Fireweed in Alaska

10 Days in Alaska: An Itinerary and Guide

If there is one destination about which I receive more questions than any other, it’s Alaska.

I’ve shared many times and am open with friends and family that I love talking about the place where I grew up, just outside of Anchorage, Alaska. I travel back to explore my ‘home’ state with some frequency (about every 3-5 years), and I worked for three summers in hospitality. I love answering questions and giving tips about how to visit Alaska!

Valerie Stimac

In all my time of writing on this blog, I’ve never detailed exactly the trip I would recommend to a first-time traveler to Alaska. If you’re going to visit Alaska – a destination many people dream of visiting for years – you’ve got to do it right. As a local and one who has worked in hospitality, I’m happy to share all my knowledge and tips so you can have an amazing trip.

“Write what you know,” they say.

Okay, friends. Let’s do this!

Tips for Alaska Travel Planning

Alaska is a bucket list destination for many travelers, so there are some important details to know before you start booking your trip.

The Best Months to Visit Alaska

Though most people don’t, you can visit Alaska year-round. Yes, it’s colder and darker in the winter, but there are benefits to visiting during these months:

  • Fewer crowds
  • Lower costs
  • Possibility of seeing the Northern Lights
  • Seasonal events like Fur Rendezvous and the Iditarod

Similar reasons make visiting in the shoulder season (spring and autumn) appealing. If you’re on the fence, I put together a list of reasons to visit Alaska in the spring (these apply to autumn too).

If you’re looking for the best weather, it’s undeniable that the best months to visit Alaska are June through August. These are the months with the best weather – most sun and least rain – and warmest temperatures. Unfortunately, this short peak season means you’ll be visiting at the same time as every other traveler, so consider whether shoulder or off-season travel might be a better option for you.

Motorcoach in Alaska

Booking a Guided Tour or Doing it On Your Own

Many people visit Alaska as part of a cruise or guided tour, as these tour operators make it easy to see popular cities and sights without worrying about logistics.

While it’s definitely easier to book with a tour operator or guide, it’s not too hard to visit Alaska on your own and book everything independently. Alaska may be ‘The Last Frontier,’ but it has all the modern amenities you need, and with a smartphone or map, you can easily navigate yourself around the large state.

The Cost of Travel in Alaska

Alaska is not a cheap destination, especially in summer when prices are higher because of the tourist season. Many “normal” conveniences (like groceries and food) will be more expensive, as they need to be imported from the “Lower 48.” Though a lot of oil comes from Alaska, gas prices are not significantly cheaper; you can expect a gallon of gas to cost roughly the same as one in New England.

What to Pack for Alaska

If you’re booking a trip to Alaska, you need to pack the right gear. It’s not the kind of destination where you’ll enjoy yourself if your underdressed or underprepared! I’ve put together a full packing list for Alaska, but here are some quick tips:

  • Pack layers! You can always take them off.
  • Pack rain gear. You don’t want to spend the whole trip feeling damp and cold.
  • A hat, gloves, and scarf can’t go wrong, even in summer.
  • Skip the skimpy shoes and opt for sturdy walking or hiking shoes.
  • Throw sunglasses and an eye mask in your bag. That Midnight Sun is bright!

See the full packing list here.

The Perfect 10-Day Alaska Itinerary

Here’s the quick version of a 10-day itinerary for Alaska. You can read below for greater detail.

DayActivities
1Arrive in Anchorage
2Explore Anchorage
3Travel to Denali
4Visit Denali National Park
5Sightseeing Denali
6Travel to/Explore Seward
7Sightseeing in Kenai Fjords
8Travel to/Explore Girdwood
9Exploring Turnagain Arm
10Return to Anchorage
Alaska Placeholder
Alaska

Day 1: Arrive in Anchorage

Depending on your city of origin, it may take almost one full day to fly to Alaska. For example, from Seattle, most flights to Alaska leave in the afternoon or evening, and you arrive in Anchorage late in the day.

If you’re arriving in Alaska via cruise ship, it will take most of the day to disembark and travel from the ship to Anchorage. Cruise companies typically use Anchorage as a base for “land excursions” in the state, so you can expect to catch a bus or train from Seward or Whittier to Anchorage on your day of disembarkation.

