The Ultimate Alaska Travel Guide
Updated May 2023, The Ultimate Alaska Travel Guide was originally written in May 2018
Alaska, the Last Frontier, and a total bucketlist destination for many travelers. With rugged mountains, abundant wildlife, and over 100,000 glaciers there’s an adventure for just about everyone in Alaska. And what better place to get insider tips and information than from me, a born and raised Alaskan!
- Hiking & Mountaineering
- Watching The Aurora
- Skiing & Snowboarding
- Glacier Trekking & Viewing
- Wildlife Viewing
- Kayaking & Whitewater Rafting
- Road Tripping
- Southcentral Alaska
- Chugach State Park
- Wasilla & Palmer
- Hatcher Pass State Management Area
- Matanuska Glacier
- Spencer Glacier
- Portage & Byron Glaciers
- Exit Glacier & Harding Icefield
- Lost Lake
- Kenai Fjords National Park
- Russian River
- Kenai & Soldotna
- Kachemak Bay State Park
- McCarthy & Kennecott Mine
- Wrangell St. Elias National Park
- Lake Iliamna
- Katmai National Park & Preserve
- Lake Clark National Park & Preserve
- Interior Alaska
- Southeast Alaska
- Western Alaska
- Northern Alaska
- Utqiagvik (formerly Barrow)
- Gates of The Arctic National Park
- Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR)
- Kobuk Valley National Park
- The Dalton Highway
- Aleutian Islands
- Alaska State Fair
- Fur Rendezvous
- Forest Fair
- Tanana State Fair
- Salmonfest (Formerly Salmonstock)
- Bearpaw Festival
From when to visit, languages, money, getting there, and more!
Here are a few quick tips to get you started on planning your trip to Alaska. I will delve into more information further into this post.
- The best time of year to visit, and most popular is the summer months of June, July, and August. The shoulder season months of May and September are a great option with temperatures still on the warmer end of the scale and fewer tourists.
- Alaska is massive! One of the best (and cheapest!) ways to see it is by renting a car and self-driving through the state.
- For those hoping to see the aurora during their visit to Alaska, September to April is the time of year in which they can be seen (with some luck!). These are the colder months of the year so you will need to dress for cold (sometimes extreme) temperatures.
- Alaska’s weather is as wild and unpredictable as its wildlife so it’s best to always pack layers (trust me, I know after a lifetime in Alaska).
- Did you land here because you’re looking to move to Alaska and need to find work? Check out job vacancies on Jooble.
The US Dollar is the official currency used in Alaska as it is a state in the United States. ATMs are widely available in cities and towns.
Trying to keep costs down on your trip to Alaska? Check out my Alaska Budget Travel Guide for $$$ saving tips
English is the official language in Alaska. With that said that are 20 different Alaskan Native languages spoken around the state, they include: Aleut, Alutiiq, Central Yup’ik, St Lawrence Island Yu’pik, Inupiaq, Tlingit, Ahtna, Dena’ina, Deg Xinag, Holikachuk, Upper Kuskokwim, Koyukon, Lower Tanana, Tanacross, Upper Tanana, Gwich’in, Han, Haida, and Tsimshian.
Sadly, some of the languages have very few speakers left, and even one, Eyak has gone extinct.
What to Wear
What you will wear largely depends on when you plan to visit and how you feel cold. Just know that layers are your best friend in Alaska, no matter what time of year you plan to visit. So always be expecting to wear an underlayer, a t-shirt, and some sort of jacket or fleece. Research temperature averages for the areas you plan to visit to pack accordingly. You can read more in the packing list section.
The length of time you’d like to visit is largely dependent on what you would like to do and see. Most who come to Alaska will visit for 1-3 weeks. I do have a “One Week in Alaska” Roadtrip series that can be combined for longer trips:
- Hit The Highlights From Anchorage To Fairbanks
- Get Off The Beaten Path On The Dalton Highway
- Glaciers & Fjords In Southcentral Alaska
- The Big Loop From Anchorage To Fairbanks & Back
- The Denali Highway Road Trip
- The Best Of Wrangell-St. Elias & Prince William Sound
When to Visit Alaska
With the warmest weather of the year and the backcountry, more easily accessible summertime is the best and most popular time to visit. The downside is that prices are higher across the board in summer. Plan for rental cars, accommodations, food, activities, and gasoline to cost more this time of year.
Temperatures steadily decrease as fall descends into winter, and don’t be surprised if many parts of Alaska are covered in a blanket of snow by mid-October, sometimes as early as September. But, September is a great month to visit, as solar flares tend to be strongest in the month of September (and March), so as long as skies are clear at night, you’ll have decent odds of catching a northern lights show overhead without freezing cold winter temps. Fall colors start creeping down into the valleys in September, making hiking a great activity this month.
With long dark nights you have the chance to catch the aurora so long as the conditions are right for it (March tends to yield stronger solar flares, along with September). And for winter sports lovers this is your paradisiacal time to visit with skiing/snowboarding, snow machining (snow mobiling for you non-Alaskans), snowshoeing, cross country skiing, and more.
