Whether you visit Alaska by land or by sea, you can see all sorts of fascinating sights even before you arrive in the state. Once you're in Alaska, though, you'll find plenty of things to do for all ages and interests, from taking a cruise to see glaciers and whales to hiking through the pristine wilderness of the state's many parks and nature preserves. While you may want to arrive in a city like Anchorage, Juneau, or Fairbanks, don't miss the chance to explore more remote locations like Whittier, Talkeetna, or Sitka to explore more of the culture of this remarkable state.
The highest peak in North America is the top of Denali, which towers over the national park of the same name at 20,310 feet. Previously known as Mount McKinley to many Americans, Alaskans have always referred to this great peak by its native name which means "tall" or "high." In 2015, the federal government under President Obama officially changed the name back to Denali. It's a great sight to see on its own, but you can also take a bus tour of the park to see wildlife like grizzly bears, moose, caribou, Dall sheep, and wolves. Meanwhile, the varied colors of the park's lakes and rivers, geologic formations, and tundra landscape provide a gorgeous backdrop to your journey.
Before your adventure, spend some time at the Denali Visitor Center, located at the park's northeast entrance, to learn about the seasons and the natural history of Denali and to get information about available park tours, activities, and recreation opportunities.
To see the marine life of Alaska, take a day cruise through Kenai Fjords National Park near the small town of Seward, just 120 miles from Anchorage on Alaska's south-central coast. Established in 1980, Kenai Fjords National Park covers approximately 670,000 acres and is home to a variety of wildlife, including otters, puffins, harbor seals, bald eagles, sea stars, orcas, Minke whales, and Dall's porpoises. The park is also home to one of the largest ice fields in the United States, Harding Icefield, and a plethora of stunning mountain scenery as well as hanging and tidewater glaciers.
Cruises operated by Celebrity Cruises, Holland America Line, and Royal Caribbean all depart from the Seward port almost daily from March through September each year. Day cruises travel through the park via Resurrection Bay and typically last between four and nine hours.
Located on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus, the Museum of the North is a world-class museum stuffed with fascinating exhibits covering Alaska's history, art, and culture. The Gallery of Alaska covers each region of the state, addressing both human and natural history with highlights including mammoths, mastodons, gold, and gold nuggets. Also, the Alaska Classics art gallery features historical paintings while the Rose Berry Alaska Art Gallery upstairs focuses on contemporary Alaskan art. While you're there, don't miss the movies at the Museum of the North's theater, particularly "Arctic Currents: A Year in the Life of the Bowhead Whale," an animated film detailing the migratory patterns of these magnificent aquatic creatures.
The Museum of the North is open Monday through Saturday during the winter season (September 1 through May 31) and daily during the summer (June 1 to August 31) but is closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and New Year's Day.
Sitka National Historical Park, Alaska's oldest national park, is located on the east side of Sitka, a popular port of call for Inside Passage cruises. Dedicated to the preservation of the history of native Tlingit and Russian experiences in Alaska, this historical park commemorates the site of the Battle of 1804 between local Tlingit Indians and Russian colonists. Begin at the park's visitor center, where you'll explore exhibits on historic and modern totem poles, Russian and Native artifacts, and temperate rainforest and beaches, but make sure to stick around for ranger-guided tours through history. Follow that with a walking tour of the Russian Bishop's House and a hike along the Totem Trail.
Sitka National Park is open daily throughout the year from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., but the Visitor's Center is only open from May through September. Additionally, tours are only available to the general public from May through September and by appointment only during the "winter" season from October through April.
The 1898 Klondike Gold Rush was a colorful yet somber episode in North American history when thousands came to the west coast hoping to strike it rich mining for gold. With units scattered throughout Alaska, and even one in Seattle, Washington, the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park is dedicated to this period of North American History, and the main visitor's center for this park is located in the town of Skagway, Alaska. The visitor center offers a gripping film covering the terrible hardships and rare triumphs of the men and women who were part of the great rush, with a focus on those who passed through Skagway on their way over the Chilkoot Pass. After checking out the film, exhibits, and bookshop at the visitor center, you can hook up with a ranger-led tour of downtown Skagway and its many historic Gold-Rush-era buildings.
