This driving loop includes much of the best of the Interior, Prince William Sound, Anchorage, and Denali National Park. It allows you to end up where you started, saving money on plane tickets and car rental. And you'll see some remote and off-the-beaten-track places. Not many visitors make it to see Childs Glacier on the Copper River Delta, which is the most spectacular accessible glacier in Alaska. Likewise, a trip to Kennecott, in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, takes you way off the grid, letting you see an amazing historical ghost town and a community of real, backwoods Alaskans.
Day 1: Starting in Fairbanks
Fly to Fairbanks, rent a car, and then check into your hotel. (If you will drive the rented car on gravel roads, such as the McCarthy Rd. on DAY 4 or the Copper River Hwy. on DAY 8, you will need to rent from one of the few firms that allow this.) If time permits, visit the University of Alaska campus and see the magnificent UA Museum of the North and, if you are interested in such topics, the Large Animal Research Station or the Georgeson Botanical Garden.
Day 2: Fairbanks
Take the car to explore the Chena Hot Springs Road and the boreal forest of the Chena River State Recreation Area. There are several wonderful trails here with varying difficulty levels. As an alternative, arrange for a canoeing paddle on the Chena. When you've finished hiking or paddling and start thinking about sore muscles, stop at the Chena Hot Springs Resort for a soak in the natural mineral springs pond there. At the end of the day, return to Fairbanks for dinner and bed.
Day 3: The Richardson Highway to Copper Center
Today you will drive approximately 260 miles (driving time: under 6 hr.) through some of Alaska's most spectacular scenery. Drive east from Fairbanks toward Delta Junction; stop there, after about 2 hours, to see the historical park at Rika's Roadhouse and Landing and for lunch in the town. Now drive south on the Richardson Highway. The best part of the drive is here, as the highway rises up and over the Alaska Range on open tundra country, along the silver Alaska pipeline, and at the edge of a series of alpine lakes. Stop for the night in the Athabascan village of Copper Center, where there is an exceptional hotel, Copper River Princess Wilderness Lodge. Be sure to stop in at the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park Visitor Center to get oriented to the park before your visit tomorrow.
Day 4: Kennecott
Get up early to drive east about 85 miles on the Edgerton Highway to Chitina, arriving there in time for the 8:30am Backcountry Connection shuttle (reserve in advance) for a ride into the park. It's a rough road over an old railroad line deep into the wilderness park to a copper mine that was abandoned in the 1930s and the ghost town it left behind; by taking the van, you save yourself the driving and the planning necessary for that tough route, and you gain a guide to show you the way (you will have to cross a footbridge at one point). In Kennecott, check into one of two wilderness lodges, and join a guided walking tour through the enormous ghost-town buildings.
Day 5: Kennecott to Valdez
You have time in the morning to relax and wander in the friendly, quiet setting of Kennecott and its funky sister village of McCarthy. If you have the energy, take a half-day guided hike on the glacier that faces the ghost town. In the afternoon, take an air-taxi flight back to Chitina to get to your car (if you ride the van back, you will get in too late; besides, the view from the plane will be fantastic). Drive back to the Richardson Highway and then south to Valdez, about 190 miles total (roughly 4 hr.). The mountain scenery is spectacular through Thompson Pass nearing the town. Dine and check into lodgings in Valdez.
Day 6: Valdez to Cordova Ferry
Today you will be taking your car by ferry for a scenic trip across eastern Prince William Sound to the town of Cordova. Depending on when the ferry leaves, you may have time for a dayhike, a museum visit, or another activity in Valdez. In the evening, walk around the quaint town of Cordova; if time permits, take a look at the two small community museums.
Day 7: Prince William Sound Sea Kayaking
Join Cordova Coastal Outfitters for a sea-kayaking excursion, or, if you are staying at the Orca Adventure Lodge, you can go with a guide there. Cordova is an exceptional spot for a day's sea kayaking because waters near town are protected and exceptionally rich in marine mammals. You're almost assured of seeing sea otters and sea lions, and very likely to see many birds and other animals as well.
Day 8: Copper River Delta
Drive your car east from Cordova over the gravel Copper River Highway through the Copper River Delta, an immense wetland teeming with wildlife, especially trumpeter swans and other waterfowl. (If your car-rental agency doesn't allow this, you can rent a vehicle for the day in Cordova.) There are several excellent and little-used trails and bird-watching areas along the road. The destination at the far end is the Childs Glacier, an incredible wall of ice that is cut by the Copper River. From a viewing area on the other side of the river, you are remarkably close to the glacier, and in warm weather you can see huge chunks falling off and hear the groan of the moving ice. Spend a third night in Cordova.
Day 9: Across the Sound to Whittier & Anchorage
Get back on the ferry for a trip across the sound to Whittier. Again, the scenery is incomparable. Whittier is a strange little port town built by the military during World War II that is reached only by boat or through a one-lane tunnel almost 3 miles long. On the far side of the tunnel, you find yourself on Turnagain Arm about 50 miles from Anchorage. Time permitting, stop in Girdwood for a meal and perhaps a hike or visit to a historic gold mine. Finish the day in lodgings in Anchorage.
Day 10: Anchorage
Take in the Alaska Native Heritage Center in the morning to meet indigenous people and learn about their cultures in a magnificent facility they built, own, and manage. In the afternoon, visit the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center, or spend the day outdoors, hiking, mountain-biking, fishing, or bird-watching. At the end of this fairly low-key day, eat in one of Alaska's best restaurants, of which Anchorage has the broadest selection.
Day 11: Flying over Mount McKinley
Get an early start for the 112-mile drive to Talkeetna (about 2 hr.) so you can be there in time for a morning flight over Mount McKinley before the clouds build up in the afternoon. The flight services that carry mountain climbers to the flanks of North America's tallest peak can also take you there for a landing on a high-elevation glacier. After lunch and a walk around hip and historic Talkeetna, drive about 150 miles (roughly 3 hr.) to Denali National Park and check into your lodgings. You should have time to take in the fascinating exhibits at the visitor center, too.
Day 12: Exploring Denali National Park
This is the primary day to see Denali and the bears, caribous, and other wildlife there. The park shuttle bus system is the key to your visit. Reserve as far ahead as possible (the previous Dec is not too soon) to get a seat on the earliest bus you can manage. Wildlife tends to be more active in the morning. Ride deep into the park, taking along all your food and water, a warm jacket and raincoat, and good hiking shoes. Take a look at our suggestions for cross-country hiking, and then make your route choice according to how the countryside looks to you. This is a remarkable chance for a low-stress, low-cost wilderness experience. When you're ready to head home, just catch another bus on the way back.
Day 13: Denali & Drive to Fairbanks
The drive from Denali back to Fairbanks is only a couple of hours, so you can take your time at the park. A white-water rafting ride in the Nenana River would be exciting; a nature walk in the woods from the visitor center might be calming. Also consider an educational program at the Murie Science and Learning Center. Drive to your lodgings in Fairbanks in the afternoon.
Day 14: Fairbanks
Today you get on a plane and fly back home, but if you have time for a relaxing outing before that, stop off for a stroll in Pioneer Park to look at the historic paddle-wheeler Nenana and the other museums and attractions, and to soak up the small-town ambience.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.