Essential RV Alaska:
How to Explore
The Last Frontier in
3 Iconic Drives
by Melissa Larsen
As the world becomes increasingly developed and busier, people are craving nature and wide-open spaces more and more. And now with a global health pandemic, getting away from it all on an RV trip to Alaska is even more appealing.
The 49th state is one of the least populous in the country, but boasts the most glaciers, 17 of the 20 highest mountain peaks in the United States, and more coastline than all other states put together. Alaska is an outdoor lover’s dream with many scenic drives that beckon you to discover an unspoiled paradise.
The Seward Highway
Named a National Forest Scenic Byway, the 127-mile Seward Highway connects Anchorage and Seward, while treating road trippers to Instagram worthy views of glaciers, salt water bays, and jutting mountain peaks.
The drive seduces you almost the moment you leave the city and come along the shores of Turnagain Arm. The inlet received its funny name from explorer James Cook who realized it wasn’t the Inside Passage and had to turn again to the sea.
Turnagain Arm has 37-foot tides, which are topped only by those in the Bay of Fundy. If you’re there when the water rushes out you’ll see miles of exposed mud flats. Pull over at the Beluga Lookout Point to potentially see these great whales, and for a 180-degree view of Turnagain Arm. Look out the other side of the RV and you’ll see Chugach State Park, one the largest state parks in the country. Simply take in the spectacular mountain scenery, or take a break and enjoy the park while hiking, kayaking, rafting or fishing.
Stop in the laid-back town of Girdwood, about 45 minutes outside of Anchorage to enjoy skiing if it’s winter, hiking if it’s summer, or simply a stroll through the charming town that is peppered with shops, galleries and restaurants.
If you want to guarantee you see the animals Alaska is known for, stop at the nonprofit Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. The sanctuary is home to orphaned and rehabilitating bears, moose, caribou and musk ox. Guests can either drive or walk a 1.5-mile loop to view the animals. The nearby receding Portage Glacier is still a popular attraction. The best way to view it now is on a boat tour departing five times daily during the summer from the Begich Boggs Visitor Center.
Continue along the highway to the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel. The 2.5 mile, one-way tunnel is the longest in North America. Being one-way, expect traffic delays, and note the tunnel closes at 10:30 p.m. The tunnel was originally a train tunnel that connected Turnagain Arm to the secret military base of Whittier during WWII. Today the 200 residents of the tiny town basically live in one building due to lack of buildable land. The highlight is its harbor on Prince William Sound. Visitors can kayak and even scuba dive.
Just before you reach Seward stop at Kenai Fjords National Park. The park is home to 38 glaciers, including the easily accessible Exit Glacier. The glacier is a mere 20-minute walk from the parking lot. Walk the Edge of the Glacier Trail to get a good photo in front of the glacier. If you’re an experienced hiker and want to spend the day, the 8.4-mile Harding Icefield Trail will take you to a 3,500-foot summit where you have 360-degree views of the Harding Icefield, a 700-square-foot mile ice sheet that is the source of over 35 glaciers.
The town of Seward is the place to experience Alaska’s famous dog sledding. The Seavey family has been rooted in Seward for over 50 years, winning seven Iditarod races. During the off-season they offer dog sled rides to keep the pups in shape and give visitors a genuine Alaskan experience.
RV Campgrounds along the Seward Highway
Bird Creek in Girdwood
Stoney Creek Park in Seward
Creekwood Inn in Anchorage
Driving to Denali
Denali National Park is one of Alaska’s most iconic sites and a must-see for any visitor. Starting in Anchorage you can quickly connect with the Parks Highway (Highway 3) that will take you directly to Denali, while passing through landscapes dotted with lakes, mountains and moose.
Drive for about 30 minutes before detouring onto Eklutna Lake Road for a stop at Eklutna Lake. The picturesque area has mountains stretching as far as the eye can see, and Eklutna Village—the oldest continuously inhabited Native American and Russian Orthodox settlement in the area. Dating to 1650, visitors can take a guided tour to learn about the Dena’ina Athabascans and Russian Orthodox who settled the area.
Plan a picnic lunch at Nancy Lake State Park. As the name suggests, the park is filled with lakes, making it an ideal place to get out on the water in a kayak or canoe. The area is flat, but its forests still make for a beautiful, if easy, hike.
