While mile after mile of pristine forests, rocky shorelines, and an ever-present panorama of vast, snow-covered mountains and creaking glaciers, there’s no question that Alaska is one of the most beautiful destinations in the world.
But some spots have an extra allure; a glassy lake, perhaps, reflecting the surrounding icy peaks like a mirror, or a colorful town with a particular old-world charm.
Beauty has many faces here; the scenery is magnificent, for sure, but its wildlife is also incredible. Alaska’s human history is fascinating, too. Everything about Alaska is wonderfully photogenic and everything tells a story. Here are some of the most beautiful places in Alaska.
Mendenhall Glacier, Juneau
A thirteen-mile river of ice, Mendenhall Glacier is one of the most intriguing glaciers in Alaska as you can get close to the tongue, which calves into a milky blue lake with icebergs bobbing on the surface. Walking trails lead from the visitor center through the moss-draped rainforest, where you could spot bears, beavers, and bald eagles.
The Nugget Falls trail takes you across rock-strewn beaches to the face of the glacier, one of the most beautiful places in Alaska, where the ice is streaked with brilliant blue. The Photo Point Trail, as its name suggests, is the best spot to photograph the entire face of this creaking wall of ice.
The Inside Passage
The glassy Inside Passage, stretching from Puget Sound to Skagway, is the first taste for many of the wild beauty of Alaska. The island-strewn waterway of narrow channels and dense forest lining the rocky shore has a complete absence of human intervention.
There are no roads, no trails, no overhead wires; this is pure, pristine wilderness. Keep an eye on the shore for foraging bears and on the velvety water for the telltale disturbance that indicates dolphins are about to break the surface.
You’ll most likely spot the blow of whales, too; curious, acrobatic humpbacks are a common sight in this tranquil place.
The White Pass and Yukon Railroad, Skagway
In the days of the Gold Rush, the White Pass was one of two routes inland from Skagway to Lake Bennet in British Columbia, gateway to the gold fields of the Yukon.
You’ll see sections of this sometimes swampy, sometimes icy trail from the comfort of the narrow-gauge White Pass & Yukon Route railroad. It was completed in 1900 and is arguably one of the most beautiful train journeys in North America.
As it climbs 2,865 feet in a distance of just 20 miles, the train rattles along the sides of impossibly steep valleys with glimpses of rushing rivers far below and sparkling glaciers above.
Often shrouded in mist in the early morning, Sitka Sound has an eerie beauty with rocky, forested islets that are dotted off the coast forming jagged shapes in the gray. When the mist melts away, the snowcapped, conical cone of Mount Edgecumbe reveals itself as one of the most beautiful places in Alaska.
Look out for families of sea otters bobbing on their backs in the water and the distinctive black dorsal fins of pods of orca, which cruise the sound, hunting for food. During the summer, Sitka Sound is one of the best spots in Alaska for whale watching.
Creek Street, Ketchikan
Creek Street, with its colored clapboard houses perched on rickety-looking stilts over the rushing water of Ketchikan Creek, is one of the prettiest places in Alaska.
Set against the forested backdrop of Deer Mountain and gazing across the Tongass Narrows waterway, Creek Street is lined with Alaskan souvenir stores and galleries.
You can get a glimpse into Creek Street’s past in Dolly’s House Museum, the only house of ill repute that is still standing today—you’ll even see the secret closet in Dolly’s bedroom, which was used to stash contraband liquor during Prohibition.
Denali National Park
Your jaw is certain to drop once the clouds part to reveal the vast mass of Denali and its 20,310 feet of granite and ice. Majestic Denali is a dazzling backdrop to an already stunning landscape, the soft greens, ochres, and rusts of the tundra and forest bisected by a single road with miles of wilderness on either side on which wolves, grizzlies, caribou, and Dall sheep roam.
You’re in the heart of six million acres of wilderness here, a vast playground for lovers of the outdoors. Hike, raft, and kayak in the park or take to the skies on a helicopter tour, soaring over forests and mountain valleys, their floors braided by rushing rivers.
Get your adrenaline fix on a rafting expedition on the foaming rapids of the Nenana River. Or simply take in the sounds of nature and the clear air of this wildly beautiful place.
Glacier Bay National Park
All the tidewater glaciers in Alaska are magnificent, but Margerie Glacier, which flows into the milky turquoise water of Glacier Bay National Park, is one of the most spectacular.
Listen for the active glacier’s cracking, splitting sound and then look on in awe as great blocks of blue-white ice calve as if in slow motion, crashing down with a thunderous rumble and sending waves rippling across the water.
Look out for orcas and humpbacks while you’re in this otherwise serene area, as well as seals hauled out on floating chunks of ice.
Totem Heritage Center, Ketchikan
One of the unmissable things to do in Ketchikan is to delve into the history of the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian tribes at this fascinating museum, where 33 ancient totem poles are carefully preserved in a climate-controlled environment. The poles were created in the 18th and 19th centuries, when villages became rich on the fur trade and indigenous peoples expressed themselves in the intricate art of totem pole carving.
