The hardest part about trip planning is narrowing down all of the options, isn’t it? You’ve narrowed it down enough to choose Alaska as your vacation destination, but number of decisions to be made within the state is still overwhelming. What to see? What to do? How to get there? We aim to help you get through some of that overwhelm with a few tips on planning your Alaska road trip.
Step 1: Decide on a Travel Van
Campervans are not only the economical choice, but also the most fun (in our humble opinion)! They get better gas mileage than RVs, you can camp in the tent sites at most campgrounds, and mileage is included! They’re also cheaper than the rental car-hotel-dining out combo, because they’re your transportation, your lodging and your kitchen, all rolled into one! In fact, there are at least 7 ways you’ll save by renting a travel van!
Campervans are also easier to drive than RVs, because they’re still just the size of a minivan. They can maneuver around downtown Anchorage and the campground at Trail River with equal ease, and even with the tent on top, they’re still not too tall (or wide, or long) to fit in many parking garages. The vans are completely self-contained, so there’s no need for hookups, either. Here are a few more tips on renting and driving your campervan.
And even if you’re not an experienced camper—even if you’ve never done it in your life—a campervan is still the best option, because it’s easy to learn! With an orientation at pick up and a manual that travels with the van, we always make sure you’re comfortable before you leave the lot. We’ve got a few more tips if you’re new to the camping scene.
Step 2: Decide Which Towns to Visit
How much time do you have? If you’re just here for a long weekend, we recommend staying close to Anchorage. Seward, Girdwood, Eklutna, Palmer: All of these towns are within a 2-hour or so drive (depending on how many times you stop for photos!) and all have plenty of things to do. You can even spend time in Anchorage—there are campgrounds within the city limits, and there’s plenty of hiking, biking and adventuring to be had close by. Here’s some more about Seward, about Anchorage, and about Palmer.
How much driving do you want to do? Even if you’ve only got a few towns on your list, their distance apart could be a driving factor (pun intended) in how you put together your itinerary. Different areas of Alaska have very different landscapes, but they’re also far away from each other, so deciding how many towns to see/campgrounds to camp in should take into account the distance between towns and campgrounds and activities. We’ve put together a few sample itineraries for your Alaska road trip, along with driving distances between towns.
What’s on your bucket list? If you’re a hiker, there’s a trail for you no matter where you are in the state, but a few, like the K’esugi Ridge hike in Denali State Park, are truly special. Mountain bikers can downhill at Alyeska Resort or fat tire bike at Kincaid Park in Anchorage. Birders can add seabirds to their life lists on a boat tour into Prince William Sound or Kenai Fjords National Park. Dog lovers can visit the kennels of Iditarod mushers and play with puppies after their tours. The truly adventurous can combine several of these, like dogsledding on a glacier via helicopter transport. Or taking a boat into a fjord and paddling back in a kayak. Or hiking without a trail in Denali National Park. If one of these is on your list, there’s a town where it happens. Find that town, and make it the focal point of your trip. Denali is always popular—here are a few tips on how make the most of it.
Step 3: Make Reservations, or Plan to Get There Early
You’ve decided how much you want to drive and what you absolutely can’t miss. Now, it’s time to make reservations. If you’re visiting Denali NP, you will need to make campground reservations, as far in advance as you can. Denali’s campgrounds fill up during the peak summer season. Seward and Homer are also popular, but many of the campgrounds in those towns are first-come, first-served, so you’ll need to get there early, especially if you’re there on a holiday weekend. You can also stay out of town, if you don’t mind driving. Moose Pass, half an hour from Seward, is less busy and just as scenic, for example.
Alaska’s public lands include National Parks, National Forests, BLM lands, State Parks and city-owned land. All have different booking styles and sites, so become familiar with the apps and websites. Not all fill up every day—if you’re visiting during shoulder season, or in an out-of-the-way place, you probably won’t have trouble pulling up and into a campsite for the night. But busy weekends, or peak season, may have the campgrounds filling up well in advance. Here are a few more tips on how to choose a campground.
Step 4: Leave Room for Serendipity
But don’t plan too much. You’ll want to leave room for those things that you can’t plan for, like falling in love with a small town, or lingering over the waterfall you didn’t expect to see on your hike, or an unexpectedly sunny day on the coast. Find your sweet spot between planning and leaving it to chance—it’s different for everyone, but there should always be just a little wiggle room. You might stumble onto a quirky yet oh-so-Alaskan festival, or find a romantic spot for just the two of you. You won’t regret it.
Taking all of these tips together will help you narrow things down, and figure out what’s important for your trip. But Alaska is huge, and unless you’ve got a really obscure hobby that’s only practiced in one town in the whole state, it’s likely you’re still caught in indecision and FOMO. We’ve got one last resource to help you figure it all out: Read about some real trips, taken by real people last summer. Our blog series, How They Got Lost, has some of our guests answering some questions about how they figured it all out, so if our advice isn’t helping, take it from them!
And if it did help, check availability and make your travel van reservations now! Summer, here we come!