Into The Wild: An Alaska Family Road Trip Itinerary

By Nancy Schretter, Editor

Putting together a driving itinerary for a family vacation in Alaska is no easy feat. Driving distances, varying interests and priorities, budgetary considerations, tour times, and other factors all come into play when customizing and planning an Alaska family vacation. We recently did a 9-day Alaska driving vacation using Gray Line of Alaska's "Alaska by Car with McKinley Explorer" package, which helped put together the basic framework for our trip. Even so, much time was spent filling in some of the details.

Given below is the itinerary we used for our Alaska trip in late August and early September. It worked well and would be suitable for a family with kids in junior high, high school and/or college. Families with younger children might want to look into some of the alternative options and suggestions provided for various days.

Although we used Gray Line of Alaska for our trip, this itinerary could easily be used for a completely independent tour. All of the hotels we stayed in were excellent and very family friendly. If you're planning to visit Alaska on your own, plan to reserve hotels early, especially for vacations during June, July and August. Although our trip was during the start of the shoulder season, some of the hotels were already sold out for the first few days of our vacation.

Our vacation package included hotels, train reservations aboard luxury glass-domed railcars, a rental car, transfers and a number of tours. We added an extra night and rental car day at the start of our trip to give us more time to adjust to the time zone difference and explore the area around Anchorage. If you are planning a fully independent trip, take a look at the Great Alaskan TourSaver book's website for possible discounts and savings on hotels, tours, flightseeing trips, admission to museums and attractions, and other activities.

Day 1

Arrive in Anchorage in the evening
Check into the Captain Cook Hotel, Anchorage

Day 2

Eat an early breakfast at the Snow City Cafe in downtown Anchorage
Pick up rental car at the downtown office (be in line 15 minutes before office opens)
Go to the Alaska State Fair (late August/early September only)
Visit the Musk Ox Farm in Palmer
Stop at the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race Headquarters in Wasila, take a tour and sled dog ride
Check in to the Westmark Anchorage Hotel
Eat diner at one of the restaurants in Anchorage: Simon & Seaforts, The Snow Goose or the Glacier Brewhouse

If no State Fair and/or no rental car: visit the Alaskan Native Heritage Center in Anchorage; rent a bike and ride the Coastal Trail to Kincaid Park in Anchorage; take the Prince William Sound Glacier Cruise & Tour (transportation provided); see Seavey's WildRide Dog Sled Show in Anchorage; or take a flightseeing trip.

Day 3

Get up early and drive south down the Seward Highway
Look for Dall sheep on the rocky outcroppings beside the highway along Turnagain Arm
Look for beluga whales at Beluga Point
Stop for breakfast at The Bake Shop in Girdwood (37 miles south -- MP90)
Visit the Alyeska Resort in Girdwood, take the first tram trip up the mountain if possible
Visit Portage Glacier aboard the mv Ptarmigan (MP 78)
Look for salmon at the Williwaw Fish Viewing Platform
Visit the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center (MP 79)
Hike to Exit Glacier in Seward (3 1/2 miles north of Seward)
Have dinner at Ray's Waterfront in the boat harbor or at the Exit Glacier Salmon Bake

Alternative options: check out Seavy's Dog Sled Tour in Seward (www.ididaride.com)

Day 4

Get up early and have continental breakfast at the Edgewater Hotel
Catch the Kenai Fjords Bus in front of the SeaLife Center or drive to the Kenai Fjords center
Take the 6-hour Kenai Fjords National Park Cruise
Visit the Alaska SeaLife Center
Drive to Talkeetna
Eat at the Summit Lake Lodge at Moose Pass (along the way to Talkeetna)
Check in at Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge
Explore Talkeetna if time permits

