Alaska is the perfect place to take a road trip as it is one of the most beautiful places we have ever visited. The views you will be afforded while driving through Alaska will not disappoint you. Literally everywhere you look, there is a picturesque mountain and/or lake view.
Alaska is also one of the most remote places we have ever visited. During our time in Alaska, we learned many things we take for granted in the lower 48 states are hard to come by in some of the more remote areas of the state. With the remote nature of some of these towns, many of them are very eclectic and truly one-of-a-kind. The best way to describe it, as one local told us is “everything is just as nice as it needs to be.”
On our Alaskan adventure, we gained over 17,000 feet of elevation hiking, survived a bear charging us and nearly got stuck there due to a wildfire blocking the only paved road back to Anchorage. We had a true Alaskan experience on our road trip and hope to help you plan your own trip. Below is what we consider, the perfect Alaska road trip itinerary, starting in Anchorage.
FYI: This post was written based on a trip taken in mid August
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Day 1 Alaska Road Trip: Arrive in Anchorage, Drive towards Whittier and Explore South of Anchorage Along the Way
On day one of our Alaska road trip, we arrived in Anchorage early, around 5am on a red-eye flight. This early arrival gave us a full first day to start exploring Alaska. After picking up our rental car (see How to Save on a Rental Car), we started our journey south on the Seward Highway towards Whittier, Alaska (about 90 minutes from Anchorage) and drove along the scenic Turnagain Arm.
Potter Marsh Boardwalk
Our first stop on the Turnagain Arm was the Potter Marsh Boardwalk which is right off the Seward Highway. This boardwalk stretches 1,500 feet, giving you amazing Turnagain Arm views and many wildlife, especially bird, viewing opportunities. Plan to spend about 30-60 minutes here.
Beluga Point Lookout
Next, we drove a few minutes south to the very picturesque Beluga Point Lookout. Here you get classic Turnagain Arm views and great photography opportunities (one of our best Alaska pictures from here). Plan to spend about 15 minutes admiring the views and taking pictures.
Bird Ridge Trail
After stopping at Beluga point, we drove to the Bird Ridge Trailhead. This hike affords you panoramic views of the Turnagain Arm as well as Chugach State Park. This hike is no joke though, it is a serious climb. You gain 3,400 feet of Elevation in less than 2.5 miles on the climb out. The views are worth the effort but be prepared with plenty of water and snacks and a bit of scrambling to end the hike. See Anchorage, Alaska Quick Guide for more details on this hike. We did not bring enough snacks but enjoyed a delicious lunch after at the Turnagain Arm Pit BBQ.
Natalie rolled her ankle pretty seriously at the end of the Bird Ridge trail (after misstepping on a rock) so we had to take a detour to Girdwood to buy an ankle brace. This detour gave us an appreciation for the lack of major infrastructure outside of Anchorage as it was difficult to locate an ankle brace in the area. Thankfully, we found one (literally only one) at a small local pharmacy that had just opened in Girdwood, Alaska. For being the only option, this brace worked very well and we were able to continue on with our hiking trip.
We planned to stop in Girdwood anyways to hike the short (and thankfully very flat) Lower Winner Trail due to its very unique feature, a hand tram. However, when we arrived in the town, we found the hand tram was closed due to 4 people recently dying on it. We opted to hike part of the trail which allowed us to still see the hand tram (but not use it). Once we saw the hand tram in person, it was exceedingly clear to us why it was so dangerous. The tram is hand operated and goes over a rapidly flowing stream full of large sharp rocks. Regardless, this route was a pretty and easy trail.
Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center
After stopping in Girdwood, we headed to the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. The Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center is home to many native Alaskan animals that were injured or abandoned at a young age in the wild. Here, these animals have a safe home and you can safely get up close to many of the animals.
Seeing all the native Alaskan animals in very close proximity was certainly a highlight of our trip. It was especially very cool to see Moose and Grizzly Bears up close. The size of their hooves and paws was astounding. Please see Anchorage, Alaska Quick Guide for more information on visiting here.
After getting in our Alaskan wildlife viewing fix, we headed to Whittier for our first overnight stop. Getting to this small town, home to about 200 year-round residents, was an adventure in itself. To get to this quaint and remote town by car, you have to drive through a one-way tunnel that runs through Maynard mountain. We waited for a little less than 30 minutes to go through this tunnel into town. During this time, we watched cars, and even a train, come through the one-way tunnel from the other way. After checking into our eclectic accommodations, we ate dinner at the local Chinese restaurant in town.
