Experience the wild, rugged and diverse beauty of the 49th U.S. State with this 10-day Alaska road trip itinerary. From grizzly bear viewing to hiking glaciers, this road trip will put you in touch with this spectacularly unique destination.
The United States’ largest State deserves more than a mere cruise up the coast. Despite common misconceptions, approximately half of the state’s highway system is paved. So you can easily explore independently in your own vehicle or a rental and see more:
More of Alaska’s estimated 100,000 glaciers, 3,000 rivers and 3,000,000 lakes;
More of Alaska’s land mammals including 30,000 grizzly bears, 175,000 moose and 900,000 caribou and 10,000 wolves.
More of Alaska’s 500+ bird species.
More chances of seeing North America’s tallest peak, Denali (aka Mount McKinley), which can only be seen 1 in every 3-4 days.
Have I convinced you yet? Ok, let’s start planning your Alaska road trip.
Best time to visit Alaska
Summer is well considered the best time to visit Alaska. The warmest months benefit from longer daylight hours, lots of wildlife activity and best road/access conditions. The summer season in Alaska encompasses late May through to early September, with May-June seeing the least rainfall.
If you are set on seeing the Northern Lights (aurora borealis), late August into September are better summer months to visit. Due to the northern latitude of Alaska, the sky does not get dark enough around the summer solstice (late June).
Important Alaska road trip itinerary notes
- If you are booking a trip from Chicago, Minneapolis or Seattle areas, you can get a direct flight to Fairbanks. That cuts 2-hours off your drive to Denali. Before you book your flights, just make sure there is rental car availability one way from Fairbanks to Anchorage.
- Book your Denali National Park Transit or Tour Bus ticket in advance. Transit buses are just that, transportation that you can hop on or off at any time. Tour buses have commentary and only make a few scheduled stops.
- Currently, Denali’s main thoroughfare, Park Road, is undergoing major construction at Mile 43 due to an ongoing landslide. A bridge is being built to avoid the slide but it won’t be complete for a couple of years (probably summer 2024). Until then, no vehicles (including bicycles) can proceed past this point.
- If you still really want to go to the end of the road, your only option is to book accommodation at Skyline Lodge and take an air taxi. I cannot comment on the quality of this experience.
- If you are travelling in the high season (June through early-September) make sure you book accommodation and tours in advance as these tend to sell out.
10-day Alaska road trip itinerary
I encourage you to edit this itinerary according to your interests. These are full days that cover a lot of attractions. Even if you endeavour to see and do everything here, be prepared to skip a couple of things along the way. Weather is highly changeable and can impact your schedule. Also, you might just need a slower more relaxing day on your vacation.
Day 1 – Anchorage
Arrive in Anchorage. If you have time, visit the Anchorage Museum. This institution is a terrific combination of art, history and science museum, all relating to Alaska. It’s the perfect intro for what you are about to experience and explore.
Driving distance: Local driving distance depends on your accommodation location.
Day 2 – Anchorage to Denali National Park
Pick up your rental car in Anchorage and head north to Denali National Park. Allow plenty of time to stop and take in the amazing landscapes and scenic detours along the way, including:
Talkeetna – An excellent place to stop for lunch. Make sure you walk out to the riverbank for views of the mountains when the weather is clear.
Igloo – the abandoned roadside hotel shaped as a giant igloo.
Denali South and North Viewpoints – On a clear day you will have spectacular views of Mount Denali, Hunter and Foraker, with the Susitna River in the foreground.
Once you arrive in Denali, get a preview of what you will be exploring more of the following day by driving the 24km (15mi) of Park Road accessible to public vehicles.
Spend the night in the town of Denali Park, just outside the Park entrance for easy access in the morning.
If you would like to see the Northern Lights (aurora borealis), then hope for clear skies this evening and next. Denali National Park is almost completely free from light pollution so it’s a great place to watch the Northern Lights. However, take heed of my earlier suggestion on the timing of your trip.
Driving distance: Anchorage to the entrance of Denali National Park (not including the 15mi of Park road) is approximately 419km (260mi) 4hrs 40mins.
Day 3 – Denali National Park
You have the entire day to explore Denali National Park. If want to do some hiking, it is important to note that Denali National Park has relatively few designated trails. Visitors are encouraged to roam freely as long as you are prepared and able to navigate the wilderness.
If you are only spending a couple of days in the park, you will likely find sufficient trails to keep you busy. However, should you want to do some off-trail exploring, you’ll need to be prepared with the right gear and known how to navigate in the wilderness to do so safely.
For hikers and independent explorers, I recommend jumping on a transit bus (the green buses). A transit bus may or may not have commentary, that is up to the driver. It will stop if you spot wildlife along the road, just give the driver a friendly holler.
The transit bus system allows passengers to request stops wherever they would like to get off the bus, and wave down the next one that comes along when they are ready to continue on their journey.
The best strategy for using the bus on your first day in Denali is to ride it as far as it will go, making notes on the places you’d like to get off on the way back. At the furthest point, give your bus driver a heads-up on the first place you want to alight so they are prepared to make the stop.
Driving distance: Local driving distance depends on the location of your accommodation.
Day 4 – Denali National Park to Seward
Driving from Denali National Park to Seward is a long-haul driving day, but you can take your time and revisit any of those scenic viewpoints along the way. Also, I have a few stops to suggest taking advantage of to break up the car ride:
- Talkeetna – The aforementioned town is a 30-minute diversion off your route and is not included in the timing/mileage below. It’s also the place to jump on a flightseeing tour.
