When my husband proposed exploring Alaska by car, I gamely agreed, even though I hate driving.
While I’ve never been in an accident or even gotten a speeding ticket, I just prefer see the world on two feet. We also live in New York City with our eight-year-old son and take public transportation everywhere. In fact, before this trip, I hadn’t driven a car in two years.
But I agreed, because an Alaska road trip would give us the opportunity to get a sense of the state’s massive scale, which covers 586,000 square miles of land, equivalent to one-fifth of the Lower 48. A car would also offer much more freedom and flexibility than a guided tour, I thought.
While we intended to take plenty of paved, well-traveled roads, our itinerary would also take us on four roads known for being challenging: McCarthy Road, Glenn Highway, Denali Highway, and Dalton Highway.
Many of these roads cut through a vast, largely uninhabited wilderness, and though we contemplated renting an RV, we decided instead on a smaller car and camping or staying in Airbnbs or hotels.
My husband and I agreed to divvy up the driving, with our son riding shotgun, dug out our driver’s licenses, and set off.
Every aspect of our trip required meticulous planning.
Our itinerary had us fly into Anchorage in August, where we would pick up our rental car. From there, we would drive to Seward, which would serve as a base for exploring the Kenai Peninsula and Kenai Fjords National Park. Then, we would take the Glenn Highway to McCarthy, along the McCarthy Road, to explore Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve.
From McCarthy, we would take the Denali Highway to Denali National Park and Preserve. We would then head north to Fairbanks on the Parks Highway. North of Fairbanks, we would take the Dalton Highway to Coldfoot, our base for exploring Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve. We’d then drive back to Fairbanks, where we would return our rental car and fly home to New York.
To make this trip come to life, we needed the right car. But none of the major car rental agencies — Avis, Enterprise, and others — allowed their fleet to travel on the state’s infamous roads, including the Denali Highway or the Dalton Highway. This is because rental companies fear damage and accidents, and many of these roads are gravel, which is prone to erosion and requires experienced drivers. And, as we discovered firsthand, these roads are full of sharp rocks that can puncture or shred tires.
After extensive research, we rented a car from GoNorth, which rents vehicles from Seattle, Anchorage, Fairbanks; and Whitehorse, Canada.
At GoNorth, customers indicate how many miles they expect to travel and pay for those miles in advance. Accordingly, before we even left for Alaska, we spent a lot of time with Google Maps and “The Milepost,” a guidebook to every road in Alaska, plotting out our estimated distances. As it happens, we came within 100 miles of our agreed-upon mileage of 2,100 miles.
Based on my research, car rental companies charge different prices depending on the time of year. We went during the peak summer season and paid a base rate of $99 per day, plus around $700 for our estimated 2,100 miles of travel.
GoNorth also requires customers without auto insurance to purchase coverage, and we chose the maximum, about $750 for our trip duration.
We rented a mid-size Jeep Cherokee SUV that the company named “Hobart” and our child called “Hobart the Great Stormrider.” This name proved prophetic as we encountered rain from drizzle to heavy downpours over the course of our trip.
We decided to travel in late summer, following the height of mosquito season, which is generally from mid-June to early August, and before fall’s first frosts in September. We did not foresee the near-constant rain. The rainy weather surprised every Alaskan we spoke to and it meant mud — mud on the road, mud on the trails we hiked, mud on our clothes, mud in the car.
To keep down the dust and minimize ice, Alaska’s Department of Transportation (DOT) often treats gravel roads with calcium chloride. In our experience, heavy rain mixed with the treated gravel led to a cement-like muck that caused excessive slipperiness.
Our rental car had a “mud/sand” driving mode that we could shift into to minimize the slipping and sliding. Four-wheel drive helped, too. But I never knew beforehand this would be a major aspect of driving in Alaska.
First published in 1949, a decade before Alaska became a state, “The Milepost” is an indispensable guide to Alaska’s highways. I think it was hands down the best $39.95 (plus shipping) we spent on trip supplies.
We ordered it online ahead of time, although I saw it for sale at the REI in Anchorage, as well as at various gas stations.
At first, I thought relying on a 656-page paperback to navigate seemed quaint, a throwback to a time before Google and GPS. Yet given the incredible remoteness of our route, we rarely had cellphone coverage when we drove. Often, our GPS lost track of us entirely or simply said “forest.” We would have been lost without this guidebook, truly.
Highways in Alaska are marked with mileposts, indicating how far you are from one end of the highway. “The Milepost” describes routes in tremendous detail, down to the tenth of a mile, providing information ranging from the condition of the road to wildlife, and potential places to pull off to pick berries or take photos.
I found it to be the best guidebook I’ve ever used on trips through five continents and think no one should visit Alaska without it.
