The largest state in the U.S. at nearly 600,000 square miles, Alaska offers almost countless destinations to immerse yourself in stunning natural beauty, including glistening lakes and rugged coastline, mountains, glaciers, wildlife and more. The biggest problem comes with trying to decide where to go – to help, consider these especially spectacular places in Alaska.
Denali National Park and Preserve
This breathtaking national park contains over six million acres, filled with dazzling lakes and jagged mountains, including the tallest peak in North America, Mount Denali, for which the park was named. One of its must-experiences is the 92-mile Park Road. At Mile 15, you’ll need to take a shuttle or tour bus, as private vehicles aren’t allowed past that point. Once on, you can hop off and hop back on at just about any point along the way. In addition, taking in the magnificent scenery, you’ll have the chance to spot many of the park’s iconic animals like wolves, moose, caribou, grizzly and black bears. Dall’s sheep, spotted foxes, marmots, arctic ground squirrels, and red squirrels are often seen as well.
Sitting on a hillside overlooking the Inside Passage, Juneau’s downtown area is nestled between Mount Juneau, Mount Roberts, and Gastineau Chanel. Its labyrinth of narrow streets run past a mix of old storefronts, new structures and charming houses with early 19th-century architecture, dating from its gold mining beginnings. Popular activities include whale watching tours providing a great way to see the wide variety of marine life like humpback and killer whales as well as Steller sea lions and Dall’s porpoise.
Juneau is also home to Mendenhall Glacier, located just a short drive from downtown. Adventure enthusiasts can kayak to the 12-mile-long glacier and then ice-climb to the caves inside. As the recent rising temperatures have caused the caverns to shrink to about a third of their original size, there have been dramatic shifts of color inside.
Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve
Located just west of Juneau, this park is another fine example of the state’s wild, majestic beauty. By staying at Glacier Park Lodge, you’ll have access to the best of it, with the chance to hike across the land or explore the waters via kayak. It’s a popular place for fishing, with the opportunity to fish the rivers for halibut and rainbow trout, and a variety of wildlife can be seen as well, including mountain goats and black bears.
Margerie Glacier, a tidewater glacier that starts on land and stretches out to the sea, has been retreating, so you’ll want to see it before its gone. The 21-mile-long and one-mile-wide glacier can only be accessed by air or water, but your reward is a pristine glacier with jewel-like blue ice – and, if you’re lucky, you might even be able to witness calving. This incredible natural phenomenon is accompanied by the booming sound of ice cracking and crashing into the water below.
Kodiak Island is famous for its fishing and its bears. A renowned fishing destination, it offers the chance to catch trout, halibut and five species of salmon. At the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge, which protects a diverse 2,812-square-mile area with everything from alpine meadows and wetlands to rugged mountains, offers the chance to view bears. There are some 3,500 bears that live here, with some of the males weighing over 1,500 pounds and standing over 10 feet tall. As there are no roads in the refuge, visitors view the bears via air charters or an excursion from one of the many wilderness lodges.
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Chitina
If you’re looking for extreme remote wilderness, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park is the place to go. The small town of Chitina, population 125, is the prime jumping-off point to Alaska’s largest national park at 13 million acres. It sits at the confluence of the mighty Copper River and the Chitina River, overshadowed by 16,390-foot-high Mount Blackburn. After its mine closed in the late 1930s, it was all but abandoned, but in 1980, with the creation of the park, it began serving as the main gateway for visitors who embark on McCarthy Road, which winds 60 miles east into the heart of the park. With habitats ranging from temperate rain forest to tundra, you’ll find an incredible diversity of animals as well, including moose which are often seen near willow bogs and lakes. Other species of large mammals include mountain goats, caribou, wolves, bison, black bears, and brown bears.
Truly get back to nature, with the time to admire the northern lights and discover glaciers, by staying at Ultima Thule Lodge – 100 miles from the nearest road, there is no cell service or the Internet, but you can spend your time gazing at some of the most jaw-dropping wilderness on Earth.