Day 5

Have breakfast at the Talkeetna Roadhouse (pick up food for the drive to Fairbanks)
Explore Talkeetna if you didn't do it last night
Go back to Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge, take a hike and enjoy views of Mt. McKinley (if it's out)
Drive north along Parks Highway to Fairbanks (275 miles) and look at the gorgeous views
Stop at the McKinley Creekside Cafe or the Black Diamond Grille (near Denali) if you need to have lunch along the way
Keep an eye out for the quaint town of Nenana as you get closer to Fairbanks
Check in to the Westmark Fairbanks Hotel
Have dinner at the Salmon Bake at Pioneer Park
Register for a Northern Lights wake-up call

Alternative options: Take a Denali flightseeing trip from Talkeetna; go on a jetboat or river rafting trip from Talkeetna

Day 6

Go to the Gold Dredge No. 8 Tour (includes panning for gold and lunch)
Take a look at the Trans-Alaska Pipeline on the way back
Drive to the Chena Hot Springs Resort (60 miles northeast of Fairbanks), relax in the outdoor and indoor hot springs, visit the ice hotel, go horseback riding (age restrictions apply), watch for moose and other wildlife along the drive
Have dinner at Pike's Landing, The Pump House, Lavelle's Bistro or The Turtle Club
Get homemade ice cream at Hot Licks Ice Cream on College Road
Look for views of Mt. McKinley on a clear day
Turn in the car at the airport and take a taxi transfer back to the Westmark Hotel

Alternative options: Drive to the town of North Pole to see the Santa Claus House and reindeer; visit the University of Alaska Museum on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus; take the Riverboat Discovery Trip paddlewheel riverboat cruise; visit the Large Animal Research Station of the University of Alaska, Fairbanks (otherwise known as the Musk Ox Farm) to see musk oxen, reindeer and caribou; or spend tour the museums and exhibits at Pioneer Park.

Day 7

Get up early for transfer from the Westmark Hotel to the Railroad Depot in Fairbanks
Take the McKinley Explorer Train from Fairbanks to Denali National Park
Arrive Denali at about 12:15 p.m.
Pick up snacks, sandwiches and drinks
Go to the Wilderness Access Center and take the 2 p.m. Fish Creek shuttle bus into Denali National Park (8 hour trip)
Return and check in to the McKinley Chalet Resort

Alternative options: Take a 5 hour Natural History Tour (only goes to milepost 17); take the shuttle bus for a shorter distance into the park, get out and hike, and then take the shuttle bus back; take the free National Park Service sled dog kennel tour; Denali has a Junior Ranger program for children ages 6 through 12 -- stop at the main visitors' center for more information and details on how your kids can become Junior Rangers; consider a river float trip or a river rafting trip; or visit four-time Iditarod champion Jeff King's Husky Homestead. If you have your own car, you can drive into Denali National Park up to milepost 14. Only National Park Service buses are allowed beyond that point.

Day 8

Get up early and check out of the hotel
Check luggage at Denali and take the free National Park Service sled dog kennel tour and dogsled demonstration
Board the McKinley Explorer Train at 12:40 p.m.
Eat lunch (and possibly dinner) on board the train
Arrive Anchorage at about 8 p.m.
Check into the Westmark Anchorage
Have dinner at The Snow Goose, Simon & Seaforts, Glacier Brewhouse, Club Paris or Phyllis's Cafe and Salmon Bake

Alternative options: Go on a river float trip or a river rafting trip; take a Mt. McKinley flightseeing tour; or take the shuttle bus for a short distance into the park, get out and hike, and then take the shuttle bus back.

Day 9

Have breakfast at the Snow City Cafe
See about renting a car for the day (pick up in Anchorage and drop off at the airport)
Visit the Alaskan Native Heritage Center
Drive down Turnagain Arm to Whittier
Go through the tunnel (check the published schedule) and have lunch in Whittier
Visit Alyeska for a hike if there's time
Drive to the airport and check-in for your flight

Alternative options: rent a bike and ride the Coastal Trail to Kincaid Park in Anchorage; take the Prince William Sound Glacier Cruise & Tour (transportation provided); take a flightseeing trip; visit the Alaska Native Medical Center's gift shop to purchase native craft items; or see Seavey's WildRide Dog Sled Show in Anchorage.


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