The Glenn Highway (AK-1 N) stretches from Anchorage to Tok and runs 328 miles. Of our four intense driving routes, I thought this highway was in the best shape as it was paved for the entire length we traveled on.
However, frequent, tight curves and dramatic changes in the speed limit made our 189-mile trip from Anchorage to Glennallen the most nausea-inducing of our vacation. We’d be humming along at 60 mph, then speed limit signs would force us to drop back to 30 to go around a winding stretch, over and over again. I white-knuckled it the whole way. Was the scenery beautiful? I don’t know, I only watched the road.
My passengers, though, reported outstanding views of the Chugach Mountains and Matanuska Glacier. The US Department of Transportation agrees, naming part of the Glenn a “National Scenic Byway” in 2002.
McCarthy Road connects the Edgerton Highway in Chitina to the tiny town of McCarthy and is one of the main routes into Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve, which is the US’ biggest park. In fact, it’s the equivalent of six Yellowstone National Parks.
Based on my research, I learned that the McCarthy Road is known to be punishing on tires and drivers. The largely unpaved road is constructed atop a railbed of a defunct copper-mining train line, and is riddled with potholes, often narrowing to a lane-and-a-half width. Railroad spikes still occasionally turn up in the dirt and gravel. The National Park Service recommends that drivers exercise extreme caution considering the roads ruts, washboards, and what they term “unexpected hazards.”
At the end of the 59-mile road — which is also devoid of services, so fill the tank in Chitina before starting — is a footbridge over the Kennicott River, the primary means of accessing McCarthy, visiting the abandoned Kennecott Mines, tooling around Root Glacier, and catching bush planes deeper into Wrangell-St. Elias.
As we turned onto the McCarthy Road, we passed through a gap in the rock blasted to make way for the old railroad. The two huge, craggy boulders leaned precariously close toward one another, and I thought of Dante’s famous line: “Abandon all hope ye who enter here.”
Yet once I made peace with near-constant teeth clacking from all the bumps, I thought it actually wasn’t so bad. In contrast to the Glenn Highway, the McCarthy Road is mostly flat, allowing us to maintain a 30-ish mph pace — 35 mph is the posted limit. The road winds past lakes, meadows, forests, river valleys, mountains, and off-the-grid private residences, and I thought the smell of fresh pines, alder, and spruce coming in through our open windows beat any air freshener.
While most of McCarthy Road was not as intimidating as I feared it would be, that wasn’t the case when it was time to cross the one-lane Kuskulana Bridge, which totters 238 feet above the Kuskulana River.
We pulled up to the 525-foot-long bridge and then immediately pulled over. Not only did we have to steel ourselves to hit the gas and keep going, but we also had to make sure that no other vehicles were coming.
Built as part of the railway in 1910, the bridge had missing, as well as visibly cracked, wooden boards, which we had to avoid as we drove. The bridge audibly, and terrifyingly, creaked as we drove over it, but we thankfully made it over without incident.
Many people opt to take the Parks Highway from Anchorage or Fairbanks to Denali National Park, as this highway is paved and well-appointed.
This highway also has a lot of traffic, which is why we instead chose the Denali Highway, which runs from Paxson to Cantwell. Mostly gravel, the Denali Highway offers a scenic 135-mile trip with jaw-dropping views of the Alaska Range. What it does not offer are gas stations, many places to eat and stay, or traffic.
As we drove, I felt it looked as if dinosaurs could, at any moment, step into the lush, lake-filled tundra.
We were also especially aware of the highway’s remoteness when we blew two tires at the exact same time.
What caused the flat tires is somewhat unclear. We did not drive over nails or tire spikes, nor were the tires slashed. Instead, as best as we can figure, we were going too fast on gravel, and sharp rocks damaged our rental car’s already weakened tires. Rain also made potholes difficult to spot, and wet conditions likely worsened potholes and washboards. Conditions of all the roads depend on weather and how recently DOT maintenance crews have been through.
Luckily, our trusty “The Milepost” showed that we were about two miles from one of the highway’s few lodges, where we were able to get our tire situation sorted.
The lodge’s mechanic replaced one flat with our rental car’s spare. Unfortunately, he didn’t have another spare to replace the second flat and did not think a patch would prevent the tire from continuing to leak air. So we booked into the lodge for the night and contacted GoNorth, who sent a driver the next day with new tires, one to replace the second flat, and two for us to keep in the trunk, just in case.
GoNorth charged $300 each for the replacement tires, but the insurance package we purchased from the agency erased the cost.
Although we never got close to the speed limit, I think we should have been going even slower, given the rough road conditions filled with potholes. The lodge’s mechanic recommended a speed of no more than 15 mph in the most degraded sections of the highway to avoid flats.
For the remainder of our trip, we went far slower, edging around potholes with precision and care, and did not experience any further tire trouble.
