Back in 2015, I had an incredible opportunity to work a seasonal wildlife job up in the arctic of Barrow, Alaska. I was on a rotation of working for 2 weeks, then having off for 2 weeks, and so on. For the majority of my time off, I stayed in Anchorage to travel Alaska.
One of my most memorable trips was traveling with my sister between Fairbanks and Anchorage, with stops in Denali and Talkeetna. There were so many amazing things to see and do. And even more amazing food along the way! Plus, I’m pretty sure I found the coolest accommodation options out there (check out the treehouse below)!
Whether you have just a few days to travel Alaska or a couple weeks, this post is the perfect itinerary!
BEST TIME TO GO? May to September
A couple things to note — This trip took place within the last week of August, which is right at the end of Alaska’s high season. Fall colors were beginning to show up, but we also encountered snow flurries in Denali. Be prepared for any weather changes at any time of the year, and if you’re going in low season do your research in advance on when certain things close or shut down! Also, we didn’t rent a car, but instead relied on various forms of public transportation. Details are all below!
Fairbanks is one of the largest cities in Alaska and is most known for being an absolutely incredible place to view the Northern Lights. The aurora borealis can be seen on average for more than 200 days per year within the city and its surroundings! Fairbanks is also home to Alaska’s front-runner University, so expect a slightly younger (“college-aged”) vibe. This means a lot of cafes, breweries, and fun events!
Sven’s Basecamp Hostel — Sven’s is probably the best hostel in Fairbanks. Or at least the most unique! I stayed in a wall tent here, but there’s also a tipi, private cabins, a campground, or a TREEHOUSE! You can have bonfires, rent bikes, play volleyball, or take advantage of the close proximity to public transportation.
Billie’s Backpackers Hostel — Billie’s Backpackers Hostel is run by an older woman named Billie who often reminds guests of their grandmas. She’s opened her awesome-looking house to travelers looking for a “homey” vibe, with easy access to the Alaska Railroad Depot, public buses, and the airport. There are dorm bedrooms, tent spaces, or what we stayed in — a glass gazebo!
Chena Hot Springs Resort — Guys. This is an absolute DO NOT MISS. One of the biggest highlights of our entire trip was this resort. Located about 60 miles outside of Fairbanks, Chena Hot Springs Resort has it all. Lots of lodging options, a restaurant, natural hot springs, a famous ice museum and bar, dog sledding, hiking, ATVing, horseback tours, flightseeing, ETC! The Northern Lights are best seen here from late August to May, and some hotel rooms will even give you a wakeup call in the middle of the night if the lights are on display! We opted to stay in a cute cheap yurt here.
Chena’s Alaskan Grill — Probably the most memorable food I had on this trip. My mouth is watering just thinking about the Pear & Gorgonzola Bruschetta appetizer. And that smoked salmon BLT with their signature blackberry limeade drink — YAAHHHM! This excellent restaurant is always changing up their menu. It also offers an outdoor patio that sits on the banks of the Chena River.Lemongrass Thai Cuisine — Surprisingly enough, Thai food is actually extremely popular here in Fairbanks! New Thai restaurants are constantly popping up around the city. Lemongrass serves authentic Thai dishes while taking advantage of the fresh Alaskan seafood and locally grown produce, making it stand out against other Thai restaurants.
Hot Licks Homemade Ice Cream — This little local favorite has been serving up award winning ice cream since 1986. They have Alaskan flavors such as blueberry and cranberry. And coffee or tea flavors such as mocha truffle and matcha. You might want to stop here a few
hundred times! Oh right — they also have beer and liquor flavors too!
Aurora Ice Museum & Bar — At the Chena Hot Springs Resort is the famous Aurora Ice Museum, complete with an ice bar inside! You’ll get giant warm parka’s to wear before you enter your tour to walk around the sculptures. There are ice “hotel rooms” set up, each with a different theme, an ice tower, and an igloo where you can play an ice xylophone. Sit on caribou fur stools while sipping an Appletini out of an ice martini glass!
Great Fairbanks Pub Paddle — Ever go bar hopping by canoe?! Head to Alaska Outdoor Rentals & Guides in Pioneer Park to rent a canoe, kayak, or stand up paddleboard. You can float down the Chena River to the Pump House and get a shuttle back to Pioneer Park with your rental. The pub paddle to the Pump House takes about 1.5 to 2 hours. You can paddle up to other riverside bars and restaurants for drinks or appetizers along the way!
Large Animal Research Station — If you’re visiting Alaska to see its diverse wildlife, you”ll love a visit to the University’s Large Animal Research Station. Because Reindeer and Muskoxen. Need I say more? Visit the link for info on their guided tours and opening hours. Creamer’s Field Migratory Waterfowl Refuge — This waterfowl refuge is more than just a field where you can view migratory birds. Its also got hiking trails (where some have spotted moose!), guided nature walks, and a gift shop. Most visitors to the refuge are there to view and photograph the thousands of migrating Sandhill Cranes that stop here to rest. The only amphibian in Interior Alaska, the Wood Frog, is found here too!