For more information on our accommodations and visiting Whittier, Alaska, please see Whittier, Alaska Quick Guide.
Day 2: Day Sea Kayaking Trip from Whittier, Alaska
Day two of our Alaska road trip was one of the most memorable as we went sea kayaking on the extremely scenic Passage Canal. This kayak trip we took was about 6 hours and the views we were afforded while kayaking were truly unbelievable. We also saw wild salmon and sea otters on our outing. Further, we did a short hike along the shore after eating an excellent picnic lunch (prepared by Alaska Sea Kayakers). For more information on our kayaking trip, please see Whittier, Alaska Quick Guide.
After a full day of kayaking and some most picturesque views we have ever seen, we headed to the Inn at Whittier for a very delicious dinner. This restaurant was recommended to us by our kayaking guide as the best place to eat in Whittier and we would have to agree. The food and the views overlooking the harbor were excellent. After our dinner, we headed back to our accommodations in Whittier to rest up before heading out for some hiking the next day.
Day 3: Hike Portage Pass in Whittier, Drive to Seward, Alaska
Hike Portage Pass
The first adventure on the agenda for this day of our Alaska road trip was to hike Portage Pass in Whittier. This trail is a scenic, and relatively short hike (4 miles round trip, 1,578 feet of elevation gain). This trail allows you to access the Portage Glacier by foot and affords you close views of it as well. Staying in Whittier allowed us to be the first ones on the trail, around 9am, before the one-way tunnel to Whittier opened at 9:30am. You could alternatively stay in the Anchorage area and drive down to Whittier in the morning but we would highly recommend the quaint experience of staying in the small town of Whittier. For more information on this hike, please see Whittier, Alaska Quick Guide and Top 5 Most Picturesque Alaska Hikes.
After we completed this hike, we started our drive south towards our next stop on our Alaska road trip, Seward, Alaska. Seward is located on the scenic Seward highway, about 75 minutes south from Whittier, Alaska. Along the way, we stopped in several small towns including Moosepass. In Moosepass, the convenience store is also the local deli, clothing store, souvenir shop, post office and just about anything else you can imagine. It was fun to stop at this local “everything” shop and it gave us an even better appreciation of small town Alaska.
Drive to Seward
Once we arrived in Seward, we went downtown to book our Kenai Fjords National Park Boat tour for the next day and stocked up on groceries at the local supermarket. We rented a simple and cozy cabin, tucked away in the woods, about 20 minutes north of Seward. We highly recommend renting a larger place because it made our time in Seward more relaxing and we were able to cook our own delicious, and less pricey, seafood.
Day 4: Kenai Fjords National Park Boat Tour in Seward, Alaska
Hike Vagt Lake
This morning of our Alaska road trip, before our mid-morning boat tour, we headed out for a brief hike at Vagt Lake. This lake was located less than 5 minutes north of our cabin and was very secluded as well as serene. On this trail, we saw no one else while hiking, most likely because no one else could find it. Please see Kenai Fjords National Park and Seward, Alaska Quick Guide for tips on how to find this trailhead.
On this trail, you hike for about 1.5 miles before coming to Vagt Lake that is hidden in the trees. If you have some extra time in the morning, make sure to do this relatively short (3.2 miles round-trip) and flat hike as it is exceedingly serene.
Kenai Fjords National Park Boat Tour
After hiking to Vagt lake, we headed into town to get on our 11am boat tour. The companies that put on these tours offer all different lengths and times of the tours. We are glad we went on one of the longer, full, day tours because this tour took us beyond the protected Resurrection Bay waters and further into the park, allowing us the opportunity to see more wildlife and active glaciers.
On our tour, we saw orca whales, humpback whales, puffins, sea lions, seagulls and sea otters. This tour was a nice afternoon excursion and definitely an experience we will remember for a lifetime. After we finished our tour, we headed back to our cabin for dinner and to rest up before our longest, and most exhilarating hike (for numerous reasons) of our trip on Day 6, the Harding Icefield Trail.
Day 5: Hike Harding Icefield Trail in Kenai Fjords National Park
This morning of our Alaska road trip, we headed out early to hike to the Harding Icefield and to the base of Exit Glacier. This is the most memorable hike we have ever completed. The trail is most notably momentous for us because we got charged by a bear (see post What you can Learn from Being Charged by a Bear).
