Big and beautiful, there’s so much to do in the 49th state. Here are just a few of the best things to do in Alaska.
Few places inspire the same level of awe as Alaska—famous for its beautiful and unspoiled wilderness, towering snow-capped peaks, and prodigious wildlife. It’s a place that inspires big dreams and epic adventures. While it’s a hub for powder-hounds, fishermen, hikers, campers, and general outdoor enthusiasts, it’s also a place with culturally-rich cities and delightfully quirky towns where artists, foodies, and history buffs are all welcome.
The state is vast. If you superimpose Alaska over the continental States, its northern coast would cover much of the Midwest, the southern panhandle would extend into Florida, and the islands that make up the Aleutian Chain would start in Texas and end in the San Francisco Bay.
With so much area to cover and so many opportunities for one-of-a-kind adventures, if you’re traveling to Alaska, it can be hard to decide the best places to visit and things to do. Consider this a guide to get you going.
WHEN IS THE BEST TIME TO VISIT ALASKA?Locals will tell you there’s no wrong time to visit the 49th state—there’s just poor clothing choices. That being said, most businesses are open from Memorial Day to Labor Day, the landscape is green, and animals are out-and-about.
Here’s where to get information on COVID-19 protocols, guidelines, and travel restrictions in Alaska.
Top Picks for You
Get on a Glacier
Glaciers cover over five percent of Alaska–there are over 100,000 within the state. Some, like Ruth Glacier, whose upper reaches are found just three miles from the summit of Denali, are challenging to reach. However, there are dozens of easily accessible glaciers throughout the state, including Matanuska Glacier, Byron Glacier, Portage Glacier, Exit Glacier, and many more. If you want to explore ice caves and crevices, there are various guide companies, such as NOVA Glacier Guides and Kennicott Wilderness Guides, that can help you do so safely (and provide all the necessary gear, like crampons).
Visit the Arctic Circle
A small percentage of those who travel to Alaska make it past the Arctic Circle – doing so garners some serious bragging rights (and, if you’re on tour, usually a certificate). Northern Alaska Tour Company offers various single- and multi-day trips year-round, though we’d recommend the Arctic Circle Fly/Drive Adventure, where guests are flown up to Coldfoot, an encampment in the Brooks Mountain Range, and then driven back to Fairbanks through mountain passes and over tundra, stopping at the Trans Alaska Pipeline, roadhouses, remote villages, the Yukon River, and, of course, the famous Arctic Circle sign. In the winter, they also stop at some northern lights viewing spots.
Check out the Local Brewing Scene
Chances are, if you’re new to the Alaska brewing scene, the only brewery you’ve heard of is Alaskan Brewing Company. It’s fair — it’s the only one that is widely distributed outside of the 49th state. But if you’re a hop head (or even just have a passing interest in craft beers, ciders, and seltzers), prepare to be delighted. There are roughly 50 breweries in Alaska, with many more in the works. The vast majority reside in Anchorage, including Anchorage Brewing Company, Cynosure Brewing, Midnight Sun Brewing Co., and Onsite Brewing Company, among the dozen or so others. But even outside the most populous city, there are oodles of others, including Kodiak Island Brewing Co. in Kodiak, Grace Ridge Brewing in Homer, Devil’s Club Brewing Company in Juneau, Denali Brewing Company in Talkeetna, and many more.
Explore Kenai Fjords National Park
Alaska’s national parks are vast and otherworldly beautiful. But, in most cases, they’re challenging to reach. One exception is Kenai Fjords National Park near Seward. It’s just a two-hour drive from Anchorage. Once there, travelers have a handful of options in how they want to engage with the park. By land, they can hike out to Exit Glacier (or, if they’re really fit and adventurous, to Harding Ice Field). By sea, it’s possible to board one of the many day cruise tours, which take guests out into the bay to see the dizzying fjords, tidewater glaciers, and gravity-defying whales. Alternatively, companies like Sunny Cove Sea Kayaking led day trips wherein travelers spend the day paddling between bobbing bits of glacial ice in Resurrection Bay.
