The Last Frontier! While a cruise of the Inside Passage is by far the most popular way to visit Alaska, it’s definitely not the only option. Alaska is a fabulous vacation for those that want to stay in the US but are seeking a true adventure. This Northern and Westernmost state is larger than Texas, California & Montana combined and boasts 8 National Parks. One of the biggest draws of Alaska is the wildlife – I like to think of it as the closest we have to an American safari. Given some of the restrictions on travel this summer, we decided to stay stateside and planned a 10-day self-drive trip through Alaska. Continue reading below for our itinerary, tips, and some cool photos!
GETTING THERE & GETTING AROUND
There are two major cities in Alaska: Anchorage and Fairbanks; both see several flights a day from west coast US cities, although Anchorage is the primary hub. From the west coast, it’s easiest to connect through Seattle, while East Coasters may find options through Chicago or Denver as well. For our trip, we flew into Fairbanks (connecting in Seattle from San Diego), and flew home from Anchorage.
We chose to rent a car and drive ourselves this trip to offer the most flexibility, but the train is also an incredibly popular way to travel around Alaska. The train operates regularly between Anchorage and Fairbanks (stopping in Denali), as well as Seward and Anchorage.
DENALI NATIONAL PARK
The first stop of our trip was Denali National Park – located about 2 hours south of Fairbanks. Denali National Park comprises 6 million acres and is home to the tallest peak in North America – Denali (formerly known as Mt. McKinley) at 20,310 feet high. From base to summit, Denali is actually taller than Mt. Everest, the highest peak in the world. Denali National Park is home to grizzlies, moose, caribou, wolves and Dall sheep, among other wildlife.
Where to stay
For our 3 nights in Denali, we stayed at Grande Denali Lodge – an impressive property, located hillside with incredible panoramic views of the area and located just 5 minutes’ drive from the park entrance. While a great location, the rooms overall are in need of some refreshment. Their sister property – Denali Bluffs – looked newer and actually quite nice. Other popular hotels nearby are McKinley Chalet and Denali Princess Lodge (though closed this year due to COVID, it should be reopening next year for cruise season). Keep in mind that Denali is an outdoor lovers’ paradise, and doesn’t necessarily cater to the luxury hotel crowd (!); these are all basic accommodations.
What to do
Naturally, the number one thing to do in Denali is explore the stunning National Park! Only the first 15 miles of the park road are paved and open to personal vehicles, but park shuttles and tour buses can take you deeper into the park. On our first day, we opted to hike on our own – starting off first with the challenging 4 mile Savage Alpine Trail. There are two ways to hike this trail: (1) starting at the Mountain Vista parking lot and hiking to Savage River, returning to your car via shuttle bus, or (2) starting at Savage River and hiking to Mountain Vista. For the latter option, you could park at Mountain Vista (the larger lot) and take the shuttle to Savage River to start there so you’re hiking back to your car.
Though it involved a little bit of strategic alignment with the shuttle schedule, we were very happy that we opted to park and start at Mountain Vista. For one, the altitude rise going this direction – while still challenging – is more gradual. From Savage River, the climb up is STEEP and we met many struggling hikers on our way down! Secondly, we had the trail largely to ourselves for the first 3/4 of the hike. If you opt to take the shuttle and start at Savage River, you will undoubtedly be starting the hike with a few other people who decided to take that same shuttle. Overall, this was a beautiful and challenging hike with gorgeous views of the valley and surrounding mountains. A few days before our arrival it had snowed in Denali, so we had the benefit of hiking at the end of summer, with the starts of fall foliage (the fireweed turns from pink to burnt orange/red) and snow on the ground – 3 seasons at once! It is important though on the beginning portion of this trail to be careful of bears. Generally making noise – loud talking, blowing a bear whistle or carrying bells – will make bears aware of your presence and help them steer clear of you, avoiding any unwanted bear encounters.
After our big hike, we enjoyed a picnic lunch at Mountain Vista campground, before heading onto another popular Denali Attraction – the Denali Kennels, which house the park’s famed sled dogs. Denali National Park is the only park in the country with a sled dog kennel. Dogs have been used to help police and preserve the park through winter since the early 1900s. In the summertime, the dogs get to relax and rest – they welcome pets and tummy rubs from the park’s many visitors! We were even very lucky on our visit to see a full litter of 3-week old puppies!
To end the day, we decided to do one more shorter hike – the Horseshoe Lake Trail. While relatively easy and highly trafficked due to its proximity to the entrance and easy rating, I still highly recommend doing this trail, especially if the sun is out. The trail loops around Horseshoe Lake which has a beautiful turquoise color and was so still and clear we could see straight to the bottom. As the sun came out, the lake reflected the surroundings like glass!
