How to Plan Your First Trip to Alaska

While the largest U.S. state has undeniable allure, its vast landscapes can intimidate first-timers who don’t know what to see first. But it’s easier than you think to get a taste of Alaska’s famous scenery.

How to Plan Your First Trip to Alaska

Views like this one of the Turnagain Arm can be found right outside of Anchorage.

Photo by Nicole Geils

Less than an hour after landing at the Anchorage airport on a recent visit, I already felt immersed in the Alaskan wilderness, transfixed by the enormity of the landscapes on either side of the Seward Highway. The glassy Turnagain Arm waterway slid by on my right; the Chugach Mountains peaked on my left. “What’s that huge bird?” I asked my driver, watching the majestic creature soar overhead.

“A bald eagle.”

Right. Of course.

Travelers with a penchant for the outdoors—whether they enjoy adventuring, animal-watching, or simply appreciating nature—undoubtedly have Alaska on their short list of dream destinations. It’s a place that rewards time and exploration, whether you spend two weeks trekking in the national parks or 10 days cruising the Inside Passage.

But the vast and wild state shouldn’t be off-limits to casual travelers or those with only a long weekend to spare. During the summer, there are daily direct flights to Anchorage from 12 major cities in the Lower 48.

Take in the Chugach Mountains from the tram at Alyeska, which climbs to 2,300 feet.

Take in the Chugach Mountains from the tram at Alyeska, which climbs to 2,300 feet.

Photo by Juno Kim

There’s plenty to keep you busy in Anchorage, with museums, galleries, breweries, and excellent dining. If you’re looking to pack in a bit of culture, it’s a great home base. But one of the best parts of the state’s largest city is how easy it is to escape—and find yourself immersed in nature.

In as little as an hour’s drive from Anchorage, you can spot moose on the side of the highway, visit nature preserves to watch brown bears cuddle and wolves prowl, and scale mountains by tram for scenic glacier vistas. An hour’s train ride or a short drive further, and you can be at the gateway to Prince William Sound, on the lookout for leaping orcas while sipping a cocktail made with floating glacial ice.

June through early September is high season for Alaska with mild temperatures and endless daylight. Here’s how to make the most of the long days even on a short visit and sample the state’s famously great outdoors; once you’ve gotten a taste, it’s likely you’ll be back for more.

See mountains and glaciers

About an hour’s drive southeast from Anchorage is Alyeska, a comfortably rustic, year-round resort and an ideal base for alpine exploration. In winter, it’s popular with skiers; during the summer, the slopes are a destination for mountain biking and scenic hiking.

Even if you’re not looking to spend the night or scale the mountain on foot, a trip on the aerial tram, which ascends to the top of Mount Alyeska at 2,300 feet in elevation, makes the resort an essential stop. The Bore Tide Deli & Bar is a solid bet for a beer or quick bite atop the mountain, but the Seven Glaciers restaurant is a destination in itself. A seafood feast of spot prawns, king crab legs, and sweet local oysters, pulled straight from Alaska’s pristine cold waters, is almost enough to distract from the unbeatable views of the restaurant’s namesake hanging glaciers.

Yes, you can actually feed moose at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center.

Yes, you can actually feed moose at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center.

Photo by Jack Bonney

Spot moose, reindeer, and bear cubs

Another 15 minutes further down the Seward Highway, the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center works closely with the Department of Fish and Game to take in injured or orphaned animals. Its sanctuary is a scenic, humane place to see wildlife up close, with no risk of a moose charging or porcupine attack. And there’s nothing confining about these animals’ habitats, which spread over more than 200 acres.

Stroll for an hour or two, and you might see brown bears tumbling in play; meet the country’s only captive wood bison population, restored from near-extinction; or feed a few branches into a moose’s massive maw. Some creatures, like the imposing elk, you’ll spot immediately, even from a distance. Others, like those brown bears (J.B. and Patron, if you’d like to be on a first-name basis), spend a good amount of time sleeping, so a sighting requires patience and luck. Keep your fingers crossed and hope they’re feeling playful.

Watch for icebergs and orcas

Many of Alaska’s glaciers and fjords are best appreciated from the water, and while overnight cruises are a popular way to see the state, day cruises are a no less spectacular alternative. Phillips Cruises & Tours offers a 26 Glaciers Cruise, which actually underestimates its scope; a better name would be “26 Named and Countless More Unnamed Glaciers.” It traverses over 140 miles of Prince William Sound on a five-hour journey.

Prince William Sound is a wonderland of glaciers.

Prince William Sound is a wonderland of glaciers.

Photo by David Kasser

Thoughtful touches such as reserved seats, panoramic windows, and a delicious salmon chowder make for a comfortable day out, and better still, a U.S. Forest Service ranger accompanies every outing to narrate the majesty in every direction. After the standard presentation, the ranger is eager to help passengers spot marine life through binoculars or answer questions about the fauna, flora, landscape, and anything else they might want to know about the spectacular state.

You’ll spot the three types of glaciers (alpine, piedmont, and tidewater), master iceberg terminology (smaller ones are, charmingly, known as “bergy bits”), and aim your camera lens at sea otters, harbor seals, humpbacks, orcas, and more. While you’re whale-spotting, you can even enjoy a margarita made with glacier ice, scooped straight from the sound by the ship’s crew.

Ride the rails

The drive from Anchorage southeast to Whittier, from which the cruise leaves, can be as short as 80 minutes. However, the drive time can be interrupted at the one-way Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel, which is only open on the Anchorage side on the half-hour and on the Whittier side on the hour. The comfortable Alaska Railroad is an excellent alternative to driving and takes a little over two hours from Anchorage. Talented high school students are tapped as tour guides for the journey, pointing out wildlife and sharing tales of Alaskan childhoods for curious visitors—tales that tend to involve moose.

On your way back to Anchorage, don’t put away the camera. Even after the glacier sightings and bear-watching, there’s more to be seen, and in the summer, golden light illuminates the landscapes well into the evening. Whether from the train or from the highway, there’s no stretch of the journey without a memorable view.

>>Next: The Ultimate Ways to Discover Alaska’s Vast Wilderness

From Our Partners
Sign up for our newsletter
Join more than a million of the world’s best travelers. Subscribe to the Daily Wander newsletter.
More From AFAR