The Best Alaska Self-Driving Tours by Season
For every unique Alaska season, there are countless reasons to get behind the wheel of a rental vehicle and take off on an Alaska self-drive tour. And yes, that even includes during the winter season!
Self-driving tours provide a flexibility and independence that many travelers crave, especially in a state where there’s so much to see and do, and so many spectacular distractions. Self-driving allows visitors to go at their own pace: breaking up long itineraries but pulling over or adding on adventures as they desire, or just keeping it moving along to the next destination; having an extended visit with new friends and fellow travelers in a favorite spot; and spending the night (or two) in special, off-the-radar places that aren’t on the itineraries of larger and more structured group tours. And self-drives are a fine fit for families who never know when they’ll need to pull over for some fresh air, a pit stop, play time, snacking or some local shopping. For the most part, Alaska’s main roads and highways are paved, two laned, well-maintained and easy to cruise on for drivers. There are plenty of gas stations and dining spots along the way. They are similar to popular “Lower 48” byways, only with much, much prettier and more breathtaking pullover spots and viewpoints.
And what’s important to understand here is that self-drive tours in Alaska don’t need to be planned all by yourself. By accessing the local expertise of the team at Alaska Tours prior to travel, drivers can arrive in Alaska with a solid self-drive itinerary complete with reservations for accommodations and local activities.
So, ready to hit the road? Here are some super self-drive tour ideas for every Alaska season.
Alaska Self Drive Tours in Summer
Summer is the peak season in Alaska for tourism, when most of Alaska’s major attractions are at their best and brightest. With so much to do and see, this is the perfect time to go big and complete a long-and-lovely loop of Alaska’s major highways.
Whether starting in Fairbanks or Anchorage, the drive along the Parks Highway brings visitors past Denali National Park while the quieter but arguably more spectacular Richardson and Glenn Highways take travelers past glaciers galore and mountain ranges that include Wrangell-St. Elias National Park.
At the intersection of the Richardson and Glenn Highways, drivers can turn south to Valdez, experiencing wow-inducing waterfalls before arriving in this active port town that offers all sorts of on-water activities. After reaching Anchorage on the Glenn Highway, a side trip south lead drivers to a handful of pretty port towns on the Kenai Peninsula.
No matter which direction your route goes, along the way there will be many places and reasons to stop for an hour or a day. Visit Denali National Park in all of its summer splendor or wander over to Talkeenta, the quirky and fun town with a million-dollar Denali view. You’ll no doubt enjoy exploring the Alaskan cities of Fairbanks and Anchorage, two urban hubs with museums, fancy and filling Alaska food, and connections to countless day trip adventures. Combining Denali with urban fun might make for a longer drive, but you can easily break this into two-to-four-hour segments with stays in comfortable lodging along the way.
Fall Season Self -Drive Trips
Fairbanks is renowned for summer’s Midnight Sun, but its Fall colors more than make up for any loss of light in this shoulder season in Alaska. Picture endless blankets of bright yellow birch tree leaves and orange/red tundra and brush everywhere you look. Pull over and drivers are likely to find pretty patches of peak – and bittersweet – blueberries and cranberries. Best of all, Alaska’s dark Fall nights offer up the possibility of some early-season northern lights viewing!
With Fairbanks as a starting point for an out-and-back self-driving tour, traveling along the Richardson and Glenn Highways will provide all the colors a set of eyes can handle. The bright white signs of the winter season to come appear as snow begins capping the tops of Alaska’s tallest mountains. And the alpenglow sunsets in mountain areas are simply spectacular. Roll down the window, pull over for a bit and settle in for a night at a lodge and breath in all of that cool fall air – you’ll feel totally exhilarated.
Winter Season Driving Tours in Alaska
If you’re going to travel to Alaska in the winter, you might as well bundle up and greet the “coldest of the cold” and head straight to Fairbanks. A winter self-drive tour based out of the Golden Heart City can transport travelers to the warm and wonderful Chena Hot Springs, just an hour drive away. There, you can soak in the relaxing, hot water natural hot baths while escaping winter’s cold chill, and stay in comfortable cabin or resort accommodations. While you relax, just don’t forget to look up where you’ll see above the steam, a dark sky filled with stars and possibly even the Northern Lights.
Another cool driving option out of Fairbanks in winter is heading south to Denali National Park. Sure, Alaska’s best park is pretty quiet in the winter as most tour and hospitality operators are closed for the season. But a portion of the main road into the park remains open so long as the snow isn’t so dense and deep that the Park Service crews stop clearing it. While bears are hibernating, the park’s renowned wildlife is still active and even more visible against the white snow, so keep an eye out for caribou, moose, sheep, rabbits, ptarmigan and maybe even a wolf! Drive back to nearby Healy for a warm meal and an easy hotel or lodge stay.
Want to keep the winter adventure going? Continue down the Parks Highway and spend a day and night two or in Talkeetna, renowned for its hospitality including its quaint accommodations and local dining and offering a killer view of Denali even in the deepest of winter days. From there, drivers can return to Fairbanks or take the shorter leg to Anchorage to close out their self-driving trip before dropping off their rental vehicle.
Spring Season Self Drives
Winter wanes on different schedules across Alaska, usually keeping its cold grasp tighter and longer, the further north a traveler ventures. That’s why a self-drive trip south of Anchorage down to the always stunning Kenai Peninsula is the perfect spring journey. The peninsula is always a bit warmer and windier than most other areas in Southcentral Alaska, which means it doesn’t hold onto as much snow and is more likely to rain at the lower elevations. Milder winters equate to good driving conditions and access to some seriously fun Kenai destinations, all worth spending a day or two exploring.
Life is slower during Spring in the port towns of Seward and Homer, and the drive-through hub of the Kenai-Soldotna area, where most tourism-driven businesses are closed or just ramping up for the summer season ahead. But that doesn’t mean that accommodations and activities aren’t available. In fact, there’s plenty to see and do as these towns have year-round restaurants and businesses that serve locals and visitors alike.
On the start of the drive south on the Seward Highway out of Anchorage, pull into Girdwood, Alaska’s alpine skiing hamlet, for an exhilarating day of spring skiing or snowboarding at Alyeska, and/or a relaxing day in a Nordic spa. With spring skiing at its peak, there are plenty of places to eat and stay and a celebratory buzz in the air.
Past Girdwood near Portage is the always fun-and-furry Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, home to so many popular Alaska animals. Visitors get up-close experiences with its residents, which range from musk ox to porcupine and pretty much everything in between, including a drowsy bear or two.
At the end of the Seward Highway is the highway’s namesake town of Seward, home to the Alaska Sea Life Center, a special place where Alaska’s aquatic wildlife and scientific study of Alaska’s marine ecosystem meet. It’s part zoo, part museum, part science lab and animal rehab that’s fun and educational for all ages. Some visitors can stand and watch the Stellar Sea Lions swim around or the menagerie of seabirds fly, dive and swim for an hour and not get bored. And how often do you get to touch a starfish?
While Kenai Peninsula fishing in the spring doesn’t exactly reach the world-class standards it sets every summer, the heartiest of fishermen can still have a blast during the Spring season. Jump on a charter boat out of Homer and tackle-up some halibut. On the ground, the year-round bakeries and restaurants of the area fill visitors up with a passionate presentation and execution. Enjoy and be sure to grab a few extra treats for your Alaska road trip