If you’re trying to decide on the best place to visit in Alaska for the first time, or introducing a first-time companion to this northernmost U.S. state, get ready for an unparalleled experience. Alaska’s vast landscapes and intriguing cultural heritage will leave you breathless.
From embarking on a riverboat tour to an Athabascan Village for a peek into indigenous traditions, to marveling at the rugged beauty of Denali National Park, these are just a few highlights that first-time visitors can look forward to. As you plan your adventure, prepare to be amazed by the extraordinary allure of the 49th state.
Denali National Park
Alaska, from a certain point of view, is all about the mountains. This means you’ll want to include a trip to Denali National Park when visiting Alaska for the first time.
The park is dense with evergreen forests and a vast tundra wilderness, creating a dazzling natural landscape that makes visiting here one of the best things to do in Alaska.
Denali National Park is also the location of Denali (formerly Mount McKinley), the tallest peak in North America, which will provide scenic grandeur to your rambles through the park if it reveals itself from its shroud of cloud.
Learn about the region’s natural history and the settlers who shaped Denali on guided excursions.
Or head off on a tundra wilderness day trip, venturing deeper into the Arctic range (by land, or even helicopter), where you could encounter Alaskan wildlife like the iconic “Big 5” species: grizzly bears, moose, caribou, wolves, and Dall sheep.
Mendenhall Glacier & Mendenhall Lake
One of the best places to visit in Alaska for first-time adventurers, without a doubt, is Mendenhall Glacier and Mendenhall Lake.
This meeting point between the glacier and lake in the Mendenhall Valley, inside the Tongass National Forest, is easy to reach from downtown Juneau, as the glacier is only about a 20-minute drive northwest of the city.
Start your visit at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center, located on the southern shores of the namesake Alaskan lake. Then marvel at the incredible sight of this enormous ice formation as it slowly edges into the water.
You can also spot wildlife in the area, including eagles and bears, or dive into the science of glaciology at the visitor center, where you’ll learn more about what makes this ecosystem tick.
A guided tour (by foot or kayak) will bring you even closer to the gigantic flowing ice field, letting you appreciate its frozen splendor firsthand.
Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center
If this is your first trip to Alaska, the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, established in 1993, is a sanctuary you’ll want to call upon—especially if you’re an animal lover.
The center, snuggled away in the picturesque Chugach Mountains, southeast of Anchorage, is a haven for orphaned and injured wildlife. You can take part in guided tours led by the expert staff here, who will teach you more about the center’s activities concerning Alaskan wildlife rehabilitation and conservation.
During your visit, you’ll encounter remarkable creatures like bald eagles, brown bears, elk, great-horned owls, lynx, reindeer, wolves, and other species.
Kenai Fjords National Park
Kenai Fjords National Park, on the Kenai Peninsula in southern Alaska, is a unique habitat brimming with fjords, glaciers, and rugged coastal landscapes.
As one of the best places to visit in Alaska, this is also the location of the Harding Icefield, one of the largest in the United States, which feeds glaciers flowing toward the sea.
Inside Kenai Fjords National Park, you can go for trail hikes to check out the imposing fjords and lofty glaciers, spot diverse marine wildlife like dolphins, sea otters, humpback whales, and orcas, and of course gaze in awe at the exquisite ice formations.
Aside from partaking in boat trips, you can also experience kayaking in Alaska for more wildlife and glacier viewing opportunities, offering you intimate encounters with the park’s local fauna and pristine habitats.
Creek Street in Ketchikan
First trips to Alaska usually mean a stop in Ketchikan, which means a visit to Creek Street.
Once upon a time, at the height of the fish canning era, Creek Street was a fairly notorious red-light district. These days, the boardwalk, mounted on stilts, is a pretty, lively spot filled with craft shops and galleries.
Browse for Alaskan-themed souvenirs and artwork here. The elevated boardwalk, adorned with colorful buildings, will also provide you with some lovely views of Ketchikan Creek, along with the woodlands butting up against the walkway.
Creek Street is also a great spot for photography, especially during the salmon runs when these fish swim upstream to spawn.
Visiting Dolly’s House Museum is one of the best things to do in Ketchikan, which will give you a glimpse into the less salubrious times of the town.
The nearby Southeast Alaska Discovery Center, which focuses on the region’s history, indigenous cultures, and natural ecosystems, is worth a visit as well.
Klondike Gold Rush International Historical Park
The Klondike Gold Rush International Historical Park in Skagway comprises the town’s historic district, part of the White Horse Trail, and the nearby Chilkoot Trail.
A visit here explains the impact of the gold rush in Alaska and Canada’s Yukon (during the late 1800s) and the many hardships faced by prospectors.
Take a guided tour or hike around the historic downtown, or trek along part of the Chilkoot Trail to discover what life must have been like during the gold rush era.
A visit to this park will give you a taste of the “gold fever” that brought so many hopeful souls to the region in search of fortune.
Hoonah is an Alaskan community on Chichagof Island predominantly inhabited by the Tlingit people. A visit here will give you a chance to surround yourself with the vibrant culture of the community living here.
During your time in Hoonah, you can discover the allure of Tlingit traditions through mesmerizing storytelling, intricate totem pole carving, canoe-building, native arts, and other fascinating Tlingit customs.
In addition to learning more about the Tlingit culture, nearby Icy Strait Point will offer you some exciting activities to take part in as well.
Some activities include whale watching, fishing, ziplining (featuring the “world’s largest ZipRider”), and wilderness hikes through Tongass National Forest, where you can relish Alaska’s immense natural beauty.
