When my folks mentioned they planned to drive their motorhome from central Ohio to the great Alaska frontier, the very first thing I said was, “Can we come with you?”
I mean, how epic is it to drive a motorhome thousands of miles, stopping where you want to stop, seeing what you want to see? This footloose style of travel appealed to vagabond in me, but at the same time grated against the intense planner in me.
But what a conflict to have. Seriously, for all the Type A folks out there, this IS the way to do mainland Alaska. At least once in your life, let it go. Avoid the schedule, get up with the midnight sun, drive, hike, sightsee, boat, tour, eat, sleep. Repeat. (Note: It really doesn’t get dark in June-July in Alaska. Kind of twilight-y from time to time, but mostly it’s light all night long.)
So, while my folks drove their Class C motorhome up through British Columbia and the Yukon toward Anchorage, we followed their path remotely. We, for sake of travel time, flew up to meet them. Flying into Anchorage Airport is a breeze, rental cars are on site, and for those renting motorhomes (and A LOT of people do this), they’re but a shuttle or taxi ride away. We got in rather late, so we picked up our rental SUV (book this months in advance, folks, or you won’t get the car style you prefer) and headed to a hotel.
Day 1: Drive to meet the ’rents
On the way to the Kenai Peninsula, we stopped at Potter Marsh. It’s right on the Seward Highway as you leave Anchorage. It’s a free little park with restrooms and a great boardwalk you can roll (if you need handicap accessible, this is it!) or walk along to view eagles, marsh birds (we hear the birders really love this place), and other wildlife, all with a mountain range as a backdrop.
When we popped by, there was a mama moose and her two calves to view. What a great start to the vacay! The drive along the Turnagain Arm toward the Kenai Peninsula is stunning. Plan to stop at many pull-offs along the way for pics and to take in the majesty, and make sure to use the slow-moving vehicle lane if you’re holding folks up.
When you turn off the Seward Highway to head toward Homer, there’s Tern Lake right in front of you.
There are rare arctic terns that hang out here, hovering like hummingbirds above the water before diving for their dinner. Make sure to stop and check them out. If you’re lucky, the weather conditions will be perfect so you’ll get a mirror reflection of the mountains on the water.
Once you continue on toward Cooper Center, you’ll start seeing folks fishing and rafting along the river as it twines its way between mountains and canyons. Just gorgeous!
Day 2: Copper Center adventuring
Here’s where you can raft, float or fish. The fishing is done via small motor-less boats that the captain rows you around in so you can catch salmon for your dinner.
If it’s the right time of year (think July), you’ll see what they call “combat fishing” along the Russian River, when fishermen and women line up shoulder to shoulder (and sometimes right next to bears) to catch the salmon as they make their way up stream.
There are also plenty of back roads and back loops you can drive to take in the scenery and catch wildlife. We saw a beaver at work as well as a grouse, moose and bears. And there are always the magpies, which are beautiful (and big) birds one usually doesn’t see in the lower 48.
Day 3: Homing in on Homer
Homer is a super cute town with the famous Homer Spit extending from the downtown. The colorful (in more ways than one) Homer Spit is where you’ll find tons of shops, restaurants and bars on stilts, overlooking the harbor.
The harbor is full of charter boats, party boats and commercial fishing vessels. Occasionally a cruise ship will pull up, too. Arrange, if you haven’t already, for your charter excursion for the next morning.
Keep in mind there is plenty to do nearby for those who aren’t into fishing, including horseback riding, shopping, bayside hikes through the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies, to name just a few. So no worries if casting a line isn’t your thing.
Day 4: Oh, my aching arms, those fish are HUGE!
The two of us don’t get seasick left at 6:45 a.m. on a halibut mission. The ocean stayed smooth all the way out to the Barren Islands, where we encountered rookeries of thousands of tufted puffins and other sea birds.
After a few stops, we pulled up our 50+ pound fish each (they really feel like barn doors when your muscles quiver as you pull them up from the bottom) and our second <28” long halibuts and headed home.
A scenic ride back (there are whales, harbor seals and sea otters to view) and we had plenty of time to stop off at the fish processing place to arrange to have most of the fish packaged, flash frozen and shipped home. Note: They’ll store the fish in their freezers until you get home, then overnight it.
After that? Fish fry time at the motorhome, which overlooked the harbor from the Baycrest RV Park.
Day 5: Getting up close and personal with sea life
The drive back up from Homer to Tern Lake and then on to Seward is equally as awe-inspiring as the drive to Cooper Center. Snow-capped mountains, waterfalls threading their way down the green and lush foothills, still lakes with red, yellow and green float planes gliding off and back… just wow!
