Kayaking in Alaska is without a doubt one of the most rewarding ways to connect with nature. There’s just the gentle swish of the boat and splash of the oars as you breathe in pure, clean air and listen to the wind rustling in the trees.
You’ll feel a real sense of being surrounded by wilderness as you scan the treetops for bald eagles, or experience the thrill of watching a bear forage on a distant, rock-strewn beach. As for marine life, you could be joined by anything from cute sea otters, observing you as they float on their backs, to pods of humpback whales, orca, curious seals, and porpoises. With no disturbance from engine noise, you present little threat to Alaska’s astonishing wildlife, so it’s possible to get really close.
Some kayak tours include hiking, so you can pull up on a beach and enjoy this beautiful wilderness from a different perspective. Many end with a tasty reward of freshly caught Alaskan salmon cooked over an open fire, or a steaming seafood chowder and hot chocolate. You’ll find the passion and enthusiasm of the kayaking community in Alaska delightfully infectious.
You don’t need any experience to kayak in Alaska. Boats go out, rain or shine, so do layer up. Some say kayaking in the rain is an almost mystical experience, with raindrops splashing off the glassy water.
Here are some of the best places to kayak in Alaska.
Much of Sitka Sound, the body of water between the snow-capped peaks of Baranof Island and the conical silhouette of Mount Edgecumbe, a massive, dormant volcano, is only accessible from the water. Kayaking, then, is a fine way to explore this wildlife-rich area.
Most Alaska kayak tours from Sitka start from a floating base camp, so you’re straight out into the wilderness, on the lookout for whales, harbor seals, porpoise, and black-tailed deer. You may see salmon getting ready to spawn, milling around in great masses under the surface before leaping and swimming up crystal-clear rivers to breed, the last phase of their life cycle.
The water around Sitka is particularly attractive to sea otters, and you may see them rafted up in large groups, bobbing cutely on their backs, grooming themselves, and snacking on clams. The water here is glassy-clear, too, so you’ll look down into the graceful fronds of dense kelp forests, spotting the occasional scarlet sea star on the ocean floor. Some tours pull up on one of the tiny, forested islands scattered across the sound so you can stretch your legs and stroll along the rocky shores.
Whatever length of adventure you choose, make time to wander around Sitka itself. It’s completely different from other settlements here, as it’s the former capital of Russian Alaska. Picturesque Russian buildings, including the Bishop’s House and St. Michael’s Orthodox Cathedral, with its distinctive green dome, are a reminder of Alaska’s not-so-distant past, and getting acquainted with them is one of the best things to do in Sitka.
Mendenhall Lake, Juneau
Mendenhall Lake, a short drive from Juneau, was created by the meltwater from the mighty Mendenhall Glacier, one of 40 that make up the Juneau Icefield. It’s surrounded by the Tongass National Forest, some 17 million acres of ancient cedars, spruce and conifers. Kayaking on the lake has only been permitted since 2016, so it’s still a rare privilege to explore this wilderness from the water.
What’s unusual about kayaking in Alaska on Mendenhall Lake is the fact that you can steer so close to the 13-mile-long glacier that you can almost sense its raw power. Not too close, of course, as chunks of blue-white ice could calve off into the milky water with a mighty cracking, splitting sound. But as you paddle, you’ll gently push away bobbing blocks of ice with your oars while keeping an eye out for basking seals, otters, beavers, and bears fishing for sockeye salmon. You’ll also marvel at just how many shades of blue this slow-flowing wall of ice contains.
A short paddle from the tongue of the glacier is the cascade of Nugget Falls, more than 300 feet of foaming white cataracts tumbling out of the hanging Nugget Glacier, over the glistening rock face and into the aquamarine lake. Pull your kayak up onto the sand and gravel beach, listen to the roar of the falls, and feel the spray. It’s invigorating.
Icy Strait Point
Icy Strait Point is known for its still, glassy waters, perfect conditions for the tranquility of a solo kayak, in which you can glide smoothly along the forested shoreline and into silent bays. Humpback whales favor the nutrient-rich feeding grounds around Port Frederick between May and September, so there’s an excellent chance of a sighting; an absolute thrill when you’re so low in the water. (Be warned: whale blow can smell somewhat fishy!)
You’re also likely to spot brown bears. Icy Strait Point is part of the town of Hoonah, on Chichagof Island, which has the highest density of these imposing mammals in Alaska. Look for them on the shore or lurking by the salmon runs. You’ll also be likely to spot deer, enchantingly cute puffins, and bald eagles. Some tours paddle across to the salmon-rich waters of Game Creek, and an abundance of fish means an even greater likelihood of hungry bears.
Icy Strait Point itself is of interest as it’s 100% Alaska Native owned, with all profits from tourism going into the local community. There’s plenty on offer after your kayak tour, from a well-earned seafood feast on the waterfront to shopping in the old Cannery. If you’re in need of an adrenaline rush, a ride on ZipRider, the longest zipline in the U.S., will have you flying high over the forest canopy.