Days slowly start to get longer and longer and toward the end of March you’ll really start to notice the snow melting outside. If you love spring skiing early April is the prime time to visit. May is another great shoulder season month as temperatures are nice, the state starts to really green and the bulk of the tourists haven’t started showing up yet.
With non-existent public transport between cities (and extremely limited even with a city) and 82% of Alaska’s communities not on the road system, much of Alaska is fairly inaccessible. With that said, renting a car and self-driving is your best option for seeing Alaska, as there are plenty of adventures and beautiful places that are accessible along the road system.
Renting a car is the best way to zip around Alaska and reach the places you’ll want to visit.
Not a fan of camping in a tent and want to knock out transportation and accommodation all in one go? Look into renting an RV for your trip to Alaska.
Especially if planning to visit more remote communities, flying is realistically your only option in many cases. There are daily flights between Alaska’s cities and if wanting to get out into the bush you’ll likely need to charter an air taxi.
Alaska has a small railroad network that connects Seward, Anchorage, Denali and Fairbanks. Traveling by train is extremely expensive in Alaska as it’s designed for tourism and not as a mode of transport as far as commuting is concerned.
On a really small budget and are a bit bolder? Hitchhiking is an option for those willing to potentially wait around a bit for a ride. A great place to search for potential rides is on the Anchorage Page on Couchsurfing. Of course with hitchhiking take precautions, use common sense, and don’t accept a ride if you at all feel uncomfortable about it.
If you’re daring enough to brave the roads with reckless Alaskan drivers, you can cycle your way around Alaska.
Marine Highway Ferry
The Marine Highway system connects Washington State to Alaska’s southeast panhandle, southcentral Alaska, and the Aleutian Islands. You can take cars on the ferry. Check out the ferry route and more here.
Buy a Car
For those that plan to travel Alaska more extensively for a longer period of time buying a car can be a good option. When it’s time to go home you can sell it and hopefully recoup your original cost.
You can get to Alaska by land, by air or by sea. The most common way for people to arrive is via flight at Anchorage International Airport.
Commercial flights to Anchorage and Fairbanks are the most common way to enter Alaska. Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau, and Ketchikan all have international airports with connections to other US states as well as seasonal flights to/from Germany, Iceland, Canada, and Russia in the summer. US cities that have direct service to Anchorage are Chicago, Dallas, Honolulu, Kahului, Kona, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Phoenix, Portland, Salt Lake City, and Seattle.
For those with a decent chunk of time to explore as part of a larger trip to the US and/or Canada, driving into Alaska is an option via the Alcan (Alaska-Canada Highway). This is also part of the great Pan-American Highway: the road spanning from Ushuaia, Argentina to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska.
Between May and September, you can take a cruise up the Inside Passage from Seattle or Vancouver to Alaska. Alternatively, you can utilize the Alaska Marine Highway System. The Marine Highway starts in Bellingham, Washington, makes an international stop in Prince Rupert, BC, and connects the following communities by ferry: Akutan, Angoon, Chenega Bay, Chignik, Cold Bay, Cordova, False Pass, Haines, Homer, Hoonah, Juneau, Kake, Ketchikan, King Cove, Kodiak, Metlakatla, Petersburg, Port Lions, Sand Point, Seldovia, Sitka, Skagway, Tatitlek, Tenakee Springs, Unalaska/Dutch Harbor, Valdez, Whittier, Wrangell, and Yakutat.
If you are not a US citizen you will need a visa or ESTA to visit Alaska as it is a part of the United States. Citizens of some countries are eligible to apply for the ESTA (visa waiver program), these countries include Andorra, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brunei, Chile, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Monaco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, San Marino, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, and the UK. Canadians are able to visit the USA visa-free.
Learn more about the ESTA here, and more on visas here.
Alaska is known for having some of the best seafood in the world, what it’s not known to be is the culinary destination it really is. Here are some Alaskan staples to try:
- Fresh Alaskan Salmon- You’re not going to find better tasting salmon in the world. Make sure and try Copper River Red Salmon.
- Caribou (Reindeer)- The only Alaskan game (aside from fish) that you can order up in a restaurant.
- Halibut- Halibut is one of the tastiest fish around. Make sure and grab some at a small fish shack when visiting a coastal community.
- King Crab- Alaska is known the world over for its soft, sweet, and delicious King Crab legs, which are a must-try.
- Blueberries- Alaskan blueberries are a bit more tart than the common ones you’ll find in a supermarket. If you happen to be around in late August and into September you can join the many Alaskans out berry picking.
- Beer- Craft breweries are popping up more and more in Alaska. You can even book all day tours to visit some of Alaska’s breweries.
How much does it cost to travel Alaska? Find out here
Best Restaurants in Alaska
Here’s just the tip of the iceberg of restaurants in Alaska.