Understand Alaska’s History at the Largest Cultural Institution in the State
Located in Anchorage, the Alaska Native Heritage Center aims to teach visitors the traditional and contemporary ways of Alaska’s 213 Indigenous tribes. Exhibits span over 10,000 years of history and culture and include dance, art, full-scale traditional dwellings, and more. There’s programming and demonstrations (we particularly like the Native games showcases) throughout the day and staff on hand to answer questions.
Watch the Wilderness Go by on the Alaska Railroad
It can be challenging to drive through Alaska – it’s so beautiful that it’s hard to keep your eyes on the road. One way to avoid arguments about who gets the luxury of being the passenger is to let the conductors on the Alaska Railroad do the driving instead. The entire line extends from Seward to Fairbanks, with several scheduled stops along the way, like Anchorage, Talkeetna, and Denali National Park. From the second-level outdoor viewing platform, it’s possible to shoot photos of the dramatic coastline, deep gorges, snow-capped mountains, wildlife, and more. As you chug along, knowledgeable and eagle-eyed tour guides narrate the trip with stories about Alaska’s history and point out animals.
Spend Time in Anchorage
So frequently, travelers will just fly in to or out of Anchorage, spending only enough time to pick up a rental vehicle before heading north toward Denali or south to the Kenai Peninsula. But, by doing so, they’re missing so much of what makes Alaska what it is–there’s a reason that half the state’s population lives in Anchorage. It’s a place where city life and the wilderness work in tandem—you’re never more than 20 minutes away from a Target or an epic hiking trail. Spend some time going for a bike ride along the Coastal Trail, participating in the Slam’n Salm’n Derby, climbing Flat Top Mountain, tootling around the shops downtown, and dining on the freshest seafood in one of the myriad fabulous restaurants.
Hunt for the Northern Lights
There are few things more awe-inspiring than this ethereal, solar-powered dance. It’s impossible to say when exactly Alaska’s most sought-after nighttime performance will start–scientists measure the geomagnetic activity and estimate the likelihood of the Aurora Borealis’ appearance on a scale of zero to nine (called the Kp Index). The higher the number, the better the chance. Often it’s a matter of luck, though. However, you can try to stack the deck by visiting Fairbanks. This city sees roughly 200 auroral appearances a year.
INSIDER TIPTry booking an excursion with professional northern lights hunting operators, like Salmon Berry Tours.
Watch for Whales on a Single-Day Cruise
Each summer, a variety of whale species migrate to the coastal waters of Alaska to feed. Gray whales typically come back first in mid-April, followed by orcas in May and humpback whales in June. Generally speaking, most coastal cities (like Seward, Juneau, Whittier, Valdez, Sitka, Ketchikan, and others) offer single-day cruises, though how early or late they run in the season depends on tourist demand. Smaller cities that rely on cruise ship passengers, like Ketchikan and Valdez, typically run from Memorial Day to Labor Day, whereas cities that are easier for independent travelers to get to, like Seward and Whittier, start sailing in April and run into October. No matter the operator, all cruises include professional narration, and many of the longer ones offer meals and drinks (if they have the glacial ice margarita, do yourself a favor and get it).
Wander Denali National Park
Spanning 6.1 million acres (making it the third-largest national park in the United States), there are so many ways to experience Denali National Park and Preserve. Near the entrance of the park, there are various trails with varying levels of difficulty and tons of tour operators peddling all manner of adventure, including ATV rides and Jeep excursions (though, technically, those aren’t in the national park, but rather, the state park or a wilderness area near the park). There’s only one road further into the park and past Mile 15 – it’s only possible to traverse it on a park-approved bus, a bicycle, or your own two feet. The lack of transport virtually guarantees that those who make the trek further in will see moose, caribou, wolves, Dall sheep, and bears.
