The largest state in the US is Alaska. It’s also one of least populated, which means two things: vast stretches of heart-stirring wilderness and plenty of great small towns. These communities are remote, unique, and gorgeous. Alaska’s history is replete with gold miners, American Indians, adventurers, and wildlife-enthusiasts.
The state keeps its appeal year round, despite some extreme weather. It’s got everything from island escapes, famous salmon fisheries, historic gold-rush preservation, and every incredible outdoor adventure you could want.
I’m an Alaska local, I have lived my entire life in the state and have traveled all around it. Here is my list on the best small towns to visit in Alaska:
Because the state is not part of the continental US, there are plenty of areas that you could call the states hidden gems. And on top of my list is Cordova. Forming the head of Orca Inlet in Prince William Sound, the town is surrounded by mountains carved from glaciers, dense green forest, wetlands filled with wildlife, and tons of water. Which means that hiking, skiing, photography, birding, fishing, and flight seeing are all on the menu.
Nearby is Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, the largest national park in the US. With over 13 million acres that have been formed by plate tectonics, many of the peaks here rival the elevation of the Himalayas. Be sure to trek down Copper River Highway to see the Child Glacier and the Million Dollar Bridge (built in 1910).
With 1000 residents, Talkeenta is tucked away in the shadow of the country’s tallest peak, Mt. McKinley. Established as a gold rush town when the Alaska Railroad was growing, the town now receives winter and summer visitors. In the summer there’s fishing thanks to three rivers that all converge in town as well as kayaking, river boating, zip-lining, and a truly American sport: ATV-ing. In the winter the experiences range from dog sledding, snowmobiling, and Nordic style skiing.
Most people fall in love with the old log cabins that have endured over 100 Alaskan winters. The panoramic view of the Alaskan Range is a photographers dream come true. Be sure to check out some of the many locally brewed beers that Talkeetna is famous for. My favorite is the Abaddon from Denali Brewing.
After the gold rush ended, the town of Eagle dropped to a population of nine (seven of which were city council members!). Located on the bank of the Yukon River, Eagle is now a living museum to a by-gone era. The locals are proud to say that they’ve never invested in restoration because the town has never changed. In fact, when the town shifted to tourism in the 1950’s, papers were found in the judge’s desk at the courthouse that dated back to the 1900’s.
Today, you can see plenty of originals like the customs house, the army fort, original furnishing in public buildings, and more. There are five museums in town and the clerk of courts maintains a list of everyone who has ever lived in Eagle.
Read also: 28 Amazing Hidden Gems in Alaska
The gateway to the Klondike Gold Rush was Skagway. There was so much excitement in the air as everyone was hopeful of soon being rich beyond belief. This old frontier town is still as rugged and beautiful as it ever was. It’s a popular stop for cruise ships thanks to its location at the northern tip of the Inside Passage.
One of the most popular attractions is a ride on the White Pass and Yukon Route rail. It’s a feat of engineering genius as the line ascends more than 3000 feet through spectacular and pristine wilderness. You’ll find great restaurants, museums, and a pretty respectable night life for a town of only 1000.
It’s the character of the locals that bring visitors to Ester. They’re known to be quirky and captivating folks who do things their own unique way. Many of the staff and faculty from the University of Alaska Fairbanks call Ester home as well as writers and artists.
They have great galleries, studios, and exhibits in the Ester Community Market. The town is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and gold mining still takes place just outside of town. I suggest to check out the Ester Dome for great hiking and wildlife sighting.
The adventure begins while traveling to Sitka. You can only reach it by sea or air. On the southern tip of Alaska is Baranof Island – and that’s where you’ll find Sitka. The downtown is walkable and relaxing. You’ll find galleries, restaurants, cafes, and great small town shopping.
Thanks to its proximity to the Pacific Ocean, Sitka is great for whale-watching, kayaking, fishing, and more. I recommend to visit Baranof Castle Hill, the Alaska Raptor Center, Saint Lazaria National Wildlife Refuge, and the Sheldon Jackson Museum, and take a flight-seeing cruise to get a bird’s eye view of the awe-inspiring landscape.
This is where you go for quiet and comfort. With a population of 400, Gustavus has a few paved roads and several cosy B&B’s. Unwind with family style meals and an evening by the fire. The preferred method of exploring the country roads is by bicycle and just a short distance away you can visit Glacier Bay National Park – a 65-mile stretch of fjords, marine mammals, and glaciers.
This is another town that’s only accessible by air or sea. The area around Gustavus is well known for being popular with Humpback whales. Explore Glacier Bay by kayak or explore the many beaches around the area.
