This article was written in collaboration with Alaska Railroad, Kenai Fjords Tours by Pursuit, Philips Cruises & Tours, LLC, Ascending Path, and the Alyeska Resort.
Unlike most places in the United States, Alaska is far, remote, and a bit tricky travel to. Even from Seattle, the closest possible big city in the US, a flight to Anchorage still rings in at more than 3 hours one way. But despite its remote location, over 1.5 million tourists travel to the 49th state each year, and this year, I was one of them. From the promise of abundant wildlife to the curiosity I had about glaciers, I jumped at the chance to visit Alaska, and spent 4 days exploring all over its south central region. It may be far, and it might take you a while to get there, but once you land, you’ll be hooked on Alaska’s beautiful landscapes, friendly people, and tasty food. Only have a long weekend to spare? No problem. Here’s a guide on how you can tour some of the best parts of south central Alaska in just 4 days.
Getting Around South Central Alaska
While south central Alaska is easily the most accessible region in the state, with the most well-maintained roads and highways, there are still a bunch of considerations to be aware of.
First, yes, you can and probably should rent a car even if it’s just for one day – it’s the easiest and most flexible way to travel around Alaska. That said, gas is comparable to prices in Los Angeles or Hawaii, so keep that in mind. If you don’t want to rent a car, you can travel by coach or via the Alaska Railroad to various places throughout south central Alaska and beyond. This option is more expensive and offers less flexibility (some routes only depart from certain areas once a day), but the experience is fantastic. We used the Alaska Railroad to get between Anchorage, Whittier, and Girdwood, and despite the limited routes on any given day, the rail is extremely reliable and will only really stop or delay if there’s an epic wildlife sighting – which you’d probably want them to stop for, anyway. I was able to spot moose 3 times! If you decide to take the train, book a ticket on their Adventure Class – you get to sit on the 2nd story of the train and admire your surroundings through giant windows on either side.
Uber and Lyft are available in Anchorage, but outside of the city you’ll need to organize a taxi or coach pickup. Transportation will probably be one of your biggest expenses in Alaska (estimate about $70-$110/day for a car rental, $85/person per trip on the train, and around $10-20 in an Uber to get you anywhere you need to go within Anchorage city limits).
The 4-Day South Central Alaska Itinerary
Day One: Seward, Exit Glacier, and Kenai Fjords National Park
What To Do:
Have coffee at Black Cup Coffee in Anchorage
Rent a car for the day
Drive to Seward
Take a tour of Resurrection Bay and the Kenai Fjords National Park
Stop by Exit Glacier
Head back to Anchorage for dinner (my recommendation: Glacier Brewhouse – get their chowder and fish and chips!)
On day 1, we rented a car to drive down to the little fishing village of Seward, which is about a 2.5 – 3 hour drive from Anchorage. Seward is located on Resurrection Bay, and is the access town for seeing the Kenai Fjords National Park.
The drive from Anchorage to Seward is other-worldly. Get on the highway towards Seward, and find yourself driving alongside the Turnagain Arm – a huge waterway that is famous for bore tides (one giant wave that rushes from the mouth of the waterway all the way through to the very end, which happens on a near-daily basis) and beluga whales. On the opposite side, you’ll drive by Chugash State Park, with giant mountains and trees so dense and green you’d think you stepped into a fairytale. Stop at Beluga Point to get a good view of the Turnagain Arm before continuing down towards Seward.
We did a 4.5 hour boat tour of Resurrection Bay with Kenai Fjords Tours by Pursuit. There are much longer boat tours available, but this one was, in my opinion, still pretty fantastic despite the short sailing time. Resurrection Bay is other-worldly. Imagine teal blue water (glacial silt mixed with ocean water turns the color from a dark navy into a hazy, bright aqua), jagged, untouched islands and mountains on either side, and wildlife everywhere you look. We saw bald eagles, jellyfish, otters, sea lions, kittiwakes, and even a humpback whale in just a short period of time. The boat takes you out from Seward to Fox Island, where you have lunch and get a few moments to explore the area. From there, you go a bit deeper into Resurrection Bay to sail around and look for wildlife sightings. Being out in Resurrection Bay was truly stunning – a can’t miss for any south central Alaska trip, for sure.
After the boat tour, we drove to Exit Glacier, which is only 15 minutes from Seward, and is the only glacier in all of Alaska that’s easily accessible by car. We spent a little while here before heading back to Anchorage to return our car, grab dinner, and call it a day.
Day Two: Whittier and Prince William Sound
What To Do:
Grab coffee at Dark Horse Coffee in downtown Anchorage
Travel by train to (and from) Whittier
Get on a catamaran to tour Prince William Sound
Go up the aerial tram at Alyeska Resort to watch the sun set
Have dinner at Seven Glaciers Restaurant
After another quick coffee stop which almost made us miss our train, we headed to Whittier, a town with deep historical roots dating back to WWII. This town was considered a ‘secret’ civilization back in the day to preserve its military and coal mining efforts, and because of that, to this day Whittier is only accessible on land through a 2.5 mile tunnel that opens for passage only a handful of times each day.
