We explored Alaska for 12 days in two different ways: by road with a motorhome/RV and by sea on a cruise ship. The camper van is undoubtedly the best way to visit Alaska by land. It offers comfort and flexibility at a reasonable price in a country very well equipped for this kind of transport. The second type of transport we used is cruising. Being on a ship allows access to places inaccessible by road and is a relaxing experience. For us the ideal road-trip should be three weeks or over. Nevertheless in just under two weeks, and thanks to the two means of transport we used, we have been able to fully enjoy our Alaskan experience.
- Winters in Alaska are very rough. It is difficult to visit at this time of year especially because the parks are closed and the roads dangerous. The best time to visit is from May to September. Being there early September allowed us to maximize the beginning of the northern lights season, have a correct weather, avoid the tourist rush and observe the fauna and flora before winter. We are very happy to have gone at this period.
- The cost of living is quite high in Alaska because a lot of resources are imported. Plan your budget accordingly.
- To rent a motor-home plan for a minimum of 7 days. Indeed, the distances are very large and most rentals are weekly.
The road trip from Southcentral to the Interior of Alaska
To travel to Anchorage, we flew from Frankfurt and had a 10 hour flight. On arrival, after a very long day, we went directly to our welcoming and comfortable Airbnb. We recommend staying in this Alaskan home from South Anchorage (to benefit from an Airbnb discount visit our tips and discounts page).
The next day we went to pick up our motorhome at A&M Motor Home Rentals and headed north to Denali Park. Our rental was for 4 days. If you have more time we would advise you to rent the motorhome for at least 7 days to go further north up to Fairbanks and do a loop rather than a round trip.
Day 1 : on our way to the north
83 miles/ 1h30 on the road
After picking up the motorhome, our first stop is the largest independent bookstore in Alaska: Title Wave Books. Clémentine wanted to ask some questions the booksellers. Before heading north we stock up on our food supply. Thankfully we have been made aware that on our way the groceries are scarce and expensive.
Our destination is Denali Park. There are 242 miles/ 4h from Anchorage to the entrance situated at the north of the park. The road is very beautiful and we make many stops to admire the landscapes. Consequently we do not reach the park in the evening.
To stop for our first night in our wheel house, the road connecting Anchorage to Denali (Highway 3) is very well equipped. Although it is possible to camp almost anywhere in Alaska (the rule says as long as there are no ban signs it is allowed) we stopped at a campsite: J&Ms Boat Launch & RV Park. For $12 a night we made our home at the place where the Kashwitna river flows into the Susitna river. We even had a bonus view of the Mount Denali (also called Mount McKinley) located 80 miles as the crow flies.
Day 2 : arrival at the national park
156km / 2h37 on the road
Once we arrived at around 11am, we regret not having booked in advance the campsite inside the park because it is already full. It is easy to find places to sleep but we have to leave the park. We reserve our location for the next evening.
The end of the day is spent going on short walks around the information center. Although we are not yet in the heart of the park the scenery is already breathtaking. In the evening we are looking for a place to sleep. There are several free options but close to the road and finally we decide to stop at the Denali Outdoor Center. We advise you to book your campsite inside Denali Park in advance on: https://www.reservedenali.com/. According to us sleeping on site is more convenient and offers a very nice experience. The price is more affordable than at the edge of the park and they provide excellent services (wifi, dump station, sanitary facilities, grocery and laundry).
Jour 3 : exploring Denali Park
128 miles / 9h by bus
We woke up at dawn and we took the bus (booked the day before) taking us inside the park to the Eielson Visitor Center. We had hesitated to book the bus trip due to the price ($40 per person). However the heart of the park is closed to traffic (to help the wildlife and flora preservation) and it would have been a shame not to visit this part. No regrets, it was a magnificent day ! The bus driver gave us very good explanations, the scenery is simply incredible and the weather was excellent. So much so that we are part of the 10% of visitors lucky enough to see Mount Denali from top to bottom. In addition, we observed many wild animals: a dozen grizzlies, two caribous, three mooses, a lots of Dall’s sheep and many birds. We were only missing wolves to complete the Denali Park Big Five.
Day 4 : Back to Anchorage
227km / 3h53 on the road
A day on the road to return to Anchorage where we had to return the motorhome at 8am the next day. We took our time to stop at places that intrigued us on the way there. In addition to scenic stops, we saw an abandoned igloo-shaped hotel, a curious antique dealer in Trappers Creek and some colourful fireworks vendors. In the evening we stopped at Eagle River campground, a great riverside campground with hiking trails. It allowed us to enjoy nature while reducing the road to Anchorage the next day.
Day 5 : departure from Seward
140 miles / 2h34 by bus
The next day we took the bus to Seward. Once again the road is beautiful, we went along the fjord south of Anchorage to Seward and arrived early afternoon. There we boarded for a 7 day cruise to Vancouver aboard the Celebrity Millennium. It is slightly difficult to take our marks on the first day, the boat is huge! Our room is comfortable and we had our first delicious meals. The first night on board went very well and we were happy not to experience motion sickness.
Traveling by cruise ship
The cruise ship was not a way of transport we had envisaged and we had negative preconceptions. However the dates of this Seward to Vancouver cruise were perfectly in line with our schedule (to attend our friends’ wedding in Vancouver). Moreover, we quickly realized this would allow us to reach cities and wonders of nature in Alaska that are not accessible by road! Given the affordable price of the week (considering it also includes our transport) we expected the minimum comfort and limited buffet meals. We had a very pleasant surprise. Everything was high standard: the service, the restaurants (with the possibility of ordering lactose-free dishes specially cooked for Clémentine), the entertainment and the relaxation areas (saltwater pools, saunas, hot tubs…). An experience we highly recommend and an original transport!