INSIDER TIPDue to a rockslide, the Denali Park Road is closed at Mile 43 (of the usual 92.5 miles) through at least summer 2023.
Be One With the Wilderness in McCarthy
McCarthy, Alaska, is arguably one of the most unique towns in America. Situated smack dab in the middle of a 13.2-million-acre national park (the largest in the country), the former mountain boomtown now has a year-round population that hovers around two dozen people. Its remote location makes it a fantastic jumping-off point for exploration. Here you can explore the abandoned Kennecott Mines, traipse across Root Glacier, go white water rafting, hike in alpine mountain ranges, and so much more.
Island Hop Through Southeast Alaska
Each summer, more than 2 million people visit the various island communities in southeast Alaska by ship. The vast majority do so on a small expedition sailing or a large-scale cruise ship, but that’s not the only way to do it. The Alaska State Ferry allows travelers to DIY their own trip (which is fabulous for those who want to spend more than a few hours in port). Alternatively, if you’re not much for open water, Alaska Airlines operates flights from some of the larger cities like Ketchikan, Juneau, and Sitka. Any way you go about it, you’ll be sure to see dramatic mountains that seem to pierce the sky, whales feeding in groups, funky communities, and showstopping wilderness.
Land a Trophy Fish
When people call “Fish on!” in Alaska, it’s a good idea to give them some room–fish are big up here. From 40-pound king salmon to “barn door” sized halibut, there are plenty of opportunities to fill your freezer. River beds can get pretty congested in the summer but opt for a fishing charter if you’re looking for a more intimate experience. They’re perfect for newbies, as professional guides take guests to spots that virtually guarantee bites, walk them through the entire process, and take care of filleting the catch afterward.
Observe Brown Bears in Their Natural Habitat
Katmai National Park and Preserve have the highest concentration of bears in the world. In the summer months, you’ll see them in the river, scooping salmon from the water with their claws, or snatching them out of mid-air with their teeth as the fish try to leap over a small but turbulent waterfall. Another option is Lake Clark National Park and Preserve. Like Katmai, massive brown bears line the waterways in the hunt for fresh salmon. Both are little-visited parks and fairly expensive to get to (it’s only accessible by floatplane), but they’re pristine and worth every penny. If you can swing it, it’s worth visiting both—the experiences are wildly different.
Watch the Sunset After Midnight
Robert Service, a famed poet called “the Bard of the Yukon,” once wrote, “There are strange things done under the Midnight Sun.” That line was written during the Gold Rush days, but it’s still appropriate now. Summers in Alaska have a manic quality–they’re so short that locals try to cram as much into every day as possible, be it bagging a late-night summit or gathering with friends on an outdoor patio to watch the sunset over drinks. The farther north you go, the longer the summer days are. Utqiagvik, Alaska (formerly known as Barrow), the northmost settlement in the U.S., sees over 80 days in a row without a single sunset.
Learn About Alaska’s Gold Rush Past
If it weren’t for the news that gold had been found in the then territory at the turn of the 20th century, Alaska would likely look considerably different today. In the early 1900s, thousands of fortune-seekers streamed into Alaska and left their mark on the 49th state. Where there remains gold (places like Skagway and Fairbanks), it’s possible to participate in gold panning tours, most of which include a history lesson on how gold helped shape the Alaska we know today.
Soak in Chena Hot Springs
The Chena Hot Springs were originally made to allow miners to rest and recharge. The springs themselves still allow for relaxation and rejuvenation, but they’re now just one part of the larger Chena Hot Springs Resort complex. Beyond soaking (and hopefully catching the northern lights through the steam), the resort offers dog sledding demonstrations, ATV and snowmobile (called “snowmachine” in Alaska) tours, and the opportunity to sip an appletini at the Aurora Ice Museum bar.
