In a world that always seeks to advance, Alaska holds on to its heritage and natural beauty with all it has. It’s the Last Frontier; a state where you can experience true wilderness, feeling small and utterly human, knowing mighty beasts roam in the distance.
The state’s spectacular scenery, untouched peaks, and powerful glaciers bring travelers in from all over the world. It boasts five of the six biggest national parks in the United States and yet, all feel secluded. Some, however, are more remote than others. Regardless of your own abilities, you’ll be able to see Alaska’s true colors as you cruise up fjords or sled through winter wonderlands.
Adventurous souls can take things a step further, as they pack raft down epic gorges between jaw-dropping mountain ranges, or enter the Arctic Circle with just a map and a compass.
Explore Denali National Park
Denali National Park is one of the biggest national parks in the United States and features the state’s own version of Africa’s Big Five. But the thrills don’t end there. The park is also named after the tallest mountain in North America, which sits, perpetually covered in snow and ice, in the heart of the wilderness.
Like the majority of protected lands in Alaska, visiting Denali isn’t straightforward. However, this ensures that all efforts to explore the vast and beautiful lands are rewarded with an untamed wilderness that lies much as it has for thousands of years.
You can drive into the park for 15 miles (24 km) but the remaining 90 miles into the park is only accessible on a guided bus tour. You can also access the several backcountry lodges that allow you to stay in comfort in the most wild of places.
Once in the park, you’ll have a litany of epic day hikes to choose between; treks that range from beginner-friendly to expert technical adventures. To see some of the top sights in the park, sign up for this three-hour guided walk.
See the Northern Lights
From the middle of August to halfway through April, those traveling through Alaska will have the chance to see the spectacular Northern Lights. Otherwise known as the Aurora Borealis, the phenomenon reaches its zenith in those bitter winter months. But every shiver and shake is worth it once the prismatic colors splash against the heavens.
Sure, Alaska isn’t the only place to see the memorable show. But the length of the season and the range of tourism opportunities built around it make The Last Frontier the best place in the United States to see the Northern Lights.
If you’re traveling to Alaska purely for Aurora Borealis, then Fairbanks should be your first port of call. The city is within the “aurora oval” which is the main band that crosses Alaska. If you stay for three days, then you’ll have around a 90% chance of seeing the lights.
On this guided tour, you’ll depart Fairbanks and drive into the Arctic Circle. Via the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. Along the way, you’ll see the wondrous Yukon River Bridge, with regular wildlife sightings added on. The exceptional photography doesn’t end there as you grab your hot beverage and wait for the show to begin.
Jump on the White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
Adventure and comfort aren’t two words that mix together often. Yet in Alaska there are a few examples of this. The best of them just may be the White Pass and Yukon Route Railway. Built in the late 19th century, the railroad was originally meant to transport gold prospectors from the state into neighboring Canada. Today, you get to experience the rush of this adventure, along with the same epic sights from the 1800s.
As the saying goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same. This is true of Alaska, especially from Mother Nature’s viewpoint. The railway will guide you through every kind of remote landscape, from vast snow-capped mountains to low valleys carved by ancient glaciers and teeming with waterfalls.
The train curves around the mountains, the rugged cliffs seemingly holding the locomotive by the fingertips. There are steep drop offs surging rivers and when things do appear flatter and tamer, the meadows are flush with wildflowers until the ridges and peaks take over again.
The ride, which departs from Skagway, runs up to White Pass and back over the course of around 3 hours.
Whether you’re cruising around the many fjords or hiking over towering passes, it always pays to get a fresh perspective. One way to take your Alaskan adventure to the next level is to flirt with a swim in the freezing glacier waters and jump on board a kayak.
Some of the most memorable kayaking trips in the state will be on the salt water. This will bring you to the edge of Alaska as you explore deep fjords, surrounded by ancient volcanoes, with a rookery of puffins hanging on to the land and orcas looming beneath the surface.
You’ll have the chance to kayak in the majority of national parks and popular coastal areas. Some of the best places to kayak include Resurrection Bay in Seward, around the Prince William Sound and up to the Mendenhall Glacier.
Wherever you go, there’ll be trips designed for beginners and more experience paddlers. The trip length can range from just a few hours to multi-day adventures. From the water, you’ll have a great view of wildlife found upon the shore, including sea lions, seals and otters, with the kayak taking you places you can’t reach on foot.
On this all-inclusive kayak tour, venture into the Tongass National Forest and paddle close to the Mendenhall Glacier.
Drive the Great Alaska Highway
You can go back and forth on whether Alaska is made for road trips. Sure, the roads aren’t always as pleasant as Pacific Highway 1, but the scenery is unbeatable and with a little patience, a sense of adventure and the ability to change a flat tire or two, there are some beautiful remote places to explore.
