Setting up an Alaska road trip itinerary is a lot of fun. Especially if you’ve never been there before! The 49th state has so much to see and do, and so many unique environments to explore.
You can go camping with the grizzly bears and caribou of Denali National Park; hike in the middle of a glacier; take a whale-watching tour to see orcas; hang out in some of the coolest small towns you’ll ever see; and visit museums in Anchorage and Fairbanks dedicated to ice sculpting, Native American life, and Alaskan history.
Alaska has a whopping eight national parks, although you can only drive to three of them easily. Still, the state seems to be on everyone’s wishlist because of its glaciers, snow-capped mountains, and incredible wildlife.
A road trip is the best way to see Alaska, and I’m here to share my recommended itinerary for a 7 to 10 day Alaska vacation. This post assumes that you’re flying into Anchorage and renting a car to get around while you are there.
Keep reading for my best tips for traveling Alaska! And by the way, if you’re wondering how much all of this will cost, we’ve got a separate post that breaks down the budget in detail.
Ready for an unforgettable Alaska road trip? Fill up that gas tank and let’s get moving!
Why a Road Trip is the Best Way to See Alaska
Alaska is absolutely massive, and car or RV is by far the easiest way to get around. You could travel by train. After all, the Alaska Railroad provides beautiful scenery as it travels from Seward to Anchorage to Fairbanks. But the train is very expensive, and it would be difficult to get around without a car after you arrive at each destination.
Recommended Alaska Tours:
Taking an Alaska road trip gives you the freedom to pull over for scenic photos whenever the mood strikes. You can stop and have a picnic lunch next to a roadside lake. And you can spend as much time in each city as you like, rather than relying on the schedule of the train.
PRO TIP: While Alaska is beautiful, the distances between cities are huge, and that can lead to some monotonous driving. Some major routes are two-lane roads with thick forests on both sides. In those places, there’s nothing to see, and no change in scenery for sometimes 2 hours straight. Stay alert, and don’t let the long distances deter you from enjoying your Alaska vacation!
Because of weather, the best time to do an Alaska road trip is between May and September. In the shoulder season of late-May to early-June, prices are still low, so you can score better deals on rental cars. Just be aware that the temperature will be chillier then (average highs around 58 F / 14 C). In the winter, many businesses and attractions are closed, so that’s not the best time for an Alaska visit.
July and August both have average temps around 65 F / 18 C. July is the perfect sunny month, while August sees more rain. Of course, July and August are the months when everybody visits Alaska, so you’ll face more crowding from tourists at certain attractions.
What to Bring: Essentials for an Alaska Road Trip
Milepost Travel Guide
For decades now, Milepost has been “The Bible of Alaska Travel.” The book breaks down every road mile-by-mile, noting the major attractions as well as rest stops, bathrooms, parking pullouts, photo opportunities, and more. For any Alaska road trip, you must have Milepost! I know a lot of people these days prefer Kindle books or blogs to physical books, but trust me, this one is worth it.
Other Alaska Packing Essentials:
Waterproof Jacket. It rains a lot in Alaska.
Tent & Sleeping Bag (if camping.)
Waterproof Binoculars. You don’t want to miss any distant wildlife!
External Charger. Keep those devices powered!
Good Camera with Zoom.
Repellent. People say, “Mosquitos are the official Alaska state bird!”
My Recommended Alaska Road Trip Itinerary Map for 7 or 10 Days
The Anchorage to Fairbanks Loop Route Map
Driving time: 20 hours, 14 minutes
Time needed: 7-10 days minimum
This road trip takes you from Anchorage up through Wasilla and Talkeetna, before spending time in Denali National Park. Then, you’ll head further north to Fairbanks, before looping back around through the town of North Pole. Next comes a brief visit to America’s largest national park (Wrangell-St Elias), followed by hiking inside Matanuska Glacier, and then a swing down to Seward and Kenai Fjords.
I’ll be honest… this is an ambitious itinerary that packs a lot into one or two weeks. Feel free to skip some of these stops if you think you’ll be too rushed.
I did this exact trip in 8 days. But there were some early wakeup calls and long days of driving. I didn’t mind, because I knew I could always catch up on sleep once I got back home! So if you want to see as much of Alaska as possible, this is a perfect guide for your journey.
