Fairbanks, situated in the lush, rolling landscape of the Tanana Valley, is the perfect place to start an Alaska road trip. From here, this itinerary will take you south through rural communities to the mountain-backed, history-rich port town of Valdez.
Day 1 Fairbanks and Chena Hot Springs
Fairbanks, the second-largest city in Alaska, makes a great starting point for your car or RV trip down the Richardson Highway. Before you leave town, spend a few hours touring the city’s biggest attractions, which include the University of Alaska Museum of the North, a nature walk alongside tame reindeer, and panning for gold. Head north on a 60-mile side trip to Chena Hot Springs, where (for a fee) you can soak in the hot springs’ mineral-rich waters, tour a year-round museum that’s carved out of ice, and enjoy a number of other activities like dog cart rides and horseback adventures. Spend the night here.
Day 2 North Pole and Delta Junction
Drive back toward Fairbanks, then turn southeast onto the Richardson Highway, which will eventually take you all the way to Valdez. If you have kids in tow, they may enjoy a visit to North Pole, about 15 miles out of Fairbanks, where you can marvel at the Santa Claus house, a massive, year-round monument to all things Christmas. Another 73 miles down the road you’ll find Rika’s Roadhouse, an early 1900s roadhouse that served hopeful miners, traders, military and other citizens traveling along the Valdez-to-Fairbanks trail. This carefully restored building is now the centerpiece of the Big Delta State Historical Park. Spend the night in Delta Junction or at one of several nearby state park campgrounds.
Day 3 Glennallen, Copper Center and Chitina
Resume your drive south on the Richardson Highway. Keep an eye out for the Trans-Alaska Pipeline viewpoint at milepost 243.5, where you can get up close and personal with one of the state’s biggest engineering achievements. Fill your gas tank in the small community of Glennallen, then continue another 10 miles south to the even smaller town of Copper Center and its Copper Center Visitor Center Complex, which includes the visitor center for nearby 13-million-acre Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, the Ahtna Cultural Center, and short hiking trails. Continue south along the Richardson to the Edgerton Highway, then head 33 miles southeast to the small town of Chitina, where you can book simple accommodations or a campsite.
Day 4 Kennicott/McCarthy
Continue down the Edgerton Highway/McCarthy Road to pay a visit to the tiny town of McCarthy and the nearby ghost town of Kennicott, which once existed solely to support the Kennecott Copper Mine. The 60-mile gravel and chipseal road between Chitina and McCarthy is usually in better shape than its fearsome, tire-popping reputation implies, but the drive still takes most people two or three hours each way, and the unwary or unlucky can still suffer multiple flats on the way in. Some prefer booking a shuttle to do the driving for you, or hopping a bush plane flight from Chitina to McCarthy. Once there, popular activities include glacier trekking and climbing, whitewater rafting, and tours through the abandoned mine buildings. Time moves slowly here; spend the night and savor the feeling of visiting a different world from long ago.
Day 5 Valdez
Drive or fly back to Chitina. From there, continue back to the Richardson Highway and head south to the beautiful port town of Valdez, also known as “Little Switzerland” for its dramatic mountain backdrop. Leave yourself plenty of time to sightsee along the last 30 miles of the highway into Valdez, which include unobstructed views of snow-capped mountains, spectacular roadside waterfalls, and great views of Worthington Glacier, which is easily accessible from the highway. Once you reach Valdez, check into your lodgings and then visit the Valdez Museum and Historical Archive, where you can learn about the outsized historical events that have affected this tiny coastal town, starting in the days of the Klondike Gold Rush.
Day 6 Valdez
Indulge in a full-day Valdez adventure. Some of the most popular choices include a sightseeing cruise to the massive Columbia Glacier, which routinely drops house-sized chunks of ice into the sea; an adventurous sea kayaking outing, which might include sightings of the abundant wildlife of Prince William Sound; or day hiking one of the lush trails near town. Enjoy one of Valdez’s excellent restaurants before turning in for the night.
Day 7 Home
Wrap up your Alaskan adventure by driving back to Fairbanks, or take in more spectacular roadside scenery by continuing on to Anchorage along the Glenn Highway. Both cities are about a six-hour drive from Valdez, and both have busy airports that make it easy to get started on your journey home.