Rugged Roadtripping: An Affordable National Park Adventure in Alaska’s Wilderness
Rugged Roadtripping: An Affordable National Park Adventure in Alaska's Wilderness - Plotting Your Route Along the Parks Highway
The Parks Highway is the gateway into the rugged Alaskan interior and the most direct route between Anchorage and Denali National Park. This 338 mile stretch of road passes through wild and scenic landscapes that beg to be explored. Planning your route along the way and allowing for spontaneous detours will enable you to fully experience the Last Frontier.
Be sure to spend a couple days in Anchorage before heading north. Stock up on supplies and enjoy city life before escaping into the wilderness. Then begin the drive on the Parks Highway, taking time to stop at roadside viewpoints like the Knik River Overlook. This is a great spot to watch glacier waters churn into the silty river.
Continuing north, make your first major stop at the quirky town of Talkeetna. Hang out in its lively brewpubs and chat with the colorful locals, many of whom lead expeditions onto nearby Denali, the highest peak in North America. Arrange a flightseeing tour for close-up glacier views if your budget allows. Otherwise, check out the ranger station and village shops before getting back on the road.
Further along is Denali State Park, with excellent hiking trails like the Kesugi Ridge Trek. This moderate 3-4 day backpacking route traverses high alpine tundra dotted with caribou and moose. Other notable stops include Byers Lake for canoeing amid sublime mountain scenery and the Nenana River Canyon for whitewater rafting thrills.
Of course, the main event is Denali National Park itself. Give yourself at least 3 full days to explore its pristine wilderness and catch sight of bears, wolves, caribou and maybe even the elusive snow leopard. Go on guided hikes or take shuttle buses deep into the park. Backcountry camping amid complete solitude is also an option for experienced hikers.
The final stretch heads north through stark boreal forest all the way to Fairbanks. This old gold rush town still holds onto an air of frontier spirit. Spend a couple days panning for gold, exploring pioneer museums and watching the midnight sun's glow before continuing your road trip adventure.
What else is in this post?
- Rugged Roadtripping: An Affordable National Park Adventure in Alaska's Wilderness - Plotting Your Route Along the Parks Highway
- Rugged Roadtripping: An Affordable National Park Adventure in Alaska's Wilderness - Stocking Up on Supplies in Anchorage
- Rugged Roadtripping: An Affordable National Park Adventure in Alaska's Wilderness - Camping and Hiking in Denali National Park
- Rugged Roadtripping: An Affordable National Park Adventure in Alaska's Wilderness - Hitting the Road to Wrangell-St. Elias
- Rugged Roadtripping: An Affordable National Park Adventure in Alaska's Wilderness - Kayaking Among Glaciers in Kenai Fjords
- Rugged Roadtripping: An Affordable National Park Adventure in Alaska's Wilderness - Watching Wildlife in Katmai National Park
- Rugged Roadtripping: An Affordable National Park Adventure in Alaska's Wilderness - Ending Your Trip Under the Northern Lights
Rugged Roadtripping: An Affordable National Park Adventure in Alaska's Wilderness - Stocking Up on Supplies in Anchorage
Before embarking on your wilderness adventure, be sure to spend a couple days in Anchorage stocking up on supplies. This lively city has all the major retailers you’ll need to outfit your RV or camper van for rugged road tripping. Make a beeline for outdoor gear shops like REI to pick up any camping equipment that didn’t make the trip north. A good sleeping bag rated to subzero temps is a must, along with a tent, camp stove, bear canister and other essentials.
For food, hit up warehouse stores like Costco or Sam’s Club to load up on non-perishables, snacks and anything else needed for cooking simple camp meals. Produce doesn’t keep long unrefrigerated so it’s best to buy fresh veggies and fruit as needed on the road. Fill your water jugs with potable water too since many campgrounds in rural Alaska don’t have hookups.
