There is a popular saying about Alaska; Alaska is the way America was.
That right there is why an Alaska road trip is the best budget friendly vacation you can have in the United States. An adventure filled Alaskan road trip with a side of camping and fishing for massive Alaskan salmon takes you back to a simpler time and place before iPhones, Snapchat and Instagram. Alaska feels permanently stuck in the eighties and it is the quaintest flashback to a simpler time and place. I will never in my life forget the Alaskan adventures I had up north in 2002.
Table of Contents
- Why an Alaska Road Trip?
- Drive through this fantastic state on your Alaska road trip
- Welcome to Alaska!
- Exploring the Alaskan Highways
- Take a break from your Alaska road trip to Camp Amid the Grizzly Bears
- Hike in the Taiga Forests
- Eat at Every Restaurant in Talkeetna You Can Find
- Fish for Wild Salmon
- Take a Break from an Alaska Road Trip; Fly
- The Summer Solstice; Alaska Style
- What do I Need to pack?
Why an Alaska Road Trip?
As soon as you depart your flight at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport you can see that Alaska is just so vastly different and amazing from the lower forty eight. As you leave the terminal and breathe in that clean Alaskan air you can almost smell the adventures sure to come. Alaska may be the forty ninth state in the United States but travelling here feels like you have left the country. In all my travels, I’ve never been in a place as exceptionally gorgeous as Alaska. If you find yourself in Anchorage in June for the summer solstice you can see for yourself as the summer time sun seems to refuse to set behind Cook Inlet. Imagine the most gorgeous pink and purple sunset that lasts for three hours. That is Alaska.
You can safely walk the streets of Anchorage at two a.m. strolling home (to your tent) from one of Anchorages fantastic watering holes (The cocktail kind; not the filled with elk kind) It will be twilight and creepy feeling because darkness just won’t come as the midnight sun refuse to set. By your third day in Alaska you feel like your sleep pattern is majorly jacked up, and yet every day you keep marvelling at the wilderness beauty that just won’t quit. That is a truly Alaskan experience. That is the thing about doing an Alaskan road trip and driving the Alaska highways; it’s so exceptionally breathtakingly gorgeous up here in the northern state that you don’t even have to make crazy vacation plans. Although take the time to fish for Alaskan salmon and fly to the top of a glacier. These are two experiences you really must have to get the true Alaska vacation vibe. Renting fishing gear and exploring a glacier are memories worth a few extra pennies.
Doing the most simple (And budget friendly!) things in Alaska leads to the best vacation memories. Watch moose grazing by the waterfront, right outside of the Anchorage suburbs, as the ocean waves crash and the sun refuses to set, and you hope the moose decides to stay calm and not charge. This is what makes a summertime Alaska road trip exciting! That is how you know this is going to be a one of a kind vacation experience. Millions of people have done an Alaskan cruise and explored Juneau and Ketchikan after departing the big boat with thousands of other tourists my parents age. That is one way to have an Alaska vacation. If you want my advice; save that Alaskan adventure until you are in your sixties.
The truly best way to experience an Alaska road trip vacation in all its glory is to rent a car and spend at least two weeks driving around this spectacular state and doing all the things that one does while in Alaska in the summertime; camping, salmon fishing, hiking and hiding from the official state bird of Alaska; the mosquito
In 2002 I explored the breathtaking state of Alaska in a two week road trip north to Fairbanks and the Arctic Circle and to this day it is still one of the best scenic vacations of my life. Here’s how I made my Alaska road trip a phenomenal success and budget friendly too! With a little careful planning it’s easy to have a budget friendly Alaska road trip.
Drive through this fantastic state on your Alaska road trip
I’ve talked to a lot of people in my life who tell me they have been to Alaska.
On a cruise ship.
