Why This Trip?
If you’re driving the Alaska Highway, don’t neglect the southeastern corner of the state, which is accessible via the road system. Then take advantage of the Alaska Marine Highway ferry system to access Cordova, an area off the road system but with a scenic drive most travelers never experience: the Copper River Highway. You’ll load up your RV and feel like you have the area all to yourself.
After your incredible detour, you’ll be back on the road system to explore the rest of Alaska’s highlights, like Denali National Park.
This itinerary is not for someone in a hurry, but someone who wants to settle in to the Alaska pace of life and really appreciate their surroundings.
Arrive in Tok
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Tok is the first town you’ll reach after crossing the Canadian border into Alaska. You’ll find several RV parks and small local lodges to spend the night. Stretch your legs on a local hiking/walking trail, and pop into the visitor center to stock up on brochures and ideas for the rest of your trip.
Drive from Tok to Valdez
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This drive along the Richardson Highway doesn’t disappoint! You’ll be treated to views of the Wrangell Mountains, pass historic roadhouses and small fishing villages, and see a spectacular roadside glacier, Worthington Glacier, which you can take in from a viewing platform. (There’s a $5 parking fee). As you get closer to Valdez, stop at the pullouts in Keystone Canyon to appreciate the views of Bridal Veil Falls. Then make time for one last detour on your way into town—a stop at Valdez Glacier Lake, where you can marvel at icebergs that have calved from the glacier. If you want to get closer, book a kayaking tour to paddle around them!
Day and Overnight in Valdez
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This coastal town sits on shimmering waters and comes surrounded by mountains, with wildlife and glaciers galore. So get out there! Take a day cruise out to see those glaciers and look for sea otters, puffins, whales, and bald eagles. Or grab a paddle and take a kayaking tour. Depending on the time of year, Valdez serves up fantastic wildlife viewing opportunities. Stop at the Solomon Gulch Hatchery or Crooked Creek Information Site to see salmon returning to their spawning grounds; you may even catch some bears fishing for them. If you’d rather hike, here’s our list of local trails.
Travel fro Valdez to Whittier OR Valdez to Cordova by Ferry
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Load your car or RV onto the ferry and set sail for Whittier, a roughly 6-hour trip aboard the MV Aurora. While this isn’t a cruise, it can feel like one. Maximize your chances of seeing wildlife by spending as much time as possible out on the deck. This vessel has a cafeteria, observation lounge, heated solarium, and showers (if you feel the need to freshen up)!
Check into your lodging or park your RV (there’s one main camping area at the head of the bay). If you want to stretch your legs, check out the local monuments or go on the self-guided walking tour of historic buildings from WWII and the Cold War. It takes about 30 minutes to see them all.
**NOTE: For most of the summer (June–August) there’s no direct connection between Valdez and Cordova. You have two options to get there: Ride the ferry from Valdez to Cordova via Whittier, staying a few days in Whittier as this itinerary suggests; or stay on the ferry for around 12 hours. Below are the dates in 2021 when you can connect directly. On each day, the ferry leaves Valdez at 7:15 p.m. and arrives in Cordova at 12:15 a.m.
- Thursday May 6
- Thursday May 13
- Thursday May 20
- Thursday Sep 15
- Thursday Sep 23
- Thursday Sep 30
Day and Overnight in Whittier
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You can also choose to spend some time with your feet on the ground. For a small town, Whittier has several great hiking trails. The most popular, Portage Pass, is a 4-mile round-trip, but you can cut that in half if you just hike to the top and back. There you’ll discover amazing views of Passage Canal and Whittier on one side, and Portage Glacier on the other. Here’s a full list of trails in Whittier.
Day & Overnight in Cordova
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Today you’ll set out on the Copper River Highway. And how the adventure unfolds is up to you. Here are some ideas:
- Wildlife: Mile 17, Alaganik Slough. There’s great wildlife viewing, especially in early May/June during the shorebird migration.
- Hiking: Mile 21.4. Combine the McKinley Trail and Pipeline Lakes Trail for a roughly 5-mile round-trip hike.
- Glaciers: Mile 13.7. Walk 1.5 miles on the Sheridan Glacier Lake Trail for views of icebergs bobbing in the lake, with the gorgeous glacier in the background.
