Getting around Alaska can be challenging. However, with enough time and planning, it is possible to get off the beaten path and experience real adventure in North America’s “Last Frontier.”

Most people travel around Alaska by private vehicle – or on cruise ship – but in the high season this can also mean you're looking for a spot to park – or space at the ship's buffet – rather than having the holiday of your dreams.

If you can strap on a backpack, and soak up the spirit of adventure, it is very possible to meander around Alaska on different types of transportation. And the rewards are huge. Read on for how to navigate this vast US state. 

A moose grazing in front of a body of water with the Anchorage skyline behind
Don't be surprised if you see a moose wandering around while you’re in downtown in Anchorage © BILD LLC / Shutterstock

Start exploring in Anchorage

The biggest city in Alaska challenges the notion of where a city of a quarter million starts and ends and where it turns into a wilderness park. It’s not uncommon to see a moose wandering while you’re out walking downtown, or biking and skiing the hundreds of miles of trails that are part of the city’s heart. Many trails then connect to Chugach State Park, which encompasses nearly a half million acres just outside the city limits.

To get around Anchorage, your best options are taxis, ride-shares like Uber, and a well-timed bus system that serves the greater Mat-Su Valley.

With time to spare take the Alaska Marine Highway ferry 

The Alaska Marine Highway ferry can be an excellent option for those with time to spare on their initial voyage up from Bellingham, Washington. A walk-on ticket means just that: carrying only what you can.

You don’t necessarily have to book a cabin; instead, grab one of the first-come-first-served spaces on the top deck. Here tents are secured down and lawn chairs become valuable real estate. The deck is transformed into a makeshift campground for the three-to-four-day journey through the remote communities in southeast Alaska. Then onward to Whittier – a port that usually serves Anchorage and the Alaska railroad.

For those disinclined towards traditional cruise ships, the ferry is a moderately priced way to get around. Booking through the website requires advance planning, but you can bring bikes, kayaks and other large items on board, so it can be an extremely cost-effective way to get larger touring gear to Alaska compared to flying.

Choosing to take the Alaska Marine ferry can be complicated. This how-to guide can help you plan out the details.

Go on a "milk run" for scenic flight adventures on a budget

To reach more offbeat places not served by road without the cost of hiring a private plane, Alaska Air has larger aircraft that do the “milk run” – making multiple stops through southeast Alaska to serve local communities’ with cargo and groceries. It's a window-seat lover’s dream as you fly above the glaciers.

Always starting in Anchorage or Seattle, this journey can include the towns such as Cordova, Yakutat, Juneau, Sitka, Ketchikan, Wrangell and Petersburg, depending on the day. None of these towns are accessible by road: the communities are otherwise only reached by sea. They are all interesting (and walkable) places to visit, with lodge accommodation and outdoor adventures awaiting you. 

Travel in Alaska on a budget with these tips.

A yellow and navy Alaska Railroad Glacier Discovery train through Chugach National Forest, with mountain peaks in the background and purple wildflowers by the track
Alaska's trains can be the best option for both the environment and the scenery © Alamy Stock Photo

The train is a unique way to get around Alaska

Alaska Railroad is centrally located in Anchorage and offers options both north to Denali and Fairbanks or south to Seward on the Kenai peninsula. The train is the best option not only for the environment but also for the scenery (and yes it does stop for wildlife).

Several trains also offer a whistle-stop service in their ticketing based on the mile marker where you want to stop, making it possible to hop-on and hop-off along many of the routes. When you wish to board you simply flag the train down on its return. It's an option that, with some planning, enables independent travelers the opportunity to reach remote communities, rivers and hikes off the beaten track – or what locals call “the rail belt.”

Find out more about travelling by train in Alaska by a family who did it.

Don't count on buses beyond Denali National Park 

Beyond the park connector to Denali National Park and a few other key towns, bus services for independent travelers are limited in the state of Alaska. Within Denali itself, however, the park provides an exceptional tour service and is the best logistics solution for backcountry permit holders wishing to reach deep into the backcountry.

RV at Worthington Glacier
Keep your eye out for RV rental promotions that make travel in Alaska more affordable © RobsonAbbott / Getty Images

Consider renting an RV instead of a car

Car rental in Alaska is far pricier during the busy summer travel season of May through September than in more populous states. When you consider the additional cost of accommodation, some travelers (especially families) find renting an entire RV can be comparable.

Alaska tourism promotions occasionally include early season positioning of RV and rental vehicles, so if you book well in advance you may be able to drive up the ALCAN highway through Canada at a lower rate than you’d likely expect.

Note: Many rental agencies don’t allow travel on specific roads due to wear and tear upon the vehicles. Honor those policies: they’ll see from GPS where you’ve been and hefty bills from breaking the rental agreement can be charged.

Planning a road tripping adventure in Alaska? Save this guide on where to go.

Couple with son and daughter riding bicycles near a lake in Alaska
Pedalling around Alaska is a bucket-list worthy adventure © Michael DeYoung / Getty Images

Cycle your way around the state

Alaska is an excellent option for those with the power and equipment to explore by pedal, and enjoy a long well-planned adventure. Most major roads in Alaska have an off-road trail next to it, which is usually devoted to ATVs and snowmobiles in winter. 

Hitchhiking is common in Alaska 

Hitching is never entirely safe, and thus we don’t recommend it. Travelers who hitch should understand that they are taking a small but potentially serious risk. However, it does remain an option for many in remote communities where accessing a vehicle is difficult. Although rare to see in the Lower 48, it's a somewhat common occurrence on the main roads of Alaska by locals and out-of-state travelers alike.

Discover 14 things to know before you go to Alaska, from a local.

Accessible transportation in Alaska

Those with disabilities have numerous options for getting outdoors among the many hotels and transportation services within the state. The Americans with Disabilities Act ensures access in many of the national and state parks’ campgrounds. Denali National Park also has wheelchair-accessible trails.

Alaska's trains, ferries, and various cruise ships have lifts and other options, while several smaller tour operators have options for rafting and kayaking. It’s worth looking at local nonprofit Challenge Alaska for tips, as well as Lonely Planet’s resource book on accessible travel.

This article was first published Apr 21, 2021 and updated Mar 27, 2024.

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