Alaska Road Trip“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.

Alaska Road Trip-Top 12 AdventuresAll 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

Self-guided glacier hikes, AlaskaGulkana 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

Alaska Road TripGold 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

north face hike up Alyeska, AKTrek 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

Matanuska_Glacier ParkThe 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.
 

BearCamp

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

Kayaking to Portage Glacier, AlaskaWhy 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

Into the Wild Memorial Healy AlaskaHealy, 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

Driving the Dempster HighwayHaving 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.
 

Bushwhack Denali

Denali Alaska TipsAfter 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

UnCruise Alaska PhotosAlaska 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

Alaska Auroras

  • 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.

15 thoughts on “Alaska Road Trip: Our Top 12 Adventures from 2,545 Miles

  • November 22, 2019 at 9:56 am
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    Hi Mike & Anne, your words just took me aback…”We left on our honeymoon in Jan 2012 and never came home.” Are you guys really still on your honeymoon, or is that just your tagline?

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    • November 27, 2019 at 6:25 pm
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      Ramesh, thanks for the message man. Yeah, i know it sounds crazy, but we are STILL on our honeymoon. It was originally going to be one year, and we were going to return to NYC and go back to our old jobs….then we fell in love with the road and all the amazing people we met…and while we have visited NYC a few times over the last 8 years, we haven’t stopped traveling, and haven’t had a house or apartment since 2011 🙂

      Reply
  • November 24, 2019 at 12:32 pm
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    I spent two weeks in Alaska as a teenager in the 1980s and was blown away by the beautiful landscapes. I thought at the time how great a location it would be to explore in an RV. Handy to know which sites are accessible from road and I agree that focusing on nature is key. I still remember my utter joy watching brown bear cubs racing after their mum in Denali.

    Reply
  • November 24, 2019 at 4:12 pm
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    Damn you Alaska! Why are you so far away and expensive to get to from London, UK. This has been my dream to reach this US state for a very long time and still trying to save up for a trip here. Reading your post and seeing the photos has taken the light of the fire inside me to the next level. I would love to check out Alaska in the summer months as I love hiking and nature but also in the winter so I can see those amazing northern lights. Agghhh…one day!

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    • November 27, 2019 at 6:14 pm
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      Danik, just did a search and you can get round-trip from London to Anchorage next summer for $1,209 USD (all in with taxes and fees). Then once you get there, you can just hitchhike around the state (lots of people pick up hikers), bring yourself a tent, and some bear spray and you are good to go man. Thanks so much for the enthusiasm…so glad our blog struck a cord and amplified your passion!

      Reply
  • November 24, 2019 at 9:20 pm
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    I am sure it was hard to pick just 12 favourite adventures. I would definitely want to try my hand panning for gold. The views from the Alyeska Ski Resort’s North Face Trail must be stunning. But I would be going up and down on the gondola. But I would try glamping to experience the Bear Camp for sure. Being out on the water along the Kenai Fjords National Park would give us such an amazing show. You had such an amazing trip. It shows me my 7 day Alaska cruise was not even the tip of the iceberg!

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  • November 25, 2019 at 11:03 am
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    Wow, the Alyeska North Face Trail is gorgeous. I think I would take the gondola up and walk down. Matanuska Glacier looks exactly how I imagine a glacier to be. The ice cave at Portage Lake is incredible and seeing brown bears catching salmon is bucketlist worthy. Actually, I’m booking this – it’s a great list

    Reply
  • November 25, 2019 at 1:05 pm
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    I love road trips in general, and I can only imagine how cool doing one in Alaska would be. It’s a state I’ve yet to visit so I’d jump at the opportunity to do this. And the Kenai Fjords national park looks incredible as do the glaciers! Definitely a dream trip for someday.

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    • November 27, 2019 at 6:04 pm
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      Yeah, we have been road-tripping around the USA non-stop since April 2017 and we’ve been dreaming of driving our rig to Alaska since day one. And we finally did it! OMG, and we already are dreaming of driving up there again…the place was pure magic. So vast, remote, beautiful, and full of nature. You need to get there Lisa!!! And make sure you put an UnCruise on your itinerary as over half of Alaska’s beauty is experiences from the water!

      Reply
  • November 25, 2019 at 7:35 pm
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    Wow! You guys had the ultimate Alaskan road trip. Seriously, I am impressed. You saw Chris McCandless’s bus (although I think you wrote it was a replica?), you hiked on a glacier, you mined for gold, flew to Denali base camp AND saw the Southern Lights. You guys need to be travel agents because I am seriously impressed with how many great things you were able to pack into such a short trip. I am here pulling my hair out trying to plan 2 weeks in the Philippines. Help me! haha

    Reply
    • November 27, 2019 at 5:56 pm
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      LMAO…well we did have 4+ weeks in Alaska, and we had our RV, which made it SOOOO easy (albeit with a bit of time behind the wheel, hahaha). Our best advice is don’t overplan it, just get there, have a few key things that will keep you moving around the islands (or the state), then pick up fun things as you come across them!

      Reply
  • November 26, 2019 at 8:45 am
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    Alaska is such a great place for a road trip. From glacier, fjords, National Parks to wilderness it has it all. Denali has been on my list for ages. Would love to visit it someday. The tour to the Glacier Bay National Park must have been amazing with number of marine life and birds around.

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    • November 27, 2019 at 5:55 pm
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      Pooja, you totally need to get there…and with the pace the glaciers are retreating due to global warming you need to get there soon (as in the next few years). And save your money because you MUST MUST MUST do the flight with K2 over Denali, you have no idea how amazing that was…did you watch the video?

      Reply
  • November 28, 2019 at 12:09 am
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    I have done few road trips in US towards east coast and in Mid west but had never gone for this Alaska one. I would love to do this road trip as it full of nature and especially those glaciers looks stunning. Kayaking in Portage Lake looks interesting as to pass nearby ice caves must be very unique thing to do here. Crossing the Arctic circle is really like winning a medal for every travelers after this long adventurous trip.

    Reply
    • December 5, 2019 at 6:43 pm
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      Alaska makes for an epic road trip. Hope you can put some these tips into action…sounds like you’ve got that adventurous spirit!

      Reply

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