My teenage daughter, husband, and I just spent twelve wonderful days exploring south-central Alaska. A friend asked, how did you plan such a great Alaska vacation? I glibly replied that it took months. Realizing that I didn’t really answer her question, I thought it might make a fun blog topic to kick off a series of posts featuring Alaska musings and photos.

Planning a vacation is much like pursuing any important goal, whether you want to write a novel, change jobs, climb a mountain, or start a new hobby.

A grizzly bear forages near the road in Denali National Park. I couldn't get enough of the mammals and gorgeous fall colors.
A grizzly bear forages near the road in Denali National Park. I couldn’t get enough of the mammals and gorgeous fall colors.

Start By Knowing Your Parameters

The first step in planning anything is to consider all your parameters. In June when we asked our daughter where she’d like to go for her graduation present, she mentioned Alaska. We got to work researching possibilities. When we knew our budget, roughly what we wanted to see and do, and how long we could travel, we tried to figure out when we could take two weeks of vacation.

Our best look at Denali on day 4 as we left the area. My highest priority was spending time viewing wildlife in Denali National Park, while hopefully getting a glimpse of North America's highest mountain.
Our best look at Denali on day 4 as we left the area. My highest priority was spending time viewing wildlife in Denali National Park, while hopefully getting a glimpse of North America’s highest mountain.

Time — Duration, Time of Year

Time turned out to be a crucial consideration. Our daughter starts college in mid-September, so we originally considered going right after Labor Day. Such a late trip could mean shoulder-season prices and fewer tourists. But that far north, many of the activities we wanted to do (i.e. white water rafting, glacier cruising, visiting Denali National Park, and seeing wildlife) would already be ending for the season. We settled on August 24-September 3.

We were lucky enough to see the Northern Lights on our last evening in Anchorage (9/3/22). I'd written it off early in the planning as I thought the longer daylight would make it impossible to see unless we were up very late at night.
We were lucky enough to see the Northern Lights on our last evening in Anchorage (9/3/22). I’d written it off early in the planning as I thought the longer daylight would make it impossible to see unless we were up very late at night.

Location — Regions, Cities, National Parks

I love to photograph wildlife, especially bears in their natural habitat. We learned that the best photo opportunities with grizzly bears would be at Brooks Falls in July when the salmon return to spawn. Missed it. We decided not to drive all the way to Homer, which is the closest place to catch a plane to visit the Brooks Falls bears (click the link to see live bear cam action!). Homer is also popular for fishing; since we don’t fish, eliminating it resulted in a driving corridor between Denali and Kenai Fjords National Parks, roughly six hours apart with Anchorage falling between.

We bought tickets for flights between Anchorage and SeaTac and finalized our itinerary:

  • 4 nights in Cantwell in an air B&B RV, 20 miles south of Denali National Park
  • 3 nights in Seward in a small cabin air B&B, 6 miles north of the small boat harbor and close to a fish weir
  • 4 nights in Anchorage in the bottom half of a house, centrally located a few miles south of the airport
The foliage in Denali National Park was just changing colors. Late August is already fall in central to north Alaska while our home city of Seattle remained deep in summer.
The foliage in Denali National Park was just changing colors. Autumn reaches central Alaska in late August, whereas Seattle remains summer-like until mid-September.

Transportation and Lodging

We reserved a rental car from Enterprise; we chose a small car for three and our luggage, without extras. But we understand it’s not necessary to drive in Alaska like it is the lower 48. Taking the train is a fun option, and boats and seaplanes go everywhere. Because we value our independence and steer clear of large organized groups, it made the most sense for us.

As for lodging, we enjoy staying at air B&Bs, to see how people in the region live. Our RV was definitely the coldest, most remote, and most cramped stay, but we also got the best night’s sleep there. And the hospitality our Anchorage host gave us — danishes for breakfast, homegrown flowers on the stairs, and conversation around his fire pit the last night — was unprecedented.

This lovely display of homemade dahlias was arranged by our Anchorage host, Javier.
This lovely display of homemade dahlias was arranged by our Anchorage host, Javier.

Add Activities — Rafting, Panning for Gold, and More

The final stage of planning included what we would do each day. This task usually falls to me. The week before our trip, I ran into some glitches with my computer and lost hours’ worth of research and planning. Twice. By the time I had our final itinerary ready the day before we departed, I knew exactly what we were going to do.

How to Plan a Great Alaska Vacation
Our time around Anchorage included visiting a Musk Ox Farm (the only one in the world) in Palmer, an hour north.

Our family adventures included:

  • Visiting Denali National Park
  • Meeting Working Huskies in DNP
  • Wildlife photography and hiking from DNP shuttles
  • White water rafting in Denali
The well-trained, oh-so-attentive Denali sled dogs and their kennels went on high alert just before their show.
The well-trained, oh-so-attentive Denali sled dogs and their kennels went on high alert just before their show.
  • Birding and photography throughout the trip
  • Tracking license plates — forty states and five Canadian provinces were represented!
  • Taking a birthday cruise to Northwestern Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park out of Seward
The author with her tall college-bound daughter in front of Northwest Glacier. Not sure what she was standing on...
The author with her tall college-bound daughter in front of Northwest Glacier. Not sure what she was standing on…
How to Plan a Great Alaska Vacation

Enjoy Your Great Alaska Vacation

After all of that planning, what remained was to go and enjoy ourselves. Except we forgot one major thing: Alaska does not recognize T-mobile, our cell phone provider. As soon as we landed in Anchorage, before our drive north, we had to locate a place that sold SIM cards so we could still place calls to local restaurants and shops. It’s not something we ever thought to check, but next time we travel anywhere, we certainly will!

