Alaska Road Trips: The Ultimate Guide to Driving in Alaska

With over 660,000 square miles of wilderness, driving in Alaska has long been a favorite with visitors to America’s largest state. And with wide open roads, expansive vistas and next-to-no traffic, it is little wonder that the freedom and flexibility of an Alaska road trip appeals to so many.

Alaska’s legendary roads – such as the untamed Dalton Highway that stretches almost to the Beaufort Sea deep in the high Arctic, or the Top of the World Highway that connects Alaska to Canada’s Yukon Territory – evoke images of early pioneers, the Gold Rush era and intrepid travel for all who seek it. So if you're just getting started on planning your Alaska road trip, here's our ultimate guide to driving in Alaska. And for those with a little more time, driving through Canada to Alaska.

Image courtesy of iStock / Shutterstock

How long does it take to drive to Alaska?

With the vast Coast Mountains in Alaska’s panhandle forming an impenetrable barrier to entry further south, most drivers make entry to Alaska via the Alcan border point at Beaver Creek in the Yukon, so the obvious answer to this question is ‘it depends where you start’!

The journey from Vancouver to the border is 1,775 miles or around 32 hours of driving while the drive from Calgary is fractionally shorter at 1,682 miles and around 29 hours. Whichever way you cut it, this is a serious undertaking with around three long days on the road. And it is worth remembering that even once you cross the Alaskan border, it is still another 430 miles or eight hours to Anchorage!

Image courtesy of iStock / Shutterstock

Despite the distances involved, the rewards for those who tackle the drive come in the form of the incredible landscapes of the Yukon. Breathtaking Kluane National Park alone more than makes up for what can be some fairly monotonous roads further south. Or for those with a little longer still, a relatively short detour further north will take you to historic Dawson City which sits on the famous Yukon River and served as the heart of the Klondike Gold Rush.

But if the thought of driving over 2,000 miles doesn’t appeal, it's possible to hire a car in Whitehorse in the Yukon and drive into Alaska from there – a journey of a little over 300 miles. Just be aware that the car will need to be returned to Whitehorse at the end of your trip. With that in mind, it is possible to take a fantastic figure-eight route that starts in Whitehorse, crosses into Alaska at the Alcan border and returns to Whitehorse via the Top of the World Highway and Dawson City. Ideally, a journey like this would take around two weeks.

Travel Designer Sam on a road trip in Alaska

Where to rent cars in Alaska

Despite its vast size, Alaska really only has two cities - Anchorage towards the south and Fairbanks just north of the center. If you can pick up your car in one and drop it off in the other it is possible to explore Alaska without doubling back on yourself. With an increasing number of flight options to both cities, this is a great way to begin exploring Alaska.

As you might imagine with somewhere as remote as this, the number of cars available to rent is limited and it's a significant logistical challenge to increase that number when demand is high. For that reason, we always recommend booking your car at the same time as the rest of your travel arrangements instead of leaving it to chance when you arrive. We work with a number of providers to ensure we have access to a range of vehicles; not all cars are allowed on all roads, so we always choose vehicles accordingly.

Image courtesy of Pursuit Alaska

What is driving like in Alaska?

Roads between the main centers are paved and generally well maintained, wide enough to comfortably accommodate the largest of road-going vehicles and well marked with signs to help keep you on track. With few opportunities to turn off, it is hard to go wrong in Alaska – the biggest challenge is not being distracted by the incredible scenery on all sides! And with over 100,000 black bears and 40,000 grizzlies in Alaska the chances of seeing wildlife as you drive is relatively high so keep your eyes peeled.

Image courtesy of Mark Kelley

Once out of the cities you should find that you have the roads pretty much to yourself and other than from the air, these open roads are arguably the best way to truly appreciate just how expansive Alaska really is.

One consideration to keep in mind is the distance between gas stations. We always recommend stopping to top your car up whenever you see one, even if you don’t necessarily need gas immediately. It could be several hours until the next opportunity!

