Alaska is a vast and rugged land, home to 17 of America’s highest peaks, with thousands of rivers (including the Yukon River), more than 3 million lakes, and more active ice fields and glaciers than anywhere else in the world. Travelers venture to The Last Frontier to see wildlife, set foot in eight different national parks, gaze up at star-filled skies, marvel at the aurora borealis, learn about local cultural groups and native history, and experience adventure-filled activities like dog mushing, hiking, flightseeing, and kayaking. Keep reading to discover the top 15 destinations in the U.S.’s 49th state.
Aurora Borealis in Fairbanks
Dark skies, deep in an Alaskan winter, can last 16-18 hours per day, which is conducive to seeing dancing bars of light caused by electrically charged particles from the sun that strike the gases in our atmosphere. See the Aurora Borealis, on a clear night, in Fairbanks and brace for the cold temperatures, which can drop to well below freezing. The northern light-viewing season is between mid-September and late April, with March being the peak, though there are no guarantees. A good resource for Aurora hunters is the Space Weather Prediction Center.
Near Juneau, the state capital, Mendenhall Glacier is one of the most remarkable sights to see in Alaska. This 13-mile long glacier ends at Mendenhall lake and is easily seen from the Mendenhall Visitor Center. Bring your camera and take the short walk down Photo Point Trail, continue on to Nugget Falls, and hike the Trail of Time. You can also see the glacier from a kayak or on a canoe tour.
The Alaska Highway
The scenery on the Alaska Highway, also known as Alaska-Canadian Highway, is something straight out of Jon Krakauer’s "Into the Wild." From Dawson Creek in British Columbia, through the Yukon Territory, to Delta Junction, this stretch of road was built during WWII to connect the lower 48 states to Alaska via Canada and is now a favorite experience for road trippers.
The southern tip of the Inside Passage is the ideal location for views of Deer Mountain and Tongass Narrows, where you’ll hear float planes, fishing boats, ferries, and barges. On Tongass Avenue, you’ll see pastel-colored homes built on stilts, hanging over the water. Wander along Creek Street, a boardwalk in Ketchikan, for shopping and to take photographs of historic buildings. Day fishing trips, flight tours, kayaking, and hiking are all fun to do as well.
Prince William Sound
Prince William Sound is an inlet of the Gulf of Alaska. You'll be able to see towering tidewater glaciers as you venture into Blackstone Bay, home to Blackstone and Beloit Glaciers, which reach 200 feet high. Cruise into Harriman Fjord to get a look at Surprise Glacier and listen as chunks of ice fall—or calve—into the water, making a loud booming sound. Waterfalls, bird rookeries, rafts of sea otters, and floating harbor seals all can be spotted.
Denali National Park
Formerly known as Mount McKinley, Denali is the highest peak in North America, stretching 20,310 feet above sea level to the summit. Visit Denali National Park, in the northern Alaskan Range, to get a peek at this wonder as you travel down the only road in the park. You’ll likely see moose drinking water out of braided rivers, grizzly bears wandering the tundra, and Dall sheep clinging to hilltops dotted with spruce trees. Pursuit, an experiential tour company, can arrange for a custom tour of Alaska’s interior as well as Denali National Park.
Anchorage is the state's largest city, housing 236,000 people and as such, there's an abundance of things to do. One highlight is the Anchorage Museum, which tells the tales of Alaska’s native peoples. See a Tlingit war helmet, an Iñupiaq feast bowl, and artifacts from the Yup’ik and Cup’ik Eskimo peoples. Or take some time to learn about Inuit tattooing, a practice that is still done today, by women for women, to signify cultural belonging and a rite of passage. You can also see art created by Alaskan artists, thousands of photographs, and explore space at the Thomas Planetarium.
The Alaska Railroad
A delightful way to see Alaska is via train and the Alaska Railroad has five great routes for varying interests: Coastal Classic, Glacier Discovery, Denali Star, Hurricane Turn, and Aurora Winter. The main line travels 470 miles from Seward to Fairbanks, linking several communities along the way. Take the option for GoldStar Service for an upper-level seat under a large glass-domed ceiling, access to a full-service dining car, and an Alaskan tour guide who will narrate throughout the trip.
Talkeetna is small but entirely indelible. Taste fireweed ice cream; learn about Stubbs, the cat that had mayoral duties; take a flightseeing tour; go on a guided river rafting trip; visit the art galleries; or shop around the town for Alaskan goods. There are a number of year-round events to take part in as well like the Talkeetna Winterfest, Talkeetna Bluegrass Festival, and Talkeetna Trio. Beer lovers should pop in the brewery taproom to sample one of 20 Denali Brewing Co. brews on tap.
Massive glaciers carved out the Inside Passage millions of years ago, which is now home to bald eagle habitats, sea lions, dolphins, and migrating whales. You’ll see Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian totem poles, domed Russian churches, and large forests. The area is marked by three distinct sub-locations: the Northern Region, where Haines, Juneau, Sitka, and Skagway are located; Glacier Bay Area, home to Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve; and the Southern Region, where Tongass National Forest and Totem Bight State Historical Park sit.
Katmai National Park and Preserve
Located in the northern Alaska Peninsula, Katmai National Park and Preserve isn’t easy to get to—you must arrive by plane or boat—but it is definitely worth it. Especially if you want to increase your chances of seeing a grizzly bear in the wild. In the park, there are three viewing platforms, located in Brooks Camp, on the south side of Brooks River. Around 2,200 brown bears inhabit the park, which means that there are more bears on the Alaska Peninsula than there are people.
Tracy Arm Fjord
Forty-five miles south of Juneau sits the 27-mile-long Tracy Arm Fjord, a narrow waterway surrounded by craggy cliffs. Part of the Tongass National Forest, this icy natural wonder is worth venturing out to see. Bring binoculars and look for bears, eagles, and whales on a full-day boat tour.
Seward and the Kenai Peninsula
The small town of Seward is the gateway to Kenai Fjords National Park, Mount Marathon, Resurrection Bay, and Bear Glacier. Visit Alaska SeaLife Center to learn about marine mammal rehabilitation, take photos of the Seward boat harbor, and visit Miller’s Landing for wildlife viewing. The Seward Community Library and Museum is worth visiting to learn about the town’s history and culture.
Wooden sidewalks lead to old saloons and historic buildings in Skagway, making it feel like you’ve been transported back in time to the Klondike gold rush. Tourists descend on the town via cruise ships in the summer making it the most crowded time of year. You can take a history tour of the Skagway historic district, hike on one of the many trails that lead to lakes and waterfalls, see Davidson Glacier, wander through the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park, and visit Skagway Museum and Archives.
The Iditarod Race in Nome
Downtown Anchorage is the start of the Iditarod on the first Saturday of March, with festivities lasting for a week prior to the race, including the Fur Rendevous. Many viewers, who come into town to see the action, also decide to tour other remote checkpoints along the 1,000-mile route. The race ends in Nome, and it’s a sight to see the mushers fly across the finish line. Visit a kennel before the race and try out dog sledding for yourself, indulge in a flightseeing adventure during the race, or volunteer to help with the dogs. You can also watch the results via a live stream.