Only 680,000 people live in Alaska, yet if superimposed on a map of the continental United States, the state would stretch from the west to the east coast. When visiting, consider a flexible, independent tour that combines rail and road travel to the best of the south central and interior regions. Start in Anchorage; hop a train south to Seward for a visit to Kenai Fjords National Park, then travel north to Denali National Park and on to Fairbanks and Chena Hot Springs. You’ll sample everything Alaska has to offer: glacier hikes, 20-plus hours of summer daylight, miles of wildflowers in bloom, and rivers bigger and more prevalent than highways. This year, the 49th state celebrates its 50th birthday, so now is an ideal time to plan a trip.
Anchorage could easily be overshadowed by the beauty of its backdrop―six mountain ranges and sweeping views of Cook Inlet. But in addition to its scenery, this diverse city boasts an abundance of excellent restaurants showcasing fresh seafood and seasonal vegetables from the nearby Mat-Su Valley, where in summer, days of nearly 24 hours of light produce a giant and tasty harvest.
Where to stay: The Copper Whale Inn bed-and-breakfast sits close to the Coastal Trail and enjoys stunning panoramas of the Alaska Range.
Eat smart: The menu changes daily at Sacks Café; look for locally sourced standouts, like Halibut Cove oysters served raw on the half shell.
Be fit: Cycle the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, which offers views of Cook Inlet. Downtown Bicycle Rental provides everything you need for your outing.
Live well: The second floor Alaska Gallery of the Anchorage Museum chronicles the state’s history, from the first native inhabitants through statehood.
Many consider the Coastal Classic run from Anchorage to Seward the most beautiful stretch of the Alaska Railroad.
Seward, a busy harbor town 126 miles south of Anchorage and the southern terminus of the railroad, sits at the head of Resurrection Bay, an excellent fishing spot for halibut and silver salmon off the Gulf of Alaska. The city also serves as the gateway to Kenai Fjords National Park, an Ice Age relic where glaciers meet the ocean.
Where to stay: You’ll find the Seward Windsong Lodge two miles from the railway depot (the lodge offers a free shuttle). Its tranquil setting offers refuge from the bustle of town.
Eat smart: For lunch, try a local favorite, the Smoke Shack (907-224-7427), a barbecue joint housed in an old railway car near the depot. You won’t go wrong with the moist and flavorful pulled pork sandwich doused in jalapeño-orange sauce.
Be fit: Hike Exit Glacier, a rare opportunity to see a glacier without helicoptering in. Ranger-led walks are available daily, starting from the Exit Glacier Nature Center (907-224-2132).
Live well: Sailing from Seward’s Small Boat Harbor, a full-day Kenai Fjords Tour cruises throughout the park, offering great whale watching and an up-close look at the calving Holgate Glacier.
By bus, the journey from Seward to Denali takes a full day. The Park Connection Coach Service offers regular service. Board a coach in the morning, alight for lunch at the Anchorage Museum, and stop for dinner near Talkeetna, arriving at Denali around 9 p.m., when it’s still light.
Denali National Park (shown left) is 250 miles north of Anchorage. It’s home to bears, wolves, caribou, and moose, and 20,320-foot Mt. McKinley (also known as Denali), the tallest peak in North America.
Where to stay: Rooms at the Cedar Hotel, located just outside the park boundary, are available with private decks overlooking the glacier-fed Nenana River.
Eat smart: Chef Laura Cole’s 229 Parks Restaurant and Tavern is situated at mile 229 on the Parks Highway. Each summer the restaurant staff forages for ripening blue- and lingonberries that Cole serves in her fresh berry tart.
Be fit: Ranger-led daily Discovery Hikes, limited to 11 people, vary from moderate to strenuous (some have an elevation gain of more than 1,000 feet) and average three to five hours of hiking, plus bus time into the park. You must sign up for the hikes in person one to two days in advance at the Denali Visitor Center.
Live well: Visit four-time Iditarod champion Jeff King’s kennels, Husky Homestead, where you can learn all about the state’s official sport: dog mushing.
Hop a Parks Highway Express bus from either the Denali National Park Visitor Center or the rail depot, and continue to the heart of Alaska’s Interior, Fairbanks, 120 miles away.
Where to stay: At Chena Hot Springs Resort, guests have enjoyed the rejuvenating waters of naturally occurring springs for more than a century. Your room will be steps away from the large outdoor lake filled with steamy mineral water.
Eat smart: Chena Hot Springs aims to be Alaska’s first completely energy-self-sufficient resort. Geothermal steam, courtesy of the hot springs, helps meet almost all its energy needs, including greenhouses that yield year-round produce. The lettuce and tomatoes in the Chena Hot Springs Restaurant’s salads are picked daily.
Be fit: The Chena River winds its way in and around Fairbanks. At Alaska Outdoor Rentals, you’ll find kayaks and easy on-site access to the river.
Live well: The University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Museum of the North overlooks the Tanana River, and since 2005 its new wing has been a staple of the Fairbanks skyline. The design’s combination of sharp angles and undulating lines evoke Alaska’s glaciers and mountain ridges.
Getting there: Most of Alaska is in the Alaska Time Zone, an hour later than Pacific Time.
Climate: In summer, Alaska temperatures may range from 40 to 80 degrees. In Fairbanks during late June, the sun shines for nearly 22 hours. Visitors in late August and September will find slightly shorter days and cooler temperatures.
Transportation: Car rentals are readily available in Anchorage and Fairbanks, though most hotels and guide services provide shuttle services. Many activities in Alaska need to be reserved well in advance since services and accommodations are limited and often sell out during the height of the season.