Don’t forget the booze if you want to relax with a cold one around the fire after a long day of hiking. Alaska has some excellent local microbrews that are perfect for camping. Stop by breweries like Midnight Sun and King Street to sample a few and take home growlers of your favorites. Some shops like Brown Jug also have create-your-own 6 packs where you can cherry pick a variety.
While in Anchorage, it’s also wise to top up your gas tank as fuel gets pricier the further you drive into the remote interior. Same goes for propane if your RV uses it for cooking, hot water etc. Make a checklist so you don’t forget any critical supplies. Things like flashlights, batteries, toilet paper, dish soap, towels and maps are easily overlooked until you really need them.
Pick up some Alaskan reading material for the long stretches between towns. Guidebooks like The Milepost detail key highlights along major routes like the Parks Highway. Grab travel memoirs like Into the Wild or Coming into the Country for literary inspiration too. Don’t forget the bug spray and bear bells!
It's also a smart idea to chat with fellow RVers in Anchorage to get pro tips and tricks for your upcoming adventure. Seasoned road trippers often congregate at campsites and parking lots around the city. Don’t be afraid to pick their brains on topics like emergency preparedness, vehicle maintenance and their own favorite spots along your intended route. These friendly exchanges with locals are one of the best parts of RVing.
Rugged Roadtripping: An Affordable National Park Adventure in Alaska's Wilderness - Camping and Hiking in Denali National Park
The crown jewel of Alaska’s interior, Denali National Park offers an unparalleled wilderness experience for those seeking to connect with nature. As the centerpiece of any Alaskan road trip, it deserves at least 3-5 days to explore its vast landscapes. While Denali is renowned for wildlife viewing, don’t underestimate its incredible hiking and backpacking opportunities. With over 400 miles of trails, there are routes suitable for every skill level.
For those new to backcountry camping, the Savage Alpine Trail is a perfect introduction. This easy 4 mile loop starts at the Savage River Campground, gaining just 350 feet in elevation. It passes through lush taiga forest with frequent moose sightings. Be sure to chat with rangers beforehand about proper food storage to keep bears away at night. Adhere to strict Leave No Trace principles to preserve Denali’s pristine wilderness.
Slightly more experienced hikers will love the Eielson Alpine Trail. This more strenuous route climbs 3,000 feet over 8 miles to panoramic mountain vistas. Starting from the Eielson Visitor Center deep inside the park, the well-maintained trail gains elevation through open tundra covered in wildflowers during summer. Herds of caribou and Dall sheep are often spotted grazing. Ascending above treeline reveals breathtaking views of Denali and the surrounding Alaska Range peaks.
The most hardcore hikers will want to tackle the Park Road itself. This restricted-access gravel track stretches 92 miles into the very heart of the park. Hikers can ride park shuttle buses to intermediate points then trek back to the entrance on foot over several days. Or go solo beyond mile 15 after obtaining the proper backcountry permit. Highlights include massive glaciers like Muldrow and Traleika that spill down from the mountains. Watch for bears fishing along braided rivers. And listen for wolves howling in the distance as you camp alone under the midnight sun.
For the ultimate wilderness experience, consider a multi-day backpacking trip into the remote Caribou Creek valley accessed via an unmarked trail near the Eielson VC. This challenging route requires advanced navigation skills but offers total solitude amid Denali’s most rugged landscapes. Backpackers often report going days without encountering another human soul while wandering through alpine meadows and gazing upon the sheer Organ Pipe Peaks. It’s an immersion into raw untamed nature akin to what the early pioneers must have felt. Just be sure to brush up on Glacier travel and crevasse rescue techniques beforehand.
Rugged Roadtripping: An Affordable National Park Adventure in Alaska's Wilderness - Hitting the Road to Wrangell-St. Elias
After exploring the heart of Denali, it’s time to hit the road again and make your way to the next national park adventure. Just 180 miles east of Denali lies Wrangell-St. Elias, America’s largest national park covering over 13 million acres. The raw natural beauty and wide open spaces here feel truly untamed compared to the more heavily visited parks down south.
