The area that we now call Alaska or the 49th state, was thought to be “discovered” in 1741 by a team of Russian expeditioners. However, it is believed by most to have been populated with humans as far back as 15,000 years ago by people following herd animals across the Bering Land Bridge.
The United States bought Alaska in 1867 for $7.2 million dollars, which averaged about 2 cents per acre, but didn’t officially become the 49th state until 1959, nearly 100 years later. As part of the Gold Rush in the 1800s, more than 150,000 people moved to Alaska for a chance to get rich. The discovery of oil brought another flood of people in and the infamous Alaskan Pipeline was built.
Native Alaskans still make up a huge number of the population and tribes continue to live off the land, abide by their own laws, and pride themselves in their diversity throughout their culture and their traditional ability to hunt, fish, and gather food while intertwining with modern-day living.
Alaska is known for its extreme beauty and endless adventures. It is one of my favorite states and I find myself returning multiple times throughout the year.
Here are 21 things to do in Alaska that you’re not going to want to miss.
VISIT WITHIN THE ARCTIC CIRCLE
Not many people can say they have been to the Arctic Circle or swam in the Arctic Ocean, however, there are several tours in Alaska that provide this experience. The Arctic Circle is an imaginary circle around the top of the globe which marks the northernmost point where the sun appears above the level of the horizon on the winter solstice. This means the sun is above the horizon for 24 continuous hours at least once per year, making it visible at midnight and below the horizon for 24 continuous hours at least once per year.
To get to the Arctic Circle, you have to drive 400 miles of the Dalton Highway. This dirt road follows the Alaskan Pipeline all the way to Prudhoe Bay where you can take a dip in the Arctic Ocean. Not many rental cars are allowed up the highway and you have to have special permission to get into Prudhoe Bay so booking a tour is one of the easiest ways to gain this experience.
Other things to do in the Arctic Circle, depending on the season, include seeing the northern lights, rafting, hiking, fishing, dog mushing, wildlife viewing, and gorgeous photo opportunities.
ICE HIKE IN KENAI FJORDS NATIONAL PARK
Kenai Fjords National Park is open all year, though exploring in winter requires a bit more planning. The park contains 40 glaciers, hiking trails, whale watching opportunities, mountaineering, ice climbing, dog mushing, snowmobiling, fat bikes, cross country skiing, and kayaking. You can explore the park on your own or take a guided tour.
Kenai Fjords is thriving with wildlife in all seasons. It is home to 191 species of bird, bears, beaver, coyote, mountain goat, river otter, snowshoe hare, little brown bat, lynx, hoary marmot, marten, mink, moose, meadow jumping mouse, northern bog lemming, porcupine, gray wolf, wolverine, Dall’s porpoise, harbor porpoise, Steller sea lion, harbor seal, orcas, fin whale, gray whale, humpback whale, minke whale, and sei whales.
Planning a National Parks road trip? The America the Beautiful Pass covers entrance for an entire year to all the US National Parks and over 2,000 federal recreation fee sites. Fees are covered for everyone in the car for per-vehicle sites and for up to 4 adults for per-person sites. This is a no-brainer, friends. While fees vary, you’ll likely break even after two visits. Plus, REI will donate 10% of pass sale proceeds to the NPS Foundation.
SEE THE BEARS AT KATMAI NATIONAL PARK
Katmai National Park was originally designated as a national park to protect the geological features created by one of the most powerful volcanic eruptions ever recorded. Today, Katmai is famous for bear viewing. It’s home to thousands of brown bears and is a popular park to watch bears catch fish during the summer salmon run. The best time to see bears is June through September.
In addition to bears, the Katmai National Park is a great place to go birding and is considered one of the best places in North America to watch migratory birds. The park is also home to 42 species of mammals including wolves, whales, and caribou.
WHALE WATCH MULTIPLE DIFFERENT SPECIES OF GIANTS
The waters surrounding Alaska provide shelter and food for some of the world’s giants. The most common species of whales spotted in Alaska are Orcas, sometimes referred to as killer whales, humpback whales, gray whales, and fin whales. More rare sightings of beluga, blue, sperm, and minke whales can also occur.