Seward is worth the trek in every way. Just make sure you gas up in Copper Center (if you’re coming up from Homer) or in Girdwood (if you’re coming from Anchorage). Otherwise, you might not make it to the fuel pumps in Seward.
On your way into town, you’ll see the sign for Exit Glacier to your right. This is part of the Kenai Fjords National Park. Check it out, but make sure to take your bug (and bear) spray, and plan for a bit of a hike as the glacier has receded in recent years.
Once you get to town, head on down to the Alaska Sealife Center for a first-class, anyone-of-any-age-will-love-this aquarium.
Here you’ll get to stand right next to puffins and other birds (no glass separating you except in the lower level where you’ll watch them dive down into the water).
You’ll also get to interact with the stellar sea lions, who enjoy chasing the balls children toss from one end of the tank bottom to the other, and enjoy the tide pool critters.
Lots to do here! Plan at least 1-2 hours. And if you pick up one of the coupon books for Alaska, the Tour Saver or the Northern Lights, you’ll get a 2-for-1 deal here and on many other tours. We used these books extensively and saved oodles.
Downtown Seward has many fine shops, with authentic Alaskan-made goods. Because, really we don’t travel to Alaska to buy things made in China. Thank you, Seward, for recognizing this! Walk along the waterfront from the Sealife center toward the harbor. You’re likely to spot whales just off the coast.
We did – pods of humpback whales entertained folks for hours. While you’re at the harbor, if you haven’t already, arrange for a boat tour of Kenai Fjords National Park for the next day.
There are two larger boat lines – Major Marine and Kenai Fjords – and both offer great experiences and different time-lengths of tours. We picked Major Marine because it included narration from a National Park ranger, who boarded the vessel for the duration of the cruise.
Day 6: Cruising through Kenai Fjords National Park
An early morning 7-hour cruise to explore the Kenai Fjords National Park is in store for us this fine day. As we board a Major Marine vessel, we say hello to a friendly sea otter floating on its back at the marina. It literally waves back at us. Beyond cuteness.
Again, we see the pod of humpback whales in Resurrection Bay, then we zoom on over to the rookeries, where smaller birds are swarming eagles who get too close to their young.
These include puffins, common murres and black-legged kittiwakes (but, let’s be honest, they had me at puffins), that zip around the boat like it’s the Indy 500. A bit farther up the cliff face is a huge family of stellar sea lions, sunbathing themselves on rocks.
Then it’s iceberg and glacier time. We head up into two fjords, each with multiple glaciers. You know you’re getting close to a glacier when the mint green water starts to have progressively larger chunks of ice floating in it. We spot sea otters floating with their young on their bellies and sea lions sprawled on the icebergs. Then, the glaciers.
These tidewater glaciers are a seemingly impossible bright sky blue and tower above us, extending as far as the eye can see up into and around the mountain peaks. This is what this national park is all about. This.
On our way back to Seward, as we settle in over some yummy desserts, the cherry on top of the entire trip arrives. A special surprise, the park ranger says over the loudspeaker, may be found on both sides of the boat.
Orcas! Yes, killer whales in the wild. Multiple pods, hunting for their dinner, surround the boat although they aren’t paying a lick of attention to us. Their white and black bodies move through the water with purpose, speed, agility and strength. Just magnificent.
After getting back into harbor, we drive back up toward the turnoff for Whittier, where one can explore the mountainous countryside surrounding Portage Glacier. We camped near here for the night in a gorgeous campground surrounded by snowcapped peaks and hanging glaciers.
Day 7: The long, lonely road to Valdez
When we think of Valdez, we often think about the pipeline and about the oil tanker spill. Maybe an earthquake. But we often don’t think about just how incredibly rugged and ethereal the landscape is here.
Valdez is a gem, one that it seems just a small fraction of Alaska-bound tourists explore.
You could either take a ferry from Whittier to Valdez, or drive back up to Anchorage and then the Glenn Highway to the Richardson Highway. Word to the wise: Take the ferry – it’s a LONG drive on the Glenn Highway (and wasn’t nearly as pretty as any of the other scenery we’d seen… much grayer and rockier than elsewhere). Plus, there were a ton of frost heaves (wheeee)!
Either way you go, you’ll arrive in Valdez and notice the adorable harbor and waterfront campgrounds, stores and restaurants. You’ll probably also notice the resident bunnies that run rampant.
As one story goes, a fella had a bunny farm with all types of domestic rabbits. When he retired, he simply let them all go. And, well, bunnies do what bunnies do, and now you’ll find California giants hopping around with little mini lops.