U of Alaska Museum of the North — If you’re curious about Alaska’s Native cultures, its wildlife, or its natural wonders, this is the museum for you! It’s filled with art exhibits and offers educational films on things like the Aurora or the life of a Bowhead Whale. Probably the coolest exhibit was learning about the ancient dinosaurs of Alaska!
Denali National Park
Denali National Park & Preserve is 6 million acres of jaw-dropping and rugged scenery in Alaska’s interior wilderness. The most noteworthy landmark here is Mount Denali. This mountain stands at about 20,310 feet making it the tallest peak in North America. There’s only one road that winds through the park, and most visitors only see Denali via the busses that frequent this road. But it also offers extensive hiking, backpacking, mountaineering, flightseeing, a dog sled kennel, and so much more!
Denali Mountain Morning Hostel & Cabins — Probably my favorite lodging experience of this entire trip (although Chena Hot Springs was a close second). This hostel has your typical dorm room option, but it also has wall tents and cute wooden cabins — each one uniquely built. They have a free shuttle that takes you to and from Denali National Park. There’s also a gift shop onsite and a cafe across the road. My sister and I stayed here in a wall tent and thought we’d be freezing, but it was actually one of our warmest stays — even with the snowfall we woke up to the next morning! This is definitely a place I’d love to come back to and rent a cabin at next time.Wonder Lake Campground — If camping’s your thing and you have the time, reserve a spot at Wonder Lake Campground. At mile 85, this is at the last section of road deep within the park. It takes an 11 hour drive roundtrip from the Visitor Center, and is one of the closest lodging options to the base of Mount Denali!
Read more about my stay at Wonder Lake. Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge — If you like hotel comforts, this lodge is a great choice. The park entrance is only 1 mile away and you can take a $5 roundtrip shuttle to the Visitors Center, the Wilderness Access Center, or Horseshoe Lake! The deck that overlooks the Nenana River, the specialty dining available, complimentary wifi, and dinner theatre entertainment are all great aspects of staying at this lodge.
Morino Grill — Right near the visitor center, this grill is the perfect pit stop to fuel up before or after an all-day adventure. Get my favorite, the Nenana Chicken Panini, and enjoy a coffee from the cafe as well!229 Parks Restaurant & Tavern — This restaurant is located under 10 minutes outside of the park and is one of the best around! The menu changes based on season and a lot of ingredients are harvested on location! Talk about fresh and sustainable!
Sled Dog Kennels — Denali is the only national park that has a working sled dog kennel! Since the 1920’s Denali has used a working sled dog team for things like accessing remote areas, contacting winter visitors to the park, transporting materials and supplies, etc. Meet the dogs and watch a sled dog demonstration at the kennels. You can also adopt a retired dog! Wildlife Viewing Via Bus — There are many hop on hop off buses that stop at various campgrounds and “rest areas” throughout the park. The busses were the best way to see wildlife in the park. Keep in mind that in the first half of the park road you likely won’t see grizzly bears, as that section isn’t their habitat. So if you’re hoping to see bears, make time to head further into the park. One of the best places I saw Dall’s Sheep was atop the rocky mountain across from Igloo Creek Campground. Moose and Caribou are pretty widespread throughout Denali. We were lucky enough to see a Lynx crossing the road too!Hiking For All Levels — Right near the park entrance is the popular Horseshoe Lake Trail. It’ll take 1–1½ hours roundtrip and you’ll see views of the Nenana River. The Savage River Loop Trail is also a popular one, taking 1½–2 hours roundtrip, and is great for kids. You’ll see more of the tundra wilderness and hopefully Dall’s Sheep, Caribou, and Marmots! At the end of the park road is the easy 2 mile Wonder Lake Trail, which brings you to a lake that reflects Mount Denali (if it’s visible that is). See these google photos of Wonder Lake!
The only way to describe Talkeetna is quirky. This small “town” (it’s actually only a historical district) has less than 1,000 residents. The mayor is an orange cat named Stubbs. Yes. A cat.
Talkeetna’s downtown area is just one short street, containing historic buildings and shops, with the train station nearby. Local artists and musicians bring it a far out and vibrant atmosphere. Not to mention, the town used to host a Moose Dropping Festival each year! You won’t want to miss out on stopping here.
Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge — Our bus from Denali brought us right to this gorgeous lodge where we caught their complimentary shuttle van into Talkeetna, a short ride away. This lodge instantly grasps your attention when you walk in to see huge windows directly facing Mount Denali. It also has an award-winning dining room and a large river rock fireplace.Denali Fireside Cabins & Suites — Ranked as a TripAdvisor top hotel, these rustic cabins and suites are close to downtown and the railroad station. Each one comes with a cozy gas fireplace.Airbnb Cabin or Yurt — Any Airbnb search for Alaska is filled with rustic cabins and yurts. Especially in Talkeetna. If you’re new to Airbnb, sign up here to make your free profile and get $40 to go toward your first stay (applies to anywhere in the world, but you should totally start Airbnbing in an Alaskan cabin!).