- Moose’s Tooth – Ranked one of the best independent pizza companies in the United States, and trust me, it’s that good.
- Double Musky – The French pepper steak is perfection. Most dishes have a Cajun flair.
- Glacier Brewhouse – Serving up some of Alaska’s best seafood with a twist. If seafood isn’t your thing they also have delicious wood-grilled meats.
- Seven Glaciers – Take the tram at the Hotel Alyeska on top of the mountain to have dinner with a view.
- Simon & Seafort’s – An Alaskan favorite serving up Alaskan seafood, steak, and more.
- Crow’s Nest – A world-class menu with a 360 view of Anchorage.
Fairbanks & Denali
- Turtle Club – Located just outside Fairbanks in Fox. Great prime rib and seafood.
- Mile 229 Parks Highway – With a menu that changes daily as they only serve their daily harvests and seasonal offerings. It doesn’t get much fresher than Mile 229.
- 49th State (there’s one in Anchorage now, too!)- Craft beers and tasty twists on Alaskan favorite dishes. The brewery in Denali has a replica out front of the bus from ‘Into the Wild‘.
- Lavelle’s Bistro – A good selection of wines, serving up globally inspired dishes and American favorites.
- The Channel Club – Serving up some of the best steak and seafood in all of Alaska, overlooking the water in Sitka.
- Tracy’s King Crab Shack – A waterfront, walk-up shack serving some of the best fresh-caught king crab in Alaska.
- Sam & Lee’s- Regarded as the best Chinese food in the Arctic, and all of Alaska. I personally know people who bring containers when they travel to Barrow to fly home leftovers.
Things to do in Alaska
Looking for adventure? You’re in the right place! Here are few activities to try out on a trip to Alaska:
Hiking & Mountaineering
From well-beaten day hikes to summiting Denali (formerly Mt. McKinley) there are hiking and mountaineering opportunities for every level of enthusiast and fitness level.
Watching The Aurora
This is a bucketlister for many visitors to Arctic territories. The best months out of the year to view the northern lights are March and September as Earth is more likely to be bombarded with particles from Solar Flares in those months. With that said late August through April are going to be the season for aurora displays as you will need a dark sky (sorry, we don’t have those in the summer thanks to the midnight sun).
You will also need to be away from any light pollution created by city lights, and you will need a clear sky. You do need a recipe for perfect conditions in order to see the northern lights, so if your sole purpose for visiting is to see the aurora, then you should plan to be disappointed. If you want to try to follow the forecasts (note, that they are incredibly difficult to forecast and predict), check out the UAF Geophysical Institute’s Aurora Forecast.
The best places to base yourself for seeing the aurora is in Interior Alaska. With that said, temperatures in Interior Alaska can get extremely cold in winter. -45 F is the norm and temperatures plummeting to -60 F or colder are a possibility.
You will need to pack clothing and outerwear to accommodate these temperatures. Make sure and check weather forecasts before you go to get an idea of what temperatures you’ll be up against. Pro tip: Buy hand warmers and place them in gloves and boots to help keep your fingers and toes warm.
Check out Aurora Borealis tours on offer on Viator.
Skiing & Snowboarding
With no shortage of backcountry opportunities, a few ski resorts, and heli-skiing companies Alaska is a prime skiing and snowboarding destination.
Glacier Trekking & Viewing
With over 100,000 known glaciers, there’s no shortage of opportunities to see ancient ice. There are several glaciers that are nearly at the roadside, with easy access and even some glacier trekking tours that will take you to really experience a glacier.
Want to see some of Alaska’s world-famous wildlife? Head to Denali National Park, Brook’s Falls, Kenai Fjords National Park, and beyond to view bears, moose, caribou, bald eagles, whales, and more.
Not quite that adventurous? Visit the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center where you can view wild Alaskan animals that have been rescued and brought here, and it’s conveniently located just south of Anchorage.
Kayaking & Whitewater Rafting
From kayaking in quiet ocean coves to rafting wild rapids down Alaskan rivers, there are tons of opportunities to get out on the water in Alaska. See why you should head to beautiful little Kayaker’s Cove for a couple of nights.
Alaska is world-renowned for its top notch-fishing. Whether you head out to a luxury fishing lodge, join the anglers on the Kenai Peninsula casting for salmon, or take a halibut charter out on the open ocean, there’s a perfect adventure here for just about any fisherman (or fisherwoman!). Check out fishing charters, tours, and more here!
Several companies run small planes and helicopters to some of Alaska’s most scenic of places such as Prince William Sound and Denali National Park, which is a great way to get a different perspective on the state. Check out flightseeing tours here.
Even if the Alaskan road system can’t get you everywhere there are still endless adventures on a road trip in Alaska. Be careful though because the roads can be in quite a bad condition so if you’re going to go on a road trip, be prepared for the possibility of a breakdown.
Anchorage has a decent network of bike trails around the city that link to the beautiful Coastal Trail that hugs the Turnagain Arm south of Anchorage. For those more serious you can cycle the Haul Road- the Dalton Highway that ends in Prudhoe Bay.
