18 Top Things to Do in Alaska

The vast wilderness, spectacular landscapes and spirit of adventure make Alaska a once-in-a-lifetime destination for many travelers. As the largest state in the U.S., spanning more than half a million square miles and home to around half of the entire country’s coastline, Alaska has a lot of territory to cover, but much of it is remote — and only accessible by boat or plane.

If you’re ready to plan a visit to one of the most beautiful and pristine places on Earth, check out the top things to do and places to see during your trip to the Last Frontier, and let Alaska capture your heart forever.

Juneau

Alaska boasts the only state capital in the U.S. with no road access, since Juneau is reachable only by airplane or boat. Regarded as one of the state’s most beautiful cities, Juneau is a top destination for cruise ships in Alaska during the warmer months from late spring to early fall. You’ll also find many fishing boats and floatplanes along the city’s bustling waterfront. The compact downtown area sits nestled between Mount Roberts, Mount Juneau and the Gastineau Channel. Admire an eclectic mix of architecture as you walk the narrow streets: Just a block from the waterfront, some of the buildings lining historic South Franklin Street date back to the early 1900s and Juneau’s gold-mining days. This lively street is home to bars, restaurants and gift shops. Visitors can also take time to explore the Alaska State Museum while in this part of Juneau to learn about natural history and Alaska Native cultures.

After exploring downtown, head out on a whale-watching excursion to glimpse humpback whales — many tour operators guarantee a sighting — and potentially also orcas, sea lions, seals, bald eagles or black bears. You can also go hiking on one of the town’s many trails, which can take you to the face of a glacier, above tree level or to the top of the Mount Roberts Tramway. Once at the summit, travelers can enjoy lunch with a view at Timberline Bar & Grill before riding the tramway back into town.

Juneau has several other museums and nearby attractions, including the Sealaska Heritage Institute, Juneau Douglas City Museum, the Macaulay Salmon Hatchery and the Eaglecrest Ski Area in the winter months. The city sits around 10 miles from the massive Mendenhall Glacier, making it one of the most accessible glaciers in the state. You can explore on your own by foot or opt for a guided tour to try kayaking, glacier trekking or experiencing the area by helicopter. Visitors say the glacier is easy to reach and the views are breathtaking.

[See more of Juneau: Things to Do | Hotels | When to Visit | Photos ]

Denali National Park and Preserve

Established in 1917 as a national park, Denali National Park and Preserve is home to 6 million acres of pristine wilderness — as well as the highest peak in North America, Mount Denali. The park is open year-round, but the summer season provides the easiest access and the most visitor services.

Tourists can take a narrated or non-narrated bus tour from mid-May to mid-September, boarding from either the park entrance or outside a nearby hotel such as the McKinley Chalet Resort. One scenic road runs almost 100 miles into the park, but buses will only be able to travel as far as mile 43 through at least the 2024 season because of construction. Private cars are permitted to drive just 15 miles into Denali in summer or up to 30 miles at other times of year if weather allows. For unrivaled access to the Denali wilderness and wildlife even amid the road closure, reserve a cabin stay at one of the remote lodges in the park: The Denali Backcountry Lodge collects guests by helicopter, while Camp Denali, located at the end of Denali Park Road, is accessible via a small plane.

At the entrance to the park, visitors will find the Riley Creek Campground, the Murie Science and Learning Center, and the 14,000-square-foot Denali Visitor Center. Exhibits and a movie at the visitor center offer a glimpse into Denali’s vast and spectacular scenery as well as the types of animals you’ll see in the park. There’s an estimated 37 species of mammals and 130 bird species in Denali, and you may see one or all of the “Big Five” animals: caribou, moose, wolves, Dall sheep and grizzly bears, which wander the open tundra. The more adventurous traveler can venture out into the wilderness for a true Alaska backcountry experience.

[See: The Best Tourist Attraction in Every U.S. State.]

Husky Homestead: Denali National Park

Located just outside of Denali National Park, Husky Homestead is owned and operated by the man who’s recognized as the “Winningest Musher in the World.” Jeff King has traveled more than 150,000 miles on a dog sled in the past 35 years; he’s earned four championship titles for the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race and many first-place titles in other races across Alaska and North America. He was also inducted into the Iditarod Hall of Fame in 1999.

