From Alaska’s wilds to its more urban attractions, here are the best things to do in Alaska.
Alaska is truly the Last Frontier, and it can be hard to describe without using superlatives: Alaska is the biggest state and the northernmost state. It has the highest mountain and the most coastline. The biggest animals and the most sunlight. It’s a place where you can ski, fish, try new food, and take in the Northern Lights. It’s a state that has the best of nearly everything outdoor-related, but it also has thriving cities and lots of small towns with plenty of charm. Thought to be the first place humans crossed to North America using the Bering Land Bridge, Alaska also has a rich Native history, and today is home to nearly half of the federally-recognized tribes in the United States. From the tip of Alaska’s panhandle to the end of the Aleutian Islands is a distance similar to traveling from Savannah to San Francisco. How are you supposed to experience a state so vast? This guide is a good place to start.
Explore Denali National Park
Denali is Alaska’s most famous National Park and home to North America’s tallest mountain, standing over 20,310 feet above sea level. Despite its popularity, Denali National Park remains largely pristine. There’s only one road in and out, and past Mile 15, most visitors have to ride a park-approved bus. The preservation practically guarantees that you’ll see some wildlife, including potential sightings of moose, bear, caribou, wolves, and Dall sheep. If you head to Alaska in winter, don’t worry: the park is open year-round.
Alaska is definitely a rural state, but its most populous city is a thriving urban center. With about 300,000 people, Anchorage is home to over a third of the state’s residents and plenty of excellent cuisine, art, entertainment, and nightlife, all of which are just a few minutes from real wilderness. Take a walk along the waterfront at Kincaid Park, learn all about life in the north at the Anchorage Museum, and eat local at restaurants that serve fresh seafood and reindeer sausage. You’ll find major retailers at 5th Avenue Mall and plenty of local shops nearby. Stay out late and mingle with locals on 4th Street, which is home to favorite Alaskan haunts like F Street Station, Avenue Bar, and Gaslight Lounge.
Trek on a Glacier
From Mendenhall Glacier near Juneau to Matanuska Glacier an hour north of Anchorage, there are plenty of accessible glaciers in Alaska that you can experience up-close and personal. Walking on ice that’s thousands of years old and helped shape the landscape around you is an unforgettable experience; just be sure to take a guided tour or go with someone who knows how to navigate glaciers safely.
Gaze at the Northern Lights
The Aurora Borealis comes in all sorts of types and colors. From a bright red that coats the entire sky to ribbons of green and purple waving as if blown by the wind, the Northern Lights are a must-see. If it’s quiet enough, you might even be able to hear the aurora crackle. Visit Alaska between October and March for the best chance to see the light show. The farther north you are, the better your chances.
Tour Kenai Fjords National Park
Alaska has more coastline than the rest of the United States combined, so any visit to the state should include some time along the water. Riding a boat through Kenai Fjords National Park will give you a chance to soak in some of the north’s most charismatic sea life, like sea lions, orca whales, otters, porpoises, and plenty of seabirds. Most boat trips linger for a few minutes near a coastal glacier in hopes of catching it calving (when the ice breaks off into the water).
Cruise the Inside Passage
Alaska’s Inside Passage is a network of sheltered waterways between Alaska’s panhandle islands and mainland North America. It’s often rainy, but even wet weather can’t ruin the grandeur of this place, where mountains spike straight up from the ocean and whales feed in clusters. You can ride a large passenger cruise ship or take the D.I.Y. approach and hop between coastal cities on Alaska’s ferry system. Either way, you’ll be exposed to small, charming towns like Ketchikan, Juneau, and Skagway, where you’ll find main street shopping, rich history, and sightseeing adventures galore.
The only thing better than eating fresh seafood in Alaska is eating fresh seafood you caught yourself in Alaska. Even if you’re not much of an angler, this is the perfect place to try it out, where you can reel in a massive 40-pound king salmon or halibut the size of a door. Fishing is so popular along some river banks that anglers will line up shoulder to shoulder and compete for fish with such ferocity that the pastime has been dubbed “combat fishing.” Or, you can opt for a calmer experience by chartering a professional guide and practically guaranteeing yourself a catch as long as your line is in the water. Fair warning: it may ruin fishing.
Marvel at the Size of Alaskan Brown Bears
Everything is bigger in Alaska, and that includes the gigantic brown bears that gorge on fish and berries all summer long before hibernating through winter. These impressive creatures weigh 1,500 pounds and stand up to five feet at the shoulder when on all fours. Brown bears live all over the southern and interior parts of the state, but head to famous spots like McNeil River or Katmai National Park for iconic views of the bears snapping at leaping salmon.
Immerse Yourself in Native Culture
With 229 federally-recognized tribes, the northernmost state is full of the stories, art, and traditional food of Alaska Natives. Learn about the living culture at the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage, where you can also witness dances and Native games. Walk among totem poles in places like the Totem Bight State Historical Park in Ketchikan or see athletes compete during the annual World Eskimo Indian Olympics.
Ride the Alaskan Railways
Relax and get the chance to take in Alaska’s towering mountains and wide-open vistas from the big windows of a lumbering train. The rail can take you north from Anchorage to Denali National Park or south to seaside port towns like Seward and Whittier. If you’re in Skagway, you can also ride the White Pass & Yukon Route Railway, a historic track that winds its way up the mountains near the original Klondike Gold Rush trail.