For our second day in Denali, we had planned to do a full day Denali Backcountry Adventure. Though I wasn’t crazy about spending the day on the bus, as I mentioned, to get past mile 15, you need to take a bus. And since its not every day I’m in Denali, I really wanted to get deeper into the park. The normal Denali Backcountry Adventure tour starts early in the morning and takes a full day (making several stops for walking, bathrooms, and wildlife viewing), driving visitors all the way to the end of the park road (mile 92), where they enjoy a lunch at Denali Backcountry Lodge before either returning via bus or taking a small light flight over the park. It’s really a great way to see the diverse biomes of Denali, view more of Denali’s famous wildlife, and get the best views of the famous mountain. Unfortunately for us, a week prior to our trip, a landslide caused a partial road collapse at mile 43 and so our bus trip was cut in half. It still proved to be an enjoyable and highly educational morning. Our guide explained a lot of interesting facts about the park and its wildlife, and we were able to see several grizzly bears and moose (from safe distances and inside the bus!).
That afternoon, the weather cleared for us and we were still able to enjoy our scenic flight over the park with Kantishna Air Taxi. This was truly special as we were able to see the park from a completely different perspective. We also clearly saw the Denali peak, jagged glaciers, and even some rutting moose deep in the forests.
Where to eat
In 2021, dining options in Denali were fairly limited due to COVID and staffing shortages, but here is the scoop on where we ate:
- Alpenglow Restaurant – Located at Grande Denali, this restaurant has beautiful views. The food was good but the prix-fixe menu was limited and pricey for what it was.
- Karsten’s Public House – Located at McKinley Chalet, this was one of the few dining options with nightly reservations and it was popping! But with live music, a lengthy cocktail list, and well-cooked comfort food, it was definitely worth a visit.
- Mountaineer Grill & Bar – At Denali Bluffs, this was a more casual option for Grande Denali and Denali Bluffs guests. They had a solid beer list and a good mix of casual comfort fare and fancier fish and meats.
- Black Bear Coffee House – Black Bear was a true gem in the little town of Denali! Open for breakfast and lunch, they had delicious sandwiches, soups, and baked goods. We ate here twice 🙂
DRIVING SOUTH: GIRDWOOD & HOMER
From Denali, we headed south towards the Kenai Peninsula. With our ultimate goal of Homer, we split up the 8 hour drive into 2 days. Departing Denali, we first drove 2 hours south to the town of Talkeetna (a slight detour), famous for its remarkable views of Denali mountain. We lucked out and had the most beautiful sunny and clear day, capturing incredible pictures of the peak! In the town of Talkeetna, we enjoyed a nice break from the drive, having lunch at Mountain High Pizza Pie and blueberry ice cream at Shirley’s Homemade Ice Cream.
After Talkeetna, we headed further south to Girdwood – a ski town just south of Anchorage. In Girdwood, we spent the night at Alyeska Resort – one of the nicer hotels in Alaska, popular with skiers in the winter and also a great base for summer travelers as well. Included with our stay were tram tickets and with an hour to spare and a clear day, we headed straight up the tram upon arrival. The view from the top did not disappoint with stunning vistas of Turnagain Arm and Chugach State Park. We enjoyed a short hike, before heading back down and having dinner at Sakura Asian Bistro in the hotel.
The next day, we took full advantage of our nicer hotel and ordered room service for breakfast, eating in our robes before packing up and heading back out on the road. Our destination that day was Homer – a small, artsy village at the very tip of the Kenai Peninsula known as the “Halibut Capital of the World”. On the way, we made a stop at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center which is an open-air rehabilitation center for wild animals who have been rescued. We were able to see bears, moose, and caribou up close and learn more about these animals; we also loved learning about the repopulation efforts the Center is conducting for North American Bison and musk ox. Highly recommend it to anyone driving through the Kenai Peninsula! The rest of our drive was fairly rainy, so we didn’t make too many other stops except to see the Russian village and church in Ninilchik.
In Homer, we spent a night at Land’s End Resort – a hotel on the very edge of the water at the end of the Homer Spit. Though our room was a bit dated, we had a nice view and enjoyed an incredible dinner of halibut and salmon at The Chart Room on property. Plus as San Diegans, we loved holing up away from the rain and walking along the rocky beach.
The next morning, we had some free time to really explore the town Homer. We first ventured into Homer proper for an absolutely incredible breakfast at Wild Honey Bistro which has unbelievable homemade crepes.
Then we spent some time visiting the galleries and shops along the Homer Spit. We enjoyed a scenic slice of pizza at Finn’s Pizza and some amazing lavender & caramel gelato at Carmen’s that was truly some of the best gelato I’ve ever had!
HALIBUT COVE: STILLPOINT LODGE
After an exciting few days hiking in Denali National Park and two-days worth of travel to the tip of the Homer Spit, we were ready for some R&R and the next portion of our trip was the perfect spot to do just that. Stillpoint Lodge is a divine 5-star luxury all-inclusive resort located in Halibut Cove, just about 30 minutes across the bay from Homer by boat. It was the perfect luxurious ending to our trip and I highly recommend all my clients add Stillpoint to their hotel bucket list now!
