Two National Parks in 1 Week

An itinerary connecting Kenai Fjords National Park, south of Anchorage, and Denali National Park, to the north, is probably Alaska's most popular land trip for first-time visitors. That's because these parks and the area in between offer so much of what visitors come to Alaska to see, and in spectacular places: at Kenai Fjords, waterways full of whales, marine birds, and glaciers; and at Denali, broad swaths of mountain tundra frequented by bears and caribous. This itinerary is set up to do without a car. To save money and have more flexibility, do the same tour with a car rented in Anchorage.

Day 1: Arrive in Anchorage

Fly to Anchorage and move into a room in the walkable downtown area, which is near the train station, from where you will be departing tomorrow. If the weather is nice, do the walking tour to find out what the area is like, or rent a bike and hit the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail to see the waterfowl in West Chester Lagoon, the moose in Earthquake Park, and maybe even the beluga whales of Cook Inlet. You can go as far as you want: Anchorage's paved bike trails weave through the entire city on wooded greenbelts. In bad weather, or if you're not up for exercise, spend your time at the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center, getting oriented to Alaska's history, culture, and art, and maybe even catch a planetarium show.

Day 2: To Seward & Kenai Fjords National Park

Board an Alaska Railroad train to Seward to enjoy some of Alaska's most spectacular scenery along the cliffs and surging ocean waters of Turnagain Arm, and through the untouched mountains of the Kenai Peninsula; those who choose to drive get to see similar scenery on a slightly different route. In Seward, board a tour boat to Kenai Fjords National Park . Make sure to take a vessel headed all the way into the park so you see the best of the wildlife and get close to a tidewater glacier. Make sure also to take a seasickness remedy such as Dramamine or Bonine 2 hours before getting onboard. If the weather is bad, ask to be switched to a boat tomorrow and do tomorrow's activities today instead.

Day 3: In Seward

After a couple of tiring days, this is a good day to relax in a charming little town. In the morning, join a half-day sea-kayaking paddle from Lowell Point with Sunny Cove Sea Kayaking. You'll likely see sea otters, birds, intertidal creatures, and maybe spawning salmon. By going in the morning, your chances of smooth water are better. In the afternoon, see the marine life and seabirds you encountered yesterday, up close, at the Alaska SeaLife Center. Consider joining one of their educational programs to get even closer to the animals.

Day 4: Denali National Park

Take the comfortable and convenient Park Connection Motorcoach Service from Seward straight to Denali National Park, a journey of more than 360 miles. The driver provides commentary on the highlights along the route. The bus ride takes almost 10 hours with a couple of long stops. If you drive instead, you can do it in less than 7 hours. Arriving in Denali, check into your hotel and stretch your legs, but get to bed promptly to be ready for an early start tomorrow.

Day 5: 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 6: Denali & Back to Anchorage

Your train back to Anchorage doesn't leave until late afternoon, giving you most of the day to enjoy the Denali park entrance area. The visitor center and Murie Science and Learning Center should not be missed: The exhibits and programs here will deepen your understanding of the natural places you have already seen. You also have time for a white-water rafting ride on the Nenana River or a relaxing walk on the nature trails and hiking trails near the visitor center. Your train arrives in Anchorage in the evening.

Day 7: Anchorage Activities

If you can arrange for a flight home late in the day, you'll have time for one more activity in Anchorage. Take a shuttle to the Alaska Native Heritage Center to meet indigenous people and learn about their cultures in a magnificent facility they built, own, and manage.

Itinerary Add-Ons

This week-long itinerary to two national parks is fast paced. You can have a more relaxing trip and allow for more spontaneity by adding days to the stops that are already planned.

If you've still got more time after slowing down the pace, extend your trip with a visit to Fairbanks. Instead of taking the train back to Anchorage on Day 6, take it northward to Fairbanks. There I recommend renting a car to see the sites and perhaps explore the surrounding rural highways for a few days. When you're finished, fly home from Fairbanks.

Also consider adding on a Southeast Alaska sojourn. When you buy your ticket to Alaska, buy it from Seattle to Anchorage on Alaska Airlines and include a stopover, for a reasonable additional cost, in a Southeast Alaska town -- Sitka would be my first choice. Spend time seeing the Russian-American history and Tlingit culture there, and getting outdoors, before flying on to Anchorage and beginning the itinerary listed at Day 1.

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.