Alaska, the last frontier, is one of the two states which have no territorial contact with the continental USA, other being Hawaii. But what makes Alaska stand out of all the other 49 states is the display of nature. From stunning landscapes to untamed wildlife and majestic glaciers to pristine springs, Alaska has it all. And even during the winters when mother nature covers every corner with a blanket of snow and sends all wildlife into hibernation, the skies put up a free but incomparable light show every night, from the month of September through April, with Aurora Borealis, commonly known as the Northern Lights.
Alaska also called as The Last Frontier, is the largest and the most sparsely populated of all the other states in the USA. Alaska was a part of the Russian empire until 1867 when it was bought by the USA at a mere two cents per acre (still a lot in today’s money though) and was later inducted as the 49th state. Because of its geographical location, Alaskans refer to the continental USA as ‘the lower 48s’.
Even though Anchorage is the largest city, Juneau is the capital located in the fiords of the Glacier Bay National Park reserve and is only connected through air or waterways.
Table of Contents (skip directly to the info you're looking for)
- 1 Best time to Visit Alaska:
- 2 7 days in Alaska Itinerary
- 2.1 Day 1 – Anchorage
- 2.2 Day 2 – Drive to Denali National Park
- 2.3 Day 3 – Denali Wonder Lake Transit or Kantishna Transit
- 2.4 Day 4 – Drive to Fairbanks:
- 2.5 Day 5 – Drive to the Arctic Circle Sign: The Dalton Highway:
- 2.6 Day 6 – Drive back to Fairbanks
- 2.7 Day 7 – Pay a visit to Talkeetna on your way to Anchorage
Best time to Visit Alaska:
The most popular months to visit Alaska begins in May with season-ending in September and the two most popular ways of experiencing the wilderness and tundra are by trains or driving through the state which boasts of the most scenic freeways in the entire country.
No matter how hassle-free the train rides may be, and even though they offer panoramic sunroofs, we still preferred an Alaska road trip as it gave us a lot of liberty to detour. Hence, the following is a complete 7-day road trip itinerary through Alaska on an RV (which can also be done by renting a car). If you are new to RV there are things to know before renting your RV and also ensure your RV rental company allows you to drive in gravel or unpaved road as not all rentals allow their vehicles to be taken on unpaved roads. Go North RV rentals are one of the companies who allow gravel road driving.
7 days in Alaska Itinerary
Day 1 – Anchorage
Anchorage is the largest and the most popular city in Alaska and is easily mistaken as the capital city. A major commercial port and a very common stopover for trans pacific flights. Also, Anchorage is one of the very few cities in the world to have a huge wildlife population including around 1500 Moose, around 250 Black Bears and almost 60 Brown Bears within its city limits.
Arrive at Anchorage and ensure you have your stay booking covered. Depending on the time of the day and the availability of your RV, you will have to plan accordingly. Our arrival in Anchorage was in the evening, hence we decided to spend the night in a hostel.
There are plenty of stay options to choose from in Anchorage depending on your preference and if you have already secured your RV, you may choose to either pull up to free or reasonably charged RV parking at the AC Couplet on the 3rd Avenue between A and C street, the terminal parking lot at the Alaska Railroad depot or at designated RV parking spots at any shopping malls which are free. Eg: Walmart or Fred Meyers. A good idea here would be to stock up groceries before you crash as it will save you time the next day. But if you may end up like us, it is always suggestible to pass out early at your accommodation after early dinner and start early the next day and acquire your RV as early as possible.
Day 2 – Drive to Denali National Park
– The distance between Anchorage to Denali National Park Visitor Centre: 239 miles or 385 km.
– Time to Denali National Park Visitor Centre: Up to 4 hrs and 15 minutes if driven non-stop.
– Highway name and number: Glenn Highway (Alaska 1) and change to Parks Highway (Alaska 3) at the Glenn/Parks interchange.
Things to see en route to Denali National Park:
There are beautiful things to see between Anchorage and Denali National Park which are accessible by a minor detour through the Old Glenn Highway or maybe a short hike.