Stillpoint is remote and takes a little bit of time to get to – thought that is really a part of the appeal! Guests enjoy complimentary roundtrip boat transfers between Halibut Cove and Homer as part of their stay, so if you opt to self-drive (as we did), you can plan to leave your car in Homer for a few days and take the boat over to Stillpoint. The nice part about this option is that it’s generally not weather-dependent, but the downside is of course, the longer drive and travel time. As another option, guests can take a plane from Anchorage or Seward – either a private charter seaplane directly to the Stillpoint dock, or a commercial flight with Ravn Air that connects to the boat transfer. While fast and convenient, the weather in Alaska can be very unpredictable and during our stay we heard of several guests who were delayed on arrival due to the weather issues that led to flight cancellations.
Stillpoint has just 11 cabins, ranging from 1-2 bedrooms, spread throughout the property. We stayed in Point of View cabin, which is one of the original cabins back when the property was built an artists’ retreat. Though small, the main room of the log cabin is well-appointed with a King-sized bed, table and chairs with water pitcher, and tea kettle, and shelves and baskets for storage, as well as 2 small side tables, and a space heater to keep warm on the cool nights.
Each cabin has its own deck with a lovely water view and a private bathroom with a shower, toilet, and sink. Though small, the cabin really had everything we needed for relaxing and comfortable evenings and in the daytime, we were typically off adventuring or enjoying the lodge amenities. Our favorite part of our cabin was the view, as we were able to see bald eagles, sea otters and harbor seals directly from our deck. It’s worth noting that the private bathrooms in all cabins are not directly ensuite with the bedrooms, and guests do need to step out onto the private deck to enter the bathroom. In general, this wasn’t a big deal, but a bit cold in the middle of the night (though the bonus is the star gazing!). A new VIP cabin will debut in 2022 that will have an ensuite bathroom.
The lodge is fully all inclusive, and that of course means all food and beverages! Meals are at set times in the main lodge, with breakfast and lunch a more casual affair. If you are out and about on activities for the day, the lodge will also gladly prepare a picnic lunch for you. Dinner was a multi-course fine dining experience that began with cocktails and hors d’oeuvres by the fire, and followed to a four-course prix-fixe menu with optional wine pairings.
Overall the food at Stillpoint was absolutely delectable – from locally-caught fish, to garden-grown vegetables, everything was fresh and made with delicious ingredients. Having a sweet tooth myself, I also thoroughly enjoyed everything that the pastry chef, Tru, prepared for us: from homemade granola and fresh-out-of-the-oven blueberry muffins in the morning, to warm baked chocolate chip cookies as an afternoon snack, and creme brûlée. While they will certainly take into account dietary restrictions and allergies, in general there is not a massive choice when it comes to meals at Stillpoint and so I wouldn’t necessarily recommend the property for any very picky eaters.
As with the food, all activities at Stillpoint are included. The lodge employs some wonderful seasonal guides and the staff will work with you to make a plan for each day. On property, guests can enjoy hiking, kayaking, stand-up paddle-boarding, and wildlife tours. All guests also have one wellness experience included with their stay (massage, yoga, or personal training), and one full day excursion (fishing, glacier kayaking, Homer art & culture tour, helicopter tour, mountain biking/hiking, or bear viewing).
During our 3 nights at Stillpoint, we full enjoyed everything on offer! The very first day, right after we arrived and enjoyed some hot chocolate, we set off for a sea kayak around the island. The next morning, we were out hiking, before enjoying an afternoon of wellness including a private yoga session, a 90-minute massage for me, and some hot tub time for my husband.
On our 2nd full day, we took out the stand-up paddle-boards while we waited on the fog to clear, enjoying some hot chocolate at the local Halibut Cove coffee shop.
That afternoon, we took a seaplane to Lake Clark National Park for some bear viewing! And WOW. If you love wildlife, this is an incredible experience. After arriving to the National Park (which in itself is jaw-dropping), you board a pontoon boat, and can spend hours watching bears feed on salmon in preparation for the winter hibernation.
We even were incredibly lucky to see one of the most spectacular rainbows I’ve ever seen in my life.
On our final morning, we went out kayaking again before taking the boat back to Homer. Throughout all of these activities, we had a tremendous opportunity to see amazing Alaskan wildlife, from sea otters, to bald eagles, harbor seals, river otters, jelly fish, and grizzly bears. One of the great perks of Stillpoint as well is that they have a full “gear cave” where you can borrow any gear you need (gloves, to waterproof boots, pants and jackets, etc.).
Overall, our stay at Stillpoint was absolutely fantastic. For those that enjoy adventure, good food, wellness, and excellent service, while also really feeling part of nature in a remote location, I highly recommend a stay at Stillpoint Lodge.