8 activities to try on your next visit to Alaska

Mar 29, 2020

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For some people, Alaska is a bucket-list destination. It’s one of those places that’s far enough, expensive enough and exotic enough that most travelers only plan to visit once in a lifetime.

I’d argue that this thinking is one of the mistakes Alaska travelers make – it’s easier to plan a second Alaska trip than you’d think. I can make that argument as I was fortunate to grow up in Alaska, and spent three summers working in the hospitality industry. Little did I know that these experiences would form the foundation of my travel mindset and career as a travel writer.

Whether you’re planning your first trip to Alaska or working to add new experiences for a return-trip itinerary, here are some of the top activities you can plan in Alaska, along with extra advice from my own experience on how and where to enjoy each one.

Cruising

(Photo by Michael Melford/Getty Images)
(Photo by Michael Melford/Getty Images)

The most common activity for most Alaska visitors is cruising. Whether you board a megaship or small ship, there are a number of options to help you either traverse Alaska’s Inside Passage or explore it more deeply. Most cruise routes run between Seattle or Vancouver and Seward or Whittier, and range in length between seven and 14 nights.

I’ve had the chance to take a small ship cruise in Alaska, and have another planned for this year. Although most travelers prefer megaships because they have more amenities and are more affordable, I think a small ship provides a more intimate experience – both on the ship and off-ship when hiking or exploring smaller communities that bigger ships can’t reach.

Flightseeing

(Photo by Joe McBride/Getty Images)
(Photo by Joe McBride/Getty Images)

One of the best ways to see or get around Alaska is by getting above it. In fact, some of Alaska’s national parks and communities are only reachable by plane. In most of the major cities, you can board a small sightseeing plane or helicopter operated by a local pilot who will be your guide for the aerial sights and then land you back on the ground at a location where you can best appreciate them. I always recommend that visitors book at least one flightseeing tour in Alaska, just to get a sense of the huge scale of my home state.

Consider booking a Denali National Park glacier tour for the best view of North America’s tallest mountain, or splurge on a flightseeing day tour to Katmai National Park & Preserve to see grizzly bears.

Dog sledding

(Photo by AJ Fotos/Getty Images)
(Photo by AJ Fotos/Getty Images)

You might imagine flying over the snow, pulled on a sleigh by a team of energetic sled dogs. Dog sledding is actually an activity you can do year-round in Alaska. During the winter months, as you’d expect, you can ride in the traditional dog sled or try your hand at driving the dogs yourself. In the summer, most companies transition to using sleds with wheels or all-terrain vehicles that the dogs can pull instead. Others relocate up mountains or onto glaciers where snow is on the ground all year long.

When booking, research if the dog camp will have puppies when you’re planning to visit. There’s nothing as heart-warming as holding a young sled dog pup.  

Aurora viewing

The Northern Lights near Atigun Pass along the Dalton Highway in Alaska. (Photo by Noppawat Tom Charoensinphon/Getty Images)
The Northern Lights near Atigun Pass along the Dalton Highway in Alaska. (Photo by Noppawat Tom Charoensinphon/Getty Images)

If you’re visiting Alaska in the winter, there’s likely one main reason: to see the aurora borealis, also called the Northern Lights. While the aurora is best viewed from the interior Alaskan city of Fairbanks because of its geography, weather and atmospheric conditions, you can also see the aurora from the region around Anchorage and even as far south as Juneau, Sitka or Ketchikan on rare occasions.

There’s never a guarantee that you can see the aurora, but there are good forecasting tools available. When booking a trip between mid-September and mid-April, plan 3 or 4 nights to try and see the aurora and check the weather and solar activity forecasts before you bundle up to go outside and see the Northern Lights.

Spotting wildlife

(Photo by Johnny Johnson/Getty Images)
(Photo by Johnny Johnson/Getty Images)

Growing up in Alaska, I was luckier than I knew. I have distinct memories of seeing black bears in my neighborhood and encountering moose on my walk to the school bus. Little did I know then that travelers flock to Alaska from around the world to try to catch of glimpse of wildlife like that.

Whenever I suggest an itinerary for travelers in Alaska, I always recommend a visit to Denali National Park since it provides the best opportunity to see Alaska’s wildlife. On a National Park Service bus tour of the park, keep an eye out for Denali’s “Big Five:” moose, grizzly bears, caribou, Dall sheep and wolves. Only once did I see all five in a single day.

For other wildlife experiences, book a flightseeing tour for grizzlies as previously mentioned, or plan a tour to one of the state’s interesting reindeer or musk ox farms. If sea life is more interesting to you, read on.

Whale watching

(Photo by Michael Melford/Getty Images)
(Photo by Michael Melford/Getty Images)

In the summer, the waters around Alaska’s prodigious coast burst with life: from sea birds and otters to salmon and whales. There’s no shortage of wildlife to spot when exploring Alaska’s waterways. Eight whale species call Alaska home, including belugas, orca whales and humpback whales that migrate from Hawaii each summer.

Many visitors see whales when cruising through Alaska’s Inside Passage, or on a day-cruise in Kenai Fjords National Park or Prince William Sound along Alaska’s south central coast. For the best chance to spot a whale, book a longer cruise that takes you out toward the Pacific Ocean. Whales do come further inland but are more likely spotted where the waterway meets the ocean.

Hiking and biking

(Photo by Seth K. Hughes/Getty Images)
(Photo by Seth K. Hughes/Getty Images)

There are certainly plenty of ways to relax and indulge on an Alaskan vacation (craft beer and local spirits are rising trends), but some visitors prefer a more active vacation – and there are loads of options. I’m not a big hiker, but I recommend a few to visitors, depending on how adventurous they feel.

One relatively easy hike is on the outskirts of Anchorage. The Flattop Mountain Trail is a 3.5-mile out-and-back trail with 1,300 feet in elevation gain, but gives epic views of Anchorage and the surrounding region. There are other interesting hikes in Denali National Park and at Exit Glacier near Seward.

If you prefer to explore on two wheels instead of two legs, give yourself a half-day in Anchorage to rent a bicycle and ride along the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail. This scenic trail works its way along 11 miles of the Anchorage waterfront. It’s a great way to get your heart rate up while seeing some heart-stopping scenery.

Museum hopping

The Alaska Native Heritage Center. (Photo by John Elk/Getty Images)
The Alaska Native Heritage Center. (Photo by John Elk/Getty Images)

Most people don’t come to Alaska for arts and crafts — though you might find great souvenirs. You might be surprised how many fantastic museums you can visit on your trip. These include the Alaska Native Heritage Center and Anchorage Museum in Anchorage; the Museum of the North and Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center in Fairbanks, and the Alaska State Museum in Juneau. 

Whether you visit these as part of a planned itinerary or cruise excursion or on one of Alaska’s occasional rainy summer days, you’ll be surprised at the diversity of exhibits and educational resources for visitors of all ages.

Featured photo by Bryan Goff/Unsplash.

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