Itineraries

How to Plan the Perfect 5 Day Alaska Itinerary (2 Ways!)

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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. If you’re planning a 5 day Alaska itinerary for an upcoming trip, you’ve come to a great 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, a lot! –, 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.

5 Day Alaska Itinerary Hero

Five days is a great length of time to spend in Alaska, also called The Last Frontier – it’s enough to see some of the top cities and attractions in Southcentral and Interior Alaska. It’s also a perfect add-on to 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 plan a 5 day Alaska itinerary, I’ve got you covered. Let’s get into it!

Bonus! I just set up this new quiz to help suggest an Alaska itinerary to you. If you’re planning a trip, check it out to get a ✨customized itinerary✨ based exactly on your own travel details and preferences.

This post was originally published in August 2019, and updated in July 2021. To the best of my knowledge, it is accurate for the Summer 2021 and Summer 2022 seasons.

Alaska Travel Tips

Denali National Park - Hiking

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 two in-depth 5 day Alaska itinerary options – all ready to help you plan your trip.

Best Time to Visit Alaska

Things to Do in Denali Hero

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; if you visit in the autumn, you’ll see the tundra turn ruby and gold; visiting Alaska in the winter you can see the Northern Lights and try dog-sledding, or 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

Cruising in Kenai Fjords National Park

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 been on one of the big Alaska cruise ships! 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 7-day or 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 Your 5 Day Alaska Itinerary

I have a whole Alaska packing list if you’re at that stage of planning. Check it out here. To give you the short version, be sure to pack:

  • 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 – Until recently, I shot 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.

Quick Glance: 5 Day Alaska Itinerary (x2)

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:

DayItinerary AItinerary B
1AnchorageAnchorage
2Anchorage to DenaliAnchorage to Denali
3Denali National ParkDenali National Park
4Denali to FairbanksDenali to Seward
5FairbanksSeward to Anchorage

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 Day Alaska Itinerary A: Into Interior Alaska

As I couldn’t choose between the two itineraries for this post, I’ve decided to include both! This first itinerary takes you north from Anchorage to Denali and onto Fairbanks in Interior Alaska. Here are a few other notes before you dive in:

  • It’s a great itinerary for those who are interested in land wildlife viewing (like Alaska’s Big Five including brown bears, moose, and dall sheep) and cultural experiences.
  • You can do a one-way car rental for this itinerary, but I recommend the Alaska Railroad instead. (Don’t comment asking me for tips on making one-way car rentals less expensive – that’s the consequence if you skip on the Alaska Railroad!)
  • This itinerary starts in Anchorage and ends in Fairbanks; you can either fly from Fairbanks to Anchorage to depart Alaska or fly home straight from Fairbanks. Alaska Airlines has plenty of daily flights from Fairbanks to the Lower 48.

Okay, now let’s dive into this first 5 day Alaska itinerary!

Day 1: Anchorage

Start your first day in Alaska with a tour of your first stop: Anchorage. You can do this one of two ways: on a guided tour, such as the Anchorage Trolley Tour, or on foot on your own exploring downtown Anchorage and Historic 4th Avenue. This is a good way to see Alaska’s biggest city and get oriented.

For lunch, I recommend Humpy’s Great Alaskan Alehouse; it’s a perfect casual spot. For another option, I highly recommend Tia’s Reindeer Sausage. This food stand is located along 4th Avenue and has a distinctive yellow umbrella.

In the afternoon, I again recommend choosing one (or both) of two choices

  1. If the weather is good and you enjoy being active, consider renting bikes and riding along the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail. This is an 11-mile scenic trail that gives you some incredible views and the chance to spot moose (give them lots of space!).
  2. If the weather is crummy or you want something less active, I highly recommend 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 Smithsonian-affiliated galleries on indigenous Alaskan culture and even a science museum wing called the Imaginarium.

For dinner in Anchorage, I have one place I recommend above all others: 49th State Brewing. This restaurant took over the place from a different restaurant when I lived there – and is a massive upgrade. They offer incredible craft beer, delicious food, and sweeping views of Cook Inlet.

Resources for Day 1:

Day 2: Anchorage to Denali

Alaska - Railroad Engine

Rise early on your second day to board the Alaska Railroad to Denali; the train usually leaves around 8am. 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.

(If you’re considering a car rental instead, remember you’ll need a one-way rental that you return in Fairbanks. This can increase the cost a lot to make it on-par with the cost of the more scenic and relaxing Alaska Railroad. I recommend taking the train for this itinerary.)

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 Glitter Gulch (the nickname for the town near Denali National Park), you can walk around and explore after you disembark the train. You can also book or plan one of these other things to do in Denali for the afternoon.

Most hotels have a restaurant, but there are plenty of other great spots around town. I recommend Prospector’s Pizzeria & Ale House, Moose-AKa’s (Serbian food – in Alaska!), the Denali Salmon Bake (order the McKinley Margarita!), and Alpenglow Restaurant, but you can’t really go wrong.

Resources for Day 2:

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 2021.

