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Your Guide to an Alaskan Road Trip: Anchorage to Fairbanks

There's so much to see, including the iconic Seward Highway and Denali National Park, and this route between two major cities hits many of state 49's most sought-after sights

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Lion Head Rock Formation on Glenn Highway scenic highway in Alaska with snow capped mountainsTeresa Kopec/Getty Images

Great Land

An Alaskan cruise seems to be on everyone’s travel bucket list, but why relegate your sightseeing to only seaside adventures? There’s plenty to do inland as well—not surprising, considering Alaska is nearly two-and-a-half times as large as Texas and boasts some of the most untouched landscape in the nation. Planning an Alaskan road trip from Anchorage to Fairbanks means you’ll get to experience many of the state’s most popular attractions, including whale watching, the northern lights and Denali.

While the actual drive time between these two cities is only six hours, you certainly don’t want to do it in one fell swoop—this trip through the 49th state is about leisurely enjoying each leg of the journey rather than racing to reach the final destination, so plan on spending at least a week (if not 10 days) doing so.

Most people choose to visit Alaska during the high season, from May to mid-September, which means that hotels and activities require advance reservations. If you visit earlier in the season (May/June), you’ll have long days to enjoy all your sightseeing, as the two months surrounding the summer solstice offer nearly 24 hours of daylight. However, if your goal is to see the northern lights, then plan your trip for the end of the season (August/September), as you’ll need darker skies for optimal viewing. But if cold temps, long days of darkness and driving in winter conditions don’t scare you off, some say that Fairbanks is one of the destinations that are even better in winter.

Before you head out, review the ultimate American road trip guide for tips on how to budget and pack. And for more travel inspiration, check out these best state road trips, Glacier National Park road trip, three Texas road trips you should take at least once, northern Arizona road trip and the most iconic itinerary of them all: a Route 66 road trip.

Foggy Glacier View in Seward, AlaskaKatherine Hard/Getty Images

Anchorage to Seward

Route distance: 126 miles

Suggested length of stay: 1 night

There are few more beautiful stretches of road in the United States than the iconic Seward Highway, which connects Alaska’s largest city to the small seaside community of Seward over the course of a two-hour drive. This quintessential Alaskan road trip highway winds along the dramatic shorelines of Turnagain Arm, and you’ll be treated to the towering peaks of the Chugach Mountains before reaching the Kenai Peninsula. Allow time for a short stop at Beluga Lookout Point to take in the 180-degree views and stretch your legs—if you’re lucky, you’ll catch a glimpse of a whale.

Once in Seward, behold the beauty of Resurrection Bay and the Kenai Mountains in the distance—the Bay is often smooth as glass, offering up photos with crystal-clear water reflections. You can enjoy this landscape with a front-row seat while having a bite to eat at Ray’s Waterfront, known for its local seafood dishes, including a savory fisherman’s stew and Alaskan King Crab legs. Spend the night at Harbor 360 Hotel, which offers a free continental breakfast, hot tub and pool.

If you have another full day to spend in Seward, be sure to take the six-hour Major Marines Tour of Kenai Fjords National Park, which spans 600,000 acres, with 60% of it covered by snow and ice. During this unforgettable cruise, you’ll visit an active tidewater glacier (and possibly witness calving, where massive portions of glacial ice break off and crash into the water below with a thundering roar) as the captain narrates the entire journey. There’s a good chance you’ll see pods of orcas, humpback and gray whales, Dall’s porpoises, Stellar sea lions, sea otters, harbor seals, puffins and eagles throughout your day, so have your binoculars and camera at the ready to capture the fast-moving wildlife. When it comes to the list of the most popular tourist attractions in every state, it’s no surprise that the Kenai Fjords wildlife cruise wins for Alaska!

Alyeska mountain ski liftAlysse Vandehey/Getty Images

Seward to Girdwood

Route distance: 89 miles

Suggested length of stay: 2 nights

Now it’s time to backtrack a bit on your Alaskan road trip (trust us, you won’t mind a second look at the stunning Seward Highway), but your destination this time is Girdwood. This year-round resort town that lies in a valley in the Chugach Mountains about 25 miles south of Anchorage is popular with tourists for its wide array of outdoor activities—including hiking and biking trails, skiing, fishing, rafting, panning for gold and more.