Ketchikan is known as Alaska’s “first city” as it sits at the southern tip of the Inside Passage and is the first city cruise passengers see when heading north. If you’re a fan of the “Deadliest Catch,” you might want to take the Bering Sea Crab Boat Tour which was featured on the reality series. You’ll get a hands-on look at what it takes to haul up the crab, salmon, shrimp, and other sea creatures. Other outdoor adventures possible here include zip-lining between the soaring trees over salmon streams and wildlife, hiking to the top of Deer Mountain, flying over the Misty Fjords in a floatplane or just spending a few hours watching for whales, sea lions and other signs of sea life along the shore. In town, discover an award-winning arts scene, live music and theater, a host of shops, fantastic eateries and more
If you’re looking for a town that offers a little bit of everything Alaska has to offer, you might want to head to Seward. It’s easy to reach via a scenic drive on the Seward Highway from Anchorage, which winds through the spectacular Alaskan wilderness offering dramatic views of the shorelines of Turnagain Arm, the towering, craggy peaks of the Chugach Mountains, waterfalls, azure-colored glaciers, and glistening valley lakes. Just some of the wildlife you might spot along the way include moose, eagles, and bears. As you reach Seward, the pristine waters of Resurrection Bay, home to humpback whales, orcas, harbor seals, porpoises, otters and sea lions, come into view. And, as you look up, bald eagles can be seen soaring through the sky or perched atop a tree.
Rent a kayak or take a water taxi to check out some of the secluded coves around the bay that are ideal for beachcombing, or paddle to tidewater caves, bird rookeries, and sea lion hangouts. You can also take a mile-long walk on the beach or hike the five-mile coastal trail to Caines Head, known as one of the top hikes in the state.
As you reach Homer, an amazing panorama of snowy peaks, dramatic mountains, glaciers, and the famous Homer Spit, a long strip of land jutting into a brilliant blue bay, all await. Homer is an “artsy,” town, with a reputation as the cultural capital of Southcentral Alaska, hosting numerous art galleries and museums, as well as a live theater and music venues, along with fine restaurants and coffee bars on every corner.
Homer Spit offers beachcombing, fishing and bird watching, with more bald eagles than you can count, and just across the bay is Kachemak Bay State Wilderness Park, a 350,000-acre paradise of glaciers, mountains, protected coves for paddling and an extensive trail system to explore on foot. Kayakers, backpackers, and campers hop on water taxis and to escape the bustle of Homer to an idyllic wilderness.
Chugach State Park, Anchorage
Chugach State Park is the state’s most easily accessible wilderness area, with many of its trailheads just minutes from downtown Anchorage. The country’s third-largest state park at 9,000 square miles, with magnificent terrain that’s popular for hiking, rafting, biking, ATVing, kayaking, and fishing. Rent a yurt near the Eagle River and watch the spawning salmon in the summer. As the historic Iditarod Trail makes its way through this area, it’s a good spot for watching the famous dog-sledding race too. And, at Beluga Point, you can watch for pods of the always-grinning white whales.
Kenai Fjords National Park
Kenai Fjords is located near Seward, offering 607,000 acres of snow, ice, long fjords and hundreds of tranquil bays and coves, as well as lots of wildlife, including harbor seals, Steller sea lions, sea otters, moose, black bears, wolverines, mountain goats, and coyotes. Snow and ice cover 60 percent of the park, and lining the edge is its crown jewel, the vast 936-square-mile Harding Icefield. It feeds nearly three dozen glaciers flowing out of the mountains, as a vestige of the massive ice sheet that covered much of Alaska in the Pleistocene era.
Park adventures include Activities include kayaking, camping, fishing, beachcombing, biking, hiking, cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, dog sledding, boat tours, flightseeing, mountaineering and more.
Fairbanks is renowned as one the very best places to watch the northern lights in the U.S. At the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, you can even get forecasts on aurora viewing conditions. To get a good look at the stunning light display, you’ll need to get away from city lights and into the vast wilderness. Chena Resort is considered a great place to do just that, where guests can marvel at the display from a hot spring. If you’re worried about missing it while you sleep, the resort offers alerts to guests when the lights appear via the aurora alarm service. You can also enjoy other activities, including a visit to its Aurora Ice Museum, the world’s largest year-round ice environment, as well as join dog-sledding tours or flight-seeing excursions
Talkeetna sits in the shadows of Mount Denali. This small town founded at the height of a gold rush now draws visitors in the summer for its fabulous fishing on three rivers that converge here, as well as kayaking and four-wheeling. During the winter months, it’s a popular spot for snowmobiling, dog sledding, and nordic skiing. Walk around town and you can enjoy the historic buildings that stand to a testament to local craftsmanship, having endured a century of Alaskan weather. Today, they’re filled quaint shops, local breweries, restaurants and more.
