The Best Things to Do in Alaska
Alaska’s 586,000 square miles, nearly 7,000 miles of coastline, and eight National Parks offer a nearly overwhelming number of great things to do. This around-the-state list would take weeks--or even months--to complete. So put it to use to dream, to figure out an epic trip, or to plan your next several adventures around the 49th state. Whether you crave adrenaline-pumping adventure, tales from history, a road trip to beat all road trips, or the chance to take photos of creatures great and small, Alaska is ready for you. Watch grizzlies amble by from the comfort of a tour bus in Denali National Park. Listen to the snap and crash of a calving glacier while in Kenai Fjords National Park. Paddle around icebergs on Mendenhall Lake. And see art inspired by Alaska at the Anchorage Museum and the Alaska Museum of the North.
One of Alaska’s quintessential experiences is fishing for salmon. Whether you’re a first-timer or an expert angler, casting a line into the Kenai River will induce plenty of delight. And, fingers crossed, plenty of salmon, too. Fishing the Kenai takes some know-how and, because the glacial river runs chilly, good gear. Local guides (and there are plenty of ’em) can help you with both. Prepare to get up early for the experience. Many river guides like to claim their spot on the river before the sun is even up (and, during summer months, the sun comes up early). Fishing limits change annually, and you’ll need a fishing license; your guide can provide information. The fish will ruin you for most supermarket salmon for the rest of your life, but so be it: You can always return to Alaska for another round of catch and chow.
Talkeetna, AK 99676, USA
There are several small towns around Alaska that make visitors of years past smile. Talkeetna sits pretty high atop that list. A good stopping point between Anchorage and Denali National Park, the town is at once a history stop, arty spot, beer fill-up, hearty food destination, and mountain climbing mecca. Talkeetna is the first step for everybody setting out to climb Denali. But it’s also the go-to for visitors who enjoy quirky little towns with huge personalities. Thanks to cruise-ship bus tours, the town does get a bit overrun during the summer months—but it’s still worth swinging in. And if you happen to be in Alaska during the winter and want to attend a very Alaskan event, don’t miss the Bachelor Auction. The entire town gets revved up and pretty darn drunk. It’s damn fun.
625 C Street, Anchorage, AK 99501, USA
Though the Anchorage Museum has a hyperlocal focus on Alaska, the curators understand that, thanks to climate change and the Arctic (not to mention reality TV), the rest of the world is also very focused on the state. A recent expansion and retooling of the museum’s permanent exhibition about Alaska will reflect the state’s ever-expanding role in the world. But the hyperlocal will remain, of course. Along with the small museums that dot the state and the museum at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks (also well worth a visit), the Anchorage Museum tells the story of the Native peoples who have lived on this land for years, as well as the Russians, Europeans, and, eventually, Americans who moved in to claim the land as their own. The museum also has a strong emphasis on art of, and inspired by, the state.
1962 Yukon Drive, Fairbanks, AK 99775, USA
Located on the campus of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, the Museum of the North houses 11 categories of collections, including archaeology, earth sciences and fine arts. Highlights range from the state’s most comprehensive display of gold, a 36,000-year-old mummified bison and Alaskan paintings and sculpture. The 1929 museum is also a resource for studies on climate change as well as other natural and cultural research.
Parks Highway, Denali National Park and Preserve, AK 99755, USA
There are no guarantees the Northern Lights will start dancing on the night you look skyward, but it’s so worth taking the chance. One of the great rewards for hanging out in Alaska once the dark and cold settle over the state, the Northern Lights (or if you want to be scientific about it, aurora borealis) serve up a light show that is equal parts science, magic, and art. Your best bet for catching the light show is to head away from city lights. That’s one of many reasons it’s worth making the trip to Denali National Park, open year-round. When the park’s summer crowds disappear, visitors feel as though the massive national park is an intimate personal space.