All you have to decide is between which kind- wildlife or glaciers? There are many day cruises daily in summer that will take you to see glaciers calve right before your eyes, or to watch whales as they make their way up to the cold Alaska waters.
After cruising with Major Marine Tours I highly recommend them for anyone wanting to go wildlife viewing in Kenai Fjords National Park. For those that enjoy cruising you can take an Inside Passage cruise that makes stops along Alaska’s Southeastern Panhandle between Anchorage and Seattle/Vancouver.
Alaska is a world-class hunting destination for those looking to hunt bear, moose, dall sheep, and caribou.
Where to go in Alaska
Alaska’s largest city (and ironically, not the capital). Anchorage will be the starting point for many of you.
This is where you’ll find the bulk of the restaurants, nightlife, and accommodations. For those looking to keep accommodation costs as low as possible check out my post: the best hostels in Anchorage.
If you’re looking for ideas on what to do check out my 2-day Anchorage itinerary. Trying to keep costs low? Here’s a list of free things to do in Anchorage.
Note that Anchorage is one of the most dangerous cities in the United States as violent crime and sexual assault are staggeringly high per capita. There are few law enforcement officers, so you can’t expect a timely response for police to arrive.
Defending yourself is your best bet (on several occasions I’ve had friends and family call the police during break-ins and armed robberies at their homes in progress and be told to arm themselves as no police officer could reach them in a timely manner, and these are people living in the heart of the city, not the outskirts).
Start shopping Anchorage accommodations on booking.com here.
Start planning here: The Anchorage Travel Guide
Chugach State Park
Chugach State Park stretches pretty much from Anchorage to Valdez, offering tons of hiking and activities that’ll get you into nature without having to travel far from the cities. I’ve spent most of my life living just on the fringe of Chugach State Park. Some awesome hikes to consider include, Eklutna Lake, Symphony & Eagle Lakes, Williwaw Lakes, Rabbit Lakes, Byron Glacier, Crow Pass, Flattop, and more.
You can camp in Chugach State Park and there are several public use cabins that can be reserved here.
Wasilla & Palmer
Side-by-side cities about a one hour drive north from Anchorage. Nearby attractions include Hatcher Pass Recreational Area and Matanuska Glacier. Check out Palmer & Wasilla accommodations here.
If you want a great experience out of the main towns, check out this luxury camp near Matanuska Glacier.
Hatcher Pass State Management Area
One of southcentral Alaska’s best parks for trekking, backcountry skiing, snow sports, and more. The Alaska Mountaineering Club has a few cabins in Hatcher Pass that are first come first serve, available to its members (many quite deep in the park). You can camp within Hatcher Pass as well.
Check out the Snowbird-Bomber Traverse and the Mint-Bomber Traverse for multi-day hiking ideas. Looking for a spectacular day hike? Make the trek to Reed Lakes.
One of the easier to access glaciers in Alaska. There is a family that owns the land in which the access road to the glacier sits on and charges a fee to use. Alternatively, you can hike to the glacier from the highway but you will need a raft to cross the river.
A few companies offer tours of Matanuska Glacier with experienced glacier guides. For those wanting to glamp near the glacier check out this luxury camp.
About a 40 minute drive south of Anchorage. Home to Alyeska Resort with ski lifts and in the summer operates mountain bike activities and several hiking trails. There are several great restaurants in the town. Girdwood is a great accommodation alternative to Anchorage, and much safer.
Check out Girdwood hotels and B&Bs here.
Plan your stop in Girdwood: The Girdwood Travel Guide
Take the whistle stop train from either Anchorage or Portage Stop II to access the short hiking trail to Spencer Lake. Read about how you can take the Whistle Stop Train to Spencer Glacier. In winter you can ride fat tire bikes, and some years even snowmachine out to the glacier.
Take the train to Spencer Glacier
Portage & Byron Glaciers
Take Portage Glacier Road from the Seward Highway, just a bit south from Girdwood (the same road you’ll use to access the Whittier Tunnel) to reach both Portage and Byron Glaciers. Portage is noted for having receded a lot over the years and very noticeably.
Byron Glacier can be accessed by a short hike from the Byron parking lot. Byron Glacier has become popular in the last couple of years because of easy to access ice caves. If trying to visit the ice caves, just know that they are unstable and can become dangerous or at worst deadly.
Visit Byron Glacier as you explore Southcentral Alaska using my quick Byron Guide
Check out day trips from Anchorage to Portage Glacier that include wildlife viewing along Turnagain Arm, a cruise across Portage Lake, and a visit to the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center.
Not far off the Seward Highway not long after you enter the Kenai Peninsula is the turn off for Hope. This small town offers a few things to do for those that want to hang out for a day or so as part of their explorations of the Kenai Peninsula.
Check out my quick guide to Hope, Alaska
A small fishing town on the Kenai Peninsula, south of Anchorage. Several day cruises depart from Seward along with fishing charters.