- Check out more ideas for great things to see along the Copper River Highway.
Day and Overnight in Cordova
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You have another full day to discover Cordova! Here are some ideas:
- Explore the area’s history and culture at the Cordova Historical Museum or the Ilanka Cultural Center. It’s easy to spend about an hour in each.
Take the Ferry from Cordova to Whitter, Portage Valley, or Girdwood
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Wake up early for the 7-hour morning ferry ride to Whittier, arriving in the early afternoon. It’s up to you when you depart, but you'll need to time your departure from Whittier with the Whittier Tunnel Schedule. From May 1–September 30, you can leave Whittier every hour on the hour, with the last tunnel opening at 11 p.m.
From Whittier, overnight at a campground along the Portage Glacier Highway, or head into Girdwood—a quick 40-minute drive. Girdwood’s a ski resort town in winter and an adventure hub in summer, with great trails and opportunities to flightsee and dog sled. There’s also a cool scenic tram up the mountain.
Drive from Portage Valley/Girdwood to Talkeetna
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Today you’ll make the 3-hour drive between Girdwood and Talkeetna. Take your time along scenic Turnagain Arm, making time to stop for photos. You’ll pass through Anchorage (stop if you like) and continue north.
When you arrive in Talkeetna, explore the one-block main street, ducking in and out of the quaint shops and restaurants; the legendary Talkeetna Roadhouse has been around since the early 20th century. And take a tour! You're close to Denali, so go flightseeing and check out the mountain up close. You could also take a guided walk or rafting trip, try ziplining, or go for a thrilling jet boat ride.
Day in Talkeetna | Drive to Denali State Park
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Spend another day in Talkeetna, fishing, rafting, or just exploring local trails. If you’re traveling by RV, head about 45 minutes up the road and camp at Byers Lake or Kesugi K’en Campground in Denali State Park. This less-visited side of the Denali area offers great hiking and incredible views of Denali on a clear day.
Drive from Denali State Park to Denali National Park
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Today it’s just a little under a 2-hour drive to iconic Denali National Park. Check into a lodge; you’ll also find campgrounds near the park entrance as well as inside the park. Wherever you stay, reserve in advance.
Head to the park’s visitor center to start getting acquainted with this vast expanse of nature. And try an activity! Go flightseeing for a bird's-eye view of the vast Alaska Range and the summit of Denali. Enjoy some river rafting, go for a guided hike, or take a Jeep/ATV tour and drive yourself over the tundra.
Day and Overnight in Denali National Park
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Today, you'll spend all day exploring the beauty of this park. Private vehicles are not allowed beyond Mile 15, so explore by bus. Opt for the National Park Service's hop-on, hop-off transit bus or take a narrated tour. Spend 7–8 hours traveling 62 miles into the park on the Tundra Wilderness Tour, or take 12 hours and go all 92 miles to the end of the road, at Kantishna. Along the way, look for wildlife and of course, North America's tallest peak.
Drive from Denali National Parks to Fairbanks
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It's about a 2-hour drive from Denali to the largest city in interior Alaska. Check out the University of Alaska Museum of the North, where you'll get a fascinating glimpse of the cultures and wildlife that live in this part of Alaska, as well as a deep dive into contemporary Native Alaska art. You can also drive over to see the Trans-Alaska Pipeline and witness this feat of engineering.
Day and Overnight in Fairbanks
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Today, you’ll be traveling back in time! In the morning, board a historic riverboat for a ride along the Chena and Tanana rivers, then pan for gold in the afternoon...and keep whatever you find. You could also take this opportunity and do something very special: a tour of the Arctic Circle! Fly, drive, or do a combo trip; you'll get a real sense for not only the rugged landscape, but also the people and culture in this unique area.
Drive from Fairbanks to Tok, the Canadian border, and beyond
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Today you’ll drive about 3.5 hours between Fairbanks and Tok. Be sure to stop in Delta Junction visitor center to take your photo by the “End of the Highway” monument, marking the end of the Alaska Highway. For you, it’s just the start of your return journey!
Overnight in Tok or continue on into Canada.