Stories from Alaska

An insider's journey through Alaska's best kept secrets

Tips for Driving Through Alaska on a Self-Driving Tour or Road Trip

Many travelers who want to explore Alaska on their own so that they can travel at their own pace with flexibility, lean toward renting a vehicle for a part or all of their stay. Driving yourself through Alaska can open up many unique, spontaneous and off-the-radar travel opportunities from wildlife sightings to local cuisine, exploring smaller villages and less populated wilderness areas. Travelling along most Alaska roads by car is scenic, for the most part smooth and easy and enables you and your companions to pull over at your leisure for photos and snacks, even at summer’s peak. And for Alaska travelers who like to drive, the convenience of having a rental car is invaluable.

What’s Different About Traveling by Car – in Alaska?

Like everywhere else, safely getting around Alaska includes the usual, practical approaches to driving anywhere else: buckle up, follow local traffic laws, keep on the lookout for signage and detours, don’t run out of gas and always bring your proof of insurance. The only major difference about driving here vs anywhere else just might be that the roadside attractions are much more distracting between the wildlife, mountain views, and tundra landscapes!

Summer landscape of cow moose with Chugach Mountains in background near Girdwood in Alaska. (C) Jeff Schultz/SchultzPhoto.com

Here are some Alaskan “insider tips” for making your Alaska self-driving trip the best it can be:

GPS First – Cell Phone Maybe

When traveling in Alaska, do note, you can’t always rely on your cell phone and cell phone apps for directions from here to there. Cell reception is not guaranteed on some stretches of Alaska’s highways. Fortunately, most rental cars now come with GPS, so make sure yours does. And many Alaskans, are usually happy to pull over and lend you a hand, and give you some helpful directions when needed. Don’t hesitate to ask for help if you need it.

Road Conditions Will Vary

Alaska’s roads can be smooth and easy, winding, steep, bumpy due to washboard ruts caused by winter/summer temperature changes or folded up with lumpy frost heaves. The driving conditions will vary depending on the road you are on. Fortunately, if you just obey the posted speed limits, you’ll be able to keep your passengers and your vehicle safe and sound. Most of Alaska’s main roadways are quite drivable by rental car.  However, most Alaska rental car agencies restrict drivers to paved roads, and if drivers elect to drive on a gravel road, they travel at their own risk.  Our expertly preplanned self-drive itineraries from Alaska Tours accommodate Alaska visitors with every opportunity to see Alaska the way they want to, but also within the boundaries set by current rental agency policies.

Expect Wildlife Crossings

It’s also helpful to remember that the local wildlife often use the road systems as a faster route to where they are going…just as you do. You can often find both very large and very small wildlife alike, hanging out alongside or even on the roads, from moose that are often larger than many cars to bears to an occasional a row of cute ducklings following Mama Duck across a street. These occurrences aren’t just in the wilds of Alaska, either – nature’s traffic jams can occur in large urban areas like Anchorage, Girdwood and Fairbanks, where moose and bear are also “residents” and frequently stop traffic. Just remember that in Alaska, wildlife always have the right of way.

Prepare for Unpredictable Weather

Alaska being Alaska, means weather forecasts are just that – a forecast. Weather in Alaska can change quickly, with rain, wildfires, flash flooding, and even some unbelievable summer snow impacting visibility and drivability. Research the weather forecast along your routes before departing on your Alaska road trip at Alaska’s Department of Transportation’s roads conditions website.

Practice Patience on the Road

One helpful piece of advice when driving in Alaska is to practice patience. Why is that? Well, a number of reasons. First off, you never know who or what you’ll run into on Alaska’s roads. The road system in Alaska connects everyone to their lives and livelihoods. Fishermen hauling boats, campers driving RVs, buses packed with tourists, sports cars out on a day trip, tourists just like you in rental cars, even road cyclists getting in a workout – you’ll find it all on Alaska’s highways. If you get stuck in a rare traffic logjam, best to not let frustration get the best of you. This too shall pass, and probably faster than you might think. Typically, Alaskans rally quickly to each other’s aid in an emergency. And if you’re at the front of a line of vehicles and need to stop your car for some reason yourself, just pull over so other vehicles can pass by.

A final note here, summer in Alaska is construction season. This is often the only time crews can do significant road upgrades and repairs on the Alaska Highway system, so there’s almost always some construction along Alaska’s major roadways during the busy season. Be prepared to stop occasionally and sometimes follow pilot cars that help guide you around construction work.

Allow Time for Lingering Along the Way

Despite your best attempts to plan every second of your itinerary in Alaska, you will probably find yourself distracted by something, somewhere along your way. Make sure you leave a little flexibility in your plans to add some unexpected fun into things. You might even want to pack for an extra day or two on the road seeing even more amazing Alaska sights! Fill your travel bag with layers of clothing and pack some snacks just in case you decide you want to wander a little.

Now that you know the ins and outs of traveling by road in Alaska, let’s put the key in the ignition and hit the road!