Have you ever been on a road trip where you just couldn’t keep your eyes on the road? Imagine mile after mile of breathtaking scenery, mountains, glaciers, ocean, and animals. That’s what you get in Alaska.
My husband hates to drive—except here where we drive hundreds of miles almost every trip. In this post, I’ll share three of our favorite scenic drives along the highways of Alaska.
Just a note about that word highway. A highway in the lower 48 does not equate to a highway in Alaska. Some of these roadways aren’t even maintained in the winter. At best, you can expect a three, maybe four-lane paved road, and at worst a washed-out, rutted gravel road. Before heading out to these unpaved areas, please ensure your rental car is allowed. Some RV rental agencies and local rental agencies allow travel on these roads but most of the major rental car companies do not.
An amazing tool you can use to enhance your road trip is the Milepost. It’s a yearly publication the size of a really thick magazine. It has mile-by-mile descriptions of all the roads in Alaska and the Yukon, British Columbia, Alberta, and Northwest Territories of Canada. It’s a necessity if you’re driving to Alaska from the lower 48 and a wonderful addition to your road trip if you’re only driving in Alaska. It has practical information like the location of the next gas station, when a passing lane will begin, and upcoming turnouts. It also has fun facts about sights you may see along the road like the location of an eagle’s nest, trailheads, or good fishing holes, as well as descriptions of scenic viewpoints. We have found it to be invaluable and it gets packed every time we visit Alaska.
1. Turnagain Arm
This is hands down my favorite stretch of road. This drive south of Anchorage on the Seward Highway follows the Turnagain Arm of Cook Inlet. If you’ve seen the “about” page on this site, there’s a picture of me taken at one of the viewpoints along this drive on my first full day in Alaska. This photo captures the moment I became hooked. As I’ve shared before, I wasn’t thrilled about that first trip to Alaska. It was more something my husband wanted and I went along. We arrived late in the evening and spent our first night in Anchorage. The next day we started the drive toward Seward. I vividly remember my first glimpse of the mountains across the water of Turnagain Arm. It was magical. Every mile brought something new—my first glaciers up in mountains, Dall sheep on the cliffs, and fireweed blooming everywhere. We’ve driven this stretch of road on many subsequent trips and it never gets old. It looks different every time depending on the tide, the weather, and the time of day.
This is one of the few places you can witness a bore tide where extreme changes in the tide cause a large wave of water to rush into Turnagain Arm. We’ve seen people in the chilly water surfing and kite surfing on the bore tide. The distinctive white beluga whales can sometimes be seen here in the summer when they chase salmon into Turnagain Arm. There are several small turnouts along the highway where you can watch the bore tide and whales but Beluga Point and Bird Point have benches, spotting scopes, and space to spend a little more time.
This drive leads through the southern boundary of Chugach State Park and gives access to trails in the park such as the Bird Ridge Trail, Indian Bike Trail, and Falls Creek Trail.
2. Denali Highway
This 134 mile drive stretches east to west connecting Paxon on the Richardson Highway to Cantwell on the Parks Highway. The first 21 miles starting in Paxson are paved so even if you don’t have an allowed vehicle, the side trip is well worth the time.
The fantastic scenery starts immediately with a 360-degree view of mountains, glaciers, and tundra. Tangle Lakes Campground is just past where the pavement ends. We spent a lovely night here on our RV trip. There’s a two-mile hiking trail here along the ridge above the lakes; a good spot for wildlife spotting and berry picking.
From here the road climbs to Maclaren Summit (4086 ft), the second-highest highway pass in Alaska after Atigun Pass on the Dalton Highway. There’s a nice pullout here for photos where you can see the road winding ahead in the distance.
As you continue the drive toward Cantwell you will continue to have views of the Alaska Range to the north where Mount Deborah and Mount Hayes can be seen. Ironically, there is no viewpoint for Mount Denali along the Denali Highway.
If you’re driving the entire 134 miles, it can be a slow go especially if you make a lot of stops. You’ll need to set aside an entire day for the trip. The road ends at Cantwell where you’ll continue north to Denali National Park or south toward Anchorage.
3. Hatcher Pass
Another favorite of ours is Hatcher Pass. As you travel north from Anchorage to Palmer, the Glenn Highway leads to Palmer Fishhook Road and up to Hatcher Pass (3886 ft). This drive leads over the rushing Little Su River and winds up to the pass where Independence Mine is located. In the summer, you can explore the mine and learn about Alaska’s gold rush history. There are trails in the area for mountain biking or hiking. This is a popular spot in the summer for berry picking, hiking, paragliding, and picnicking. Winter activities include dog sledding, skiing, and snowmobiling. The first 17 miles from Palmer is paved but as you continue toward Willow, the road becomes gravel and can be rough in some areas. Again, be sure your rental will allow travel on this unpaved road.
What are your favorite road trips in Alaska? Please leave a comment below.