Image courtesy of Michael DeYoung

Which are the best roads to drive in Alaska?

While you may have heard of or even aspire to drive some or all of the Dalton highway, a 414-mile stretch of road that begins just north of Fairbanks and ends close to the northern coast, it is a rough gravel road with only three settlements on the entire route, whose combined total permanent population totals no more than 100 people.

One of these towns is the ominously named Deadhorse, which should give you an idea of the type of place this is – one of the most isolated roads in the United States. Traveling in small vehicles comes with significant risk and anyone undertaking a journey on the Dalton should carry survival gear, just in case.

Image courtesy of iStock / Shutterstock

Luckily, there are plenty of roads further south of this that are far more hospitable, far less isolated and more welcoming to Alaska’s visitors. Some of our favorites include:

  • The Glenn Highway: Leaving Anchorage, this route takes you east towards the Yukon culminating in breathtaking views of the massive Mount Wrangell that fill the windshield as you approach.

  • Richardson Highway: One of two routes leading from Fairbanks to the south, the Richardson intersects the Glenn Highway and takes you all the way to Valdez on the edge of beautiful Prince William Sound, skirting Wrangell St. Elias National Park as you go.

  • Parks Highway: No road trip to Alaska would be complete without a visit to Denali National Park, and the Parks Highway will take you from Anchorage, right past the entrance, to Fairbanks. Image courtesy of iStock / Shutterstock

What are the best Alaska road trips?

Our team has driven many of the roads in Alaska and explored all corners of the state so our itineraries are designed from first-hand experience. While it is possible to reach some of these places by train, having a car will allow you to stop at your leisure en route, structure your own day independently and be in some of these places before any crowds arrive. And of course, cars can access some places that trains don't run, with key places such as Wrangell St. Elias, Valdez, much of the Kenai Peninsula and the interior of Alaska and the Yukon border crossings.

Image courtesy of Pursuit Alaska

Below are some of our most popular Alaska road trips, designed to encompass some of the very best self-drive destinations, must-sees and otherwise inaccessible places. If you don’t see what you’re looking for we can design an itinerary from scratch that will tick every box on your list, so get in touch with our Travel Designers to discuss your ideas.

7 Days: Northern Exposure

This 7-day Alaska road trip showcases the best of South and Central Alaska, beginning in Anchorage and ending in Fairbanks. Spend a full day in Prince William Sound viewing over 26 tidewater glaciers, explore Kenai Fjords with its inhabitants of orca & humpback whales, Steller sea lions, harbor seals, puffins and eagles, and head north to Talkeetna and Denali National Park for a full day backcountry adventure tour.

  • DAY 1 Anchorage to Seward | Prince William Sound 26 Glacier Cruise
  • DAY 2 Seward | Kenai Fjord Wildlife Cruise
  • DAY 3 Seward to Girdwood
  • DAY 4 Girdwood to Talkeetna
  • DAY 5 Talkeetna to Denali National Park
  • DAY 6 Denali National Park Backcountry Tour | Coach | Flightseeing
  • DAY 7 Denali National Park to Fairbanks

9 Days: Alaska's Mountains, Glaciers & Wildlife

Explore two of Alaska's most popular National Parks on this leisurely 9-day road trip from Anchorage to Fairbanks. This tour is designed for travelers with limited time, but thoughtfully includes a Prince William Sound cruise, Homer on the Kenai Peninsula, Denali National Park and Kenai Fjords. A guided bus tour will take you into Denali National Park, where you can enjoy pristine wilderness and look out for wildlife.

