Alaska’s beautiful highways are destinations in and of themselves
The family road trip is a rite of passage. When the 1950s brought automobile ownership to nearly every household, car trips became the preferred way to vacation, and even Alaska was included in this rush to see America. Indeed, many residents fondly recall memories of traveling north up the dusty, bumpy Alaska-Canada Highway, and today, driving the 49th state is a popular way to explore the Last Frontier for both visitors and Alaskans, especially those who enjoy flexible schedules.
Alaska’s road systems are a bit unique, though, meaning the entire family must be vigilant and independent. I make sure we’re ready for emergencies with a plastic tub that includes food, water, sleeping bags, first aid kit, bug spray, a smartphone car charger, and cash. In the event of a major delay or breakdown miles from the nearest town, we won’t starve, go thirsty, freeze, or be eaten by mosquitoes. And, when we do need help, we’ll have cash to pay for goods or services in places that might not have credit card capabilities.
We utilize the Alaska Department of Transportation’s 511 system (http://511.alaska.gov), with descriptions of current road conditions and delays around the state. Alaskans joke about two seasons, winter and construction, and either could mean trouble for the unprepared.
Where do we like to roam? The state is our oyster, but we do have favorites. Below are a few excellent choices for families.
Anchorage to Seward (www.seward.com), or Anchorage to Homer (www.homeralaska.org), on the Kenai Peninsula. Find Seward 127 lovely miles south of Anchorage, along the Seward Highway, a designated All-American Road. While many people do take advantage of the convenient two-hour drive for day trips, I highly recommend spending at least one night, taking in a glacier cruise, guided kayak trip, or family hike in Kenai Fjords National Park. Homer is reached via the Sterling Highway, a jog to the right just after Turnagain Pass. Situated at the southern tip of the Kenai Peninsula, Homer is 227 miles and approximately five hours from Anchorage, depending upon the season and number of RVs on the road. Plan at least three days of recreating around scenic Kachemak Bay. With plenty of hiking, wildlife viewing, beachcombing, and fishing, Homer is a delightful spot to vacation with kids.
Fairbanks to Denali National Park. Denali (www.nps.gov/dena) is more than a drive-through. The George Parks Highway, a National Scenic Byway, takes travelers through the heart of Alaska wilderness, with Mt. McKinley looming in the background. While the Park’s periphery, known as “Glitter Gulch,” can be overwhelming, take advantage of National Park entrance area activities, like the Murie Science and Learning Center, sled dog demonstrations, guided nature walks, or a rafting trip down the Nenana River (www.denaliraft.com).
McCarthy/Kennecott Mines. This drive is rugged, but with 65 miles of dirt road and scenic landscape on the way to the village of McCarthy (www.coppervalleychamber.com), it’s also beautiful. Kennecott Mines National Historic Landmark, in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, is five miles beyond McCarthy, and both places are inaccessible by car, so visitors must park at the Kennicott River and take a shuttle. Allow at least four days for this trip; it takes an entire day to get there and back, and one must hike, mountain bike, or flightsee around glaciers and the interesting mining community. (http://www.nps.gov/wrst/historyculture/kennecott.htm).
Wherever you go, celebrate the journey, because getting there is half the fun, especially in Alaska.
Erin Kirkland is a freelance writer and publisher of AKontheGO.com, a website dedicated to family travel and outdoor recreation in Alaska. She lives in Anchorage with her family.