Every 4th of July the Mount Marathon Mountain Race is held here and can make the town quite busy.
Those traveling with kids may want to visit the Seward Sealife Center which can make for a fun and educational activity.
For those not as keen as exploring on their own, check out guided hiking tours of Exit Glacier, a driving tour through Kenai Wildlife Refuge from Seward to Skilak Lake, take a fjord cruise, go on a kayaking & hiking trip into Resurrection Bay, or take a scenic flight to Bear Glacier.
There are several restaurant and accommodation options in Seward, check them out here.
Plot out your Seward adventures here: The Seward Travel Guide
Exit Glacier & Harding Icefield
Exit Glacier is another easy-to-visit glacier in southcentral Alaska, and one of the most popular excursions from Seward. Just turn off the Seward Highway at Exit Glacier Road and follow it into the parking lot.
There is a small visitor center there and usually a park ranger on duty in the summer. You can continue along a hiking trail to hike up along Exit Glacier with great views to reach Harding Icefield. You can take guided hiking tours around Exit Glacier from Seward, as well as guided hikes beyond to Harding Icefield.
Lost Lake is a popular day hike and can easily be made into an overnight hiking trip. There are two routes to reach the mountain lake from and can be done as a one way through hike as well. Makes for a fun overnight camping trip.
Kenai Fjords National Park
Where mountains, ice, and ocean all meet. Highlights of Kenai Fjords National Park included taking a fjord or whale watching cruise, hiking along Exit Glacier & Harding Icefield, and kayaking in the fjords. Check out my post on the best way to visit Kenai Fjords.
A popular salmon fishing spot along the Seward Highway that can get very crowded in the summer. Watch out for bears.
Kenai & Soldotna
Kenai and Soldotna sit side by side on the Kenai Peninsula. What brings most here is fishing. Check out Kenai & Soldotna accommodations.
A small city just south of Kenai & Soldotna on the Kenai Peninsula. Great place to catch fishing charters out of and sits in the beautiful Kachemak Bay. Has a fishing-town-meets-hippy-vibe to it and is home to Bear Creek Winery. Search through Homer hotels, B&Bs, and cabins.
Explore beautiful Kachemak Bay with my Homer Travel Guide
Kachemak Bay State Park
Kachemak Bay State & Wilderness Park is located near Homer, Alaska’s first state park and only wilderness park. There is over 80 miles of hiking trails to explore and countless camping possibilities. Just catch a water taxi in Homer across the Bay to the park.
A small town that sits on the shores of the western Prince William Sound. You have to drive through a tunnel from Anchorage to get here by road ($22 return). Great place to taking a fishing charter, or cruise to Blackstone Bay Glacier or Surprise Glacier. If planning to spend the night, you can camp or check out the Whittier Inn.
Planning to road trip Southcentral Alaska? Check out the Kenai Peninsula Road Trip
Another small town at the head of a fjord in the eastern Prince William Sound. Several campgrounds around and a few accommodation options.
Make sure to take a cruise to Columbia Glacier, take a halibut fishing charter, and pay a visit to Bridal Veil Falls. Check out Valdez hotels here.
McCarthy & Kennecott Mine
McCarthy became a spot on the map after copper was discovered in nearby Kennecott in the early 1900s and by 1938 after the depletion of all the copper in the area nearly become a ghost town. McCarthy is the access point for greater adventures into Wrangell St. Elias National Park.
There are several historical sites, Root Glacier, and many more attractions in the area.
To get here take the Edgerton Highway from the Richardson Highway to Chitina then take the McCarthy Spur the rest of the way into McCarthy. There is a shuttle bus in the summer between McCarthy and Kennecott Mine. There is camping available in McCarthy.
Wrangell St. Elias National Park
Rugged, beautiful, wild, and roughly the size of Yosemite National Park and the entire country of Switzerland combined, making it by land size the largest national park in the United States! Most who visit Wrangell-St. Elias National Park will do so by visiting McCarthy, Kennecott Mine, and Root Glacier.
Visit Wrangell St. Elias as part of a road trip. Click here for details
The largest lake in Alaska located on the northern end of the Alaska Peninsula, connected to Bristol Bay by the Kvichak River. There are several villages located around the lake and is not too far from Katmai National Park and Lake Clark National Park. Lake Iliamna is only reachable by plane. Lake Iliamna even has its own folklore monster “Ilie” similar to Loch Ness’s “Nessie”.
Katmai National Park & Preserve
This is where you’ll snap that postcard picture of Alaska with a giant grizzly catching a salmon right out of the waterfall. Brook’s Falls has a viewing area where you can watch the grizzlies angle for fish.
Katmai National Park is also famous for its plethora of volcanoes- so make sure to take a flightseeing tour over the Valley of the 10,000 Smokes for an aerial view.
Brook’s Lodge is where most stay on a trip out here, but there is also a campground for those not on a luxury budget. You can make campground reservations here– just make sure to make it very far in advance as they book up quickly. Day trip flightseeing tours can be booked here.
