- Go touring and hiking in Denali National Park
- Fly over the peaks of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park
- Sea kayak among the icebergs of Columbia Glacier
- Cruise in search of whales in Kenai Fjords National Park
- Watch for bears in their habitats in Katmai National Park
|Day 1||Arrive in Anchorage||Anchorage|
|Day 2||Anchorage to Denali||Denali National Park|
|Day 3||Denali National Park||Denali National Park|
|Day 4||Denali to Glacier View||Glacier View|
|Day 5||Glacier View to Kennicott||Kennicott|
|Day 6||Kennicott and McCarthy||Kennicott|
|Day 7||McCarthy to Valdez||Valdez|
|Day 8||Columbia Glacier Day Cruise||Valdez|
|Day 9||Valdez to Homer||Homer|
|Day 10||Bear Viewing||Homer|
|Day 11||Homer to Seward||Seward|
|Day 12||Kenai Fjords National Park||Seward|
|Day 13||Seward to Anchorage & Depart|
Day 1: Arrive in Anchorage
Anchorage is not the capital of Alaska (that's Juneau), but it's by far the biggest city in the state and home to about half of the population. If you arrive early in the day, consider a visit to either the Anchorage Museum of History and Arts or the Alaska Native Heritage Center. Other good options include a walk along the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail or a hike up the popular trail to Flattop Mountain if you're feeling especially ambitious.
Day 2: Anchorage to Denali
Leave Anchorage and head north towards one of Alaska's most well-known attractions, Denali National Park. The park is named after the highest mountain in North America, which is located within its boundaries. Stop at Talkeetna along the way, a small town roughly 2.5 hours north of Anchorage famous for its vibrant social life and the logistical center for mountain climbers attempting to summit "The Big One."
The entrance to the park is about three more hours north, where you'll find lodging available around the park entrance.
Day 3: Denali National Park
Spanning more than 6 million acres, Denali National Park is probably the most accessible place in the state to meet Alaska's famously charismatic wildlife. One gravel road runs through the park, and today's plan is to use it to get a deep look into the landscape, with a system of tours and shuttle buses that allows for great chances of spotting bears, caribou, moose, Dall sheep, wolves, and more. Even if wildlife prove elusive, the dramatic mountain views and the chance to see Denali’s peak still provide superb photo ops.
Day 4: Denali to Glacier View
Start with a drive south along the Parks Highway, then continue east along the Glenn Highway. The Glenn quickly becomes a mountainous scenic road, following the Matanuska River Valley alongside the stunning snowy peaks of the Chugach Range. Stop for any of the many hiking trails and scenic viewpoints along the way before you reach the Matanuska Glacier area and its remote lodges.
Day 5: Glacier View to Kennicott
Get back on the road toward Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, part of the largest natural reserve complex in the world and home to some of North America's tallest mountains. You're heading toward the town of McCarthy and neighboring ghost town Kennicott in the heart of the park via the McCarthy Road, a scenic, narrow gravel road. The terrain can be bumpy, so you may not be permitted to drive your rental car into the park. Instead, consider a flightseeing trip; leave your car at the Chitina airport and approach by air.
Flying is actually the best way to experience the park, one of the wildest natural reserves in the world. Some of the glaciers and mountains here are so large you can only truly understand the landscape if you fly over it.
The town of McCarthy developed alongside the Kennicott copper mines, which operated at the beginning of the 20th century. The mines were abandoned in the early 30s, but the town endured, complete with its distinctive old western character and historic buildings.
Day 6: Kennicott and McCarthy
Walk from Kennicott over to the Root Glacier, where you'll meet your guides for today's group glacier hike. The 2-mile hike along the glacier will take you through the glacier’s unique landscape, with waterfalls disappearing into the ice, ice caves, turquoise pools, and clear meandering streams. There are also options available for extended tours, private guided tours, and ice climbing.
The afternoon's agenda is up to you. Wander among Kennicott's deserted buildings by yourself or on a guided tour, or head into McCarthy instead for an evening of live music in a local bar.
Day 7: McCarthy to Valdez
If you flew in, rather than drove, start off by returning to Chitina. Once reunited with your vehicle, drive back to the Richardson Highway, the scenic road that connects Fairbanks in the north to Valdez in the south. The road takes you south along the mountain views of Thompson Pass and Worthington Glacier, then into the steep and narrow Keystone Canyon, where huge waterfalls come down crashing the canyon walls.
