If you’re planning on navigating the vast state of Alaska without a tour of any sort, buy The MILEPOST. This guide gives you incredibly thorough information for each turnabout, gas station, campsites, scenic overviews, animal habits, and berry picking. It even lists places where you can get cell service. Which is the other reason you should buy The Milepost. You probably won’t be able to rely on your cell phone’s GPS system, and this book doesn’t even need electricity! (If you’re going to try to argue that you need light to read it, try visiting Alaska during tourism season. If it’s dark, and you’re not where you need to be, you’re too lost for The Milepost to help you.)
Being the tech savvy girl that I am, I rolled my eyes the first time I read that I should buy a book to help me navigate, but I read this tip so many times that I caved in and bought it. And before my trip I tried to go through it, and I was still convinced that it was still going to be useless. But I brought it with me, and I never once sat it down the entire time I was in the jeep.
Glenn Alan Highway
Our first day off the ship in our Wild Alaska Adventure started by driving the entirety of the Glenn Alan Highway. The sun was shining for the first time that we were in Alaska, and there were beautiful mountain views all around us. The road bends and dips, but is smooth, allowing for unhindered cruising. The Milepost indicates every couple miles or so that there are photo overviews, and there’s even some wildlife. We saw a moose and a moose calf, and they were so close to the road, that they tricked us into believing they’d be that abundant everywhere. That was true trickery however, as that was our only moose sighting that day. The road itself left us invigorated and ready to attack the next day’s drive with enthusiasm.
The simplest way to explain the McCarthy Highway is to say that our car rental company charges $200 extra for any car driving on the McCarthy Highway. This unpaved road is the remanent of the Copper River and Northwestern railroad, with the tracks ripped up and discarded to the side in some places. There are one lane bridges available to cars, and train bridges decaying beside them. There are a handful of outhouses available for use, and a boatload of potholes.
Don’t attempt to drive this road if you don’t have a spare tire. We were lucky. We didn’t get a flat, but there’s a reason they celebrate the man who made 4,000 shuttle trips without getting a flat tire. They grade the road regularly, but when it rains it reverts back to being awful. The biggest tip I have is just to be aware of this. If you take it slow, and drive carefully, your car will get out mostly unscathed. (It will be dirty, and we saw an inordinate amount of cracked windshields, if that plays into your planning process.)
Similar to, although not as rough as, McCarthy Highway, this unpaved gem held within its 135 miles some of the best scenic driving I’ve ever seen. With the Alaska Range surrounding you, it’s difficult on a clear day to not stop every chance you get to take photos. We rode in near silence, trying to ingrain the peaks in our memory, because even panoramas can’t begin to capture the span of this mountain range.
There are a few places along the highway that offer any ammenities, and as such I recommend fueling up before starting your drive because it is a long way without seeing any thing but nature and other cars. There are a ton of informal campsites, and a surprising amount of people using them, as well as a lot of hunting space and a few hiking trails. At one point we pulled over for around an hour just to sit in our tent and enjoy the view.
Of all the highways on this list, this is the only one we didn’t drive in its entirety. We only went South from Denali National Park, riding this highway until it ended. Definitely the most developed of the roads we had been on, this was the first time all trip where I couldn’t tell you the exact mileage to the next gas station at any given moment. But it was also the first time I didn’t feel any pressure to make sure I did know where the next gas station was. You have the privilege of driving in and out of Denali several times, with ample access to hiking trails, landscape views, and paved roads. The latter of which we sorely missed. I recommend stopping in Talkeetna if you’re making an overnight stop. It’s a fun town that offers luxury lodging and camping alike.
Seward and Sterling Highway
Heading south from Anchorage takes you on the Seward Highway. Eventually as you move south on the Kenai Peninsula, Seward turns into Sterling Highway, and if you follow it to the end you’ll find yourself in Homer. One of the best parts of this drive is heading around the Turnagain Arm. This body of water has a super extreme tide, so you’ll never see boats in it. You will see surfers though! The Turnagain Arm has the potential for a bore tide, which attracts Alaska’s more adventurous inhabitants. Seriously, check it out.
If you haven’t already gathered this about Alaska, I’m about to drive the point home. Southbound from Anchorage, Highway 1 is surrounded by mountains. There are plenty of hikes, and gas stations. The Homer Spit was our eventual goal, with Kachemak Bay on one side, and the Cook Inlet on the other. I assure that you will have a spectacular display as you make your way there.
How We Got Around
Hands down the highlight of my Alaskan Adventure was our rental jeep. We rented from Alaska Adventure Car & Camper Van Rental. Ron has a tiny booth for his location, but enough custom jeeps to send people all over the state. Seriously, there is no better way to see Alaska than to drive through it, popping a tent wherever you want. Even more conveniently, our tent had two latches over each front door, and one latch in the back. Unlatch everything, and give it a shove. There is your tent, and there is nothing easier.
Along these beautiful roads we popped up the tent, ate snacks, and simply appreciated where we were. Which leads to my last Alaska driving tip, appreciate where you are. The roads are long, bumpy, and potentially boring if you’re not embracing the beauty around you. So embrace what is around you. Prepare to be astonished.
If you’re the type of person who needs a few more comforts, renting an RV in Alaska might be more up your alley. You’ll still get the freedom of mobility, but also a shower. And a toilet.
If you want to hear about the cruise portion of my Alaskan trip, or what we did when we finally stopped driving, click here.
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