Alaska road trip offers a rare look at the last frontier

If you really want to see Alaska, you need wheels.

Most visitors come to the Last Frontier on a cruise ship or a plane. A motorcoach picks them up at the airport and delivers them to a hotel, to an airstrip or a national park, and they only see a small sliver of this state.

It’s a beautiful sliver, to be sure — but too small considering Alaska’s vast size.

Which is why my kids and I decided to go the other way. We rented a car in Anchorage and took to the road, driving down to Seward and up to Denali National Park. Yes, there’s still a lot for us to explore, and plenty that’s inaccessible by car, but the enchantment of Alaska’s open road is something you can’t experience from the back of the bus, off the deck of a cruise ship, or from Alaska’s impressive railroad.

My three kids, ages 10, 12, and 15, and I are fortunate. Our family travel site is supported by Hertz, which set us up with a Ford Explorer, an SUV that can handle almost any Alaskan road. I should note that most car rental contracts, including Hertz’, don’t allow you to drive on unpaved roads, especially in the 49th state, where unpaved can mean anything from less maintained to downright dangerous.

Which brings me to my first piece of advice: Take the SUV, or at the very least, a four-wheel-drive vehicle. You never know when you’ll be trying to negotiate a steep grade in a national park or find yourself on a rain-slickened road, and you’ll want the extra control. Two-wheel-drive cars are for suburban commutes, but not for this place.

There are at least two things you can discover in a car — the road and the destination. And there are three roads that really stood out during our month-long tour of Alaska. First, the magnificent drive from Anchorage to Alyeska on Highway 1, with its breathtaking views of the Cook Inlet’s Turnagain Arm and the unspoiled wilderness of Chugach State Park. There’s also the intriguing drive south along Highway 1 and Portage Glacier Road to Whittier, through the narrow Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel. And finally, there’s the ridiculously picturesque drive up Highway 3 to Denali National Park, and if you’re adventurous, up to Fairbanks.

Along the way, we discovered that the road was the destination. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Highway 1 from Anchorage to Alyeska

It’s a short, one-hour trek from Anchorage down to Alyeska, Alaska’s legendary ski resort. We made the trip in early September, when the leaves were starting to turn yellow and low clouds hovered low over the Cook Inlet. Coming from San Diego’s balmy 80 degree weather to the mid-40s was a shock. We recovered just in time to appreciate the stunning views of the mountains and bay.

The road winds its way south, with frequent turnouts for tourists like us to take pictures. Good thing, too. Without these opportunities, I’m sure there’d be more traffic accidents, with shutterbugs veering into the oncoming traffic in order to find the perfect shot.

Here, off the beaten path means access to almost everything the locals have. You can shop for groceries at Fred Meyer or swing by Gwennies for sourdough pancakes, and you don’t have to worry about a train schedule. A word of warning, though: Parking in Anchorage can be a real bear. Like a lot of tourist towns, they’ve figured out a way to maximize their parking revenue. It pays to park a little farther from downtown and walk off that pancake breakfast.

Alyeska is its own reward, from the impressive Alyeska Resort, with its incredible network of hiking trails, to my kids’ favorite, the Bake Shop (try the sweet rolls, they’re amazing). But the highlight is the drive. If you’re staying in Alyeska, as we were, you’ll be tempted to head back north a few times just to do it over again.

Portage Glacier Road to Whittier

If you’ve never driven to Whittier, and you have an extra day, you really should consider going. Highway 1 extends farther south to Portage, past even more spectacular views of mountains and inlet. Then you hang a left and motor down a narrow, two-lane road past Portage Lake until you meet the mountain. It’s a $13 toll to pass through the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel and reach Prince William Sound on the other side, but well worth it. At 2.5 miles, it’s said to be the longest highway tunnel in North America. And it’s the narrowest. At just one lane, it’s shared with train tracks and you have to time your journey just right so that you don’t have to wait for your turn.

We found Whittier shrouded in clouds, with lone espresso booths at the port catering to freezing visitors like us. This is a popular launching point for glacier tours, but as with the first road trip, the drive is also its own kind of destination. Along the road you’ll see abundant wildlife, including moose and eagle. Portage Lake takes such a beautiful picture. But go slowly, since it’s only a 40-minute drive from Alyeska to Whittier. Pull over often and savor the views.

Highway 3 from Anchorage to Cantwell

This 3 1/2 -hour road trip is among the most picturesque in the United States, if not the world. On a clear day, you can see the snow-capped peaks of Denali National Park, including Mount McKinley, the highest mountain in North America, with a summit elevation of 20,310 feet. But take that drive on a clear fall day, as we did, and you’ll see so much more. The foliage is more vibrant, with brilliant yellows and reds with the dark cinnamon undertones of the turning blueberries bushes.

Many visitors to Alaska make this trip in a motorcoach or by train. I’ve done it every way, and driving is still my favorite. Why? Because you get to determine where you go. Want to stop at the Talkeetna Roadhouse for a slice of pie? You can in your own vehicle. Want to visit my friends at Alaska Nature Guides for a hike up Curry Ridge in Denali State Park, for the best views of McKinley? Take the SUV.

Mostly, though, the road to Cantwell is mesmerizing in a way that no other road in America can be. Its two lanes run straight north into pure wilderness. The shifting weather — sunny and bright one minute, rainy the next with a slight possibility of snow — reminds you that you are no longer in the lower 48. This place is not for the faint of heart.

Driving Alaska’s roads is strictly defensive. A lot of the oncoming traffic is commercial: Trucks hauling logs, fuel or other supplies. The roads are sometimes well-paved, but often riddled with potholes that are the inevitable result of the wildly fluctuating temperatures. You have to be at the top of your game to drive here. And if you’re not, the car can help. Someone turned the settings on my SUV to maximum sensitivity, so that even a sudden turn would result in a warning to “rest soon” from the vehicle’s navigation system.

Rest? But I’m just getting started.

For some people, coming to Alaska is a bucket list trip, a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. For my family, driving in Alaska was the bucket list trip, and I can’t wait to do it again.