Inland Cruising

Alaska by RV: The Unexplored Country

By: Christopher Batin

The sunbeam is as narrow as a knife blade as it slips through the window blind. Rather than bury my head under a pillow, I scoot out of bed with an energy I don’t possess when I’m in the city. With coffee in hand, I open the door and step outside.

The Alaska surroundings jolt me awake in a way that a cup of Java never could. Yellow birch leaves shower me in autumn.

I follow a narrow path to a darkened spruce grove, and beyond that a brushy thicket of plump, wild blueberries. I pop a few into my mouth and continue on.

The path dead ends at a lake. Fish and mallard ducks churn the water as they feed on flies. An insect escapes the feeding frenzy and disappears against a mountain that has etched its rugged outline in a bluebird sky. A fresh moose track indicates I’m not the first this morning to take in this view, but it doesn’t matter. With scenery like this, I am happy with seconds.

My wife, Nitaya, calls that breakfast is ready. Normally, I’m no slacker when it comes to eating, but for a moment, I am indecisive. I breathe deeply and apologize to the call of the wild for leaving. Even on a schedule-free, RV tour of Alaska, I’ve found that when food is on the table, it’s prudent to respond to the call of the wife, or the squirrels will be the ones eating toast and eggs for breakfast, with me eating berries and seeds.

For travel agents, Alaska is the destination that pays steady commissions from a host of satisfied customers. Established cruise and land tours have been and still are the primary means of sampling the many wonders of Alaska.

But the times they are a changin’.

Aging Baby Boomers have visited Alaska. Once. Twice. Three times. Generation X-ers want independence and more opportunities to enjoy recreation before, after or in lieu of a tour. Keep the Alaska adventure alive for both these groups thanks to the many options available through RV rentals. Your clients can find untold freedom and enjoyment in exploring Alaska’s off-the-beaten-path treasures at their own pace. When combined with select land or cruise package tours, RV rental commissions can also increase your bottom line. According to the U.S. Census of Retail Trade, the RV rental business is a $191 million a year industry, creating a lucrative source of revenue for many travel agencies.

Finding RVs to rent is easy. Advising your clients why they should indulge in do-it-yourself exploration is even easier. Tell them they can explore Alaska on their own, at their own pace. The rest will fall into place, as it did for Nitaya and me this fall.

We wanted to take in an autumn getaway and explore the “outback” of Alaska’s road system. Our goal was to investigate whatever attractions appealed to us. We would be traveling without any schedule or reservations.

With a rental RV, we decided to travel the loop, driving the Park’s Highway from Fairbanks to Denali, down to Talkeetna and finally to Anchorage. We’d backtrack and take the Glenn Highway to Glennallen, turning right on the Richardson Highway to Valdez and backtrack up the Richardson to Fairbanks.

Saddle Up
The first chore was renting an RV. While both Anchorage and Fairbanks offer the largest number of RV rental companies and are good destinations from which to base a tour, I based the trip out of Fairbanks for several reasons.

Tourists see Alaska as “The Last Frontier” and are often disappointed if their expectations aren’t met. Fairbanks meets that expectation with its slow, friendly pace and frontier history immersed in everyday life from paddlewheel-powered riverboats to ice-carving contests and gold-mining operations. It oozes Alaskana, with enough of a big-city infrastructure to be convenient, but not uncomfortable.

Suzanne Spanjer, of Chena Marina RV Park in Fairbanks, said booming interest in RV rentals prompted her to start Adventures in Alaska RV Rentals. She offers a fleet of 13 RVs to rent during the mid-May to mid-September tourist season and a 10 percent commission on all rentals. Chena Marine RV Park in Fairbanks offers complete laundry facilities, Internet access, water and electric. The personal touch from barbecues to special events, and even 50 percent off the first night’s stay so your clients can get used to their new rental makes it the standard by which other RV parks are to be judged.

The first stage of the journey is research at the Fairbanks Convention and Visitors Bureau log cabin in downtown Fairbanks. Karen Lundquist and her staff are knowledgeable in area tours and statewide attractions to match a variety of tastes, interests and budgets.

