In a split second, my stomach leapt into my throat as we landed hard in a pothole — KA-DUNK! I looked over at Lauren, whose mouth was agape, then grinned and flashed her a thumbs up. We both burst into laughter as we cursed the condition of the road, thankful that the van handled the abuse so well.
While roads in the northernmost reaches of our continent aren’t always in the best shape, the places they lead are worth every bump.
Why You Should Go: The Beauty and Wonder of the Alaska Summer
If you’ve never been to Alaska, forget your preconceptions about the weather. While it’s covered in ice and snow during the dark winter months, Alaska has a warm and inviting landscape during June and July, with daytime highs around 70° F (20° C) and nighttime lows around 50° F (10° C).
You’ll have plenty of opportunities to see snowy mountains, glaciers, and even icebergs when you visit Alaska in the summer — these massive deposits of ice don’t vanish when it’s warm outside. But there’s no need to worry about icy road conditions, getting snowed on, or even needing to dress warmly. It’s the best of both worlds.
Perhaps the most unique thing about northern latitudes in summertime is the never-ending daylight. The sun never really goes away completely. In the middle of the night, it’s more like someone just turned the brightness slider down on daytime. Depending on your exact location, the sky will start to get a sort of dusky feel around 2 am or so.
Because of the perpetual daylight, it’s easy to lose track of time. This is probably my favorite thing about the state. While most people living and vacationing in Alaska let their clocks tell them when to go to bed, I highly recommend ignoring your electronics and letting your body decide for itself when it’s time to rest while you’re there.
By allowing yourself a free-flowing schedule and embracing the midnight sun, you’ll find yourself exploring popular tourist hot spots like Denali National Park in complete solitude while everyone else is in bed. This will allow you to enjoy the Last Frontier the way it was meant to be experienced — on your own terms.
How You Should Go: Embrace Freedom and Drive to Alaska
Alaska is vast and daunting. Because of this, most visitors defer to the experience of an Alaska tour guide or local travel group to make sure they see the very best of this massive place on their short visit. Popular methods of travel include cruises, train rides, bus tours, and flights.
I can’t really recommend any of that. As you know, we’re not exactly fans of one- or two-week vacations in the first place, so my top recommendation would be to find a way to spend a month or more in this amazing place if you can.
If you have a way of sleeping in your vehicle, Alaska is a very easy and safe place to do it — and you’ll save a ton of money on hotels which will allow you to stay longer. On many of the highways, you’ll find frequent rest stops and pullouts where you can catch some Z’s without being bothered. There are plenty of places to grab a cheap shower on the road, too.
The best way to get to Alaska is to take the long and arduous drive there from wherever you may be in North America because the Alaska Highway through Canada is an experience all by itself. But even if you fly to Alaska and only have a week to spend, I still highly recommend renting a car to drive yourself around the state rather than taking trains, buses, or planes.
You’re going to see a lot of fantastic sights, and having the ability to stop when and where you want is priceless. You’ll get more out of Alaska if you feel like you’re exploring it yourself, rather than having someone else show you what they’ve already explored — trust me.
Where You Should Go: Best Places to Visit in Alaska
Obviously I think highly of doing an Alaska road trip — so if you’re driving your own car, which roads are worthwhile? We’ve actually driven nearly every mile of each of Alaska’s highways ourselves, so we created a map of the four specific stretches of road we found to be really amazing just in terms of views while driving.
While some of the roads are much nicer than others, all of these suggestions are doable in a regular two-wheel drive car. The two most treacherous of the roads above are the Dalton Highway and the Alaska Highway, and we’ve driven both of those twice — first in a Honda Civic and again in a Nissan NV200 cargo van. A four-wheel drive vehicle is nice, but feel free to use what you have. Just tread lightly, bring a spare tire, and know that your car is gonna come home filthy.
Aside from the great drives and the random places you’ll find to stop along them on your own, there are quite a few well-known destinations you’ll want to check out when you visit Alaska. Some of the best among them are the eight US National Parks located in Alaska, most of which rank high on our list of every National Park in the US. Unfortunately, only three of those eight are accessible by road, so if you decide to visit any of the other five, that’s where you will definitely want to hop in an airplane.
Since the parks that are off the road system are very expensive or challenging to visit, let’s focus on the ones you can drive into: Denali, Kenai Fjords, and Wrangell-St. Elias.
Denali is the most well-known of Alaska’s National Parks. It features the highest mountain peak in all of North America as well as beautiful landscapes incorporating the Savage River. Kenai Fjords features a gigantic ice field leading to Exit Glacier, an impressive sheet of ice you can hike to and see up-close and personal. The drive into Wrangell-St. Elias was pretty boring, but it also offers glacier and mountain views once you get closer to the quaint and charming town of Kennecott, which is a great place to walk around and meet people.
If you’re looking for a bigger dose of civilization to break up your trip, Anchorage and Fairbanks are the two largest cities in Alaska (and I use the term “large city” lightly). Anchorage is a coastal town on the southern border of mainland Alaska with awesome mountain and ocean views. Fairbanks is much farther north in the state and landlocked. It’ll be your jumping off point if you decide to take on the challenge of driving the Dalton Highway all the way up to the Arctic Ocean.
Another great town to stop at if you’re driving South is Seward. It’s the nearest city to Kenai Fjords, but it’s an interesting place all on its own. Situated between the Harding Icefield and the Atlantic Ocean, Seward has awesome visuals and a small-town vibe. Check out a local brewery while you’re there, if you’re into that sort of thing.
If you reach the end of Highway 1, you’ll hit Homer, another small coastal town with a lot of personality. Make sure you drive the Homer Spit, a narrow road that goes straight out into the bay. There are actually campsites available on the spit if you want a unique overnight experience.
Homer is also one of the jumping off points for Katmai National Park, one of the parks you can’t access by road. If you decide to take the expensive charter plane ride over there, you won’t regret it. In the summer, hundreds of grizzly bears descend on the Brooks River to catch salmon swimming upstream — and you’ll get a front-row seat.
Regardless of which specific Alaska destinations you visit on your vacation, make sure you take time out of each day to appreciate the unique wilderness that still exists there. Try to get to some of the more remote locations and enjoy the precious moments of true solitude that are so rare in this modern world.
You won’t regret it.