To me, Alaska is chilly mornings with a bite of snow in the air, even in the summer months. It’s the smell of birch and spruce trees growing like mad during the long days of the Midnight Sun. It’s the Northern Lights dancing overhead in the bitter cold and stillness of a dark winter night. Alaska is the place I grew up – and it still feels like home even though I’ve moved away.
If you’re planning a trip to Alaska, you’ve come to the right place. In addition to living in Alaska for 15 years and working three summers in the hospitality industry (helping people make their Alaska vacations unforgettable), I visit Alaska every 2-3 years. They say you can’t go back – but I do, because those sights, smells, and experiences still feel a bit like home. I’m honored you came to my blog to try and plan your own Alaska vacation, and I’ll do my best to steer you to what I consider the best parts of my ‘home’ state.
Five days is a great length of time to spend in Alaska – it’s enough to see some of the top cities and attractions in Southcentral and Interior Alaska. It’s also a perfect add-on from your Alaska cruise. Read on for some travel tips for Alaska to help you plan and make the most of your trip, then a detailed five-day Alaskan itinerary you can follow to a tee or customize to your heart’s content. If you want to spend five days in Alaska, I’ve got you covered. Let’s get into it!
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Alaska Travel Tips
In each of my Alaska itineraries, I start with this section of Alaska travel tips. First, I get these questions all. the. time. so if you’re curious about them, you’re not alone. Second, if I don’t answer them first, the rest of the itinerary is a little confusing. Let’s cover them, then read on for my an in-depth five-day Alaska itinerary all ready to help you plan your trip.
Best Time to Visit Alaska
You might not believe it, but Alaska has become a four-season destination. You can visit in the summer when it’s warm under the Midnight Sun; you can visit in the autumn when the tundra turns the ruby and gold; you can visit Alaska in the winter to see the Northern Lights and dog-sledding; you can visit in the spring as the snow starts to thaw, before the summer crowds arrive.
That said, if there’s a “best” time to visit Alaska – best meaning warm weather and sun – the best time to visit Alaska is between June and August. During the summer months, the temperatures are at their highest, you’ll experience the least precipitation (no snow, but you may get some rain), and the Midnight Sun extends each day so you can make the most of your once-in-a-lifetime Alaska vacation.
In this itinerary, I’m assuming you’ll visit in the summertime – that’s when almost everyone does! Based on that assumption, I’m recommending activities and experiences that may only be available during the summer season (late May to early September). Where needed, I’ve noted options that aren’t available during the autumn, winter, and/or spring. If you’re visiting in the “off-season” and have specific questions, let me know in the comments.
Alaska by Land or Sea
One of the other big questions I get asked a lot as a sorta unofficial Alaska travel blogger is: should I do an Alaska cruise, or do my own land tour?
I’ll be totally honest: I’ve never done one of the big Alaska cruises! That’s why you won’t find any reviews or suggestions about them here on my site. I have worked for a cruise company that operates in Alaska, and I know a bit about how they work – but I’ve never done it myself.
I’ve also taken a small-ship Alaska cruise with Uncruise. I wholeheartedly recommend that experience, and if you’re trying to decide which type of cruise to take (mega-ship or small-ship), I almost always vote for small-ship.
But, you can do both: if you’ve already booked your Alaska cruise – mega-ship or small-ship – now it’s time to plan to extend your trip. Great: you can use this itinerary (or my 10-day itinerary) to plan your land portion. If you’re choosing between land or sea, I recommend land. You can always do a cruise later too!
What to Pack for 5 Days in Alaska
- Rain gear – Even in the summer, you may need it to stay dry, especially if you’re doing an Alaska cruise.
- Good shoes – Bring solid, preferably water-resistant shoes for walking, not the traditional white trainers you’ll see older travelers in.
- Sleep mask – In the summer, the Midnight Sun can really mess with your sleep schedule.
- A great camera – I shoot on a Sony NEX-6; the modern version is the Sony a6000. Capture those once in a lifetime memories!
- Layers – Whether you’re an outdoorsy type or not (like me), layers are critical to staying warm and dry in Alaska. This can just mean a sweatshirt under your coat or leggings under your jeans. Trust me, if it gets chilly, they’ll help.
Let me know in the comments if you need more advice about what to pack for your 5-day trip to Alaska.
Getting Around Alaska on this 5 Day Itinerary
Do You Need a Tour Guide? Definitely not! This particular itinerary does not require a car, though you could choose to do it with one. Instead, I advise you to take the Alaska Railroad and use hotel transfers and your own two legs.
Do You Need to Rent a Car? If you choose to rent a car and follow my suggested five-day Alaska itinerary, you’ll need to arrange a one-way car rental from Anchorage to Fairbanks. This itinerary only goes one way – and the only way to return the car would be to extend your trip to six days.
How Do I Get Home From Fairbanks??? This itinerary ends in Fairbanks, and I assume you’ll take a one-way flight from Fairbanks to Anchorage, then catch your flight (or cruise) home. I’ve added the link for Alaska Airlines in the resources for Day 5 (Fairbanks), so don’t skip that step as you book your trip!
