When you tell most people you are going to Alaska they assume you are going on a cruise. For years I also thought that was the only way to see America’s last frontier. However, when I had the opportunity to chat with the PR for Anchorage, I learned that in fact a wonderful way to experience Alaska is by road.
While a cruise can provide a wonderful experience, not much can beat an Alaska road trip in my opinion. Road trips allow you to explore a destination with spontaneity, allow you to uncover hidden gems along the way and provides the ability to explore breathtaking landscapes off the beaten path. For families, it’s imperative to have flexibility which is another reason we opted to experience Alaska by land with Thrifty Rental Cars.
Thrifty Car Rental
First things first. You need a rental car. As you know there are so many rental options at the airports. However, as we were researching various options in Alaska, we found that Thrifty Rental Car was the right price and provided exactly what we needed for our trip. Since it rains quite a bit and the roads are often unpredictable, we decided to go for an SUV with all wheel drive giving me that extra sense of security for driving on wet roads.
Something you may not know when you are booking cars through various locations is that the individual locations are often franchises. Thrifty in Anchorage is family owned, which was great because they made sure we got excellent service with a personal touch. So not only do you get the quality of the brand Thrifty is known for, you also get to support a local Alaskan family owned business.
In my partnership with Thrifty Car Rental in Anchorage, they have graciously extended a 10% off code for my readers for all summer bookings. Use the Promo code: NBTVL on Thrifty.com‘s website to avail of the discount. My one tip would be to book your rental car early. There are limited cars in Alaska in general and with summer being high season it can be difficult to secure the car of your choosing at the last minute.
10 Day Alaska Road Trip Itinerary
Now you have the car, but where should you go? Here is a brief overview of the itinerary we followed. However if I had a bit more time I would have added on a further excursion all the way to the Arctic Circle. I would suggest heading up past Denali to Fairbanks on the Richardson and Glenn highways and then to the Arctic. From what I’ve read, the scenery is spectacular, dotted with Alaskan villages and wonderful hiking opportunities.
- Day 1 – Arrive to Anchorage
- Day 2 – Day Trip Around Anchorage – Earthquake Park & Flattop Mountain
- Day 3 – Anchorage to Denali
- Day 4 – Explore Denali National Park by bus
- Day 5 – Denali National Park
- Day 6 – Denali to Talkeetna
- Day 7 – Talkeetna to Seward
- Day 8 – Explore Seward by boat
- Day 9 – Explore Seward to Anchorage
- Day 10 – Depart from Anchorage
Highlights of Alaska by Road
Most visitors planning to venture around Alaska by road will fly into Anchorage. This cute town of 300,000 feels citylike but isn’t too out of place among the towering mountains surrounding it. For most people a 1-2 night stop over will be plenty. Having a car in Anchorage makes it so much easier to get around and means that you can get out a bit to explore some areas just outside of town. We loved visiting Earthquake Park one morning for a quiet view of the city across the water.
It was also great to have a rental car so we could load up with fishing poles, waders and wellies before heading to Ship Creek where we joined the locals fishing for salmon. We looked like total amateurs but had fun experiencing a true Alaskan pastime. Without a car, we wouldn’t have been able to make this dream of my son’s a reality.
And lastly on our must do list in Anchorage is a beautiful hike in bear country at Flattop Mountain. We didn’t see a bear on our hike, but we did see a moose on the way back down which was pretty cool for us city folk! The drive up from the city was amazing, as were the views over the city from way up top.
Any road trip in Alaska will mean a bit of back and forth since there aren’t a ton of different routes to follow. From Anchorage you can either drive north or south and most likely you will do both, so it’s your decision where to go first. We started off north, heading to Denali National Park before swinging back down along a different path en route to Seward.
En Route to Denali National Park
The beauty of having a car while exploring Alaska is being able to stop at every beautiful site you see along the way. The dreaded 5 hour drive from Anchorage to Denali surprisingly went by quickly as we made various stops along the way to take in the beautiful scenery. Reflection Lake and Mirror Lake were two favorites for pretty views and a quick leg stretch. After being stuck in rain for several hours we were happy to stop at the Denali North View Point for a little hike. On a clear day, you get spectacular views of the Denali range, but for us, there was nothing to see except the riverbed below. Regardless the little hike with educational placards along the way was worth stopping for.
Denali National Park
Visiting Denali National Park is a highlight for many tourists in Alaska. Even guests on cruise ships docking 7 hours away in Seward find a way to visit this massive national park. And for good reason. Denali has only one road cutting through it’s 6 million acres and that road is not accessible to regular cars (for most of the year), which means that the park has continued to stay wild.
Hop aboard one of the many shuttle buses that take you from only a few miles into the park to deep within the park to experience it in all its greatness. Denali National Park is unique in that they encourage visitors to hike off trail and explore the vast wilderness as they want. We spent time on established trails, but honestly the most fun we had was climbing through waist high bushes, in search of a golden eagle who was flying overhead. Take the time to go wild here, it will be worth it.
If you have time and/or can’t bare to drive all the way back to Anchorage or even further south to Seward, stop off in Talkeetna. This adorable hippy town still feels like it must have in days of old. In early summer it is packed with adventurers heading off to hike Mt. Denali. In late summer, it is filled with tourists hoping for a look at that infamously shy mountain! It’s great for a one day stop over, but you can also fill your time with flightseeing tours, water tours or just pottering around the eclectic shops and enjoying the delicious food on offer.
Hatcher Pass Scenic Drive
To change things up a bit on the way to Seward via Anchorage, we went off roading on the Hatcher Pass Scenic Drive. In the Talkeetna Mountains between the towns of Willow and Palmer, Hatcher Pass is a favorite. You can detour to visit Independence Mine Historical State Park or just enjoy the rushing river alongside the road while being surrounded by mountains filled with falcons and golden eagles.
This detour adds a bit of time to the drive, but the 60 miles between Palmer and Willow is beautiful. The road is gravel for about 22 miles and can be rough in some parts. We were able to drive over it quite easily in our SUV as were our friends in their sedan, but be aware after heavy rains.
Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center
Another great stopping off point between Anchorage and Seward is the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center just outside of Portage. The conservation center houses rescued animals from all over the state. With a great number of animals, you can easily spend several hours here checking out the animals as well as taking in a few feeding sessions with the trainers.
Heading all the way down to the coast takes you to Seward (or Homer if you took the right turn off!) which is a port to many cruise ships and is home to Kenai Fjords National Park. This park can be experienced both on land and from the water. Make time to do both with a hike on land and a boat trip out to see the fabulous glaciers from the water. To really get a sense of Seward and its surrounding areas, you have to have a car. There are a great number of hikes around the area to really get off the beaten path and experience Alaska’s beautiful nature close up.
Even though many visitors experience the rugged beauty of Alaska from the coastal waters, there is so much to see inland making a road trip worthwhile. Road trips also allow you to have more control over your budget by choosing where to stay and where/how often to eat out. Alaska is still never going to be a budget vacation (read more about what to expect in Alaska), but it also doesn’t have to cost several thousand per person like many cruises end up costing. And you get to see bears in the wild. Not much is better than that!
Have you taken an Alaskan road trip? Anywhere we missed?
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Thank you to Anchorage Thrifty for providing us this car for our road trip around Alaska. All of the opinions are my own.