  • DAY 1 Anchorage to Seward | Prince William Sound 26 Glacier Cruise
  • DAY 2 Seward | Kenai Fjord Wildlife Cruise
  • DAY 3 Seward to Homer
  • DAY 4 Homer | Day at Leisure
  • DAY 5 Homer to Girdwood
  • DAY 6 Girdwood to Talkeetna
  • DAY 7 Talkeetna to Denali National Park
  • DAY 8 Denali National Park Backcountry Tour | Coach | Flightseeing
  • DAY 9 Denali National Park to Fairbanks

10 Days: Alaska Highlights Tour

Visit some of Alaska's most popular places on this 10-day Alaska road trip departing from Anchorage. Packed with true and authentic Alaskan experiences, this self drive will take you off the beaten path and into adventures you can only imagine. Highlights include Talkeetna, Denali National Park, Fairbanks, Prince William Sound, Valdez and Kenai Fjords National Park. Don't forget to pack your camera!

  • DAY 1 Anchorage to Seward
  • DAY 2 Seward | Kenai Fjord National Park Cruise
  • DAY 3 Seward to Talkeetna
  • DAY 4 Talkeetna to Denali National Park
  • DAY 5 Denali National Park Backcountry Tour | Coach | Flightseeing
  • DAY 6 Denali National Park to Fairbanks | Sternwheeler Riverboat Cruise
  • DAY 7 Fairbanks to Valdez
  • DAY 8 Valdez | Prince William Sound Columbia Glacier Cruise with lunch
  • DAY 9 Valdez to Sheep Mountain Lodge
  • DAY 10 Sheep Mountain Lodge to Anchorage

12 Days: Alaska National Parks Explorer

This bestselling 12-day Alaska road trip showcases three of Alaska's majestic National Parks. Cruise Kenai Fjords National Park, take a full day trip into Denali National Park with a return scenic flight, witness Wrangell St. Elias National Park and take a glacier cruise into Prince William Sound. Along the way, make sure you keep your eyes open for moose, bears and whales as you adventure!

  • DAY 1 Anchorage to Seward
  • DAY 2 Seward | Kenai Fjord National Park Cruise
  • DAY 3 Seward to Talkeetna
  • DAY 4 Talkeetna to Denali National Park Entrance
  • DAY 5 Denali National Park Backcountry Tour | Coach | Flightseeing
  • DAY 6 Denali National Park to Fairbanks | Sternwheeler Riverboat Cruise
  • DAY 7 Fairbanks to Chitina | Chitina to McCarthy | Flight
  • DAY 8 McCarthy | Kennicott | Root Glacier Hike
  • DAY 9 McCarthy to Chitina | Flight | Chitina to Valdez
  • DAY 10 Valdez | Prince William Sound Columbia Glacier Cruise with lunch
  • DAY 11 Valdez to Sheep Mountain Lodge
  • DAY 12 Sheep Mountain Lodge to Anchorage

13 Days: Best of Alaska Road Trip

This 13-day 'best of Alaska' road trip features most of the highlights of the central Alaska region - Kenai Fjords, Denali and Wrangell / St. Elias National Parks. Take a flightseeing tour to Mount Denali, watch out for wildlife in its namesake park, explore Fairbanks and visit McCarthy and the Kennicott Mine. Wrapping up the trip, you'll hike to Exit Glacier and join a spectacular Kenai Fjords glacier cruise.

  • DAY 1 Anchorage to Talkeetna
  • DAY 2 Talkeetna to Denali National Park
  • DAY 3 Denali National Park Backcountry Tour | Coach | Flightseeing
  • DAY 4 Denali National Park to Fairbanks | Sternwheeler Riverboat Cruise
  • DAY 5 Fairbanks | Day at Leisure
  • DAY 6 Fairbanks to Chitina | Chitina to McCarthy | Flight
  • DAY 7 McCarthy | Kennicott | Root Glacier Hike
  • DAY 8 McCarthy to Sheep Mountain | Flight | Chitina to Valdez
  • DAY 9 Sheep Mountain Lodge to Seward
  • DAY 10 Seward | Full Day Northwestern Fjord Cruise
  • DAY 11 Seward to Homer
  • DAY 12 Homer | Day at Leisure
  • DAY 13 Homer to Anchorage

To request rates and check for early booking offers, contact our Travel Designers toll free at 1-855-465-1001 or email sales@alaskabydesign.com and the team will gladly personalize your dream Alaska road trip.

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