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I’m still reeling from our 8 day Alaska road trip! As last week’s post confirmed, visiting Alaska in September turned out to be an excellent decision. Even if it meant more unpredictable weather than usual, and there were things we didn’t get to cross off our list, our trip was an overall success.
So, I’m back this week to share our full itinerary and highlights. I only ask that you give us grace on our photos, as they REALLY do not do Alaska’s terrain any justice!
I’ll save all the extra tips and tricks for the end.
In the meantime, please sit back and enjoy the ride along our 8 day Alaskan adventure recap!
Days 1 & 2: Denali National Park
Technically, we started our first morning in Nenana. We flew into Fairbanks late the night before and wanted to get as close to Denali as possible, so we chose this comfy cabin right off the main highway.
Just a fun fact, when the railroad depot was completed in 1923, President Harding drove the golden spike in Nenana. Suffice it to say, if you have time to stop on your Alaska road trip, Nenana has some history to share.
For our second night, we stayed in Cantwell, located only about 20 minutes outside Denali. I strategically planned this in case there was more of the park we didn’t see our first day. However, as it turns out, a massive landslide is blocking even tour buses from passing beyond Mile 43.
As much as we would have liked to see more, it actually worked out perfectly for another purpose.
Mile 15 – Savage Loop Trail and Overlook
I made a silly mistake and didn’t pre-purchase a Denali bus tour prior to our arrival. I forgot it was Labor Day weekend and assumed it would not be difficult to get a couple same-day tickets if we just walked in. I was wrong.
On this mostly cloudy, rainbow-infested day, we drove through the park and took in every scenic view, all the while searching the trees for wildlife.
Once we arrived at Mile 15, the furthest spot private vehicles are allowed, we parked and partially walked up the Savage Loop Trail for a better perspective.
Squid Acres Cabins and Sled Dogs
Andrew and I still claim our stay at this simple cabin was our favorite. There was no running water, only an outhouse several feet away. Our direct neighbors were Alaskan huskies. But we could not have felt more cozy and at-home.
The cabin had heating, a small fridge and microwave for our leftovers, potable water and an electric kettle for our drizzly Sunday morning cup of joe.
As guests, we also received a discount toward a sled dog experience. When there’s no snow, these Iditarod racing dogs need to stay in shape for the next season’s run. So, the owners hook up their pack to an ATV, give ‘em just a bit of gas, and they take off!
While I definitely want to do it again in the snow, this whole experience was a big bucket list item. We learned so much about the Iditarod races and left with a fresh appreciation for it all.
Plus, dogs! Look at those happy faces.
Alaska State Fair
Our road trip south was stormy this entire day, so there wasn’t much point in stopping at the lookout points where 22,000 ft. Mt. McKinley (AKA Denali) is sometimes visible.
Instead, we drove the full 3 hours straight to Palmer to get our taste of the Alaska State Fair. Admittedly, it was difficult adjusting from the quiet mountain atmosphere to carnival noise. But as I mentioned in my previous post, the state fair is a great way to experience Alaska’s cultural blends, especially the food!
Where to Eat
The Black Bear has the right fuel you need before heading into Denali National Park. Their coffee is locally roasted and scrumptious, and their brunch menu is straight and simple.
We finished our first night at Panorama Pizza and it didn’t disappoint. Sit wherever you like, order a hodge-podge pizza or two, and enjoy the rugged and random art. In our opinion, it totally beat having to wait for a couple hours for food that probably wasn’t much better.
Before you head south the following day, stop at McKinley Creekside Cabins and Café for an Alaska cinnamon roll (hint: it’s huge) and rhubarb coffee cake. If we had known how good this place was, we would have saved our leftover pizza for lunch and ate breakfast here instead. Andrew just wanted to take advantage of the WIFI for school and I was happy to sit on the porch and listen to the rain.
Day 3: Girdwood
Located about an hour southeast of Anchorage, Girdwood is a beautiful mountain town with plenty to do. We took a day trip there down the Turnagin Arm and the views are just stunning!
However, under no circumstances should you traverse onto the mudflats on the Turnagin Arm bay. There are signs posted everywhere, too. Enjoy the mudflats from a distance as they are seriously unstable and will swallow you in a split second.
