Big and beautiful, there’s so much to do in the 49th state. Here are just a few of the highlights.
Few places inspire the same level of awe as Alaska. With breathtakingly 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 Mecca 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 all feel equally welcome. The state is vast–if you superimpose Alaska over the continental U.S., 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 tickling the San Francisco Bay. With so much area to cover and so many opportunities for one-of-a-kind adventures, it can be hard to decide where to start. Consider this a guide to get you going.
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Get on a Glacier
Over five percent of Alaska is covered by glaciers–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 get to. However, there are dozens of easily accessible glaciers throughout the state, including Matanuska Glacier, Byron Glacier, Portage Glacier, Exit Glacier and many, 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 that 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 a 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, wherein 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
There are few things more refreshing after summiting a mountain or landing the fish that will spawn “it was this big” stories for decades to come than plopping down in the beer garden or tasting room with a pint of locally crafted suds. There are over 40 breweries in Alaska, with many more in the works. The bulk of the breweries 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, 49th State Brewing Company in Healy, and Denali Brewing Company in Talkeetna, and many more.
Kayak in the Kenai Fjords National Park
There’s something indelibly magical about paddling a tandem kayak around bobbing bits of glacial ice. In the summer months, Sunny Cove Sea Kayaking in Seward, Alaska, takes its guests on an easy, guided three-hour paddling expedition near an actively calving, but little visited tidewater glacier. It’s actually two tours–to get there you first take a private charter through Resurrection Bay where in the summer months it’s possible to see bald eagles, otters, Stellar sea lions, orca and humpback whales, and puffins.
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. Spend time at the Anchorage Museum, cycle along the various trails in town or hike in the nearby Chugach State Park, nosh at world-class eateries, and fish for king salmon in Ship Creek, an urban fishery that runs right through downtown.
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, a city that sees roughly 200 auroral appearances a year, and by 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. Cities like Seward and Juneau are noted for their whale watching tours that run from April to September. 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).
Explore Denali National Park
Sprawling 6.1 million acres, there are so many ways to experience Denali National Park and Preserve. Near the entrance of the park, there are trails with varying levels of difficulty and tons of tour operators peddling all manner of adventure, including ATV rides and Jeep excursions. 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.
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
Just because large-ship cruises are likely canceled for the entirety of the 2021 season doesn’t mean you can’t explore the communities of Alaska’s Southeast region. Smaller vessels are still scheduled to set sail this summer and 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, 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 if you’re looking for a more intimate experience, opt for a fishing charter. They’re particularly good 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 has the highest concentration of bears in the world. In the summer months, you’ll see them in the river, scooping upstream charging 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. It’s a little-visited park and fairly expensive to get to (it’s only accessible by floatplane), but it’s pristine and worth every penny.
Watch the Sunset After Midnight
Robert Service, a famed poet often called “the Bard of the Yukon” once wrote that, “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 to them–they’re so short that locals try to cram as much into every day as possible, be that 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 in doing so, left their mark on the now 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
Originally, the Chena Hot Springs were 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 also offers dogsledding 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
There are 31,000 miles of road in Alaska, 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 twice a day hosts surfers trying to catch the bore tide, a single massive wave. There 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. One of the best ways to fully appreciate just how vast the 49th state is is through a flightseeing tour. 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.