However, this hike is also very unforgettable because of the beautiful and breathtaking scenery along the trail. This hike affords you beautiful mountain, valley and icefield views. This hike took us about 6 hours to complete (8.2 miles round trip, add a mile if you hike to the base of glacier before or after, 3,812 feet of elevation gain) and was truly the highlight of our trip. If you only do one hike in Alaska, do this one.
Please see Top 5 Most Picturesque Alaska Hikes and Kenai Fjords National Park and Seward, Alaska Quick Guide for more information on this trail.
Day 6: Drive back to Anchorage, Hike Northface Trail in Girdwood and Flattop Mountain in Chugach State Park, Dinner in Anchorage
Northface Trail at Alyeska
The next morning, we started our journey back towards Anchorage, stopping in Girdwood to hike the Northface Trail. This trail is located at the Alyeska ski resort and has amazing mountain views. It is unique because, despite being a steep hike out, you can take the ski tram back down the mountain which is a great reward after a very strenuous up-hill (2.2 miles one-way, take tram down, 1,998 feet of elevation gain) hike.
After hiking the Northface Trail, we headed to meet Sam’s friend, Bert. Sam had met Bert while temporarily living in Anchorage during graduate school in 2013 and we hiked with him on the Flattop Mountain Trail on the southern end of Anchorage.
This trail is one of the most popular in Anchorage for good reason. This hike presents you with great mountain views. It is another steep hike (3.3 mile hike round trip, 1,430 feet of elevation gain, out & back) but relatively fast-paced and has a bit of scrambling to reach the summit. Once at the top, be sure to walk around the entire summit area to soak in all the different pretty views before heading back down.
For more information on this trail, please see Top 5 Most Picturesque Alaska Hikes
Staying in Anchorage
Next, we headed to our Airbnb, that was less than 5 minutes from the Flattop Mountain Trailhead and abutted Chugach State Park. We highly recommend this Airbnb because of the views seen right out the front door. You literally feel like you are sleeping in the woods but with all the comforts of being inside.
Glacier Brewing Company
After freshening up from hiking, we met Bert out at Glacier Brewing Company for dinner. We enjoyed the food, beer and atmosphere here. Afterwards, we went to get ice cream (because life is too short to ever skip dessert) at Wild Scoops. Here, we got some delicious small-batch homemade ‘Frozen Nachos.’ If you love ice cream like we do, definitely check this place out.
Day 7: Hike Eklutna Lake, Drive to Talkeetna
After waking up to peaceful views of Chugach State Park, we started our journey north towards our next stop on our Alaska road trip, Talkeetna (about 2.5 hours north of Anchorage). On our way, we stopped on the northern outskirts of Anchorage at Eluklanta Lake to hike the Twin Peaks trail (5 miles roundtrip. 1,879 feet of elevation gain, out & back). This hike gives you two amazing views–the first of the idyllic bright blue Eklutna Lake and the second of the Twin Peaks.
For more information on this trail, please see Top 5 Most Picturesque Alaska Hikes.
Next, we headed to the quaint earthy town of Talkeetna. The town atmosphere reminded us a bit of Sedona, Arizona (Coming soon, see Sedona, Arizona Quick Guide). This eclectic town has a fun laid-back vibe. There are a ton of cute shops here and many good restaurants.
After arriving in Talkeetna, we headed to Denali Brewing Company for some food and flights of beer (per recommendations from a friend who lived in Alaska). The food and beer were great, and it was very nice to enjoy the evening on the patio. This restaurant is right on the main street in town and within walking distance of our accommodations. We stayed at the lovely Talkeetna RoadHouse. This Roadhouse is right in the heart of town and has a very homey feel. If you are able, definitely stay here. We headed to bed as we had an early day ahead of us the next day.
Day 8: Day Trip to Denali National Park
On day 8 of our Alaska road trip, we headed out early in the morning, around 6am, to start our day trip to Denali National Park (about 2.5 hours from Talkeetna). On our way to the park, we saw three female moose on the side of the road and experienced stunning, clear views of Denali. We were very lucky to be heading to the park on a day where you could see the mountain clearly as it is only visible one out of every three days due to cloud coverage.
Vistor Center and Sled Dog Kennels
Once arriving at the park, we went to the main visitors center and talked to a park ranger. We then explored the visitors center, enjoying two video presentations and walking around the history/informative displays in the visitors center before driving to the sled dog kennel.
