Alaska is large. It’s more or less half the size of the contiguous United States. Based on this alone, it’s difficult to cover all the ground in one trip. Alaska is the kind of place you take in slowly, over a few trips. Along with its big size, comes an overabundance of beauty.
Most of the state is uninhabited which makes for fantastic outdoor adventure. Most visitors find that the cities, while always unique and interesting in themselves, are best used as base camps for exploring the wilds beyond. There’s an incredible history to learn about the 49th state and plenty of one-of-a-kind experiences.
I have lived in Alaska my whole life and have experienced much of what is has to offer. Here is my list on the best things to do in Alaska:
1. Denali National Park
My personal favorite and a must-visit, Denali is home to the United States’ tallest peak. Though the ancient name of this 20+ foot mountain is Denali, modern explorers named it Mount McKinley – which is a hot topic among the locals. Regardless of what you choose to call it, it’s surrounded by over six million acres of tundra, alpine ranges, glaciers, and river valleys. Simply put, it’s spectacular.
Just about halfway between Fairbanks and Anchorage, the national park has reindeer, wolves, elk, grizzlies, and almost 200 species of birds. Enjoy the sled dog kennels within the park. They have regular demonstrations of how the huskies work together to pull sleds across vast distances.
2. Tracy Arm Fjord
If you’ve ever thought about taking an Alaskan cruise, you’ll almost certainty stop at Tracy Arm. Just south of Juneau in Tongass National Forest, this fjord is surrounded by gorgeous glaciers and it an awe-inspiring sight. See waterfalls pouring over rock walls, glaciers calve, and the icebergs that they form.
The twin Sawyer Glaciers are the welcoming committee to this natural spectacle. You’re almost certain to see moose and brown bear on land and seals and whales in the waters. If you love what you see, you’ll also want to check out Prince William Sound in Anchorage.
3. Mendenhall Glacier
Imagine a 13-mile-long river of ice. Difficult? That’s because it’s an unbelievable sight to see. Mendenhall Glacier lies near the Coast Mountains and the Juneau Ice Field – a 1500 square mile left over of the ice age. The best way to take in all this vastness is by going to the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center. At the top of the observatory, park rangers will explain to you the natural history of the incredible views surrounding you.
There’s a great film to see at the visitor’s center and state of the art exhibits at the center. Don’t miss the Alaska Geographic book store. If you want to explore, take one of several trails of differing lengths that will bring you to waterfalls, salmon streams, black bears, bald eagles, moss filled rainforests, and more. A great game to pass the time is to count the icebergs as you walk. If you’re adventurous I suggest getting a view from the water by kayak.
Related reading: 28 Amazing Hidden Gems in Alaska
4. The Anan Wildlife Observatory
Thirty miles from Wrangell is the Anan Wildlife Observatory. There, you’ll find the largest run of pink salmon in Alaska.
Even if you’re not an angler, you’ll want to visit because this large population of salmon support the large population of black and brown bears in the area. The observatory has a covered viewing shelter, photo blind, and even an outhouse.
5. Pack Creek Bear Viewing Area
A great Alaskan experience is a floatplane ride. Why not take one to Pack Creek Brown Bear Viewing Area inside Tongass National Park. About 30 minutes by plane, this is truly a rugged and natural environment.
There aren’t facilities and there is no cell phone service, which heightens the adventure of observing these wonderful animals. Be prepared to get a bit dirty on the island known as Kootznoowoo to the Tlingit people. Home to over 1,500 bears (more than the other 49 states combined), you’ll love every minute of this outdoor adventure.
6. Kenai Peninsula National Forest
This is undoubtedly the best sight-seeing Alaska offers. And that is truly saying a lot. Take in the Kenai Fjords, Harding Ice Field, Exit Glacier, and the Alaska Railroad. At Resurrection Bay, the forests coastline, you’ll see sea lions, otters, and even migrating whales.
With a large population of bears, the native Alutiiq peoples have relied on the area for generations. While visiting, take a boat tour, kayak, enjoy a ranger led walking tour, and more. Use Anchorage as your home base and plan several days to visit.
7. Harding Icefield Trail
Located within Kenai National Forest, Harding Icefield and Trail deserve a mention all their own. There are over 40 icebergs along the trail, which spans about 8 miles. It makes for an unparalleled day hike. Make your way through cottonwood forests, lush meadows, and eventually climb above the tree line to take in the entire panorama of the icefield. It’s really a trip back in time to the ice age. Ice and snow as far as the eye can see, with only the occasional nunatak, or lonely peak, to mark the distance.
Also read: 15 Best Tours in Alaska
8. The Alaska Highway
From Dawson Creek in British Columbia, Canada to the Yukon Territory in Fairbanks – the heart of Alaska – runs the Alaska Highway. Originally built in only eight months for military purposes during World War II, the highway is the single most important means of access to most of Alaska.