Quick Glance: 5 Days in Alaska
Okay, I’ve hopefully answered all your burning questions first, as quickly as possible. Now it’s time to get into the five-day Alaska itinerary I promised! Here’s a quick glance:
|1||Arrive in Anchorage|
Photo via Google Maps
|2||Travel to Denali|
|3||Visit Denali National Park|
|4||McKinley Park, Travel to Fairbanks|
|5||Explore Fairbanks, Depart|
(Note: This map is showing the driving time for this itinerary, but obviously this won’t apply if you’re taking the Alaska Railroad!)
Below, I break down each of these days in a ton more detail, plus I recommend restaurants and hotels to make the whole process super easy to book right from this post. You can literally click each link and put in your dates of travel to make your Alaska trip happen.
5 Days in Alaska: A Detailed Itinerary & Guide
Day 1: Arrival, Anchorage
There are generally two ways to arrive in Alaska: by plane or by boat. I suppose it’s possible you could arrive by car via the Alcan Highway, but if that’s the case just reach out to me directly and I’ll help you plan your trip.
If you’re arriving by plane, you’ll fly into Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport. The most common airlines that fly to Anchorage are Alaska Airlines (duh), Delta, American, United… okay, basically all of the airlines fly to Alaska! That makes it easy to find a good flight deal using a service like Kayak or Skyscanner.
If you’re arriving by boat, you’ll disembark your cruise ship in either Whittier or Seward. All of the major cruise companies offer transfers from Seward/Whittier to Anchorage; the default option is by bus, but you can upgrade this to ride the Alaska Railroad if you so choose. Should you do the Alaska Railroad upgrade? Up to you. My itinerary suggests two rides on the Alaska Railroad, but it’s not the same route as you’ll see if you do the Seward or Whittier coastal route.
Once you arrive in Anchorage, you’ll need to arrange transport to your downtown Anchorage hotel. If you have time, there are a few great ways to spend time in Anchorage.
V’s Recommended Anchorage Activities
Visit the Anchorage Market Festival – During the summer months, the Anchorage Market Festival is set up at the intersection of 3rd Avenue and E Street. You can browse stalls selling arts, crafts, and goods from local Alaskans, ogle huge produce from farmers in the Matanuska Valley, or listen to live music. Don’t miss the corn fritters with honey butter, sold in the food aisle of the outdoor market.
Visit the Anchorage Museum – Since I grew up in Alaska, the Anchorage Museum underwent a massive and impressive expansion. Now there are traditional art galleries as well as galleries on indigenous Alaskan culture and even a science museum wing called the Imaginarium.
Beer Tasting – Alaska has a thriving craft beer scene, and there are breweries, microbreweries, and brewpubs all over town. In downtown, I recommend checking out 49th State Brewing or the Glacier Brewhouse. Humpy’s is also a fun, casual spot for burgers and beer.
Sightseeing – With only minor hills, Anchorage has a pretty walkable downtown. You could take in the view of Sleeping Lady, a distinctive mountain across Cook Inlet, from Elderberry Park, or stroll down historic 4th Avenue to stop at Tia’s Reindeer Sausage for a snack..
Resources for Day 1:
- For hotels, I recommend the Hotel Captain Cook (from $175/night on Booking.com or Hotels.com) or Hilton Anchorage (from $143/night on Booking.com or Hotels.com). Both are right in the heart of downtown Anchorage and you’ll be within easy walking distance to the top things to see and do.
- For Airbnb, this guest suite (from $59/night) is in a great location, this little house (from $119/night) is super cute and spacious for a group, and this apartment (from $160/night) covers all the bases.
Day 2: Anchorage to Denali via the Alaska Railroad
Rise early to board the Alaska Railroad to Denali. This train trip takes eight hours, so it’s most of the day – but it’s worth it for the immersive and stunning views you’ll see from the glass-domed train cars. (I’ve done the five-hour drive… it’s fine, but can be dull. Go for the train!)
Once you arrive in Denali, you’ll need to get a transfer to your hotel. When you book your hotel, be sure to let them know you’re arriving by train so they can help arrange that for you.
If you stay in McKinley Park (the name for the town near Denali National Park), you can walk around an explore after you disembark the train. Most hotels have a restaurant, but I recommend eating at either Lynx Creek Pizza or the Salmon Bake. Plan to eat tomorrow night at whichever one you don’t choose tonight.
For each restaurant, I have tips:
- At Lynx Creek Pizza, they make a great margarita pizza which you can customize with pesto sauce and artichoke hearts. Even if the margarita isn’t on the menu, you can order your own custom pizza. It’s veggie-friendly and so good.
- At the Salmon Bake, order whatever you like, but opt for the gargantuan McKinley Margarita. It’s blue and boozy and will remind you of Denali, the mountain.
Resources for Day 2:
- Book 2 nights in Denali.