Given that you’re arriving in Anchorage during the evening, don’t plan much for your first day between settling in. If, as this itinerary proposes, you decide to travel Alaska on your own (without a guide), you won’t need a rental car until the morning on Day 3. For now, it’s best to settle into your Anchorage accommodation and enjoy dinner.

Resources for Day 1

Day 2: Explore Anchorage

Since I grew up just outside Anchorage, I could easily give you a week worth of things to do, but let’s try and keep it to just one day – there’s so much to see in Alaska and it’s such a big state that you need the rest of this itinerary to see other amazing sights!

If you’re in Anchorage on a weekend, be sure to add the Anchorage Market & Festival to your list. This downtown market features local gifts and vendors, musicians and performers, and some really delicious food. On a good day, you’ll also have great views of the surrounding mountains and scenery from the edges of the Market.

On my most recent trip, I also made a visit to the Anchorage Museum, which has undergone massive renovations since my family moved away from Alaska 10+ years ago. From a Smithsonian-sponsored exhibit on the Native cultures of Alaska to the classic Alaskan artwork in the original part of the Museum, the exhibit on Alaska’s unique relationship with Russia to the “Imaginarium” downstairs where kids and alike can experience science first hand… the museum is a surprising delight.

Resources for Day 2

  • Stay in the same accommodation for Day 2.
  • For lunch, eat at the Anchorage Market or at Tia’s Reindeer Sausage on 4th Avenue.
  • For dinner, book a table at the Crow’s Nest. The views are stunning.

Day 3: Travel to Denali

Alaska Railroad

Today’s plan: head north to Denali! There are two ways to get to Denali:

  • By car, 4 hours via Alaska Highway 1 (the Glenn Highway) and 3 (the Parks Highway)
  • By train aboard the Alaska Railroad, 7.5 hours

While I have most commonly driven between Anchorage and Denali, I highly recommend the Alaska Railroad, since it offers a unique experience of the Alaskan Wilderness as well as great service and the ability to relax the whole way. If you choose to drive, be sure to keep an eye out for the mountain of Denali (here are some of my favorite Denali viewpoints).

Either way, you’ll arrive in Denali in the mid-afternoon, so spend the rest of the day relaxing

Note: If you drive to Denali, stop at Miller’s Landing and get a huge ice cream cone!

Resources for Day 3

  • Denali has a limited number of accommodations in the small town; I recommend basically all of them, including the Grande Denali Lodge, McKinley Chalet Resort, or Cabins at Denali. (Book three nights here.)
  • For dinner, head to Lynx Creek Pizza. Order the ‘Polychrome Pass’ with artichoke hearts added. You’re welcome!
  • Another dinner option is the Salmon Bake. This Denali-area institution draws a local crowd and they serve a massive blue margarita named after the mountain.

Day 4: Denali National Park

Today, rise early and board a bus into Denali National Park. Most of Denali National Park is not accessible by private vehicle, so National Park Service buses are the only way to really get into the park, see wildlife, and potentially, see the mountain of Denali herself.

There are three Denali National Park bus tours:

  • The Denali Natural History Tour: 4.5-5 hours in the park to Mile 27 (Teklanika River)
  • The Tundra Wilderness Tour: 7-8 hours in the park to either Mile 53 (Toklat River) or Mile 62 (Stony Overlook).
  • The Kantishna Experience: 11-12 hours in the park to Mile 92 (Kantishna)

To be honest, don’t go for any less than the Tundra Wilderness Tour. The DNHT (so called by the National Park Service) is interesting but caters more toward travelers that can’t handle sitting on a school bus for long periods of time. The tour will give you a flavor of the park, but will definitely leave you wanting more. The TWT is much more palatable, and a good duration at 7-8 hours long. There’s a optimal chance to see wildlife, and you’ll ride along a significant length of the park road.

If you’re up for a 12-hour day, go all the way and book the Kantishna Experience. I’ve only done this once when I was very small, but I remember being amazed at how big the park was!

(I get a lot of questions about Denali National Park specifically, so here’s a really helpful resource that illuminates the 10 things you need to know about visiting Denali.)