We didn’t stay or eat in this area, so I can’t give any recommendations on that. But all the below hikes were free and beautiful.
Virgin Creek Falls
This was the perfect hike to wake our muscles up. Though quite muddy, the falls are totally rewarding at the trail’s end.
Winner Creek Gorge
While this was a beautiful, and short, hike, the hand tram was closed due to the C-word. There are a few game trails that might lead down to the waterfall, but we didn’t want to get too off course without bear spray (due to the recent sighting).
If you pay for a tram ride ($30 for adults), it covers round trip. However, hikers actually get to ride the tram down for free. In hindsight, we probably should have attempted the hike, but Andrew had his tripod, so it was a good excuse. 😉
With extreme bikers making their way down the mountain whenever the misty clouds cleared and the whole area alight with fall colors, the scene made for gorgeous photos.
Once we got to the top, there was a wedding reception happening out on the balcony. Just in case you’re looking for an awesome elopement site.
South Fork Falls AKA Barbara Falls (if you ask locals)
This one is located in Eagle River, an Anchorage suburb, but we saw it on our way back from Girdwood that evening. The hike is an easy 1 mile walk along the river and the falls are powerful and stunning.
There was a woman taking maternity photos at the waterfall’s base, if that tells you anything about the trail's accessibility!
Days 4 & 5: Seward & Kenai Fjords National Park
If you’ve been to coastal towns, you know what vibe to expect at Seward. The marina is filled with various boats, fishing captains line the docks, seagulls outnumber people, and the air smells of seawater.
We stayed in a local AirBnB that conjoins three other rooms with a shared kitchen. Having a fridge to store our healthy road trip snacks and lunch items was really helpful! Besides a bit of “hotel noise” the room was comfortable, clean, and had a strong internet connection.
Kenai Fjords Cruise with Major Marine Tours
Apparently, we really lucked out on weather for our cruise day!
Considering it our big splurge, we booked the tour a month in advance through Major Marine Tours. They said the week before the ocean swells were so bad, they had to cancel tours. We were so grateful there wasn’t a cloud in the sky for us!
The tour provided lunch (with a gluten free option!), up close glacier views, and sporadic wildlife sightings. Of course, just being on the calm water and gazing at the rocky cliffs was worthwhile, too.
Exit Glacier is one of the fastest receding valley glaciers in existence. In less than 10 years, it may not be visible at all.
The glacier is located inside the Kenai Fjords National Park, which is one of the only national parks that doesn’t charge an entrance fee.
There are a few optional hikes within this area. The Harding Ice Field is a difficult 9 mile trek that gains almost 4,000 ft in elevation!
As amazing as it sounded, we were in no shape to enjoy such a hike. We took on the main Exit Glacier Overlook Trail which is 2.2 miles round trip and gets you pretty close to the actual glacier.
There is a section of the trail that is marked as unofficial and to enter at your own risk. Although it was a bit rockier, the path was pretty clear and manageable and worth going the extra quarter mile or so to get an even better view.
Bear Creek Weir was surprisingly an addictive stop.
During salmon season, the fish make their way back to their beginnings, and a big portion squeeze through this small creek to hop up the short waterfall on their journey.
This weir (a small dam, thanks Google) is free and open to the public, but no fishing is allowed.
Never in my 31 years did I expect to be so fascinated by fish, or that I’d be cheering them on as they flipped and flopped their way home.
Lowell Creek Waterfall pours into the bay at the end of town.
The main road will take you right to it for a quick picture. There’s no scenic hike involved, and they were doing construction in the area, but it’s worth driving by while you’re there!
Seward Public Library
Open to the public, the library’s exterior is alluring in itself (maybe that’s their way to entice readers?). We heard it was cool, so we took a quick walk through the aisles and read a few synopses. I’m so glad I married a fellow book lover.
I guess this building is popular for the museum housed within. Unfortunately, their hours differ from the library so we weren’t able to experience it.
The museum is only open Friday and Saturday from 1-5 PM, and admission is $5 during summer and free during winter.
Where to eat
For coffee, head to 13 Ravens Coffee and Books. Located inside an old railway car, these local owners carry used books, local artists’ work, and everyone’s favorite flavors. Honestly, this was probably the best latte I had on our trip.