It’s a big tourist draw because it’s a wonderful way to see a large chunk of the state in one trip. It’s roughly 1,387 miles long (2,232 km) there are junctions every hour or so. Stop in small towns like, Charlie Lake, Fort Nelson, Upper Liard, Johnsons Crossing, Jakes Corner, and Tok, in order to see a side of Alaska that you’ll never forget.
9. The University of Alaska Museum of the North
An astounding one million artifacts are housed in the University of Alaska Museum of the North. The permanent collection is an impressive array of items from indigenous groups, a fine arts collection focused on Alaska, and archaeological finds from pre-historic cultures. The museum itself is in a unique building designed by Joan Soranno. Built to resemble the Alaskan landscape, this is the only teaching and research museum in the state.
Located in Fairbanks, a visit allows you to see millions of years of bio and cultural diversity. See a 36,000-year-old mummified bison, a sound and light exhibit that demonstrate how to determine time based on the position of the sun or moon, learn about the aurora, see beautiful ancient ivory carvings, and much more. I recommend spending at least a few hours here.
10. The Inside Passage
Most people visit the Inside Passage on cruise ships, charter boats, or even yachts. Not only will you find amazing wildlife here, but the passage is also home to several native tribes, including the Tsimshian, Haida, and Tlingit tribes.
Part of the passage covers Tongass National Forest, which covers 17 million acres and is the largest national park in the United States. The passage will also take you to Prince of Wales Island (one of the larges islands in the US), the town of Skagway, the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park, the once important American Russian town of Sitka (not accessible by car), and Ketichan, one of Alaska’s most colourful cities.
11. The Northern Lights
Although Alaska does have some long and dark winters, one of the upsides is an otherworldly view of the Northern Lights. Between September and April, Fairbanks is home to some of the best views of the aurora borealis on the planet. It is located under the aurora oval – a geographic area where you’re most likely to catch a glimpse. Many visitors go each year just for this.
The viewing is best just after midnight each night and tours can provide a lot of perks – like knowing the best spots. This is one of earths most mystical natural occurrences and shouldn’t be missed on any Alaska trip. There are also viewing opportunities in Anchorage and Brooks Range.
Further reading: 15 Best Small Towns to Visit in Alaska
12. Alaska Native Heritage Center
What’s most unique about the heritage center is that a number of traditional native dwellings have been relocated to a lake near the center. Guides are there to demonstrate handicrafts and art work, dance, and sing native songs.
Just outside of Anchorage, the heritage center aims to tell the real story of the north by expanding visitor’s perspectives and encouraging dialogue about the unique landscapes and peoples of the north. There are over 26,00 artifacts at the center, including pieces from every native Alaskan culture. As an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institute, it’s a powerful experience.
13. Wrangell-St. Elias National Park
Where can you find nine of the country’s 16 highest peaks? In Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. Grandiose is a great word for the park. Primarily created from volcanoes, Mount Wrangell is the only still active volcano in the park. Climbers love the park, as do kayakers, glacier skiers, and hikers. Visit abandoned mines and the once inhabited mill town of Kennecott Mines.
The park is equal in size to six Yellowstone’s and the peaks and mountains roll on for miles in every direction. Some of the major peaks include Sandford, Blackburn, Wrangell, and Drum, but the sheer number of mountains is quickly overwhelming and it’s best to just stop and soak it all in. Despite the parks popularity, most visitors leave with a sense that they’ve just seen something no one else has seen. It’s that pristine.
14. The Iditarod National Historic Trail
Once used by ancient hunters and later by gold rush prospectors, the Iditarod National Historic Trail stretches from the Bering Strait to Seward. It covers 2,300 miles and once connected tribes who lived in isolated conditions. Most popularly used for the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, it makes for the perfect winter hike.
There are five cabins along the trail that can be used as shelter. For adventurous souls it’s a wonderful way to see Alaska and follow in the footsteps of ancient peoples.
15. The Totem Heritage Center
Back in the 1930’s, the US Forest Service recognized a need to protect and reconstruct existing totem poles in the Alaskan area. That aim quickly expanded to teaching the art of totem pole making because the art form was quickly dying. Traditional carvers from the older generation were commissioned to take abandoned totem poles and restore or recreate them and teach the younger generation in the process. I suggest checking the current exhibitions and opening times on their website.
There are now 14 poles in Ketchikan’s Totem Bight State Historic Park. Now on the National Register of Historic Places, there are more totem poles at the connected heritage centre as well as a traditional clan house. The beautiful artistry and craftsmanship of this art form must be seen to be fully appreciated.