1. Start the Road Trip from Anchorage
Fly into Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport. I recommend using Skyscanner months in advance to keep an eye on prices. You can even set email alerts so you’ll be notified when flight prices drop!
Grab a window seat if possible, so you can soak in the landscape when you’re flying in. The airport has all the major car rental companies, so you can grab your vehicle on be on your way.
PRO TIP: When checking rental car prices, check non-airport locations as well. I ended up renting from an Enterprise lot in the middle of Anchorage, because their prices were cheaper than the airport lot. Anchorage has Uber and taxis, so getting to a car rental agency off the airport isn’t hard.
Don’t stay more than a night in Anchorage at the start of your trip. You’ll want to get on the road as soon as possible. You can give yourself a couple more days in Anchorage at the end of the journey to do some proper city sightseeing.
2. Make Pit Stops in Wasilla and Talkeetna
Upon heading north from Anchorage, you’ll pass through Wasilla. Yes, that’s Sarah Palin’s hometown, and they still sell goofy souvenirs featuring her name.
PRO TIP: Wasilla is the last place for a very long time where you can find Walmart and Target to stock up on last-minute supplies and snacks. The city also has cheap food like Taco Bell, Wendy’s, and Arby’s, in case you’re trying to keep your budget low.
From there, head on to Talkeetna, one of the coolest towns I’ve ever visited! It’s a quirky place with a hippie vibe. Walk around to see the moose statues, visit the gift shops, and eat some caribou chili alongside mountain climbers who are preparing to head out to Mt. Denali.
Talkeetna is also the home of some flightseeing companies. I took a 60-minute flight that included a landing on a glacier inside Denali National Park. It was truly one of the coolest things I’ve ever done!
3. Visit Denali National Park
From Talkeetna, it’s around three hours to Denali National Park, which should be the centerpiece of any good Alaska road trip itinerary. On the way there, pull over in Denali State Park (a separate park that borders the national park) to see the Alaska Veterans Memorial.
Hopefully you’ve made your camping or lodge reservations before arriving in Denali National Park. Pay your $15/person entrance fee, and stop at the visitor center to pick up your park maps.
There’s only one road into Denali, and it’s 92 miles long. However, to reduce congestion, you’re only allowed to drive to Mile 15. Beyond that, you must take one of the park’s shuttle buses.
An easy option for exploring Denali NP is to stay at the Savage River Campground (mile 12) for a couple nights, while taking day trips on the shuttle deep into the park. For the best experience, take the shuttle all the way to the end of the road (this can take as long as 6 hours, however.)
PRO TIP: If you don’t want to take the shuttle all the way into the park, at least ride it to the Eielson Visitor Center at mile 66. There’s a visitor center here with great mountain views, and this is an area of lots of wildlife activity.
I stayed one night at Savage River, and spent a second night backcountry camping deep in the heart of Denali, which was an awesome experience.
The wildlife in Denali is incredible. You can see bears, caribou, moose, dall sheep, and much more. Some of them will be far away. Others might be closer than you’d ever imagine, like the moose I saw drinking from a puddle in the visitor center parking lot!
Denali is the third-largest national park in America. It’s the most scenic place you’ll be visiting on this road trip, so stay as many days as you need to fully experience the park. I recommend 3 days minimum. You could easily do a full week here if you love into hiking and nature!
From Denali, it’s about 2 hours and 15 minutes north to Fairbanks, and there isn’t a lot to see on the way. Though it’s Alaska’s second-largest city, Fairbanks only has 30,000 residents. They do have some bars and restaurants, but not a ton of nightlife.
Fairbanks is known for being a place where you can often see the Northern Lights. That’s true… but not in the summer. Fairbanks gets up to 21 hours of daylight in June, so don’t expect aurora borealis sightings here unless you visit between September and April.
Instead, the best place to visit here is the Fairbanks Ice Museum! You can watch live ice carvings and hang around behind a bar made of ice. Other worthy attractions include the Museum of the North and the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum.
The famous Trans Alaska Pipeline runs for 800 miles across the Alaska wilderness. The best place to see it up close (and even touch it) is 15 minutes north of Fairbanks at the Aleyska Pipeline Visitor Center.
PRO TIP: How far is the Arctic Circle from Fairbanks? It’s 198 miles north of Fairbanks, and it’s on a gravel road, so you probably won’t be allowed to drive your rental car there. But you can take a day trip to visit the Arctic Circle.