1212 4th Avenue, Seward, AK 99664, USA
You can’t help but be awed by what a glacier and a few thousand years can do to a landscape. As we hiked closer to Exit Glacier I become aware of the enormity of this sheet of ice that has carved out the valley and the river behind us. Signposts marking how far the glacier has receded point to how fragile the glacial ecosystem is.
3820 University Ave S., Fairbanks, AK 99709, USA
Get way off the usual tour route most visitors take when wandering Alaska by road. The Northern Alaska Tour Company, located in the already rather north city of Fairbanks, gives visitors the chance to hit the road all the way beyond the Arctic Circle and up to Coldfoot, one of the quite literally coolest truck stops you’ll ever visit. Along the way you’ll see the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, stop off at the official Arctic Circle sign to cross on over by foot, and visit a tiny town or two. Once in Coldfoot, there are chances to take tours or, if you’re the contemplative solo type, to go out for a hike or just gaze out across the distance. There’s both nothing and everything to see out there. The route back to Fairbanks is by plane, so you’ll be able to see several Native villages from above, and understand the reasons why their locations require a subsistence lifestyle.
23264 Gold Cord Road, Palmer, AK 99645, USA
While Independence Mine State Historical Park is officially open only during the summer months, Alaskans know that the best time to check out the former mine buildings is after there’s plenty of snow on the ground. It’s a golden (pun intended) opportunity well worth exploring. Thanks to snowshoes or cross-country skis, the entire mine area becomes a giant playground. Skiers make loops around the mine buildings, picking up some serious speed on the downhill. Snowshoers have the run of the place; with 15 feet or more of snow in some spots, snowshoes are the safest way to wander. Walk right up to the building windows to take a look at the mine-era relics, including rusted food tins and plenty of tools. The best bit? The photo ops. The gray and red buildings make for quite the pretty pictures against a blue sky.
103 Monastery St, Sitka, AK 99835, USA
There’s a strong desire to go quiet at Sitka National Historical Park, the site of an 1804 battle between the Kiks.ádi Tlingit people, who had been there for centuries, and Russian traders who wanted to control the area. A great deal of blood spilled on this soil, and the place demands respect. Wander down the trails lined with spruce, hemlock, and totem poles—each with its own history and story. Watch master carvers keep the Tlingit arts alive with the creation of new totem poles and seaworthy boats. Nearby buildings include the Russian Bishop’s House, where you can see relics of the Russian occupation of the land. Don’t miss the nearby Sheldon Jackson Museum, which houses an astonishing collection of pieces from many Native Alaskan cultures.
Anan Creek, Wrangell, AK 99929, USA
Catching a glimpse of a bear can be thrilling. Watching a whole bunch of bears fishing, fighting, and, um, frolicking? Even better. That’s reason enough (though there are loads more) to head to Wrangell, a town that’s not on most cruise-ship itineraries. Fly in or ferry there, then sign on for a guided day trip out to Anan Creek. After a boat ride 30 miles southeast of Wrangell, you’ll do a small scramble from the boat up some (at times) slippery rocks and pop onto a mile-long boardwalk trail. Your guide, who will have given you the 411 on all the bear safety info you can handle, will cry “Hey, bear” while keeping watch for bears coming down through the old-growth forest or walking toward you on the trail. Then you’ll have several hours on the bear-viewing platform, watching both brown and black bears do all the things bears do. It will—guaranteed—be one of your best days ever. Oh, bring your raincoat. Definitely.
Valdez, AK, 99686, USA
If you kayak or heli-ski or fish or just love little towns surrounded by mountains, head to Valdez. Unless you’re truly strapped for time, drive (and if you are strapped for time, maybe save Valdez for your next trip). The Richardson Highway, which stretches 366 miles from Fairbanks to Valdez, overflows with some of nature’s greatest hits. Think roadhouses where you can fill up on pancakes and conversation, the largest national park in America (Wrangell–St. Elias), easy access to Worthington Glacier, camping, and plenty of hiking opportunities. One of nature’s most elegant stretches is just outside of Valdez. As the water of Keystone Canyon’s waterfalls, including Horsetail and Bridal Veil, tumble down, shapes emerge and quickly disappear. The image will stick in your mind for years to come.