The summer Husky Homestead tour offers a glimpse into the rural Alaska lifestyle based on more than 40 years of outdoor adventure, traversing more than 1,100 miles of rugged terrain many times and living in Alaska’s Interior. Visitors will also meet champion sled dogs and watch husky puppies in training. Tour-takers say this is a can’t-miss experience — second only to visiting the national park. Travelers love being able to see and hold the husky puppies and say that King is passionate, entertaining and informative. In the winter months (January to March), you can learn the art of dog mushing and even book an eight-day personalized Iditarod experience curated by a true expert.

Kenai Peninsula

Known as “Alaska’s Playground,” the Kenai Peninsula extends 150 miles southwest from the Chugach Mountains south of Anchorage. This area, separated from the mainland by the Cook Inlet on the west and Prince William Sound on the east, abounds with opportunities for outdoor adventure spanning world-class fishing and river rafting to hiking, mountain biking, camping, wildlife viewing and photography, and more. The peninsula has 14 cities and towns, including better-known destinations such as Homer, Kenai and Seward. Most visitors arrive here via the Alaska Railroad or Seward Highway.

Top activities on the Kenai Peninsula include hiking the Exit Glacier area in the Kenai Fjords near Seward or kayaking through the coves of Kachemak Bay near Homer. Visitors to the Alaska SeaLife Center can learn about the region’s marine ecosystems, see puffins, harbor seals and octopus up close, and discover conservation efforts at the state’s only permanent marine mammal rescue and rehabilitation facility. Anglers won’t want to miss an opportunity to catch salmon on the Kenai River. If you’re into sport fishing, you can launch off the beach in Anchor Point headed for Cook’s Inlet from May to September in search of big halibut, salmon and other species of sport fish. While at Anchor Point, excursions are available for bear viewing, flightseeing, dog-sledding and more. You can also go whale watching and look for other marine life at Kenai Fjords National Park — and don’t miss a visit to the 2 million-acre Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, where you may also catch a glimpse of the local wildlife.

[Read: The Best Alaska Tours.]

Fairbanks

Fairbanks is known as the “Golden Heart of Alaska” and one of the top places in the world to view the northern lights: Aurora chasers may want to visit the city during the aurora borealis season between Aug. 21 and April 21. But there’s much more to do in and around town beyond chasing the dancing lights at night in the winter. Fairbanks is centrally located in Alaska’s interior, making it the perfect year-round basecamp to explore the Arctic Circle to the north and Denali National Park to the south. The park is a little more than 100 miles away; you can drive, book a ride in a van or hop aboard Alaska Railroad’s Denali Star Train every morning during the summer to reach Denali from Fairbanks.

“Midnight sun season” (from mid-April to mid-August) brings endless sunshine to the city and opportunities to explore round-the-clock activities such as hiking, running and golfing. During regular daylight hours, visitors can take a three-hour guided sightseeing cruise with Riverboat Discovery along the Chena River or take a trip back in time by panning for gold in the Tanana Valley at Gold Dredge 8. You also won’t want to miss the University of Alaska Museum of the North, featuring exhibits on Alaska’s diverse cultures, wildlife and natural wonders; the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum is another top-rated attraction in town. Fairbanks is also a winter wonderland with dog-sledding, snowshoeing, skiing, curling, ice hockey, ice fishing and more. If you’re visiting in February or March, bundle up to attend the World Ice Art Championships, where competitors from around the world display impressive ice sculptures.

[See more of Fairbanks: Things to Do | Hotels | When to Visit | Photos ]

See the northern lights

Alaska is regarded as one of the best places on Earth to see the aurora borealis, so it’s no surprise that people come from all over the world to witness this natural phenomenon during the aurora season between August and April. Fairbanks is one of the top locales in the state to view the show because of its location; accessibility; and options for lodging, dining and other attractions. In addition, many northern lights tours depart from town. While you can see the lights almost anywhere in the state, experts advise that the best viewing opportunities are away from light pollution on a clear night — and preferably in the interior or Arctic regions of the state.

A wide array of guided tours offer just one evening of aurora chasing, or you can opt for multiday adventures that include winter activities like dog-sledding and snowmobiling. Travelers can also fly into remote areas above the Arctic Circle via bush plane and spend several evenings in towns like Coldfoot or Wiseman. One top-notch lodging option for aurora chasers is Borealis Basecamp, a glamping destination about 30 miles north of Fairbanks that boasts glass-domed igloos — perfect for viewing the vibrant night sky from the comforts of your warm, cozy bed.