Andrew ordered the “mer-babe” from the Mermaid Grotto next door and was super satisfied.
After our cruise, we fought the hordes to eat at one of the few dockside restaurants open. We got our name on the 1.5 hour waiting list at Ray’s Waterfront, which doesn't take reservations.
Four words: it was worth it. Andrew got the fresh salmon, and I ordered the creamy miso halibut, and we shared a seafood chowder bowl between us.
On our second night in town, we really wanted to eat at the Exit Glacier Salmon Bake for dinner, but they told us they were out of salmon for the season.
So, we headed to the Chattermark downtown. They were short-staffed with only one cook and one waitress, but the food was fast and tasty.
Andrew wanted a reindeer burger but they were out, so he got a regular burger instead. I was pleased with the seafood chowder (yes, again) and the crab cake.
Things on the Kenai Peninsula we didn’t do but wanted to:
Juneau Creek Falls – 7.1 miles, moderate, out and back, with a 1220 foot elevation gain. According to the AllTrails pictures, this hike is rewarding, but we just didn’t prepare enough time for it on this day.
Resurrection Bay – we wanted to kayak in Seward bay area, but our second day there was rainy and we had decided on the glacier hike instead. If you have more time, I’m sure a kayak adventure would be rewarding and you might spot more wildlife.
Homer – at the bottom of the Kenai Peninsula is a quirky fishing town that all my friends love. Since it was another few hours away, we decided to pass it up this time, but if we ever go back during fishing season, we plan to visit.
Day 6: Whittier/Portage Pass & Anchorage
Since we were coming from the Seward area, we decided to take our time driving back north. That’s the thing with Alaska in September, the daylight allows you to fit a lot in.
Our main destination was the Portage Glacier hike, which is through the one-way, 2.5 mile Whittier tunnel. The tunnel is open every 30 minutes on either side, and honestly it was worth the $13 roundtrip toll just to say we drove through it.
But, we decided to stop at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center first.
And I am so glad we did!
Maybe social media has given us unreal expectations, but we expected to see a lot more wildlife during our week in Alaska. We definitely saw some. However, what we didn’t see out in the hills and the cruise, we were able to see at AWCC, and much more.
The AWCC is a preserve for reindeer, elk, caribou, moose, musk ox, bison, black and brown bears, wolves, coyotes, foxes, porcupines, lynx, bald eagles, and owls.
Most animals were either injured or orphaned at a young age and thus taken in by the center to give them a fairly normal life. Others, like the originally native Alaska Wood Bison, are bred at AWCC in an effort to restore them back into the wild.
Needless to say, we learned a lot at AWCC. As it was the middle of the day, many animals were sleepy, but we felt super blessed to see the bears up close and active!
There’s no need to spend more than 30 minutes here. But as a tourist, I found the history about the 1964 Alaska earthquake and tsunami intriguing.
This public park has a large walking path as well as a monument and displays showing where and how the earthquake and its many aftershocks affected the main coastal cities.
We also saw a young moose wandering through the park’s forest! This was the first one we saw in the wild, so Andrew was excited to get some shots.
Things we didn’t do this day but wanted to:
Portage Pass Trail – yes, this was our whole purpose for going to Whittier in the first place on Day 6. However, we realized we would be pressed to meet our friends for dinner, and my husband’s back wasn’t feeling the best. Also, it's best to go on a clear day, otherwise the views can be hindered by low clouds.
But it’s a highly rated trail that even my local friends recommend. After you make it over the pothole-ridden road to the trailhead, it’s a 4 mile out and back trail that gains 1,433 ft in elevation.
From what I’ve read, the first mile is the steepest, but the view of the glacier over the lake is gorgeous. In winter, I guess you can walk right across the frozen lake and touch the glacier!
Where to eat
Moose’s Tooth Pizza in Anchorage was at one point rated 3rd in the country! On any given evening, expect at least an hour wait.
Our friends ordered for us, as their menu is overwhelming and full of the most interesting pizza toppings I’ve ever seen. And that’s saying something, for me. One has mac ‘n cheese, another shaved carrots and peach sauce, and a few pizzas have reindeer sausage.
