If you’ve always dreamed of exploring the wilds of Alaska, now is your chance! There are so many amazing things to do and see in The Last Frontier that it can be overwhelming trying to decide how best to spend your time. But fear not – here we present five must-sees while visiting Alaska that will give you an unforgettable experience and leave you longing for more. From witnessing stunning landscapes and spectacular views of glaciers to seeing wildlife up close, these activities guarantee a unique trip unparalleled by any other. So drop what you’re doing and let’s explore the wonders of this magnificent state together!
Explore the Wildlife of Denali National Park
Nestled in the heart of Alaska, Denali National Park and Preserve is a true treasure trove of untamed wilderness. Admired by nature enthusiasts from around the world, the sprawling park covers over six million acres, home to diverse ecosystems and wildlife that make the journey worthwhile. Known as “the big five” moose, caribou, Dall sheep, and wolves are among the creatures that roam free in Denali. These magnificent animals, living in their natural habitat, offer visitors an opportunity to witness the beauty and strength of Alaska’s wildlife up close.
You’ll often spot moose around the visitor center. If you’re up for a short hike, Horseshoe Lake is a prime viewing spot for moose since they love the water. It’s a short walk of 2 – 4 miles depending on where you start.
A great way to spot some of the other wildlife is by taking the bus tour, known as the Tundra Wilderness Tour. It is a 6-hour narrated bus ride that stops at all wildlife sightings. On our trip, we saw three grizzlies, a large group of Dall sheep, and countless caribou and ptarmigans (Alaska state bird).
The first view of Denali Mountain is also on the bus route at mile 9. It is important to note that due to the location of the Alaskan mountain range, Denali is often shrouded in clouds. In fact, only about 30% of visitors ever see it!
Most people visit the park Denali during their summer season (late May to mid-September) when the buses operate and the lodges are open. We stayed at the Denali Bluffs hotel and loved it! The view from our room was fantastic, the staff was wonderful, and the food was terrific as well. I also hiked by the campground nearest to the visitor’s center and it looked great.
See Brown (Grizzly) Bears Up Close and Personal
A trip to Alaska would be incomplete without a close encounter with one of North America’s most iconic creatures, the brown bear or grizzly, at one of two National Parks: Lake Clark or Katmai.
Fun fact: Grizzly and brown are just the common names for the same species, Ursus arctos. Instead, geographic location is what they use to define them here as it affects diet, size, and behavior. Alaskan brown bears live in coastal areas of Alaska and the smaller grizzly bears with limited or no access to marine-derived food sources live inland.
Lake Clark is a great option the entire summer and Katmai is best in July and September when the salmon are running in the steams. Neither park is accessible by motor vehicle, but there are other options such as small plane tours and water taxis.
On our trip, we chose to take a flight-seeing tour to Lake Clark National Park. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to witness the coastal brown bears in their natural habitat. We were able to see the bears from the plane and then landed right on the beach. I was surprised by how close you can safely get. As you explore the park, you’ll be surrounded by breathtaking views of mountains, glaciers, and lakes that make the perfect backdrop for your bear-watching adventure. Our tour operator was Alaska Air Service and we highly recommend them! Jordan, our pilot and tour guide, was wonderful. He even flew us to another area away from the bears for a wonderful picnic lunch.
Katmai National Park is home to one of North America’s largest concentrations of brown bears. These majestic creatures can weigh up to 1,500 pounds and can be viewed fishing for salmon in the streams, playing with their cubs, or simply lounging in the sun. The best time to see these amazing sights is July and September. To get there from Anchorage, you can drive to Homer and take a tour from Sasquatch Alaska Adventures. You can also fly Alaska Air to King Salmon, AK, and take a boat taxi to Brooks Camp.
Float Among Glaciers at Kenai Fjords National Park
Experience the beauty of nature like never before with a boat tour in Kenai Fjords National Park. The tours leave from Seward and make their way through the bay towards tidal glaciers that tower above the water. Driving is one way of several ways to get from Anchorage to Seward. On the roughly 2.5-hour trip out, you’ll be awe-struck by the stunning landscapes around you as you make your way past remote Alaskan islands and through waters inhabited by whales, sea lions, sea otters, and more. Once you reach the glacier, the boat will stop for about 30 minutes to really take it in. You’ll witness the awe-inspiring sight of glacier calving, where large chunks of ice break off the glaciers and crash into the sea below. the floating pieces of ice soon become rafts for harbor seals. Then you’ll be treated to another 2.5-hour boat ride back to Seward where you’ll experience more of nature’s beauty, as well as bald eagles and puffins. This is a truly unforgettable experience that should not be missed. Our tour was with the Alaska Collection and we thought they did a wonderful job! The staff was friendly and professional. The boat’s captain stopped to let us view wildlife and pointed out items of interest.
