In a land of mind-boggling wilderness, rugged roadside pit stops and a Serengeti’s worth of big fauna, Alaska’s epic highways offer unlimited possibilities for adventurous drivers.
While road trips in the rest of the US are dotted with regular gas stations and kitschy curbside attractions, Alaskan highways appeal to a more intrepid wilderness connoisseur. Welcome to a state where most of the jaywalkers are moose and road signs are sometimes used for target practice. If you’re driving here, bring (or rent) a sturdy vehicle, make sure you know how to change a tire, and stock up on food, playlists and emergency supplies.
Best road trip for an introduction to Alaska
Anchorage–Seward; 127 miles
If you’re new to the state, hone your Alaskan driving skills on this relatively easygoing route from Anchorage to Seward on the well-trafficked Kenai Peninsula. Heading south out of Alaska’s main metro area, the first section contours the placid shores of Turnagain Arm, a waterway shielded by 5000ft peaks and lapped by the largest tides in the US.
Consider a detour to the Cold War anachronism of Whittier from milepost 79, a "town" where 90% of the population lives in the same high-rise. Luring the curious is an esoteric museum, a breezy harbor and the incongruous Buckner Building ruins. Whittier is accessed via a 2.7-mile-long single-lane tunnel that alternates directional flow every 30 minutes.
Back on the Seward Highway, the scenery ups the stakes as you penetrate the Kenai Peninsula with a glossy-magazine spread of lakes, mountains and glaciers. Regular pull-offs serve as trailheads and Instagrammable selfie spots.
Detour: At the journey’s end, Seward is still only the beginning if you’re planning a visit to adjacent Kenai Fjords National Park, a paradise for blue-water kayakers and an easy access point for the drive-up Exit Glacier, considered an important barometer of climate change.
Anchorage is a perfect base for these 10 day trips
Top of the World Highway
Best road trip for lonely roads
Tok–Dawson City; 186 miles
This desolate, undulating highway over rolling hillcrests is one of America’s most northerly roads crossing into Canada at a seasonal border post (open May to September) in splendid isolation. The only settlement en route is the pin-prick gold mining settlement of Chicken, population seven, so-named because its founding fathers couldn’t work out how to spell the local bird, ptarmigan. In a grizzly clapboard Chicken Creek Cafe, Saloon & Mercantile Emporium, you’ll find the best cinnamon buns north of the 60th parallel.
Wild and tough on the tires, this gritty ribbon of asphalt and gravel is only partially paved and bereft of major services. For a real "sourdough" (old-timer) experience, buy a gold pan in Delta Junction and try your luck in the stony shallows of the West Fork River (mile 49).
The Top of the World Highway ends at the Yukon River where a free 24-hour car ferry floats across to Dawson City, the once industrious hub of the 1897–8 gold rush that’s still dripping with Klondike-era nostalgia.
Planning tip: Stock up on any extra supplies in Chicken – you’ll need the sustenance.
George Parks Highway
Best road trip for visiting Denali National Park
Anchorage–Fairbanks; 358 miles
Smooth, fast and well-maintained, George Parks Highway was opened in 1971 paralleling the route of the Alaska Railroad, which had been built 50 years earlier. As well as providing swift year-round passage between the state’s two main metro areas, the highway is the gateway to Denali National Park, an obligatory stop for anyone intent on seeing Alaska’s big fauna in all its glory.
The road’s real showstopper is at mile 163: a potential cloud-free glimpse of Denali, the mountain. On a clear day, the sheer 20,310ft dome is one of the most awe-inspiring visions in America. Eleven miles farther north, the Parks Highway crosses a deep V-shaped valley called Hurricane Gulch via an impressive metal-arched bridge.
Another essential stop, for completely different reasons, is the social hub of 49th State Brewing Company in Healy (mile 249), where you can enjoy craft beer, yak burgers and a game of bocce ball next to the "magic bus" used in the Sean Penn film Into the Wild.
Planning tip: Bag a hotel in the service center of Canyon (mile 237) and get a park bus to take you into the interior of Denali National Park.
Introducing Alaska’s national parks
Best road trip for far-flung adventure
Nome–Council; 73 miles
So close to Russia you can practically smell the stroganoff, the former gold rush outpost of Nome is unconnected to Alaska’s main road network. Instead, access is provided by air, sea or dogsled (the latter during the famous annual Iditarod). Once in town, road-trippers can rent a car at Dredge No 7 Inn and explore three desolate roads, all of which dead-end in sweeping tundra.
