How To DIY Your Alaska Vacation

Alaska is nicknamed the "Last Frontier" for a couple of reasons, making it a tricky place to plan a vacation, especially if you're doing it on your own. The name "Alaska" is also derived from an Aleut word "Alyeska," meaning "great land." Both monikers make a lot of sense for a state as far from the other 48 as you can get that is known for wild and rugged landscapes that are often unfriendly to the unprepared visitor. It is also the largest state (beating out Texas and California) but it is also the third least populated one.

Purchased by the U.S. in 1868 from Russia, it was initially named Seward's Folly for the Secretary of State at the time. Alaska also didn't have many fans in those days, thanks to the high price tag, however, with the discovery of oil, wildlife, natural resources, and landscapes it didn't take long for popularity to increase across the country. It stretches so far that the International Date Line is actually bent to make sure all of Alaska stays on the same day. However, it does have two separate time zones; Alaska Standard Time (the majority of the state, one hour behind Pacific Standard Time) and Hawaii-Aleutian Standard Time (the Aleutian Islands and St. Lawrence Island, which are the same as Hawaii.) 

Planning a trip to Alaska can be overwhelming, so let's dive into everything you need to know about a DIY adventure!

Focus on one area of the state

As the largest state in the U.S., you'll need to focus on one part of it, unless you have endless weeks and months to travel Alaska. One of the most popular regions, Southcentral, is home to Anchorage, where the majority of flights arrive and is also the main starting point of the Alaskan Railroad. Additionally, popular fishing destinations like Seward, Homer, and the Kenai Peninsula are located here as well as Kenai Fjords National Park and Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, both of which are havens for hiking and spotting glaciers. Next door, the Interior houses Denali National Park, also great for hiking and wildlife spotting, and is one of the best locations to view the Northern Lights.

The Southeast is home to Juneau and the Inside Passage where crystal-clear lakes and fjords are set against snowy mountain peaks. The mild climate makes this region great for spotting sea lions, whales, and porpoises. It's also a great place to relax at a remote beach. It's also the best part of the state to learn about the history of the state. Sitka was once the capital of the Russian-occupied territory, Petersburg maintains rich Norwegian influence, Ketchikan houses the world's biggest totem pole collection, and Haines has a Native cultural center that is absolutely worth a visit! Finally, the Far North can be difficult to reach but is magical in the summer. Full of wildflowers, midnight sun, amazing wildlife, and the largest Eskimo communities are found here.

Plan in advance for an Alaskan adventure

Most trips are best planned in advance, this is especially true for any Alaskan adventure you're DIYing. Rental cars, other transportation (like internal flights and trains), accommodation, and activities can sell out quickly, especially in summer. And even if you manage to book something more last minute, prices can go vertical, even more so than other destinations. This is due to the remoteness, vastness, and limited availability in Alaska. 

Additionally, it can be such a headache destination to organize, you'll want to have done most of your research and booking well before arrival. Most Alaskan travel experts recommend planning and reserving transportation and places to stay no less than 6 months in advance for the best prices and options. However, if you can, even earlier — up to a year is better. You can get away with shorter plan times, but less than a couple of months is strongly advised against.

Pick the season for your visit carefully

The winter starts as early as October and lasts until March, days are very short during these months and it's also the best time to see the Northern Lights. Spring is short, from April until mid-May, and includes all types of weather, from warm sunny days to snow and endless rain. During summer, typically from late May until early September, the sun barely sets (hence the state's other nickname "Land of the Midnight Sun") and wildflowers dot the landscape. This is also the busiest and most expensive time to visit Alaska, but also the time of the year with the best weather and availability of activities. Fall lasts from September to early-mid October (depending on the region) and produces brilliant leaf colors, especially down south. Note that frosts can occur as early as August. May and September are shoulder seasons and the cheapest months to plan a trip.

Additionally, the regions have differing climates. Southcentral has lows in the 40s and highs in the 60s during the summer. Winter lows hover right around freezing, with highs in the 20s. The Interior has average summer daytime temperatures in the 70s and winter temperatures typically below freezing. Snow can be on the ground as early as late September. It also has the most variable climate — with fluctuations between 20 and 30 degrees considered normal. The Far North and Inside Passage have temperatures in the 60s during summer and winter in the 20s, with coastal snow melting quickly. (All of these temperatures are in Fahrenheit.)