Once we were there, we boarded yet another boat – the 26 Glacier Cruise. This 5-hour cruise covers 130 miles within Prince William Sound, an area that boasts the highest concentration of tidewater glaciers in the world. While we didn’t see 26 glaciers on this particular day, we definitely saw at least 15, and we got up close and personal to 2 or 3 of them, at which point the captain cuts the engine altogether so you can simply stand outside and listen to the sound of nature, and if you’re lucky, some glacier calving, too. During the cruise, you’re served a meal of salmon chowder, which I have to say was one of my favorite chowders I ate throughout the entire trip. After the cruise, we grabbed drinks and even more chowder at the Inn at Whittier, a nearby hotel with breathtaking waterfront views.
Drunk on chowder and seafood, we took the train to Girdwood to check into the Alyeska Resort. The hotel actually has a tram that you can take up to the top of Mount Alyeska, which we did at around 9 pm so we could watch the sunset. Surrounding Mount Alyeska are seven massive hanging glaciers and an insane view of Girdwood and the hotel down below. If you’re hungry, dine mountainside at the Seven Glaciers Restaurant, a fine dining restaurant up in the clouds. We celebrated my birthday here, and the crab cakes and wine selection were top-notch. I didn’t care as much for the entrees (I had salmon, my mom had halibut), but the appetizers, dessert, and customer service made up for it.
RELATED: Where to Stay in Girdwood, Alaska – The Alyeska Resort
Day Three: Spencer Glacier
What To Do:
Spend the morning at the hotel (suggestion: go for a swim or take a stroll around on one of the trails)
Go iceberg kayaking and glacier hiking at Spencer Glacier
Have dinner at a local Girdwood restaurant (my recommendation: Jack Sprat)
After a lazy morning swimming and trying reindeer sausage in my breakfast burrito, I signed myself up to do a 9-hour day trip to Spencer Glacier, which is only accessible by kayak. Ascending Path, a Girdwood-based tour operator, organizes all kinds of expeditions in the area, but I knew I wanted to get a good workout in, so I signed up for the Glacier Hike at Spencer. This day tour consists of 3 miles of kayaking past icebergs, along with 1.5 miles of hiking around on the face of Spencer Glacier, which was mesmerizing, mystical, and hauntingly quiet. I felt altogether at peace and uneasy being one small person in the middle of a vast ice field, and the experience was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced, or may ever experience again, in my life.
We had dinner at Jack Sprat, which comes highly recommended by local residents of Girdwood, and for good reason – the restaurant offers fresh seafood, tons of vegan and vegetarian options, a broad beer and cocktail menu, and good dessert. If it’s blueberry season (the end of summer), don’t miss the fresh blueberry cake!
Day Four: Eat, Drink, and Relax in Girdwood
What To Do:
RELAX. You’ve done so much!
Go dog sledding
Do a short hike to Virgin Creek Falls
Try to spot a beluga whale or watch the bore tide roll in
Head back to Anchorage and say goodbye to Alaska (for now)
At this point, I was pretty exhausted, but blissed out on everything we experienced over the first 3 days of our trip. This was good, because our dog sledding tour actually got cancelled due to mud and bad weather (otherwise, I would have had more to say about this!). Since our day was wide open, I lazed around the hotel for a while, went for another swim, and then we took the bus into Girdwood to grab ice cream (at The Shop) – as one of my Uber drivers put it, “you can’t leave Alaska without trying our ice cream. It’s a big part of our lives!” You can go to The Shop and pretty much any other restaurant in Girdwood thanks to the Glacier Valley Transit, a free bus that runs on donations.
If you find yourself with an open afternoon in Girdwood, consider checking out Virgin Creek (a waterfall), heading to the Seward Highway to find a good spot to watch the bore tide (check times here) or try to spot a beluga whale in the Turnagain Arm!
We left to head back to Anchorage at night for one more meal downtown before our midnight flight. Despite one of our plans getting cancelled, I’m so happy with how our trip turned out, and with all of the beautiful sights we got to see and experience in such a short amount of time. A 4-day trip to southcentral Alaska is a quick bite for sure, but one that’s bound to leave a lasting impression. From touring some of the most picturesque parts of the area by boat to digging your boots into the face of a blue ice glacier, you’d be surprised just how much really can be done in just 4 days.
Would you consider a trip to south central Alaska on your next long weekend?
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I love Alaska and also did some of the things you did. I had a week to explore. The best thing I did was the dog sledding. Loved Kenai Fjords tour.
Oh amazing!! Kenai Fjords was just unreal. One of the best things I got to see while we were there! I wish we had done dog sledding, but the weather cancelled our plans 🙁
What month and date did you travel on this four day trip? Did you travel to Denali Park during your stay in Alaska? Would you suggest to travelers your itinerary first vs seeing Denali if time were a factor?
Lori from Massachusetts
Hi Lori! I did this particular trip in August, from a Friday to a Tuesday. Funnily enough, I actually planned out this itinerary because trying to fit Denali in in such a short amount of time seemed too expensive and too short to really get the most out of the experience. And, I really wanted to see Kenai Fjords and spend a couple of days in Girdwood. If you were going to do Denali on a 4-day trip, I’d maybe spend the 1st and the last night in Anchorage or Girdwood (close to the airport), and spend at least 1 or 2 nights in between up in Denali.
The Alaska Railroad (https://www.alaskarailroad.com/) is a really beautiful way to get around and has a route from Anchorage to Denali. The trip takes 7ish hours because it’s a slow, scenic train that caters to tourism and sight-seeing. Alternatively, you could also rent a car.
Hope that helps!