You can spot whales in the Gulf of Alaska, the Bering Sea, and the Beaufort Sea. The most common and accessible areas to whale watch are Resurrection Bay, Juneau, Icy Strait, Beluga Point, Prince William Sound, Gustavus, Sitka, and Wrangell. There are dozens of whale watching tours throughout Alaska if you want to get up close and personal with these gentle giants.
The best months to visit Alaska for whale watching are May through September.
RIDE THE ALASKA RAILROAD
One of the most popular ways to explore Alaska is by railroad. The Alaskan Railroad runs from Seward to Fairbanks, crossing 470 miles. Described as one of the most beautiful railways in the world, the Alaskan Railroad offers several tours and even trains. The main tours include The Coastal Classic, The Denali Star, Glacier Discovery, The Hurricane Turn Train, and The Aurora Winter Train.
The railroad also offers special event trains like the Ski Train, Easter Train, The Fair Train, Great Alaska Beer Train, Fairbanks Family Fun Train, The Hoodoo Choo Choo, a Kids Halloween Train, as well as a Holiday Train.
Looking for more train fun? You can ride on a narrow-gauge railroad from Skagway into the Yukon on the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad. They offer several ride options, and you can take in the beautiful Alaskan scenery along the way.
WATCH THE TIDE CHANGE AT GLACIER BAY NATIONAL PARK
Glacier Bay National Park is more than just a national park. It is also a designated wilderness, a biosphere reserve, a marine park, and a world heritage site. It is also the homeland of the Huna Tlingit. The park contains glaciers, intertidal zones, lush forest, mountains, and of course the bay providing endless adventures no matter what time of year you’re visiting.
People come to the park for camping, hiking, backpacking, kayaking, rafting, and mountaineering. Fishing and hunting are also allowed in the park. Animals that call the park home include Humpback Whales, porpoises, otters, seals and sea lions, moose, porcupines, mountain goats, brown and black bears.
WALK ON A GLACIER
Hiking and walking on a glacier is a truly unique Alaskan adventure. Most glaciers in the world are retreating and melting, and this is true in Alaska as well. However, there are several you can still get to and explore.
The Matanuska Glacier is located just outside of Anchorage and measures 4 miles wide and 27 miles long. It’s the largest glacier accessible by car in the entire U.S. Guided tours are available all year long but winter is the best time to visit Matanuska Glacier.
Exit Glacier is found in the Kenai Fjords National Park and is one of Alaska’s biggest tourist attractions because of its accessibility. There are hiking trails and guided tours that get you up close to the glacier.
SEE A GLACIER FROM THE INSIDE
Alaska is also home to the Mendenhall Glacier. You can see this glacier from the inside, making it a true winter wonderland experience.
The Mendenhall Glacier is disappearing at a faster rate than others in Alaska and trekking to and from can take up to 9 hours with steep and icy conditions. Professional guides take you to and from as they pass on interesting information about the glacier and if the conditions are safe enough they will take you through the ice caves.
SOAK IN A HOT SPRING
Chena Hot Springs Resort can be found north of Fairbanks and they offer overnight packages as well as day passes to soak in the natural hot springs.
The resort includes a hot springs lake (adults 18+ only), an indoor heated pool, both outdoor and indoor hot tubs, and a locker area and shower facilities.
CATCH THE NORTHERN LIGHTS (IN WINTER)
During the winter months, from August through September, the northern lights can be visible in the skies of Alaska. Also known as the Aurora Borealis, witnessing them is a magical experience.
The best chances to see the northern lights are in Fairbanks, Denali National Park, Nome, Anchorage, Juneau, Coldfoot, and Barrow.
ENJOY A MIDNIGHT SUNSET (IN SUMMER)
Fairbanks is known as “the Land of the Midnight Sun” because every year from April 22 to August 20 the sun never fully sets.
Life thrives in Alaska during this season, you can find people hiking, rafting, fishing, playing golf, and biking in the middle of the night. Flowers, plants, and vegetables often grow larger than those in the lower 48 because of all the sun exposure.
EXPLORE KLONDIKE GOLD RUSH NATIONAL HISTORICAL PARK
This historical park preserves the history of Alaska’s Gold Rush. The park has a visitors center, a historic district, and hiking trails. The trails range from 1 to 7 miles, with varying degrees of difficulty.
