Believe it or not, there are many ways to see Alaska without taking a cruise, lovely and hassle-free though they may be. Whether you're looking for a cheaper alternative to cruising, want to see the land up-close, or simply want more control during your trip, here are three excellent, affordable ways to travel through the "Last Frontier."
Inside Passage: Alaska Marine Highway System
If you're hitting up Alaska's southeastern region for port town charm and Native American culture, taking advantage of the ferries that make up the Alaska Marine Highway System can afford you lots of flexibility and savings, particularly if you're into trying local food. The ferry will take you to the most popular cruise ports – Skagway, Juneau, and Ketchikan – as well as less crowded ones like Sitka and Prince Williams Sound. Sailings take about three to six hours. Just make sure you plan ahead if you're traveling in July and August, since accommodations onshore are limited and will be difficult to snag day-of.
A tip: The tourism board of each port city will post the number of arriving cruise ships each day on their website. Check the numbers to help avoid large crowds during busy months.
South Central and the Interior: Alaska Railroad
The South Central region, where Anchorage is located, is arguably the most accessible part of Alaska. Between Anchorage and Denali National Park, the region is chock-a-block with wildlife and active adventures. Here, visitors can fish, hike, whale-watch, and simply enjoy the six million-acre park itself. Take a direct double decker train from Anchorage to Denali (about 7.5 hours total), or, stop halfway at Talkeetna for some rafting and mountain biking. Whichever route you choose, expect to see unspoiled forest, moose, and caribou along the way. Alternatively, head four-and-a-half hours south to Seward, where you'll ogle at majestic glaciers, stunning fjords, and seals galore. Got some wiggle room in your budget? If you're looking to splurge a little, consider a nature-, fishing-, or wildlife-themed boat tour around Kenai Fjord National Park.
South Central and Interior: Driving
As nostalgic and convenient as it may be to take the train, driving is actually faster – and, if you're traveling with a few companions, cheaper. If you have the time, take the the shorter train down to Seward. It runs through a quiet, otherworldly valley that you won't see from the highway. From there, drive up to Denali.
Between these two major destinations from Anchorage, Denali is the one where having a car helps. Not only can you make stops at will, you can also branch out from the main roads along the way, explore the park with more flexibility, and seek out more affordable lodging. While the drive typically clocks in between 4.5 and 7 hours (depending on how many stops you make) a detour to Hatcher Pass will reward you with spectacular views of rolling pastures and winding rivers.
Take note: While Parks Highway is easy to navigate, there is only one lane going in each direction -- which means that there's a chance of heavy traffic, depending on the season. Be mentally prepared, take a breath, and enjoy the surroundings. Just keep an eye on your gas and fill up whenever you can, since gas stations aren't located consistently throughout the road.
Bonus: The North and the West
The northern and western regions of Alaska aren't easily accessible via train or air and are too far-flung to drive on a single trip. The Arctic Coast in the north, for example, is more than a 20-hour drive from Anchorage. However, travelers can take chartered planes to the heart of these regions. For the Arctic Coast, Deadhorse Camp is a short hop from Prudhoe Bay along the coast, while the Northern Alaska Tour Company launches air-and-land packages from Fairbanks. In the southwest, bear encounters in Katmai National Park along the peninsula and tours of the Kodiak Archipelago are popular. But all of this comes at a high premium – save it for your bucket list!