Wrangell-St. Elias contains 9 of the 16 highest peaks over 16,000 feet in North America, including Mt. St. Elias at 18,008 feet. These imposing icy behemoths dominate the skyline as you drive the McCarthy Road into the heart of the park. This 60 mile gravel track follows an old railroad route built to access rich copper mines in the early 1900s. The area’s raucous mining history adds character, though scars still remain on the land.
As you bump along towards the tiny outpost of McCarthy, look for opportunities to stop and hike or just soak in the views. The road crosses gushing ice-blue glacial rivers and provides occasional glimpses of mighty Root Glacier flowing down from the mountains. For a close look, hike the 4 mile Root Glacier Trail where you can actually walk out onto the frozen surface with proper gear. Listen for sharp cracks as shifting ice creates hidden crevasses.
The real gem of Wrangell-St. Elias is the Kennicott Glacier, one of the largest in North America. Book a guided ice climbing trip and strap on crampons to scale this frozen behemoth. No prior climbing experience needed. Unique blue ice caves carved by meltwater channels make you feel like you’re exploring an alien planet. Fly out onto the glacier by helicopter for a true once-in-a-lifetime experience.
When you finally roll into historic McCarthy, soak up its quirky vibe in bars and cafes housed in colorful old buildings leftover from the mining era. Get insider tips from the locals on more hidden hikes and adventures within this roadless wilderness. Consider splurging on a flightseeing trip over the vast St. Elias ice fields for an appreciation of the park’s sheer enormity and remoteness.
Rugged Roadtripping: An Affordable National Park Adventure in Alaska's Wilderness - Kayaking Among Glaciers in Kenai Fjords
The icy fjords of Kenai Fjords National Park offer some of the most spectacular kayaking opportunities in Alaska. Glaciers spill down from the Harding Icefield, calving icebergs into the salty waters below. Getting out on the water in a kayak allows you to get up close and personal with these frozen giants in a way that's impossible from land. It's an unforgettable experience available to any paddler willing to brave the frigid conditions.
Just sailing towards a massive wall of ice is humbling, with the glacier cracking and rumbling as chunks break off to create booming thunder. Paddling through the floating bergs dumped by the tidewater glaciers feels like entering a frozen maze. The deep blue hue of the old compressed ice is mesmerizing, often striped with sediment and debris picked up as the glacier carved its way down the valley over centuries.
Near the glacier face, bits of ice crash down from high above, so wearing a helmet is a must for safety. But getting splashed by the frigid water is exhilarating. Some kayakers even dare to paddle through the narrow slots eroded into the glacier base at high tide, though this is only recommended for experts due to frequent collapses.
The wildlife viewing possibilities while kayaking here are also phenomenal. Pods of curious harbor seals often follow paddlers, popping up around the boats. Sea otters wrap themselves in kelp beds, watching you drift by. Massive whales surface nearby, fluking up a storm. And countless seabirds soar overhead, from puffins to bald eagles.
The most popular area for glacier kayaking trips is Kenai Fjords National Park near Seward. Outfitters like Kayak Adventures Worldwide lead guided tours starting from $99 for a 4 hour trip. The all-day Northwestern Fjord Explorer lets you paddle right up to immense Northwestern Glacier. For more immersion, opt for multiday camping trips to remote fjords few tourists reach.
Hardy paddlers can even opt to rent kayaks and explore the icy channels independently if properly equipped. Be sure to carry flare guns, emergency transponders, dry suits and other safety gear. A waterproof marine VHF radio allows communications with charter boats for weather updates and emergency contacts.
Rugged Roadtripping: An Affordable National Park Adventure in Alaska's Wilderness - Watching Wildlife in Katmai National Park
Far removed from civilization, Katmai National Park in southern Alaska remains an oasis for abundant wildlife, offering unparalleled opportunities for intrepid travelers to watch, appreciate and photograph diverse species up-close in their natural habitat. The park encompasses 4 million acres of remote wilderness dotted with steaming volcanoes, untamed rivers, alpine lakes and broad coastal plains that support a flourishing diversity of life.