Eagle River Nature Centre
A detour east of the Glenn Highway, through the town of Eagle River, about 13 miles or 21 km on the Eagle River road will lead you to this nature centre where there is a display of natural history and self-guided nature trails where one of them leads to a stunning viewpoint which will give you a gist of what Alaska has to offer. Be mindful, the trails here have high bear spotting, so be careful when in the woods.
Heading back in the same direction you came in should take you back to the Glenn highway.
Mirror Lake Municipal Park
Heading up north after a short drive at milepost 23.6, take a quick exit to Mirror Lake. Located at the foot of Mount Eklutana, Mirror Lake has an abundance of rainbow trout and king salmon which makes it famous fishing and great photo spot if it is not windy, that’s when the lake lives up to its name.
After you return to the freeway, a 1.5 mile or 2.4 km drive will lead you to the exit for Thunderbird Falls. From the exit follow the signs to less than a minute’s drive to Thunderbird falls trail. An easy 1 mile or 1.6 km trail will lead you to the falls viewpoint. Exercise caution as there are steep cliffs just off the trail. Again, watch for bears.
The largest lake in the Chugach State Park, the lake is used to generate hydro-electric power at the Eklutana plant, and also provides for a drinking water source for Anchorage and is also a popular fishing spot.
To reach here, you will have to exit Glenn Highway towards Eklutana Lake Road and it is about 9.5 miles or 15.3 km east will lead you to the parking area for Eklutana Tailrace. From here it’s a short 20-minute walk to the super scenic lake shore.
After you finish these four spots, prepare for a fairly long drive towards Denali visitor Centre. Be mindful to change to the Northbound Parks Highway at the Denali-Parks Interchange.
Another quick diversion off the Parks Highway at milepost 135 will bring you to Denali View Point which offers a splendid panoramic view of Mt McKinley, North America’s highest peak, to which we get much closer on day two.
At this point, you should be about 76 miles or 122 km, a drive of approximately 1 hour and 20 minutes from Denali Visitor Centre. If you feel tired driving, the Denali Viewpoint may be a good spot to retire overnight but you may have to start really early the next morning for your Denali Wonderlake Transit or Kantishna Transit, about which we will elaborate on our plan for Day 2. Otherwise, it is also suggestible to finish this journey and pull over to Riley Creek Campground which is just at the entrance road to Denali National Park and takes just a couple of minutes to drive to Denali Visitor Centre.
Day 3 – Denali Wonder Lake Transit or Kantishna Transit
This day will offer you a good break from all the driving you must have done the previous day. Today you just sit back and enjoy the ride and the views.
It is highly recommended to book Denali Transit or Tour tickets in advance as they are highly popular, and also because 65% of the seats are up for grabs online and the remaining 35% of the seats are available over the counter up to two days in advance on a first come first serve basis.
The transit system is designed to transport visitors from point A to B with adequate narrations from the driver himself, they make enough stops for landscape photography and wildlife viewing. But it’s a scheduled service and the drivers need to stay on schedule. However, if you are looking for narration and deeper knowledge about your Denali experience, you may also look for other interpretative tours on their website and may choose to book one for yourself. Both the transit and interpretative tours run the same route though.
Why choose the transit – The Transit system works like a hop-on-hop-off service. When the weather conditions are safe, the driver will be happy to let you off the bus to let you hike, bike, experience the wilderness and the landscapes all by yourself and reboard a later scheduled bus. Also, the transit tickets cost less than half of narrated tours.
Below are the two tours we recommend which will allow you to soak into the heart of Denali National Park to the maximum.
Wonder Lake (85 Miles or 137 km One Way – 11 hours Round Trip) – Wonder lake was formed by retreating glaciers offers visitors stunning views of the Alaska and Denali Range. Plenty of small ponds on the way visited often by waterfowls and wildlife.