Talkeetna Roadhouse — Built around 1917, this historic restaurant and lodge is famous for its big breakfasts. Also for its homebaked breads and bakery items!
Mountain High Pizza Pie — This colorful pizza place is open year round and also serves up locally brewed beer! They have both indoor and outdoor garden seating, and a long list of heavenly pizzas — including gluten free options!Denali Brewing Company — With a great atmosphere, this brewpub serves up creative beer and cocktails as well as some rockin’ pub food. The blueberry mojito and the razzery meads look yummy too!
Flightseeing — Talkeetna is the gateway to flightseeing and mountaineering around Mount Denali! K2 Aviation is the best in the biz. They have 4 different flightseeing options and you can also opt to do a glacier landing! They even film your flight! For their flight options or more mountaineering info, check out their site in the link.River Rafting — Three rivers surround Talkeetna, making it the perfect area to river raft in! You can find tons of raft tour companies along the main street, but if I had to pick I’d go with Denali View Raft Adventures. They have some of the cheapest prices and their cardigan welsh corgi is the company’s mascot! This raft company is run by a young and highly experienced couple who are both local Alaskans, and promise a personalized experience.
Find The Mayor — Stubbs, the honorary mayor of Talkeetna, probably enforces things like legalizing catnip and making sure your dog is leashed. That’s because, again, he’s a cat. He also happens to be a pretty big tourist attraction. He’s most likely found in his mayoral office, aka Nagley’s General Store on main street.
Anchorage is Alaska’s largest city and sits on the Cook Inlet. It’s known for the surrounding wilderness and for its cultural sites. Nearby, you can find the Chugach Mountains and picturesque glaciers. In town, it’s not uncommon to see a moose on the side of the road or in someone’s backyard! Most visitors to Alaska stop here for a night or two in route to Denali, Seward, or the Kenai Fjords, but it’s definitely worth staying a bit longer in!
Spenard Hostel International — This budget hostel is in a great location, only 1.5 miles from the airport and on a direct bus route. I stayed here on and off for over 2 months, and found it a good experience every time. The most convenient feature was having a bus service to/from Denali, Seward, and Homer coming right to the hostel’s front door!Alyeska Resort — For a much more boojie lodging experience, head 40 miles south of Anchorage to the Alyeska Resort. It’s got an aerial scenic tram, a 4 diamond award-winning mountain-top restaurant, a spa, and a mountain for skiers!
Spenard Roadhouse — This restaurant and bar is a favorite among locals and visitors alike. The food presentation is pretty and every single thing on that menu looks amazing. Some favorites include the Bacon Jam Burger, the Reindeer & Chevre Pizza, or the Southern Fried Chicken. They also have a great bar with bourbon flights!
Moose’s Tooth Pub & Pizzeria — I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more extensive pizza menu. This place was packed for lunch so it was clearly popular, and nearly every local Alaskan recommended it to me before I arrived. We got The Backpacker pizza and it was bomb!
The Deck at Lake Hood — This lakeside spot has the perfect view of the floatplanes that fly in and out of Lake Hood. And with weekly featured cocktails and nightly entertainment, it’s a great place for after-dinner drinks. You can also order food from one of the restaurants inside the hotel onsite.
Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center — This conservation center cares for hundreds of displaced Alaskan wildlife, and offers FREE tours and educational programs to the public. You can watch certain feedings, enrichments, and trainings and get some great photos!Turnagain Arm Drive — The Turnagain Arm is one of the most beautiful stretches of highway in America. It leads you by the mountainous Chugach State Park, the Alyeska aerial tram, a beluga whale lookout point, and the Portage Glacier.
Anchorage Summer Market & Festival — Alaska’s largest open-air market is open on Saturdays and Sundays from May to September. Over 300 vendors sell fresh produce, treats, crafts, and Alaskan souvenirs. There’s also a wide variety of entertainment.
Additional Resources And Tips
Transportation : Since we didn’t have a rental car, we relied on public transportation. In Fairbanks, we used the roundtrip resort shuttle from our hostel Billie’s Backpackers to the Chena Hot Springs Resort. From Fairbanks to Denali, we took the Denali Star Train, which brings you directly into the park near the Visitors Center. From Denali to Talkeetna, we picked up an Alaskan Coach at the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge through AK Tour & Travel. It brought us to the Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge where we used their free shuttle to get downtown. From Talkeetna to Anchorage, we used the Alaska/Yukon Trails Bus which brought us right to the Spenard Hostel.
And because the weather in Alaska can always change at the drop of a hat, I strongly suggest downloading the WeatherBug App. See all it can do and read my sponsored review about it here : Reviewing The Best Weather App For Travelers And Outdoor Adventurers.
Where would you go or what would you do in Alaska? Tell me in the comments!
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