You might have heard of the Dalton Highway, also known as the Haul Road because of its heavy industrial traffic, and from such episodes of “Ice Road Truckers” where it’s referred to as “Accident Alley” and “Blood on the Dalton.”
The Dalton Highway begins about 80 miles north of Fairbanks, near the small settlement of Livengood. From there, it stretches 414 miles to the Arctic Ocean.
Three-quarters unpaved, with only two service stations on its entire length, and traversed primarily by industrial vehicles heading to or from the oil fields at Prudhoe Bay, the Dalton is considered one of the most dangerous and demanding drives in the world. As the Alaska DOT puts it, the Dalton is “not your average highway.”
I thought it lived up to its reputation of being isolated, remote, and hilly. Indeed, there’s a section that “The Milepost” refers to it as the “Roller Coaster,” for being extremely bumpy.
For most of the drive, cosmic quiet was occasionally punctuated by the high-pitched whine of 18-wheelers hustling north and south. We experienced patches of mud eight inches deep and fog banks that cut visibility to about a hundred feet. I thought “The Milepost” put it best when it said, “Not everyone . . . is meant for this drive.”
We made it through by taking the drive very, very slowly with frequent breaks. We drove defensively and pulled over any time we encountered a vehicle going faster.
We took the Dalton Highway 175 miles to Coldfoot, which consists of a tiny airstrip, a truck stop, and the Arctic Interagency Visitor Center, where we enjoyed dioramas and spoke with a wonderfully informative staff person who helped our son become a Gates of the Arctic Junior Ranger.
At the Visitor Center, I thumbed through the Dalton Highway Traveler’s Log Book, whose entries went back to 2004. “The environment is capable of making a professional photographer out of every amateur,” wrote one visitor. “The size of the mountains always reminds me of how small I am,” wrote another.
We passed approximately 50 vehicles in either direction while on the Dalton. We twice passed the same cyclist on a recumbent bike, as well as one person running while carrying the American flag.
Often on the Dalton, we felt as if we were driving at walking speed, 3 to 4 mph, which to me served as a reminder of human migration routes more than 10,000 years ago. Sometimes we drove slightly faster, but we never went the speed limit of 50 mph. Long flat stretches meant we could see the potholes coming and swerve accordingly.
The Dalton also abuts the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, which is an incredible feat of engineering completed in 1977. The 800-mile pipeline brings oil from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez. Signs warn people away from touching, climbing, or otherwise getting too close to the pipeline.
The Bureau of Land Management calls the Dalton “the Ultimate Road Adventure” and after driving here, I couldn’t agree more.
We learned the best way to avoid car problems in Alaska is to drive slowly, carefully, and defensively. We lost a day and night of our trip waiting for new tires after our mishap on the Denali Highway, and while our insurance covered the price of the new tires, our unexpected night at the lodge cost us $300.
Looking back, we should have begun our journey with two full-size spares, and gotten a bigger car to accommodate them.
After our tire trouble, we became especially cautious. Any time we stopped for gas, we checked the tire pressure. We navigated around potholes with the precision of a surgeon and the pace of a snail. We often pulled over to let just about anyone pass us.
Other times, we saw groups of cars pulled off to the side of the road and learned to follow suit.
Considering the secluded nature of Alaskan highways, seeing wildlife while driving is almost guaranteed. We spied eagles, bears, caribou, foxes, and moose. Clusters of pulled over cars are a signal that wildlife is in the area.
As the National Park Service puts it, “If you’re close enough for a selfie, you’re definitely too close.” Keeping a safe distance enables you to observe the animal without bothering it. If you want to see wildlife, use binoculars or a telephoto lens and only exit your vehicle if you’re confident that doing so will not endanger you, the animal, or anyone else in the area.
And be bear aware. There are signs about bear safety everywhere, so if you forget that both brown and black bears roam these lands, it won’t be long before you’re reminded to make noise and leave no trace.
As for moose, the largest of deer species clock in at up to six-and-a-half feet tall and more than 1,000 pounds. They might seem like gentle giants, but according to Denali park rangers we spoke to, moose dislike people and will not hesitate to charge aggressively.
We had amazing experiences at the national parks we visited and had fun in the car, including epic games of Would You Rather and 20 Questions .
While challenging, driving in Alaska encourages adaptability, self-reliance, reflection, and a can-do spirit.
Despite our conservative estimates, every drive took longer than expected. But this trip reminded us that it’s about the journey, not just the destination. I thought that saying proved especially true for Alaska road trips.
My eight-year-old said, “There’s a startlingly large number of trees in Alaska.” He was right. I also learned there are a startlingly large number of potholes. Nevertheless, if you can glance up from the road, experiencing Alaska by car is gorgeous and unforgettable.