I’m sure they had a lovely time gambling in the casino and stuffing themselves at the buffet but to me cruising to Alaska is not a true Alaska adventure. The gorgeous highways and back roads through the coniferous taiga forests of Alaska are the kind of place that just beckons anyone who loves a road trip. There is so much to see in this massive state from the bays near Anchorage and Whittier Glacier to the banks of the Yukon River in the north as it parallels the Haul Road and the Trans Atlantic Pipeline up to oil headquarters in Deadhorse so close to the Arctic Ocean.
If you are looking for Alaska road trip vacation ideas look no further than the classic American road trip with a side of camping thrown in. I admit now looking back that perhaps throwing four good friends and two weeks’ worth of camping supplies into a compact Ford Focus might have been a strain on our friendship and we did more than a little bit of getting on each others nerves (And that was before we dropped the video camera into the river. Oh 2002; Remember video cameras?) Looking back this is still one of the best vacations I have ever been on. It wasn’t entirely because I was with my best friends on earth. It was because Alaska was other worldly in its beauty. One thing I learned from our Alaska road trip, when planning a road trip to Alaska renting a car larger than what you think you will need is an excellent idea! For a total of four friends and a butt load of camping supplies I recommended going with at least a small SUV. Don’t do what we did and rent a compact car.
Especially if you are planning to drive it up the Haul Road.
What is the Haul Road, you may ask? The Haul Road, also known as the Dalton Highway is one of the top ten things you just need to experience when on an Alaskan road trip. Believe me when I say if you do Alaska via cruise ship you will get nowhere near the Dalton Highway. If you want a real Alaska experience a road trip up the all dirt, no pavement for four hundred and fourteen miles Dalton Highway has to be on your bucket list. Just a warning though when booking a rental car, most rental car companies do not allow you to take cars on dirt roads so you can either do what we did and not tell them (And hope and pray an eighteen wheeler passing you going eighty miles an hour does not flip up a rock and break your wind shield) or you can go with a more expensive rental car company.
Before you make it to the Haul Road in the dead centre of the state, if you start your trip in Anchorage there is a lot of awesome Alaskan adventures to be had down south. Moose, glaciers, grizzly bears, bald eagles, mosquitoes as big as bald eagles… Alaska has it all to offer and the sun never sets on adventures here in the land of the midnight sun!
Welcome to Alaska!
Alaska was actually a Russian Colony until as late as 1867 when the U.S. purchased it for just over seven million dollars (I guess this explains the joke that Sarah Palin can see Russia from her house) Alaska is one of the only places in the United States that you really do hear native languages still spoken like Aleut and the Inuit languages. (You many hear these in the northern areas of Alaska depending how far you decide to drive up the Haul Road)
When we departed the Alaska Air Jet in 2002 I was dressed in boot cut jeans and a plain blue t-shirt, and I was wearing flip flops. People stopped and starred at me on the streets. My best friend travelling alongside me was wearing cargo shorts and a t-shirt with some California brand logo on it. We stood out on the streets of Anchorage. We were not wearing sweat pants and hiking boots. People could just look at us and tell we were different; we were from California. We hadn’t seen a Grizzly Bear yet. We hadn’t even been bit by the state bird of Alaska; the majestic mosquito. We had no idea what the great state of Alaska had in store for us.
As we stood on the streets of Anchorage picking up our Ford Escort rental car for our two week Alaska road trip we had no idea what these two weeks in Alaska had to offer.
Fresh off the plane from Southern California, we were doing a little day trip south near Alyeska on our way to the Whittier Glacier when I saw my first Alaska moose at sunset. Moose may be so cool looking and epic huge but, warning, don’t go very close to them no matter how badly you want to Snap-chat it, as they will charge, especially if they have any little babies (calves) nearby. Just a few hours off the plane in Alaska, it was my first big ass Alaskan animal experience and I was hooked! We snapped a few photos (From far away) and continued back down highway one towards the glacier. Alaska problems… Do I want more photos of the moose or the glacier?
