The vast and diverse terrain of Alaska is impossible to explore in its entirety. We barely scratched the surface—and we didn’t even leave the beaten path—but we still had a genuine and unforgettable experience. Here’s what we did on our first trip to the last frontier.
We traveled to Alaska in late September 2020, so it was the tail end of the season, and some things were closed either due to the time of year or the COVID-19 pandemic. (For tips on traveling safely during the pandemic, check out our blog post, here.) We still got to do so many amazing things—and simply driving around offers a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
1. Acclimate in Anchorage
We flew into Anchorage and found that renting a car for the week was a perfect way to explore the state. The roads were easy to navigate and there was plenty to see and do from the main highways.
Our flight arrived in Anchorage at midnight, so we spent our first two nights there to relax and adjust to the 4-hour time difference from the East Coast.
We rented a cozy Airbnb in a super cute neighborhood (South Addition) that had a city market and a few restaurants in walking distance. We even got to reserve an igloo for outdoor dining at the Pub House.
We had (chilly but) great weather on our first (and only) full day in Anchorage, so we walked 20 minutes into downtown, got some mochas at Snow City Cafe, rented bikes next door at Pablo’s and headed out on the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail.
The coastal trail provides a perfectly scenic introduction to Alaska along the Cook Inlet and into enchanted, wooded parks. We even saw a bald eagle 🦅 and three moose on our 22-mile round trip excursion (we totally cheated by renting electric bikes).
2. Explore the Kenai Peninsula
The next day we made the beautiful drive around Turnagain Arm to the Kenai Peninsula. Portage Lake is a great place to stop along the way. In the summer months, you can buy a ticket at the cafe to take a boat ride out to the Portage Glacier and also explore the Begich Boggs Visitor Center.
These options were not available in late September, but we still enjoyed stopping at the lake to eat some sandwiches and take some pictures.
We spent the next three nights in Seward, and if we had more time, we would’ve spent at least one more night because there’s so much to do.
Visit Exit Glacier on your first trip to the peninsula. You can spend an hour wandering the glacier-view loop or you can spend a full day hiking and exploring.
A true bucket list item for me was getting up close to a tidewater glacier, and I got to check this one off the list in Seward.
We really lucked out with weather, as the boat ride through the Kenai Fjords National Park was canceled the day before our departure, and we weren’t sure if the boat could make it through the small stretch on the Gulf of Alaska on the day of our trip … but it did. Um, it was bumpy, but we had a great captain with Kenai Fjord Tours. The company really did a great job of keeping up with COVID cleaning and social-distancing, too.
We didn’t see any whales or bears on the boat ride, but we did see some sea otters 🦦 and harbor seals.
Speaking of seals (and sea lions), the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward is a great place to explore and needs donations to stay afloat during this difficult time. “The Alaska SeaLife Center is the only facility in Alaska that combines a public aquarium with marine research, education, and wildlife response,” according to its website.
Wandering the small town of Seward is also a great way to spend some time. We met some wonderful people who live and work in the area, and we just really enjoyed our time there. The waterfront park offers a great walking trail and gorgeous views of Resurrection Bay. Pictures just don’t do it any justice.
We would’ve liked to make the short drive to Lowell Point and hiked the Tonsina Point trail or kayaked on Resurrection Bay, but we wanted time to head north into the mountains.
3. Wander Through Talkeetna
From Seward, we drove 5 hours north back past Anchorage and spent two nights in Talkeetna.
On the way, we stopped for a hike at the Eagle River Nature Center and highly recommend it. The trails were enchanting, but our hike was short because I was afraid of running into bears in late September near salmon-filled waters, and the main loop was closed to avoid “human-bear confrontations.”
We have such a special place in our hearts for the charming town of Talkeetna, which gets quite a few visitors even though it’s so small.
4. Dabble in Denali
If we had more time, we would’ve stayed overnight near Denali National Park & Preserve, as the main entrance is still about a 2.5 hour drive from Talkeetna. Note, however, that the Denali Viewpoint South is only about a 45-minute drive and offers outstanding views of the mountains.
We decided to take a full day and drive into the park a bit. We also stopped at Byers Lake (where you can kayak at the right time of year, sans pandemic) and the Denali Viewpoint North on the way.
The Denali NP shuttles were not operating during the pandemic, but we drove to the Savage River Trail and had a nice, easy walk around the braided river.
With just a few stops, we had a full 8-hour day driving up to and through the park and back to Talkeetna. We stopped at both the Denali north and south viewpoints again on the way back to see the mountains at another time of day, and the scenery had dramatically changed. We actually got to see Denali’s peak(s) at moments in the day when the cloud cover broke.
Since our flight home didn’t leave until after midnight, we booked a room in Anchorage for another night, even though we checked out at 10 pm. We had a full final day of exploration and got to relax and refresh before the long journey home.
Alaska’s nature is awe inspiring and intimidating. When in doubt, ask a local. Alaskans are amazing people, so be sure to strike up some conversations and enjoy a seafood chowder and a Chuli stout or two (or five).
Be prepared for drastic changes in weather. The temperature ranged from 58(F) to 32(F) on the late-summer day we explored Denali, but the weather was perfect. We had some sun and some clouds and only the tiniest bit of rain.
We had beautiful weather for most of our trip, but of course, that includes some heavy rain, fog and serious wind from time to time. You have to expect unpredictable weather in Alaska and plan accordingly. Figure out what activities are most important to you and make sure they are offered at the time of year you want to go.
Even still, you have to be flexible from day to day. Seas may be rough, a beetle infestation might ruin a trail or mating animals may take priority over humans in a given area.
If you follow our itinerary, you will see plenty of amazing sites and (most likely) wildlife without leaving the beaten path—and you can hike, bike and boat as much or as little as you want. We had an incredible, independent adventure and can’t wait to get back and explore more.