Glenn Highway, Sutton, AK 99674, USA
The Matanuska Glacier is one of the easiest to reach from Anchorage, and the largest one in the state accessible by car. The 229-acre recreation site is best for learning all about the science of glaciers. (You can also just go to a pullout on the highway if your goal is a quick photo before continuing on.) To trek out onto the glacier itself, you need to head off the Glenn Highway at mile 102 and onto private land, where you’ll pay a $30 access fee. It’s worth it! Area guide companies offer the chance for newbies to take their first steps onto a glacier or, even better, to do some ice climbing.
Between Anchorage and Seward, AK, USA
Few highways have as many moods as the Seward Highway. The 125-mile road, which runs from Anchorage down to Seward, can be all cheery sunshine one day—with views of snowcapped mountains, beluga whales, and surfers riding the tidal bore—and cranky the next, with socked-in mountains, mist, and mean-looking whitecaps on the water. Whatever the mood, there’s a load to see. It’s completely fair to say that driving the Seward, named an All-American Road and a USDA Forest Service Scenic Byway, is both the journey and the destination. (The road is also well-known for horrendous traffic jams during the summer—it’s the only road leading south down the Kenai Peninsula out of Anchorage.)
9 Chilkat Avenue, Klukwan, AK 99827, USA
In recent years, in search of a way to revitalize their dying village, the Chilkat people of Klukwan (near Haines) built the Jilkaat Kwaan Heritage Center. The center brought jobs back to Klukwan, providing good reason for people who had moved to Haines and beyond to take up residence in the village again. What’s been good for them is also very good for visitors. Though you can poke around on your own at Jilkaat Kwaan, you’ll learn more (and have loads more fun) if you sign on for a guided tour and culture camp. At culture camp you’ll learn about the art of fish drying, traditional dancing, Chilkat weaving, and more. Don’t skip the gift shop—you’ll want to see (and buy) the handmade crafts that local village members sell.
Spencer Glacier, Alaska 99664, USA
If you prefer your adventures to be a mix of stunning natural sights and the easy-and-gentle side of the spectrum, hop the Alaska Railroad to Spencer Glacier. The train trip south provides plenty of “oohing” and “aahing” as you gaze out on Turnagain Arm and its mountains. Enjoy a snack along the way. Yes, this one is all about relaxation. Once the train gets to Spencer Glacier, stroll down the wheelchair–accessible mile–long trail. At the lake, there are many options, including a float trip past icebergs and out to the glacier; a slightly more energetic kayak trip; or, if you really want to get up close with the glacier, ice climbing. (That last one leans more hard-core—and will give you undeniable adventure cred back home.)
Blackstone Bay, Alaska, USA
Gather up a bunch of people. Get in a car (with camping equipment, food, Frisbees, firewood, bug repellent, whatever else). Head to the town of Whittier. Rent kayaks from a local company. Get a water taxi to drop you, your friends, the gear, the kayak, and everything else you bring along at whatever camping area they recommend in Blackstone Bay. Then spend a few days paddling the bay to watch the area’s many glaciers calve (don’t get too close), see waterfalls, and picnic at random beaches. This is car camping at its boat-camping finest. You can bring everything, though be prepared to do some schlepping. (Some paddling experience is recommended for this outing. Rescue equipment would be helpful too—probably not necessary, but it won’t hurt to bring it along.)
4031 S. Tongass Highway, Ketchikan, AK 99901, USA
Upend your idea of what you thought you would do on a trip to Alaska. It’s not just bears and whales, you know. There’s plenty of sea life if you gaze down into the water. Sign on with Snorkel Alaska for an outing at Mountain Point, where the clear water makes it easy to see bright purple sea stars, red sea cucumbers, and other creatures of the not-so-deep. Beginners are more than welcome for the adventure. You’ll stay warm with the help of a thick wetsuit. Then the seasoned diving guides will help you walk backward into the water for your under-the-sea look-see. If you want to find out what the creatures feel like, ask a guide to help you out.