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)

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 wild animals like grizzly bear, moose, and wolves. On a clear day, you’ll also be able to see Denali herself!

After a long day on a bus, stretch your legs and walk to dinner. Enjoy dinner at one of the other places I recommended last night, or check out my additional suggestion below.

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. (Note: This is not happening in 2021!)

Day 4: Denali to Fairbanks

5 Days in Alaska - Fairbanks

For your next stop (and final stop) in Alaska, it’s time to travel to Fairbanks. If you’re taking the Alaska Railroad (instead of a one-way car rental), you actually have most of the day to enjoy and explore McKinley Park. The Alaska Railroad doesn’t leave for Fairbanks until around 4pm so arrange a transfer from your hotel to catch that train.

If you have it in your Alaska travel 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.

Here are some other suggestions:

  • Stroll to the shops in Glitter Gulch; 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:

Day 5: Fairbanks

Your departure time will have the biggest effect on how much you can do during your day in Fairbanks. Most flights leave in the evening or as red-eye flights, so you should have pretty much the whole day. It will make life a lot easier if you rent a car for the day, but you won’t need a hotel.

The most popular activity I recommend in Fairbanks is to plan a day trip to Chena Hot Springs. This natural hot spring has been developed into a rustic resort; they have a restaurant and Ice Museum on site too to help you fill the day in between soaks in the indoor or outdoor pools.

If you choose to spend the day in Fairbanks, 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.

After spending the day in Fairbanks, it’s time to head to the airport and then fly home!

Resources for Day 5:

  • None, as you’re departing.

5 Day Alaska Itinerary B: Southcentral & the Kenai

For a second itinerary option, this 5 day Alaska itinerary uses Anchorage as a base. It’s focused on Southcentral Alaska and the Kenai Peninsula and thus includes less travel time. Here are a few notes on it:

  • This itinerary is good for those who love wildlife – you’re gonna (hopefully) see it all! (The Big 5 and tons of sea life like otters, whales, and sea lions.)
  • You can rent a car (start/end in Anchorage), ride the train, or do a combination. I recommend either doing the train to/from Denali and car rental to/from Seward or just renting a car the whole time.

Ready? Let’s dive in!

Day 1: Anchorage

Similar to Itinerary A, this five-day Alaska itinerary uses Anchorage as a starting point, and I have basically the same suggestions. On your first full day in Alaska, here are the best things to do in Anchorage:

Resources for Day 1:

Day 2: Anchorage to Denali

Itinerary B follows the same suggestions as Itinerary A up until Day 4, so stick with me.

As above, you’ll rise and shine early to catch the Alaska Railroad to Denali; the train leaves around 8am and arrives around 4pm – you can enjoy both breakfast and lunch aboard too!

Once you arrive, disembark, and transfer to your hotel, you have the rest of the afternoon to explore. Use my guide for things to do in Denali as inspiration.

Enjoy dinner in town, either at your hotel, or one of the following restaurants:

Resources for Day 2:

Day 3: Denali National Park

Again, this day is the same as I recommended in Itinerary A – you’ll spend this whole day visiting Denali National Park on a bus tour.

As mentioned, I recommend the Tundra Wilderness Tour above other tour options offered through the National Park Service. (I have never done a non-park service-operated bus tour so don’t recommend them.) This tour takes 8 hours, so most of your day will be spent on the bus.

Afterward, grab dinner at one of the other restaurants I recommended for Day 2 (whichever one you haven’t yet visited) or check out my additional suggestion below.

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. (Note: This is not happening in 2021!)

Day 4: Denali to Seward

Here’s where Itinerary B gets interesting (compared to Itinerary A, which it has been mirroring up to this point). While Itinerary A travelers will head north from Denali, those of you who choose Itinerary B will head south, back toward Anchorage.

Obviously, if you chose to rent a car for this whole itinerary, you can set out at any point. The drive to Seward takes about 6.5-7 hours, so plan accordingly. (I recommend stopping in Talkeetna for lunch at Denali Brewpub.)

If you took the train, it leaves Denali around noon and arrives into Anchorage around 8pm. You can have lunch and dinner on the train. From the train you’ll then want to get a transfer (Uber/taxi) to pick up your rental car (likely at the airport) and drive along Turnagain Arm onto the Kenai Peninsula and finally to Seward. This is a 2.5 hour drive, which means you’ll arrive quite late into Seward. (That’s a point in favor of renting a car the whole time…)

For yet another option, you could choose to take the train north to Denali, and then take a bus to Anchorage. The Park Connection bus runs between Denali and Anchorage daily leaving at 7am, and takes less time than the train while still allowing you to experience the Alaska Railroad at least once. (Note that the 7am departure continues on to Seward but don’t book the bus to/from Seward – it won’t work to get you back to Anchorage at a good time on Day 5! You still need a rental car for the next two days.)

In any event, it’s a long day of travel; you might have some time to explore Denali in the morning, but I recommend taking it easy so you get to Seward without being exhausted.

