I lived in Alaska for nine years and would go back in a heartbeat if circumstances worked out. If you have never been to Alaska, I recommend putting it on your list. And think beyond just an Inland Passage ferry. There is so much more to see!
- Anchorage is a natural stop. It is the main airport hub and the largest city (although not the capital). Anchorage is a wonderful city that has all of the benefits of a city and all of the charm of a small town. However, there is not a lot to see and do here so don’t plan on spending a lot of time here. It is a great jumping off point when arriving and departing. But if spending some time here, some recommendations include:
- Walk around downtown and visit ship creek to watch the combat fishing (be careful of the tides and mudflats). If it is summer visit the Saturday market.
- Hike Flat Top Mountain for views of the city and to start exploring the wild.
- Visit the Zoo. Now the zoo is very small but it is charming and is mostly used as a refuge for local animals.
- The Earthquake museum. Alaska was hit by one of the largest Earthquakes in history in 1964. Stop by this museum to learn more about the event and its legacy.
- Alaska Native Heritage Center to learn about the indigenous native culture of Alaska.
- Eat! Anchorage has an amazing selection of independent restaurants! Some of my favorites are the Brew House, Snow Goose, Moose’s Tooth and Humpy’s.
- Head South! Hop in a car (or the train) and head south to Seward and Homer. This drive south from Anchorage makes almost every short list of the world’s most scenic drives.
- On your way South, if in a car, stop at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center (formerly known as Big Game Alaska). This is one of my favorite spots in the entire state. Not only do they do amazing work helping animals, you have the opportunity to see Alaskan wildlife up close and personal.
- Gold Panning at Crow Creek Mine. It is a little cheesy and touristy but let’s face it, you don’t want to go gold panning the old fashion way. This is a fun stop, especially if you have kids and want to have fun on the drive down to Seward.
- If you have time, Girdwood is gorgeous and can be its own destination. It is a resort town with a fabulous hotel and an amazing view. It is a wonderful spot for outdoor activities like hiking, biking, fishing, visiting glaciers, kayaking and much much more.
- If you have limited time in Alaska, then head to Seward. It is a 2-3 hr drive from Anchorage and an easy (long) day trip in the summer or a perfect weekend trip. While there, take a wildlife cruise to see whales, seals, porpoise and puffins. Head out to Exit Glacier to see a glacier up close and to see firsthand effects of global warming (they have been measuring the glacier recession with signs).
- Homer Alaska is about a five hour trip from both Anchorage and Seward. It is a wonderful small down at the end of the world that goes right out to the sand spit where you can catch the “Danny J” boat to see Kachemak Bay and Halibut Cove or a charter for some of the world’s best halibut fishing. Homer is also a wonderful spot to see eagles up close.
- Go North!
- Talkeetna is one of my favorite small towns. Talkeetna is also the perfect spot to catch a flightseeing trip over the Alaskan wilderness and to see Mount Denali up close.
- After Seward, Denali is my #2 recommendation for Alaska. You can do it in a really really long summer day trip (I have done it) but you really want 2-3 days. It is a 6 hr drive from Anchorage to the park. Access to the park is controlled and you will need to take a bus. While I know some folks have not always had as much luck, I have been to Denali at least a dozen times and I have always seen Bears and Moose. You are able to get off the bus at one of the designated stops to go hiking but beware as in the summer the buses are almost always packed and it may be hard to catch another one. For the typical tourist (not a die-hard backcountry hiker or camper) I recommend you just stay on your designated bus and then go hiking later. While in the area, there are opportunities for every outdoor activity imaginable.
- Go Way Way North! If you have time, and your vehicle allows it, I would recommend you continue North from Denali to the Arctic Circle and even Prudhoe Bay. It is another 620 miles from Denali to Prudhoe Bay. Prudhoe Bay also known as Deadhorse, is at the end of the Dalton Highway and as far North as one can drive. On the drive you will follow the Alaskan-pipeline, pass over the Yukon river, through the Arctic Circle, over the mountains, through the tundra and see Dahl Sheep, Bears, Caribou, Moose and maybe even a Musk Ox. Once at Prudhoe Bay you can dip your toe in the Arctic Ocean and tour the oil fields before returning home (you don’t need a lot of time once there but I guarantee it is an experience you will never forget).
- Other Ideas. There are dozens of other fun and life changing trips in Alaska and it is impossible to list them all here. But I were to include two additional favorites it would be a trip to Barrow and a trip specifically for Bear viewing. If you don’t have a vehicle to drive to Prudhoe Bay, you can fly to Barrow. You can do this through an organized tour or on your own. Barrow is the 11th most Northern community in the world and the most northern in the United States. In addition to getting a feel for an Alaskan community that balances its native culture and the twenty-first century, and dipping your toe (or entire body) in the Arctic Ocean, you can take a tour to go see Polar Bears! Speaking of bears, further south you can catch a flight to Katmai, Kodiak or a couple of other places to view Brown Bears. This is phenomenal and I never tire of watching them up close in their natural habitat.
Travel Tips: Summer is obviously the best time to visit Alaska. The weather is beautiful and the days are long. (The flip side is you have to constantly endure the State Bird the mosquito and deal with the crowds). I recommend trying to visit in May or September. You can avoid some of the crowds and insects while still experiencing decent weather and have access to the wilderness. However, if you have the opportunity to travel during winter, don’t dismiss it out of hand. Alaskan embrace winter and the cold. You would be amazed at how life goes on and how they even celebrate the season with festivals like Fur Rondy and the Iditarod.
Timing: If you are limited to 2-3 days, then head straight to Seward with some of the stops mentioned along the way. If you have a week, then combine Seward with Denali. If you have longer than a week, then consider some of the other must see stops I mentioned above.
Books: Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer is the account of a young man who hitchhiked into the Alaskan Wilderness (spoiler alert – he dies). One Man’s Wilderness by Sam Keith recounts Richard Proenneke’s story of building a cabin and surviving in the Alaskan wilderness. Tisha by Robert Specht is the story of Anne Hobbs a school teacher who came to Alaska in the 1920s. Sleeping Lady by Ann Dixon is a short children’s story that tells the folk story of Mount Susitna which can be seen from Anchorage. Mama Do You Love Me? Is a fun kid’s book by the famous Alaskan author Barbara M. Joosse.