[Read: How to See the Northern Lights in Alaska.]

Chena Hot Springs Resort

Situated approximately 60 miles northeast of Fairbanks, Chena Hot Springs Resort is renowned for its natural hot springs, outdoor rock lake, year-round Aurora Ice Museum and excellent aurora-viewing opportunities. Powered by renewable geothermal energy, the facility is also the most accessible — and most developed — hot springs resort in the state’s interior. The property offers an array of packages and activities for daytrips, overnight stays and adventure activities. Guests can tour the Chena kennel, a working dog-mushing kennel with more than 50 huskies. You can also book an aurora-viewing tour, go on a dog-training excursion or venture out on the property by horseback, depending on the season you visit. For the more adventurous traveler, book an excursion by all-terrain vehicle, dog sled or snowmobile — and, for an overnight stay, you can even sleep in a yurt.

Address: 17600 Chena Hot Springs Road, Fairbanks, AK 99712

Aurora Ice Museum: Chena Hot Springs Resort

Located at Chena Hot Springs Resort — and created from more than 1,000 tons of ice and snow sourced from the property — Aurora Ice Museum boasts the world’s largest year-round ice environment. The museum, completed in 2015, keeps temperatures at a chilly 25 degrees Fahrenheit even in the summer months, thanks to a unique patented absorption chiller. Pick up a parka and join in a 45-minute tour where you’ll get a brief history of the building and learn the story behind the ice sculptures. There’s also free time to snap a few Instagram shots and sip an appletini in an ice glass at the ice bar. Visitors to the museum say it’s an interesting and fun experience, and that they enjoy seeing all the sculptures.

Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve

One of the highlights of an Inside Passage cruise to Alaska is visiting Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve. The park’s 3.3 million acres are part of a 25 million-acre World Heritage Site, one of the largest protected areas in the world. This boundless landscape includes rugged coastlines, deep fjords, majestic snowcapped mountains, icy blue glaciers and a verdant rainforest. With almost 20% of the park made up of water, it’s also a marine sanctuary, home to an abundance of humpback whales, orcas, harbor seals, Steller sea lions and porpoises.

If you’re visiting by cruise ship — as 90% of the visitors to the park do — you may also see brown or black bears, moose, wolves, Sitka black-tail deer, mountain goats or bald eagles soaring overhead. Be sure to step outside on your veranda or the ship’s bow to take in the park’s stillness, with occasional sounds from wildlife in the distance or eerily blue ice calving as the chunks break off into the glacial waters.

If you’re traveling alone, you can access the park via the nearby village of Gustavus, which offers several options for lodging. Gustavus is reachable by air taxi from Juneau — or you can take the Alaska Marine Highway System ferry to reach the village. Tours to Glacier Bay are available out of Gustavus; excursions also start at the park headquarters at Bartlett Cove. Here you’ll find 10 miles of maintained hiking trails and a lodge and restaurant. Venture out on a guided kayak tour or travel 130 miles into the park on a full-day boat tour to view the tidewater glaciers, wildlife and extraordinary beauty of Glacier Bay. Visitors enjoy the park ranger’s narrative while on board their ship and say the park is unbelievably breathtaking.

Embark on an Alaska cruise

Taking an Alaska cruise is a bucket list trip for many people — and it’s easy to understand why. Cruising is a convenient way to see multiple destinations and travel to remote places like Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve. More adventures await than you can imagine, from taking a ride on the White Pass & Yukon Route railroad to helicopter and dog-sledding tours. You can also go fishing, crabbing or kayaking; hike in the Tongass National Forest; venture out on a wilderness safari; chase the northern lights; and much more.

Most mainstream and luxury cruise lines offer several itineraries in Alaska. Smaller and expedition-style ships also sail Alaska’s waterways, such as Lindblad Expeditions, UnCruise Adventures and Alaskan-owned Alaska Dream Cruises. To make the most of your time — and to see as much as you can while visiting The Last Frontier — combine a land and sea tour. Cruise lines like Princess Cruises, Holland America Line, Norwegian Cruise Line, Celebrity Cruises and Royal Caribbean International offer cruisetours that extend your time in Alaska. These add-on options feature multiday land, bus and rail tours to destinations not reachable by ship.