Once you’ve made it back to the dock, if you’re ready for some exercise, you can head out to Exit Glacier. This is the one glacier easily accessible on foot. You can take the short trek to the main viewing area or opt for a longer hike on the Harding Ice Field.
Explore Chugach National Forest on Foot
America’s northernmost national forest stretches across south-central Alaska. It covers an area about the size of New Hampshire and stretches from the snow-covered peaks of Prince William Sound to the beautiful streams of the Kenai Peninsula.
One of the best ways to experience this area is on a hike or nature trail. Lace up your hiking boots and tackle the Portage Pass Trail, a 4.5-mile trek that offers views of glaciers and towering mountain peaks. Another fantastic option is the Winner Creek Trail, where you can cross a hand tram over a rushing river and view lush greenery as far as the eye can see. Finally, be sure to take time to enjoy the short 1/2 mile Virgin Creek Falls Trail to a stunning waterfall.
A quick note on bear spray: The TSA prohibits it on planes (in carry-on and checked baggage), so if you are flying you will have to purchase it in Alaska.
Pan for Gold at a Historic Site
If you’re looking for an adventure that combines the beauty of nature with a hint of history, then head to the Crow Creek Mine, where you can pan for gold just like the prospectors of the past. After a panning tutorial (with some guaranteed gold for each paying customer), you can make your way down to the creek and choose a spot. They provide all the gear, you only need to bring your sense of wonder. You can also opt for a 3-hour tour of the mine. In addition to panning demonstrations, you’ll learn more about the life of prospectors in the past.
A Note on the Northern Lights
We’ve been asked many times if we saw the northern lights, so I thought I’d add a note here. The best time to see them in Alaska is between late August and April when there is both a high likelihood of clear skies and enough darkness to fully appreciate the vivid display. Unfortunately, that timing was not compatible with all the other activities we wanted to do on this trip (especially for bear viewing), so we had to prioritize.
We definitely plan to return. I see imagine us standing on a snow-covered field with our gaze fixed on the starry night sky. Suddenly, a breathtaking display of vibrant colors begins to dance before our eyes– it’s the Aurora Borealis, otherwise known as the Northern Lights. This awe-inspiring phenomenon can only be witnessed in a handful of places around the world, but Fairbanks is widely regarded as the best location to experience it. And Fairbanks also provides the best access to two additional national parks: Gates of the Arctic and Kobuck Valley.
If you’re going to be there at the right time, you can join a tour from town that will take you to the best viewing spots allowing you to experience the display from a heated cabin. A more deluxe option is booking a stay in a remote lodge far from city light pollution. These stays typically include wake-up service when the Aurora is active, dog sledding, hot springs, and more!
How to Get To Alaska
You can create the opportunity to see these sights regardless of how you make your way to Alaska: air, cruise ship, or road trip.
The simplest mode of transportation to Alaska from just about any destination is by plane. Major carriers like Air Canada, Alaska Airlines, American, British Airways, Delta, and United all fly into the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport.
Another very common way to get to Alaska is on a cruise ship. Many of them offer land packages so that you can explore the incredible sites we’ll share with you here. In addition, one-way cruises are also popular. That means you can cruise to Alaska and fly home or vice versa.
Finally, driving to Alaska can be part of an epic road trip. Obviously, it is a very long drive from the lower 48 of the United States, as well as much of Canada. That makes this an especially popular option for RV travelers who have time to stay and explore. If you are electing to drive, don’t forget to get a copy of The Milepost, a guide to all of the accommodations, camping, gas stops, restaurants, and services found along the highways and byways of Alaska and western Canada.
How to Get Around Alaska
If you didn’t drive to Alaska, you might be wondering how you’ll get around. Again, there are many options. We recommend renting a car for at least part of your trip as it will give you more flexibility. We rented our car through National and were very happy with it. The Alaska Railroad travels over miles between Fairbanks and Seward with numerous stops in between, including Anchorage. They offer many tour packages as well. For many of the national parks, you have to take a boat or plane tour for those that aren’t accessible by land.
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