Resources for Day 4

  • Stay another night at your booked accommodations.
  • Depending on the length of your tour, you may want to book a seat for Alaska Cabin Nite, a dinner theater show that’s both cheesy and charming. Tickets are $75 per person.
  • Denali Bus Tours started from $80 per person in the 2018 season.

Day 5: Sightseeing Denali

Fly Denali Flightseeing

Because Denali and Denali National Park are almost too big to comprehend, I recommend taking two full days here. It will give you a true sense of the scale of Alaska, and a better chance of seeing the mountain while visiting.

On this day, book the 8:30 am guided flightseeing tour with Fly Denali. They are my preferred provider after trying many of the flightseeing providers in the area when I worked in Denali one summer. Their Denali Glacier Landing tour is expensive at $524 per person, but 100% worth it. You’ll spend almost 2 hours in the air, plus 20 minutes on a glacier on Denali itself. So cool (literally and figuratively – there’s always snow!).

At 12:30 pm, catch the Alaska Railroad south to Anchorage. You can enjoy dinner aboard the train before arriving in Anchorage for the evening.

Note: If you chose to drive to Denali, you have some flexibility in this schedule.

Resources for Day 5

  • Stay another night in Anchorage. As advised above, I recommend booking this night when you book the earlier nights in this itinerary.
  • The Fly Denali Glacier Landing tour is $549 per person. The only time for the flightseeing tour that works in this itinerary is 8:30 am, so be sure to book in advance.

Day 6: Travel to Seward

Day 6 is another travel day. While the Alaska Railroad is a beautiful route from Anchorage to Seward, I recommend renting a car for this portion of the drive for several reasons:

  1. It is only a 2.5-hour drive from Anchorage to Seward.
  2. While the Seward Highways is known as one of the more dangerous highways to drive, it is reasonable to drive as long as you are aware of other drivers and don’t take risks while driving or park on the side of the highway to look at whales or Dall sheep.
  3. The train from Anchorage to Seward leaves at 6:45 am – yuck!
  4. The rest of this itinerary works much better if you have a car to get around.

After making the 90-minute drive to Seward, you’ll have most of the day to explore the city. Spend a few hours at the Alaska Sea Life Center in downtown Seward; you can see a variety of sea creatures including several in rehabilitation or research studies.

Reasons to Visit Alaska in Spring: Winter Experiences

In the afternoon, head to Exit Glacier, just north of Seward. As I mentioned in my post about hiking in Alaska, Exit Glacier has a bunch of hiking trails and it’s easy to get pretty close to Exit Glacier and learn more about how glaciers have shaped the Alaskan terrain.

Resources for Day 6

Day 7: Sightseeing in Kenai Fjords

Whale Watching on Major Marine Tours

Today, you’ll board a sightseeing tour in Seward that will take you out into Kenai Fjords National Park. As the name suggests, these fjords are massive waterways that are home to some of Alaska’s greatest sealife, including humpback and orca whales, seabirds like puffins, and plenty of otters.

My preferred tour provider in Seward is Major Marine Tours, though there are others to chose from. I’ve taken several tours with Major Marine Tours over the ages and put together a review of two different tours I’ve done recently: the 6-hour Kenai Fjords National Park Cruise and the 7.5-hour Kenai Fjords National Park Cruise.

As this tour will take up most of your day, the rest of the day can be spent at your leisure.

Resources for Day 7

  • Stay another night at your Seward accommodation.
  • For dinner, try The Cookery. I’ve never been, but it has rave reviews on TripAdvisor.
  • Major Marine Tours start from $84 per person; the 6-hour tour is $159 per person; and the 7.5-hour tour is $179 per person. Click here to see all tour options and tickets and be sure to book in advance during busy summer months.

Day 8: Travel to Girdwood

For Day 8 and 9, the pace of travel slows significantly; there’s much less time spent traveling and more spent relaxing and/or looking around at the sights.

After the second night in Denali, the goal is to reach Girdwood on Day 8, a 1.5-hour drive. En route, I recommend taking a small detour to enjoy lunch and walk around my favorite small Alaska town, Hope. There isn’t a ton to do in Hope, but it gives you a good picture of what life is like outside the “cities” in Alaska. Enjoy lunch at the Sea View Cafe, walk along the river, and try your hand at gold panning.

