Alaska is a vast and wild state. It's twice the size of Texas, has 17 of the country's 20 highest peaks, a longer coastline than all U.S. states combined, and a glacier the size of Switzerland. Transportation here is tricky. Much of the state, including Juneau, the state capital, is not connected to the outside via roads. The only way to get there is by boat or plane. Careful planning is paramount, especially in regard to travel times—distances between towns and parks can be daunting.
Lay of the Land
Alaska can be roughly divided into four regions: Southeast and the Inside Passage, South Central, the Interior, and the Bush.
Southeast Alaska and the Inside Passage. Southeast Alaska is largely along the northernmost end of the famous Inside Passage, a winding, 25,500-mile-long waterway that begins in the Puget Sound in Washington State, runs up the Canadian Coast, and ends in Glacier Bay. The Alaska portion is 500 miles from north to south and 100 miles from east to west, with thousands of islands, coves, and bays to explore. Around 80% of visitors experience Alaska's glaciers and spectacular wilderness by cruising through the Inside Passage. If this is the type of trip you're looking for, check out Alaska by Cruise Ship or check out our Alaska Ports of Call guide. This region (the Panhandle) is almost entirely comprised of the Tongass National Forest—the largest national forest in the country, and the largest intact temperate rain forest in the world. It's green, lush, and filled with glaciers, waterways, islands, and wildlife. Given the rugged, mountainous nature of this province, none of the communities here, except for Hyder, Skagway, and Haines, have road connections to the outside world—the only way to get in and out of town is via planes and boats.
South Central Alaska. This region hugs the Gulf of Alaska and is the most populated area in the state, thanks to Anchorage. Here you'll find mountain ranges, active volcanoes, rugged coasts, thick forests, and glacier-fed rivers. From Anchorage it's not difficult to hop on a train to the Interior and visit Denali National Park and the famous Mt. McKinley, the highest peak in North America. Kenai Peninsula and the Copper River delta are where you’ll have the iconic salmon-fishing experience.
The Interior. The Interior holds North America's highest peak, 20,320-foot Mt. McKinley and Denali National Park. Its vast forests of birch and spruce are warm in the summer and bitterly cold in the winter, though the long winter nights do feature dazzling displays of the aurora borealis (northern lights). Fairbanks is the region’s largest city. When gold prospectors and missionaries settled there at the end of the 19th century, it was already surrounded by long-established Alaska Native villages.
The Bush (Western and Northern Alaska). Come here to experience the seemingly flat, endless wilderness—the beauty of infinite tundra spotted with herds of caribou and musk oxen. Witness the brown bears of Katmai Island, the extraordinary birders’ paradise on the Probilof Islands, gold panning in Nome, and the notorious Dalton Highway—the only thoroughfare in the region. Even farther north in Arctic Alaska, caribou and polar bears share the northern third of the state with oil companies and just a few thousand souls. Because there are virtually no roads to the towns and villages in the Bush, planning transportation and lodging in advance is imperative. If you'd like to get out into the wilderness here, we highly recommend a tour. It's far less stressful and much safer.
Planning a trip to Alaska is a daunting task, especially given the sheer size of the state and dearth of roads. It's best to embrace a "less is more" philosophy and stick to a single region or combine sites in adjacent regions. If you're taking a cruise, assume it will take at least a week. Inside Passage routes start in Seattle or Vancouver, with ports of call in Ketchikan, Juneau, and Skagway or Sitka, and stops in either Glacier Bay or Hubbard Glacier. If you want to visit the Interior via rail or car, allot at least 7–10 days. Most of the must-see attractions are at least 100 miles apart, so you'll need to factor in transportation time. If you prefer to stick to the coast and hop from city to city using ferries, give yourself at least a week or two.
The following itineraries only cover a small slice of this massive state. They focus on Southeast, South Central, and Denali National Park, and can be combined with one another, or tacked on at the end of a weeklong Inside Passage cruise. We give the minimum amount of time for each destination, but we highly recommend adding days to these itineraries if your vacation allows it.
Peak Season: May to September
Temperatures hover around 60°F and prices are at their highest. Many lodges, especially those close to national parks, book up months in advance.
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