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Best Things to do in Alaska by Alaskans
Posted On December 23, 2019
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I am so excited to share this post about the BEST things to do in Alaska because all these ideas are from Alaskans! These are rounded up from lots of friends in different parts of Alaska as well as my own favorites. These are all places loved by locals and also accessible by visitors. There are no affiliate links or sponsorships associated with this post, just recommendations from Alaskans! If you’re planning a trip to Alaska, I also recommend reading my post about traveling to Alaska on a budget, what to pack and what to eat! And check out this post for five different Alaska itineraries to put all these highlights together into one incredible trip!
The city of Anchorage is often a hub for visitors to Alaska. The largest airport, most flights and (generally) the least expensive airfare are here. It is also a hub for Alaskans. Here are a few highly recommended activities for your time in Anchorage.
Alaska Native Heritage Center is dedicated to preserving and strengthening Alaska native culture. It also provides an opportunity for visitors to learn. Open mid May through mid September, you can visit as well as take a tour of the village sites. Each site honoring and teaching the traditions of a different group of Alaska Natives.
Anchorage Museum is all about the culture and unique environment of Alaska and the north and is open year round.
Walk or bike the Coastal Trail starting in downtown Anchorage. The trail goes 11 miles along the coast and is mostly paved and mostly flat. You can also rent bikes near the start of the trail downtown which is a fun and faster way to experience more miles.
Earthquake Park is located along the Coastal Trail and this unique part of it is worth a visit all by itself. The park sits on an area that was devastated during the 1964 Good Friday earthquake, the largest earthquake ever recorded in North America.
Potter Marsh is a wildlife refuge on the outskirts of Anchorage with a half mile boardwalk. This is an excellent place to see birds from April through September and moose year round.
Hike the Flat Top Trail, said to be Alaska’s most climbed mountain! Gorgeous views are along the whole steep trail. At 3 miles round trip and 1500 feet of elevation gain, this trail is challenging! The views in all directions are well worth it for those up for a challenge. You can even take a shuttle there if you’re in town without access to a car!
Best Day trips from Anchorage
Hatcher Pass is just over an hour away from Anchorage to the north. Locals say this is the most accessible place to get in the wilderness close to town. It’s a year round destination, with beautiful wildflowers in summer and snowy recreation in the winter. If you’d like to do some hiking, try out the Gold Cord Lake Trail. There’s amazing scenery and a lake after just 1.5 miles and 500 feet of elevation gain.
The small town of Girdwood is less than an hour from Anchorage and location of Alaska’s best ski area. Year round you can ride the gondola to check out the view. The drive here is incredible all by itself. Turnagain arm has breathtaking mountain views and often a breathtaking bore tide in the water. A unique hiking option is the Winner Creek Trail, starting behind the Hotel Alyeska. The first three miles are mellow and wide, climbing gently through the rainforest to Winner creek gorge. You can use the hand tram to pull yourself across the creek. Turning around here is a six mile adventure, though the trail does continue up further for those wanting to get more miles in.
Portage Glacier is about 45 minutes beyond Girdwood, continuing along the incredibly scenic Seward Highway. Portage Glacier is retreating rapidly and you can no longer see it from the visitor center, although there is a boat tour across the lake to get to it. There are numerous other hikes in the Portage Valley. The best hike in the area is Portage Pass. To access Portage Pass, you’ll head to the very small town of Whittier which involves going through the unusual Whittier Tunnel. Once through the tunnel, make an immediate right and go a short distance up a dirt road to the trailhead. This trail is one mile to the pass with 750 feet of elevation gain. At the pass, spectacular views await. The view is of Prince William Sound back towards Whittier, Portage Glacier and lake ahead of you, and lots of mountains all around. There are blueberries in season here too! This is a great turnaround spot, though the trail continues another two miles down to the edge of the lake.
Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center near Portage is a great place to learn about and visit the amazing animals of Alaska. It’s a sanctuary as well as a research facility and a place for visitors and Alaskans to learn about Alaska’s wildlife.
Whittier 26 Glacier Cruise: This spectacular day trip on Prince William Sound features glaciers, wildlife and is one of the best tours in Alaska. It’s expensive at $159 per person but if you’re visiting Alaska I say this is a must do! This really needs its own day even though it’s really close to Portage and Girdwood.
Best Things to do in Denali National Park
Denali National Park is an icon on the must see list for many visitors! An important thing to know about Denali is that you cannot drive into the park beyond the first few miles. The vastness of the park and the logistics of the park shuttle bus make it a good idea to start any visit at the Visitor Center at Park Headquarters. You can ride the Alaska Railroad to Denali from Anchorage or Fairbanks if you are looking for an alternative to renting a car. Denali is only accessible mid-May through mid-September.
Take the Transit bus into the park. There are tour bus options and transit bus options. The transit bus is cheaper and you can get on and off as much as you like for unlimited exploring! Check with the rangers before departing to get suggestions for good places to hike along the way. Denali’s park road has incredible scenery and lots of opportunity to see wildlife including bears and moose. It’s is a school bus but you can catch a ride back on the next bus whenever you’re feeling done with it. The tour bus provides more comfort, but no flexibility to explore on your own or to turn around when you wish. Read all about your bus options here.