There are museums on the side as well, including the Visitors Center Museum, Moore House Museum, Jeff Smith’s Parlour Museum, and the Mascot Saloon Museum.
ROAD TRIP THE KENAI PENINSULA
Taking a road trip through Alaska is one of the best ways to take in all the staggering views. Road tripping the Kenai Peninsula is one of the most popular routes, and makes for a great day trip. From Anchorage, you’ll first drive to Whittier where only 200 people call the cozy little town home. There is only one road into Whittier and you’ll have to drive through a tunnel in the mountains to get here, however, it’s important to note that the tunnel is closed at night, so plan to get there before sunset.
Most of the town residents live in old army barracks converted to a condo building called Begich Towers, and there is a bed and breakfast on top for visitors. Whittier offers boat and whale watching tours, kayaks, or jet skis around Prince William Sound. You can take 2 hiking trails that give you breathtaking views of waterfalls, glaciers, and the sound.
From Whittier you head to Seward, which is a favorite amongst outdoor enthusiasts. This tiny town is surrounded by snow-topped mountains, glaciers and the ocean. There are plenty of things to do in Seward all through the year including hiking, fishing, boat and air tours, horseback riding, sailing, dog sledding, wildlife tours, and much more. You can also visit the Railroad Museum, Sealife Center, and the Wildlife Conservation Center.
From Seward, you can drive to the town of Kenai. Kenai is famous for fishing during the summer salmon runs and spotting bears who are also catching salmon. Kenai is also a great spot for whale watching, hiking, biking, boating, birding, and wildlife viewing. The town is also home to an 18-hole golf course and the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Kenai is a beautiful town with views of the Alaska Range and three active volcanoes named Mount Spurr, Mount Iliamna, and Mount Redoubt.
Homer is your last town to stop in before making your way back to Anchorage. Homer sits on the shores of Kachemak Bay and is often referred to as the “Halibut Fishing Capital of the World” and the “City of Peonies.” In town, you can find museums, art galleries, fine dining, and shopping opportunities. Once in Homer, you can find adventures like helicopter tours over glaciers, ATV tours, spearfishing, kite surfing, kayaking, horseback riding, ice fishing, cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, snowshoeing, and dozens of other things.
If you’re feeling brave, you can head down to the ghost town of Portlock, and see what’s left of this once-thriving place.
LEARN ABOUT THE INDIGENOUS PEOPLES
Alaska Native Heritage Center aims to “preserve and strengthen the traditions, languages, and art of Alaska’s Native People through statewide collaboration, celebration, and education.” The Heritage Center is open Monday – Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the winter, and Tuesday – Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the summer. They offer self-guided tours as well as private tours.
You can take classes and workshops to further your knowledge about Alaska’s indigenous like their history, skills, and their culture that still stands today. The center consists of The Gathering Place for music and dance, The Hall of Cultures, The Theater, and Village Sites.
ATV IN THE DENALI NATIONAL PARK AND PRESERVE
Denali National Park consists of six million acres ready for exploration. One of the more exciting ways to cover the most ground is by exploring on and ATV.
Denali ATV Adventures offer several models of ATVs and several tour options. You can choose from 2.5 hours, 3.5 hours, a 2.5-midnight sun tour, as well as a private tour.
FERRY (OR FLY) BETWEEN MULTIPLE ISLANDS
Island hopping is a great way to explore all the different islands that Alaska has a claim to. The state has 2,670 named islands, and many of these can be found in the Aleutian Chain. The Aleutian Islands are made up of 14 large volcanic islands and 55 smaller islands. The Aleutians are almost always shrouded by thick fog giving it an eerily and peaceful place to live or visit.
The Aleutians have several parks to explore, including Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, the Aleutian Islands World War II National Historic Area, Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve, Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. People who visit these islands are looking for solitude while hiking, fishing, and wildlife viewing.
Other islands you can visit while in Alaska are Admiralty Island, Baranof Island, Bogoslof Island, Douglas Island, Kodiak Island, Fox Island, Hall Island, and Montague Island. There are plenty of others too.