If you like kitsch, detour off the highway to Talkeetna. The town was the model for the 1990s TV series Northern Exposure, and is the vision most people have of a gold mining town brought to life. It’s also a good place to find local, handmade souvenirs.
Before you pull into Denali National Park, stop at the Denali Viewpoint. It’s one of the best places to get unobstructed, sweeping views of the park.
Denali National Park is a massive six million acre outdoor paradise. The focal point of the park is Denali Mountain, the highest peak in the country (Formally known as Mt. McKinley) There are several campgrounds in Denali National Park that can accommodate RVs. You must reserve in advance.
Denali is primarily a car free zone so travel within the park is done by transit or tour bus. If you want to learn more about the park and view wildlife the National History Tour, Tundra Wilderness Tour or Kantishna Experience Tour are your best options. If you want to hike, bike, or fish it’s better to opt for the transit bus to get you to where you want to go.
Alaska Marine Highway
Along with the Seward Highway, the Alaska Marine Highway is one of two All-American Roads in the state. The Alaska Marine Highway is the state ferry system providing access to the towns and scenery of coastal Alaska. Best of all you can take your RV on the ferry.
Choose to explore Southeast Alaska to take in the stunning beauty and iconic towns of the Inside Passage. Start your tour in Skagway, a town that was the heart of the Klondike Gold Rush. Visit the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park to learn more about the 1897 gold rush through historical structures, trails and stories of the time. Take a ranger led walking tour of Skagway’s National Historic District. Several different themed tours are offered. When the tour is over mosey on over to the Red Onion Saloon, a former bordello and now the perfect place to raise a pint.
From Skagway make your way by ferry to Alaska’s capital city, Juneau. The city is the jumping off point to several iconic Inside Passage attractions. The Mendenhall Glacier is just 13 miles from the city. The glacier is a half-mile wide and in some places 1,800 feet deep. Take a stroll down Photo Point Trail to get an unobstructed view of the glacier.
Tracy Arm is a classic fjord whose many glaciers, waterfalls and icebergs make it worth a day trip from Juneau. On a fjord cruise you’ll have the opportunity to marvel at Mother Nature as you see and hear glacier calves (break off) into the sea. The most famous glacier in the area is Sawyer Glacier, which will often treat onlookers to mammoth pieces of ice calving. Calving is the process that produces icebergs, which are plentiful in the fjord. Nature lovers should keep their eyes peeled for whales, bears, mountain goats and a plethora of birds, including eagles that make this area their home.
Once you’re done exploring Juneau take the ferry down to Sitka. Sitka is a unique blend of Russian and Tlingit culture, and is the site where the transfer of Alaska from Russian to United States hands occurred. The population of Sitka is less than 10,000 but there are 22 buildings in town on the National Register of Historic Places.
Sitka National Historic Park is the state’s smallest national park, but one of its most interesting thanks to the 18 totem poles easily seen on the mile-long Totem Trail. At the visitor center you can learn more about the Tlingit people and the meaning behind the totem poles. The park is within walking distance of the center of Sitka.
St. Michael’s Cathedral is the earliest Orthodox cathedral in the New World. However, the original structure burned in 1996 and what stands now is an exact replica. It is still a great place to learn more about Sitka’s Russian past. Portions of the Sunday services are conducted in Tlingit, Aleut and Yupik.
Return to the ferry to wrap up your Inside Passage adventure in Ketchikan. In the heart of the city head to Creek Street, the most photographed street in Alaska. The area was a red-light district, but is now a mecca for galleries, museums and shops. Stop at Dolly’s House (you can’t miss it), a former brothel that is now a museum.
Ketchikan is made for outdoor activities. Plan a hike in the Tongass National Forest, at 17 million acres it’s the largest forest in the country, or for a surprising activity, snorkel the coast with Snorkel Alaska.
RV Parks of the Inside Passage
Sealing Cove RV Park in Sitka
Sprucewood Park in Juneau
Garden City RV Park in Skagway
Clover Pass Resort and RV Park in Ketchikan
Today, it’s hard to find uncharted, less traveled and more remote destinations to escape to. As the largest state in the country, Alaska has miles and miles of unexplored land for you to discover on any of these RV trips through the Last Frontier.