Never fear, they do have gluten free cauliflower crusts. But make sure you get the root beer they brew themselves!
Day 7: Wasilla/Hatcher Pass
For our final two nights, we stayed in Wasilla, which is about 45 minutes from the popular Hatcher Pass recreation area.
There are so many scenic hikes to choose from up there! First, we explored the Independence State Mine Historical Park just above the fee station. History and photography lovers will find this place interesting, and while the pathways are steep, it isn’t difficult to get around this site.
After that, we went up the dirt road across from the red lodge cabins as far as we trusted our little Prius to make it and parked at the stone Hatcher Pass elevation sign.
From there, we hiked up the switchback trail behind the parking area which took us past beautiful blue lakes (even on a cloud day) and gave us magnificent views of the valley below.
Note, this is a fee area! Before you do anything, drive up to the bathrooms and parking area just above the red Hatcher Pass Lodge cabins and self-pay the $10 day use fee. If you don’t have cash, there is a credit card machine, but you’ll have to be patient with it as the service is slow.
Upon a friend's recommendation, we made a quick stop at this fishing area on our way to Anchorage for dinner.
The glacier blue waters were breathtaking! The photos below haven't been altered at all. Definitely worth a stop, even if it's raining.
Things we didn’t do this day but wanted to:
Matanuska Glacier – We mapped it out, and it is totally possible to do an early morning glacier hike and still have time for Hatcher Pass by afternoon. We just felt like sleeping in this day instead.
Since we’d already seen a few glaciers by this day, I was OK with cutting it out, but if we go back some day we will absolutely make an effort to see it. Matanuska requires an entrance fee to the area (not covered by your National Parks Pass), and depending on the season, might require a guide to explore it as well.
Thunderbird Falls - Also located in Eagle River's Chugach National Forest, we wanted to try this easy 1.8 mile hike, but ran out of time and daylight on Day 7. The AllTrails pictures look incredible, so I'd say go for it if you have the time!
Where to eat
49thState Brewery’s main location is Anchorage, but they do have a satellite restaurant near Denali as well.
Again, you will have to fight the line for this place and reservations are highly advised! The bottom floor is open seating, so if you watch it like a hawk you can snag a table eventually like we finally did at 9 PM.
Thankfully, the food came out super quick. We aren’t drinkers and rarely drink soda, but I have nothing but praise for the blueberry cream soda! The award-winning smoked wings are award-winning for a reason – do yourself a favor and order them.
You probably can’t go wrong with anything on the menu. Their yak burger is “world famous” and they always have a catch of the day you can inquire about. Andrew melted over the buffalo meatloaf, and the parmesan-crusted halibut was possibly the best cooked halibut I’ve ever eaten.
Day 8: Talkeetna, Chena Hot Springs, North Pole/Fairbanks
Our flight didn't leave Fairbanks until 1 AM the next day, so we had a full final day on our Alaska road trip to get there from Wasilla.
We checked out before 7 AM and headed north. The morning skies were filled with warm light, promising a completely clear day ahead.
If you look at the map and wonder if a 15 mile detour off the highway to Talkeetna is worth it, the answer is an emphatic yes!
Sunrise and sunset both last much longer in the summer months, so we were pleased to get a gorgeous, unobstructed view of Denali bathed in soft light.
Two spots are ideal for different angles of the mountain.
First, on your way into town, stop at the Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge and drive to the building’s backside and lookout spot. Then, take a left at the roundabout down main street all the way to the lakefront parking area for another great view.
Heads up, most Talkeetna businesses were closed when we passed through. This may be due to a combination of being late in the season and low-staffing issues.
After Talkeetna, the drive north offers more mountain sneak peeks and turnouts overlooking the changing leaves.
Santa Claus House at the North Pole
We stopped at the year-round Santa Claus house in North Pole, Alaska, to say we did. Honestly, we enjoyed it more than we expected.
Whether you just need a decent bathroom that isn’t a port-a-potty, a sweet snack, or you really, really love Christmas, the Santa Claus house is free to roam and therefore worth a step inside.
Besides, you might as well add and simultaneously check off “saw the largest Santa Claus statue” on your bucket list.
