If you’re looking for a trip into the great wilderness, there is no place like Alaska to delve into the unknown. Alaska is the largest state in the United States and it is largely uninhabited and full of wildlife. My main goal on this trip was to see as much wildlife as possible and this is the perfect trip to spot bears, moose, whales, and sea lions.
We planned this adventure as another one of our family get-togethers. These types of trips are a solid way to do some family bonding in new territory. We really stepped out for this one. It took a lot of planning and I did a ton of research to make sure we hit all the spots and didn’t waste any time. The state is so huge that you do spend a good amount of time getting from place to place, but it’s totally worth it.
We planned a summer trip to Alaska to capitalize on the warmer summer weather. The summer months are definitely more crowded, but you have to decide if you are willing to brave the winter weather. We opted for long hours of daylight and easier weather. If you do go in the winter, the biggest draw would be the possibility of seeing the Northern Lights — you won’t see them in the summer, but that’s the tradeoff.
Before we delve into the whole Alaskan itinerary, there are a few tips that you should keep in mind when you’re planning your trip.
Plan ahead. Especially if you are going in the summer, it will be busier than the rest of the year and you will need to book your hotels, transportation, and tours in advance. Pack warm clothes no matter what time of year you go. Bring lots of layers, you can always take clothes off, but if the wind picks up you’ll be glad you have a jacket.
Keep in mind that nothing in Alaska is cheap. This trip is definitely a splurge, especially when it’s a ten-day trip. I also do recommend making it longer than a week so that you can fully enjoy each place. Travel days can be long since the state is so big! Enjoy!
Day 1: Arriving in Anchorage, Alaska
We all had around a full day of travel before arriving in Anchorage. This is also why I would recommend a longer trip to Alaska so that you can account for the travel days, both to and from Alaska and within the trip.
Anchorage is Alaska’s largest city. It does well at keeping the native culture alive and you can learn a lot about Alaska’s history here. We got two rooms at The Lakefront Anchorage. The rooms were nothing special, but the views were great. (You know me, always need a waterfront view!)
Since we only arrived in the late afternoon, we spent some time catching up at the hotel bar. It had a gorgeous terrace overlooking the lake. Then we decided to wander around Main Street and get a feel for the city. We covered some ground and ended up eating dinner at a fine pizzeria: The MooseTooth — sometimes you just gotta keep it simple. We turned in early to get ready for the adventure to come!
Day 2: Anchorage, Alaska
We spent the morning checking out the Alaska Native Heritage Center, which is an absolute must. You can watch native dances, see native art, and even explore replicas of how the indigenous people lived. It was very eye-opening and really set the tone for the trip. After our visit here we had an idea of the history of the land we were exploring and what the people were like. I think when traveling it is so important to learn about where you are and about the history of the people. It was so cool, we even bought souvenirs on our first day!
We got lunch at The Rustic Goat, which was a casual spot with good food and beers. You can definitely find fancy in town, but casual and easy is what is more readily available. The craft beers that we have had at both spots were phenomenal.
As for the afternoon, we had a quick stop to digest lunch at Elderberry Park, which is an awesome park right in the city overlooking Cook Inlet. It was a great spot to wander around the park and sit along the water. Fun fact: Anchorage has 223 parks within the city limits. What other cities can say that?!
Then, we headed for Anchorage Trolley Tours. We covered 15 miles of Anchorage and learned about the pastimes of the city and how it has changed. It was very interesting to hear more of the history and cover some ground. We had an incredibly knowledgeable guide who made the tour memorable for us.
Day 3: Heading to Denali
If you have ever even talked about going to Alaska, you have heard of Denali National Park. Denali National Park is world-famous, and for good reason! It encompasses six million acres and includes rainforest, glaciers, rivers, and mountains. You could spend months just in the park and not see it all.
While my family and I love road trips, we decided to use public transportation on this trip. From Anchorage, we took a train to Denali. The train takes seven and a half hours and travels through the most beautiful scenery. Since no one has to worry about driving, you can really take it all in — I am so glad we did it this way. The train was pretty crowded in August still, but it wasn’t overcrowded by any means.
