“I had a dream of RVing Alaska,” said our mechanic and camper namesake, Buddy. With a slurry of health issues, work, and grandbabies keeping him close to home, this forlorn 72-year-old man instilled an Alaskan wanderlust in us from our first day of RV ownership. We had to get there for him and ourselves, we just didn’t know if this 1985 four-cylinder relic could make the arduous journey. Two summers of road tripping went by and, save from the southernmost ghost town of Hyder, the Last Frontier evaded us. We’ll admit, it sounded intimidatingly far, rugged, vast, and out of our league, but you never know until you try. Giving Buddy the Camper the best odds, we got new tires, a brake job, and a full tune-up…and by July 7th we were heading for the Alaska Highway. Scaling the Rocky Mountains of British Columbia and the braving the unpaved roads of the Yukon, Buddy took the slow and steady approach. But after driving to the base of glaciers, boondocking on riverbanks, and blazing the gravel trail into the Arctic Circle, Buddy won the race.
All told we spent four weeks exploring 2,545 miles of the Last Frontier. Obviously the more time you have to explore the better, but since we know 10-14 days is the reality for most vacations, we’ve distilled our Alaska road trip down to our top 12 adventures.
Gulkana Glacier Trek
Gulkana is not the biggest, baddest glacier around, but when you can summit ancient ice without a guide, technical gear, or any tourists, trekking up Gulkana Glacier feels pretty badass. Twelve miles north of Paxson and just after the Richardson Monument sign, take the rough gravel road until your car cries uncle. If you’re in a camper, find parking with a view (it won’t be hard) because you’re gonna wanna spend the night in this wild beauty. Be sure to pack water-shoes; there are river crossings in your future. The first one is via a wobbly suspension bridge, then, assuming you want to get on the glacier, the second and third crossings involve fording frigid glacial runoff. On the other side, you’ll get into some serious silty sludge but keep on trekking until you reach the ice and gingerly make your way toward the blue face. Allow yourself five hours or so for this round-trip journey. Short on time and chutzpah? With a two-hour trip, you can get a great glacier view from the river.
Get Gold Fever
Gold mining is a running thread throughout the state’s history, so it’s good to take at least one tour at the start of your trip to inform the rest of your inevitable encounters with mining towns, dredges, and camps—past and present. Just outside Fairbanks and Fort Knox (a mine still extracting 1,000 ounces/$1.4 million of gold per day…in case you were considering leaving your pickax at home), the Gold Dredge 8 tour does a great overview, where you hop on a train, make stops to see reenactments of mining techniques through the ages, explore a magnificent 1930s dredge on the national historic register, and go gold panning (we found $37-worth in under 15 minutes!). For something a less structured but full of character(s) visit the hysterical mining town of Chicken and the stunning Hatcher’s Pass State Park.
Hike the Alyeska North Face Trail
Trek 2,000-vertical feet up Alyeska Ski Resort’s North Face Trail and you’ll be handsomely rewarded at the summit with incredible views, craft beer, and a free gondola ride down. Many people pay $39 for the ride up, but on a 2.2-mile trail, surrounded by seven glaciers and lined with wildflowers, it’s too pretty to rush; plus, a pint of lager tastes better when you’ve lost that much in sweat. From the ski-lodge patio, take in the panoramic views of the mountains, Girdwood town, and the tidal Turnagain Arm, then start planning your winter return—Alyeska gets more snow than ANY resort in North America (in 2013, they got 82 feet).
Ice Climb Matanuska Glacier
The largest road-accessible glaciers in the US, Matanuska practically spills onto Glenn Highway (just 100 miles east of Anchorage). This glacier, carving its way through the Chugach Mountains, is 27-miles long and 4-miles wide at the terminus. The most affordable way to get to the ice is to do the $30 self-guided trek to the face from Mantanuska Glacier Park. We went this route per lack of time and it was awesome, but if we could do it again, we’d go ice climbing (and glamping!) with MICA guides. Matanuska is retreating at a rate of 32 feet per year—and while that seems sad, that’s considered slow by 21st-century standards! Spend time climbing around its sculptural fins, electric blue crevasses, and ice on the move.