Resources for Day 4:

Day 5: Seward to Anchorage

For your final day of this 5 day Alaska itinerary, you’ll spend most of the day in Seward, returning to Anchorage at the end of the day to depart back home.

The main activity today is visiting Kenai Fjords National Park. The best way to do this is aboard the 8.5-hour Northwest Fjords cruise from Major Marine Tours; there are a number of other Kenai Fjords cruise options, but this one is my favorite and has gotten rave reviews from readers I’ve sent on that cruise in the past. The cruise departs at 9am and returns at 5:30pm so it takes up most of the day and includes a light breakfast and lunch.

(If you are an early riser, you could start the day by doing an early morning hike at Exit Glacier, which is a short drive from Seward – but be sure to time this so you aren’t late for your cruise!)

Before driving back to Anchorage, I recommend having dinner in Seward at Seward Brewing Company. This is another must-eat place that I recommend to pretty much everyone because it’s just that good!

Then it’s time to make the 2.5-hour drive back to Anchorage to return your rental car and depart Alaska.

Resources for Day 5:

  • None due to departure!

Do you have other questions about planning your 5 day Alaska itinerary? Let me know in the comments or join me in my Alaska Travel Tips Facebook Community!

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24 Comments

  • Melanie R Book

    I have already booked a cruise from Vancouver to Seward. I have already booked my flight back from Anchorage. So I have 4 days to travel around from Seaward and end up in Anchorage on the 5th day. I have already booked all my nights at a hotel in Anchorage but that can be cancelled.
    As a senior travelling with a grandaughter I am not willing to do trekking flying or bicycles. Being on the cruise 7 days does not warrant more days sightseeing from a boat.
    I wouldnt want more than 1 day in Deneli park. I am unable to hire a car because of my age. My grandayghter is too yooung so it seems like an organized tour or a plan that we can deal with without hassle.
    Thank you
    Melanie

    • Valerie

      Melanie, nice to hear from you. This post you’ve commented on has lots of advice for what to do for five days in Alaska! It sounds like you’ll have a great trip! I can tell you that if you want one day in Denali to see the national park, you will need to spend one more day on either side to get to/from Denali – it is several hundred miles away and it does take most of the day to get there and back. Maybe consider taking the train!

  • Ryota Okutsu

    It’s nice to see what you write, but I would like to know what I can do for 5 days in winter. Do you have any recommendation plan? I am really interested in Alaska trip!

    • Valerie

      Ryota, thanks for your email but I have not written about Alaska in the winter because I have not been there in the winter in over 10 years. I am planning a trip in February and will write about it afterward!

  • RUMINDER CHADHA

    Thanks! My wife and I are flying into Vancouver and out of Calgary but were planning a 3-4 day trip to Alaska.There is only one direct flight from Vancouver to Anchorage each day (and none to Fairbanks). Any suggestions on an itinerary? We plan to be in Alaska around 12 May.

  • Penelope Smith

    My parents have been considering going on an Alaskan vacation this year. It is nice to know that there are an ice museum and a pioneer park. Those seem like something they would be interested in. It might be smart for them to talk to a travel agent about getting a package for a lot of other things.

  • Rina Dave

    Hiii loved this itinerary ! Our flight to japan got cancelled due to coronavirus- so we are considering heading to Alaska instead next week ! Given that it’s winter time – how would you amend your 5 day itinerary ? We would be there Thursday night – Wednesday .. thanks so much – my email is rdave19@gmail.com – could greatly use some advice !!

  • Helen Matthews

    Hi. We are travelling to Alaska mid May 2020. We want to catch local ferry from Prince Rupert to Skagway, stopping at Ketchikan and Juneau.
    Am having trouble trying to book ferry…. any tips will be welcome
    We will be going to the Yukon then onwards to Alaska.
    Any feedback will be much appreciated
    Helen

    • Valerie

      Thanks for reaching out, Helen. As far as I know, the Alaska Marine Highway system has not announced their summer schedule yet, so you won’t be able to book until they do that. Have a great trip!

  • Nithin

    Hi Valerie,
    where can i do glacier watching and blue whale watching in alaska…i wanted to know how can i include those two in this 5day trip itinerary.

  • Shannon

    Hello There, I will be purchsing the Ebook and would love an option maybe like the seward above to include a day to go on a guided fishing trip. Is there a way to fit that, and denali, in within 6 days?

    • Valerie

      Shannon, thanks for reaching out. Unfortunately, I don’t think you can fit in Denali and Seward with a fishing trip in six days. The travel time between places in just too much! Feel free to purchase a custom itinerary though and we can try to come up with something else that works!

  • brina

    Hi! My husband and I want to travel from NY to Alaska in summer of 2021. We are limited to 5 days possibly, do you have any advice particularly for travel during the pandemic to Alaska?

  • Sadaf

    Hi Valerie, thank you for the useful information! My husband and I are planning a visit there late September (sep 23-29). What kind of modifications would you recommend since we are not there during the summer? Also any opportunity to do a stop for fishing? I understand river fishing is an option at this time of year. Thanks so much!

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