Big, bold and beautiful, Alaska offers road trippers wildly scenic adventures and trip-of-a-lifetime drives. If you long for lonely stretches of highway and the opportunity to spot wildlife, then an Alaska road trip delivers in spades. Alaskan highways hold some of the best kept secrets when it comes to experiencing our North American frontier. Here are six Alaskan top drives.
George Parks Highway
Anchorage to Fairbanks – 324 miles/9 hours
The George Parks Highway is one of the more popular routes because it provides quick access to Alaska’s interior and a tour of Denali National Park. And while Denali is the main attraction along this route, it’s not the only one.
The George Parks Highway, or Parks Highway as it is called, begins north of Anchorage in the Mantanuska Valley. With the Chugach Mountain Range on your right and the braided bed of the Knik River on your left, you’ll think it can’t get any better. In truth, you’ve only just begun and have entered Wasilla, a quiet bedroom community forty miles north of Anchorage, and the last point to purchase supplies from major grocery and retail stores.
Beyond the strip malls of Wasilla, the drive north becomes an unhurried meander through flat and marshy forests. Occasional views of the higher peaks of the Alaska Range poke above spruce trees and progress slows even more as you fall in behind a parade of RVs heading to Denali.
While the entire highway can be driven in nine hours, plan on a four or more days. Spend your first night in Talkeetna, the starting point for mountaineers looking to summit Mt. McKinley. Stay at the Talkeetna Roadhouse and tour the town. The Talkeetna River rages nearby and the Fairview Inn offers live entertainment and stellar people watching opportunities.
Beyond Talkeetna, the topography changes as you climb to higher elevations. A clear day delivers your first views of Alaska’s tallest peaks, Mounts McKinley, Hunter and Foraker, and a chance at seeing wildlife, including moose and bears.
Reserve a couple days to explore Denali National Park before driving the last three hours to Fairbanks. Fairbanks is a pleasant surprise. Summer temps hover above 70 degrees and the town has a distinct Midwestern feel.
Paxson to Cantwell – 133 miles/4 hours
Until 1972, the Denali Highway was the only road that accessed Denali National Park & Preserve. And while it’s no longer the favored route, the Denali Highway is still an experience not to be missed.
Start in Paxson and fuel up at the Paxson Roadhouse. There are no driver services other than lodging between the start and the finish in Cantwell.
At the beginning of the drive you’ll come to understand what the term ‘kettle pond’ means. These picturesque bodies of water dot the landscape and complement the Alaskan tundra: Dwarf birch and blueberry bushes stretch to the horizon, and come fall, paint the scene in fiery reds and blazes of orange.
The highpoint of the road is Maclaren Summit (4,086 fee/1,245 meters), before it descends to the Maclaren River. Rooms and shared baths are available at waterfront Maclaren River Lodge. If you spend the night, set the alarm for 2:00 am and step outside for a chance at seeing the Aurora Borealis’ dance across the sky.
After Maclaren, the road becomes wilder, crossing countless creek beds and tracing ridgelines. You’ll know you’re three miles from Cantwell when you reach pavement.
Valdez to Fairbanks – 368 miles/10 hours
The Richardson Highway was Alaska’s first road and was used by early gold miners hoping to strike it rich in Fairbanks. Much of this highway follows the trans-Alaska pipeline, which carries oil 800 miles from Prudhoe Bay to the terminus in Valdez.
Begin in Fairbanks where forests of black spruce and the Delta River line the highway. As the road ascends into the Alaska Range and over Isabel Pass (3,280 feet/999 meters), the Alaska Pipeline becomes a constant companion.
Stop for lunch in Copper Center and visit the Wrangell Saint Elias National Park and Preserve visitor center before continuing south to Thompson Pass (2,078 feet/633 meters) and the Worthington Glacier. A small visitor kiosk explains how glaciers form and a short hike leads to an even shorter walk on the ice. The remainder of the drive is a quick and drops you in the coastal town of Valdez.
Anchorage to Seward – 82 miles/3 hours
If you don’t have a lot of time, a Seward Highway tour is the perfect answer. Designated as a National Forest Scenic Byway, the road traces the tide water flats of Cook Inlet’s Turnagain Arm. At Portage Glacier, the highway moves inland and carves a deep groove into the Chugach National Forest. When you reach Kenai Lake, views open and rest on Kenai Fjords National Park’s snow-kissed peaks.
Before cruising into Seward for the night, detour at the Leirer/Exit Glacier Road. The paved road provides the only accesses to the Park. Join a ranger-led hike or stroll on your own. Based on the view, you’ll gain an appreciation of the role glaciers played in shaping the landscape.
Alaska Marine Highway
Valdez to Whittier – 90 miles/4 hours
While not a road, the Alaska Marine Highway is definitely one to be experienced. The marine system connects coastal Alaska villages to Anchorage. While tickets are pricey, save money by ditching the car in the parking lot and walking onto the ferry. Each boat is equipped with comfortable seating areas and multiple viewing decks. There’s even a cafeteria to buy snacks and beverages.
The ferry is a relaxing way to travel. You have the luxury of sitting back and enjoying the rolling pace of the ocean while viewing dramatic scenery of islands, hanging glaciers, and the occasional whale up close.
Chitina Ranger Station to McCarthy – 61 miles/3 hours
Though it is the shortest drive in the line-up, it is not for the faint of heart. The McCarthy road is an adventurous drive on a gravel road that ends at the secluded town of McCarthy and the historic mining district of Kennecott.
At the start cars pass through a narrow slot canyon before crossing the expanse of the Copper River. Native Alaskan fish wheels line the shore and make for a remarkable picture-taking opportunity. Before long you’ll cross another bridge, the Kuskulana. The impressive structure spans more than 500 feet across and sits at a height of 240 feet above the river.
As you travel, expect to catch views of Mt. Blackburn, the Crystalline Hills and the Chugach Mountains. Several road-side lakes make for great picnic spots and marked trailheads tempt you to get out and move.
The road ends at a parking area where a footbridge leads you to McCarthy and Kennecott. Spend a few days if you can; you’ll gain an understanding of what it truly means to live in the Alaskan bush.
Tips for Driving in Alaska
The best time to drive is early May through September. Even in good weather, taking a road trip in Alaska presents a number of challenges. Knowing what to expect will prevent any surprises or prolonged delays.
- Watch for uneven pavement.
- While all but two of the above trips take you along paved highways, it’s important to watch for frost heaves in the pavement. Frost heaves, the result of cold weather, cause the road to be uneven in spots.
- Be prepared. Even during summer months weather can feel winter-like. Carry warm clothing, rain gear and extra food.
- Stay alert. Keep your eyes on the road. Moose, deer, bears and other larger mammals often cross or feed along roadways and are especially plentiful at dawn and dusk.
- Carry a map. A map will help you make crucial decisions when it comes to driving on or stopping for the night.
- Check your fuel gauge. Always consult a map and pay attention to the fuel gauge and signs for gas stations.
- Car rentals. Car rental companies in Alaska offer four-wheel-drive vehicles. It’s worth paying a little extra to ensure you will make it to and from your destination.
- Watch the road. Alaska is beautiful and one fantastic view follows another. Watch the road while driving and the scenery when you’re stationary. There are numerous viewpoints and pull-outs along each of these routes.
- Carry a full-size tire as your spare. Roads are rough in Alaska and a full-size spare is a necessity.
All photos courtesy of Cathleen Calkins.
- Cathleen Calkins