When researching bear-viewing destinations for the “Safari” chapter of our new book Comfortably Wild: The Best Glamping Destinations in North America, BearCamp was the hands-down winner. A former homestead-turned-glamping-camp in Lake Clark National Park, it is surrounded by clam-laden beaches, a river with multiple salmon runs, and forests full of protein-rich sedge and bountiful berry bushes—aka heaven for coastal brown bears and safari-goers alike. Homesteader Wayne Byers coexisted with bears for 47 years and fostered a peaceful environment for them to go about their business. As a result, we were able to see giant males fish for salmon, mama bears nurse their young, and cubs playing just yards away! Not to mention, BearCamp is surrounded by the stunning Aleutian range and a beach with 17-foot tides that flip the landscape on its head every twelve hours. Watch the video, above, for the raw magic and power of bears.
Kayak Portage Lake
Why do we carry a kayak with us wherever we go? Moments like this! No tour guides needed, we just pulled up to the Bear Valley Viewpoint, walked three minutes down to the water, and started paddling toward the face of Portage Glacier. This icy blue beauty is about an hour away, with few inlets to take breaks, though the scenery is nonstop with sheer cliffs, glacier-capped mountains, and tons of waterfalls. It’s tempting to paddle right up to the face, but head to the beach on the left for a safer ascent (NOTE: you didn’t hear this from us－this is not a ranger-sanctioned move). Excited as school kids, we peeked into ice caves, down crevasses, and felt the chilly droplets on our skin. Not a paddler? Take the park’s boat cruise or hike the 3-mile Whittier’s Portage Pass Trail to a beach with straight-on glacier views.
49th State Brewery & The Into The Wild Bus
Healy, Alaska is where you can find the beloved 49th State Brewery and the starting point of Chris McCandless’ journey Into the Wild. To this day, fans of the book and movie try (often with horrible outcomes) to hike to his bus refuge in the woods, where he ultimately died of food poisoning and starvation. When the movie was done being filmed, they donated the replica of “Bus 142” to the brewery, to help quell this dangerous curiosity and pay homage to Chris’ life. Go to the brewery for excellent craft beer (try the smoked ale), a fun scene (we went on trivia night and it was all locals) and spend time in the bus. On the walls, you will see photographs from his unleashed adventures, entries from his journals, quotes scribbled on the walls, and postcards to his inner circle. On our drive to Alaska, we listened to the audiobook and, like millions of others, grew an affinity for Alex Supertramp and got chills walking into his world.
Cruise into Kenai Fjords National Park
Over half of Kenai Fjords National Park is capped with glacial ice, with the Harding Icefield branching into 40 glaciers. To explore this wonder, most travelers opt for the shorter boat tours, but this is no time to skimp. There are massive tidewater glaciers out here! Go for the nine-hour Northwestern Fjord excursion with Pursuit’s Kenai Fjords Tours, they’ve been around the longest, go the deepest, and know their stuff. To reach the end of the bay and see this wall of gnarly blue ice crack, shift, and calve with cannonball splashes into the sea leaves you speechless. Plus, the wildlife watching is fantastic among these plankton-rich waters. We saw humpbacks, sea lion colonies, and countless seabirds—including the adorable puffins!
Cross the Arctic Circle
Having already driven 3,000 miles from California, what’s another 250 when it means you can reach the Arctic Circle! The question was…do we take Alaska’s Dalton Highway or the Yukon’s Dempster Highway. The distance and roughness of these unpaved trucking roads is comparable, though the Dempster has fewer big rigs and brings you through the gorgeous Tombstone Provincial park, the Northwestern Territories, and to the Arctic Ocean community of Tuktoyaktuk (only as of 2018)…sold! We protected Buddy the best we could from this notoriously tire-slashing road by renting a second spare and driving around 20 mph to avoid punctures. Oh it was a painfully slow pace (and it still shook our oven off the hinges!) but hey, we had more time to admire the Ogilvie Mountains’ jagged peaks, the tundra’s mini spruces, and abundant wildlife (moose, bear, fox, and lynx to boot!). If you consider yourself a road warrior, reaching the Arctic Circle is one for the books. See more photos from The Dempster and our time in the Yukon.
