Dense forests, snow-capped mountains, creaking glaciers, and thriving wildlife are just some of the elements that make Alaska such a compelling place to visit. Unique cuisine, a rich culture, and layers of history are a few more.
Visit the towns that cling to the state’s forested shores to learn about history, from the traditions of the original Native Alaskan inhabitants to the Russian era and, of course, the heady days of the Gold Rush. Then lace up your hiking boots and head to the great outdoors, where bears forage in the woods and pods of orca and humpbacks cruise the serene waters close to the coast.
Here are 17 of the best places to visit in Alaska.
Kenai Fjords National Park
Southwest of Seward, this serenely beautiful stretch of wilderness is a place of glassy waters, old-growth forest, and ice.
The landscape of this national park is dominated by the vast Harding Icefield, where 936 square miles of snow and ice are pulled down by gravity in the form of more than 40 glaciers. Some of them calve into the sea with a series of mighty cracks and roars.
For the ultimate Alaskan adventure, take a cruise or a kayak trip around Resurrection Bay to observe this drama. At the same time, keep a lookout for the local wildlife, which ranges from acrobatic humpback whales to black-and-white orcas, sea otters, bears, and mountain goats.
There’s a sense of the old world about Seward, which developed as a Russian fur trading post in the 18th century. A thriving art scene, an abundance of Alaskan breweries, and the presence of hundreds of yachts bobbing in the marina add an almost bohemian atmosphere to Seward today.
The town is surrounded by mountains and forest and is the gateway to kayaking and wildlife-spotting adventures in Resurrection Bay.
One of the best things to do in Seward is to visit the old downtown area. Local artists have created 12 impressive murals depicting the history and character of the town. The Seward Brewing Company, occupying the former offices of the Alaska Steamship Company, is the place to stop for a local beer.
If you’re traveling to Alaska with kids, check out the Alaska SeaLife Center, a fine aquarium showcasing local species and featuring an impressive marine mammal rehabilitation facility.
The Inside Passage
Alaska’s Inside Passage, the waterway that stretches between Puget Sound and Skagway, is a taste of nature at its most pristine. Rocky, wooded islands separate narrow channels, with dense forest clinging to the stony shores.
Sighting of humpback whales and pods of dolphins are common here, and you could see bald eagles perched in the trees, surveying the scene, and bears foraging on Alaskan beaches.
The Inside Passage is without doubt one of the best places to visit in Alaska and a journey through these silky-smooth waters soothes the soul.
Hoonah, Chichagof Island
The village of Hoonah, 100 percent Native Alaskan owned, lies on wild Chichagof Island, deep in Alaska’s forested, island-strewn Inside Passage.
Local lore has it that more brown bears than humans live in this remote spot. You’ll certainly stand a good chance of spotting one, especially in the salmon spawning month of July.
Follow the forest trails along the Spasski River, where you could spot bears feeding from salmon streams, as well as black-tailed deer and majestic bald eagles.
There’s plenty more to see and do from Hoonah. Whizz down the world’s largest zip line at Icy Strait Point, skimming the forest canopy at speeds up to 60 mph.
As one of the best places to kayak in Alaska, you can also paddle along wooded shorelines on the lookout for humpback whales and cute puffins bobbing on the water.
Lying on the shore of Baranof Island, Sitka still bears the hallmarks of the days when Alaska was part of Russia, especially in the street names and the architecture.
Some of the best things to do in Sitka include touring the orthodox St. Michael’s Cathedral and seeing the gilded icons inside, or visiting the spruce-built Russian Bishop’s House, which dates back to 1841.
Inside, a small exhibition includes valuable icons and glimpses into life when this sleepy town was the capital of Russian Alaska.
Exit Glacier, near Seward
Glaciers are fascinating, and getting close to one is among the best things to do in Alaska, especially for adventure-seekers.
From Seward, you can take in spectacular views of the vast Exit Glacier from one of several well-marked hiking trails that start from the Exit Glacier Nature Center.
If you’re up for a challenge, take it a step further on the Harding Icefield trail, a tough but manageable six- to eight-hour hike along a steep trail through shaded forests and meadows ablaze with the mauve of heather, with tantalizing views of the blue-white tongue of the glacier.
You’ll also be rewarded with the vision of the icefield itself, a mass of snow and ice enveloping the mountaintops as far as the eye can see.
Mendenhall Glacier, near Juneau
A short drive from Juneau, Alaska’s compact capital, Mendenhall Glacier flows into a milky blue lake, the water and the surrounding stony beaches strewn with small chunks of ice.
You can walk to the lake from the excellent visitor center along forested trails while being on the lookout for bears and bald eagles.
There’s a choice of hikes, all of them easy and suitable for all ages. The Photo Point trail takes you to the best lookout for photographing Alaska and the glacier’s vast face, while the Nugget Falls trail gets you closer to the ice.
You’ll also feel the spray from the 300-foot cascade of Nugget Falls, tumbling out of the Nugget Glacier and plunging into Mendenhall Lake, one of the most beautiful lakes in Alaska.
Alternatively, join a kayaking tour for the unique sensation of paddling between blocks of ice. Out on the water, you could see seals, otters, and beavers while bears forage on distant beaches.
Of all Alaska’s glaciers, the mighty Hubbard is arguably the most impressive and one of the best places to visit in Alaska. This 76-mile river of ice is an almost unimaginable seven miles wide where it creaks, groans, and crashes its way into the sea and looms more than 350 feet above the ice-strewn water.
See it from sea level, where its sheer size will impress, or take to the skies on a flightseeing trip and soar over this vast expanse of rock and ice.
Mount Marathon, Seward
Mount Marathon, which dominates the skyline over Seward, is best known for its annual Independence Day race, a festive but challenging Alaskan tradition in which 1,000 runners sprint to the summit and back.
