Glacier Bay
Glacier Bay, Alaska

What to Do in Alaska

The state is huge—and so is the list of things to experience there.

You could spend years exploring Alaska, and if you love the outdoors, you may be tempted to do just that. Larger than Texas, California, and Montana combined, the state fills 375 million acres—with eight national parks covering more than 54 million of them. There’s no better place to get back to nature, connect with wildlife, and enjoy exquisite scenery.

Begin in Fairbanks, Alaska's second-biggest city. Located in the state's central region, it ranks as the farthest-north U.S. city that is accessible by air, rail, and road. 

"Many people find that starting their Alaska adventure in Fairbanks makes the most sense," says Jerry Evans from Explore Fairbanks. "Denali National Park is just two hours south, Anchorage is six, and the Arctic Circle and Yukon River are within a four- to five-hour drive north." 

Main Street in Fairbanks, which boomed over 100 years ago in the gold rush, looks like a Western movie set. Walk around the laid-back downtown and you’ll see murals, an archway constructed from 100 moose and caribou antlers, and a fountain honoring the Athabascan people, Alaska's original inhabitants. 

As you browse the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitor Center, you’ll get acquainted with the city's history and compelling heritage. Displays include natural habitats, woven grass baskets, animal skin and fur clothing, and intricate beadwork. 

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Fairbanks also allows you to seek your fortune at Gold Daughters Panning, an activity that proves fascinating for adults and irresistible for kids. Armed with a bag of paydirt, you'll learn the process of swirling the debris repeatedly in a water-filled pan. The small but heavier gold flakes remain behind. You can take home everything you collect, including fossils, pyrite, quartz, and gold. Don't leave the area without walking across the street to view a section of the 800-mile-long Trans Alaska Pipeline, which was constructed in the 1970s. 

Chena Hot Springs Resort is about an hour-and-a-half drive from Fairbanks and worth the trip. While the springs attract tourists year-round, soaking in the rock lake in the winter proves heavenly. If you’re feeling bold, dip your head under the 106-degree water, then let the cold air create an icy hairdo. The resort includes lodging, an ice museum, an ice bar, and an excellent restaurant. Snowcats transport overnight guests to an unobstructed aurora borealis viewing area.

Another unusual—and warmer—way to catch the Northern Lights is to snuggle inside a fiberglass igloo while gazing out the ceiling—an experience Borealis Basecamp makes possible. 

Consider hiring a charter plane and flying to the Arctic Circle instead of driving 200 miles along the Dalton Highway in a four-wheel-drive vehicle with snow tires, spare tires, and emergency supplies. A short hike on the tundra, a view of the Yukon River, and glimpses of caribou, an Arctic fox, or a muskox (a shaggy-haired Arctic tundra animal) will reward you for making the trek. 

Denali
Denali National Park

All Aboard for Denali

When it's time to leave Fairbanks, hop aboard the Alaska Railroad. Sit back and appreciate the views from a glass-domed car with wrap-around windows or with a meal in the dining car accompanied by expert commentary. The train stops within a few steps of the visitor center at must-see Denali National Park and Preserve, where you can join a bus tour. (Private vehicles can go only 15 miles into the park, so the buses are necessary.) You'll see many of Denali's iconic sites, including Wonder Lake, where Ansel Adams photographed. If you’re short on time, the best option is a flightseeing tour. 

The park’s six million acres will overwhelm you with its blend of ochre, copper, green, or snow-covered mountains, valleys, and waterways. But don’t count on a glimpse of the top of Denali, North America's highest mountain peak: rangers admit that few see it because clouds shroud the 20,310-foot-high summit most days. 

Nearby tourism operators (outside the park) provide a variety of adventures, including ATV rides, ziplining, rafting, and flightseeing tours. "Seeing Denali from the plane was incredible," says Reena Walking, who recently took a glacier landing flight with her family. "The air taxi service provided snow boots, needed because we sank about a foot into the snowfield. I loved the tour and felt safe the entire time."

Make Time for Anchorage 

Head south from Denali to Anchorage, the state’s most populous city, where you’ll enjoy urban comforts as well as easy access to mountains, glaciers, and wildlife. Many visitors fly directly into Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, Alaska's busiest airport.

Nearly 40 percent of the state's population lives in Anchorage, but you won't find many old buildings or skyscrapers. The newness of the skyline is the result of a devastating earthquake that toppled much of the downtown in 1964.

To get acquainted with the city, sign up for a one-hour trolley tour that even stops at Earthquake Park. Other options include city walking and foodie tours, photo outings, and a Segway excursion. 