After mile 15 on the Denali park road, you need to leave your car and take a bus. This leaves you two options: the “green” hop-on-off bus or a guided tour. Be sure to take the green to Wonder Lake. While among epic scenery and one of the most pristine wilderness areas in the US, you will not want to be trapped on the same bus for eight hours with pre-determined photo stops. Even the average green-bus driver in Denali knows a ton about the park and has a keen eye for wildlife, so you still learn a ton, plus you have the freedom to hike in any direction. We bushwhacked our way to a magnificent view over Wonder Lake, walking on earth so mossy it fully enveloped our boots and put a bounce in our step. Another benefit, if you don’t like your driver’s guiding style, you can hop on a new bus. We had an adorable older woman who led blueberry foraging at her stops and a young guy who was so passionate about wildlife, he nearly exploded with joy when we had a three-minute lynx sighting! Also, make sure to tell your driver to let you off at Polychrome to hike the hardened lava and multicolored mountains; whenever you’re ready to move on, just walk closer to the road and you can easily flag down a new bus.
Fly to Denali Basecamp
When we realized it was an option to fly to the basecamp of North America’s tallest mountain and land on one of its 880 glaciers, we immediately signed up with K2 Aviation. Departing from the charming Talkeetna and watching the landscape change from lush forest to icy peaks is unreal. Watch this video for a jaw-dropping flight and one of the coolest experiences of our entire eight-year journey.
Side highlight: While in Talkeetna, we randomly starred on an episode of Man vs. Food, then had beers and hung out for an hour with the host, Casey Webb.
Adventure Cruising Southeast Alaska
Alaska has more coastline than all other U.S. states combined, its coast has 87% of all the seabirds in the country, and over 10,000 whales come here each summer－it’s a place that warrants time at sea. We ditched the camper in Haines and hopped sea plane to Sitka (Alaska’s first capital state capital and the largest city by area in the USA) to board a seven-day expedition up the Inside Passage to Glacier Bay National Park. It was a bonanza of whale watching, rainforest trekking, fjord kayaking, glacier calving, and aurora chasing. Read the full blog about our UnCruise here and don’t miss this humpback bubble-net feeding video (the captain said it was his best whale sighting in 19 years!).
Alaska Road Trip: Lessons Learned
- Focus your time on the Alaskan wilderness! Use Anchorage as a place to stock up for the road and keep moving. While Fairbanks does have some fun things going on, it’s a pretty big detour when there is so much to see south of the Alaska Range.
- Pay attention to the fire reports. If you have a flexible plan, you can hold off on smokier areas until they clear or find somewhere else to explore. For example, we could barely see Exit Glacier and should have held off until after we explored Seward.
- Have a full-size inflated spare tire with good-tread. Most exciting detours, even major roads like the Denali Highway are unpaved and with very few services, mechanics, or even cell reception. If the tire doesn’t fit where your “donut” lives, strap it to the roof. And make sure your jack works and that you have the tools to take your lugnuts off.
- Don’t book campsites in advance. Boondocking in gorgeous locations has never been easier. We pulled over on the highway (with glacier views!) without a problem and even saw 40-foot RVs getting comfy with their slides out. When it comes to more regulated places like Denali, we just went to dinner at the 49th State Brewery and put our “camping fee” towards beer money.
- Alaska, as rugged as it is, is a delicate place. Be a good environmental steward and do what you can to protect and honor its rainforest, wildlife, and glaciers. Leave no trace, choose sustainable tour companies, and don’t take this beauty for granted.