25 Ultimate Things to Do in Alaska
From Alaska’s wilds to its more urban attractions, here are the best things to do in Alaska.
Alaska is truly the Last Frontier, and it can be hard to describe without using superlatives: Alaska is the biggest state and the northernmost state. It has the highest mountain and the most coastline. The biggest animals and the most sunlight. It’s a place where you can ski, fish, try new food, and take in the Northern Lights. It’s a state that has the best of nearly everything outdoor-related, but it also has thriving cities and lots of small towns with plenty of charm. Thought to be the first place humans crossed to North America using the Bering Land Bridge, Alaska also has a rich Native history, and today is home to nearly half of the federally-recognized tribes in the United States. From the tip of Alaska’s panhandle to the end of the Aleutian Islands is a distance similar to traveling from Savannah to San Francisco. How are you supposed to experience a state so vast? This guide is a good place to start.
Explore Denali National Park
Denali is Alaska’s most famous National Park and home to North America’s tallest mountain, standing over 20,310 feet above sea level. Despite its popularity, Denali National Park remains largely pristine. There’s only one road in and out, and past Mile 15, most visitors have to ride a park-approved bus. The preservation practically guarantees that you’ll see some wildlife, including potential sightings of moose, bear, caribou, wolves, and Dall sheep. If you head to Alaska in winter, don’t worry: the park is open year-round.
Alaska is definitely a rural state, but its most populous city is a thriving urban center. With about 300,000 people, Anchorage is home to over a third of the state’s residents and plenty of excellent cuisine, art, entertainment, and nightlife, all of which are just a few minutes from real wilderness. Take a walk along the waterfront at Kincaid Park, learn all about life in the north at the Anchorage Museum , and eat local at restaurants that serve fresh seafood and reindeer sausage. You’ll find major retailers at 5th Avenue Mall and plenty of local shops nearby. Stay out late and mingle with locals on 4th Street, which is home to favorite Alaskan haunts like F Street Station, Avenue Bar, and Gaslight Lounge.
Trek on a Glacier
From Mendenhall Glacier near Juneau to Matanuska Glacier an hour north of Anchorage, there are plenty of accessible glaciers in Alaska that you can experience up-close and personal. Walking on ice that’s thousands of years old and helped shape the landscape around you is an unforgettable experience; just be sure to take a guided tour or go with someone who knows how to navigate glaciers safely.
Gaze at the Northern Lights
The Aurora Borealis comes in all sorts of types and colors. From a bright red that coats the entire sky to ribbons of green and purple waving as if blown by the wind, the Northern Lights are a must-see. If it’s quiet enough, you might even be able to hear the aurora crackle. Visit Alaska between October and March for the best chance to see the light show. The farther north you are, the better your chances.
Tour Kenai Fjords National Park
Alaska has more coastline than the rest of the United States combined, so any visit to the state should include some time along the water. Riding a boat through Kenai Fjords National Park will give you a chance to soak in some of the north’s most charismatic sea life, like sea lions, orca whales, otters, porpoises, and plenty of seabirds. Most boat trips linger for a few minutes near a coastal glacier in hopes of catching it calving (when the ice breaks off into the water).
Cruise the Inside Passage
Alaska’s Inside Passage is a network of sheltered waterways between Alaska’s panhandle islands and mainland North America. It’s often rainy, but even wet weather can’t ruin the grandeur of this place, where mountains spike straight up from the ocean and whales feed in clusters. You can ride a large passenger cruise ship or take the D.I.Y. approach and hop between coastal cities on Alaska’s ferry system. Either way, you’ll be exposed to small, charming towns like Ketchikan, Juneau, and Skagway, where you’ll find main street shopping, rich history, and sightseeing adventures galore.