[Read: The Best Times to Cruise to Alaska.]

Arctic Circle

Many visitors to Fairbanks want to take a self-guided road trip along the 198-mile stretch of the Dalton Highway to cross over the Arctic Circle. However, this journey is only recommended if you are an experienced driver and have a vehicle equipped for the rugged terrain, remote wilderness, and the gravel and dirt road, especially in the winter. Most car rental companies do not allow their cars on the Dalton Highway. Still, you can rent from specific companies such as Arctic Outfitters, Alaska 4×4 Rentals, Alaska Overlander or Alaska Auto Rental. Travelers should also know that there’s no cellphone coverage or Wi-Fi and only limited vehicle services on the Dalton Highway, so it may be best to leave the driving — or the flying — to a professional tour operator.

Multiple tour operators fly and drive to the Arctic, which is an unforgettable experience any time of the year. The Northern Alaska Tour Company offers a variety of air and land adventures. These trips include two- to five-night excursions to see the northern lights in Coldfoot, one of the best aurora-viewing locales in the world. During your extended stay in the Brooks Range and Coldfoot you may also see bears, and you can try your hand at dog mushing. You’ll even receive an official Arctic Circle Adventure Certificate. Travelers say the tours, guides and pilots with Northern Alaska Tour Company are excellent, providing an incredible experience in this beautiful and wild part of Alaska.

Anchorage

Situated between the peaks of the Chugach Mountains and the Cook Inlet, Anchorage is Alaska’s largest city and its most urban destination. Yet it’s still not far from the wilderness areas and outdoor adventure the state is known for. The city is home to a great deal of outdoor recreation, including road and mountain biking, hiking, running, water sports and more. The city also boasts more than 200 municipal parks and 120-plus miles of paved trails. On a clear day, from the 1,400 forested acres of Kincaid Park you may be able to catch a glimpse of Mount Susitna over the inlet and see spectacular sunsets in the evening. The 495,000-acre Chugach State Park — the fourth-largest state park in the U.S. — is a wilderness area adjacent to much of Anchorage. From here, you can head out on many trailheads, including one of the most popular hikes to Flattop Mountain. At the summit, you’ll be rewarded with panoramic views overlooking the Chugach and the Alaska mountain ranges, Cook Inlet, and the city.

Anchorage also boasts many cultural attractions, including the state’s largest museum, the newly renovated Anchorage Museum. You also won’t want to miss the Alaska Native Heritage Center and the Alaska Aviation Museum, which sits along the south shore of the world’s busiest floatplane lake, Lake Hood. This museum pays homage to Alaska’s bush plane pilots and covers the early history of Alaska Airlines. The Alaska Zoo is another top attraction: This facility is the only zoo in North America that focuses on animals from the northern and Arctic regions and native Alaska species such as moose, wolves, wolverines, caribou and Dall sheep. You’ll also find a thriving culinary scene in Anchorage featuring fresh local seafood and produce — and a burgeoning brewery industry with local beer, spirits, cider and mead.

[See more of Anchorage: Things to Do | Hotels | When to Visit | Photos ]

Anchorage Museum

As one of Alaska’s most popular attractions, this four-story museum tells the story of the region through its history, art, culture, science, and diverse political and social background. Impressive exhibits on Alaska Native cultures include more than 600 artifacts from the collections at the Smithsonian. In the Thomas Planetarium, you can even experience the northern lights as they dance across the clear night sky. Alongside permanent exhibits like the Smithsonian collection, the Anchorage Museum features traveling exhibits, special programs, live performances in music and dance, classes and workshops, and other special events throughout the year. Visitors call the museum carefully curated and the exhibits educational and informative. Some people take as many as five hours to view all four floors, so plan for a half-day to visit the museum. You can grab a snack at the Atrium Café if your visit extends past lunchtime.