A four-wheel-drive will come in handy on most trips through Alaska, but one road you won’t have to worry as much about is the Great Alaska Highway. Otherwise known as the Alcan Highway, this stretch of road covers 1,387 miles (2220km) and is open all year long.
The highway begins at Dawson Creek in British Columbia and makes its way into Alaska before ending at Delta Junction on the surging Delta River. Connecting the Yukon with southeastern Alaska, the highway takes you through some unforgettable landscapes, which grow ever more remote.
From the spring until fall, the color difference between the valleys and the mountain peaks will have you stopping and admiring with awe. The road curves around the green trees and meadows which are then enveloped with brown, black, and white.
Experience Kenai Fjords National Park
A few hours’ drive south of Anchorage will bring you to Kenai Fjords National Park in the heart of the Kenai Peninsula. With Seward as the main gateway town, this national park is one of the more accessible in the state. However, by Alaskan terms, that doesn’t mean much.
The drive into the park does, however, take you to several trailheads that form the beginning of epic hikes. The kind of hikes that rival many others in the state and don’t present many technical components. Better yet, the road takes you straight to the park’s main highlight, Exit Glacier, which connects to the larger Harding Icefield.
There are trails that take you around the glacier and help showcase how powerful the movement of the ice can be. The other way to explore the park is via water with tours departing from Seward through Resurrection Bay around the peninsula to Aialik Bay (and glacier) and Harris Bay.
One of the most popular tours leaving Seward is this cruise, which places the unparalleled beauty of the park on a silver platter. On the high-speed catamaran, you’ll explore the park across 6 hours spotting whales and seals on your way to the immense glaciers.
Embark on a Flightseeing tour
In many ways, Alaska is America’s outlier. Here, one in every 40 people can fly a plane and in a state a fifth the size of the Lower 48, it has relatively few roads. Flying in Alaska is a way of life. Indeed, if you wish to visit some of the remote state and national parks, flying is the only way to get there. This makes access to “joyrides” or flightseeing tours easy for travelers.
No matter which mountains you summit in Alaska, it’s hard to beat the view from a plane’s window seat. While the speed of a flight can take you to places that would take weeks to reach on foot. Flying above the vast Alaskan wilderness is a humbling and beautiful experience.
Departing from such cities as Anchorage and Juneau takes you beyond the city limits in seconds. Homes are quickly replaced by soaring mountains and endless sea, while you can look down at the many rivers coursing through the valleys like intra-city highways.
There is a range of experiences to be had, from set tours to charter flights. Some may even allow you to land on otherwise inaccessible alpine lakes or far off sounds.
Visit the University of Alaska Museum of the North
Your Alaskan adventure will no doubt be majority outdoors. It’s a state to be lived and explored, as it’s as alive as you or I. So while few indoor activities may find their way onto your itinerary, make sure one of those is the University of Alaska Museum of the North.
You’ll find this impressive exhibition in Fairbanks. Within are over a million artifacts from throughout the centuries along, Native American art and a look into Alaska’s lengthy natural history.
Upon arrival, admire the museum’s exterior which was inspired by the harsh yet picturesque Alaskan landscape. After walking inside, you’ll be met with a range of sections, including such as those that focus on prehistoric cultures and dinosaurs that once roamed the same ground you currently stand on. This is complemented by the world’s only restored bison that dates back to the Ice Age.
Alongside the museum’s halls of human and natural history is an award-winning gallery. This opened in 2005, with the art showcasing the many ecosystems around Alaska from the mountain glaciers to the mighty Yukon River.
Go on a Cruise
One of the many types of tourism in Alaska is cruising. It’s a way of travel that may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but with wilderness that is hard to access and Alaska’s patented fickle weather, a cruise often makes a lot of sense. Plus, it can be a romantic and simple way to see some of the best sights in Alaska.
There are no shortage of cruise types, with as many daily trips into the local sound as there are multi-day ventures through the Inside Passage. The latter offers travelers a lovely way of visiting a handful of coastal communities you wouldn’t be able to drive to. These towns include the charming Juneau, Sitka and Ketchikan.
If you’re short on time, a cruise through these towns and some of the national parks along the passage will help you discover this amazing state while avoiding some of the trickier logistics. At many port towns, you’ll have access to day trips, guided hikes and flightseeing adventures.
From towns like Juneau, Seward and Hoonah, you’ll find an abundance of day cruises. These will take you to hard to reach places, to see whales and impeccable scenery.
Climb a Glacier
Alaska is home to some of the most incredible glaciers you’ll come across. With the help of planes and cruises, you can get as close as possible without touching them. But have you ever wanted to climb a glacier? To step onto an ancient piece of ice that is slowly eating up the surface below and moving towards the ocean?
In Alaska, you’ll have many chances to climb glaciers with experiences that are tailored for beginners and some more hectic adventures perfect for those that know their way around.