Plan a stay at the chateau-style Alyeska Resort, which is a destination in itself. The guest rooms are comfortable and well appointed, with cozy amenities like heated towel racks and pillow-top mattresses, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Alyeska offers 1,610 skiable acres, 76 named trails and more than 600 inches of snow annually. No matter the season, take a scenic ride to the top of Mount Alyeska on the Alyeska Aerial Tram, where you’ll be mesmerized by views of the Chugach Mountain Range, seven glaciers and Turnagain Arm at an elevation of 2,300 feet above sea level.

Round out your trip with a half-day (or longer!) visit to Alyeska Nordic Spa, Alaska’s first Nordic spa experience. It’s set in a serene alpine sanctuary with no cell phones or children allowed, where guests move through various hot and cold stations in an outdoor hydrotherapy circuit (pools, waterfalls, saunas and steam rooms) that relaxes and rejuvenates the mind and body. Add on a 60-minute Nordic Signature Massage and grab a nourishing snack at Two Trees Bistro for the ultimate pampering day-spa experience.

When hunger strikes, there are several restaurants at Alyeska Resort, including the Italian-focused Forte and Sakura Asian Bistro. For an extra-special experience, take the aerial tram back up the mountain to Seven Glaciers, a fine-dining restaurant serving a prix fixe chef’s tasting menu and award-winning wine list. Off-property, The Bake Shop in town serves up fluffy sourdough pancakes, homemade bottomless soups and grilled sandwiches. Discover more of the most scenic road trips around the United States.

Two mountaineers are crossing a glacier on Mt. McKinley, Alaska. Mount Hunter is in the background.Menno Boermans/Getty Images

Girdwood to Talkeetna

Route distance: 150 miles

Suggested length of stay: 2–3 nights

At the top of most Alaska visitors’ bucket lists is catching a glimpse of the elusive Denali (formerly Mt. McKinley), the highest peak in North America. While locals will tell you that only 30% of tourists get to see it—a statistic you’ll hear often, but for which there seems to be no credible citation!—one of your best chances is from the town of Talkeetna. The ideal viewing spot? On the back porch of the Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge, which offers impressive views of the entire Alaskan Range when the weather cooperates. You can choose to spend a few nights here or even pop by for a drink or bite to eat on their porch as you stare off toward the mountains.

But before you get to Talkeetna, no Alaskan road trip would be complete without a stop at Musk Ox Farm in Palmer—don’t miss your chance to meet these Ice Age mammals that once roamed the earth alongside saber-tooth tigers and woolly mammoths. This nonprofit farm educates visitors on the history and habits of these bearded creatures, and despite their unfortunate name, they aren’t smelly at all. Musk oxen produce qiviut, the finest wool in the world, and you’ll find some luxuriously warm garments in the gift shop.

Need a pit stop for lunch? The nearby Matanuska Brewing Company brewpub is an ideal spot to stop for lunch, serving heavenly Brussel sprouts, big burgers and tasty street tacos alongside a large selection of handcrafted ciders and beer.

Once in Talkeetna—100 miles south of the entrance to Denali National Park and known as the “gateway to Denali” because anyone hoping to climb the mountains in the Alaska Range must stop at the local ranger station for an orientation and permit—spend a few hours roaming around the various souvenir shops and art galleries spread over a few walkable blocks downtown. Be on the lookout for all the moose as you meander—but don’t worry, they’re made of wood and painted by locals. You’ll find some delicious eats here too, including seafood chowder at Homestead Kitchen and fresh poke bowls at The Enchanted Bowl.

Another great way to see the area is by booking a tour with Mahay’s Jet Boat Adventures, which takes you on a boat ride along the Susitna River, with stops at an authentic trapper’s cabin and a nature walk to a Dena’ina Indian Encampment to learn about the earliest native settlers’ lives.

Talkeetna is also the perfect basecamp for booking a flightseeing tour with K2 Aviation, and choosing a tour with a glacier landing is a surreal experience not to be missed.