In Girdwood, spend the afternoon by taking the Alyeska tram up Alyeska mountain. This tram is part of the Alyeska Resort and takes about seven minutes to bring you up the mountain. En route, you’ll see hanging glaciers on nearby mountains, and maybe even some wildlife in the landscape below. Once you’ve arrived at the top of the tram, you can hike around (this is another easy hike I recommend for first-time travelers to Alaska) or enjoy dinner at Seven Glaciers restaurant. If you want to have dinner, be sure to book a reservation in advance.

Resources for Day 8

  • Stay in the town of Girdwood, such as at The Hotel Alyeska or Ski Inn. (Book two nights here.)
  • If you want to splurge on dinner in a different style, head to the Double Musky. This is my parent’s favorite restaurant, and they also have rooms.
  • Tram tickets start from $29 per person.

Day 9: Exploring Turnagain Arm

On the last full day exploring Alaska, you have a bit of flexibility. There are two main experiences I recommend while based out of Girdwood for the day:

  • Portage Glacier Tour – A short boat tour to see Portage Glacier, an easily accessible glacier.
  • Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center – A facility where many species of native Alaskan animals live permanently or in rehabilitation. This gives you a good chance to see some animals you may have missed while traveling.

Both of these activities will take a few hours, so you could do one in the morning and another in the afternoon at your leisure.

Resources for Day 9

  • Stay a second night at your Girdwood accommodation.
  • For dinner, head to Jack Sprat in Girdwood. This dinner spot has a delicious, hearty menu.
  • The Portage Glacier Cruise is $39 per person.
  • Admission to the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center (AWCC) is $15 per person.

Day 10: Return to Anchorage

Wake up on your last day in Alaska. It’s an easy day: all you need to do is get back to Anchorage from Girdwood (~60 minutes driving). Along the way, you could stop and do the following:

  • Go for a short hike at McHugh Creek, a day-use hiking area.
  • Walk along the boardwalk at Potter Marsh, a huge wetland where you can still occasionally spot a moose.
  • Go for a hike up Flattop, one of Anchorage’s popular hiking mountains near the city.
  • Watch airplanes land at Earthquake Park near the Anchorage airport.

At the end, you’ll need to board a plane home at Ted Steven’s International Airport. Many flights are red-eye when heading east toward the contiguous United States, so settle in for the long flight with dreams full of your Alaskan adventures!

Resources for Day 10

  • None! We’re all done!

This post was published in September 2017 and was updated in October 2018.

21 Responses to “10 Days in Alaska: An Itinerary and Guide

  • Ruthie Ridley
    1 year ago

    Such a great re-cap! I cant wait to go one day!!

  • Ashley Stephenson
    1 year ago

    Alaska has never really been on my radar but looks so much fun! My best friends dad has a hunting resort in Alaska!

  • Alaska is totally on my bucket list!! My parents went a few years ago and I was so jealous then, and even more jealous now!

    Tori
    http://www.mooretori.com

  • This post is so, so helpful! Definitely pinning this for later. I’m one of the many who would love to go to Alaska someday. I wouldn’t mind going during winter or spring, either.

    • Thanks, Crystal! I hope you can make it at least sometime in the future, no matter the season!

  • Patricia Conte
    1 year ago

    Wow! Such great and detailed info! I realllllly want to make a trip to Alaska. It’s on my short list! Thanks for sharing your knowledge!

    • Thanks – you can make it a priority! It’s closer than you think, and super accessible for U.S./Canadian travelers! Good luck planning your trip 😉

  • Ruth Barclay
    11 months ago

    I need this trip Planning Aug -Sept 2018 Nothing is mentioned about Fairbanks or Talkeetna. If I want to add a few days here would you give me some ideas. Also my first thought when I began planning was to start in Fairbanks Thoughts?

    • Thanks for your comment, Ruth! So are you planning to try and do all of the spots I mentioned plus Fairbanks and Talkeetna too? That would be pretty ambitious in just 10 days! Happy to give you some tips, if you can please confirm how long your trip will be 🙂

      • Ruth Barclay
        11 months ago

        Yes, we would add 2-3 more days. We would follow your itinary going in the opposite direction flying into Fairbanks and fly out of Anchorage. We would plan to go by train and rent a vehicle

        • Ruth, if you’re adding extra days, it should be no problem to add in Fairbanks for sure — you don’t really need more than a day there, and you definitely don’t need more than a day in Talkeetna. If you want to do Talkeetna though, you probably need to rent a car and make the drive from Fairbanks > Denali > Talkeetna > Anchorage.