Most famous are Katmai’s massive brown bears that grow to epic proportions feasting on the bountiful Pacific salmon during summer fish runs. They can reach over 1,000 pounds, but seeing even a 500 pounder at close range leaves an impression. Prime bear viewing spots include Brooks Falls where bears gather in high concentrations, brawling over the best fishing spots and stealing salmon from each other. Patient photographers use long lenses and remote hides to capture stunning images. But it's watching natural bear behavior that leaves the deepest impact, like mothers teaching cubs to fish for the first time.
Yet bears are just the beginning of Katmai's wildlife riches. Hiking along the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes reveals snowshoe hares, beavers, moose and red foxes. A float down the Alagnak River may deliver close encounters with nesting bald eagles and lumbering brown bears patrolling the shores. Along the coast, marine mammals abound like Steller's sea lions socializing on rocky haul-outs and playful sea otters grooming themselves in the kelp beds offshore. Even elusive wolves can sometimes be glimpsed if lucky.
For birders, Katmai is nirvana, with over 220 documented species from puffins to peregrine falcons to harlequin ducks and long-tailed jaegers. Sheer sea cliffs at Kukak Bay support over 75,000 nesting seabirds while upland tundra hosts rock ptarmigans and American pipits. Migratory songbirds flit through riverside alders and cottonwoods. Prime avian viewing spots include Geographic Harbor, Moraine Creek and Funnel Creek.
Of course for close proximity to Katmai’s diverse wildlife, nothing beats camping in the backcountry. Hiking out to remote sites like Hallo Bay or Swikshak Lagoon allows total immersion in wild Alaska far from hunting pressures. Here curious bears may wander close to tents, viewing humans as just another animal sharing their territory. Expert guides like Lifetime Adventures facilitate such multi-day camping treks, imparting ecological knowledge and best practices for ethical human-animal interactions that ensure minimal impact.
Rugged Roadtripping: An Affordable National Park Adventure in Alaska's Wilderness - Ending Your Trip Under the Northern Lights
After weeks spent adventuring through Alaska's rugged wilderness, immersed in raw untamed nature, it's time for one final spectacle to end your epic road trip on a high note. As night falls on your last evening, journey outside local city lights and look up to behold the mystical glow of the aurora borealis painting the northern sky in shades of emerald green and neon purple. Known as the northern lights, this dazzling natural phenomenon is the perfect grand finale for an unforgettable journey through America's last frontier.
The northern lights occur when charged particles ejected from the sun collide with gases in Earth's atmosphere, causing a luminous radiance to flare across polar night skies. Alaska experiences frequent, vivid displays during the dark winter months. Bundle up, find an open viewing spot devoid of light pollution, and let the hypnotic dance of light wash over you.
As wispy curtains of green begin shimmering overhead, you'll feel a primal connection to the forces of nature. Like ghostly spirits, the aurora morphs fluidly in real time, spreading its tendrils across the celestial canvas. Bursts of purple, pink and aquamarine add to the mystic splendor. Dazzling beams suddenly spike up from the horizon. Then watch spellbound as the lights slowly dissipate, fading out until blackness returns to the northern firmament.
augmentation of the auroral display using natural color and motion. Some claim the greatest shows happen when temperatures plummet to -20F and lower. The crisp air seems to make the colors pop even brighter. Diehard aurora chasers say the lights are addictive, describing "chasing the green dragon in the sky" on cold wintry nights.
Apps like Aurora Notify alert you to real-time solar activity and geomagnetic conditions ideal for northern lights viewing. Auroral photographers use tripods and fast lenses to capture stunning time-lapse imagery. But simple patience, awestruck wonder and open senses may conjure the most lasting memories. Let the multi-hued radiance seep into your consciousness, leaving you humbled by forces greater than humankind.