Although limited services are available from October 1 through April 15 in Skagway, the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park is open year-round, offering daily activities Monday through Friday every week. Intrepid travelers can also embark on a snowshoe trek or cross-country ski trip through the park on their own.
The Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center combines several museums in one location, covering Alaska's art, history, ethnography, ecology, and science all at once. Visitors can view contemporary and traditional art, learn about the state's history and native peoples, view amazing presentations at the Thomas Planetarium, and participate in hands-on activities throughout the museum. The Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center, a collection on loan from the Smithsonian, is a particularly fascinating display of artifacts from Native Alaskan and other Arctic cultures. Kids will love the Imaginarium Discovery Center, which moved into the Anchorage Museum in 2010. Anchorage Museum services include a cafe, gift shop, and guided tours.
The Anchorage Museum is open daily from May 1 through September 30 but is closed on Mondays from October 1 through April 30 each year. While free for museum members, admission to the museum ranges in price for Alaskan residents as well as visiting adults, children aged 3 to 12, students, military, and seniors. Additionally, the museum offers free admission on the first Friday of each month.
Located in the capital city of Juneau, the Alaska State Museum is the official museum of history and culture for the state. While particularly well-known for its presentation of Native Alaskan traditions associated with the Aleut, Athabaskan, Eskimo, and Northwest Coast people, the museum also explores early Russian, European, and American settlement as well as gold rush and mining history through its permanent collection. Rebuilt from scratch between 2014 and 2016, the museum building, known as the Father Andrew P. Kashevaroff (APK) Building, also houses the Alaska State Archives and the Alaska State Library.
The Alaska State Museum is open Tuesdays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the fall through spring seasons and open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the summer. Admission is free on the first Friday of every month from 4:30 to 7 p.m.
There are a number of ways to experience Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, which is located off the southern Alaskan coast near Juneau, but the only ways to access it are by plane or boat. Many people visit Glacier Bay as part of an Alaska Inside Passage cruise, and day-long boat tours of the park are also available from Juneau and other southern Alaskan communities near the 3.3-million-acre park. As you make the chill and quiet journey through the fingers and inlets of Glacier Bay, you'll have the chance to see several major tidewater glaciers as well as a variety of wildlife. The area around the town of Gustavus, at the southern end of Glacier Bay National Park, offers most of the amenities for land-based adventure, including the park headquarters, visitor center, accommodations, and a small airport offering 30-minute flights to Juneau.
While Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve is open year-round, services in the winter are extremely limited, and the Visitor's Center and Visitor's Information Station for Boaters and Campers are only open from May through early September. Boat tour and cruise availability also vary by season.
Departing out of Fairbanks, the grand Riverboat Discovery will take you on a scenic tour of the Chena and Tanana Rivers, and along the way, you'll learn about the contemporary and traditional ways of life in Alaska. You'll stop in front of the home and kennels of the late Susan Butcher to find out about the sled dogs, and an Athabaskan fish camp is another stop, where you'll learn about the harvest, preparation, smoking, and storage of salmon. The highlight of the trip is the Chena Indian Village, where you can get off the Riverboat Discovery and explore an Athabaskan village to get an up-close look at the gear, dwellings, and animals that are a part of their culture. The cruise takes about three and a half hours and starts and ends at a large gift shop in the port of Fairbanks.
Riverboat Discovery tours operate from May through September each year with services departing daily at 8:45 a.m. and 2 p.m. Reservations are required to embark on the journey, and spots sometimes fill up during the busy season.
