With a diverse terrain of open spaces, mountains, forests, abundant wildlife and many small towns, Alaska has something for everyone. We decided to do a road trip with out friend rather than the cruise and it was amazing. Below is our 5 day Alaska itinerary. We would also share the following:
- When to go?
- What to pack?
- Our Alaska itinerary
- Resources from where we booked our car rental, tours etc.
1. When to go?
Alaska is completely different in summers and winters. While summers offer you some amazing hikes, a lot of tours and activities, winters offer a surreal experience with high chances of spotting northern lights. Most of the tours, though, operate from mid-may to mid-september.
We, however, went at the cusp, in mid-october. The temperature was low but not extreme. In Anchorage it was around 7-10 degree celsius and in Fairbanks it dropped to -2 degree celsius. Another advantage was that there hardly any tourists. Disadvantage was, a lot of tours, activities and national park were closed. Icing on the cake, however, was that we were able to spot northern lights.
Our Alaska itinerary was only for 5 days. We would suggest that one must keep at least 8-10 days to really enjoy Alaska.
2. What to pack?
It is a good idea to pack a heavy jacket that is waterproof or water resistant. Additionally, layer yourself in case of wind. Packing a fleece jacket is a good idea. Do keep an umbrella for unexpected rain. Hiking boots and waterproof pants, in case you want to hike. Of course, it is not necessary to hike but definitely recommended. In case you plan to hike in the wilderness, it would be a good idea to rent a satellite phone as mobile network is choppy once you stray away from the highway. Do keep bear spray as well, because chances are you would spot a bear especially if you go in summers. And finally, keep a pair of sunglasses and a cap or hat.
3. Our Alaska itinerary
We landed in Anchorage, picked up our rental car and grabbed a quick lunch in downtown Anchorage. Post lunch, we drove towards Girdwood. It is a resort town that offers great ski slopes and hiking trails. On our way, we crossed Beluga point. It is a scenic point where you may want to stop for clicking photographs.
Post that we reached Hotel Alyeska in Girdwood and it is one of the most beautiful properties I have stayed in. Surrounded by mountains and a cable car to go up to viewing deck of Mt. Alyeska, the resort offers amazing services, including a heated pool.
After checking in, we drove towards Portage Lake. It is a glacial lake in Chugach National Forest. After clicking a few photographs and enjoying the views, we started for Byron Glacier. Once you park your car, there is ~1.5 mile trail which is not too difficult to do. It offers an up close view of the glacier surrounded with rugged mountains and ice caves. Unfortunately, it started to rain heavily and we had to return mid-way. Do keep in mind that area around Portage lake can receive rain even if it is sunny in Anchorage.
We then continued our drive to visit the city of Whittier. The population of the entire city is 220 !!! That is correct and almost the entire population lives in a single building, “The Begich tower“. The tower is a condominium that has around 150 two and three bedroom apartments. The original structure, Buckner building, which was called “the city under one roof” is now abandoned.
That being said, our experience of the entire city was spooky to say the least. As we were circling the Begich tower, looking for an area to park, all we saw were no parking signs. We then saw a young guy and rolled down our car windows to ask where to park. The guy must have been 7-8 feet away from us and we called him thrice, but he simply ignored us as if we weren’t even there. We also saw a group of guys smoking near the building as we were just sitting in our car figuring out where to park. With the confused touristy look on our face, we were hoping that someone will at least ask what we are looking for. But it seemed that the inhabitants tend to ignore outsiders.
Ultimately, we found a bar and decided to have a couple of beers. This was the highlight of Whittier as we discovered Alaskan Amber beer. And we just loved it, in fact that is the beer I drank all five days in Alaska. While we also wanted to cover Portage glacier but it had started getting dark. Hence, we decided to return to our Hotel Alyeska at this point.
Second day of our Alaska itinerary started off by checking out of Hotel Alyeska and driving towards Exit Glacier. We passed a lot of beautiful sites in between including Turnagain pass, Mirror lake and Seward. There are multiple stops en-route and each worth stopping for a while.
Our idea was to go till town of Seward and continue to Exit glacier. Like Byron glacier, Exit glacier is also a roadside glacier and very accessible. But our luck did not favour us visiting a glacier yet again. This time because of ice fall the road was closed.
On our way back, we took a detour from Moose Pass towards Kenai Lake. It is another beautiful lake with blue and green tone and a zig-zag shape. Post that we turned back towards Anchorage. We did stop for a while at Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center to see bisons, bears and moose.
We reached Anchorage at around 6 PM and decided to relax for a while. After dinner, we went to Chilkoot Charlie’s bar (now known as Koot’s), which is one of its kind. It has 10 different bars, 3 dance floors and 3 stages. Each bar has its own unique theme – the Swing Bar, Ice Bar (has a bar top of solid ice), Russian Room, North & South Long Bars, The Deck (an outside bar) and the most popular Bird House (featuring lots of lingerie hanging off the walls). These are the most famous ones among the 10 bars. Make sure to chat up with Wicked Wanda in Bird house bar to learn the history.
We started our day early and went straight to Matanuska Glacier, which is another roadside glacier in Alaska. You can either choose to explore the accessible areas of the glacier on your own (only in summertime) or take a guided tour. The drive itself on the Glenn highway towards the glacier is amazing. At mile 102 on the highway, you can drive down to the glacier park. There is a small gift shop from where you can buy the entry pass and continue your way to the glacier. The guided tour costs $100 and includes the gear and a 4-5 mile hike on the glacier including visit to the ice caves. You may also purchase a $30 access pass and explore the accessible areas of the glacier on your own.