Majestic caribou bull in front of the mount Denali, ( mount Mckinley), AlaskalCappan/Getty Images

Talkeetna to Denali

Route distance: 152 miles

Suggested length of stay: 1–2 nights

On this portion of your Alaskan road trip, you’ll have another chance to see Denali’s towering peak. But even if you don’t get to view it, the scenery is still a beautiful sight, mile after mile. The main attraction here is, of course, Denali National Park and Preserve, and booking the Tundra Wilderness Tour is a highly sought-after way to get up close and personal with all this area has to offer.

During your five-hour round-trip tour on a converted school bus, the guide will provide narration on the history of the park and stop every time someone spots wildlife—you’re likely to see moose, Dall sheep, caribou and even grizzly bears. As you move through various climates, from the boreal forest into the tundra zone, the landscape and vegetation change dramatically. And yes, there are a few more chances to see Denali’s peak along this tour, weather permitting.

Denali is the only national park with a kennel of sled dogs, and its rangers offer free demonstrations daily each summer. You’ll get a chance to pet several dozen Alaskan huskies and watch a select few show off their skills as they pull rangers in carts—this helps illustrate how these “canine rangers” work in the park when there’s snow on the ground.

Afterward, check into the Grande Denali Lodge and then head into town for dinner. Prospectors Pizzeria and Alehouse has wood stone-fired pizzas with local toppings that include elk, salmon, reindeer and Alaskan king crab. If you’re looking to branch out beyond traditional Alaskan cuisine, Moose-AKa’s eastern European restaurant will wow you with schnitzel, stuffed peppers, savory crepes and homemade soups. Within walking distance of both restaurants are myriad souvenir shops and art galleries to peruse before or after your meal.

Aurora over Caribou Bluff log cabin.Patrick J. Endres/Getty Images

Denali to Fairbanks

Route distance: 121 miles

Suggested length of stay: 2–3 nights

Another bucket list item on every Alaskan road trip itinerary is seeing the aurora borealis, aka the northern lights. And while you could see them from any number of locations in Alaska, especially around Fairbanks, wouldn’t you prefer to witness them from a cozy bed inside your very own igloo? Borealis Basecamp, just 25 miles from Fairbanks, is an experience unlike any other—it’s just one of those unusual hotels you’ll want to go out of your way to visit.

Located on 100 acres of unspoiled boreal forest, Borealis Basecamp lets you live out your Alaskan wilderness dreams from the comfort of a modern geodesic igloo (read: it’s spacious, and has a full bathroom and heater). The front and top of each igloo is transparent, which means you can stargaze and watch for the northern lights from inside. Don’t worry about dozing off and missing the show, as the hotel staff will alert you to any polar light activity dancing across the night sky via an alarm that will sound in your room. As if their star attraction wasn’t enough, the property also offers a free breakfast and various outdoor activities, including UTV or snow-machine ride tours through the backcountry, dogsledding and reindeer hikes.

When you’re ready for city life again, head into Fairbanks and make the River’s Edge Resort your final home away from home for all the area’s adventures. Learn about the region’s mining history and try your hand at gold panning at Dredge 8, visit the University of Alaska Museum of the North to explore a 2,000-year spectrum of Alaska art or take a peaceful walk through the boreal forest with reindeer at Running Reindeer Ranch.

The perfect way to end your Alaskan road trip is with a drive to the Arctic Circle, which is about 200 miles from Fairbanks. The Northern Alaska Tour Company will drive you along the famed Dalton Highway, and you’ll view the Trans Alaska Pipeline, visit the Arctic Circle Trading Post and see the mighty Yukon River before arriving in the Arctic Circle. Aside from walking away with bragging rights, you’ll also earn an official Arctic Circle Adventure Certificate proving you made the trek.

And hey, if you loved your road trip and never want to leave, just know that Alaska will pay you thousands a year to move there!

Jill Schildhouse
As an editor at large for Reader's Digest, Jill Schildhouse is an expert in health and wellness, beauty, consumer products and product reviews, travel, and personal finance. She has spent the last 20 years as an award-winning lifestyle writer and editor for a variety of national print and digital publications.