Located just 12 miles outside of Juneau, Mendenhall Glacier fills Mendenhall Valley before terminating into and forming Mendenhall Lake. The Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center overlooks the glacier, providing warm and sheltered views of this natural wonder, and offers exhibits and films about the science and history of glaciation in the region. A number of trails, most of which start near the visitor center, allow you to view the 13-mile length of the glacier as well as the surrounding deglaciated landscape and wildlife.
The Mendenhall Glacier Visitor's Center is open daily from May 1 through September 25, including on holidays, but is only open on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays from October through April. However, the Tongass National Forest, which manages the trails around the glacier itself, is open to visitors year-round.
The small, picturesque city of Valdez on Alaska's southern coast is a great place to enjoy outdoor adventures no matter what time of year you visit. Offering everything from rafting and backcountry hiking to ice climbing and helicopter tours, the surrounding wilderness outside of Valdez also includes several glaciers and waterfalls in Chugach National Forest and the Prince William Sound. While you're in Valdez, explore Keystone Canyon and the Worthington Glacier State Recreation Site or take part in one of the town's famous fishing derbies, which rewards the biggest halibut and silver salmon catches with cash prizes.
Located near British Columbia at the southern tip of Alaska, the city of Ketchikan was built among a series of islands and inlets right along the waterfront of Alaska's Inside Passage. Known for its many Native American totem poles on display throughout the town and in the Totem Heritage Center, the largest display of totem poles in the world, the city of Ketchikan is also close to a variety of outdoor recreation opportunities in Misty Fiords National Monument, a glacier-carved mountain featuring a variety of waterfalls and salmon-spawning streams.
Thanks to its location in northern Alaska, just 150 miles south of the Arctic Circle, Fairbanks is one of the best places in the state to view the Aurora Borealis, also known as the Northern Lights. Tours are available in Fairbanks to viewing areas like Chena Lake or the Murphy Dome, but you can also take a four-wheel-drive into the surrounding countryside to see the lights yourself.
Meanwhile, the remote northern town of Barrow, located 330 miles north of the Arctic Circle, offers a slightly different experience for your trip to see the Aurora Borealis. Home to the native Inupiat culture, which is known for its traditional use of dogsledding, Barrow's views of the Aurora show are unparalleled in the state. However, you'll have to endure negative temperatures almost year-round to see them here.
Found on the central west coast of Alaska on Norton Sound of the Bering Sea, the small city of Nome is best-known as the end for the annual Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, which travels over 1,000 miles from Anchorage to Nome in early March each year. However, the city also boasts a rich history of gold mining thanks to the Klondike Gold Rush and offers a variety of outdoor adventures in the surrounding wilderness year-round, so even if you're not in town for the dogsled race, there's still plenty to do in Nome any time you visit.
Stretching all the way from Delta Junction (near Fairbanks) to Dawson Creek in British Columbia, Canada, the Alaska-Canada Highway, also known as the Alcan Highway, is a great way to see the wilderness of the region up close. However, the Alaska Highway only includes 200 miles of roadway in Alaska; most of the 1,520 miles of highway are located in the Yukon Territory and British Columbia, so you won't get too far unless you have a valid passport or passport card for crossing the border into Canada.
Just outside the city of Anchorage, the Alaska Native Heritage Center provides hands-on educational interaction with music, art, and people of the 11 major cultural groups of Alaska. While you're there, see Alaska Native dancing, singing, storytelling, and game demonstrations at the Gathering Place; explore exhibits and demonstrating Alaska Native artists at the Hall of Cultures, and watch a variety of movies about the different cultural groups at the Theatre.
The highlight of the Heritage Center, though, are the six life-sized Native dwellings located alongside Lake Tiulana in a wooded area outside the center itself, where guests can see the way the Athabascan, Inupiaq/St. Lawrence Island Yupik, Yup’ik/Cup’ik, Aleut, Alutiiq, and the Eyak, Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian people live.