Some experiences will bring you into incredible ice caves, whose ice shines turquoise blue against the sun. Others will take you through tricky crevasses on your way to remote viewpoints which lay out the nearby lakes and ocean like a map.
If you find yourself in Anchorage and are keen to explore a glacier, check out this experience. Enjoy a day trip to Matanuska Glacier along the scenic Glenn Highway. Meander your way along the rushing Matanuska River as you venture deeper into the wilderness.
After 100 miles (161km) you’ll arrive at the foot of the glacier. Then you’ll jump onto sleds and make your way along the spectacular mountain of ice for two hours. Load up on hot chocolate and grilled cheese before the return journey.
Discover Wrangell-St. Elias
Covering over 13 million acres, Wrangell-St. Elias is the biggest national park in Alaska, larger than Yellowstone and even the entirety of Switzerland. This in itself suggests you’ll need plenty of time to see it all. But such is the beauty of the park that you can see or do just a couple of things and walk away with some unforgettable memories.
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park is remote and vast. Getting there is a part of the adventure. The drive along McCarthy Road is rugged and delivers you to the precipice of veritable stunner. As the road is pure gravel, some rental companies won’t allow you to drive into the park. But you’ll find shuttles taking you to trailheads or to your lodging.
We suggest allocating a few nights to get to experience the wild, unfiltered scenery of this national park. You know how big it is, but you’ll have to take a minute to comprehend that a third of the park is glacial ice. It’s home to the largest icefield in North America outside of the Polar regions.
Hikers will have their choice of four mountain ranges and incredible valleys home to spectacular hikes. It’s also a great place to explore glaciers or enjoy the view from a plane.
Spot a Bear
When you think of Alaska, you might picture unbridled glaciers and intimidating mountain ranges. Grizzly bears feasting on flying salmon may be another image that comes to mind. Alaska is a fantastic place to see bears in the wild. Their strong, impressive presence mixed with the fleeting moment and maybe even a splash of eye contact is a heart racing, magical experience.
There’s a reasonable chance to see bears many parts of Alaska, especially on protected land. So much so that you should carry bear spray whenever you’re exploring. But there are some locations that have garnered a reputation for being excellent places to stumble upon a bear on purpose.
These places include Katmai National Park, Wolverine Creek and Brooks River Falls. These won’t just be flash in the pan sightings, but rather a sleuth of bears, by the dozen dining on berries or feasting on migrating salmon.
The best times to visit Alaska to see bears in the wild is a small window of 60 days from the middle of June into August. Tours range from hikes to safari-style experiences and flights to remote places where large packs of bears reside.
Go White Water Rafting
You’ve kayaked and gone on a cruise, but the best way to experience the sheer thrill of the Alaskan wilderness while on water is with a whitewater rafting trip. These can be as relaxing as a float through the ancient valleys that have split mountains in two, or an adrenalin-pumping experience down barely tameable rapids.
Like cruises and river fishing, whitewater rafting is big business in Alaska. It attracts some of the best instructors not just in the United States but oversees. This level of professionalism will go a long way in helping calm the nerves of newbies saddling up for their first time on the rapids.
The sounds and fjords of Alaska may be beautiful, but the surging rivers that flow down paths cut by glaciers place you right in the middle of the state’s exceptional nature. You may not have the time to appreciate it while you’re twisting and turning through class IV rapids, but when you reach a calm patch, you’ll find yourself at peace, surrounded by untouched mountains and Alaska’s distinct topography.
Multi-day rafting trips take this feeling and times it tenfold. But if you’re short on time, opt for this three-hour class III-IV rafting adventure, taking place in Denali National Park. It’s just $120 and includes a free transfer from your accommodation.
Jump Into the Chena Hot Springs
Not all of your experiences in Alaska have to be awe-inspiring and equal parts beauty and fear. When you’re wanting to relax, to rest the mind and spirit, then make your way to the Chena Hot Springs.
You’ll find these springs 90 minutes northeast of Fairbanks, and they are one of just a handful of developed springs in the state. The natural springs are popular all year round, but take on another layer of beauty in the winter months. As the day finishes early, dip into the revitalizing water and watch the sky be painted all shades of green, yellow, and purple.
This time of year is also memorable for the mix of heat and sheer cold. The steaming waters of the hot springs will have the condensation on your hair and eyelashes turn into icicles.
There are two hot springs on offer, an indoor and outdoor. The former providing a nice option if you’re unwilling to step out into the Alaskan winter (we don’t blame you!). You can also tour the springs’ on-site Ice Museum, hike in the dry months or go snowshoeing once the snow begins to fall.
Go North to the Gates of the Arctic
Part of the great but often frustrating Alaskan charm is the need to plan ahead. The logistics required to reach some of its remote national parks not only ensures untouched beauty, but weeds out the adventurers from the regular travelers. One such example of this is the jaw-dropping Gates of the Arctic National Park.