Renting a car is one of the best ways to see Alaska

Public transport is quite limited in the state, so you'll likely want your own set of wheels for at least part of your trip. A car gives you increased flexibility and the ability to go to locations where trains, ferries, and buses don't stop. However, renting a car in the "Last Frontier" means keeping a few things in mind. First, it's highly recommended to rent a larger car like an SUV in Alaska. The distances can often be long and roads and terrain rough and unpaved. So something higher off the ground will definitely make for a more comfortable ride on a long Alaskan road trip! Additionally, Alaska is known for frequent construction and road maintenance, so be prepared to stop, wait, or slow down on highways. Since a lot of work can't be done during the long winter, crews are often on the road during tourist season.

Another important factor to keep in mind is that the distance between gas stations can be long, so plan those stops out and maybe bring a gas canister to fill up for peace of mind. And speaking of distance — drive times can be longer than expected here. Alaska has limited routes and roads to get to destinations, you might be surprised when planning a journey to realize there's only one or two ways to get from A to B. Additionally, cell service can be limited, so bring offline or paper maps to ensure you don't get lost.

Consider taking the train

The Alaskan Railway is a great way to visit the state, especially on a shorter trip, or if you don't want to drive. Most routes begin in Anchorage and stretch as far north as Fairbanks and as far south as Seward, connecting communities throughout the Southcentral and Interior. The Coastal Classic route travels south from Anchorage through the beautiful backcountry of the Kenai Peninsula and stops briefly in Girdwood before continuing to Seward. If you've booked a day return ticket, you'll have roughly seven hours to enjoy Seward before returning to Anchorage around dinner time. This route runs from mid-May to late September. Alternatively, the Denali Star is a great way to see the Interior region. The 12-hour trip runs daily in summer months, with stops in Wasilla, Talkeetna, and Denali before ending in Fairbanks. The train can also be used as a mode of transportation for day trips. From Anchorage, Talkeetna is close enough for a nice afternoon visit, and from Fairbanks, Denali is easily reached in a few hours.

For a more offbeat option, check out the Glacier Discovery Train, which begins in Anchorage, then Portage, where you can visit the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. After, you continue on to Whittier, an isolated town on Prince William Sound accessible only by a one-way 2.5-mile tunnel before continuing to the Spencer Glacier. The full route runs only from June through September. The Aurora Winter train runs in winter on the same track as the Denali Star.

Ferries and flights can also help you get around

Starting as far south as Bellingham, in northern Washington state, and going all the way to Dutch Harbor, ferries are a unique way to get around Alaska, should you be sticking to the southeast. However, there are a few different ways to use them. You can arrive in the state via boat, taking the weekly ferry from Bellingham, Washington to Ketchikan, about a day and a half journey. The benefit is you can take your car and not deal with renting one in Alaska. Alternatively, you can explore numerous routes departing from hubs in Juneau, Sitka, Ketchikan, and all along the coast. Schedules are seasonal and boats are more frequent in the summer. Cabins are available to book on multi-day routes and all ferries have food and beverage service.

It's advised to reserve in advance, as space can be limited. And remember to check in at least two hours early in Bellingham and at least one hour early at other ports of call if traveling with a vehicle. For passenger-only reservations, arrive at least 30 minutes ahead of time. If you don't have that time to spare, or won't be bringing a car, consider sea plane — another popular local Alaskan mode of transport. The main hub is Juneau and service runs to most communities where the ferries run, seaplanes are just much quicker. Just remember this can be expensive and is limited to southeastern Alaska. Luggage weight limits are strict on seaplanes.

Accommodation will be much more rustic

While a trip to Alaska will cost quite a bit, it won't exactly be a luxury vacation. There are a few high-end ski resorts like the famous Alyeka (just about 45 minutes from downtown Anchorage) and Eaglecrest, just 15 minutes from Juneau. Luxury wilderness lodges also exist, where you'll be treated to amazing dining in pristine landscapes with expert guides. Most remote resorts are only accessible by boat or seaplane. In general, though, these properties are few and far between. Most accommodation options will be mid-range to budget hotels and motels or rustic cabins. However, that doesn't mean you won't be cozy! Alaskans are known for great hospitality, and no matter where your bed may be, the scenery is breathtaking in every square inch of this state.

