Our Alaska Grand Tour starts in urban Anchorage but quickly heads into spectacular country.
The first part of the trip explores the coast, a region of emerald rain forests, deep fjords, rich sealife, and tidewater glaciers that crumble into icy seas. After crossing Prince William Sound on a ferry, we head north and inland toward the Arctic Circle to stand near the base of 20,320-foot Mt. McKinley.
Our trip takes 10 days, but ― for the true Alaska wilderness experience ― we highly recommend adding a side trip to a wilderness park lodge.
(For a shorter, 5-day option, scroll to end.)
This area is mostly undeveloped wilderness. Reservations are essential; lodging, while sparse in many areas, runs the gamut from rustic to luxurious. Your best and often only dining option will be at your lodging.
Anchorage to Seward for glaciers and a tour of Kenai Fjords National Park.
Allow at least a day to see the city. Stick to downtown for the best dining and shopping options and the summer flower displays. Start at the Anchorage Visitors Information Center (546 W. Fourth Ave.; 907/274-3531), located in a log cabin. Visit the Anchorage Museum of History and Art ( Seventh Ave. and A St.; 907/343-4326) for exhibits of contemporary and native artists' works. Gardeners will enjoy the hardy perennials at the Alaska Botanical Garden (Tudor Rd. at Campbell Airstrip Rd.; 907/770-3692).
Kenai Fjords National Park
The roughly 670,000-acre park (907/224-3175) is home to sea mammals, thousands of nesting birds, and tidewater glaciers best seen from the deck of a Seward-based tour boat. We chose Kenai Fjords Tours (800/478-8068), which offers 6- or 10-hour trips from $109. Hikers can take a strenuous all-day, 7-mile round-trip hike to the icy, glacial edge of the massive Harding Icefield. In Seward, the < a href="http://www.alaskasealife.org/">Alaska SeaLife Center (800/224-2525) is an excellent aquarium-like research facility.
Seward to Gakona across Prince William Sound and over the Chugach Mountains.
Alaska Marine Highway System ferry
Driving from Portage to the Whittier ferry landing is an adventure; you'll pass through the 2 1/2-mile, single-lane Whittier Tunnel (from $12; 907/566-2244) that serves both trains and automobiles. The Valdez ferry (reserve early; $91 per full-size car plus $68 per passenger age 12 and older; 800/642-0066) leaves Whittier at 2:45 p.m. daily (except Mon and Fri) for the nearly seven-hour crossing of Prince William Sound. Be at the dock two hours early; all adult passengers must have a government-issued photo ID.
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve
The park's new visitor center has regional recreation information, natural-history exhibits, a film, and maps of the park, which is just across the Copper River (see "Wilderness Park Lodges," below right). Traditional fish wheels catching salmon on the river are private property. To drive into the park, check road conditions ― four-wheel-drive advised east of Chitina ― before leaving home. 8-6 daily. Mile 106.8 on Richardson Hwy. (State 4); www.nps.gov/wrst or (907) 822-5234.
Gakona to Denali National Park & Preserve, Mt. McKinley, and wildlife watching.
Opened in 1957, the 134-mile Denali Hwy. (State 8) is mostly gravel and becomes narrow and winding west of Maclaren Summit. There are a few lodges but no service stations; cell-phone service out here is unreliable. Before you head out, gas up and call 511 for road conditions.
Denali National Park & Preserve
Cars are prohibited in the park; you'll need to take a shuttle bus (from $17) or a commercial tour (from $36); both require reservations. The day before heading into the park, stop at the visitor center for planning help, hiking options (trails are few; it's mostly open, cross-country hiking), and wildlife information. Start early: the first shuttle leaves before 6 a.m. during peak season and takes four hours to get to the Eielson Visitor Center. Plan for a long day, dress warmly, and take rain gear, insect repellent, water, food, and maps. Park fees: $5 per person, $10 per family. For shuttle and campground reservations, call (800) 622-7275. For general information, visit www.nps.gov/dena or call (907) 683-2294.