Kantishna (92 Miles or 148 km One Way – 13 hours Round Trip) – This route covers the whole of the Wonder Lake route plus another 7 miles till the truly “End of the road” within the Denali National Park and Reserve and will also bring you closer to Reflection Lake which can be a stunning natural mirror if the weather permits. Kantishna was once a mining district but now primarily a destination for guests visiting the privately owned Kantishna lodges, and serves as an access point for backcountry campers.
We cannot emphasise enough on that fact that the buses run on a schedule, thus ensure that you return to your own bus on the time the driver tells you to. On our trip, a big group of people missed their bus at a point with their belongings inside the bus without the driver’s knowledge.
After the group realised, they had one of the park authorities radio in the bus driver and have their belongings sent back with another bus which was on its way back. Also, there are no food facilities inside Denali National Park except a water facility at The Eielson Visitor Centre, hence carry plenty of food and water for yourself and make use of the washroom facilities whenever the driver tells you to as there aren’t many inside the national park.
By the time you finish your trip, it will be evening. You may choose to pull over to Reiley’s Camp Ground again or boondock anywhere suitable and call it a day.
Quick Tip – Make use of the dump and water station at the Reiley’s Camp Ground to empty your waste tanks and fill potable water.
Points to Remember:
1) There will be an additional $20 fee to enter the Denali National Park area.
2) There are campgrounds inside the Denali National Park, we highly recommend, to have an advance booking, as these campgrounds are very popular amongst backpackers.
3) If you plan to stay in the campgrounds ensure you have your camping gears.
4) Carry clothes suitable for all kinds of temperatures, as the weather here is quite unpredictable.
5) If you plan to camp ensure you have enough food and water to survive until your stay.
6) Bear encounters are very common. Hence, camping here is not for weak hearted tourists like me.
7) You may read a lot of articles about bear sprays, but we would not recommend using one as you may agitate them more.
8) During summers, Alaskan tundras are swarmed with insects. Carry a face net if you don’t want insects as appetizers.
Day 4 – Drive to Fairbanks:
Distance from Rieley’s Camp Ground to Fairbanks: 124 miles or 200 km and should take approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes.
Today will be a fairly easy day as we drive to Fairbanks, the northernmost city of Alaska and of course, the whole of USA.
Hence, on day 3, time is not a concern allowing you to take as many photography stops as you wish and trust us when we say you will need a lot of stopovers. Ensure to make a stop at the Nenana River Bridge for a great photo opportunity.
Once you reach Fairbanks, the most famous and convenient place to boondock is at the Walmart Fairbanks which has plenty of dedicated RV parking slots. Be mindful of the season you are visiting though. We found plenty of available parking as we visited almost at the end of the season in September, but the scenario may be different in high season. However, before you settle for the night, let’s go around Fairbanks to see what it has to offer.
Fairbanks is the second most populous city in the state of Alaska after Anchorage. Though it is not as big in size, there are plenty of attractions to look out for in Downtown Fairbanks.
Fairbanks Ice Museum – This place is a must visit as I am sure locally made ice sculptures are not an everyday sight for everyone. It is very interesting to see how ice sculptures carve out niche designs out of huge blocks of ice. Even more interesting for me was to see how they preserved in even in summers. The whole facility where the sculptures are displayed is maintained at an average of below -20ºC or -4ºF to simulate the sub-zero temperatures of the winters.
Pioneer Park – Located along the Chena River, Pioneer Park commemorates early Alaskan History with numerous museums and historic artefacts display. The park is open all year long and does not charge any entrance fee, though there are entrance fees for many museums and attractions.
North Pole – And how could we forget the world’s favourite Santa Claus’ town of North Pole. This town is an absolute treat for kids. A quick 20 minutes drive southbound from downtown Fairbanks on the Alaska 2, also called the Richardson Highway, will lead you to this lovely town of North Pole.
Immensely popular for The Santa Clause House, this place boasts of Christmas all year around. There is a huge Santa statue right outside this place and once you step inside, the funnyman is there himself, ever ready to share a laugh and click photos. If you are looking for something very traditional, their original Santa Letters have been delivered to people of all ages all around the world for generations.
Also do visit the reindeer park just outside Santa Claus House.
