Alaska has been on my list for some time and I knew I didn’t want to do it via cruise ship so when there were flight deals this summer, we booked them right away. We procrastinated a bit when it came to ironing out the specifics of the trip, but I loved our final itinerary and wanted to share.
- Day 1 — Flight to Anchorage, stay overnight in Anchorage hotel
- Day 2 — Drive to Denali, with stop in Talkeetna
- Days 3 & 4 — spend time in the park, including a Ranger-Led Discovery Hike, drive back to Talkeetna
- Day 5 — Helicopter tour in Talkeetna with fantastic views of Denali, drive to Girdwood
- Day 6 — Day hike in Girdwood, drive back to Anchorage, flight back to Seattle
We had a hard time deciding between Denali and Kenai Fjords National Parks (and knew we didn’t have time for both) so we did our research and talked to some friends who grew up in Alaska. Ultimately, we decided to make Denali National Park our main goal for this trip.
We flew in on Thursday night and out on Tuesday evening. We caught a flight to Anchorage after work on Thursday and stayed the night in a hotel near the airport. We picked up our rental car on Friday morning in Anchorage since it was cheaper than getting one at the airport and started our drive down to Denali (about 4 hours).
Halfway to Denali, we stopped in Talkeetna for a helicopter tour with K2 Aviation. We had booked a helicopter tour with a glacier landing but were informed that the glacier was too hard to land on so we would just have the tour without a landing. We had lunch at Talkeetna Roadhouse and called K2 ahead of our flight time to check the weather conditions. They said Denali wasn’t visible so we opted to reschedule to a few days later when we would be driving back up to Anchorage.
We appreciated that K2 gives all their customers the chance to reschedule or receive a full refund if there are weather issues. If you go with a different company, check their weather cancellation policies first. Apparently only about 30% of visitors see Denali on any given visit. It’s such a thing that they call it the “Denali 30% Club”.
We had a bowl of Reindeer Chili and The Standard (basically a breakfast plate + reindeer sausage) at Talkeetna Roadhouse. Both were delicious. Be prepared for higher food prices in Alaska. It was $35 for something that might be closer to $25 in Seattle.
As soon as we arrived in Denali, we headed straight to the Visitor’s Center to get information about hikes and weather and sign up for a Ranger-Led Discovery Hike. They only have paper sign-up sheets so you have to go in person to sign up for these discovery hikes. You can sign up 1-2 days ahead of time and they generally fill up. All members of your party need to be there at the time of sign-up. These hikes are available between in June and early September.
There are other ranger programs including sled dog demonstrations, and ranger talks. Find out more here.
Utilize the visitor center staff! They were really friendly and helpful in planning out hikes and answering questions about the park. They also provided us information that a mudslide on the only road in and out of the park had been closed at mile 30, but should be opening the next morning. We heard from our bus driver a couple days later that he was stuck out there (behind the slide) and didn’t arrive back to the bus depot until nearly midnight.
Something unique about this national park is that most of the hiking and exploring is done off-trail. There are only a few marked trails and they are all near the park entrance. This is another reason we opted for a ranger-led hike. Prior to our first day hiking, we stood in the store and debated if we needed to get the $30 can of bear spray or not. We did. And we didn’t end up needing it—whew! I’d say if you’re planning to do off-trail hiking, it’s best to have it. Just in case.
It was raining in the morning on our first full day in the park, so we opted to drive the first 15 miles of the park (after that, you can only get into the park by foot or bus). We came back to the Visitor’s Center and did a hike nearby—Mount Healy Overlook (about 6 miles roundtrip).
We didn’t get a glimpse of the 20,310′ tall Denali until our second day in the park at about mile 50. Denali is the highest mountain peak in North America. For comparison, Mount Rainier is 14,411′ tall. We did an off-trail hike with a ranger and a small group around mile 50. We were on the bus for nearly three hours, and stopped several times for caribou and bear sightings, and rest stops. The ranger was quirky and provided us with interesting facts about the vegetation and tips for staying safe in the park. We didn’t do as much hiking as we had hoped (we only hiked for about 45 minutes total), but did get delightful views of the mountain.
If I were to go again, I would be open to doing a Discovery Hike—pending my travel companions—but would now also feel comfortable doing off-trail exploring as well. Here are some tips about off-trail hiking.
There’s no service in the park, so you’ll need paper maps and have done all your research and texting beforehand. There aren’t really bus stops in the park. You just wait on the one and only road that runs through the park until a bus comes by. They usually come by every 30 minutes or so. There’s another visitor center—Eielson Visitor Center—at mile 66. The very last stop is Wonder Lake at mile 85. If you’re planning to go to Wonder Lake without camping overnight, plan to spend the entire day on the bus there and back with very little time hiking at Wonder Lake. The bus really takes that long.
On the way back to Anchorage on Sunday night, we stayed the night in Talkeetna because we had rescheduled our Friday helicopter ride to Monday morning. On Monday morning, the weather was cooperating! We got super lucky because they hadn’t flown Friday or Sunday.
Our pilot was knowledgable and I felt safe the entire time (I’m a little wary about small aircraft). We flew right into the mountain range and I don’t have words or pictures to describe the feeling and the views. You really have to see it yourself. It’s absolutely magnificent. I kept turning to my friend and mouthing “OMG ARE YOU SEEING THIS. ARE YOU. OMG. OMG. OMG.” It’s pricey (we paid $434 each), but totally worth it if you’re able to splurge.
There had been a wildfire the night before and part of the highway was closed (the main one to get back to Anchorage). We were checking Facebook and local news sites, but weren’t getting the best information. Some locals we ran into at Conscious Coffee (which has delicious breakfast sandwiches + some gluten-free baked goods) opted to take the 9-hour scenic roundabout route instead of the ~2-hour drive we were hoping to do.
We ended up gambling and taking the direct route in hopes that even if we were stuck in traffic, it would only add an extra couple hours versus 7. It ended up taking us about 5 hours total.
Girdwood / Alyeska
The drive to Girdwood from Anchorage is about 50 minutes and it’s gorgeous on a nice day. There had been some wildfires so we didn’t get much of a view until the very end. We stayed at an Airbnb with a hot tub a few minutes away from Alyeska Resort, a popular ski destination during the winter months. The next morning, we found a hike nearby with a glacier and some milky glacier water.
- Know that a lot of things in Alaska are weather-dependent. This past summer was drier in Anchorage and wetter in Denali National Park.
- Bring lots of layers and waterproof shoes if you’re looking to do hiking and other outdoor activities.
- Prepare that you may not see Denali on your entire trip (though that just means you’ll have to plan another!).
- Rent a car so you don’t have to depend on buses or trains (the wildfire we encountered also shut down /delayed the trains).
- Be informed and do your research before you come on supplies and how to treat the wildlife.
I’m so pleased with how our trip turned out and if I would do it again, I would have booked another 2-3 days so we could have also done Kenai. Next time, I’m thinking maybe a 4-5 day trip with a focus on Kenai when it’s warm to do kayaking tours in the fjords!