Two Anchorage museums provide in-depth looks at Native Alaskan history. The impressive Anchorage Museum sits downtown on the Eklutna Dena'ina's traditional homeland and honors their land, culture, and language. A Smithsonian affiliate, the museum incorporates marine life tanks, a planetarium, and interactive exhibits. The Alaska Heritage Museum showcases living history. Watch dancing, listen to stories, meet carvers, and explore recreated full-sized dwellings. 

Parks and recreation options abound throughout the region. Walkers, bikers, runners, and in-line skaters favor the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, which runs 11 miles, starting downtown. The most easily climbed mountain—doable within three to four hours—is Flattop.

Fishing enthusiasts head to Ship Creek, where king salmon run from late May through mid-July. Silver salmon fill the waters from mid-July to early September. Gardeners adore the lush flowers in the Botanical Gardens.

Lake Hood sits next to the airport terminal, the busiest seaplane base in the world. Many bush pilots house their airplanes there for regular delivery of goods to communities with no road access. Flightseeing operators give tours to glaciers, fishing spots, and views above Denali. While you’re at Lake Hood, stop by the Alaska Aviation Museum, which pays tribute to the importance of aviation in the state’s history. 

Visiting in March? That’s when Anchorage annually hosts the start of the famed 1,000-mile Iditarod Dogsled Race. The competition tests the dogsled teams and the competitors' bodies, minds, and spirits as they race northward toward Nome. On the days leading up to the race, you'll find a festive atmosphere and have a chance to meet the competitors and their huskies. 

Bears, Alaska

Head Beyond the City

To explore beyond downtown, rent a car or take a day-long tour, typically with a small group. 

Head south to the fjord known as Turnagain Arm. The Seward Highway—one of America’s most beautiful roadways—and the Alaska Railroad hug the dramatic shorelines. Each turn reveals another scenic wonder and outlook site, such as Beluga Point. The massive Bore Tide rolls in and out of the mudflats twice a day. Crazy as it sounds, you’ll likely see surfers riding the single wave. 

Girdwood, a ski town, revolves around the Alyeska Resort and offers helicopter and cat-skiing, plus ice and rock climbing. Off-season, try downhill biking or ride the gondola for panoramic views. 

Portage is home to the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. Rattle around the grounds for close-up observation of Alaskan wildlife, including muskox, bears, and moose. 

The 700,000-acre Chugach National Forest affords glacier hikes with the standout Trail of Blue Ice. During the summer, one-hour lake cruises provide eye-popping looks at Portage Glacier.

Farther south, Whittier and Seward reveal the deep-water port of Prince William Sound, the now clean and gorgeous site of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Sightseeing boats leave Seward for Kenai Fjords National Park. 

From Anchorage, it’s a one-hour flight to Kodiak Island, where you can take in a sunrise on the summit of Pillar Mountain and explore Fort Abercrombie State Park's mysterious moss-draped forest. 

Bear lovers descend on the island and nearby Katmai National Park and Preserve from late July through early September. The salmon runs attract brown bears fattening up before hibernation. Laser-focused on feeding, they seem to consider people irrelevant. Hire a guide and a floatplane on Kodiak to take you to Geographic Harbor in Katmai. You'll observe just a tiny section of the park, but you'll see brown bears up close. Spend a day observing their habits as they roam along the dramatic volcanic peaks and a rocky sand beach. The extraordinary scene, which plays out like a National Geographic documentary, is a photographer's dream. 

Katmai's iconic Brooks Lodge attracts crowds to its viewing platform at Brooks Falls. This exceptional area requires reservations far in advance. 

Juneau, Alasks
Juneau, Alaska

Juneau and the Inner Passage

Juneau, the least populated but second-largest capital city in the U.S. by area, is not accessible by road. The capitol building, which features an unassuming brick and marble-columned façade, sits atop a hill. It was completed in 1931, nearly three decades before Alaska achieved statehood, as the Territorial and Federal Building. The Senate and House chambers are open to the public.

You’ll enjoy strolling through this walkable old gold rush town, eyeing Alaska-made crafts and souvenir shops. Farther along the river promenade, the Mt. Roberts tramway will whisk you up to a panoramic overlook for dinner with a view.

The Alaska Museum highlights the native Tlingit (pronounced Klink-it) community with displays of clothing, ceremonial items, and a birchbark canoe. Other informative displays exhibit the historical role of Russians in Alaska, the state's natural resources, and the Valdez oil spill.

Juneau serves as the red-carpet runway to the extraordinary Inner Passage, the starting point for many cruises to Glacier Bay National Park. Alaska's pristine waterway stretches 500 miles to the corner of Canada's Yukon Territory, revealing stunning vistas in rain or shine.