After spending 4-5 hours in Matanuska glacier, we continued our journey to Talkeetna. By the time we reached Talkeetna it was already dark and we decided to call it a day.
Day 4 of our Alaska itinerary was a long day as we had to go to Fairbanks which is a 5 hour drive from Talkeetna. And we would be up for most of the night for spotting northern lights. Also, we had to explore Talkeetna a bit.
As we woke up, our first stop was Nagley’s store for coffee and to visit the mayor of Talkeetna, Denali the mayor cat. Yes, you heard it right. Talkeetna has a cat as its Mayor. After marking our attendance and greeting Denali, we took a airplane tour over Mt. Denali. We had mixed opinion about the airplane tour though, but one thing we do agree upon which is that it is not worth the price we paid and can be skipped.
By the time we were finished with the tour and exploring Talkeetna it was already afternoon. We then started off for Fairbanks. Our friend who was in the driving seat decided to rush and by mistake overtook a sheriff’s car in a non-overtaking zone. Result, a quick pullover and a ticket.
After apologising to the sheriff and a quick ticket we continued our journey. On our way to Fairbanks we stopped at Healy, where the ‘Magic bus’ used in the movie ‘Into the Wild’ is stationed. The original bus is some 20 miles inside the Denali national park away from this location. While a lot of people do try to go to it, but the authorities strongly advise against it. People have died trying to go to the magic bus, so not sure if you should add it to your Alaska itinerary.
Our Northern Lights adventure
Once in Fairbanks, we relaxed for a bit and grabbed dinner. We then set off at 11 PM to spot northern lights. At first we wanted to drive to Murphy’s dome, but based on the Northern light activity on that night, we decided to go to Cleary summit. There are a few areas that have perfect conditions to spot northern lights, of course, depending on the aurora activity. Following are the areas: Creamer’s Field Migratory Waterfowl Refuge, North Pole (yes there is north pole in Alaska 🙂 ), Cleary summit parking lot, Murphy dome, Chena state recreation area & Chena hot springs road. There are a few resources at the end of this post to help you track Aurora activity.
We reached Cleary summit parking lot at 11:30 PM and there were at least 4 other vehicles patiently waiting to spot Northern lights. While we waited there for an hour, we could not spot anything and hence decided to drive a bit further. That drive took us to Chatanika, where we saw a lodge (Chatanika Lodge) open in the middle of the night. And we were in for a beautiful surprise. As we entered Chatanika lodge all we could notice was thousands of signed dollar bills covering the entire ceiling. The hostess in the lodge did offer us good tips to spot Northern Lights. We spent a couple of hours in the lodge, had a beer and saw the preserved bear inside the lodge.
We then started off from Chatanika lodge at around 2:30 AM to go back to Cleary summit parking lot. After waiting for another 45 mins. or so, our patience ran out. But Mrs. FIRE Forty suggested that we drive down the road that leads to Mt. Aurora and ski area. Voila!!! Mrs. FIRE Forty was again the first one to sport Northern lights that appeared from beyond a hill. We figured out that we need to be on the other side, reversed our car and rushed down the road crossing the parking lot. I believe looking at us rushing, other folks waiting in the parking lot figured out that we have seen something and started following us. We stopped at a shoulder and there they were, the magical Northern lights.
We were drained by now and left for our hotel at around 3:30 AM.
We started our 5th day of the Alaska itinerary late as we were exhausted after last night’s adventure. After having our breakfast, we went to North Pole. Not the geographical north pole but a city in Alaska. The key attraction here was a huge gift shop known as Santa Claus house which has world’s tallest fiberglass Santa Claus outside. In fact, if you go on weekends you could also meet Santa Claus.
We loitered in North Pole for a while before heading out for lunch. In the evening we went to Chena Hot Springs to relax in the warm water. Bonus was that it started to snow as we were relaxing in the hot springs. Although since we have been to Blue Lagoon in Iceland, we did not find Chena Hot Springs to be really great. But if you have not visited a hot spring, you can visit Chena Hot Springs.
That was our last stop before we caught a late night flight out of Fairbanks.
Do let us know what do you think about our Alaska itinerary. Additionally, you might be interested in our Croatia itinerary.
4. Important resources
- Flight bookings – Skyscanner.com and Skiplagged.com are great to fight cheap flights. I recommend installing their mobile apps
- Hotel bookings – We used Booking.com to book hotels with free cancellation. We also used AirBnB to find great deals.
- Tour bookings – Directly from tour operator website, but do search for discount coupons on Groupon etc.
- Car rental – Our car rental provider was Alamo but we booked via Holiday Autos, which is a car rental comparison website.
- How many days – As many as you want, but not less than 7.
- What to be careful of – Moose and bear. You would find moose loitering around on the main road. Be careful when you are driving around in Alaska, especially at night. If you see a moose do not flash your headlights, as they would freeze at the same place if you flash lights in their eyes. Bears can again be spotted, especially if you are hiking in summers.
- Track northern lights – Use the following two links to track northern lights activity. Northern Lights Alaska and Aurora Forecast Geophysical institute.