As the name suggests, life here is on the edge of the Arctic. Despite being America’s second largest national park (and the largest wilderness area in the country) the Gates of the Arctic is the least visited national park in the United States. So you’re bound to be in an already secluded wilderness with barely a footprint to follow.
If your spirit lifted at the thought, then you know this spectacular national park is one not to be missed. Unless you’re willing to braze the utterly bitter winter cold, then arrive in time for the summer where you can experience endless sun (among unpredictable weather), blooming wildflowers and consistent wildlife viewings.
Summer is also the easiest time to visit. You can fly into the park from Fairbanks and even drive close to the park’s entrance along the rugged yet thrilling Dalton Highway. From there, you can trek four miles (6.4 km) into the park.
Hang out in Juneau
The capital of Alaska, Juneau, is one place worth braving civilization for. Most come to Alaska to seek wild pastures and 24 hours of sun, but Juneau has more than enough to keep a smile on your face and provide a breather from the exciting adventures.
Despite its size, there’s no road to this coastal city. It’s found on a mere slit of land in the Alaskan Panhandle, with several harbors shaped like baby fjords. The easiest way to arrive is by flight, although the most scenic would be via ferry. Its location along the southern Alaskan coast makes it a great launching point for many spectacular destinations, including the Mendenhall Glacier and Glacier Bay National Park.
It’s also home to a number of memorable attractions that get lost among the list of epic Alaskan adventures. One of those is the Mount Roberts Tramway. This picks you up from the busy cruise ship docks and takes you to 1,800 feet (550m) where you will take in the stunning Gastineau Channel views.
It may be rising in popularity among tourists, but Juneau is still Juneau at heart. This means you’ll still found mouthwatering seafood at many restaurants around town. You can’t beat Tracy King’s Crab Shack or the Twisted Fish for delicious fish with a view.
Cruise Glacier Bay
With Juneau as your launching point, you’ll be in great position to explore the unforgettable Glacier Bay National Park. Along Alaska’s Inside Passage are endless marvels, and the park lives up to the region’s lofty reputation. The bay’s jagged cliffs show all the signs of glacial wear and tear and are as stunning as they are intimidating.
The park does have some hiking trails, but with little on-land infrastructure and the lake of road access means exploring Glacier Bay National Park is best done on a boat. But you’ll hardly miss the land thanks to the impressive views had on the water with the towering, snow-capped mountains soaring in all directions.
The main fjord is 65 miles (40km) long and your cruise will take you all the way to its famed glaciers. There are nine tidewater glaciers in total, descending from the monstrous peaks. Other sights will include sea lions, whales, seals and puffins, which further add to this living, breathing landscape.
Major cruises into Glacier Bay won’t dock, but park rangers and cultural guides will join you for the experience as you learn about the park’s natural and human significance. Smaller boats often stay overnight, with kayak and hiking options.
Explore Katmai National Park and Preserve
You’ve seen the image. Thousands of trout swimming with all their might upstream, only the land in the hands and mouths of patient brown bears. The salmon swim up the Brooks River and the famous Brooks Falls is one of the world’s great migrations. But depending on your viewpoint, it’s a tale of perseverance or a tragedy. Either way, it shows the brutal beauty of life in the wild.
Katmai National Park and Preserve is found on the Alaskan Peninsula and is home to the famous falls. A boat ride or flight are the only ways to reach the remote park. All efforts are rewarded with the unique event which takes place from mid-June into August. With a great (and safe) viewpoint, you’ll be able to watch the salmon jump in earnest as the enormous bears lie in wait.
Once you’re in the park, you’ll find plenty more to keep you busy. It was the location of the largest volcanic eruption of the 1900s, something you can explore in the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. You can trek alongside a NPS guide, who will take you into the valley where magma flooded the landscape and acid rain fell.
Chill Out in Charming Seward
When it’s all said and done, you’ll be happy to have a charming town to look forward to. Your days of hiking through epic national parks and kayaking beneath massive cliffs will leave you with a wide smile, but nonetheless tired. To rest up, Seward awaits.
However, not before another epic road trip. Departing from Anchorage, you’ll enjoy over 125 miles (78km) of postcard-worthy Alaskan landscapes as you drive over the Turnagain Arm where mountains rise and fall. After completing the Seward Scenic Highway, you’ll be greeted with a beautiful, sleepy coastal village.
Seward stands on the banks of Resurrection Bay, with the Kenai Mountains on the other side. The scenery is lovely, with fishing boats coming in and out as they always have every morning. Explore the Small Boat Harbor and Downtown along the Seward Waterfront Trail where you’ll find anything from top-notch seafood restaurants to food trucks and cozy cafes.
When the adventurous itch returns, you’ll be minutes from kayaking on the bay while the Kenai Fjords National Park is further beyond. For nearby hikes, head to Mount Marathon.