- Denali has a limited number of accommodations in the small town; I recommend basically all of them, including the Grande Denali Lodge (from $329/night on Booking.com or Hotels.com), McKinley Chalet Resort (from $139/night on Booking.com or Hotels.com), or Cabins at Denali (from $238/night on Hotels.com).
- There aren’t a ton of Airbnb options near Denali National Park, so you’ll need a car if you choose to stay in an Airbnb instead of a hotel right in town. This house(from $370/night, good for families or small groups) or this house (from $550/night, good for large groups) are both good options.
Day 3: Denali National Park
I’m probably biased, but I consider Denali National Park the best national park. It’s massive, it’s wild, it’s empty – and there are no crowds. Because Denali National Park has controlled access, most years you can only visit Denali on a bus tour. This year, there are some new options, so be sure to check out my tips on how to visit Denali in summer 2020.
There are three Denali National Park bus tours:
- Denali Natural History Tour: 4.5-5 hours in the park to Mile 27 (Teklanika River)
- Tundra Wilderness Tour: 7-8 hours in the park to either Mile 53 (Toklat River) or Mile 62 (Stony Overlook).
- Kantishna Experience: 11-12 hours in the park to Mile 92 (Kantishna)
(This photo of me is one of the oldest photos I’ve ever shared – it dates back to 2007! I’m looking out over Polychrome Pass in Denali, which you’ll see on the Tundra Wilderness Tour. I still have that jacket, The North Face Apex Bionic – perfect for Alaska.)
I strongly recommend the Tundra Wilderness Tour unless you have small children that can’t handle eight hours with no cell service or have limited mobility and sitting that long will make you physically uncomfortable. It takes you the furthest into the park that you can go in a single day, which improves your chances to see wildlife like bears, moose, and wolves.
After a long day on a bus, stretch your legs and walk to dinner. Remember, it’s whichever place you didn’t eat last night between Lynx Creek Pizza and the Salmon Bake!
Resources for Day 3:
- Stay another night in your Denali accommodation.
- If you want another dinner option, 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 $85.50 per person for the 2019 season.
Day 4: Denali to Fairbanks via the Alaska Railroad
If you’re taking the Alaska Railroad (instead of renting and driving a car), you actually have most of the day to enjoy and explore McKinley Park. The Alaska Railroad doesn’t leave for Fairbanks until 4pm so arrange a transfer from your hotel to catch that train.
If you have it in your budget, here’s my top recommendation: book the Denali Glacier Landing 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. It’s $549 per person, but 100% worth it. You’ll spend almost 2 hours in the air, plus 20 minutes on a glacier on Denali itself.
(Another super old picture of me (2007). Look, it’s baby Valerie!)
Here are some other suggestions:
- Stroll to the shops on the west side of the highway. This is a great spot to stock up on souvenirs!
- Catch a ride up to the Grande Denali Lodge; from there you can hike up the ridge along Sugarloaf Mountain.
- There’s a nice cycling/walking path that parallels the Parks Highway back toward the park entrance. There’s a reasonable incline to walk back up to town, so be prepared and give yourself time!
Once you board the Alaska Railroad, it’s a four-hour train ride to Fairbanks. You’ll arrive around 8pm, and should head straight to your accommodation for the night.
Resources for Day 4:
- There are a couple of great hotels and accommodations in Fairbanks:
- Taste of Alaska Lodge – A cozy, family-run property with a nearby aurora-viewing business. Rooms start from $195/night. Book on Booking.com, Hotels.com, or directly with Taste of Alaska Lodge.
- Chena Hot Springs Resort – Summer packages are all-inclusive of meals, tours, and hot springs access. Rooms start from $84/night. Book on Hotels.com or directly with Chena Hot Springs Resort.
- Sophie Station Suites – Great for families and closer to town. Rooms start from $98/night. Book on Booking.com, Hotels.com, or directly with Sophie Station Suites.
Day 5: Fairbanks, Departure
Your departure time will have the biggest effect on how much you can do during your day in Fairbanks. You may choose to spend the whole day at Chena Hot Springs – and seriously no judgment if that’s the case!
If you choose to wander into town, here are some options:
- Fairbanks has some surprisingly dynamic museums, including the Museum of the North (all about Alaskan culture and history) and the Fairbanks Ice Museum (the name says it all; open in the summer!).
- Pioneer Park is a quirky historic theme park that will teach you more about Interior Alaskan history, including the Pioneer Air Museum (focused about aviation in Interior Alaska) and Tanana Valley Railroad Museum.
- If you can arrange transport, Gold Dredge No. 8 is a little way out of town but offers an interesting peek at the gold mining history in this part of Alaska.
Uber operates in Fairbanks, so once you’re done sightseeing, you can catch a ride to the airport to fly home.
Resources for Day 5:
- Book your flight from Fairbanks to Anchorage with Alaska Airlines, or compare flight times and prices using Kayak or Skyscanner.
Do you have other questions about your five-day Alaskan vacation? Let me know in the comments!
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