Illustration by Emily Blevins, animation by Claudia Cardia
Photo by Brian Flaherty
Alaska, the largest state in the U.S., is home to glaciers, abundant wildlife, and the highest peak in the nation.
This weeklong excursion traverses four scenic byways and juxtaposes bustling Denali National Park, the most popular in the state, with the less visited but no less impressive Wrangell–St. Elias.
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.
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.
After leaving Chugiak, it’s about a four-hour drive to Chitina. Here you can pick up a bush flight with Wrangell Mountain Air to remote McCarthy-Kennicott. The former mining town and its “sin city” sister are located deep in the vast Wrangell–St. Elias wilderness, the largest U.S. national park. Flying is the most expedient way to get there (watch for moose!), but hardcore road-trippers can drive. The McCarthy Road is about 60 miles long but takes eight to nine hours to tackle because it’s so full of potholes.
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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.)
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.
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.
There is no shortage of activities in these parts: hiking, kayaking, river rafting. The 3.2-mile Horseshoe Lake Trail slopes toward an oxbow lake with views of the Nenana River; there you might spot a beaver paddling amid the dams. The 1.7-mile Savage River Loop is another great walk—rocky and green like Ireland and good for spotting Arctic ground squirrels and maybe a marmot or Dall sheep.
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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.
After working up an appetite, sample some of Denali’s flavorful fare. Head to the Eastern European tavern Moose-AKa’s for Serbian crepes and Karađorđeva stuffed schnitzel, 229 Parks Restaurant & Tavern for upscale locavore dining (crisp enoki mushrooms with smoked reindeer broth or Alaskan octopus with squid ink noodles), and 49th State Brewing in Healy for refreshing spruce tip beer and a photo op with a movie replica of the Chris McCandless bus. Shirley’s Northern Lights in Talkeetna, another Denali gateway, is a fine place to sample Alaska’s popular fireweed ice cream.
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.
Your final stop before heading back to Anchorage should be Palmer, population 7,209, and the heart of Alaska’s farm country. Reserve a spot on a seasonal outing led by Alaska Farm Tours, a young company that takes a deep look at the unique agriculture of the 49th state. Founder Margaret Adsit knows everyone who is anyone in farming and ranching here and loves showing off the farm-to-table bounty of the Matanuska Valley. (Because of Alaska’s long summer days, farmers are able to grow giant fruits and vegetables, including a record-breaking cabbage that weighed 138 pounds.) Adsit’s tours start at the Palmer Museum & Visitor Center and bounce around to two or three family-run farms—such as Arctic Organics and Moonstone Farm—and end with an Alaskan-grown picnic feast or a visit to Bleeding Heart, a cool microbrewery whose beer geek founders love experimenting with local ingredients.
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.
The best way to spend your final afternoon in Alaska is taking one last glorious look at its untamed topography. Book a flightseeing tour of the Knik Glacier in the Chugach Mountains or the Triumvirate Glacier in the Alaska Range. The experienced pilots at Rust’s Flying Service know these lands inside and out, and they’ll take you on a photo safari like you’ve never imagined.
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.
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