If you are planning a road trip or a bus journey to Denali, make sure you stop at the gold-mining town of Talkeetna. This town is where 3 glacial rivers converge. They offer river trips in jet boats, inflatable kayaks, or motorboats. They also have several flight tour options to get you some close-up views of the mountains and glaciers. Our train route did not allow for us to stop in Talkeetna, but if you have the time I would check it out.
We also learned from our research that you don’t need a car in Denali, as most of the hotels and tour operators provide free shuttles to and from the train station and also to the attractions. We booked a hotel based on which ones offered those free shuttles since we knew that would be a factor for us. We stayed at Denali Bluffs Hotel which was typical Alaska rustic but had stunning views of the surrounding mountains and incredibly nice staff. I would recommend this hotel to get a good feel for the area.
We only arrived at the hotel around five, so we had dinner there and planned our tours for the next day. We definitely wanted to book tours so that we could get the most information from our guides and not miss any sights.
Day 4: Exploring Denali
Gooooood Morning Denali! The air is fresh, the sky is blue, and the mountains are green — what more could you ask for? We had an early and slightly chilly breakfast on the patio at the hotel. We booked a 7:30 a.m. bus tour for the day to explore a large section of the park and get our bearings. I wasn’t extremely excited about being on a bus all day, but Denali is so big, it is the best way to see the most.
We had a shuttle come and grab us from our hotel to take us to the bus station. From this company, there were three tours to choose from. We chose the Kantishna Experience which takes you to the end of Park Road. The trip is 92 miles and takes about 10-12 hours, depending on the length of stops.
The trip includes a naturalist and an interpretive park ranger to explain how the interior of Alaska was formed, point out and educate about any wildlife you might see, and answer any questions you have along the way. The tour wouldn’t have been the same without the wealth of knowledge the two guides provided — we learned so much!
The trip also included a private tour from the ranger of Wonder Lake, which is a “kettle lake”. This means that a retreating glacier left a chunk of ice here that melted over time making a lake. The chunk of ice that formed this was particularly big, as this lake is 250 feet deep. (See, I told you I learned some things). This part of the tour was a highlight for me.
Needless to say, at the end of the 12-hour day we were exhausted. We relaxed with an easy dinner at the hotel and fell soundly asleep.
Day 5: Denali Part 2
You can’t travel all this way and only stay for one day. Since we spent the majority of the day on a bus the day before, we wanted to get out and do some hiking. Denali is known for its hiking and has two kinds: on-trail hiking and off-trail hiking. While we are the adventurous type, we opted for the on-trail hiking as we weren’t prepared with much equipment.
There are a lot of shorter (around 2 miles) hikes near the entrance of the park. This was the perfect option for us. There are free buses that will take you to the visitor center and from there you can pick from any number of hikes. We got on the Savage River Shuttle and headed out to do a hike in the Savage River area. This particular spot has two options: Savage River Loop trail that runs along the river and does not include much climbing. The loop trail is about two miles.
The other option is the Savage Alpine trail, which is a little more strenuous and has some elevation gain. We opted for this one as we wanted a little bit of a longer, more challenging hike. It was a little on the harder side, but doable even for my parents. The views were stunning and it was so nice to get out on our own a bit. We saw others on the hike, but it was by no means crowded.
Allow for a couple of hours getting to and from the visitor center by bus as it stops frequently and the speed limit is slow. Luckily on vacation, there isn’t much of a time crunch to be anywhere.
Day 6: Traveling to Seward
Our next destination on our Alaska itinerary was Seward. By car, Seward is almost seven hours. Since we were car-less we had two options: train or bus. The train required a stop back in Anchorage, but the bus stopped in Anchorage for a pit stop, but then continued straight through to Seward on the same day. We opted to head straight to Seward by bus. This route is called the “park to park” connection as it can take you straight to Kenai Fjords National Park.
The bus journey to Seward has been nicknamed the National Scenic Byway because of how beautiful the surroundings are along the way. The route passes over rivers, through valleys, giving beautiful views of Kenai Lake as you get closer to Seward. The journey will take the majority of a day, but all you have to do is sit back and relax. Easiest sightseeing ever.
This bus service will allow you to travel to each National Park. You can purchase a ticket for each destination you desire. While the trips are long, they allow you to get direct access to the parks without having to rent a car. It’s a really great service and it is really streamlined to make it the smoothest trip possible.
We booked a hotel in advance called The Harbour 360 which was, you guessed it, right on the harbor. The rooms were nice and the views were spectacular.
