Alaska: The summer road-trip guide to the ultimate winter destination

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Orca Whale jumping in Resurrection Bay, Kenai Fjord in Alaska by Alberto Loyo.

For me, an Alaskan summer road trip was a last-minute decision. Some particularly gorgeous Instagram shots from the US state flooded my feed, Alaskan Air tickets went on sale to Anchorage, and I caught a friend in a weak moment and suggested that we go together. She agreed.

A few weeks later, having done minimal research but plenty of checking of weather apps, we were landing in what they call “the last frontier”. The kind of place where glaciers and mountains and orcas and bears and trees and the ocean and national parks all come together to create some kind of paradise-on-crack for wilderness lovers.

I had basically no cash, the remnants of a broken heart and minimal expectations beyond thinking that it was probably going to rain every day. But I also had a best friend, some half-decent recommendations and the TripAdvisor app, so we hoped for the best and set off on our little last frontier adventure.

Alaska basically took my heart, wrapped it in fluffy towels and gave it a spa day. The universe lined up for us to have the most incredibly lucky experiences, meet some phenomenal people and see some unbelievable sights in one of the most beautiful places this world is lucky enough to have. And weirdly enough, it didn’t rain a drop for 10 entire days.

If you’re dreaming of your own Alaskan bucket list adventure but aren’t sure where to begin, here’s my guide to where and how to do the very best of everything in this particular part of the state.

And while this is a summer road trip guide (on a website dedicated to snow, skiing and snowboarding – I know, I know), rest assured you’ll still be dressing in your warmest clothes and seeing plenty of snow while not battling too many of the elements that come with a gnarly Alaskan winter.

As cheesy as it sounds, get ready to have your soul transformed, your priorities re-aligned and your life restarted.

The last frontier shifted my core in the best possible way, and it’s inevitable that it’ll do the same to you.

How to get there

I flew from Kelowna in British Columbia, Canada, to Anchorage with a connection via Seattle. If you’re coming from Australia, Alaskan Air flies direct to Anchorage from Honolulu, Los Angeles, Chicago, Seattle and Portland (stopover in Hawaii, anyone?). From there, pick up your car rental and go. Our route was Anchorage -> Seward -> Homer -> Denali National Park -> Fairbanks and then all the way back to Anchorage again.

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When to go

Even in peak touristy areas, the summer tourist season isn’t super long – if conditions are favourable, tour operators open around mid May and close up by mid September. Most people travel between mid June and mid August, and the famous Alaskan mozzies are out in full force in July, along with the peak summer pricing.

We timed our trip for the very end of North American school summer holidays, from about September 5 to 15, and it was perfect: prices were lower, the days were still long and nothing was crowded or booked out. The weather was also incredible, which doesn’t usually happen in September – but keep all your fingers crossed (and bring some rain pants just in case).

What to pack

In the span of 10 days, we had every temperature, from 25 degrees and super sunny to freezing  overnight. I lived in workout tights, Timbalands and a variety of novelty t-shirts purchased at gift stores around Alaska (they have a great selection if you like things with grizzly bears and salmon on them).

Layer up with your ski thermals, a light puffer that packs into a small bag, as much rainproof clothing as possible, a beanie, gloves and a couple of hoodies. I also brought a wool coat because we slept in our car (we spent all our money on trying to see as many orcas as possible, what can I say).

Other than warm/layerable clothing and sunscreen, the single most important thing you’ll need is a camera – go ahead and buy a good one if you need to. This is official permission for you to do so. You won’t regret having a DLSR, the bigger the zoom, the better. I also brought a lightweight travel hammock which was surprisingly handy for putting up in cute/random/particularly scenic places and relaxing.

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Some cafe owners in the tiny town of Hope, Alaska offered up their backyard gazebo for us to stay in one night – it made for the perfect sleeping spot. Thanks travel hammocks and beautiful cafe owners!

If you’re into shopping and want the cutest souvenirs ever, pack light and go and find two brands – AK Starfish Co. and Mountains & Mermaids – that can be found all over Alaska and are just as loved by locals as they are by tourists.