After this, you may plan to return to your parking spot in Fairbanks and call it a night after dinner.
Quick tip for dinner- If you are fond of American diners, Fairbanks has the world’s northernmost Denny’s Restaurant and the locator sign outside the restaurant also has a huge board mentioning the world’s northernmost Denny’s. You can also park your RV at the huge rear parking and the Sourdough Gas Station at the junction of Johansen Expressway and Danby Street has a free dump and water station facility.
Day 5 – Drive to the Arctic Circle Sign: The Dalton Highway:
Today we will drive northbound through the Alaska 11, popularly known as the Dalton Highway and today will be the day when we get to use the gravel road permission from your RV rental company.
Firstly let’s get started with a short history and some key rules of driving on the Dalton Highway.
The James Dalton Highway or Alaska 11 starts at the town of Livengood, approximately 74 miles/119 km north of the city of Fairbanks, and ends at Prudhoe Bay covering a distance of 427 miles/ 687 km one way. Named after an arctic engineer James William Dalton who was involved in the early oil exploration on the North Slope, the highway was built to facilitate the construction of the Trans Alaskan Pipeline and to reach supplies to Prudhoe Bay.
Today, it is still majorly used by heavy trucks all around the year as they bring essential supplies to all the communities along the Dalton Highway. In spite of regular efforts to maintain this road, the majority of the highway still remains a gravel road due to the extremes of temperatures it has to sustain.
Moving on to the key rules and things to remember before starting your journey:
Ensure that you are fully stocked up on fuel, drinking and potable water and groceries before you leave Fairbanks as services are few on the Dalton Highway. Also, keep in mind that you must allow plenty of time for your journey through this highway as driving slow and with extreme caution will be of the essence.
Hit a pothole or encounter a hairpin bend when going too fast and all the adventure might just go down the drain. Always drive with your headlamps on and when you spot a truck, indicate and pull over or slow down. In response, they usually slow down and minimize the chances of a chipped windshield from flying gravel. Follow these simple guidelines, and you should have a memory of a lifetime driving on the Dalton Highway.
Starting your journey from Fairbanks, head northbound on the Eliott Highway/Alaska 2 for 74 miles/119 km till the junction at Livengood where the Dalton Highway starts. A sign at milepost 1.1 marks the beginning of the Dalton Highway and is a popular photo stop for all tourists.
Exercise extra caution for the first 30 minutes of driving on the Dalton Highway and get a taste of the challenges you may encounter. Hard to miss, the Trans Alaskan Pipeline will be your travel companion for two days and remember that parking in front of the access gates for the pipeline is illegal.
Take as many stops along the way as driving here needs a lot of concentration and after 135 miles/217 km, you will reach the Yukon River crossing. After crossing the bridge northbound, turn left for the Yukon River Camp which is one of the very few fuel and minor service station on the Dalton Highway. There is also a restaurant which changes to “The Noodle House” through the winter and serves Chinese style soups and sandwiches. The next gas station northbound is at Coldfoot, 119 miles/191.5 km far.
Turning right after crossing the bridge will drive you under the pipeline for BLM (Bureau of Land Management) Yukon Crossing Visitor Contact Station. This centre is staffed by volunteers and is open only during summers from 10 A.M. to 6 P.M. There are pit toilets, parking spaces and an observation deck to view the Yukon river and bridge allowing for a great photo opportunity.
If you are visiting during the summers, a quick 4 miles/6.5km drive northbound from Yukon river camp will bring you to the exit for the Hot Spot Cafe. A stop you shouldn’t miss as they are famous for their food and dining experience with the Ice Road Truckers. They have the biggest collection of Arctic Circle souvenirs and Ice Road trucking gifts.
Another 38 miles/61 km drive northbound brings you to the Finger mountain, a formation of rocks which seems like a huge finger sticking out of the ground. Another great photo opportunity and after this we reach our destination.
Just after milepost 115, a well-signed turnoff will reach you at the Arctic Circle sign. This is where the geographical Arctic Circle crosses and a huge signboard with big blue earth and the latitude 66º33’N on it.