Lake Bernard, Yukon Pass
The glacier-carved Lake Bernard lies at the top of the Yukon Pass, just across the border in Canada and accessed by the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad from the coastal town of Skagway. The train ride itself is magnificent; the railroad was built in 1898 and is one of the most dramatic journeys in the world, rattling along the contours of sheer-sided valleys, past tumbling waterfalls and foaming rivers.
At the lake, you’ll paddle on the crystal-clear water with snow-capped peaks soaring on all sides, watching out for bears, mountain goats, caribou, and eagles.
Exploring the lake is one of the best things to do in Skagway, as the town itself perches at the end of the long finger of the Lynn Canal, the northernmost fjord in the Inside Passage. The town still bustles with activity, long after the edgy days of the Gold Rush, when drinking dives and the occasional gunfight provided entertainment for the 30,000 prospectors who came here to seek their fortune.
Talkeetna River, Denali
If you like the idea of simply gazing up at the dramatic scenery of Denali, try a float trip along the icy Talkeetna River on the south side of the park. There are no wild rapids here; the river is graded Class 1, which in rafting-speak is the gentlest. You’ll drift past moraines and boulder fields, as well as mineral-rich beaches sparkling in the sunshine. Along the banks, keep your eyes focused for sightings of bears, wolf, lynx, beavers, and moose.
Tatoosh Islands, Ketchikan
You’ll find some of the best kayaking in Alaska around pretty Ketchikan, self-styled “Salmon Capital of the World”. The town huddles against the dense, emerald-green backdrop of the Tongass National Forest, the jauntily colored clapboard houses of Creek Street, perched on stilts over the water, a reminder of the town’s Gold Rush origins.
One of the best things to do in Ketchikan is to go on a kayaking adventure that takes you away from the bustle of the town to the remote Tatoosh Islands, the kayaking base a scenic, 15-minute skim across the water by boat. You’ll then paddle between these low-lying, forested islands, watching out for seals, porpoises, and whales around you, as well as mink and deer on the rocky shores. Bald eagles perch imperiously on fallen trees, surveying the glassy water for fish. Sea stars and sometimes eerily graceful jellyfish are visible in the clear, still water of this hauntingly beautiful archipelago.
Summit Lake, near Skagway
Another watery pursuit from Skagway is canoeing on the aquamarine Summit Lake, accessed by the Klondike Highway. The 31-foot canoes are modeled after those used by trappers and prospectors, the difference being a motor to assist, should the wind pick up. You’ll paddle along pristine rocky shorelines and into narrow channels and inlets, simply absorbing the peace and the sounds of nature.
Resurrection Bay, near Seward
Resurrection Bay and the town of Seward are hemmed in by mountains and glaciers. This is the gateway to the majestic Kenai Fjords National Park, one of the best national parks in Alaska, although Resurrection Bay itself is a blissfully quiet place to paddle a kayak. As you set out, you’ll see anglers, sailing yachts, standup paddle boarders, and charter fishing boats bobbing around.
You’ll kayak along a peaceful stretch of water away from the bustle of the town, where the low profile of the kayak and the gentle splash of your paddles won’t disturb the wildlife. A stretch of the wooded shoreline is occupied by a ghost forest, eerie skeletons of trees that were drowned by a salt water flood in the 1960s.
Lake Harriet Hunt, near Ketchikan
Another option if you’re using Ketchikan as your base is to head inland to Lake Harriet Hunt, high in the mountains, to paddle a 20-passenger, 37-foot Native American-style wooden canoe along the edge of the Tongass National Forest.
These tours are a chance to take in the majesty of the old-growth trees, spot wildlife, and step ashore for a short hike and local refreshments like smoked salmon, warming clam chowder, and tasty wild-berry jam rolls.
A day trip from Seward, the Aialik Glacier is an adrenaline rush for kayakers, as it’s the most active in the region. With luck, you’ll be able to watch this blue-white wall of ice calving. You’ll join a boat ride through the national park, then board kayaks and paddle as close to the tongue of the glacier as is safe, waiting for that otherworldly cracking sound that precedes a cascade of tumbling ice.
Read: Best Glaciers in Alaska
Byers Lake, Denali
Think of Denali and you’ll probably imagine the snow-covered, brooding hulk of this iconic Alaskan mountain, but North America’s tallest peak is surrounded by six million acres of pristine wilderness, bisected by just one road and roamed by moose, caribou, wolf, and hulking grizzly bears.
Visitors come to this extraordinary spot for kayaking on the tranquil waters of Byers Lake, the icy mass of Denali as a backdrop. The water is so still here that you can paddle a solo kayak or even a sit-on-top with all gear provided. You’ll see swans and possibly beavers, and paddle over great masses of spawning salmon, sometimes watched by bears, or sharp-eyed eagles.
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