So you also want to sleep in your car

Well, you absolutely can. Thanks to Alaskan law, you’re allowed to sleep basically anywhere that doesn’t have a no-parking or no-stopping sign, and this means you are literally spoiled for choice. We slept in the most beautiful car parks and woke up to gorgeous mountain views; in Homer, we backed our car up onto the beach of the spit and were blown away by both the sunrises and sunsets.

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Waking up in the back of the car and putting up the boot to see the sunrise over the mountains of Seward – this particularly amazing car park is near the Alaska Sealife Centre.

Just rent yourself a car that’s big enough (we had a Nissan Rouge and folded the seats down) and go to Walmart in Anchorage to buy yourself a $30 air mattress, a $20 duvet, a couple of $2 pillows and a stack of $2 fleece blankets that were so good, I carted them all the way back to Australia with me.

We never felt unsafe, but if you do, buy a roll of duct tape and tape black material in the car windows so that no one can see you sleeping. Also, you have to be okay with peeing outside, as there are not always public restrooms easily accessible (sorry about that). You’ll always find them in a McDonalds or a Safeway, though.

The Anchorage must-sees and dos

Anchorage – as nice as it is – is the kind of place you’re just going to be passing through. But while you are passing through, make sure you:

  • Go and have breakfast at Snow City Cafe, the cult breakfast spot in Anchorage – just make a reservation if you can, because it’s busy all day long. Then walk across the road to the Alaskan vintage store to beat all vintage stores – you can pick up a 30,000 year old mammoth tusk for US$55,000, incredible old photographs or a framed painting of a husky, if that’s your kind of thing (it is 100% my kind of thing).
  • Do the Flattop Mountain Trail hike, which starts out pretty mellow but ends with this crazy rock scramble up to the flat top of the mountain (hence the name), with picture-perfect views over Anchorage. It’s challenging and you need good shoes but it’s so much fun and a great way to stretch your legs if you’ve been spending time on planes to get to Alaska.
  • Grab dinner at the Beartooth Grill, which is where the locals go for some of Alaska’s best pizzas and Mexican food. There’s a theatre right next door, so if you have some time to kill, you can even order takeaway and then head inside to watch a movie.
  • Visit the Alaska Native Heritage Center to see how Alaska’s Indigenous people survived and thrived in some incredibly challenging conditions – it’s a cultural and educational center that does a lot to break down discrimination and encourage learning about the tribes native to Alaska.

Seward

Story time: after a couple of days in Anchorage, my friend Maddie and I arrived in Seward, spotting belugas along the way. We drove downtown to get some dinner and were in the process of choosing a spot to eat when two guys in fishing waders walked up to us, carrying a cooler full of salmon filets. They’d been out on a fishing boat all day and had caught far too much to eat all by themselves.

We ended up having a spontaneous salmon feast, cooked by one of the local restaurants, and took a bunch of salmon filets home to our cabin with us, where we cooked them over a fire pit in the morning and ate them for breakfast.

The lesson here? Loiter around seaside Alaskan towns long enough and you might just get some beautifully fresh fish out of it – the people there are friendly enough. And do each of the below while you’re at it.

  • Book in for a Kenai Fjords National Park cruise – we did ours with Major Marine Tours and it was incredible. See multiple glaciers, drink margaritas made with glacier ice and see plenty of wildlife along the way. The crew are really good at spotting everything from porpoises to bears to eagles and everything in between, and they get just as excited about seeing the wildlife as you do, which is refreshing. At one point, we were surrounded by multiple pods of orcas with them whistling in and out of the water, and we listened in via a microphone that the crew lowered into the water. If you think there’s anything more magical than eavesdropping on whales chatting to each other, you’d be incorrect.
  • For a rainy day activity, head to the Alaska Sealife Center. It’s an aquarium, research facility and rehabilitation centre, and it’s the best way to learn everything there is about Alaskan wildlife along with the history of the state itself. And you can have some really close encounters with puffins, seals and more.
  • Hike the Exit Glacier, which is a pretty short drive out of Seward and an easy hike up to the Glacier itself. The interesting – and slightly depressing – thing about the Exit Glacier is that there are signs along the way showing just how much the glacier has melted over the last 120 years.

