Top Attractions in Alaska
The Last Frontier is full of people who came for a visit and never left—a phenomenon that’s hard to grasp until you see its blue-edged glaciers and epic mountains. With its reindeer ranches, glacier walks, and flightseeing tours, Alaska is waiting.
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.
230 Wedgewood Dr, Fairbanks, AK 99701, USA
The Fountainhead, one of the premier antique auto museums in America, is an unexpected Alaskan delight – there’s not a glacier or bear in sight! The collection includes autos that advance the story of technology and the automation of our lives. Each car is chosen for its part in making our lives better. Paired with most of the cars? Women’s clothing from the same era. Huh? Check this out: Along the way you’ll see how changes in cars changed up styles of dress. But there’s also plenty of Alaskan car history, too, including the first car built within the state (long before it was a state). Even if you’re not car crazy, go. The collection is equal parts automotive cool, history, art, fashion, and just plain ol’ pretty. (And so shiny.)
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.
3820 University Avenue South
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.
106 Metlakatla Street
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.
625 C St, 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.
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.
Glenn Hwy, 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.
4970 Campbell Airstrip Rd, Anchorage, AK 99507, USA
Alaskans don’t let freezing (and way below freezing) temps keep them away from having outdoor fun. They just slip on the proper gear and head out. That’s one of the reasons fat-tire biking has become wildly popular in the state. Rent one at a shop in town, including Arctic Cycles and the Trek Bicycle Store (call in advance). Then head out to Far North Bicentennial Park, which has trails ranging from easy to moderate. Anchorage has an extensive trail system connecting pretty much every part of town, so there’s no need to even drive to the trail (unless you get pooped easily). Pedal through trees and over snow-covered bridges, then take some time to just enjoy the quiet. Remember: Dress in layers. You’ll start out cold but heat up very quickly. While the bears are in for their winter nap, there are plenty of other animals to watch out for: Keep an eye out for moose—they’re beautiful to see but painful to run into.
Few highways have as many moods as the Seward Highway. The 127-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 National Forest 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.)
Homer, AK, USA
How does some bear viewing sound? What about a trip out to a glacier? Or a volcano? Sounds good, right? Now, what if that viewing included some time in a helicopter? If your “sounds good” turned to a “hell, yeah,” head to Homer for a day trip with Alaska Ultimate Safaris. The summer-only company flies its helicopters to both Katmai and Lake Clark national parks for bear-viewing trips. (They even guarantee you’ll see bears, or the trip is free.) Once on the ground, your pilot/bear guide will get you as close as possible to some sizable brown bears (and, fingers crossed, some cubs, too) while also keeping you safe. Prefer something even bigger? Then it’s off to a glacier or volcano for you.
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.) Prefer a guided day tour? Give Sound Paddler a ring.
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.
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.
108 Main St, Haines, AK 99827, USA
It’s nearly impossible to miss the Hammer Museum in Haines: It’s the building next to the giant hammer. The museum got its start when founder Dave Pahl brought home one too many hammers and his wife suggested that a new plan for his collection might be in order. So he moved them out to a small house of their own, hanging his beloveds between, suitably, nails. And he knows the pieces in the collection from tip to tip. Seriously: When it comes to hammers, you can ask him anything. Though the museum might have had a quirky start, Pahl is the go-to source for all things hammer for museum curators and professors around the country.
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.
The first night camping at Brooks Camp comes with a free dose of buzzing energy. After all, the only thing keeping the bears that hang around the area from wandering through the campground—and up to your tent—is a round of electric fencing. But fear not: There haven’t been any bear incidents here. This is no Disney production, but there are safety measures that will keep you feeling like you’re alone in the backcountry. Cradled between Brooks River and Naknek Lake in Katmai National Park, Brooks Camp gives overnight access to something that most visitors to Brooks only dream of: fewer people at the viewing stand to watch the big brown bears of Katmai do some fishing, bathing, and fighting. You’ll need to bring your own camping gear and food. Rather have somebody else do the cooking? Pony up for meals and cocktails at Brooks Lodge.
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.