Summer in Alaska is glorious. This is the prime season to view the wonders that earned the state the title of America’s last frontier.
Fly over temperate rainforests thick with spruce and cedar trees, walk on centuries-old glaciers, sail finger-like fjords, and go dog-sledding on a glacier. Watch brown bears swipe at salmon, eagles swoop low over the horizon, and humpback whales breach.
Along with natural wonders, discover the region’s rich heritage. Learn about the traditions and art of the Tlingit and Haida Native American peoples. Trace the grueling path of the gold rush seekers.
With 19 hours of daylight in June and July, there’s plenty of time to explore and admire the stunning scenery.
Enjoy these 14 exciting things to do in Alaska in the summer.
Get Close to a Calving Glacier at Kenai Fjords National Park
Visiting Kenai Fjords National Park, home to 40 of Alaska’s glaciers, is one of the best things to do in summer in Alaska.
On a boat excursion, you get within 100 yards of the massive walls of ice. They are not white but an iridescent blue created by the reflected sun.
Wait to hear the thunderous crack as the glacier calves, causing huge chunks of ice to tumble into the sea. En route to the glacier, you pass forested Alaskan mountains, a puffin rookery, craggy peninsulas covered in mist, and a sea lion colony where the blubbery beauties lounge on the rocks.
You might even spot a humpback whale’s barnacled head before the 40-foot long creature slips seamlessly below the surface.
Discover Ketchikan’s Colorful History
A stroll along Creek Street’s boardwalk, edged with brightly painted frame structures, takes you back to a colorful era in Ketchikan’s history. In the 1920s, Creek Street was the epicenter of the town’s rowdy nightlife.
Today, it’s a more peaceful place, lined with galleries and arty stores selling Alaskan souvenirs, the forested Deer Mountain as a backdrop.
Longtime Alaska artist Ray Troll sells his wildlife-inspired calendars and T-shirts at his Soho Coho Art Gallery. At the Captain’s Lady, find printed headbands, scented Ketchikan candles, and note cards featuring photographs by a local artist.
In summer, peer into the creek from the boardwalk to spot another classic Ketchikan sight: thousands of migrating salmon forcing their way upstream to spawn.
Admire Totem Poles at Totem Bight State Historical Park
One of the best things to do in Alaska is to visit Totem Bight State Park, located near Ketchikan, where more than a dozen totem poles and a Clan House rise among the spruce, hemlock, and cedar trees.
Walking the 11-acre park gives you a chance to read the totem poles’ stories and appreciate Alaskan culture as well as the peacefulness of the rainforest setting with its clearing on the Tongass Narrows.
The bears, wolves, eagles, and ravens cut into the totem poles tell the tales of deceased clan members, treaties, and other important events. To preserve the native art and the art form, the U.S. Forest Service instituted a program in 1938 to rescue the totem poles from abandoned Tlingit and Haida villages and hired native artists to restore and replicate the totem poles.
The site’s Clan House, whose façade features a striking raven painting, represents a typical dwelling for 30 to 50 people.
Hike in the Tongass National Forest
Classified as a temperate rainforest, a rare ecosystem that exists in only a few places on earth, the 17 million acres of Tongass National Forest comprises the largest national forest in the United States.
Ketchikan provides easy access to this magnificent wilderness, an expanse of islands, inlets, dense greenery, and glacial channels.
On a three-mile guided walk through the stately spruce, hemlock, and cedar woods, you might spot mountain goats, moose, bald eagles, deer, and black and brown bears.
Guides will point out the wildlife and tell you about the ecology of the forest, with plenty of stops for photos.
Follow the Gold Rush Route on the White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
You’ve heard about the hardships of the gold seekers, but an outing on the White Pass and Yukon Route Railway enables you to see the tortuous path they undertook from the comfort of your train seat.
The train climbs nearly 3,000 feet in 20 miles, paralleling the route of the stampeders. You look out the window–or take in the scenery from a viewing platform–at rocky, steep slopes.
The fortune seekers and their horses and mules, laden down with hundreds of pounds of supplies, attempted the climb in the bitter cold, mud season, and through summer’s blight of swarming mosquitoes. The train ride is a great way to experience the historic trail.
Learn About Gold Rush History
The Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park in downtown Skagway preserves 20 buildings whose facades look just as they did in the late 19th century.
Located in the historic White Pass & Yukon Route depot, the Visitor Center offers talks, presentations, and an informative 25-minute film about the prospectors. The museum conveys the gold rush era by following the lives of five characters.