5. North Pole and Delta Junction
Most other Alaska road trip itineraries will have you turn around after Fairbanks and head straight back to Anchorage the exact same way you came. But I think it’s silly to retrace your steps.
There’s a lot to see if you continue heading southeast and loop back around to Anchorage via Routes 2 & 4. First up is the town of North Pole. Get it? North Pole, Alaska!
Much like the city of Santa Claus, Indiana, the town of North Pole, Alaska looks like Christmas all year long. In this adorable town, you can visit the world’s largest Santa Claus statue at Santa Claus House, a gift shop featuring holiday ornaments, fudge and cookies, and souvenirs. You can also get up close and personal inside the pen of reindeer outside the hours.
Continue south on Route 2 for 90 minutes to the town of Delta Junction and take a lunch break. This town has a grocery store and at least five restaurants to choose from.
After Delta Junction, you’ll be looking at three hours of driving until Wrangell-St. Elias. Some of this stretch will be monotonous. Other parts will have cool views of mountains and the Alaska Pipeline meandering over hillsides.
PRO TIP: Because this part of the state is more remote, it’s great for large animals. Keep an eye out for wildlife – I saw lots of moose just off the road in this part of the state.
The biggest problem in this part of Alaska is finding lodging. There are few hotels between North Pole and Anchorage, so do some planning to figure out where you want to spend the night. Campgrounds are always an option.
And if you’ve never used Airbnb, this might be a good area to give it a shot! There are several properties in this area you can book.
6. Wrangell-St. Elias National Park
Eventually, you’ll make it to the visitor center of America’s largest national park, Wrangell-St. Elias. Despite its size, the park only has one tiny section of paved road. That’s where you’ll find the visitor center. Here you can see some informational displays about the park.
The two roads that go deeper into Wrangell-St. Elias are made of gravel and dirt, so chances are you won’t be permitted to take your rental car there. You can, however, take a shuttle there, if you really want to visit Kennecott, an abandoned mining town.
If not, just turn around after the visitor center and start heading back towards Anchorage.
7. Matanuska Glacier
Here’s another cool spot that many an Alaska road trip itinerary tends to overlook: Matanuska Glacier. Sign up for a tour and you can go hiking right inside the glacier!
Matanuska is the largest glacier in America accessible by car. It’s about 27 miles long by 4 miles wide, though like any glacier, its size and shape keep changing.
You can drive up and explore on your own, but glaciers can be dangerous. When you get close, you’ll see that there are rushing rivers and hidden crevasses inside the glacier.
PRO TIP: To be on the safe side, sign up for a tour with a company like MICA Guides or Matanuska Glacier Adventure Tours. They provide helmets and crampons to keep you safe on the ice. I went with a guided tour, and we got to explore way deeper into the glacier than I would’ve been able to do on my own.
8. Seward and Kenai Fjords National Park
From Matanuska, head back to Anchorage. Grab food and fuel, and continue down to the fishing community of Seward. You definitely won’t need more than one night here, but it’s a cool little place to explore the outdoors.
Seward is very near Kenai Fjords National Park. To actually get inside park boundaries, take a whale-watching day cruise. These cruises use local reports to determine where whales are hanging out on that particular day.
On my cruise, I saw several orca whales and some humpback whales, plus sea lions, dall’s porpoises, and puffins. We also got close to Aialik Glacier and got to witness a large chunk breaking away into the water.
Alternately, you can reach the national park by driving to Exit Glacier Nature Center and hiking to the base of the glacier. The nearby Harding Icefield Trail is a great place for a strenuous workout in the wilderness.
9. Back at the Start: Things To Do in Anchorage
On your way back to Anchorage from Seward, stop at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center in Girdwood. Here, you can see injured and orphaned animals living comfortably in a relaxed, zoo-like environment. You’ll get to see bears a lot more close-up here than you did anywhere else in Alaska!
Once in Anchorage, you have lots of options. If you’re not tired of hiking, check out some of the city trails, or visit Chugach State Park.
If you prefer more offbeat attractions, try the Anchorage Light Speed Planet Walk, a scale-model representation of the solar system on the sidewalks of downtown; the Alaska Native Heritage Center, a museum dedicated to the region’s indigenous peoples; and the Wells Fargo Museum of gold rush artifacts and other historic exhibits.