The only thing better than eating fresh seafood in Alaska is eating fresh seafood you caught yourself in Alaska. Even if you’re not much of an angler, this is the perfect place to try it out, where you can reel in a massive 40-pound king salmon or halibut the size of a door. Fishing is so popular along some river banks that anglers will line up shoulder to shoulder and compete for fish with such ferocity that the pastime has been dubbed “combat fishing.” Or, you can opt for a calmer experience by chartering a professional guide and practically guaranteeing yourself a catch as long as your line is in the water. Fair warning: it may ruin fishing everywhere else.
Marvel at the Size of Alaskan Brown Bears
Everything is bigger in Alaska, and that includes the gigantic brown bears that gorge on fish and berries all summer long before hibernating through winter. These impressive creatures weigh 1,500 pounds and stand up to five feet at the shoulder when on all fours. Brown bears live all over the southern and interior parts of the state, but head to famous spots like McNeil River or Katmai National Park for iconic views of the bears snapping at leaping salmon.
Immerse Yourself in Native Culture
With 229 federally-recognized tribes, the northernmost state is full of the stories, art, and traditional food of Alaska Natives. Learn about the living culture at the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage, where you can also witness dances and Native games. Walk among totem poles in places like the Totem Bight State Historical Park in Ketchikan or see athletes compete during the annual World Eskimo Indian Olympics.
Ride the Alaskan Railways
Relax and get the chance to take in Alaska’s towering mountains and wide-open vistas from the big windows of a lumbering train. The rail can take you north from Anchorage to Denali National Park or south to seaside port towns like Seward and Whittier . If you’re in Skagway, you can also ride the White Pass & Yukon Route Railway , a historic track that winds its way up the mountains near the original Klondike Gold Rush trail.
Take a Flightseeing Tour
Only a small portion of the state is connected to the road system, so flying is an integral part of the Alaskan experience. Riding in a small bush plane is an adventure unto itself, and the bonus is you’ll get amazing views. Pilots in Talkeetna can take you zooming near Denali. Charters from Soldotna or Kenai can show you Redoubt Volcano. Or, zip in a helicopter to the middle of an icefield and walk on a glacier.
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Relish the Midnight Sun
It’s easier to make the most of your days when the sun stays up past midnight, which is the case in many parts of Alaska during the summer. In southern parts of the state, the sun may dip behind some mountains, but you’ll still get a twilight glow. Head farther north and the sun never gets low enough to be completely hidden. At the northernmost city in Alaska, the sun rises sometime in May and stays bobbing high and low in the sky until August. If you’re in Alaska on the summer solstice, catch a baseball game played at midnight with no stadium lights.
Gray whales swim through Alaskan waters each spring on their way to feed in the Arctic Ocean. If you miss the gray whale passage, the humpback whales that migrate to Hawaii each winter spend the whole summer feeding in Alaska. Humpback whales are the only whales known to trap fish with a net of bubbles in order to scoop up teeming mouthfuls. You can also catch orcas swimming about in Resurrection Bay and Prince William Sound . Small and white, the beluga whales of Turnagain Arm can be spotted not far from Anchorage.
Learn About Gold Rush History
Gold kickstarted modern Alaska: when the news of riches in the Yukon reached the rest of the country, thousands of eager stampeders ventured north in search of their own wealth. Almost everyone passed through southeast Alaskan towns like Dyea and Skagway , where (if you’re up for some backcountry hiking) you can still follow the path many took at the turn of the 20th century. You can also get a taste of the thrill and learn about the importance of Alaskan gold on gold panning tours available across the state.
Sample Fresh Seafood
Copper River red salmon is considered some of the best and most sought-after salmon in the entire world, and it’s even better fresh. If you’re on the coast in Homer or Seward , opt for some fresh halibut filets or cheeks. In the southeast, try some tasty Dungeness crab.
Watch for Wildlife
You’d almost have to try to not see some wildlife in Alaska. Bald eagles can be spotted just driving down the road in nearly every region in the state. Take a wildlife tour or head into one of the state or national parks for a chance to see massive bears and moose. At the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center , you can see wolves, lynx, muskox, bison, and other animals that have been rescued from the wild. If you’re in search of birds, take a walk along the boardwalks of Potter Marsh in Anchorage.