Extending from Seward to Fairbanks, the Alaska Railroad was a vital part of Alaska's history and the development of the city of Anchorage from a small tent town into a major urban hub, and it still serves as a vital transportation option for over 550,000 travelers a year. Popular stops along the route include the Denali National Park, the Chugach National Forest, the city of Anchorage, and a variety of smaller towns and native villages. Alaska Railroad also offers a variety of special event rides throughout the year, including the kid's Halloween Train and backcountry ski packages in the winter.
Owned and operated by independent filmmaker Steve Kroschel, the Kroschel Wildlife Center is a nature preserve 28 miles outside the city of Haines, which is located in the northern part of the Alaska Panhandle. Kroschel and a dedicated staff personally take care of abandoned or orphaned wild animals in the center, allowing these creatures to roam loose on the property in their natural environment. Visitors can wander down 600 yards of curated trails through the center to encounter 15 native Alaskan species including moose, wolves, lynx, grizzly bears, reindeer, owls.
Located on Kodiak Island off the southern coast of Alaska, the Kodiak Fisheries Research Center is a 45,937-square-foot multi-agency laboratory and office building that offers visitors a chance to touch the aquatic life from the Kodiak Island waterways. Featuring a 3,500-gallon touch-tank in its Interpretive Center that houses crabs, shrimp, snails, starfish, and various fish species, the research center allows guests to get a hands-on education about marine life. You can also tour the facility to learn from marine scientists firsthand.
Created from over 1,000 tons of ice and snow, the Aurora Ice Museum is a year-round destination for winter fun that's located inside the Chena Hot Springs Resort in Fairbanks. Take a tour of the museum to see unique ice sculptures, including three entire rooms, carved out of ice, made by world-famous champion carvers Steve and Heather Brice. Tours of the museum are offered every day of the year at 11 a.m., 1 p.m., 3 p.m, 5 p.m., and 7 p.m.
The city of Juneau isn't just the capital of Alaska, it's also one of the best places in the state to embark on a whale-watching tour. Start your journey on a 25-mile bus trip from the Mount Roberts Tram parking lot to the Auke Bay Harbor, and then board a ferry boat that will take you on a three-hour trip around the bay. During your journey, you'll see a variety of wildlife including bald eagles, seals, sea lions, orcas, and, the star of the tour, humpback whales.
Known for its year-round Christmas decorations and the famous Santa Claus House Christmas store, the small Alaskan city of North Pole is located just 14 miles outside of Fairbanks. No matter what time of year you visit, you can get into the holiday spirit at this unique shop, which is home to the world's largest Santa Claus statue and a variety of unique holiday-themed gifts, decorations, and treats.
Established as a military supply post during World War II, the small town of Whittier is a unique destination because most of the city's residents live in just one building: Begich Towers. Located about 60 miles southeast of Anchorage, Whittier is accessible by train or car through the longest tunnel in North America, the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel, which runes 13,000 feet under an entire mountain; however, you can also take a boat into the seaport. Along with visiting the Prince William Sound Museum in town, you can explore the Portage Pass Trail or Emerald Cove Trail outside of town to hike through glaciers and over the pristine landscape of Alaska.
Once home to a thriving copper mine, the town of Kennicott is almost completely deserted, with a population of just a couple dozen people who work at the local lodges, restaurants, and bars that still serve guests year-round. Located in southwestern Alaska's Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, Kennicott is only accessible on foot by taking a four-mile hike along a gravel road. However, there are numerous adventure services available that also take you nearby, including flight-seeing around the Wrangell Mountain Range, rafting and mountaineering treks, and guided historic and wilderness tours.
One of the best ways to see the most of Alaska's wilderness is to take a charter flight aboard a small plane or helicopter. The Talkeetna Air Taxi provides this service on its 10 safe and modern aircraft. Departing from the small town of Talkeetna, which was established during Alaska's Klondike Gold Rush in the late 1890s and offers a number of historic attractions and locally-owned shops, the Air Taxi trip takes visitors on a low-altitude flight over Denali National Park. Halfway through your flight, you'll also land on a glacier, which is usually only accessible via a long and arduous hike up Denali.