CATCH (AND EAT) A MAMMOTH SALMON OR HALIBUT
Alaska is known for fishing, especially its legendary Mammoth salmon and halibut. There are various fishing charters that can help you hook the catch of a lifetime. If you’re looking to get salmon, you’re going to want to head to The Kenai River, Kasilof River, the towns of Homer, Seward, and Whittier. The best time of year to catch salmon is May through August.
If you’re looking to fish for halibut, check out Seward, Ninilchik, and Homer. Homer is actually nicknamed the Halibut Fishing Capital of the World. The best time for hooking a halibut is mid-May to mid-September.
DAY CRUISE THE PRINCE WILLIAM SOUND
Prince William Sound is one of the most beautiful areas in Alaska. Many people book day cruises through the sound to experience the incredible beauty of this space. Prince William Sound is the best place to see remarkable coastal scenery and tidewater glaciers calving into the ocean.
The sounds are thriving with animal activity as well. You can see humpback, sei, fin, minke, and killer whales, as well as Steller sea lions, harbor seals, sea otters, Bald eagles, brown and black bears, moose, and wolves.
DRIVE THE SCENIC SEWARD HIGHWAY
The drive from Anchorage to Seward along the Seward Highway is one of the most alluring drives in the country. The 2-lane highway is 123 miles and takes about 3 hours to complete. The highest pass is at Turnagain Pass with an elevation of 1,015 feet. The highway runs along the Turnagain Shoreline, with the snow-capped Chugach Mountains on the opposite side.
During the drive, there are plenty of stop-offs you can make to experience different activities or take in your surroundings. The best places to stop are Turnagain Arm, Potter Marsh, McHugh Creek & Falls, Beluga Point, Indian Valley Mine National Historic Site, Bird Creek, Virgin Creek Falls, Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, Portage Lake, Hope, Tenderfoot Creek & Summit Lake, Moose Pass, Kenai Lake, Exit Glacier/ Harding Icefield/ Kenai Fjords National Park, Seward, and Resurrection Bay.
The road can be hazardous all year round, so make sure you check the road conditions before and during your drive.
DOG-SLED (OR MUSH) LIKE AN IDITAROD PRO
Mushing, also known as dog sledding, is a huge part of Alaskan history and still is today. Sled dogs are considered top-notch athletes and are treated as such, especially during the winter racing season. During races, dogs are constantly checked by veterinarians and are only allowed to run if they are happy and healthy.
When a dog doesn’t want to run anymore, they are put into retirement and are put up for adoption. I have a retired sled dog and he is one of the best things that has ever happened to me. If you are interested in rehoming a sled dog, you can get more information by emailing me at Amandasanimalcaresj@gmail.com.
The most famous sled dog race is called the Iditarod, and it runs every year in March. The race honors a miraculous venture that a team of 20 mushers and 100 dogs completed in 1925. Diphtheria was causing many deaths. At -40 degrees, flying the life-saving medication was impossible and so the dogs went.
Dog sledding is a must-do when visiting Alaska and there are various places to book an experience with most tours running all year long. You can find mushing kennels, no matter what area of Alaska you’re traveling in.
SEE A VOLCANO AND GLACIER IN ONE DAY
Seeing a volcano and glacier is a pretty epic experience that you can only do in Alaska, as it has the largest volcanoes and greatest concentration of glaciers in North America. Wrangell–St. Elias National Park And Preserve is the largest U.S. national park, and is larger than six Yellowstone parks put together.
The park has more than one active volcano and dozens of glaciers. In the park, you can find guided ranger tours, backpacking, day hiking, mountaineering, boating, hunting and fishing, cross country skiing, and snowshoeing.
Many animals call the park home, including Dall sheep, moose, brown, black, and polar bears, lynx, wolverine, fox, coyotes, sea lions, harbor seals, sea otters, porpoises, and whales.
MORE INFORMATION FOR YOUR TRIP TO ALASKA
- ANCHORAGE: 24 Amazing Things To Do In Anchorage You’ll Love
- FAIRBANKS: 27 Phenomenal Things To Do In Fairbanks Alaska
- NATIONAL PARKS: 9 Alaska National Parks You’ve Got To Explore
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