a major city for less than $180-$200, and they go as high as $350-$500; car rental is also pricey, and we quoted a week for about $1500 in early August. I’ve never rented an RV but I am willing to bet that RV rental would be the least expensive, all-around, but price it out well in advance to be sure. And booking early also helps.

Barrow is about as far north as you can go without swimming with the polar bears! I’ve never been myself, but a friend teaches up there and he always flies. Not only would I not advise driving, I’m sure any rental agreement for a vehicle would preclude your traveling by road to Barrow. Alaska car rental agreements have restrictions about the kinds of roads you can drive on.

The Arctic Circle is about 120-130 miles north of Fairbanks. You can drive it yourself, or use an Arctic Circle tour company. Simply take the Dalton Hwy. north out of Fairbanks and it’s about a 2 hour drive. But again, check the rental company agreement because you risk damage to the car when you go far enough north on the Dalton (that’s the “Haul Road” you hear about on Ice Road Truckers). There is an Arctic Circle sign that is a required photo op for AK visitors; if you’re in Fairbanks, you have to take your photo next to the Alaskan Pipeline, too!

Please feel free to contact me as you plan your trip. I will be happy to help you any way I can. I have many friends in AK and can bug them for answers too, and my husband and his friends are geologists so they might have travel/logistic information that I am not aware of–so fire away!

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Ben October 24, 2012 at 1:13 pm

Hi Christina,
Great advice on the blog. I’m planning a trip for next May-June after my wife’s graduation. Who coincidentally is from Houston and getting a PhD in geology. We will have 16 days and are planning to road trip from Anchorage-Denali-Fairbanks-McCarthy-Seward and back up to Anchorage. I realize its a bit of driving but we enjoy road trips and really want to hit all 3 parks. Plus I’m sure even 8 hours in a car will be lovely with the views.
Any can’t miss spots you’d suggest along the way? With my wife a geologist, if your husband knows any particular interesting geologic features we of course want to check those out. Thanks.

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