Homer

Homer well and truly feels like the end of the earth. A tiny town located at the very end of a super-narrow spit that closes up completely for the winter, things were shifting into sleepiness as we arrived. But there was still plenty of time to do the things we wanted to do – like all of the below:

  • Book in early for The Little Mermaid restaurant, which has a cult following among both locals and tourists. We went for an early dinner and were surrounded by seasonal workers who loved nothing more than visiting this spot for their baked goods, their fresh fish of the day and their friendly waitstaff. Get a spot with an ocean view and it’ll be one of the best meals of your life.
  • Visit the Salty Dawg Saloon, which has been around since 1897 and is literally covered in US dollar bills. Take your own dollar bill, draw or write whatever you’d like on it with the Sharpies provided in the bar, and then find a spare spot on a wall or on the ceiling to pin it up.
  • Book a water taxi with one of the local companies and head over to Kachemak Bay State Park, which is only accessible by water. It’ll probably only be you and a handful of other people there, so take a picnic and eat it by the glacier, then hike around the marked trails of the park (and watch out for bears, of course – it’s not a bad idea to have bear spray with you, which you can rent if you don’t want to buy your own can). Your water taxi will pick you up again at a pre-arranged spot on the other side of the park.
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Seeing orcas from our kayak

More time on the water is never a bad thing, especially if the weather’s holding out. We also booked in for a kayaking tour with one of the various local companies and were rewarded with seeing orcas and otters mere metres away from our kayaks.

Denali National Park

Denali: where the wilderness is so wild that it was where Chris McCandless went to, well, go into the wild. The weather here is so temperamental that only 30% of visitors ever see the top of Denali – after all, it’s the highest peak in America, so the top of the mountain even has its own weather system.

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Is this real life? Denali views from the bus.

You should do these things while you’re here.

  • Book a bus trip that’ll take you all the way into the park, as cars can only get you so far. We did a day trip with Alaska Collection and although it’s a long day on a bus, you’ll see a lot of animals and a lot of incredible vistas. You’ll also learn fascinating stories about the people who first discovered and lived in Denali, including a particularly badass woman who lived solo deep within the park until well into her old age, and even hunted/caught her own bears to feed herself throughout the winter.
  • Plan to spend several days in the area to maximise your chances of seeing Denali in all its glory. 
  • Head to the Denali dog kennels to meet the park’s canine rangers, who have long been working to protect the wilderness of the park – because machines and snowmobiles break down, but dogs have been reliable for centuries. It’s free to go along and check out the demonstration, and you might be lucky enough to see a fresh litter of sled dog puppies.
  • If you eat anywhere in your entire life, eat at 229 Parks Restaurant and Tavern. Reservations are super essential but the food is incredible and I’m still dreaming about the reindeer ragu, the scallops and the dessert options.

Fairbanks

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Northern Lights in Fairbanks

Fairbanks is about as far north as you can go to find anything major in Alaska, and popular with people for a stopover if they’re driving all the way up to see the Northern Lights. We went up to visit the North Pole, mostly just for Christmas-related-novelty purposes, plus we crossed all our fingers and hoped to see the Northern Lights… and we did!

It took a drive out to the Chena Hot Springs late at night, which is a resort with a hot spring lake about 60 miles out of Fairbanks – but as there’s minimal light pollution getting in the way, your chances of seeing a dancing Aurora are high.

Cats for mayor

One last fun Alaska moment for you: on your way back to Anchorage, stop by the town of Talkeetna, which is relatively famous among cat lovers for having a cat as town mayor. The cat unfortunately died last year, and they’re in the process of suggesting a new cat to come in as the new cat mayor, but there is some town resistance to this based on the new cat not being as well-liked as the old cat. So Alaska.

Natalia is an Australian writer, content creator and communications specialist who's spent the last few years in Canada and Japan. Equally obsessed with the sea and the snow, you can usually find her dreaming - and writing - about one of the two.

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