Here you’ll be able to explore the Columbia Glacier by kayak or boat, get some deep sea fishing in, explore the museums that detail the gold-mining and earthquake history of this area, dip a pan in the water for gold (good luck!), or drive around to enjoy the natural beauty of the area.
We particularly liked the Worthington Glacier, 28 miles outside of town on the Richardson Highway with nice walking paths (handicap accessible) to get close, and the Keystone Canyon.
The Keystone Canyon is a few miles of steep canyon walls that extend into the towering mountain peaks above.
As you drive through it, there are 14 waterfalls extending from the mountaintops all the way down to the gorge. There are plenty of pull-offs for drivers to get out and view their majestic splendor.
Day 8: Wrangell-St. Elias National Park
This is the largest national park in the United States, yet few have heard of it and even fewer have explored it.
Granted, it is off the beaten path, and not as accessible as some other parks (Read: Denali), but this park is hands-down the best park in Alaska. Yes, we said it, the best park. Why? Because it’s TRUE Alaska. It’s rugged. It’s gorgeous. It’s wild.
Isn’t this why you came to Alaska?
We reached Wrangell-St. Elias National Park as we drive up the Richardson Highway from Valdez toward Fairbanks. The sign said it was 20ish miles down this other road. Toward the mountains. We figured, why not? It’d just be 40 minutes of our day there and back.
Not exactly. The road off the highway took us to Chitina, a super tiny crossroads with a hotel, a food stand and a ranger station. We figured we’d grab a Wrangell-St. Elias magnet at the range station and head on toward Fairbanks, but then we met the ranger. She was beyond excited to share with us all the reasons we should go into the park (at least to mile marker 30 of the Edgerton Highway, she said). After all, it’s REAL Alaska, she said. That clinched it. We had to go.
We stocked up on water (there are no real services in the park, so please make sure you purchased plenty of gas in Valdez and you have food and water with you), grabbed a map and headed in.
This park turned out to be perhaps the best surprise of our Alaskan journey.
Once you get around some cliffs with clearly recent rock slides (this is a bit sketchy; would recommend you have a higher-clearance vehicle and drive it slow), it’s pretty easy going on this part paved, part dirt/gravel road.
Everywhere you look, there are mountains, wild flowers, rivers, lakes, snow, glaciers and wild life. Every turn seemed to showcase another awe-inspiring view.
We made it to mile 30 and beyond, before we had to turn around and head back. We did so with much regret that we had to make it to Fairbanks that night and would already be getting in close to midnight.
Still, as we made it back to Chitina, we took one more road to the left after the river, to see the great view of Spirit Mountain the ranger promised. This is her Zen spot, and we could see why.
Then it was back to the Richardson Highway for the drive to Fairbanks.
This route is also beyond compare as it features rolling hills of wildflowers as they make their way to the mountains in the distance.
The route also features plenty of moose, snowshoe hares and arctic ground squirrels, who apparently loved nothing more than ambling or hopping out into the roadway so we could get a close view.
Day 9: Greetings from Santa
North Pole, Alaska, is just shy of Fairbanks, and it’s here that you can go to the Santa Claus House to pick up Christmas goodies and send Christmas cards from Santa with a postmark from the North Pole. It’s kitschy, yes, but who can resist?
After you check off your list of naughty and nice boys and girls, Fairbanks has quite a bit to offer folks. There are hot springs in this area, a sternwheeler riverboat tour, helicopter or plane rides to the Arctic Circle, and more. We didn’t hit any of those (have to save something for next trip, right?), but we did stock and fuel up in Fairbanks before turning the SUV and motorhome toward Denali.
There’s not a whole lot to see on the way to Denali from Fairbanks, but there is a replica of the Into the Wild bus at a bar and grill in Healy. If you’re into that, you might stop in for a few pics. The real bus is, of course, on the Stampeded Trail well into the wild, and only the best, seasoned hikers should attempt to reach it.
You’ll know it once you get to Denali. The commercial area around Denali reminds us of a strip mall built to look like the Old West. It fails in this mission, but here’s where you can pick up supplies, gas up, eat at restaurants. Reservations for everything at and around Denali National Park, including the shuttle buses and tours, are recommended weeks in advance.
The campgrounds at the national park itself, Riley Creek in particular, are super nice with plenty of space for the RVs, trees between spots, clean restrooms and showers. There’s also lots of bike or hiking trails from the campgrounds at Denali National Park, and shuttle stops at each. Believe us, if you are camping, stay here (even though it’s not full hookup). Reserve in advance and you’ll thank us for this tip when you see the other non-National Park options.