Tongass National Forest
If you’re a tenderfoot (newcomer) to Alaska’s pristine shores, a visit to Tongass National Forest should, without a doubt, be added to your travel itinerary.
Tongass National Forest’s diverse landscapes encompass ancient rainforests, alpine meadows, glaciers, and rugged coastlines.
Known as “America’s climate forest,” these woodlands lock away carbon and act as a vital conservation area, creating a gorgeous natural ecosystem that should be safeguarded for generations to come.
The beautiful forests here will offer you fishing opportunities (lakes, rivers, and saltwater passageways), glacier viewing, and the chance to observe wild animals in their natural habitats as well.
Hikers will love the forest’s many scenic trails. Tongass, north of Ketchikan, encompasses approximately 17 million acres of protected islands and mainland forests, which means there’s plenty of elbow room for all—whether you’re talking about humans, bears, moose, or some other species.
One of the best places to visit in Alaska for the first time is Mount Alyeska, located in Girdwood, southeast of Anchorage.
When the snow falls, this resort village boasts world-class skiing and snowboarding. After the snow melts, especially during the summertime and early fall, Mount Alyeska is a great spot for hiking in Alaska, as well as mountain biking along wide, picturesque trails.
Trekking opportunities galore are here for all skill levels, from beginner-friendly paths to more challenging routes for experienced hikers.
Even if you don’t want to hike, you can still enjoy the amazing vistas by riding the Alyeska Aerial Tramway, which is only a seven-minute trip to the top of this Alaskan mountain. From the summit, you’ll be treated to incredible panoramas of the Chugach Mountain range.
Mount Roberts Tramway
Another vertical ride you’ll want to consider while you’re in Alaska is the Mount Roberts Tramway, which is one of the best things to do in Juneau.
Hop on this precipitous tramway to get to the top of Mount Roberts, offering you a stunning overlook across Juneau and the Gastineau Channel, hundreds of feet below.
Once you reach the top of Mount Roberts, besides the awesome views, you may get to see some wildlife, like bald eagles and black bears. You’ll have access to several different family-friendly mountaintop hiking trails as well.
Check out the Mount Roberts Nature Center for insights into the local flora and fauna. And if you need a rest, enjoy some tasty Alaskan food at the summit’s restaurant, which comes with outstanding views of the surrounding region.
Alaska has hundreds of glaciers, but if it’s your first visit, you’ll want to get as close to one as possible. Join a Hubbard Glacier cruise and you’ll be able to see this towering wall of ice from the water, as it looms 350 feet high in many places.
Hubbard Glacier is a showcase for Mother Nature, filled with magnificent displays of blue ice crashing into Disenchantment Bay.
A boat trip out to this icy behemoth will treat you to calving blocks of ice, and also let you catch sight of different types of wildlife, including harbor seals, sea lions, otters, and whales.
Sitka National Historical Park
Delve deeper into Tlingit traditions at Sitka National Historical Park, and learn about the Battle of Sitka, which was a conflict between the Tlingit and invading Russian forces that took place in 1804.
The park also boasts one of the world’s largest collections of totem poles, exhibited along the Totem Loop Trail. Inside the park, you’ll find the Russian Bishop’s House, which was once the dwelling of the Russian Orthodox Bishop living here during the Russian colonial period.
Cultural demonstrations featuring traditional Tlingit activities like carving, weaving, storytelling, and dance performances are on offer, too.
You can sign up for guided tours and interpretive programs, or else take a leisurely stroll through the park’s coastal rainforest, which will bring you even closer to Alaska’s ever-present natural world.
Fortress of the Bear
Spotting bears in the wild in Alaska is a matter of being in the right place at the right time, but a sighting is not guaranteed. If your dream is to observe Alaskan bears, then a visit to the Fortress of the Bear is one of the best things to do in Sitka.
Fortress of the Bear is a nonprofit rescue facility and sanctuary dedicated to the rehabilitation of orphaned and injured bears—particularly the endangered Alaskan brown bears.
Once you enter this “fortress,” you can safely observe bears living inside spacious outdoor enclosures. Fortress of the Bear also engages in public education initiatives to inform people about the lives of the state’s bear populations, and the many challenges these apex predators face.
The quaint little town of Haines, located north of Juneau at the northern end of Lynn Canal (North America’s deepest fjord apart from those in Greenland), offers adventure enthusiasts a wonderful natural playground, plus an extensive network of regional hiking trails.
The nearby peninsular Chilkat State Park will also beckon you with its woodland trekking paths, while a gentle rafting trip along the Chilkat River could provide sightings of bald eagles and bears. You could try stand-up paddle boarding or kayaking here, too.
Discover more about Alaskan Athabascans culture by opting for a riverboat cruise on the Chena River. The river, a Tanana River tributary, flows just to the south of Fairbanks, which is located, more or less, in the center of the state.
As you make your way along the river on a sternwheeler, you’ll visit a nearby Athabascan village to experience some of these people’s culture. The Athabascan people have made the interior of Alaska their home for millennia.
Engage with the local community, learn about Athabascan traditions, and gain insights into their long heritage through authentic crafts, storytelling, and dance performances. You’ll also get to enjoy the picturesque beauty of the Chena River at the same time.
A maiden voyage to Alaska will let you delve into the state’s different cultures and wild landscapes. Look through our selection of luxury cruises to Alaska, then reserve your spot to discover the region’s wildlife, indigenous traditions, and unspoiled natural terrain.