Day 6 : Hubbard glacier
We spent the first aboard the boat. Though we didn’t touched land we visited an extraordinary destination: Hubbard Glacier. The origin of the glacier is located at 76 miles and it jumps into the sea on a width of 6 miles and a height of 300 feet. In other words, we feel very small when we approach with the boat. The size, crackles and pieces dropping are really impressive!
A great hope during our trip is Alaska was to see northern lights. We did not have the chance to catch some during our trip inland because of the bad weather but it is still possible to see it from the boat although we are further south. The alert is level 4 during our second night at sea, so we decided to put an alarm clock at 2 am to try our luck. We were lucky to see very small ones but it was too weak to take pictures. We didn’t gave up on hope and decided to continue to go out on deck in the middle of the night (and envied the cabins with balconies).
Day 7 : Skagway
We had a bad surprise waking up because we couldn’t reach Juneau as it was too windy to dock. The ship’s Captain and his crew decided to go to Skagway, our next destination. We arrived there a few hours later and visited the city.
Skagway is a symbol of the Alaskan Gold Rush. The opportunists were hiking from Skagway on extremely difficult tracks to the Yukon River for gold in the Klondike. It is interesting to visit this city which has hosted up to ten thousand gold seekers (often housed in tents despite the extremely cold winters) and which has no more than a thousand inhabitants today.
We took advantage of the day to visit the city, including the Mascot Saloon and the Jeff Smiths Parlor Museum. After this we went for a short hike. On the way back we stopped at the Skagway Fish Company restaurant where we enjoyed our first king crab, an unmissable Alaskan delicacy.
Day 8 : Juneau
We went back to Juneau for the day. We explored the harbor surroundings in the morning where Clémentine conducted an interview with the owner of the bookstore Rainy Retreat Books. Then we had booked a tour: the Best of Juneau with Alaska Travel Adventures. We observed the Mendenhall Glacier and then continued on to the most impressive activity of the day: whale watching. To finish with we went to the Salmon Bake for a romantic evening. On the program: grilled salmon and marshmallows over wood fire in a beautiful natural setting with a small waterfall as a bonus.
Fun fact about Juneau: it is the capital of the state of Alaska but it is inaccessible by the road because the mountains surrounding the city are too high and the snows are eternal (these snows are also the origin of the many glaciers bordering the region). Residents like to say that there are only 3 ways into Juneau: ship, plane or birth canal.
Announced with an index 4 that night, we were motivated again to get up at night for the northern lights. By chance, around 11pm aurora borealis formed in the sky, the lights of the boat were extinguished and we were able to admire our first true northern lights!
Day 9 : Icy Strait Point
We spent half a day at Icy Strait Point where we visited the village and the museum. There are not many free activities so we took advantage of the wifi to send news to our families. We also went for a walk in the forest and observed the marine mammals from the beautiful beach.
Day 10 : Ketchikan
Ketchikan was the opportunity for us to go on an another excursion with Alaska Travel Adventures. We started with a tour of Totem Bight State Historical Park with our excellent guide. We discovered the techniques to build totems and their meanings as well as the beautiful stories behind the mythological characters represented. Then we went canoeing on a lake followed by a stroll in the middle of the Tongas Forest, the largest rainforest in the United States. It is a temperate rain forest covering 6.9 million hectares in Alaska.
The rest of the afternoon was spent visiting the city of Ketchikan. The city was long considered one of the most disreputable American city and it is still possible to visit Creek Street which was the brothels neighborhood (and is now really lovely). This visit was also an opportunity to follow the path of the salmon (in very impressive numbers) to their birth place.
Day 11 : Day at sea
We spent the day at sea sailing through the Inside Passage where we had the chance to see some whales. This was the last opportunity to enjoy the cruise activities. The time zone changed and we lost an hour.
Day 12 : Vancouver
Cruise life is over for us, we landed at 8am in Vancouver. Alaska was an incredible trip! In total we covered 3,638km in 12 days, saw incredible landscapes, observed northern lights and majestic wild animals. A trip of a lifetime!
Clémentine’s reading list
- Fodor’s Alaska: Our travel guide on Alaska, really handy when internet access is limited or non-existent.
- Cruise Ports Alaska Lonely Planet guide: which will help enhance your ports experience and give you the free wifi access at every stop.
- Into the wild by Jon Krakauer: The great classic to read or watch in its cinematic version. The set location is Denali Park and it is even possible to see the bus nearby.
- The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck Companion by Don Rosa: one of the favourite cartoon as a child. I believe Scrooge is the reason for my Gold Rush fascination. For me it is a good account of the trappers’ daily life.
- Coming into the Country Travels from John McPhee: a classic account of life in Alaska, both in the wild and urban.
- Butcher, Baker from Walter Gilmour and Leland E. Hale. I was intrigued by this title which was a bestseller at Title Wave Books in Anchorage. This documentary recounts the investigation and trial of the most terrible serial killer in Alaska. Between a thriller and a social analysis this book has allowed us to learn more about the Alaskan society.
- The Alaskan, written in 1933 by James Oliver Curwood. This contemporary author of Jack London, allows us to learn more about Alaskan politics (and in particular the fate reserved for native Eskimos) through a love and adventure novel close to a western. The first part of the plot takes place on a boat going up the coast, which did not fail to remind me of our trip!
Feel free to comment to tell us about your experiences in Alaska or for questions and/or suggestions. And for more adventures in North America, check out our United States section.