The Alaska Public Lands Information Center is a short two-block walk away and a free repository of information on Alaska’s cultural and natural attractions, hikes and campgrounds.

We make a stop at the Farmer’s Market on College Road to stock up on some locally grown produce, baked goods and handicrafts at bargain prices. Talking to the farmers is half the fun. Tell clients to spend the afternoon at the Museum of the North on the University of Alaska campus, which offers a complete overview of Alaska’s natural history with prehistoric exhibits, northern lights and large gold display and history from pre-territory to statehood.

Before leaving civilization, find an Internet connection. Online Alaska weather cams provide an updated view of weather along chosen routes.

Date With Denali
The winding highway leading out of Fairbanks climbs into the hills and offers good views of the Alaska Range to the south.

At Mile 53 is the history-rich town of Nenana. We spend an hour touring the various attractions from old churches to the railroad depot, where in 1923, President Harding drove a golden spike signifying the completion of the Alaska Railroad. The city is also home to the Nenana Ice Classic. This springtime event awards cash prizes to those who guess the exact minute when the ice will breakup on the Tanana River.

Wildlife is abundant between Anderson and Healy. As Nitaya chides me to drive faster than 45 mph, an eight-foot-high moose darts across the highway with her five-foot-tall calf following close behind. (I never again heard another word about my speed.) We also observe grouse, coyotes, foxes, swans, waterfowl and caribou.

At midday we arrive at Denali National Park, which offers sights and tours that can take a week to see. Popular options include sled-dog kennel tours, horseback trail rides, flightseeing tours, whitewater rafting and, of course, wildlife-viewing tours. Don’t forget to take in the free exhibits located within the Holland America and Princess resorts.

Free RV parking is sparse in the area, however, commercial RV campgrounds in the Denali area are abundant. Denali National Park and Preserve offers RV campsites at select locations at a cost of $12 per day.

Back on the Parks Highway, I’m tempted to turn left onto the Denali Highway. It’s a must-drive gravel highway in summer for scenery, grayling fishing and a getaway from the paved highway crowds. Drive slowly and watch for grizzly bears, moose, caribou and an occasional wolf.

Instead, we travel farther down the Parks Highway and overnight at Mile 211, Byers Lake Campground. The campground is deserted, which is often the case with Alaska campgrounds after the Labor Day weekend. We pay our $10 fee based on the honor system, slipping it into the unattended cash box.

We take a hike to enjoy the evening splendor of the lake and jump up a spruce grouse. Wild loons greet us with their lonely cry. Trout, grayling, burbot and whitefish are available in the lake. A silver salmon caught earlier was on the evening’s menu.

Before turning in, we observe the Northern Lights glowing in a green band overhead.

Realizing she survived a night in the wild, Nitaya takes a jog the next morning along the winding gravel roads through the campground. We prepare breakfast, take on some water and hit the road at sun-up.

On the Road Again
After a short drive, we stop at the Denali Overlook for a superb view of Denali and surrounding mountains. Then it’s on to Talkeetna, where we check out a few of the shops and have a quiet lunch at Christiansen Lake before continuing south.

With the sun shining bright, we opt to enjoy the scenery at the Knik River Bridge, the northernmost corner of the Pacific Ocean.

Later, we stop at Sagaya’s Market in Anchorage to stock up on groceries before heading north on the Glenn Highway to Glennallen. Clients should time their drive on the Glenn for the early evening hours, when the setting sun emblazons the mountainsides in alpenglow.

The drive is one of the most scenic in the state during early to mid September, with its winding two-lane road that courses along the Matanuska River. At the King River Bridge, I drive the RV to within five feet of the riverbank, and know we have found our best campsite yet, and it is free. That evening, with the sound of the rushing river, the snowcapped mountains and smell of autumn leaves, becomes a highlight of our adventure.

The next morning, we continue east on the Glenn. The Matanuska Glacier is a must-see that can be scaled and explored with or without a guide.

We continue on to Glennallen, an Alaska community worth getting to know for its four mountain ranges and wild, scenic rivers. The Cariboo Cafe doesn’t disappoint for lunch or breakfast. Then it’s on to Valdez and the Alaska coast.