In the summer months, camping is a great option to save money. The majority of campsites will charge a fee of around $20 and it's legal to camp on most public lands in Alaska, for a fee. Just mind signs for private land and where fires are and aren't allowed. Another fun budget option is state-run public-use cabins. These huts usually don't have water or electricity, so you'll need to bring drinking water and firewood. A limited number are accessible by car, most you'll need to hike, boat, or fly to.

Activities require a decent budget

Even though you'll be "DIY-ing" your Alaskan adventure, there are some activities you'll want some assistance organizing. Winter sports are a fantastic way to enjoy the Last Frontier, but if you're a novice to skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, or cross-country, it's a good idea to book a guide and some lessons. Additionally, state pastimes like dogsledding (it is the home of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race after all) and fishing are best done with a bit of help. In fact, with obstacles like permits, insurance, and equipment, it's usually a necessity to get some assistance.

Warm weather means hiking, whale watching, mountain biking, horseback riding, and boating are all potential additions to the itinerary, but again, if you don't have much experience, consider booking a tour. Even if you do have a certain background, doing any of those sports in Alaska can be complicated and potentially dangerous, so best to have assistance from those who know the area best! Just note that Alaska is not a budget destination and no matter how you choose to spend your time, neither are any activities you'll partake in. So make sure to plan and research budgets ahead of time so you aren't disappointed upon arrival. You can usually self-drive to locations for all of the aforementioned activities and then let the experts handle the rest!

National parks have seasonal accessibility

Alaska is home to nearly 50% of the national park area in the U.S., as well as many of the top 10 largest parks. From Denali to Kenai Fjords National Park to Katmai and Glacier Bay, America's largest state does not disappoint when it comes to natural beauty.

However, ease of access can vary throughout the seasons as snow, ice, and other weather events make many roads impassable. For the most popular destinations (all of the aforementioned parks), the parks service tries to keep some roads open, even in the middle of winter. However, weather and driving conditions can change quickly, so make sure to check alerts and monitor weather reports leading up to your visit. Even if you prepare, you might arrive at a closed road or section of the park, so always have a backup plan and double-check what's open at the entrance and ranger stations. If you plan to take a train or bus, you'll want to visit during the summer months as public transit to and within the parks doesn't run between September and May.

Wildlife viewing is spectacular but requires planning ahead

One of the main motivations for most trips to Alaska is all of the wonderful wildlife you'll see. However, you can leave full of regrets if you don't research the best season(s) to spot certain animals. Whale watching is typically available from April through September, depending on the species. Gray whales arrive first at the start of the season, followed by Orcas, Humpbacks, and finally Belugas. Porpoises, dolphins, and sea otters can be viewed most of the year on the water.

Spring is the best time of the year to spot mountain goats, sheep, and black bears before vegetation takes over the landscape and obscures roadside views. Summer is the season of babies and movement, moose calves and deer fawns are born, and many migratory birds begin to head south. Fall is an active time, as many species from moose to caribou to muskoxen mate and can be spotted in open areas. This is also when male goats, moose, and other antlered animals begin to spar. Rabbits, foxes, and lemmings' coats change to snow colored in preparation for winter. The cold season is long, but the lack of growth makes it easier to catch a glimpse of wolves, lynx, deer, goats, and various birds. Most bears will be in hibernation until the temperatures begin to warm.

The food and drink is a true highlight

The cuisine is one of the best parts of visiting Alaska as ingredients are always fresh; from salmon to moose steaks and berries. It's worth noting though that quality doesn't come cheap, and restaurants often close early and have limited hours due to the small population. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, as eateries are rarely crowded to the point of requiring a wait, and service is seldom rushed. Any Alaskan menu of course has seafood as the star, but there's more to try beyond the quintessential King crab, Copper River salmon, and Alaskan halibut. Don't miss Alaskan oysters, cod, scallops (known to be especially sweet), and clams. 

If you're not the biggest fan of dishes caught in the water, don't worry, there's still plenty to sample. Local favorites include reindeer sausage, fresh blueberries, cranberries, salmonberries, and raspberries, and birch syrup (typically less sweet than maple.) Additionally, the state has a growing craft beer and coffee scene. Don't miss Girdwood Brewing, Kenai River Brewing, and the Klondike Brewing Company on your visit. For caffeinated drinks, Kaladi Brothers in Anchorage, River City Cafe in Fairbanks, and Resurrect Art Coffeehouse in Seward are all local favorites.