Go Mushing on a Dog Sled
Getting towed by a team of huskies used to be the best way to get across Alaska’s snow and ice. Mushing is still a serious sport in the winter, and each year the top racers face off in the Iditarod , a 1,000-mile race from Anchorage to Nome. You can experience a taste of the adventure and meet dozens of happy pups without the blistering cold and long nights. Even in summer, take a helicopter ride up to a glacier and mush across the ice before zipping back to town for dinner.
Experience Kayaking and White-Water Rafting
Alaska has about 365,000 miles of streams and rivers, which means there are plenty of opportunities to get your adrenaline pumping while paddling through rapids. Get squeezed between the Matanuska Glacier and a rock wall for some Class IV rapids on the Lionhead Run, or barrel down some whitewater on the Nenana River near Denali. There are also plenty of options for calm, scenic floats and kayaking down a slower Alaskan river.
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Explore Juneau and the Mendenhall Glacier
Alaska’s capital city has a vibrant downtown packed into a few blocks along the coast; it’s easy to walk between the multiple shops, food kiosks, restaurants, and bars here. Just outside of town is Alaska’s backyard glacier, Mendenhall. You can see the river of ice from an informative visitor center or hike a few miles on a trail to get up-close and personal.
Interior Alaska is where the sun never sets in summer and the Northern Lights dance all winter long. Fairbanks is the interior’s metropolitan center and the state’s second largest city. You can take a paddleboat tour up the Chena River or walk through the city’s Pioneer Park . Fairbanks is also home to the University of Alaska Fairbanks, giving the city a hip, college town vibe. Immerse yourself in all things Arctic at the Museum of the North or get to know some reindeer and muskox at the Large Animal Research Station .
Soak in Chena Hot Springs
Weary miners used to relax here, and today these natural hot springs in interior Alaska are perfect for staying warm while watching the northern lights during winter or soaking after a summer adventure. About an hour from Fairbanks, Chena Hot Springs also has an indoor heated pool and an outdoor rock lake for those age 18 and older. Some people say the mineral mix in the water of the springs helps heal multiple body ailments.
Drive the Seward Highway
If you’re heading south from Anchorage, you’ll have to drive the scenic Seward Highway, which twists along the Turnagain Arm to stunning views of snow-capped mountains and blue waters. Stop at one of the pullouts to scan the highway cliffs for Dall sheep and turn around to scope for Beluga whales. Twice a day there’s a chance you’ll catch the Bore Tide, which is a single, large wave caused by the incoming tide.
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Celebrate the Holidays Year-round in North Pole
It’s a bit south of the actual North Pole, but your kids won’t know that because the town of North Pole, Alaska is decorated for the holidays year-round. Cruise down Kris Kringle Drive and Santa Claus Lane on your way to the famous Santa Claus House , which will be impossible to miss because the its giant Santa statue outside. Inside you can do all your holiday ornament shopping and meet the jolly old elf himself.
Make It to the End of the Homer Spit
A cozy and friendly seaside town on the Kenai Peninsula, Homer is a halibut fishing mecca. It’s also renowned for its spit, a narrow stretch of rock and gravel that extends four miles into Kachemak Bay. There’s plenty to do along this spit, like stroll along the rocky beaches, shop at the businesses dotting the end, meander through the harbor, or get a drink at the infamous Salty Dog Saloon.
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Hit the Slopes at Alyeska
Alaska is home to some of the most extreme skiing and snowboarding the world, and the ski resort Alyeska in Girdwood is a great place to get started. The mountain’s steep north face is the longest continuous double-black diamond run in North America, and with nearly half the mountain above the tree line, you can carve turns wherever looks fresh. There’s plenty of groomed runs too and a cross country track as well. Summertime offers visitors a chance to hike to the top for gorgeous views or take a tram ride up for dinner at Seven Glaciers Restaurant . Some people even paraglide from the very top of the mountain.