If you are a dog person, definitely do this. It was fun to meet some of the sled dogs and learn more about the history surrounding them. They also put on some interactive dog sled presentations. We did not stick around for the presentation, but we think this experience would be fun for a family with young children.
Hiking in Denali
After visiting the sled dog kennels, we headed further into the park, to Savage River, the furthest point you can drive into the park with your own car. Here we hiked the Savage River Loop (2 miles Roundtrip). The morning we hiked, it was raining. We had proper rain jackets but really could have used some good rain pants (and since then we have invested in his and her versions of these).
After finishing our Savage River Loop hike, we headed back to the entrance of the park. By this time, the rain had cleared up so we were able to hike Horseshoe Trail Loop (3 miles round trip from Visitor Center) without a downpour.
On this short day trip, we only got a quick taste of Denali National Park and you may want to consider making this National Park a multi-day trip or visiting it as a trip all on its own. Please see Talkeetna, Alaska and Denali National Park Quick Guide for more information and tips on this park.
Tip: If you are limited on time and not keen on hiking, consider taking a helicopter tour around Denali National Park.
Although very pricey, the views from these helicopters are astounding (from pictures we have seen) and you can take these from Talkeetna, saving you some time as well. We opted not to do this, we prefer to get our views hiking, but highly considered it. Here is a link to the highly rated Helicopter tour company in Talkeetna we considered taking.
Day 9 Alaska Road Trip: Breakfast in Talkeetna, Hike April Bowl in Hatcher Pass, Fly Home
On the last morning of our Alaska road trip, we headed out for an easy morning hike around Talkeetna Lakes Park, about 10 minutes (driving) from the Talkeetna Roadhouse. This hike was peaceful and serene, as are nearly all Alaskan hikes. Unlike most Alaskan hikes though, this trail was very flat. We then headed back to the Talkeetna Roadhouse Bakery to have a delicious homemade quiche before heading back towards Anchorage.
Hiking Hatcher Pass
On the way back to Anchorage, we stopped in Hatcher Pass to hike the April Bowl Pass. The Hatcher Pass area is truly a hidden gem. Reaching this area will take you much longer than you would expect, due to very winding roads, but going out of your way to see it is worth the extra time.
The area is stunning and the April Bowl hike is relatively short (2.2 miles round trip, 856 feet of elevation gain) but exceedingly scenic because you start it at a higher elevation and you get spectacular elevated mountain range views without as much effort. You will feel like you are on top of the world when you reach the peak that is 4,811 feet above sea level. This hike was the perfect end to an amazing trip.
We hope to make it back one day to do even more exploring and reach some of the more remote National Parks in Alaska but for now we have great memories from this trip.
Tip: Be Prepared for Plans to Quickly Change in Alaska
As Alaska is more remote and with less infrastructure than the lower 48 states, be prepared for plans to change quickly in Alaska. On the second to last day of our trip, a massive wildfire broke out, after a lightning strike, about 10 miles south of Talkeetna. This wildfire involved the Parks Highway, the only paved road leading back to Anchorage. The road was closed because of the fire.
Due to this closure and no alternative road leading us South back to Anchorage, we were in a bit of a pickle on our Alaska road trip. We talked to the staff at the Talkeetna Roadhouse, who were very helpful, and found out our three options in order not to miss our flight the next day.
1. Charter a plane from Talkeetna to Anchorage (talk about pricey, definitely not happening).
2. Drive north, past Denali and then cross the state East (on over 120 miles of unpaved/unserviced road) to another main highway that parallels the Parks Hwy to then head south towards Anchorage (an over 12 hour endeavor).
3. Wait to see if the road re-opens the next day.
Since our flight was not until the evening of the next day, we tested our luck and waited to see if the road would open back up. Thankfully, the fire was contained and the road opened, not completely but with a pilot car that led vehicles through the heavy smoke. This wildfire thankfully turned out to be much less of an issue for our travels than we anticipated. However, this gave us a true appreciation for how everything is just a bit more complicated in Alaska.
We hope this itinerary helps you plan your own Alaskan road trip. For more information on our trip to Alaska, please see:
- Top 5 Most Picturesque Alaska Hikes
- Talkeetna, Alaska and Denali National Park Quick Guide
- Kenai Fjords National Park and Seward, Alaska Quick Guide
- Anchorage, Alaska Quick Guide
- Whittier, Alaska Quick Guide
- What you can Learn from Being Charged by a Bear
And remember, Always Have A Trip Planned!