Lake Clark National Park & Preserve
Lake Clark National Park is similar in attractions to Katmai, many are drawn in by its grizzly bear viewing, fishing opportunities, turquoise lakes, jagged mountains, and a number of volcanoes. Day trip flightseeing tours to Lake Clark can be booked here.
Fairbanks & North Pole
The Gold Rush is what initially put Fairbanks, Alaska’s second-largest city on the map, and gave it the nickname of ‘Golden Heart City‘. Fairbanks can be a blast in the summer and tends to be a bit warmer, however, winter is much colder.
That said, Fairbanks is one of the best places to base yourself for catching the aurora. If you want a really unique experience, check out Borealis Base Camp in nearby Chatanika. With dome-shaped rooms and windows facing the sky you can watch the northern lights from the comfort (and warmth!) of your own room.
Other experiences in Fairbanks include: Historical Downtown Fairbanks, Pioneer Park, the UA Museum of the North, take a drive to Chena Hot Springs for a soak or a night away, or take a steamboat down the China River on a historical tour. Book an aurora viewing tour here.
Nearby Northpole’s main attraction, of course, is the Santa Claus House, with reindeer and Christmas happening year-round.
Shop Fairbanks & North Pole hotels, B&Bs, cabins, and more.
Heading to Fairbanks & the North Pole? Check out my Fairbanks travel guide
Denali National Park & Preserve
Denali National Park is home to Denali, North America’s highest peak (formerly Mt. McKinley).
Abundant wildlife at every turn, you’ll possibly see moose, bears, caribou, Dall sheep, maybe even a wolf. The 92 mile road through the park to Kantishna is not open to private vehicles beyond the Savage River (except for during the Denali Road Lottery in September). If you want to go further in the park, you must take one of the park buses, go by bicycle, or by foot.
There is a $10 fee to enter the park for those aged 16 and older. It’s possible to book guided wilderness hikes, wildlife, and scenic helicopter tours, and take flightseeing tours that will bring you up close to the monstrous mountains in Denali National Park.
There are many campsites throughout Denali National Park that can be reserved here. For those wanting to stay in the comfort of a hotel room, you can book the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge that sits in the park or the Kantishna Roadhouse at the end of the road, otherwise, the closest options will be Cantwell and Healy.
Know before you go: The Denali National Park Travel Guide
Denali State Park
Denali State Park sits adjacent to Denali National Park & Preserve. Home to the famous 30 mile K’sugi Ridge hike with sweeping views of North America’s tallest mountain.
A small town that you will pass through if driving into Alaska from Canada or vice-versa. Jumping off point for explorations into the Wrangell and Mentasta Mountains to the south and 40-Mile Country to the North.
You can take the Taylor Highway north from Tok to Chicken and Yukon Charley Rivers National Preserve, or continue further along the Top of the World Highway to Dawson City in Canada.
Check out Tok accommodations here.
Chicken is a historic and still functioning gold mining camp located 250 miles southeast of Fairbanks and located about 80 miles northeast of Tok on the Taylor Highway. A year-round population of 7 lives here, but don’t worry there’s at least a saloon.
The biggest draw to Chicken every year is the annual Chickenstock Music Festival held in June. Chicken is a stop along the ‘Top of the World’ road trip that continues to Dawson City, Canada.
The capital city of Alaska and only accessible by boat and plane. Do not miss sights include Mendenhall Glacier, Auke Bay, and The Shrine of St Therese. Of course no trip to Juneau is complete without a stop in the Red Dog Saloon and a stop at the Alaskan Brewing Company.
Activities and tours to check out while in Juneau include trekking Mendenhall Glacier, ziplining on Douglas Island, taking a whale watching cruise, helicopter flight to Juneau Icefield, go river rafting, beer tasting at Alaskan Brewery, and canoe to Mendenhall Glacier.
There are several hikes that can be done in the Juneau area, and for those planning a winter visit, you can even ski and snowboard over at Eagle Crest on Douglas Island.
Click here to see what accommodations are on offer in Juneau.
Start planning: The Juneau Travel Guide
Tongass National Forest
Tongass National Forest is the largest national forest in the United States with tons of hiking opportunities.
A beautiful seaside community that sits on the northern edge of Baranof Island. Sitka has been inhabited by Tlingit people for over 10,000 years and by 1808 Sitka was named the capital of Russian America, making Sitka a wealth of historical sites.
While in Sitka don’t miss out on kayaking tours, guided fly fishing trips, Baranof Island sightseeing tours, and wildlife cruising.
Shop Sitka accommodations here.
A seaside city along the Inside Passage. Ketchikan is Alaska’s southernmost city and is home to the world’s largest collection of standing Totem Poles, which are spread among 4 different sites.
Some great things to do during your stay in Ketchikan are ziplining in the Tongess National Forest, taking a seaplane tour, fishing on a salmon & halibut fishing charter, touring the city and its world-famous Totem Poles, or kayaking around the beautiful waterways.