The most worthwhile, scenically speaking, is the largely unpaved road to the semi-abandoned village of Council, which tracks a portion of the coast before curling inland and finishing on the banks of the Niukluk River. A surreal array of gold rush remnants is viewable en route, including disheveled dredges, a rusting locomotive dubbed "The Last Train to Nowhere" and a 120-year-old roadhouse.
Planning tip: Bring fishing tackle: the Niukluk River yields large grayling.
Best road trip for glaciers
Juneau–Point Bridget State Park; 36 miles
Characterized by jagged islands and deep fjords, the Alaskan panhandle is bereft of interconnecting roads. The only way to get your car to places like Sitka or Juneau is on the Alaska Marine Highway ferry. Once there, drives are short but kaleidoscopic. The classic road north out of state capital Juneau is one of the best, taking in the splendid Mendenhall Glacier, an unusual Catholic shrine and a state park overlooking the broad Lynn Canal, North America’s deepest fjord.
Back on the highway, the Shrine of St Thérèse at the road’s 23-mile mark is a 1930s beach-stone chapel on an attractive forested islet linked to the shore via a causeway. The highway ends at Point Bridget State Park, a slice of coastal rainforest penetrated by trails where playful sea lions bask in the surf.
Planning tip: The Mendenhall Glacier could fill an hour or a day. The glacier’s half-mile-long face deposits icebergs into an eponymous lake overlooked by a slick visitor center. Trails, bears and a belting waterfall decorate the surroundings.
Best road trip for epic landscapes
Anchorage–Glennallen; 187 miles
In a state not short on once-in-a-lifetime road trips, the Glenn Highway stands out as one of Alaska’s premier drives, running through mountain valleys that look as if they were carved by an extra-terrestrial Michelangelo. Starting in Anchorage as Alaska’s only divided freeway, the road narrows at mile 36 and enters Palmer, an agricultural community ringed by mountains known for its freakishly large homegrown vegetables.
Heading east, you’ll spot numerous glaciers spilling off the Chugach Mountains to the south, most notably the Matanuska. From here, it’s a long gradual descent through high country and woodland to Glennallen, gateway to Wrangell-St Elias National Park.
Planning tip: Historic roadhouses decorated with taxidermic animals dot this route and make worthwhile lunch stops, including the Eureka at the road’s eponymous summit.
Why Alaska's stunning coast is best seen by ferry
Best road trip for outdoor activities
Fairbanks–Valdez; 364 miles
The Richardson has the honor of being Alaska’s oldest road. First forged as a pack trail in 1898, it was widened to a wagon road in 1910 and upgraded for automobiles in the 1920s. Paving was added in 1957.
Starting in Fairbanks and heading south, the highway brims with superlatives. The section between Paxson and Gulkana is particularly mesmerizing. In ethereal summer light, wildflowers shimmer in the wind as the massive humps of the Alaska and Chugach Mountains stand sentinel. Cutting alongside shadowy forests, severe tundra and white-capped rivers, you’ll pass Copper Center (good for rafting), Thompson Pass (with access to the Worthington Glacier) and narrow Keystone Canyon (an important trail nexus). At the end of the road, Valdez is a small coastal town revered by outdoor sports enthusiasts and has boat access to the enormous calving glaciers of Prince William Sound.
Detour: In 1964, the original settlement of Valdez was destroyed by the second strongest earthquake in human history. The local museum tells the tragic story.
Best road trip for a legendary drive
Dawson Creek, British Columbia–Delta Junction; 1390 miles
If you’re intent on bringing your car to Alaska from Canada or the Lower 48, chances are your first taste of rugged "49" will be the iconic Alaska Highway, aka the Alcan. Hailed as one of the great road-building initiatives of the 20th century when it was hacked and blasted through the wilderness during World War II in an unprecedented eight months, the road officially starts in Dawson Creek, British Columbia, and skirts the edge of the St Elias Mountains in the Yukon before entering Alaska.
Worthwhile stops on the 200-mile Alaskan section of the route include Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge, a transportation corridor for birds with four roadside viewing areas, and Mukluk Land in Tok, a bizarre backwoods theme park sporting everything from Santa’s rocket to a creepy doll collection.
Planning tip: The Alcan is fully paved, well maintained and open year-round. Roadside services are relatively good although phone coverage can be patchy. Book ahead for overnight accommodations.