Visit the Sled dog kennels and see a demonstration near park headquarters (shuttle buses run to the kennels before each demonstration). Denali is unique in the national park service with working sled dogs that help rangers do their work in the winter months. In the summer they spend their days looking adorable and teaching visitors about Alaskan sled dogs. The demonstrations are free.
Mt Healy Overlook Trail is a good hike if you want an amazing view of Denali National Park without riding the bus, or for the day before or after your bus ride. Accessed from the visitor center, the trail is 6 miles round trip with 1700 feet of elevation gain and spectacular views!
University of Alaska Fairbanks Museum of the North and Musk Ox Farm; both on the UAF campus. The museum is all about the archaeology and natural history of Alaska. At the Musk Ox Farm you can learn all about the adaptations of arctic animals and see the lovalbe Musk Oxen up close.
Chena Hot Springs and the Ice Museum are both part of the Chena Hot Springs Resort. If you only do one thing in Fairbanks, make it this! It’s a developed hot springs with trails and the unique Ice Museum. The ice museum is kept cold all summer so any day of the year you can see amazing lighted ice sculptures and even enjoy a drink at the bar in an ice martini glass! You can stay overnight or make it a day trip. Either way this is a very unique experience.
Hike the Angel Rocks Trail on the way to Chena Hot Springs. This 3.5 mile loop with 1500 feet of elevation gain has amazing views and for even more amazing views you can do a one way hike from the Angel Rocks Trail to Chena Hot Springs, which is 8.5 miles. Best hike in the Fairbanks area!
Gold Dredge 8 is the place to try your hand at gold panning, which is really fun! You can also learn all about gold mining in Alaska. Also they have the MOST AMAZING COOKIES that you can smell in the oven when you arrive.
Creamer’s Field is a historic dairy turned wildlife refuge. This is a good place to see migratory birds and is also a beautiful place to walk around any time of year.
See the Northern Lights! You can only do this from late August through early April (the rest of the year it’s not dark enough). During the months that it gets dark at night, Fairbanks is one of the best places in the world to view the northern lights. Hotels will give wake up calls if the lights are out, and you can check the forecast for the northern lights here.
Best Things to do on the Kenai Peninsula
The charming town of Seward has fun shops and restaurants and is a good place to go kayaking. Don’t miss the Alaska Sea Life Center, and aquarium featuring the sea animals of Alaska
Exit Glacier and the Harding Icefield Trail in Kenai Fjords National Park: This spectacular and strenous 9 mile hike with 3500 feet of elevation gain is a favorite of Alaskans! If that sounds like too much, you can keep it mellow with a 20 minute walk to Exit Glacier from the visitor center instead. The visitor center is a 15 minute drive from the town of Seward.
The town of Homer and the Homer spit: The bustling harbor and shops on the spit and of course the Salty Dawg saloon in it’s funky building. Try tidepooling on Bishop’s Beach. Homer is another place that’s good for kayaking. You can even take a water taxi across the bay for a remote camping or kayaking experience. There are even state owned yurts you can rent! The Pier One Theater is highly recommended for community theater shows throughout the summer season.
Captain Cook State Recreation Area is just north of Soldotna along the Cook Inlet. You can camp here, see amazing views of the volcanoes across the Cook Inlet, play on the beach and walk in the forest.
Halibut Fishing charter: If you enjoy fishing then try halibut fishing during your visit to Alaska! It’s challenging and fun and you can get your fish packaged, frozen and even shipped home. The Kenai Peninsula is a good place to do a halibut charter. Read the reviews for different charter companies and ask them about how much time you’ll spend on the water before being able to fish (this varies a lot from port to port).
Boyd Shaffer Nature trail along the Kenai River in the town of Soldotna. Find the trail behind the campus of Kenai Peninsula College
Best Things to do in Southeast Alaska
Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau is a beautiful and alarming place to visit with climate change being in your face. Hike the flat, 2 mile Nugget Falls trail (which was built in 2010 following the glacier receding) to a stunning waterfall.
Mt Roberts features the Mt Roberts tramway which is totally worth it when you can see the view. If you want to save $35, hike instead! Whichever way you go, there is additional hiking in the meadows above the tram and amazing views of Juneau, the water and surrounding mountains.
Saxman village near Ketchikan is a collection of 25 totem poles and a clan house that you can tour and experience Tlingit dancing.
Glacier Bay National Park is a remote and amazing place to experience Alaska’s wilderness! Especially recommended is the Day Boat tour up to the head of the bay and Margerie Glacier. It’s an expensive tour ($240) but it is worth the splurge for the glaciers and wildlife. This is an excellent wildlife viewing destination and another opportunity to learn about climate change. Read all about planning your trip to Glacier Bay here.
White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad: wonderful tour in Skagway filled with both history and incredible scenery. Another benefit of this tour is is takes you into the interior, which makes it unique in tours available in Southeast Alaska
Alaska Ferry (Alaska Marine Highway System) is an incredible experience but is different from what many people are expecting. Read this post which will tell you everything about riding the Alaska ferry! The post is focused on a multi day trip, but all the information about life on board is the same. There are plenty of shorter trips (between Juneau and Haines, for example).
Hi! I'm Jennie. I’m a fourth generation Seattleite who lived in Alaska for 7 years. I've been a tour guide in both Alaska and Washington and I love to share the places I love with visitors, newcomers and my fellow locals. I’m so glad to have you along on the journey to experience your best low key adventure in Washington, Alaska and Western Canada!