As the largest state, it’s no surprise that there are many ways to see Alaska. Of course, everyone who has even considered visiting has their own opinion.
Some swear that a cruise ship is the only way to go. Others can’t imagine a trip without taking a train. And there are those who contend that the only way to truly see Alaska is either by ground or sky. No wonder a trip can seem so overwhelming. I’ve planned many vacations, but Alaska was by far one of the most challenging but by far one of the most rewarding places to visit.
Narrowing the route
As planning began we decided first to estimate our budget, then to determine what activities we wanted to include. Alaska’s backcountry is vast and wildlife relatively abundant, so that was definitely on the list. My kids also wanted to walk on a glacier, spend time outdoors and ride a dog sled.
After some help from travel forums, I learned that for a week-long trip we could either focus on the strip of land with Juneau that is mainly accessible by cruise ship, or we could fly into Anchorage or Fairbanks and travel by train or car to some of the most popular tourist spots. With more time, there is also an option to visit areas north of Fairbanks by small plane or helicopter.
Those willing to pay several hundred dollars for each flight can see so much more of the state by flying from place to place. It’s a far more comfortable option than driving for hours on end. The train is a popular option, running from Fairbanks near the center of the state to Seward on the coast. It also can be pricey for a family of four, plus leaves little room for spontaneity. Similarly a cruise, while a popular choice, was limiting for seeing Alaska’s interior.
That left us with automobile. While there aren’t a huge number of roads and highways in Alaska, the route from Seward to Anchorage to Fairbanks is one of the busiest. That highway passes Denali National Park with plenty of stops in small towns along the way. Another highway running southeast of Fairbanks back to the coat follows much of the Trans-Alaska pipeline, then eventually splits as one road turns west to Anchorage while the other heads straight to the coast. Flying in and out of Fairbanks and following that highway loop in the bottom corner of the state seemed like it would tick all the boxes of our trip.
As I calculated the distance from place to place in order to plan hotel and sightseeing stops, I was forewarned to add an extra hour or two when estimating drive times. Summer roads are often under construction, and with nearly every road limited to two lanes it just takes being behind a slow camper to stall an itinerary.
Narrowing the options
We decided to start our trip with a six hour drive southeast the first day, which ended up being a blessing. We were so excited to be in Alaska, every single view was noteworthy. The final day of our trip – the two hour drive from Denali back to Fairbanks – was our shortest drive of the week yet felt the longest. By then we’d had a week of beautiful scenery and it all began to blend together.
Once we knew what direction we were heading from Fairbanks, we filled in the days with activities on our list. The first night we stayed at Sheep Mountain Lodge, close to Matanuska Glacier which we hiked the next morning. From there we drove to Anchorage and stayed at the Hilton with a two-window view. One window overlooked the bay; through the other we watched travelers embark the trains. It was a perfect vantage point to see the sun not set.
The next morning we headed to Seward, a beautiful coastal community highly recommended by everyone. We’d hoped to include Homer, but that would have been an extra four hours each direction from Anchorage with no easy way to get anywhere else. Essentially we had to decide between Homer and Seward, and with the latter’s access to fjords and nature it won.
Our visit to Seward lasted two days but we could have stayed longer. A boat tour of the Kenai Fjords was exceptional, graced by great weather and abundant wildlife. Our drive then took us back through Anchorage and a visit to the Alaska Native Heritage Center. We rented an Airbnb on a farm north of Anchorage, an eye-opening glimpse of life in Alaska. Nothing goes to waste, and there’s a level of ingenuity in making things work when the things we take for granted aren’t always accessible.
We continued north through Talkeenta, an adorable town worth a short stop, before landing outside of Denali. We had enough time for an ATV ride adjacent to the park before settling in for the day.
The end of the road
The our visit within Denali was by far the most disappointing part of the trip, but something we felt we needed to do. We took the eight-hour non-narrated bus tour, recommended by other travelers. That day it rained for the first time of our trip, temperatures were near freezing in June and the bus heater wasn’t working. Pairing that misery with being crammed in the back of the bus with no view of the surroundings made the experience miserable.
Ironically 24 hours later we were sweating in Fairbanks, where we enjoyed one final day of the trip. Temperatures were above 80 with sunshine, we walked around the city, visited the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum and ended our day exploring Pioneer Park. As our plane departed, I realized it was June 22, the day after the longest day of the year. Throughout the week we’d experienced nearly constant sunlight, giving us plenty of time to experience the many ways to see the state.