Day 7: Seward, Alaska
Seward is a port city right on the inlet of the Kenai Peninsula. From here, you have easy access to Kenai Fjords National Park which is an absolute must after Denali. The town of Seward is quaint and the people are friendly. We had a slow morning grabbing coffee at Coho Joe’s Dockside Coffee where you get the real Alaskan port vibe in the morning. It’s a great spot to watch the fisherman come and go.
We booked a kayaking tour with Sunny Cove from noon to three. They have lots of options for kayaking tours and kayaking and hiking combos. We wanted to have a leisurely day so we just booked the kayaking. The water is a little rougher in the afternoon, so if you’re looking for an easier paddle, book a trip in the morning.
We saw eagles, salmon, eagles eating salmon, seals playfully and curiously popping up all around us, and we even saw a bear in the distance on the shore. We paddled toward the bear to get a closer look, but he dipped into the woods. I would recommend bringing binoculars so that you can get a good view of the wildlife. I was hoping to see a whale, but the guide informed me that in August they start heading towards Hawaii to give birth. It’s possible to see them, but rare at that time of year.
We were also able to get a water view of a glacier, which is something I never thought I’d get to see. The glacier is so blue and so massive. We had to keep a distance in case a piece of the glacier fell off (called calving). If the glacier “calves,” then it could potentially make a massive wave that would be dangerous for us on kayaks.
This tour was phenomenal. It made me realize how small I am in this giant, ancient world. I would recommend getting on the water in these beautiful fjords.
Day 8: Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska
The glaciers and the fjords are so absolutely breathtaking that we had to see more. We booked a tour with Kenai Fjord Tours, which gave us a tour of Resurrection Bay and then stopped for dinner on Fox Island. This excursion was 8 and a half hours and included dinner. This was probably one of my favorite days.
Firstly, it was my favorite because we saw orca whales! It was completely unexpected and I’ll admit they were pretty far away, but still, just to know they were that close to us was mind-blowing. Such a wild creature to see in its natural habitat. That was obviously my highlight, but we also got to see sea lions, seals, and more glaciers.
Sea lions hunt fish in the ocean, but when they are not out fishing, they are hanging out in “rookeries” on rocks. The males dominate the space and the females fill in around them. If you get downwind of them, they sure do stink, but our captain tried to keep us upwind, thankfully. The sea lion pups were curious and came right up to the boat, but the adults stayed away. They bark loudly and are super playful with each other — it’s really cool!
Dinner on Fox Island was a really cool experience. There were wild-caught Alaskan salmon, prime rib, and a buffet of other options. I would highly recommend doing this tour; it was perfect from start to finish. Bring some warmer clothes, even in August, it got a little chilly.
Day 9: Last Day in Seward
This was the perfect casual last day activity. The shuttle dropped us at the Nature Center and from there you can start the Exit Glacier Loop Trail which is about a mile long trail that ends back in the parking lot. We hiked out and from the viewpoint, you can see panoramic views of the glacier. From this vantage point, we could see how the glacier-carved out the earth as it grew millions of years ago. Now, like most glaciers, it is receding.
We took our time meandering through the park and when we were ready, we hopped back on the shuttle. Our driver recommended this really cool restaurant that is about a mile down the road, called Salmon Bake Restaurant. They always have fresh fish (salmon, halibut and snapper) and they brew their own beer, need I say more?
After we gorged ourselves, we called a taxi and headed back to the hotel to pack and prepare for our journey back to Anchorage the next day. It was a perfect, relaxing last day.
Day 10: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles
Today was a day of travel. We woke up early and had a quick breakfast in town at The Highliner and headed for the train station. We had a train booked back to Anchorage which was about a 4-hour ride. The train ride was beautiful again.
We timed our flight to leave later that night. We didn’t leave a lot of room for error which I never recommend when traveling, but everything went smoothly and we made our flights without a problem. Another successful family trip!
I will say that Alaska has left me in awe. Each day there was a completely new adventure thrown at us, with crazy amounts of wildlife and humbling views. Being in the place that is so old and so untouched is truly an experience. If you are wanting to get off the beaten path and really explore, Alaska is for you. I hope this Alaskan itinerary will give you some ideas to plan your trip, but you can’t go wrong with all that beauty around.