The Great Alaska Road Trip: Set Your Sights on Adventure in the Last Frontier

There is no more intimate of a way to experience Alaska's true grandeur than by taking a road trip – just you, your car, and a strip of pavement leading through mile upon mile of dramatic scenery, big wildlife and friendly, down-to-earth small towns.

There's just one catch: Alaska is so big that driving the whole state would take a month or more – and you still need a boat or plane to reach some of the far-flung communities. But if you're clever, driving still offers the closest, most personal introduction to Alaska's majesty.

There is no more intimate of a way to experience Alaska's true grandeur than by taking a road trip – just you, your car, and a strip of pavement leading through mile upon mile of dramatic scenery, big wildlife and friendly, down-to-earth small towns.

There's just one catch: Alaska is so big that driving the whole state would take a month or more – and you still need a boat or plane to reach some of the far-flung communities. But if you're clever, driving still offers the closest, most personal introduction to Alaska's majesty.

Southeast Alaska

All great road trips start on islands, right? That means your journey begins in Southeast Alaska, where isolated island communities are connected not by bridges but by ferries of the Alaska Marine Highway System. Make sure you book your car berth far in advance; some of the ferry routes only run a couple times a week, so they fill up fast.

Most of these island towns are busy cruise ports, which means you don't need a car to partake in most of the tours and amenities. But having your own wheels makes it much easier to explore the dozens of miles of coastal roadway each island community possesses. This is your gateway to beachside rock petroglyphs near Wrangell, pretty picnic and fishing areas near Petersburg, and totem pole parks near Ketchikan.

No car? No problem – you can rent one in most communities. But again, the key is to plan ahead before they sell out.

If you bring your passport, you can take the ferry all the way north to Haines or Skagway, then drive into Canada, turn west and cross the border back into Alaska, headed for the famous waypoint of Tok. But let's assume you'll take a ferry to the Southcentral Alaska town of Valdez.

Southcentral and Interior Alaska

Even in a land of superlatives Valdez is something special, backed by towering mountains and surrounded by the rich waters of Prince William Sound. Plan on at least one big tour here – perhaps a visit to one of the world's most active tidewater glaciers – plus time to explore the small, but very interesting, local museums.

When you're ready to move on, it's a six-hour drive northwest to the Interior Alaska city of Fairbanks – which easily becomes eight once you add time for rest stops and taking a few photos. You're trading the dramatic mountains of Valdez for rolling hills clad in every imaginable shade of green. Much of the land here was shaped by early gold mining, and panning for gold remains a massive tourist draw, along with unusual experiences like bathing in a hot spring or taking a nature walk with free-roaming reindeer.

If you're feeling really adventurous, use Fairbanks as your jumping-off point for a day-long drive up the Dalton Highway to the work camps of Coldfoot or Wiseman, or even all the way to Prudhoe Bay. Let someone else do the driving on a van tour, then hop a small plane to get you back to Fairbanks in the same day.

From there, you'll hopscotch south: another two hours to Denali National Park, where six million acres of wilderness speak for themselves; then two and a half hours more to Talkeetna, the famously quirky little town that serves as ground zero for flightseeing tours around North America's tallest peak: 20,310' Denali.

The next major stop is Anchorage, Alaska's only "big city," where you can have almost anything you want, from a true city spa day to walking hundreds of miles of city trails and parkland. You're back in Southcentral Alaska now and just a short drive from many great tours, including glacier dog-sledding from nearby Girdwood or hopping a plane for bear-viewing in Lake Clark or Katmai national parks.

But this isn't the end of the line. A narrow ribbon of highway continues south to Seward, a popular cruise port known for its day cruises; you can go sightseeing, whale-watching or fishing there. Or, take the other fork and end up in Homer, which is famous for its friendly people and many artsy, foodie and fishing pursuits. Along the way, you'll pass through Kenai and Soldotna, home to some of the best freshwater salmon fishing in the world.

When to Hop on a Plane

There are a few places in Alaska where your car can't go – at least not easily. So, although traveling by four wheels gives you the freedom to slow down and explore the state on your own terms and at your own speed, at some point, you should consider taking to the air to reach the Arctic communities of Nome or Utqiagvik (formerly known as Barrow). Unless you're on a cruise, planes are also the easiest way to reach the famous fishing/crabbing city of Kodiak or the remote fishing port of Unalaska/Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands.

But once you get there, rent a car and head out on the local roads. There are once-in-a-lifetime memories awaiting you.

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