Connecting Anchorage and Fairbanks, the Parks Highway (Route 3) is 359 miles of wonderland in the winter months. The route is one of Alaska’s most traveled highways, but during Alaska’s long winter, it’s not for travelers unwilling to tackle winter driving conditions. That said, the Alaska Department of Transportation makes a significant effort to keep the highway passable and safe. Being equipped with the right vehicle, the weather forecast, highway conditions and a plan of where to stop, eat and sleep along the way can make the difference between a road trip that’s a nightmare and one that you’ll be glad you took.
First, the logistics. Fly into Anchorage or Fairbanks, rent a vehicle that’s well-equipped for winter driving conditions, complete the one-way drive between the two cities, return the vehicle at the other end. Alaska 4×4 Rentals (alaska4x4rentals.com) and Alaska Auto Rentals (alaskaautorental.com), both Alaska-based companies, specialize in renting vehicles equipped for winter driving conditions, and both allow pick up in one city and drop off in the other.
Driving time in good conditions will take about seven hours, not including stops. You can easily do the drive in a day, but why would you when you’d miss so many reasons for doing the trip along the way? Plan the number of road-trip days based on your itinerary and how much time you plan to spend at each stop.
Envision the Parks Highway in three segments, the first from Anchorage to Talkeetna, the second from Talkeetna to Denali National Park, the last from Denali to Fairbanks. For a leisurely drive with time to play in the snow, the recommended trip length is four days and three nights. On clear nights, the aurora borealis will be the main attraction.
ANCHORAGE TO TALKEETNA
Set out on the Parks Highway from Anchorage. Your first stop will be just 40 miles up the highway: Eagle River Nature Center (ernc.org). The center’s focus is natural-history education and recreation, specifically in the vast Chugach State Park. During the winter months, the center’s building is open Friday through Sunday during the day, and the trails are always open. Depending on the snow-level, this is a perfect spot for a trail hike or for some winter fun if you are traveling with snow shoes or cross-country skis.
Farther up the highway, at the braided mouth of the Knik River, you will pass a vast open area called the Palmer Hay Flats. This 28,000-acre refuge protects coastal and freshwater wetlands, sloughs, mudflats, lakes, streams and forests, all critical habitat for much of the region’s wildlife. Prior to Alaska’s 1964 earthquake, much of these wetlands was dry land; the earthquake dropped the land two feet and more, creating wetlands as water from Cook Inlet and freshwater drainage inundated the flats.
After the flats, you will enter the Mat-Su Valley. Detour off the highway onto Highway 1 to Palmer, your home for the night. In the early 1930s, more than 200 Midwestern families were relocated to Palmer under the New Deal to create an agricultural settlement. The program proved to be an enormous success due to the valley’s rich soil, the midnight-sun growing season and the heartiness and determination of the farmers. Find dining and lodging in Palmer by visiting the valley’s tourism website at alaskavisit.com.
Today, prepare to ride through the snowy backcountry on a guided snowmobile tour with Alaska Backcountry Adventure Tours (book ahead at youralaskavacation.com). Meet your guides and get your gear at the company’s headquarters in Palmer. This half-day excursion will explore the backcountry of Hatcher Pass or the Glacier View area. You’ll zip across snowy meadows and icy lakes and past majestic mountains, stopping to appreciate the spectacular Alaskan backcountry and watch for wildlife.
If time allows, stop in Wasilla and visit the Iditarod Sled Dog Race Headquarters (iditarod.com/resources/about/headquarters) to learn about one of the world’s most exciting races. Exhibits and videos cover the Iditarod’s past and present.
Your first stretch of the Parks Highway is almost complete. Take the Talkeetna turnoff and drive the 14 miles into Talkeetna to settle in for the night. To find lodging and dining in Talkeetna, go to talkeetnachamber.org.
TALKEETNA TO DENALI
Talkeetna is as vibrant and quirky in the winter as it is in the more heavily traveled summer season, as the restaurants and shops stay open year-round. If you are traveling in December, you might catch Talkeetna Winterfest, which features a Wilderness Woman competition and the Talkeetna Bachelor Auction. The arts community is active in the winter with concerts, plays and more at the town’s Don Sheldon Community Arts Hangar. You might even decide to tarry in Talkeetna for a few days, so you won’t miss anything.
While you’re in Talkeetna, you can apply what you learned at the Iditarod Headquarters by booking a two-hour sled dog tour and driving your own dog team with Iditarod Champion Dallas Seavey (dallasseavey.com/alaska-sled-dog-tours).
When you’re ready to say farewell to Talkeetna, backtrack to the Parks Highway and head north. Your next stop will be the famous Denali Viewpoint at Parks Highway milepost 135. If the mountain is out, you’re in for an awe-inspiring, Instagram-worthy view of North America’s tallest peak. “Denali” is an Athabaskan word meaning “the high one.”
The next point of interest will be a feat of engineering, the century-old Hurricane Bridge, which crosses a wide chasm and connects southcentral Alaska to the Alaska interior.
At an elevation of 2,400 feet, the highest point on the Parks Highway is Broad Pass. Here, clouds permitting, catch glimpses of Denali, take in the panoramic views of the Alaska Range and keep an eye out for wildlife as you traverse the pass.
Next stop: Denali. Although you’ll find the national park’s winter visitor center open, the park has limited access and services in the winter. Hotels and restaurants at Denali Village are closed in winter, so you’ll need to drive about 12 more miles up the Parks Highway to the town of Healy for winter lodging and dining (denalichamber.com). Be sure to stop in at Rose’s Café to see what baked goods are fresh out of the oven (rosescafealaska.com).
DENALI TO FAIRBANKS
Waking up near Denali brings a host of possibilities for the day, even in winter. The park’s only road will likely be closed at Denali Village, three miles inside the park, but you’ll still find plenty of opportunities for outdoor fun without the summer crowds. Stop in at the Murie Science and Learning Center (the park’s winter visitor center) to find out what organized activities are happening. Note that no food service is available in the winter inside the park, so bring your own food and beverages when visiting Denali.
You can borrow snowshoes free at the Murie Science and Learning Center. Trails near the park entrance and winter visitor center are color-coded by difficulty level, so you can easily determine the snowshoe route that’s best for you. Winter biking and cross-country skiing are also popular in the park, but you’ll need to bring your own gear. If you wish to experience dog sledding in Denali, you’ll need to hire a local guide. Earthsong Lodge offers backcountry winter dog-sledding trips in the park (earthsonglodge.com).
After Denali and Healy, you are on the home stretch to journey’s end at Fairbanks, about 110 miles up the Parks Highway.