Stop at the visitor center and get the tickets printed you’d already reserved for the shuttle, and drive back into the park the dozen or so miles you can drive in your personal car. Consider taking in the dinner theater show at Denali Park Village for the evening (reservations required – this dinner is also in the Tour Saver book as a BOGO).
Day 10: The long, bumpy road to Denali
So we took the shuttle bus trip to Wonder Lake and back. It’s a long trip – 8 hours or so – but you do go far into the park and have more opportunities for viewing wildlife and Denali (if it’s a clear day).
This day wasn’t exactly clear, but we did see herds of hundreds of caribou, dall sheep on the cliffs high above, moose, a ptarmigan (state bird), and a blond (yes, they’re blond) grizzly bear with her two cubs. Oh, and swarms of mosquitos (make sure to take your bug spray), especially at Wonder Lake.
It appears that hundreds of tour buses trek this road each day, and you aren’t alone in Denali unless you jump off the bus and hike into the wilderness. You may have to hike a ways to get away from the buses and the tourists.
Keep in mind that the shuttle bus drivers do work for tips, even though they’re not allowed to ask for them. Please, be generous, as you’ve been with this person for an entire day and they’ve likely gone out of their way to show you the best wildlife.
This was such a juxtaposition from our time in Wrangell-St. Elias or even Kenai Fjords that we felt Denali to be a bit jarring by comparison.
Day 11: Grooving in Talkeetna
The drive from Denali to Talkeetna proved to be delightful as the skies cleared and Denali lifted her skirt of clouds.
We could see the white peak of Denali, and she’s a beaut, especially as you follow the lines of pines and river toward her base far off in the distance.
The groovy, hippy-ish village of Talkeetna, really, is closer to the home base for enthusiasts looking to climb Denali. It has a busy, yet laid-back vibe about it that makes you not-so-angsty about paying $6 for a gallon of milk. Because, really, you bought it from a super cute general store, so how could one begrudge them a profit?
There are shops a plenty in Talkeetna, a little town square park, restaurants and lots of flight-seeing excursions. At the airport just outside of town, there are multiple mom-and-pop airline companies that’ll take your family close to Denali, land you on an iceberg, give you a peek of the climbers, and fly you back.
Two in our group did just that, pulling on boots to tread on the glacier, while the other two did some shopping for gifts.
Day 12: Allllll-aboard the Alaska Railroad
The Alaska Railroad is a staple for travelers to Alaska, particularly those who are taking a cruise ship package.
If you have a car or motorhome to get you from point A to B, the trains typically don’t make logistical sense. Frequently, they run alongside or very close to the same road you’ll be on with your automobile.
But, did you know the Alaska Railroad has a few day-trip, round-trip train excursions? Yup, and often to places where your car won’t be able to reach. In the Kenai Peninsula, for instance, there’s the Spencer Glacier trip, reachable by plain, helicopter or train only. (Note there are several BOGO in the Tour Saver and Northern Lights coupon books for railroad trips.)
Or, closer to Denali, there’s the Hurricane Turn Train excursion. This excursion takes you into the heart of Denali wilderness, stopping for wildlife viewing and at the turn near a rushing river, and picking up hikers and folks who live in the backwoods.
On our trip, which included time in a vista dome car with the conductor (who shares a lot of history and stories along with the general tour), we picked up and/or dropped off a two authors who live far from civilization and a load of burl wood for a craftsman up the line to shape into works of art.
This relaxing and delightful trip turned out to be a treat for all, far surpassing the enjoyment level of the Denali shuttle the day or so prior.
Day 13: Giant pancakes and winding down
After a breakfast stop at the Roadhouse in Talkeetna, a historic tavern that’s a favorite of local and tourists alike, we headed our separate ways.
My folks took off toward the Yukon, while we turned our SUV toward Anchorage.
In Anchorage, there is much to do – watching for bore tides and landing planes, going hiking, touring downtown shops and area attractions.
We went to a couple of places, but the highlight was the Alaska Botanical Garden, which has many of the flowers we’d seen along our journey plus a few more.
(Tip: There’s also a BOGO coupon for the botanical garden.)
Day 14: Flying over the peaks
Alas, this trip is over, and our bags are packed. If you can, get a late check out time from your hotel as most planes leave later in the afternoon or night.
We spent some time before going to the airport at parks near the landing strip. We could watch the water from here, as well as planes as they came in to land and takeoff. It’s not St. Maarten, but it’s a heck of a close-up view! Plus, there’s hiking trails and, when we were there, an ice cream truck.
What a sweet ending.