Exploring the Alaskan Highways
After picking up your rental car in Anchorage (And I hope to God it is slightly larger than a 2002 Ford Focus) hit the road for the great outdoors to the north of the city of Anchorage. Before you leave town make sure you stop at Fred Meyers for healthy snacks and the most amazing turkey and artichoke paninis ever! Fred Meyers is to Alaska what Marks and Spencer’s is to the UK; One part department store if you forget any camping do-dads you might need in the weeks ahead and two parts natural foods and pre-made delicious food stuffs. Stock the cooler for the dining options between here and Talkeetna are pretty bleak.
As you drive further up Highway One and connect to The George Park’s Highway and really begin to put Anchorage and the city of Wasilla behind you, Alaska just opens up into the most gorgeous and green taiga forest thick with pine and spruce trees. Give yourself lots of time on the highway going north as road work delays are expected in the summer months. It’s not unheard of to sit in a road work delay for at least an hour. If this happens to you, keep a book in the car and be prepared to wait and enjoy the forests of Alaska on both sides of the highway. If you are lucky maybe you will get stuck in roadwork further to the north where the highway parallels the Susitna River and you have fantastic river views.
Two hours to the north of Anchorage you may get your first views of Mt McKinley, or Denali or just “The Mountain” That’s what the locals call it. When I visited Alaska in 2003 Mt McKinley was still known by that name and then renamed Denali a few years ago.
In the summer you can only see the mountain twenty percent of the time. If you stand on the roof of your rental car, you will get a much higher quality photo. If you manage to get a photo of the mountain on a clear day consider yourself very lucky.
There are a lot of scenic drives to do in Alaska but following the Park’s Highway up to Talkeetna and then Fairbanks is what we did in 2002 and we had an exceptional time. This route takes you through Denali National Park too. I recommend definitely detouring further through Denali National Park for a few days of camping.
If you have gone as far as Fairbanks I highly recommend that you continue up the Dalton Highway until at least the Arctic Circle, the Earth’s northernmost circle of latitude. The drive up the Dalton Highway was one of the most unique road trips I have ever done. None of this highway is paved as it follows the Trans-Alaska Pipeline up to Deadhorse. When you watch shows like Ice Road Truckers, this is the kind of crazy highway they are tackling in the winter months. There is nothing along the Dalton Highway (Locals know it as the The Haul Road) except the Yukon River, the third largest river in the United States and a few very, very small towns like Coldfoot, one of the larger towns you will see on the Haul Road. It is a town of ten people. If you walk into the gas station, you may meet all of them. Coldfoot has the world’s northernmost truck stop. After leaving Coldfoot there are no services for the next 240 miles so this is a great place to fill up on gas! Millions of black spruce trees and miles and miles of taiga forests line the lonely highway as you make your way as north as you want to go. Actually celebrating the summer solstice at the Arctic Circle is a really cool way to spend June 21st.
Take a break from your Alaska road trip to Camp Amid the Grizzly Bears
Have you ever wanted to camp somewhere where you will be terrified a Grizzly will eat you in your sleep?
Does this sound like your kind of Alaskan adventure? Maybe I have just watched the documentary Grizzly Man to many times. (Which happened to come out in theatres a few years after my Alaska vacation trip.) Being constantly scared of Grizzly bears was part of our camping experience in Denali National Park. I think it’s better to be to informed than to be that camper that is trying to Instagram a selfie with a Grizzly bear in it. If you really want to go deep into the Alaskan wilderness do the research on wilderness survival before hand. I may have been a bit extra scared of the Grizzly bears as I was the one who accidentally slopped freeze dried salmon into the dirt of our campsite our first night of camping in Alaska. This was the moment in our camping trip when I truly wondered if my BFF Steven would murder me in my sleep as I pretty much just invited every Grizzly in the area to come sniff out our salmon flavoured campsite. Spoiler alert! We did not die a terrible Grizzly death after four nights of waiting for a Grizzly to come to my tent in the middle of the night to maul me (Because I was full of even more delicious salmon flavour?)