Another fun option? An Anchorage Trolley Trip. For only $20, you get a one-hour tour on a trolley bus that will give you a great introduction to the city.
More Recommended Anchorage Activities:
Four Other Possible Detours For the Enthusiastic Alaska Road Trip Planner
As noted, road trips are the best way to see Alaska. If you’re taking an extended Alaska road trip and have extra time on your hands, consider expanding your route to include any of the following detours.
A side trip to Homer is the easiest detour to add to the Alaska road trip itinerary presented in this article. It’s an extra 3.5 hours from Seward to Homer. Your reward is a chance to spend some time in a coastal city of 5000 that has some of the best fishing, hiking, and kayaking in the state.
From Homer, you can make a trip to Katmai, one of the least-visited national parks in the U.S. Katmai doesn’t see a ton of visitors because it’s accessed only by plane or boat.
Chicken & Dawson City
This is a looong detour, but it could be worth it. Chicken is a cute little town. And I mean really little – the official population is 7. There’s a saloon, a restaurant, a giant chicken tower, and an RV park if you want to stay overnight.
Chicken is 3.5 hours east of Delta Junction. Continue another 3 hours and you’ll cross the border and arrive at Dawson City, a super fun city in Yukon, Canada. Dawson is a great place to visit, but if you’ve got a rental car, you might want to think twice about crossing into Canada.
At last check, most major car rental companies in Anchorage do not allow rental cars to be driven into Canada; however, I have not personally checked in with all of them, so you may find some local companies that would allow this.
Drive 2 hours south of the Wrangell-St. Elias visitor center, and you’ll reach Valdez and Chugach National Forest. Valdez is similar to Homer and Seward in that it’s a coastal town with fishing and day cruises. There are more than a dozen hotels in Valdez, so if you need a place to spend the night near Wrangell-St. Elias, this city could be a good option.
The Arctic Circle & Gates of the Arctic National Park
Drive straight north from Fairbanks on the Dalton Highway, and after five hours and 198 miles, you’ll cross the Arctic Circle. There’s a big welcome sign there. Reaching the Arctic Circle is very cool, but is it really worth such a long drive? That’s up to you.
Here’s another problem: This highway is gravel, which means most rental cars aren’t allowed on it. (This page has a partial list of local rental car companies that may allow driving on gravel roads.) There is a full-day tour you can book that leaves from Fairbanks and provides transportation to the Arctic Circle and back.
Drive another 50 miles further north, and you’ll be tantalizingly close to Gates of the Arctic National Park. It’s just a mile or two west of the highway. Unfortunately, there are no roads going into the park. Most visitors to the park arrive by bush plane.
But folks who are really dedicated could park on Dalton Highway and hike into the edge of the park. The NPS warns that you’ll have to cross a river to make this happen, so it’s not for the faint of heart. You can stay in the town of Coldfoot (they have campsites and a motel) and hike into the park from the highway.
Other Common Questions About Traveling Alaska
How much does it cost for an Alaska road trip like this?
We’ve written an entire post that lays out the expected costs for a trip to Alaska. It takes into account airfare, lodging, rental car costs, souvenirs, and so forth. Bottom line: You can take a 1-week Alaska vacation for as little as $1000/person (including airfare), but it could cost as much as $3500/person if you want to take expensive tours and stay in fancy hotels. The average cost is somewhere in the middle.
Can I include Juneau and Glacier Bay National Park on my Alaska road trip itinerary?
Sorry, that’s a big fat NO! You can’t road trip to the capital city of Juneau. You can only reach Juneau by plane or ship. The coastal city is surrounded by mountains, so there’s literally no way to drive to Juneau from anywhere (unless you drive onto a ferry from British Columbia, Canada.) If you want to see Juneau and Glacier Bay National Park, consider taking a cruise from Seattle or Vancouver.
Is cell phone and radio station coverage good everywhere in Alaska?
Nope! That’s another reason why you want to have Milepost, for the printed maps. Because you will lose your cell signal between cities. And you’ll want to play music on your phone in the car, since you can only get one or two radio stations in much of the state.
Have you spent time traveling Alaska? Have you done the Anchorage to Fairbanks route? Do you have any other suggestions to add to our Alaska road trip itinerary?