Along with detailing the steep ascents and cold temperatures, learn about the heavy load of equipment and provisions—cookstoves, pans, and crates of biscuits, bacon, flour, and beans—prospectors were required to haul up the trail.
Hike and Bike the Chilkoot Trail
Although the most difficult route to the goldfields, the White Pass and Chilkoot Trails were the cheapest and for some time, the only way there.
The 33-mile Chilkoot Trail takes days and stamina for even experienced hikers to complete. However, you can experience part of this famous Alaskan hiking trail by exploring the first section from the ghost town of Dyea, close to Skagway.
Only the skeletons of a few wooden buildings remain here, nature having reclaimed the once-bustling boom town. As you climb, the views over the forest and ocean below, and the surrounding mountains are stupendous.
For an easy outing on the flat part of the recreational trail through the outskirts of town, rent an ebike from Klondike Electric Bicycles.
Go Dog Sledding on a Glacier
Take in spectacular views from two iconic forms of transportation—helicopters and dog sleds.
From Skagway, your helicopter flies over snowfields to a 6,000-foot-high mushers’ camp on Denver Glacier, setting you down in a great sweep of blue sky and white ice.
Beneath your boots, the snowpack is dozens of feet deep, and under that is an eons-old frozen river, 1,500 feet thick.
Follow the jubilant barking of the dogs to the camp where mushers acquaint you with the friendly packs that love to run. You may learn a few basic commands such as “gee” for turn right, “haw” for left, and “hike” for go. (Don’t say that one until you’re well-positioned on the sled, either sitting in it or standing on the rails as a musher.)
Expert guides command the team. Once the pack starts running, the only sounds you hear are the thin, steady hum of the wind and the soft padding of the dogs’ paws. After the 30-minute loop, you’re likely to want more. Dog sledding in Alaska is one of the many reasons to come back to the state next year.
Admire the Mendenhall Glacier
It’s easy to reach the Mendenhall Glacier as it’s only 13 miles from downtown Juneau. The best time to view the 13-mile-long river of ice is in the late afternoon when the light is less intense.
Bright sun tends to whitewash the glacial colors, but the softer afternoon rays, or a cloudy day, bring out the aquamarine hues. Photo Point Trail, a short scenic path near the Visitor Center, opens out to broad views of Mendenhall Lake and the tongue of the glacier beyond.
If you’re physically fit, a guided outing provides a safe trek on the glacial ice, a memorable thing to do in summer in Alaska.
After an uphill hike through the rainforest along Mendenhall Lake and over ridges, you reach the sprawling face of the glacier where you put on crampons.
On the amazing outing, the glacier’s pointy spines of ice seem to stretch to infinity, and guides lead you to ice caves, crevasses (deep blue fissures), and other formations.
Take in Sweeping Views from the Mount Roberts Tramway
Forested Mount Roberts towers over Alaska’s state capital, Juneau. The Mount Roberts Tramway whisks you over the canopy of trees to an observation deck 1,800 feet above Juneau.
From there, enjoy panoramic views of Juneau, the Gastineau Channel, and the Chilkat Mountains. Browse the gift shop, have a snack at the restaurant, and watch an 18-minute film about the Tlingit.
Wear sturdy shoes if you plan to hike a mile or so up from the tramway’s observation deck through the forest to a sub-Alpine meadow, covered with wildflowers in the summer months. Look out for wildlife along the trail; you may spot marmots or spruce grouse.
Get Up Close to Birds of Prey at the Alaska Raptor Center
Sitka’s Alaska Raptor Center heals wounded or sick birds of prey, as well as other injured birds, returning them to the wild wherever possible. The facility treats more than 200 birds each year.
Some that cannot be released reside at the Center and serve as educational ambassadors. Enjoy close-up views of snowy owls, great horned owls, peregrine falcons, hawks, and eagles.
At the facility’s Bald Eagle Flight Training Center, watch the regal birds hop onto perches, spread their wings, and relearn how to fly.
Spot Brown Bears at Fortress of the Bear
If you’re curious about Alaska’s bears, but you’d rather not meet them when hiking the woods, visit the resident black and brown bears living at the Fortress of the Bear in Sitka.
This educational facility rescues orphaned or sick bear cubs and rehabilitates them. While the bears won’t be released into the wild, some have been sent to zoos and animal sanctuaries in the U.S.
At present, eight bears reside at the sanctuary, which is designed as an enriching environment for the animals. From a viewing platform 25 feet from these majestic creatures, you observe the bears catching fish in a pond, standing impressively tall on two legs, and interacting with each other. The naturalists tell you bear facts, and detail the animals’ personalities.
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