On cruises here, you’ll see tidewater glaciers resembling frozen blue rivers. Their size and height are deceptive. Margerie Glacier, known for calving frequently, stands about a mile wide, with glacial columns towering over 200 feet high. Approach on a cloudy day and the scene will resemble the misty iceberg-filled set of the movie Titanic—foreboding but also fascinating and seductive.

Some small cruise ships anchor to permit forest hikes and kayaking around icebergs. They transport passengers in skiffs for closer glacier viewing. Whale watching, another cruise delight, features gigantic humpbacks frolicking and breaching. Also, look for orcas, seals, otters, and eagles. 

Feeling brave? Take a polar plunge during your cruise. You'll come home from Alaska having earned bragging rights—and with a tale to tell the grandchildren.

The author's Fairbanks, Anchorage, and Kodiak trip was self-funded. She cruised the Inner Passage in 2019, compliments of the Uncruise line.


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Accommodations and Dining

In the Anchorage area, stay at the five-star Hotel Captain Cook (A) downtown, Lakefront Anchorage (A-) off the shores of Lake Hood, or Alyeska Resort (A), a luxury ski lodge in the town of Girdwood. Fine dining options include the Crow’s Nest (A) at the top of Hotel Captain Cook; Simon & Seafort’s Bar & Grill (A), which serves steaks and seafood; and Seven Glaciers (A), a seafood restaurant at the top of Mt. Alyeska. 

In Fairbanks, River’s Edge Resort (B) offers pri­vate cot­tages set along the scenic Chena Riv­er. 

Chena Hot Springs Resort (A) offers lodging, a restaurant, and an aurora viewing area. Borealis Basecamp (A) provides a luxury igloo experience with clear ceiling views while Aurora Villa (A-), a hotel with floor-to-ceiling windows, facilitates northern lights viewing from your room. 

In Juneau, consider staying at Alaska’s Capital Inn (A), a luxury downtown bed and breakfast. 

The Hanger on the Wharf (B), a former floatplane hangar, serves pub fare at the waterfront.

Red Dog Saloon (B), a historic pub, features swinging doors and sawdust floors, and Timberline atop Mount Roberts (B) provides a view plus Alaskan cuisine—seafood as well as such dishes as smokey bison and reindeer sausage. 

Glacier Bay Lodge (A), the only accommodations within Glacier Bay National Park, features a timber lodge, a huge stone fireplace, rooms tucked into trees, and a restaurant. To reach it, you have to take an airplane or the Alaska Marine Highway, then a ferry to Gustavus, and then a 10-mile shuttle ride provided by the lodge.

Kennicott Glacier Lodge (B), a replica of a historic copper-mining building, is more difficult to reach. It sits in the heart of a ghost town in the center of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve.

Craft microbreweries are popular. Look for 49th State Brewing Company (A) in Anchorage and Healy, Alaskan Brewing Company (A) in Juneau, and HooDoo Brewing (A) in Fairbanks. 


Traveler Fast Facts

What It Is: The 49th U.S. state rests off Canada’s west coast and is larger than Texas, California, and Montana combined. The coastline measures 34,000 miles, more than the other 49 states in total. Alaska borders the Pacific and Arctic oceans, is home to more than half of the world’s glaciers, and provides habitat for 98 percent of all brown bears in the U.S. 

Getting There: Alaska Airways, the largest commercial operator, offers flights from more than 100 cities across the U.S., Canada, and Mexico and to 20 airports within Alaska, many of which can accommodate private aircraft. Traveling between locations may involve a car, boat, airplane, and train.

Climate: Midnight Sun Season runs from mid-April through mid-August, with average temperatures ranging from the 20s to mid-60s; the rest of the year is Aurora Season with highs in the 30s. The best weather is from mid-May to mid-July. Expect rain anytime. The Arctic climate in the extreme north delivers long, very cold winters and cool summers with snow possible year-round.

Activities: Winter activities include dog sledding, snowmobiling, ice fishing, snowshoeing, ice sculpting, and viewing the aurora borealis. Summer offers fishing, kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding, power boating, whitewater rafting, and hiking. Long days mean golfers can tee off at 10 p.m. and baseball fans can watch a Midnight Sun Game with no artificial lights.

Tours and More: Flightseeing providers include Rust’s Aviation, K2 Aviation, Alaska Seaplane Adventures, Alaska Helicopter Tours. For glacier and ice-cave exploring, contact Nova Glacier Guides or Kennicott Wilderness Guides. Private Guide Scott Stone, working from Kodiak Island Air Service, will introduce you to the bears in Katmai National Park. Great Land Adventures specializes in private and custom adventure tours, as does Salmon Berry Travel & ToursUncruise offers adventures on boats with fewer than 100 passengers.

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