Shop for hotels and B&Bs in Ketchikan.
Set along the Inside Passage with lots of Goldrush era buildings. Unlike much of the rest of southeastern Alaska, Skagway is accessible by road via the Haines Junction. Make sure to go kayaking along the Inside Passage, take a hike to White Pass Summit, or head over to Chilkoot State Park in nearby Haines.
Check out Skagway hotels here.
The Inside Passage
From many serial cruisers I’ve met over the years, I’ve heard more than once taking a cruise up the Inside Passage to Alaska was their favorite. These normally go between Vancouver or Seattle and Whittier, commonly making stops in Ketchikan, Juneau, Sitka, and Skagway. Shop cruises to Alaska here.
Glacier Bay National Park
A highlight for many taking Inside Passage cruises to Alaska. Glacier Bay National Park is located in southeastern Alaska near the community of Gustavus, just northwest of Juneau. You can arrange to take the ferry from Juneau to Gustavus and take a private boat tour of Glacier Bay if you are traveling independently.
Shop lodges and inns around Gustavus here.
The largest community in western Alaska and the largest bush community in the state. It is the main port on the Kuskokwim River and the major hub for all 56 villages in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. Flying in is the only realistic option for most travelers to reach Bethel.
The Kuskokwim 300 Dogsled Race is hosted by Bethel every January.
Nome is located on the Seward Peninsula in northwestern Alaska. Nome is most famous for being the finish line of the Iditarod- the sled dog race celebrating the 1925 delivery of the life-saving serum during a blizzard that was needed to combat the Diphtheria epidemic raging through the Alaska Native population.
Check out Visit Nome for ideas of things to do in Nome on a trip here. Heritage Expeditions and Hapag-Lloyd offer cruises of the Bering Sea and even the Northwest Passage that dock in Nome.
Bering Land Bridge National Preserve
Bering Land Bridge National Preserve may be difficult to reach, but yields rewards of rugged beauty to those who make the jaunt out to the remote preserve. The park is located on the northern stretches of the Seward Peninsula and there is an information center in Nome.
Access in summer is by air taxi (most common), boat, or by foot. In winter once there is enough snow on the ground snowmachines are permitted.
Utqiagvik (formerly Barrow)
Utqiagvik is the northernmost city in the United States and is oddly home to what has been regarded as the best Chinese food in Alaska (some will even argue in the USA) at Sam & Lee’s.
If you’re planning a visit, a great time of year to visit is the third week of June when Naluktaq is being celebrated. Naluktaq celebrates a successful whale harvest.
From Barrow you can set up guided trips for polar bear viewing, snow owl viewing and even tours highlighting the culture of Alaska’s furthest northern peoples.
Gates of The Arctic National Park
Stunning glacial carved valleys, caribou migration trails, and aurora lit skies (spring, fall, and winter only) are just a handful of reasons to visit Gates of the Arctic National Park.
There are no roads or trails in or into the park, leaving visitors with chartering a flight or hiking to get in. Most who do visit arrive by air taxi from the village of Bettles.
You can hike into the park from the Dalton Highway near the settlement of Coldfoot as the highway meets the eastern edge of the park. The other spot people will hike in from is the village of Anaktuvuk Pass, although, arriving from Anaktuvuk Pass does require a flight to the village as there are no roads.
Note that this is an extremely remote park.
Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR)
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (commonly called by its acronym ANWR) is a controversial chunk of land located in northeastern Alaska. Why the controversy? Well, that all has to do with the ongoing (and likely never-ending) debate on whether or not to drill for oil within the refuge’s boundaries.
To access the refuge you can drive and hike, or charter an air taxi.
Along the Dalton Highway at Atigun Pass and Atigun Gorge, it’s possible to hike into the park. Alternatively, you can fly into either Kaktovik or Arctic Village and either travel by foot or by boat into ANWR, however, the trek in is very challenging. Lastly, you can charter an air taxi to land you on a strip within the refuge.
Kobuk Valley National Park
Kobuk Valley National Park is home to an odd phenomenon in Alaska. A swath of gigantic sand dunes, right smack in the middle of a migratory path of caribou. Imagine trading camel footprints in the sand dunes of the Sahara with caribou tracks and voile! you’re in Kobuk Valley.
This is a great place to visit for those interested in Arctic history and archeology, as the Onion Portage has been used for over 9,000 years as a harvest location for hunting caribou by the local people. The most common way to access Kobuk Valley is by chartering an air taxi from either Kotzebue or Bettles to take you into the park as there are no roads.
The Dalton Highway
The Dalton Highway is the last stretch (or first) for those taking on the Panamerican Highway from Argentina to Alaska. The Dalton Highway extends 414 miles from just north of Fairbanks all the way to Deadhorse and Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic Sea coast. It’s often referred to as the Haul Road because its purpose was originally for hauling goods to the oilfields on the North Slope.
Click here to read up on how you can do your own Dalton Highway Road Trip.