Drive the Seward Highway
Alaska has 31,000 miles of road, but many would argue that the stretch of the Seward Highway connecting Anchorage and Girdwood is the most beautiful. On one side is a sheer rock wall, where climbers belay each other, and surefooted Dall sheep defy gravity. On the other is the Turnagain Arm, a waterway that regularly sees beluga whales and hosts surfers trying to catch the bore tide, a single massive wave twice a day.
INSIDER TIPThere are photo pull-outs every few miles, so keep your eyes on the road until then.
See Alaska by Air
Alaska is so often described with superlatives. There is the tallest peak in North America, the largest mammals, the most coastline–the list goes on. A flightseeing tour is one of the best ways to fully appreciate just how vast the 49th state is. On a clear day, you can see for miles. Bush planes like K2 Aviation, seaplanes like Alaska Seaplane Adventures, and helicopters like Alaska Helicopter Tours, can access places you wouldn’t otherwise be able to get to, and every seat is incredible.
Explore the Least Visited National Park in the U.S.
Even though Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve is the second largest national park in the United States (in total, it’s about the same size as Switzerland), it’s the least visited. By a lot. In an average year, between 5,000 and 12,000 people visit (by comparison, more than 4.5 million people visit Grand Canyon National Park each year). But, if you go, you certainly earn some unique bragging rights.
INSIDER TIPThere’s no infrastructure in Gates of the Arctic — it’s as wild as it gets.
Dine on Locally Caught Seafood
Salmon, and halibut, and king crab, oh my! If you’re a seafood lover, one of the great joys of visiting Alaska is getting to sample ultra-fresh fish—chances are the protein on your plate was caught within the last day or so. But it’s worth trying, even if you aren’t generally a seafood person. Wild-caught Alaska salmon is vastly different (read: better) than the kind of salmon you’d find in the Lower 48. There’s really nothing else like it.
Do an Epic, Multi-Day Hike
Hiking in Alaska is, simply put, magical. There are so many trails (and so few people) that you often won’t see another person on your trek, making communing with nature a (literal) walk in the park. While there are oodles of hikes between .5 and ten miles to choose from, if you’re interested in a multi-day thru-hike, some options to consider are Crow Pass Trail (a 21-mile hike that follows part of the original Iditarod Trail), Resurrection Pass Trail (39 miles on the Kenai Peninsula), the Historic Chilkoot Trail (33 miles, starting in Dyea, Alaska and ending in Lake Bennett, British Columbia), and K’esugi Ridge Trail (29 miles in Denali State Park).
Ski the Longest Continuous Double Black Diamond Run in the Country
Despite having thousands of mountains, there aren’t many ski resorts in Alaska. In fact, you could count them all on the one hand. Alyeska Resort, with its reputation for “steep and deep” (each year, it averages 650 inches of snowfall) skiing, is hands down the most popular. For expert skiers and snowboarders, the resort’s crown jewel is the North Face run—the longest continuous double black diamond run in North America.
Get a Better Understanding of Alaska’s Quirky Capitol
What makes Alaska’s capital city so peculiar, at least to those in the Lower 48, is the fact that it’s not possible to drive there from anywhere else. Juneau is on an island and has no roads that connect to it. It’s only possible to get there by boat or plane. But, making the trip is entirely worth it. There you can visit Mendenhall Glacier, take the Mount Roberts Tramway, explore the Alaska State Museum, dine at the famous Tracy’s Crab Shack, and more.
Experience Anchorage’s Nightlife Scene
Anchorage’s nightlife scene is incredibly varied. Here you’ll find everything from craft cocktail bars like The Speakeasy at Williwaw and Tequila 61 to absolute dives like Darwin’s Theory and The Pioneer Bar. Hysterically, the crowd demographics are largely the same at any watering hole—you’re just as likely to see people in heels as Xtra Tuff neoprene boots.
INSIDER TIPOh, and one thing to know before going out in Anchorage: if you see a bell at the bar, don’t ring it unless you want to buy everybody in the joint a drink.