The remaining stretch of the Richardson offers numerous highlights. Tell your clients to spend a day exploring the glacial country of Thompson Pass, Worthington Glacier and the waterfalls of Keystone Canyon.

Once in Valdez, consider a Columbia Glacier tour operated by Stan Stephens Charters, the oldest tour operator in the region. And, before parking for the night, wander over to the boat harbor around 5 p.m. to watch charter boats bring in the catch of the day.

Recharge at Eagles Rest RV Park or the Valdez Glacier Campground, a remote public site that offers isolation, although black bears can be a nuisance.

Back on the road, we retrace our path north to Delta Junction. We take a break at Rika’s Roadhouse and discover frontier Alaska, with early 1900’s antiques and pioneer roadhouse lore, and the finest food this side of the 49th Parallel.

We drive the final 95 miles to Fairbanks, where we clean up, refuel and drop off the RV and review a trip that ended far too soon.

For Nitaya and I, the Wrangell and Chugach ranges we explored are as impressive as Denali, with fewer people. I ate fresh salmon caught from a stream. We took a hike into the Talkeetna Mountains and picked blueberries, and watched caribou cross the road. We discovered the greatest attraction Alaska has to offer its solitude, away from the diesel buses and crowded restaurants. We enjoyed it all on our own time, cooking our own meals and eating when and where we wanted.

But best of all, my wife and I managed to spend some quality time together, away in the wilderness, yet with all the comforts of home.


Adventures in Alaska RV Rentals

Alaska State Parks

Bureau of Land Management Campground Reservations

Denali National Park

Fairbanks Convention and Visitors Bureau

Stan Stephens Charters

Weather Reports wxcams/map.php


The Recreational Vehicle Association of America states that, according to vacation cost-comparison studies, RV vacations are more affordable than travel by personal car, commercial airline or cruise ship. The organization claims that a family of four can spend up to 70 percent less when traveling by RV. I priced a land-base tour against the costs of the RV tour we experienced. While the savings didn’t reach 70 percent, the 50 to 60 percent savings is substantial.

Recreational Vehicle Rental Association

Eight-Day, Land-Package Tour
A typical eight-day, land-based tour that includes travel by train and motorcoach from Fairbanks to Denali, Talkeetna and Seward runs $7,064 for a family of four. Cost does not include transportation to or from Alaska.

Lodging and Transportation              


Taxes, Meals, Drinks, Tips          


Tours (Price for Four):     


One-Day Denali Park Tour       


Whitewater Rafting           


Jetboat Tour                    


Kenai Fjords National Park Tour    


Alaska Sea Life Center       




10-Day Do-It-Yourself RV Trip
A 10-day, September RV-rental trip for a family of four from Fairbanks to Anchorage to Valdez and back. Add 50 percent to RV rate for midsummer travel. Deduct $1,464 if client decides to forego the packaged tours in lieu of low- or no-cost activities such as fishing, hiking and mountain biking.

RV Rental ($108/day)                        


Gasoline and Oil for 1,100 Miles    


Insurance ($6/day)                    


Food and Miscellaneous      


Taxes and Campsite Fees   


Tours (Price for Four):  


Same Tours as Land Package    





Gear: Folding chairs with backs are invaluable. Also remember a weather-band radio, flashlight or headlamp, fishing gear, books, binoculars and a corkscrew.

Roadside Assistance: Take cash with you as many remote repair facilities don’t take credit cards. If a breakdown occurs, call the number provided by the RV agency to arrange for repair.

Driving: Adjust your mirrors and use them often most RV accidents take place backing up. Keep both hands on the steering wheel as unexpected wind gusts can fling you to the side of the road. Gasoline is at least 25 percent higher in remote areas so keep tanks half full before camping. Also, some RV generators won’t operate with less than a quarter of a tank.

Renting an RV: Test-drive several models before choosing. A full-service option eliminates gas and propane fill-up, RV cleanup and waste-water dump, but it is expensive. Some rental companies include it in the price. Take digital photos of any RV damage at the rental facility before you drive off to avoid point of contention later on.

By Christopher Batin

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