- Palmer – Less scenic but more functional than Talkeetna. Palmer is a quick detour off the highway and has plenty of food, coffee and places to stock up on supplies including gas.
- Beluga and/or Bird Points – Turnouts along Turnagain Arm with views across the water to the mountains on the Kenai Peninsula. However, DO NOT be tempted to explore the mudflats. The glacial silt that lines these ocean inlets has a quicksand-from-hell type of effect and you absolutely do not want to get stuck.
- Girdwood – A ski town with cute, small-town feels surrounded by greenery.
Driving distance: Denali National Park to Seward approximately 600km (375mi) 6hrs 40mins without stops.
Day 5 – Exit Glacier
Experience Exit Glacier, whether it’s a simple hike to the terminus or an all-day trek to the Harding Ice Shelf that feeds the Glacier.
There are various options to get out on the ice depending on how much time, energy and money you want to spend. Whichever you choose, I absolutely recommend any able-bodied person gets out on the actual ice (with an expert). It’s an entirely different experience to walk on a glacier rather than just looking at it.
There are even opportunities to fly into more remote areas and pristine environments higher up on the ice shelf for a truly mind-blowing experience.
Drive distance: Local driving is dependent on your accommodation’s location.
Day 4-5 Alternative: Exit Glacier Substitute
Exit Glacier is rapidly receding – its terminus has shrunk back up the mountain slopes 700m/2300ft in the last 13-years. So even though it is a popular option for its proximity to Seward, reaching the ice is taking more and more effort as the years go by.
Matanuska Glacier is much more accessible in that regard, particularly if you are someone who cannot hike long distances. You can just about drive up to the toe of the Matanuska Glacier! Though it is located on private land and you can only access it with a guide, we found it to be a fantastic experience and worth paying to have a professional take you out on the ice.
As an added bonus, the drive out to Matanuska Glacier along the Glenn Highway is absolutely beautiful. If you choose this alternative, it is best to drive from Denali National Park to Glacier View and spend the night. Take a morning hike on Matanuska Glacier and then continue on to Seward to pick up this itinerary again at day 6.
Day 6 – Kenai Fjords National Park
Enjoy a full day in Kenai Fjords National Park, where almost 40 glaciers spill from the Harding Icefield, carving valleys on their path to the North Pacific Ocean. The fjords created by these rivers of ice are abundant with wildlife such as orcas, humpback whales, puffins, harbour seals, sea otters and sea lions.
We took a full-day combined wildlife cruise and kayaking tour. This tour provides the best of both worlds: passive wildlife viewing and more active participation, kayaking close to the toe of Aialik Glacier. Kayak tours get much closer to the glacier and just paddling around in the ice is a unique experience.
We picnicked while watching the glacier calve (a mostly May-June phenomenon), and were followed around the bay by a curious seal that would pop its head up to check on us every few minutes. This is an absolute must-do if you are only in Kenai Fjords for just one day.
Drive distance: Local driving is dependent on your accommodation’s location.
Day 8 – Drive Seward to Homer
Homer is the “Halibut fishing capital of the world” and ground zero for bear viewing excursions to Lake Clark and Katmai National Parks. This beautiful fishing town has a spit that extends into Kachemak Bay and is surrounded by natural beauty.
On your way from Seward to Homer, make a lunch stop in the town of Kenai and visit the Old Town where you can see buildings remaining from Alaska’s Russian and American history.
Drive distance: Seward to Homer through Kenai 300km (186mi) 3hrs 40mins.
Day 9 – Katmai or Lake Clark National Park
Take a half-day bear viewing excursion over to one of the area’s National Parks. Your tour operator will decide on the best Park to visit based on where the bears are spending their time at that moment, to give you the best chance of seeing them.
These National Parks can only be accessed by plane or boat. A boat ride from Homer is about 2-hours in each direction, while a small plane takes about 1-hour.
If you choose a small plane tour, as we did, you’ll not only get a chance to see grizzly bears but incredible aerial views over Kachemak Bay, Cook Inlet, the Alaska Peninsula and the region’s various volcanos.
Day 10 – Return to Anchorage
Drive back to Anchorage for your flight out, revisiting any of your favourite stops along the way or any you missed the first time.
Drive distance: Homer to Anchorage 360km (225mi) 4hrs 30mins.
Places to eat, drink and be merry
Here are a few places we ate, drank and enjoyed on our Alaska road trip. We couldn’t eat everywhere that I researched, so there are further suggestions on the following map.
Tent City Taphouse, Anchorage – Dinner
Great Harvest Bread Co, Anchorage – Coffee and sandwiches
Kinley’s Restaurant & Bar, Anchorage – Dinner
Spinach Bread, Talkeetna – Lunch and snack (local institution)
Conscious Coffee, Talkeetna – coffee and drinks
Sunrise Grill, Palmer – Lunch or dinner
The Black Bear Café, Denali – Breakfast and coffee
Sea Bean, Seward – Coffee, breakfast and lunch (they provide lunches to some of the local tour companies too)
Gold Rush Bistro, Seward – Dinner
Veronica’s Old Town Cafe, Kenai – Coffee and lunch
Captain’s Coffee Roasting Co, Homer – Coffee and sandwiches
Captain Pattie’s Fish House, Homer – Dinner. Order the smoked salmon dip – it’s amazing!
Alaska road trip map
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Peace, love and inspiring travel,