Address: 625 C St., Anchorage, AK 99501

Alaska Native Heritage Center

The Alaska Native Heritage Center is a living cultural center in Anchorage that educates visitors and promotes the observance of Alaska’s Indigenous traditions and culture. It’s the only statewide education and cultural institution in Alaska focused on celebrating all the Indigenous peoples and their heritage, including the Iñupiaq, St. Lawrence Island Yupik, Athabascan, Eyak, Haida, Tsimshian, Tlingit, Unangax?, Alutiiq (or Sugpiaq), Yup’ik and Cup’ik peoples. Visitors to ANHC can walk through life-size villages and view the permanent collections. You’ll also have an immersive educational experience learning about 10,000 years of Alaska Native history through art, dance performances, demonstrations, exhibits, films, storytelling and more. Travelers say this is a must-see while in Anchorage: They comment that the visit is fascinating, and you’ll get the most out of it if you can catch a performance or presentation, as they offer even more insight into the cultures of Alaska’s Natives.

Address: 8800 Heritage Center Drive, Anchorage, AK 99504

Flightseeing

Flightseeing by bush plane or helicopter is one of the best ways to see and travel to many parts of the state. The least-visited national parks — and even the most popular ones — have remote destinations reachable only by plane or by boat. With a flightseeing tour, you can book excursions to fly over (or even onto) a glacier, view wildlife from above, follow the trail of the Iditarod or arrive at a remote destination like Kennecott Mines National Historic Landmark in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. These excursions can be as short as an hour or extend into a full day with kayaking, bear-viewing opportunities, dog-sledding and more. While the planes typically carry between two to eight people, helicopters only take a maximum of four passengers. Popular companies for these tours include Talkeetna Air Taxi, Rust’s Flying Service & K2 Aviation, Temsco Helicopters, Wings Airways, NorthStar Helicopters, Alpine Air Alaska, Alaska Helicopter Tours, Smokey Bay Air and Emerald Air Service.

Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center

While most people would prefer to see animals in the wild — and in their natural habitat — wildlife conservation centers are essential in rescuing injured and orphaned animals, conducting research, and providing awareness to the public. Situated on 200 acres, the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center in Girdwood is home to black and brown bears, moose, caribou, coyotes, wolves, musk ox and other Alaska animals. The center has also partnered with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game over the last 20 years on one of the world’s most important conservation projects: returning the once-extinct wood bison to their native range in central Alaska. The herd of 130 was released into the wild in 2015 after a century-long absence.

Visitors can take the guided 90-minute “Walk on the Wild Side Tour” at the center, which is offered year-round and limited to 10 guests. You can also book a bear or moose encounter (in the summer season) to get up close and personal with the animals. Visitors appreciate the option to drive through the facility or take the walking tour, and say they enjoy seeing many of Alaska’s native animals in one place.

Address: Mile 79, Seward Highway, Girdwood, AK 99587

Take a ride on the Alaska Railroad

The Alaska Railroad offers passengers almost 500 miles of scenery and landscapes and an iconic way to travel through south-central and interior Alaska. The line’s summer train schedules pair with other activities in Alaska, such as a coastal glacier and wildlife-viewing cruise from Seward when you take the round-trip train from Anchorage. At the backcountry Spencer Glacier Whistle Stop — only accessible by train — passengers can go ice climbing, hiking or take a rafting trip on a glacial river.

Depending on the train and itinerary, other stops include Fairbanks, Denali National Park, Talkeetna, Girdwood, Seward, Whittier, Portage and Grandview. For an upscale onboard experience, passengers can choose GoldStar-level service on select trains and routes. This category of service includes glass-dome ceilings, full-service dining, a private bar, forward-facing seats, an outdoor viewing platform and narration during the ride. On weekends in the winter season, between mid-September and mid-May, the Aurora Winter Train travels northbound on a 12-hour rail journey, departing Saturday and returning Sunday. Passengers enjoy the snow-covered landscapes and views during the winter itinerary, with most calling the food and service excellent.

Hop on an escorted bus tour

Escorted bus tours are an attractive option to consider when visiting south-central and interior Alaska. The drivers are familiar with the road system, so you can sit back and relax without the stress of navigating long stretches of wilderness highways. The tour operators are also experts at coordinating your lodging, excursions, meals and much more. Some tours even combine bus and rail transportation — through an area known as the railbelt — offering the best of both methods of transportation since one may reach destinations the other can’t access. Companies offering tour packages in the region include Alaska Tour & Travel, John Hall’s Alaska and Gray Line Alaska. Tourgoers traveling with Alaska Tour & Travel say their journey was seamless and they had a wonderful adventure.

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18 Top Things to Do in Alaska originally appeared on usnews.com

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