Many villagers eventually moved to larger communities, leaving their art behind. The standing totems were collected in 1970 and brought to Ketchikan, where they remain today, silvery with age but each one telling a story. Baskets, masks, and other regalia in the museum help paint a picture of the life of these ancient tribes.
Kenai Fjords National Park
This island-studded stretch of water to the southwest of Seward has to be one of the most beautiful places in Alaska, especially if you’re quick enough to snap a breaching humpback in the foreground of your photo.
Take a cruise through the smooth waters of Resurrection Bay to the craggy faces of tidewater glaciers, the white of the ice streaked with blue. Keep a lookout for orca, otters, sea lions basking on the rocks, and bears at the forest’s edge.
The birdlife is wonderfully diverse here, too; as well as majestic bald eagles, you should spot cute puffins, distinguished by their dapper, black and white plumage and bright orange beaks.
Make the short road trip to the mighty Exit Glacier, fed by the Harding Icefield, the largest icefield in the USA. You can hike up through dense forests to flower-strewn mountain meadows above the glacier for the best views and as you stop for breath, take in the vast sea of ice and the frozen river of the glacier itself.
The Chugach Mountains
There’s something mesmerizing about a row of snowy white mountains as a backdrop to the bright lights of a city. Residents of Anchorage are lucky to have the Chugach range as their playground during the summer and winter for hiking, skiing, and snowboarding, with trailheads starting just minutes from downtown.
Pick a clear day and head up Flattop Mountain; from the top, which is indeed flat, a magnificent panorama unfolds that extends over the city and ocean beyond to the icy mass of Denali and the distant Aleutian Islands.
Seward grew up as a Russian fur trading post in the 18th century and the historic downtown area today is a delight with an enchanting old-time feel.
Take a stroll past the famous murals, twelve giant artworks throughout the downtown area that were all painted by local artists, which depict scenes that have shaped the town, from the railroad which once terminated here to Mount Marathon.
You’ll find more local art, albeit on a smaller scale, in the wonderful Resurrect Art Coffeehouse and Gallery, a bakery located in an old shingled church. Check out the Seward Brewing Company, too, for local craft beers and a building steeped in history, having served over the decades as a bar, theater, and the offices of the Alaska Steamship Company.
Wherever you stroll in Seward, you’ll be dazzled by the views out across Resurrection Bay, where mountains, forest, and sky merge with hundreds of yachts bobbing in the harbor.
The Chilkoot Trail, Skagway
Tackling the steep, rugged 33 miles of this legendary Alaskan hiking trail between Dyea, across the border in British Columbia, is a serious undertaking. During the Gold Rush, this treacherous path was one of only two ways across the mountains, painfully slow and steep.
Today, it’s a different story, even if you only clamber up the first couple of miles; from every twist and turn, the views of snowy mountains, vast glaciers, forest, and rushing rivers are breathtaking.
Alaska’s glaciers are impressive from any angle, but for one of the best perspectives on the sheer size and might of the Hubbard Glacier, Alaska’s largest tidewater glacier, you’ll need to take to the sky.
Board a flightseeing trip and gaze down in awe as you soar over this 76-mile river of ice, a colossal seven miles wide at its face, which towers some 350 feet above the waterline. The Hubbard meets the sea at Disenchantment Bay near Yakutat.
It’s one of Alaska’s most active glaciers and is constantly calving off blocks of ice the size of houses. This is nature at its most raw and powerful.
The quirky little town of Talkeetna, sitting in the shadow of Denali in the Mat-Su Valley, is Alaska at its most charmingly eccentric. What other place would elect a yellow tomcat named Stubbs as mayor, a position the cat held from 1997 for 20 years?
Talkeetna itself was established at the height of the Gold Rush and a visit here is like stepping back in time. Marvel at log cabins and colorful clapboard storefronts lining the streets. You’ll also find quirky cafes, boho restaurants, craft stores, and galleries.
There’s a special energy about the town; it’s here that climbers congregate to gear up and plan their ascent of towering Denali. Enjoy the view of the mountain at sunset, a magical hour when it seems to glow against a backdrop of salmon-pink sky.
A glimpse into Alaska’s Russian past, Sitka perches on the western shore of Baranof Island. Looking at the neat little streets of pastel-colored buildings, you might struggle to picture this pretty spot as the one-time capital of Russian Alaska.
However, there are still plenty of hints of Russian influence in buildings like the Russian Bishop’s House, built in 1843, and the orthodox, green-domed St Michael’s Cathedral, its interior rich with gilded icons.
While you’re here, visit the fascinating Alaska Raptor Center, where injured birds of prey are rehabilitated and taught how to fly again. A trail through the sun-dappled forest leads back to town.
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