Denali National Park to Anchorage via Talkeetna, the salmon-filled Susitna River, and Independence Mine State Historical Park.
Independence Mine State Historical Park
This gold-mining outpost was built in 1939 and is a testament to the fortitude of Alaska's early miners. Stop first at the visitor center (907/745-2827), once the manager's house, to see historical displays and pick up a self-guided tour map. Hike the nearby 7-mile round-trip Reed Lakes Trail past old mining equipment to a stunning alpine lake. Get directions at the park.
Wilderness park lodges
The "real" Alaska begins beyond the end of the road. Turn your Grand Tour into a grand adventure by adding a detour to wilderness lodges deep within two of Alaska's most majestic national parks. ― Jeff Phillips
DENALI NATIONAL PARK
The only park lodging with views of Mt. McKinley, 51-year-old Camp Denali has a staff of experts who introduce guests to the park. Lodging options are 17 rustic but comfortable ridgetop cabins with private outhouses and 15 rooms with baths in nearby North Face Lodge. Delicious meals accompanied by reports on the day's bear and caribou sightings make this our top Alaska wilderness choice. From $1,125 per person (three-night minimum), all-inclusive. (907) 683-2290.
WRANGELL-ST. ELIAS NATIONAL PARK
Kennicott Glacier Lodge
Fly in from Chitina to see the park's mountain- and glacier-packed interior, then spend a couple of days hiking, taking a guided walk on Root Glacier, and touring the hulking 1907 Kennicott Copper Mill. Historic Kennicott Glacier Lodge has 25 simple rooms (shared baths) and family-style meals. From $179 for two (from $265 with three meals). (800) 582-5128. Round-trip charter from Chitina (from $150) on Wrangell Mountain Air, (800) 478-1160.
Next: planning your trip
ALASKA TRAVEL ESSENTIALS
Schedules listed here reflect seasonal hours, generally in effect from late May into early September. Always call ahead ― especially if you'll be traveling early or late in the season.
Planning your trip
Lodging, ferry, air, and tour reservations are essential. Two invaluable resources: The Milepost ($26; 800/726-4707) is updated annually, has detailed maps and visitor information, and has been Alaska's essential driving guide since 1949. The Alaska Travel Industry Association (800/862-5275) publishes a free travel planner and is an excellent source of tour and travel information.
Alaska weather is capricious, ranging from rainy and cold to sunny and hot ― sometimes all in the same day. Pack rain gear and layers of warm clothes; serious hikers should pack a change of boots. Take insect repellent and consider a head net for hiking and camping. Outside of Anchorage, "dressing up" means clean jeans.
Driving and road conditions
All of the roads on our route can be driven with a standard rental car; higher clearance and all-wheel drive may come in handy on gravel roads. Be certain to ask about driving restrictions and insurance coverage when you make reservations; get applicable information in writing. On our route, Denali Hwy. (State 8) and Fishhook-Willow Rd. are mostly graded gravel. Sections can be rough and suffer potholes and washouts in bad weather.
To check weather and road conditions anywhere in the state, visit www.dot.state.ak.us and click on "Traveler Info." Or dial 511 for recorded information once you arrive. Top off the tank and check fluid levels in towns; carry extra food and water.
Be cautious of animals
Wild animals ― especially moose and bears ― are unpredictable and dangerous. Never approach or feed any wildlife.
Camping and camper rentals
There are plenty of campgrounds along our route, and camping is a great option ― especially for families. A 24-foot camper that sleeps five rents for about $155 per day and 15 cents a mile; propane and incidentals (like bedding and supplies) probably will cost another $100. Reserve ahead; for a list of rental companies, contact the Alaska Travel Industry Association.
Mini Grand Tour
Don't have the 10 days our Grand Tour requires? You can hit the highlights in 5 full but exhausting days.
DAYS 1-2: Seward and around the Kenai Fjords.
DAYS 3-4: Seward to Denali National Park, with a day in Denali.
DAY 5: Back to Anchorage via Independence Mine.