      • Ruth Barclay
        11 months ago

        Well I’ve got my flight. We start in Fairbanks. Because of the flight times we will spend 2 nights in Fairbanks but really only one day. From there to Denali. I would like to go to talkeetna prior to our trip heading south to Anchorage. Do you have any thoughts or excursion ideas to add Following most of your itinerary we will have 2weeks I welcome yours or anyone else input

  • Becky White
    11 months ago

    Thanks for sharing this itinerary! We’re planning our first trip to Alaska this year… my partner wants to go for 2 weeks in the summer (July) but after reading your blog I’m wondering about late June/early July! Is 10 days sufficient to fit in a few decent hikes and still see Denali and Seward. I’m also worried Denali may not be open at this time. What’s your thoughts? I’m mainly motivated by the price but your ‘reasons to visit in Spring’ post did make me think maybe money isn’t the only reason!

    • I would highly recommend June over July — there’s a joke among locals that July 4th marks the start of rainy season in July!

      I think 10 days is enough for what you’re suggesting, but it’s worth clarifying: are these “decent hikes” day hikes? Or multi-day hikes?

      Also, Denali will definitely be open! Summer is a great time to visit the park. Be sure to research backcountry camping/hiking through the Park Service if that’s on your itinerary.

      Feel free to ask any other questions you have and I’ll get back to you as I can 🙂

      • Becky White
        11 months ago

        Okay great – we’re thinking of going Memorial weekend to early July. When I mean decent hikes I mean day hikes (but longer than 5 miles). I am an experienced hiker but backpacker not so much… and I love the outdoors but love sleeping indoors (!) I would be open to camping but am worried about temperatures at this time of year. I read your blog last night and it really got me inspired (thanks for reply on kayaking trip too) – here’s what I am thinking for an itinerary:
        Day 1: Fly to Anchorage
        Day 2: Pick-up hire car, food shop, drive to Seaward (Portage Pass hike en-route)
        Day 3: Harding Icefield hike
        Day 4: Kenai cruise
        Day 5: Kayaking/ shorter hike
        Day 6: Lost Lake/other hike
        Day 7: Driving day – Seward > Denali (lunch-stop in Anchorage)
        Day 8: Denali (entrance and hike)
        Day 9: Denali (coach trip)
        Day 10: Drive back to Anchorage (hike at Hatcher Pass en-route)

        • Becky, Memorial Day to July is the sweet spot — I was there Memorial Day weekend 2017 and it was great weather!

          Everything on your itinerary sounds pretty good with two notes:
          – Day 7 – that’s a long day in the car (1.5 Seward > Anchorage, 4 Anchorage > Denali); just be prepared! 🙂
          – Day 10 – Are you planning to enter Hatcher Pass on the west side and exit on the east side? Google’s mapping it at 5 hours but NOT by traversing Hatcher Pass (not a well maintained road). Be sure to try and figure out if the Hatcher Pass road is even open before trying to cross it (link: http://dnr.alaska.gov/parks/units/hatcherpass/hatcherpass.htm)… looks like it only opens on July 1st typically.

          Good luck!

          • Becky White
            11 months ago

            We’re pretty used to long drives (last year we drove from California to Montana) so am happy to do it. We plan to leave very early and take our time. Thanks for pointing out about Hatcher Pass – I’d given it no further thought than “oh that’s on the way” (must do some more research). You’ve sold me on a May trip!

  • Avijit Sen
    10 months ago

    Hello Valerie,

    Many thanks for sharing this itinerary, as we (a family of three, including our 7 year old daughter) are planning the same trip from 30th of April to 9th of May 2018. We are from India (wrong side driving) and will be carrying our IDP, and wanted to know the rules & tips while renting out a car in Anchorage. Finally will the rules allow us to drive with our Indian license & International Driving Permit (IDP)?

    Finally is it a good time of the year to do the same itinerary?

    Cheers & Thanx

    Avijit

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