I’ve always been a camper but never truly appreciated camping until I went to Alaska. Four days of camping in Denali National Park was truly a life changing camping opportunity. We really were afraid of what would happen if a Grizzly bear or a mommy mouse charged through our campsite at night. I don’t mean to make Alaska sound terrifying, because it wasn’t (Except for in the middle of the night when I reeked of salmon) The adventure was just so real and so exciting. At the time I went to Alaska I was twenty two years old and none of my friends had travelled at all. Venturing to Alaska with a sleeping bag, a tent, some freeze dried meals and sleeping amongst the Grizzlies sounded crazy and daring. It sounded like the most fun vacation adventure I would ever have in my life. I’ve travelled all over the world now at thirty six years old and Alaska still ranks up there as one of my favourite vacations ever. There are three reasons for that; The surreal beauty of the taiga forest, the amazing friends I shared this vacation with and the un-realness of what Alaska must be like for these brave people who live in the fortieth state and enjoy twenty four hours of sunshine in the summer and four hours of dusky sunlight in the long winter months.
The thing about camping in Alaska is you truly have to be prepared for a moose to charge through your camp ground or be ready to fight if a Grizzly bear charges you because he wants your freeze dried salmon dinner that you just slopped all over the campsite. Luckily for us our worst Alaska nightmare turned out to be the clouds of mosquitoes that surrounded us day and night.
The most important thing you need to know about camping in Alaska is when you reserve your camp spot at Savage River Camp Ground or Sanctuary River Camp Ground you need to be vigilant against bears. Food has go to in the bear resistant food containers at night and anytime you are not cooking. The afternoon that we checked into our campsite we heard from other campers in our area that there had been a Grizzly sighting in our exact campsite the night before.
I have camped many times in the eastern sierra mountains of central California and you need to be vigilant against bears in these camp grounds to but that is the southern California less aggressive Brown bear. They are pretty harmless compared to Alaska’s Grizzly bears which really will try to kill you if challenged.
Alaska! It’s an exciting and fearsome place to vacation! I know, maybe you think an Alaska road trip camping vacation may sound a little terrifying right about now but watching out for Grizzly bears is just one tiny portion of what the Alaskan experience is like! Camping in Denali National Park is an experience you simply cannot miss. The campsites at Sanctuary River or Wonder Lake are just so gorgeous. (Although the mosquitoes were so terrible at Wonder Lake, the running joke was I “wonder” why anyone would camp here?
Hike in the Taiga Forests
The hiking in Alaska and in Denali National Park specifically is absolutely gorgeous. It’s some of the prettiest places to hike I have ever been on my travels.
One thing about Alaska though, if you hike you need to cover up one hundred percent.
Have I mentioned the mosquitoes?
This means long sleeve shirts, long pants, gloves and a mosquito net hat is a must. Pretty much any outdoor activity you do in Alaska, from hiking to fishing to kayaking you need to be prepared to cover your skin one hundred percent. The mosquitoes and black flies are vicious, especially as you travel further north. I recommend buying Deet for hiking in Alaska, the higher percentage of Deet the better. Take my advice; get the version that will give you cancer. If the Deet you buy is fifteen percent Deet and seventy percent lotion the mosquitoes will just laugh at you. If you want to go the granola natural route (Which I normally recommend but this is Alaska and the mosquitoes are fierce here) you can try pure lemongrass oil as opposed to the chemical Deet. If you really don’t want to be covered in bug bites just get used to smelling like Deet all the time like everyone else in Alaska.
Denali National Park is the best area of Alaska to go for a hike. The National Forest Service run
s big green buses all through Denali National Park to ferry hikers to different hiking trails and campsites. You cannot actually drive in Denali National Park unless you have a disabled parking pass. The bus system is awesome when planning out hikes throughout your stay. For an easy hike I recommend the Savage River Loop Trail. This is a tundra trail that follows the river. It’s very easy and just two miles.
Looking for a harder hike? Try the Triple Lakes Trail near the entrance to the park. This is a steep trail that gives you a great view of the Nenana River down below as well as the Alaskan Range. This trail can be very wet and muddy (Like when we hiked it) but the views of the lakes are amazing. This is an almost ten mile hike, and it took us nearly ten hours to do the whole thing.