Sitka, located on Baranof Island, on the southern tail of Alaska, can only be reached by air or sea, which makes getting there an adventure of itself. It’s the only Inside Passage community that fronts the Pacific Ocean, hugging the west shore of the island in the shadow of the impressive Mount Edgecumbe, a dormant volcano with a cone reminiscent of Mount Fuji in Japan. There are 22 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places right downtown, along with plenty of restaurants, unique local shops, and art galleries.
Thanks to its incredible natural landscape, visitors can enjoy kayaking, fishing, whale watching and hiking on trails that begin in the lush rain forest that surrounds Sitka, with many ending high in the surrounding mountains.
Once the gateway to the Klondike Gold Rush, Skagway was filled with treasure seekers out to make their millions back in the day. Today, It offers the chance to experience days gone by on the Alaskan frontier. If you want to delve into its history, taking a self-guided walking tour narrated by a Skagway local, Buckwheat Donahue, well-known for being a captivating storyteller, entertainer, historian, and adventurer, is the best way to do it.
Misty Fjords National Monument
Be sure to check out the old cemetery which holds remains of outlaws, gold miners, and local legends, and pops into one of the honky-tonk piano bars for a drink. Of course, you can enjoy plenty of outdoor adventures too. Hardcore enthusiasts can hike the Chilkoot Pass Trail, the only long trail traverse in Southeast Alaska, crossing through the Coastal Mountains from Skagway to Canada, while others can enjoy flight-seeing, kayaking, rafting, dog-sledding and more.
The Misty Fjords National Monument is located 22 miles east of Ketchikan and is the largest wilderness area in the state’s national forests, with its 2.3 million acres spread across the Tongass National Forest. It’s filled with rock walls that rise 3,000 feet from the ocean, steep fjords, and sea cliffs. Living up to its name, there is almost always precipitation in the area, which means the monument is covered with dense rain forests that grow on practically vertical slopes from sea level to the mountain peaks, while dramatic waterfalls can be seen tumbling throughout the landscape.
The best way to explore the region’s fjords is by kayak, although sightseeing flights and boat excursions are available too. However you choose to see it, you’ll have the chance to view some of the area’s wildlife, from killer whales and Dall porpoise in the water to black bear, moose, marten, wolf and mountain goats on land.
Just 190 miles from the Siberian coast, Nome is most famous as the end of the Iditarod Trail. But it’s also home to active gold mines and wonderful backcountry roads across the tundra. It’s a fabulous place that blends the state’s gold rush history with Inupiat Eskimo culture and lots of unique wildlife.
While it can only be reached by air or sea, once you’re there you’ll be able to get out on the 350 miles of roads that connect to other Seward Peninsula communities, viewing coastal plains and majestic mountains along the way. Artifacts from the gold rush can be seen at nearly every turn, from old mining claims to decaying trestles and even turn-of-the-century steam engines. Some of its resident wildlife to be on the lookout for include reindeer and musk oxen that tend to graze right off the side of the road. Moose, bears, wolves, fox, and wolverine roam the area too.
The small village of Yakutat which sits on beautiful Monti Bay is a popular destination for steelhead and salmon fishermen, but surprisingly, it offers a whole lot more than that, including incredible beaches with big-wave surfing and towering glaciers. In fact, this remote town made a name for itself in the late 1990s as the first Alaska town with a surf shop. If you’re into beachcombing, you’ll love the miles of unspoiled, sandy beaches abound with driftwood and occasional glass balls.
There are some gorgeous hiking trails in and around the village, including a challenging trek to Situk Lake and an easy hike to Russell Fjord. Like many other Alaska destinations, the area is teeming with wildlife, including brown bears, eagles, and moose on land, while humpback, gray, orca, beluga, and minke whales can be spotted on Yakutat Bay as well as harbor porpoises, harbor seals and sea otters.