You can make your own ascent as a day hike at a more realistic pace along a series of trails that take you the four-and-a-quarter miles from downtown to the summit and back. On a clear day, the views are stupendous, all the way along Resurrection Bay to the distant white cap of the Harding Icefield.
Glacier Bay National Park
One of the most thrilling places to visit in Alaska, immense Glacier Bay incorporates more than 3.3 million acres, where an incredible 1,000 towering glaciers have formed over the millennia.
This is also a landscape of emerald-green forest, fjords, and mountains, and has been home to the Tlingit people for generations.
So important is Glacier Bay that it’s protected as both a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a World Biosphere Reserve, as scientists study the retreat of its many glaciers and the unique ecosystem.
If you take a thrilling flightseeing trip, you’ll be able to admire these great rivers of ice from above. Swoop over the spruce and hemlock forest, and enjoy a bird’s-eye perspective of ribbon-like Alaskan waterfalls.
Or gaze up at the glaciers from water level to appreciate their might and power. The Margerie Glacier is a massive 250 feet tall and around a mile wide.
One of the most active, it’s constantly rumbling and creaking, calving off massive chunks of white ice shot with sapphire streaks, with a thunderous crash.
Ice aside, Glacier Bay is a great place to look out for whales, which are drawn here by the nutrient-rich waters, as well as bears, moose, and wolves, if you’re really lucky.
Creek Street, Ketchikan
Ketchikan has to be one of the quaintest towns in Alaska. At its center is Creek Street, a row of brightly colored clapboard houses lining a walkway that perches on stilts above the local creek.
While Creek Street was once the epicenter of the town’s raucous nightlife, today it’s a classier spot. Visiting here is one of the best things to do in Ketchikan as the old houses are now home to galleries and tasteful souvenir stores.
There’s one glimpse, however, into Ketchikan’s colorful past, in Dolly’s House Museum, a former bordello. You can even check out Dolly’s bedroom, where illegal liquor was stashed during Prohibition.
Mount Roberts, Juneau
Alaska is known for its views, and every day brings even more dazzling vistas. Mount Roberts, hemming the small city of Juneau against the Gastineau Channel, is one place to head for some of the state’s finest scenery.
The mountain can be tackled in a challenging, four-hour hike, but don’t worry – if you’re not up for the trek, taking the Mount Roberts Tramway is one of the best things to do in Juneau. The tramway will whisk you up 1,800 feet in just five minutes.
At the top, there are gentler trails through high alpine meadows and woodlands, as well as an opportunity to have lunch at the Timberline Bar & Grill, known for its authentic Alaskan food.
The Red Onion Saloon, Skagway
Step into Skagway’s iconic Red Onion Saloon. You’ll be whisked back to the heady days of the Gold Rush, an era of feverish excitement, excess, and hardship.
The Saloon was built in 1897 and was the epicenter of Skagway’s bawdy and rowdy nightlife. Today, it’s a convivial place to eat and drink, with pizzas, meatballs and nachos the stars of the menu, along with craft beers and cocktails with names that evoke the spirit of the late 19th century.
White Pass & Yukon Railroad, Skagway
One of the most exciting things to do in Skagway, a journey on the White Pass & Yukon Route railroad is a rite of passage for anybody interested in Gold Rush history.
The railroad, which runs from Skagway over the 2,888-foot summit of the White Pass to the Canadian town of White Horse, was built in 1900.
The journey is regarded as one of the most beautiful in Alaska, as the train rattles through tunnels, over high bridges, and along tracks that hug the contours of the mountains.
You’ll be able to see parts of the treacherous White Pass, which claimed the life of many a prospector and pack animal during the Gold Rush.
Totem Heritage Center, Ketchikan
You’ll see colorful totem poles, or replicas of them, all over Alaska, but one of the finest and most authentic exhibits is this collection of 33 poles at the Totem Heritage Center in Ketchikan.
These venerable totems, some of which date back to the 18th century, were collected by conservationists in the 1970s from villages abandoned by the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian tribes. Today, they’re preserved in a specially climate-controlled section of the museum.
The totems have never been restored, only protected. Nowadays, they’re silver with age, but their carvings of animals, people, and mythological creatures tell enduring stories of their creators and their legacy.
Other objects in this Alaskan museum include baskets, masks, and regalia, as well as fascinating pictures of the villages from which the totems were collected.
Dyea & the Chilkoot Trail
If you want to attempt a section of one of Alaska’s most famous hikes, head for the ghost town of Dyea, near Skagway.
What was once a boom town and temporary home to thousands of gold prospectors has been reclaimed by nature. The old wooden buildings are subsumed by the forest and surrounded by meadows.
Dyea is the start point for the epic Chilkoot Trail, which takes you 33 miles into the mountains. Visitors come for the views over the forest to the sea beyond, as well as the serenity of the place, but during the Gold Rush, the Chilkoot Trail was feared for its steepness and harsh conditions.
Just a couple of miles of hiking will give you a sense of the route trodden by thousands of hopefuls, as well as the raw beauty of this place.
Denali National Park
Sightings of North America’s tallest mountain, a solid mass of granite and ice, may depend on the capriciousness of the weather, as Denali’s peak is often shrouded in mist.
But there are many other reasons to visit this six-million-acre national park in Alaska, where you’ll find a landscape of tundra, forest, rushing rivers, and snow-clad peaks.
Come here to spot the Big Five Alaskan animals. You’ll stand a good chance of seeing bear, moose, caribou, wolf and the elegant Dall sheep, distinguished by its magnificent curled horns.
Explore the park on foot, by kayak, on a raft, ATV, behind a team of huskies, or by helicopter. For lovers of the outdoors, Denali National Park is one of the best places to go in Alaska.
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