Eat at Every Restaurant in Talkeetna You Can Find
Every vacation I take centres around food and normally if I planned a camping trip we would be eating the most delicious camp food ever. This trip to Alaska was different though as food in Alaska is stupid expensive. In 2002 we paid eight dollars for a package of Oreo cookies. I cannot begin to comprehend what a box of cheap processed cookies cost in 2017 in Fairbanks!
The crazy cost of food in Alaska is why I packed those gross light weight freeze dried camping meals for my camping portion of my trip to Alaska. I love delicious food, I’m the biggest foodie you may ever meet but when flying into a location with stupid expensive groceries sometimes you have to compromise. If you do go the freeze dried camp food route check out REI.com. They have some great freeze dried options these days and the online reviews are very helpful. Of all my favourite brands I love the Mary Jane Farms option.
Some of the freeze dried flavours you can buy out there, like there Organic Curry in a Hurry, are actually pretty tasty these days, (Like the salmon flavour that I seasoned our campsite with at Savage River Camp Ground) It wasn’t the best food I ate while camping and hiking my way through Denali National Park but we had to save those pennies for things like plane rides to have snow ball fights on top of Glaciers.
Eating freeze dried food in Denali National Park for a few days may sound slightly terrible but before you enter Denali National Park, if driving into Denali from Anchorage you will drive through the smorgasbord of a small town, Talkeetna. Talkeetna is not my favourite small town on earth because every restaurant here is beyond amazing but because it is the coolest little town I have ever seen.
The afternoon we drove into Talkeetna the first thing we saw was a dude riding an ATV with a Labrador pup riding on the back. What a fantastic introduction to one of America’s greatest small towns! Talkeetna is the base town for mountaineers exploring Mt McKinley and you meet the most interesting people who are planning to climb a 20,310 foot mountain! The people you meet in Talkeetna while hanging out at the Denali Brewing Companies tasting room have the craziest stories to tell of actually climbing “The Mountain” BTW The Denali Brewing Companies tasting room and patio area is an exceptional place to spend an afternoon. (And they have awesome Alaska souvenirs too)
Definitely take a break from the great Alaska road trip to detour to Talkeetna! It’s worth the detour to indulge at Mountain High Pizza Pie. It’s been many, many years since I have been to Alaska and they still, all these years later have some of the best pizza I have ever had in my life. Try to decide between the beer battered cheese bread sticks and the pizza with actual reindeer sausage. This pizza place is totally worth an Alaska road trip up crazy moose studded Alaskan highways! They have a fantastic outdoor patio as well, but be warned! Every day we were in the Talkeetna area in late June there were insane thunder, rain and hail storms in the afternoon! More than once we were enjoying our pizza on the outside patio and a crazy hail storm blew in sending us grabbing pizza and beer and running indoors (With everyone else in the crowded restaurant)
All the restaurants we tried in the small town of Talkeetna were truly fantastic. While in Alaska there are two things you absolutely have to have for breakfast, and Talkeetna does both very well. Sour dough hot cakes originated in Alaska during the gold rush years and you will never be able to eat a plain old pancake again after experiencing the decadent Alaskan sour dough pancake. You absolutely must try a side of reindeer breakfast sausage with your sour dough pancakes. Check out the family style Talkeetna Roadhouse for this fantastic only in Alaska breakfast option.
Fish for Wild Salmon
I truly don’t think there is another place on earth that you can fish for twelve hours straight. I mean that is if you love to fish the way that I love to fish. This is one of the reasons that a day fishing for Alaskan salmon is a must do Alaskan adventure. I suggest taking a break from driving and the fantastic views of the Alaska road trip to spend a day fishing the rivers of Alaska. When we spent an entire day salmon fishing off the Susanna River in 2002 my good friend was actually pulled into the river but what we think was a forty pound King Salmon. That was the one that got away. The Chinook King Salmon is Alaska’s state fish and everyone who throws out a line in Alaska hopes to catch the big one. There are multiple places in Alaska that will flash freeze your catch so you can ship it home if you do catch more salmon than you can eat in a few days. (And let’s hope that happens!)
