For being the largest and most isolated state in the nation, Alaska can feel awfully crowded in summertime. And no wonder—more than 1.2 million people are expected to visit the Inside Passage via cruise ships in 2019. This figure breaks a record set last year by more than 15 percent, and the state expects those numbers to rise again in 2020. No question, seeing snow-capped mountains, spectacular glaciers, and abundant wildlife from the deck of a ship is an unforgettable experience. But overland driving can be equally rewarding, especially for road-trippers who design an itinerary that avoids the tourist crush. This 954-mile weeklong road trip packs in lots of memorable experiences: originating and ending in a major transport hub (Anchorage); visiting awe-inspiring sights like Denali, North America’s highest mountain peak; and venturing into a few less-trafficked corners of the state as well. Here’s how first-timers can pull it off.
This weeklong excursion starts and ends in Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city and home to the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport. All told, it traverses four scenic byways, including Alaska’s oldest (Richardson) and drops in on two big national parks with very different personalities.
Day one: Impressive landscapes and a bush flight
You don’t have to drive far from the big city to be wowed by Alaska’s landscapes. The two-lane Glenn Highway, which runs 179 miles from Anchorage to Glennallen, reveals a surprise a minute. Ignore the billboards advertising zip-lines and ATV rentals and head instead to Chugach State Park, north of Eagle River. Follow the mile-long Thunderbird Falls trailhead through cottonwood and birch groves to catch distant views of the 200-foot-tall waterfall. For a closer look, descend the steep switchback trail into the canyon and go face to face with the powerful spray.
Back on the Glenn, take a moment to marvel at the slate-blue mountains and swathes of purple fireweed flanking the highway. The land here doesn’t look all that different now than it probably did 800 years ago, when the Knik Arm was occupied by native Athabascans. At St. Nicholas Church and the Eklutna Historical Park in Chugiak, you can learn more about that history—and what happened after the first missionaries showed up. (The Russian-Orthodox parish still serves Alaska Natives, specifically descendants of the Dena’ina tribe.) Go for a wander through the church graveyard and you’ll notice more than 100 spirit houses scattered across its burial grounds. These are placed atop graves 40 days after a person is buried. Surviving family members paint each house with colors linked to their heritage but do not maintain them. The spirit houses’ visible disintegration symbolizes the soul of the dead returning to the earth.
Come nightfall, bed down at McCarthy’s 20-room Ma Johnson’s Hotel, a historic boarding house and bordello turned homey inn. Lounging in an Adirondack chair on the front porch, listening to seasonal workers trade bear-sighting stories, is one of Wrangell’s simplest pleasures. (If you’re lucky, you might run into a cast member from Discovery Channel’s Edge of Alaska, a reality show filmed in McCarthy from 2013 to 2017.)
Days two and three: A tasting menu and a glacier trek
McCarthy is a dusty one-road town with a year-round population of just 27 residents but a mighty food scene. The fresh-caught Copper River red salmon at The Potato and four-course “Chef’s Slaughter” tasting menu at McCarthy Lodge are not to be missed. You also can’t go wrong with the meatball subs or carnitas tacos at the Meatza Wagon food truck in neighboring Kennicott.
Spending at least two nights in McCarthy-Kennicott is essential for enough time to explore the twin towns and their phenomenal natural surroundings. In the morning, strap on a pair of crampons and join a half-day glacier trek with St. Elias Alpine Guides, a 40-year-old outfitter whose adventurous guides lead six-mile hikes across Wrangell’s imposing Root Glacier. In the afternoon, hop onto St. Elias’s Kennecott Mill Town Tour, which takes you inside the 14-story copper mine. The vertigo-inducing building is in a state of arrested decay, but the tour is informative and the views from the top are epic. For wilder hearts, St. Elias also leads exhilarating climbs to the cliffside Erie Mine bunkhouse, long abandoned but terrifying as ever.