Kodiak, AK, 99615, USA
Kodiak may be known for its oversize bear residents, but the furry beasts are not the only creatures worth watching out for here. The island is quite the spot for birders, whether arriving by foot or boat (preferably a kayak). More than 240 species of winged ones hang out on Kodiak, with an impressive 80 species wintering over. But for your best chance at an essential Alaska birding experience, find a way to get yourself onto a kayak or other boat, and head out for some puffin-watching. The little scamps fly so darned fast that it’s difficult to get a clear snap of them as they scoot on by—but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take your best shot! The other essential Alaskan bird outing? Eagle-watching. They’re all over the island.
Hope, AK 99605, USA
A favorite summer hangout for residents of south-central Alaska—especially those from Anchorage, the region’s big city—Hope has a massive personality for such a tiny town. Turn onto Hope Highway from the Seward Highway, drive 16 miles, and then the fun begins. Summer in Hope officially kicks off with opening weekend at the Seaview Cafe & Bar, where some of Alaska’s best bands play. Daytime in Hope is for lazing about, shopping the local galleries, and exploring the tiny history museum—not to mention hiking, playing with dogs, biking, kayaking, or just tossing a Frisbee around. There are plenty of camping spots in town (for both tent campers and RVers), but some of the best ones are just up the road, at the Porcupine Campground.
Kenai Peninsula Borough, Homer, AK 99603, USA
When Kirsten and Carl Dixon, owners of Within the Wild adventure lodges, bought Tutka Bay Lodge, they were surprised to find that it came complete with an old boat. A very old boat. The Widgeon II carried troops during World War II. Now? The boat is grounded, with a rope humorously lassoed around a nearby tree. (Rope or not, it wasn’t going anywhere.) Kirsten, a chef who puts a worldly spin on Alaskan ingredients, decided the Widgeon II’s next life would be as a cooking school. Open to lodge guests and day-trippers who are ferried to class via water taxi from the town of Homer, the school offers lessons in how to cook reindeer, perhaps, or, if you’re lucky, Spanish-influenced tomato bread soup with salmon bacon.
Kennicott, Chitina, AK 99566, USA
One of America’s least-visited national parks, Wrangell–St. Elias deserves a lot more attention. Alas, the park is hard to get to (requiring a slow drive down a super-bumpy road or a flight in), and though there are several guide companies at the ready, hiking or organizing a backpacking adventure within the park has much more of a DIY component than, say, Denali. But the day-trippers who go—and stay at the hotels in the tiny former mining towns of McCarthy or Kennicott—always talk up the wonder of a visit to Kennecott Mines (yes, spelled differently than the town and neighboring glacier). Go on a guided tour of the mine buildings, and find out what it took to work and live deep in the Alaskan wilderness in the 1900s.
Mendenhall Lake, Juneau, AK 99801, USA
Both beginner and experienced kayakers will have fun on this leisurely (and super-easy) paddle across Mendenhall Lake. (Both guided and unguided options are available.) The paddling is, really, just 10 percent of the fun—maybe 25 percent. As you cross the lake you’ll encounter icebergs aplenty that decided to skip out on their glacier parent in favor of a solo float. Paddle across the lake to the frigid waterfall and, of course, to the face of Mendenhall Glacier itself. Photos of the 13-mile-long glacier’s colors won’t quite do the real thing justice, but snap away anyway. Your eyes will be blasted and soothed and dazzled by all the icy crayon colors you can imagine, opaque white to clear ice to a stunning robin’s-egg blue. Just don’t get too close to the glacier or the icebergs: Glaciers calve and icebergs can flip. What you’re seeing above the water? That’s just a small part of the icebergs’ good looks.