Valdez itself is located at the east side of Prince William Sound, a gorgeous bay full of glaciers and wildlife. The sound earned some unwanted international attention in 1989 when the oil tanker Exxon Valdez caused a catastrophic oil spill and an environmental disaster that lasted for decades. Today the damage is not visible to the casual viewer and most species of wildlife are back to their pre-1989 population sizes, but in a community made of both oil workers and fishermen, this is still an open wound.
Day 8: Columbia Glacier Day Cruise
Go out on a day cruise to the nearby Columbia Glacier, one of Alaska’s largest tidewater glaciers. This glacier has been on a rapid retreat over the last twenty years or so, and the bay is dotted with a beautiful array of icebergs. The peaceful waters, abundant wildlife and magnificent views of Prince William Sound make it an ideal cruising destination. Common marine mammals in the area include sea lions, seals, sea otters, and humpback whales.
Day 9: Valdez to Homer
The morning starts with an early ferry ride from Valdez to Whittier, across Prince William Sound. Whittier is a quirky little town where virtually all residents live in one apartment building (don't worry, you won't miss it). Whittier is connected to the rest of Alaska via a narrow tunnel used alternately by vehicles and trains. Don't worry—the tunnel is well-monitored so the risk of meeting the train in the middle of the drive is not high. Still, it's an interesting ride.
On the other side of the tunnel lays the beautiful and glacial Portage Valley; stop here and check out the displays at the visitor center, or go for a walk on one of the valley's many hiking trails. After visiting the valley, keep driving south for another three hours or so. The road will take you along a scenic stretch of the Chugach Mountains, then along the Cook Inlet shoreline. Weather permitting, you may get some great views of the volcanoes across the inlet. Your destination, the charming town of Homer, is literally the end of the road.
Day 10: Bear Viewing
The Katmai and Lake Clark National Parks lie across the Cook Inlet from Homer. These two wild parks are arguably two of the best locations in the world to view bears in the wild. Today's plan is a day trip to one of these parks to spend a few hours with the furry giants known as the coastal brown bears of Alaska.
The brown bear is not a social animal by any means but every summer, when the salmon begin moving upstream, big concentrations of bears are formed along the rivers. These bears will spend most of the summer fishing and competing for fishing and mating rights. Since they are so focused on their own agendas, and since the bears are much more concerned about the presence of other bears, they are generally very tolerant of human presence. This does not mean you should approach them too closely—these are still very wild and very big animals—but it allows for an unforgettable wildlife viewing experience.
Where precisely you'll go will be determined at the time of your departure based on observed bear activity. You'll fly out to the location via a small aircraft, passing over mountains, glaciers, and volcanoes on your way.
Day 11: Homer to Seward
Your next destination is the town of Seward, about three hours' drive from Homer. Seward is located at the edge of Kenai Fjords National Park, a coastal area dominated by the vast Harding Icefield. Glaciers extending from the icefield towards the sea created a series of deep fjords that are rich in wildlife and extremely photogenic. Stop for one of the many hiking trails in the area on the way, or spend the afternoon learning about the local marine ecosystem at the Sealife Center.
Day 12: Kenai Fjords National Park
With the exception of one road leading to Exit Glacier, Kenai Fjords Park is only accessible by boat or aircraft. A day cruise along the rocky shoreline of this wild park allows for the best chances to view its abundant wildlife and glacial landscape. You'll take a six-hour cruise to the nearby Aialik Glacier, watching for whales and orcas as well as other marine mammals. Aialike Glacier is a big wall of white ice, and the captain will allow ample time next to the glacier for you to photograph the chunks of ice crashing into the calm water of the bay.
Return to Seward in the afternoon, leaving you plenty of time to enjoy a walk along the shoreline or visit one of the town's coffee shops.
Day 13: Seward to Anchorage & Depart
Make your way back to Anchorage, about 2.5 hours north of Seward. As always when it comes to driving in Alaska, numerous viewpoints wait along the way. If you have time, stop at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, where you can see some of Alaska's mega-fauna up close. These are rescued and relocated animals, so your entry fee goes to a good cause. A little further north is the ski town of Girdwood, where you can go up the tram to a panoramic viewpoint, or go on a hike on one of the many trails around town.
The last bit of driving before Anchorage runs parallel to Turnagain Arm, a long and beautiful inlet that experiences some of the most extreme tidal differences in the world. The narrow road winds between the sea and the coastal cliffs, and you can often see beluga whales and Dall sheep along the way.
Leave your vehicle in Anchorage and head to the airport for your flight home.