Days four and five: Denali National Park
After you’ve wrapped up in Wrangell–St. Elias and either flown or driven back to Chitina, head for Meier’s Lake Roadhouse in Gakona, a perfect pit stop along the dramatic Richardson Highway. In the Ford Model T days, Alaska had roadhouses every 15 to 20 miles; now only four remain. Servers here are “y’all come back now” friendly and the strawberry-rhubarb cobbler with homemade ice cream is tops. Don’t miss the small “history museum” in back, either: It houses Athabascan Indian artifacts and a taxidermied moose named George.
From Gakona, head northwest toward Denali National Park and Preserve, the most commercialized leg of the road trip. The towns of Healy, McKinley Park, and Cantwell are brimming with traveler-friendly amenities. Denali Bluffs Hotel makes a decent lodge-style basecamp, particularly if you request one of the 64 RiverView Premium Rooms with views of the Nenana River Canyon and the Alaska Range.
A meet-and-greet with the “canine rangers” at the Sled Dog Kennels is another must-do activity. Denali is home to the National Park Service’s only sled-dog team: Between two and three dozen Alaskan huskies, aka canine rangers, work here year round pulling sleds and helping transport rangers, scientists, and heavy equipment through snow and ice. In winter, experienced musher and U.S. park ranger Jennifer Raffaeli and her sled dogs patrol the farthest reaches of the park’s 6 million acres of wilderness in frigid temperatures. In the summer months, she and lead ranger Jamie Milliken perform sled dog demos to educate the park-going public about the dogs’ critical role at Denali, which dates to the 1920s.
Days six and seven: Iditarod history and farm country
From Talkeetna, it’s 70 miles to Wasilla, home of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race Headquarters. Here you can watch a 33-minute video about the 1,049-mile race, browse trophies and artifacts from past winners, and chat with volunteers about dog mushing, Alaska’s official state sport.
Once you’re back in Anchorage, about 45 minutes south of Palmer, drop your bags at the newly overhauled Embassy Suites by Hilton Anchorage, a business hotel with character. You’ll be grateful for its convenient location when you start mapping out your final 24 hours in Anchorage. We suggest tucking into kalua pig, salt-cured lomi salmon, and other Hawaiian, Samoan, and Tongan dishes at Hula Hands in the city’s diverse Mountain View neighborhood. Consider devoting a full morning to exploring the recently expanded Anchorage Museum, home to more than 27,000 artifacts as well as the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of Natural History Arctic Studies Center.
What to bring
This will surprise no one, but Alaska’s weather—even in June, July, and August—can vary dramatically. Pack lots of layers, including a fleece zip-up, camp flannels, a lightweight rain shell, long underwear for glacier hikes, sturdy trail boots, and wool socks. A small backpack, multitool, sunblock, and binoculars will serve you well on day hikes.
And don’t forget to outfit your vehicle. Check that your rental car has a spare tire and jack, wrench and socket set, jumper cables, and roadside flares. Bring your own first aid kit, bottled water, and energy bars or other nonperishable snacks, plus an ice scraper—just in case. (Better safe than sorry.)
Lastly: Bring books. Wi-Fi is scarce and cell signals are poor to nonexistent in many parts of the state. Besides, what’s an Alaskan adventure without a book about Alaskan adventuring? Our recommended reading list includes John McPhee’s Coming into the Country, John Muir’s Travels in Alaska, Heather Lende’s If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name, Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, and Jennifer Niven’s Ada Blackjack: A True Story of Survival in the Arctic.
- If you drive overland to McCarthy-Kennicott, hire an SUV from a company that allows driving on unpaved roads. Budget Rent-a-Car Alaska and Midnight Sun Car Rental are both good options.
- When driving Alaska’s loneliest highways, keep an eye on the fuel gauge and fill up whenever the needle dips below half a tank.
- If you’re traveling in a shoulder month like May or September, call ahead to confirm hours. Many businesses in Alaska operate seasonally. Most everything is up and running in June, July, and August.