If you can plan to visit precisely on June 22, the sun will not set on you here due to the summer solstice and on December 22, there is no sunrise due to the winter solstice. Click as many photos here as you have totally earned yourself an achievement of driving safely for 194 miles/312 km on one of the most challenging highways in the world.
We take it easy for the rest of the day and can park overnight at the nearby campground which is a short drive through the unpaved road heading east, or can start driving back for just 8 miles/12.8 km where there is a huge leveled parking area to the east named Old Man Camp. There is no signage though. This used to be a construction camp but it’s just a huge piece of land offering panoramic views during the day. And if you visiting Alaska at the end of the season in September as we did, some luck and clear skies will show you the magnificent Northern Lights.
Spending the night at such a place may feel scary or unsafe, but trust us, it will be worth the experience and you may have some company of other adventurists as we did. Also, driving on the Dalton Highway through the night is highly discouraged for reasons you should have figured out by now.
Day 6 – Drive back to Fairbanks
It is always suggestible to start early and drive the same way back. If you need to fill gas, the Yukon river camp can be a good option or if you think there is enough gas left with you, drive all the way back and make use of the Hilltop Truck Stop on the Elliott Highway just 5.5 miles/8.8 km short of the town of Fox, as fuel is much cheaper here than anywhere on the Dalton Highway. Or if you have some more fuel left, drive at the way to the Sourdough Gas station in Fairbanks which was previously mentioned for a total servicing of your RV.
As now our itinerary will take us back to Anchorage, you may suit yourself to spend the night at Fairbanks or drive further southbound on the Parks Highway towards Anchorage.
As the night sets in, pull over to any turnout you may choose and call it a night and this is what you may wake up to.
Day 7 – Pay a visit to Talkeetna on your way to Anchorage
Today on our return drive to Anchorage, we will take a small diversion from the Parks Highway, just after distance marker southbound shows Anchorage 98 miles. Less than a quarter mile from here, you should reach Talkeetna Y junction and 14 miles northbound the road ends at the community of Talkeetna.
Talkeetna began as a district headquarters for the Alaskan Railroad back in 1916 and has now evolved as a major tourist attraction during the summers. A beautiful town to walk around and spend a couple of hours after which we continue on the remainder of our road trip, a distance of 113 miles/182 km to Anchorage which should take just over 2 hours.
Depending on the time you reach Anchorage, you may choose to park your RV at a suitable place or maybe check-in your RV with the rental company like we had to and head to downtown Anchorage.
The state of Alaska has a lot of breweries and if you are a beer fan, their brews are to fall in love with. The most famous being the 49th State Brewing Company at 717 W 3rd Avenue. Hands down, they serve one of the best brews we have ever tasted. Needless to say, their food menu totally compliments their brews and if you have spent a good time here, all you will seek after this is your bed.
Depending on your departure out of Anchorage, you could spend some more time at Downtown Anchorage visiting their museums, do some souvenir shopping or maybe hire a bike and hit the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail easily accessible from Downtown Anchorage.
This 11 miles/17.7 km trail runs along the Pacific coast, runways of the Ted Steven’s International Airport and many other scenic landscapes and will leave your heart filled with the essence of Alaska before we take off for our journey back home.
Hope this 7-day itinerary helps you plan your trip and show you the raw wilderness of this pristine American state, The Last Frontier indeed.
This is a guest post by Ankita and Purnendu from the blog Travel Stacks.
About the Authors: We are Ankita and Purnendu the whole and soul of Travel Stacks and each other. Ankita is creative, the mind behind travel stacks, the more passionate one when it comes to travel. She is the one who plans most of her own travel itineraries and executes them. Purnendu is the quieter one, one behind all the images, photo editing, planning the route map of the itinerary laid by Ankita. In short, they are like Rachel and Ross from friends, She is the Cheeky one and he is the Geeky one. Together they have travelled to a minimum of 25 countries over 5 continents and find joy in sharing their experience through writing detailed articles on Travel Stacks. Their aim is to inspire like-minded people and share the joy of traveling.
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