The other big takeaway is you cannot possibly visit all of Alaska in one trip. Pick a national park or two. Choose a region. Narrow it down to a few favorite activities. Our twelve-day trip was an appetizer. The four adjectives I’ve used the most this week are vast, rugged, varied, and beautiful.

If you are considering a visit to Alaska, plan on staying for a month or two. July is their dry season, while late August is considered the start of autumn. And we never had an issue with mosquitoes!

MOOOOOSE! A great Alaska vacation for me includes Dall sheep, grizzly bears, caribou, and moose. If you also see a wolf you've "hit a grand slam."
MOOOOOSE! A great Alaska vacation for me includes Dall sheep, grizzly bears, caribou, and moose. If you also see a wolf you’ve “hit a grand slam.”

Now the fun starts: processing over 2000 photographs and all we experienced while avoiding anticipointment. In the words of Arnold Schwarzenegger, “I’ll be back.” As you read this blog, if you found yourself particularly interested in a location or activity, please leave a comment so I know to include more about it in upcoming posts.

Published by Courtenay Schurman

Co-author of The Outdoor Athlete (2009) and Train to Climb Mt. Rainier or Any High Peak DVD (2002), author of Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills/conditioning chapter 4 (3 editions), and Peak Performance column for the Mountaineers Mag (2014-present). Member of PNWA, SCBWI, EPIC. Served on the steering committee for WOTS (2019-present). Completed UW Certificate program for Children's Literature and Memoir. Co-owner of Body Results, Inc. in Seattle. Climb leader with Seattle Mountaineers for over 15 years. Volunteer at Woodland Park Zoo since 2014.

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8 Comments

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  1. You all have had so many of these grand adventures that you’re pros! I agree that planning for these types of vacations is always a good use of time, especially if you want to have adventure. I tend to overestimate our energy and plan too many things because “who knows when we’ll be back?” and we have to “take advantage” of our limited time. It’s like going to a buffet and wanting to “get your money’s worth.” I’ve learned, in my advanced age, that for us, a couple of free or unplanned days, are great too. They allow for some simple relaxation, or serendipity—the discovery of some activities that our research didn’t find 🙂

    1. Thanks for the comment, Miguel. You are absolutely right about both the “trying to fit it all in” syndrome and “leaving room” — which appear to be in conflict but really, putting in a morning here and afternoon there which are unplanned really makes sense. And one thing that we didn’t factor into planning was … RAIN. All of our four days in Anchorage were to do outside things, so with the help of the internet, our host Javier, and our willingness to switch gears, leave some things undone (until next time) and explore different things, we actually found ourselves enjoying Seward’s marine center, the Native Heritage Center north of Anchoarge, and Anchorage Museum on days of inclement weather. And way back in my college days when I toured Europe for 6.5 weeks with my roommate, the one “off-the-schedule” day we had, a visit to Lake Trasimeno in Italy, turned out to be one of my most memorable. So yes, plan and plan but be willing to wing it when and if time presents itself.

  2. Gaining insights into your trip planning reminds me how out-of-practice I am, not having done any real travel since covid. I recall one of your blog entries that has stayed with me and I continue to practice, “What’s the One Thing” in setting priorities. I see how you applied that to your vacation planning in such a huge state full of adventures with big distances between locations. I am interested in anything else you care to share about the Alaska Sea Life Center and any other surprises or personal takeaways from your encounters. As this trip was an appetizer, what would bring you back there? And more photos please!!!! Thank you for your sharing, Court.

    1. Yes, I imagine COVID did a number on many of us; I have to admit I was more nervous about travel because of the lack of flying since January 2020, but it turned out just fine. What would take me back to Alaska is its beauty and magnificence — I want to return to the state in July to see Brooks Falls grizzlies, and to catch a glimpse of Denali in all her splendor. I am also curious about going maybe for a week in November just to see how I do when it’s dark non-stop, perhaps timed with the Iditarod to see the power of the racing Huskies. And the national parks are unparalleled, I could easily go and just try a new hike each day. We were limited in our hiking because it was my daughter’s trip and … she’s better with a friend along. Rest assured my next series of Blog posts will feature more of Alaska. Not all 2000 photos, of course, but just the highlights. Thanks for the comment!

  3. WOW. You’re an amazing planner and organizer. It is way better to plan and organize a trip yourself than leave it to someone else. I love Alaska. Alaska is an amazing place and you described it very well, rugged, vast and wild. I look forward to seeing more of your photos.😍

    1. Thanks so much, Silvie-Marie! Over the 26 years my husband and I have been together (well, even the year before; we planned our own wedding without a wedding planner) we have planned nearly all of our trips ourselves rather than relying on a tour guide. We DID go with a small company for Madagascar, and a “boat tour” in Galapagos on a small catamaran, but perhaps our most challenging planning was for our two trips to New Zealand. For those who don’t want to do much planning, tours or cruises can be a good option. For those with strong preferences and low tolerance for crowds, do-it-yourself is the way to go. There will be more to come, I promise!