If I had to pick the single most important road in Alaska, I'd have to go with the George Parks Highway. Heck, it might even be one of the top 10 or 20 most important roads in the whole country. For starters, it connects the two biggest cities in the state: Anchorage and Fairbanks. Add in the fact that it's pretty much the only road to access the jaw-dropping Denali National Park, and that its route parallels the historically significant Alaska Railroad, and you've got a solid case for the highway's importance. Plus, it's a really pretty route that has some surprisingly awesome attractions to stop at along the way.
The route starts just north of Anchorage. This is Alaska's most populous city, and is home to 40% of the state's population. It's also in a particularly stunning location, with the Cook Inlet on one side and the Chugach Mountains on the other. Since it's a major city, it's got loads of world-class attractions (the Alaska Native Heritage Center, the Alaska Zoo, the Anchorage Museum) that you can explore if the natural beauty (Kenai Fjords, Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center) doesn't do it for you. Plus, there's a huge variety of awesome restaurants (brewpubs with restaurants like 49th State and Glacier Brewhouse are always local favorites, but you can find more upscale options with a variety of cuisines as well.)
On your way from Anchorage to the Parks Highway, stop by the Eklutna Historical Park, just because it's a very special place that's unlike anywhere else. This village is a perfect example of how Alaskan native culture was blended with Russian Orthodox Christianity in this Dena'ina Athabascan village. Russian Orthodox missionaries arrived here in about 1840, and besides the distinctive domes of the new Saint Nicholas Church on the property, the best place to experience the unique culture is at the cemetery. It's been in use since the 15th century, but its best known for its Spirit Houses. The brightly-colored wood structures were built by the family members of the deceased.
Stop in the town of Palmer if you're in need of a break from the road. They have a great little museum at their visitor center that has loads and loads of info on the history and culture of the area, from the Dena’ina and the Ahtna to the Russians who came in search of fur, to Alaska's sale to the US and the following gold rush, all the way up to today. Located in a historic cabin filled with artifacts, the Museum also serves as a cultural center for the community. There are also some gorgeous gardens next to the log cabin; you'd be surprised at the plants that thrive in Alaska, thanks to the growing power of the midnight sun.
Just off the route is one of the country's quirkiest private homes. Known to locals as "The Dr. Seuss House", a lot of rumors have started about the residence. It's actually called the Goose Creek Tower, and its owned by an Anchorage attorney named Phil Weidner. It's unfinished, but he builds onto it by assembling pieces on the ground and putting them in place with a crane. His ultimate end game? To put a telescope at the top of the 185-foot tower.
One of the great things about road trips along lesser-traveled roads are the quirky stops that open along the way. Like, instead of Walmart, the Parks Highway has a WalMikes. WalMikes isn't kidding when it says it sells a little of everything. From socks and camping gear to some really weird antiques (we're talking "alleged-jar-with-a-pickled-hand" weird), this is a curio shop that will suck you in. The owner, Mike, is beyond friendly, which really adds to the experience.
Just because Denali State Park isn't Denali National Park doesn't mean it isn't worth visiting as well! The state park, for instance, offers the better view of Mount Denali, which is physically located in the National Park further down the road. Al almost half the size of Rhode Island, it's Alaska's fourth largest state park, and while it doesn't have as many amenities as the National Park, it's a great place to experience the wilderness of the Last Frontier. Curry Lookout offers the best views in the park, and Byers Lake Campground is a great place to spend a night. Be on the lookout for brown and black bears, moose, marmots, muskrats, beavers, red foxes and porcupines!
The Parks Highway is a perfect blend of natural beauty and roadside kitsch. Another bit of quirk is the abandoned igloo-shaped hotel that lies just off the road. Igloo City was built during the 1970s, but never opened since it never got up to code. It was used as a gift shop and gas station for a bit, but now it sits abandoned. It's surprisingly massive and made of solid concrete. The crumbling remains make for a great quick photo op along the way.
Denali National Park is the crown jewel of the route. With 6 million acres of wilderness, it's a pretty amazing place to visit. It's famously home to Mount Denali, the tallest mountain in North America (although it's often obscured by clouds), lots of glaciers, and some really, really cute sled dogs that you can meet. Take full advantage of the bus system that runs throughout the park, and definitely stop at the visitor center to get some info before heading out to explore the park.
After a long day of adventuring in the park, treat yourself to a night at the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge. Located along the Nenana River right at the edge of Denali National Park, the setting is utterly stunning, and it's got lots of amenities to make you feel right at home. Free wifi, cable TV, porches, loads of onsite dining options, and excursions into the park add to the experience of staying here. It's a great basecamp for exploring the National Park, or as a stopover on your way to Fairbanks.
The Parks Highway owes a lot to the Alaska Railroad. Stop and learn the rich history and cultural significance of the railway at Nenana's Alaska State Railroad Museum. It's free to visit, and it's located in the town's historic train/ferry depot. Explore the town after you're done at the museum if you're looking to stretch your legs after time in the car.
The Aurora Express B&B is a unique stay just outside of Fairbanks. All of the rooms are located in restored vintage railcars, which are decorated with themes that reflect Alaska's history and the romance of old-school train travel. Their swankiest car is the Golden Nellie, a private converted boxcar fit for a Gilded Age robber baron. It's done up in gold (duh), burgundy and brocade, and even has an observation deck upstairs! In the morning, head to their dining car to grab a delicious breakfast before you hit the road again.
Fairbanks is the second largest city in Alaska, and the largest in the massive state's interior, so it's a perfect end point for your trip. It's surrounded by natural beauty, so its a base for lots of Artic Circle tours, and it's home to the prestigious University of Alaska Fairbanks, which runs the awesome Museum of the North. You can also head just north of the city to relax at Chena Hot Springs (and hopefully spy the Northern Lights!) or have an appletini at Chena's Aurora Ice Museum.
Earth and sky, woods and fields, lakes and rivers, the mountain and the sea, are excellent schoolmasters, and teach some of us more than we can ever learn from books. -John Lubbock