The next day, proceed through Anchorage and up the Parks Highway to the entrance to Denali National Park. About 100 miles north of Anchorage, you will see signs for the Talkeetna spur road on your right. Alaska summer days are long, so you will have plenty of time to detour about 20 miles east to Talkeetna. Talkeetna is an old pioneer town and became famous more recently as the reputed model for the Northern Exposure TV series. It is a cute little Alaskan town, although often overrun by tourists.
Talkeetna is the jumping off spot for most mountaineers who attempt to summit Denali. You can learn more about their adventures from a lecture or video presentation at the Sheldon Hangar in town.
Continuing north, plan to spend the night near the main entrance to Denali National Park, which also has a train depot in case you arrive by rail from Anchorage or Fairbanks. There are lots of hotels clustered near the park entrance as well as less glitzy bed and breakfast alternatives nearby. Also near the park entrance is an excellent restaurant, 229 Parks, which is so named because it is located at Mile 229 of the Parks Highway.
The next day, proceed to the park entrance, leave your car in the long-term lot, and walk over to the depot to get picked up by the Camp Denali bus. Camp Denali has a long and interesting history that dates to the years just after World War II. It was founded by pioneering conservationists who essentially invented the concept of ecotourism, which is a term that did not enter common usage until decades later. To my mind, Camp Denali is quite possibly the single best place to go on your Alaska vacation. Click here for more about Camp Denali.
The bus will drive you almost to the end of the only road into the park. You will then be shown to your rustic, but comfortable, log cabin, complete with your own outhouse overlooking the big mountain, which towers behind camp. There are also flush toilets and hot showers in communal men’s and women’s facilities near the main lodge.
Camp Denali is often billed as a hiking lodge, but it is really more of a nature lodge. Each day, you will be offered the opportunity to join small groups led by naturalist guides on trips of various difficulty levels, ranging from local jaunts to challenging day-long hikes in high terrain.
Whatever hike you choose, you will see great landscapes, with Denali itself towering above you, and you will have a real possibility of seeing caribou, moose, beavers, bears, wolves, raptors and other wildlife. Or, you can choose to go on your own self-guided hike, ride bikes on the Park road, fish for arctic grayling in the pools below camp, read a book from the Camp library or just take a nap. Evening programs on conservation topics are great, but optional.
Like Kachemak Bay Wilderness Lodge, Camp Denali has varying lengths of stay, but you should really plan on at least four nights if you have the time. On your last day, the bus will drive you back to the park entrance, where you can pick up your car or catch the Alaska Railroad north (to Fairbanks) or south (to Anchorage).
On my suggested itinerary, drive or take the train north to Fairbanks and spend the night. The next day, take the paddle-wheel tour and check out Creamers Field, especially if the Sandhill crane migration is in town. Then fly back to Anchorage in the late afternoon or early evening. Most car rental companies will let you do a one-way rental, dropping off in Fairbanks the vehicle you rented in Anchorage. You will probably need to stay in Anchorage overnight because your flight home will likely leave early in the morning, unless you are on a “red-eye” overnight flight.
This trip would take about two weeks. It includes Anchorage and Fairbanks, but really focuses on getting you out of the cities and into the marine environment of Kachemak Bay as well as the sub-arctic wilderness ecosystem of Denali National Park. You will likely see many of the iconic animals that live in Alaska and will get a good taste for its diverse wilderness areas.
Many variations are possible, including reversing the order and going north-to-south, but something along these lines would be a great introduction to Alaska. Don’t get too hung up on the details – the specific places I mention happen to be some that I have personally visited and enjoyed, but there are lots of other lodges, hotels and activities.