At the end of the Sterling Highway at Kachemak Bay is Homer. A small town made famous as the ‘End of the Road’ by the writings of Tom Bodett. Surrounded by ocean and wilderness, Homer is a coal mining and commercial fishing hub. Locals boast about having the greatest Halibut in the world and thanks to plentiful fresh seafood, it’s a bit of a foodie destination.
Enjoy bear viewing and hiking in this eco and adventure capital of Alaska. You’ll be mesmerized by the Homer Spit, a geological landform that features a 4.5-mile-long road going into ocean waters. There is amazing wildlife to be seen in Homer. Be sure to check out my guide on Homer as well.
9. Funny River
If you’re looking to camp in Alaska, be sure to check out Funny River. With so much magnificent nature around you, you’ll never want to be inside. They’ve got horseback riding, hiking, ATV riding, Brown’s Lake (which attracts Arctic terns in the summer), and more.
The six-mile stretch of Funny River Road takes you through the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Unbelievably, this place gets few visitors. You’re sure to sight caribou and moose in the road, lynx, loons, mergansers, and pine grosbeak.
Near to Anchorage, Girdwood is located on the Turnagain Arm. It’s known for the rare bore tide that comes into the inlet every day. Despite the many snow-capped peaks in Alaska there are relatively few ski resorts, and Girdwood has one of the best – and the only one open year round.
Stay at the resort itself or one of several B&B’s in the area. Originally founded as a gold rush town (and named after a prospector who had four gold claims at nearby Crow Creek), it’s now a mountain destination in the heart of the Chugach range. Come for the outdoor adventure, relaxation, award winning restaurants, or the tight-knit community feel. Regardless, you’ll know it’s a special place right away.
Hoonah is the kind of place you fall in love with and end up returning to again and again. It’s breathtakingly beautiful, and that sensation never leaves you. Plus, the locals are friendly and welcoming. The town is located on Chichagof Island and is home to the world’s largest and highest zip line. Expect great whale watching, bear viewing, kayaking on the Icy Strait, and hiking in the Tongass National Park.
Hoonah is family friendly and has earned its nickname, “The Little City with a Big Heart.” Hoonah has a large Tlingit population. More than 70% of the residents here are descendants of this great tribe.
Close to the Siberian coastline is Nome. The end of the famous Iditarod Trail and full of fantastic backcountry roads that allow you to trek across the tundra. A truly wonderful experience. Once a town of over 28,000, today the population is closer to 4,000. Nome has an enchanting gold rush history that dates back to 1898.
But the richer history dates back even farther – about 10,000 years. The Inupiaq Eskimo’s made this area their home and their history lives on in the current Eskimo culture. Known for their vocal music and drumming as well as fine ivory carving, the values of the past can be seen on the townspeople today. Birder’s love Nome because it attracts over 200 migratory species each year. In the summer months take one of several roads into the tundra to see the flowers blooming.
Heavily influenced by Russian fur traders, Seward is an historic trading town. The downtown and harbour area is colourful and has great shopping and eating options. Every January the locals and visitors turn out for the Polar Bear Jump. The bravest of the locals jump into Resurrection Bay (and jump out just as quickly). Seward is also mile zero for the Iditarod Trail Dog Sled Race.
It’s also the gateway to the Kenai Fjords National Park. Enjoy a glacier cruise, summer dog sled rides, fat tire bike tours, snowshoeing, and all the snow adventures you can imagine. Mt. Marathon, a 3000-foot peak, completes the landscape and makes Seward truly unique.
14. Moose Pass
This scenic mountain village is found on the shores of Trail Lake on the Kenai Peninsula. Moose Pass surrounded by Chugach National Park and is the perfect setting for backpacking and outdoor adventure. Don’t miss Johnson Pass Trail that starts just outside of town. There are less than 200 residents and all are warm and welcoming.
For more than 20 years, the town holds the Summer Solstice Festival in June. People from across the region turn out for games, music, and good food. It’s one of the best small town festivals in the state.
Ketchikan is the largest town on this list. With around 10,000 people it’s nestled inside a web of islands and inlets near British Columbia, Canada. Historically an American Indian town, the locals are proud of their indigenous culture. You can’t miss Totem Heritage Center, which I really enjoyed. It’s the world’s largest display of totem poles. The red cedar trees in Tongass Rainforest provide the material for these fascinating works of art. And the creativity runs deep here, as Ketchikan is known to have a great art scene.
In addition to native Alaskan culture, Ketchikan is also known for salmon fishing and extraordinarily beautiful nature. Photographers flock to the area thanks to the Misty Fjords National Monument, clear blue lakes, snow-capped mountains, and an eerily beautiful mist that often moves through town.