Because of the vast amount of sunlight that Alaska summer days consist of you can truly fish for twelve hours straight in Alaska, if you want to! It is a fisherman’s dream come true! There are multiple fishing guide shops in Talkeetna that rent gear and will give you advice on where to fish and the best bait to use to catch the Alaskan salmon of your dreams. Salmon fishing in Alaska is a must do activity for a summer day under the midnight sun. If you are less experienced and do decide to do some fishing, be prepared by checking out a fishing guide before setting out!
Take a Break from an Alaska Road Trip; Fly
An Alaskan road trip is full of unique experiences you can only find in Alaska. Where else on earth can you take a tiny seven-seater plane to the top of a glacier? This was one of the things we splurged on when we did our Alaska adventure and it was worth shelling out some cash to experience a snow ball fight with great friends on a glacier. The views of the bright aqua blue water down below our tiny rickety air plane in the crevasses near the glacier was just so pretty and something you would never expect to see up in the snowy mountains. Exploring Ruth Glacier just a little bit was the closest we got on our trip to the summit of Mt McKinley and it is a really unique memory of our two weeks in Alaska. (And there were no mosquitoes on top of the glacier… Yea!)
The Summer Solstice; Alaska Style
To a lot of people June 21st is just another sweaty day in the beginning of summer. Unless you take an Alaska road trip! After experiencing the solstice at the Arctic Circle and enjoying Fairbanks fun solstice festivities I will never look at the summer solstice the same way. Fairbanks goes out of its way to make sure if you are in the city for the midnight sun events you are going to have one hell of a good time.
A fun event in the Fairbanks area is witnessing the Yukon 800 River Boat Race. How many times in your life do you get to watch an 800 mile river boat race? It’s one of those things you can only see in Alaska (Or Mississippi) This race starts in Fairbanks and follows the Chena, Tanana and Yukon Rivers before finally ending in Galena, Alaska.
If you research the Midnight Sun Festival online under festivities they list forty bands playing until midnight, gold panning, BBQ tasting and they list break dancing twice. I’m not sure why Fairbanks is so into their break dancing, maybe it comes back to that whole eighties feel of Alaska?
What do I Need to pack?
Are you ready for the best vacation of your life? There are a few essentials you need for a week to a few weeks out in the Alaskan wilderness. The Grizzly situation in Alaska can not be understated. If you plan to hike at all I recommend buying bear mace to have on the trail with you just in case. Another good thing to preorder is good quality Deet. The bug situation in Alaska is like nothing I have ever seen in my life and buying good quality insect repellent is important unless you want to look like you are covered in Syphilis scars. (Which is no way to pick up hot Alaskan chicks) Pre-ordering these products ahead of time is smart as I mentioned just buying the simplest things in Alaska gets very expensive!
An Alaska road trip is a fantastic way to spend a few summer weeks outdoors in the United States. Alaska really feels like the last frontier and the insane beauty of this state; the pine and spruce trees and the taiga forests really do take your breath away. If you are truly a fan of a different kind of vacation a summertime Alaska road trip adventure full of Grizzly bears and moose (from a distance) and hopefully a Chinook salmon or two is a must do on your bucket list. Driving the Alaskan highways in June or July so beats the kind of Alaska Adventure you get to see from the balcony of a cruise ship.
So where’s next? You don’t want to give up the sensational scenery of Alaska, why not extend the road trip into Canada? Check out this awesome post to inspire you!
Also, don’t forget to pick up your travel insurance before you go, check out the cheapest backpacker travel insurance in this helpful article. I highly recommend World Nomads.
Even if you don’t get insurance with World Nomads, Please do get some sort of insurance from somewhere, there’s lots of decent options online.
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