Real reindeer at the Reindeer Academy next door can be viewed for free, too. If you visit prior to Labor Day Weekend, apparently you can get closer and pay to feed them.
Chena Hot Springs and Aurora Ice Museum
I know what you’re thinking. We clearly have a thing for hot springs and ice castles, judging from our honeymoon adventure early this year (see that post here). We won’t deny it or apologize!
From the North Pole, it’s about an hour’s drive up a road that dead ends at Chena.
We made reservations to the hot springs and ice tour a day or two in advance, but they do take walk-ins until capacity is reached. Which is why were surprised by the crowds and lack of parking upon arrival. There is also a campground on site if you prefer to drive up the night before.
In short, our rating for the hot springs was 3.5/5, while we’d give a solid 5/5 for the ice museum.
The hot springs are almost scalding in some areas throughout the pool and difficult to find a secluded spot due to the amount of people allowed in.
The ice museum, on the other hand, was a more interactive experience. All the ice sculptures are impressive and it’s really entertaining watching the staff transform ice blocks into usable cups and other museum sculptures.
Also, if you haven’t experienced dog-sledding by this point, the resort does organize tours. For those specifically looking for the northern lights who have enough time to wait after dark, Chena organizes professional northern light tours, too.
Where to eat
On your way back to the highway from Talkeetna, pitstop at the Flying Squirrel for breakfast and coffee to go.
Their menu does vary, but I highly recommend the gluten free, crustless quiche as well as the (not gluten free) French toast berry casserole. All their coffee syrups are natural and their espresso comes from organic, locally roasted coffee beans.
Per the reviews, I wouldn't recommend the Chena Hot Springs restaurant - there was a waiting line just to get on the waiting list when we peeked in.
There really isn't much open in North Pole or Fairbanks, either, so you will likely find yourself getting Subway or some other fast food. Bring snacks!
Optional places to visit:
Valdez (pronounced Val-deez, apparently) – While we definitely could have made it work, this beautiful fishing town is about a 5 hour drive east of Anchorage. The ferry from Whittier still takes 6 hours, and it’s quite pricy to haul a vehicle as well.
All our local friends tell us Valdez is worth the visit, especially if you’re up for a fishing derby that could win you a few thousand bucks!
Another #neature place is the Castner Ice Cave. Located southeast of Fairbanks about 3 hours, this glacier trail and ice cave seem to be open year-round.
We chose not to go during our Alaska road trip mostly for time constraints, but also because summertime means ice melt and less appealing photos.
Alaska Road Trip - What You Need to Know
Before you start planning your own Alaska road trip, here’s a few things to keep in mind.
If you see a bathroom, take advantage. Public restrooms are rare, especially ones with indoor plumbing.
Same with gas stations. Although it hurts to spend almost a $1 more per gallon in remote areas, they’re too-far spaced not to top off when you see a fuel sign.
Due to imports, shipping costs, and the lack of resources in-state, Alaska is expensive. From gas to groceries, expect to pay more than you would in the Lower 48.
Hopefully, I’ll share a separate post soon on how to save money while traveling through Alaska.
For flights, Anchorage is the most popular airport. The city is centrally located and the most heavily populated, even though it isn’t the actual state capital.
However, if it works out to be much cheaper to fly to Fairbanks, like it did for us, I’d say book the flight.
You will want to fly in and out of the same airport, though, if you are renting a car. Otherwise, you’ll end up paying hundreds more to return your rental car to a different location.
Oh, and as a warning, if you don't have road rage now, you might develop it while navigating Alaska drivers.
They either drive 15 MPH under the speed limit, or they (usually a truck) ride your tail even if you're going 10 MPH over. Get used to passing people, and be OK with being passed.
Lastly, no matter the season, pack layers.
The day after we left, Hatcher Pass and the surrounding area received its first snow dusting. September can definitely receive snowfall in elevated regions. But it can also reach 70 degree temps on a particularly sunny day, too.
I hope you get to experience an Alaska road trip for yourself!
Like I said last week, now that I’ve done a road trip, I’d love to do a cruise, bush flight, or even train ride along the Alaskan coast.
As the saying goes, I haven’t been everywhere yet, but it’s on my list.