The most epic Alaskan road trip: The Dalton Highway
The city of Adak is the westernmost city in the United States, sitting on the Aleutian Island of the same name. Most travelers who visit Alaska do not make it to the Aleutian Islands, period.
So what draws in the small handful that do venture out here? Seabirds, tundra, rare birds from Asia, WWII battlefields, and volcanoes are just a few of the attractions.
Adak can be accessed by flight from Anchorage. If wanting to visit most places beyond the city you will need to get a permit from the Aleutian Corporation for $30/week or $10/day which can be purchased in either Anchorage or Adak.
Unalaska is a windswept volcanic rock planted in the ocean. Birders, hikers, and WWII junkies are typically the types that are drawn to visit the island of Unalaska. Dutch Harbor itself draws in people looking to do some world-class fishing.
To reach Dutch Harbor you can do so by flight from Anchorage and by the Marine Highway ferry. You will need to obtain a permit from the Ounalashka Corporation to do most any activities on land on Unalaska and neighboring Amaknak Island.
Attu is the westernmost island of the Aleutians. Actually, Attu is so far west, it’s east- if we didn’t put that nice jar in the International Dateline it would be not only a different time zone, but on a different day than the rest of Alaska.
For WWII buffs the Battle of Attu sites on the island will be of interest and birders will find paradise in Attu’s feathery inhabitants. But note that getting to Attu Island is neither cheap nor easy.
The number of hikes in Alaska is vast. So I won’t carry on here and tack on thousands more words to this already lengthy blog post. I will, however, send you over to Alaska Hike Search which has always been a great resource in gathering information on the countless hikes in Alaska. I also recommend picking up the Hiking Alaska Guide.
Looking for day hikes in and around Anchorage? Click here!
There are so many festivals and fairs in Alaska each year that it’s too numerous to cover in a single blog post on Alaska travel! I will mention a few of the big ones (and my all-time favorite). If you want a list of festivals (although I do not think this mentions all of them, unfortunately) head here.
Chickenstock is a bluegrass festival held at Chicken Gold Camp in mid-June (June 15 & 16, 2018). It’s by and far my favorite festival in Alaska.
There are several events that take place during the festival, including a race, and don’t miss out on the Peep-drop. Buy tickets here.
Alaska State Fair
The Alaska State Fair is held at the Palmer Fairgrounds every year. This is by far the largest state fair in Alaska.
I personally think this may be more interesting to non-Alaskans than it is to me, as the state fair has hardly changed in the 34 years I’ve been alive. I usually come for the food. Admission is $13 for adults and $9 for kids (age 6-12) and seniors (65+).
Usually referred to as Fur Rondy, or just Rondy by most Alaskans. Fur Rondy is a yearly festival that has gone on since 1935 in Anchorage celebrating the pioneering spirit of Alaskans.
Many different cultural and sporting events happen during the winter festival held between late February & early March for 10 days (February 26- March 7, 2021 will be the next Fur Rondy, and it will only offer limited events due to the pandemic). The Iditarod (the world’s longest sled dog race) kicks off toward the end of Fur Rondy.
A weekend festival held on the first weekend of July in Girdwood celebrating local music, arts, and crafts. Read more on Forest Fair here.
Tanana State Fair
Tanana Valley State Fair is held every year in early August just outside Fairbanks, Alaska.
Salmonfest (Formerly Salmonstock)
Salmonfest is a music and fish festival held yearly in Ninilchik (on the Kenai Peninsula) in early August.
Bearpaw is held in downtown Eagle River every year in mid-July. Has a carnival and many of the food stalls you will find at other fairs and festivals around the state. This is a much cheaper alternative to the Alaska State Fair as there is no entrance fee.
It’s widely known that Alaska is ridiculously expensive. To prep you for what costs you’ll incur, here is a list of general costs and tips to help you save. You can also check out Travel Alaska on a Budget, and How Much Does It Cost To Travel Alaska? for more information.
General Costs in Alaska
To give you a rough idea of costs for planning a trip in Alaska, here are some examples:
- Gasoline: $4.00/gallon
- Hotel: $120-200/night
- Hostel: $40-80/night
- Campsite: $10 per night on average, $25 for ones with amenities
- Small car rental: $35/day in the winter and shoulder seasons, $100+/day in the peak season
- Larger car/SUV rental: $50+/day in the winter and shoulder seasons, $140+/day in peak season
- Food: Preparing own meals: $1-5 per meal. Budget restaurant/cafe: $10-15 per plate. Midrange restaurant: $20-30 per plate. Higher-end restaurants: $30+ per plate
- Entrance to museums and cultural centers: $10-15 per person
- Entrance to parks: Free to $10 per person. Most of Alaska’s state and national parks are free to enter. Denali charges $10 per person to enter. Many state parks with road access and a parking lot will charge a $5 parking fee.
Money Saving Tips
- Visit outside tourist season- June-August are the most expensive months to visit.
- Consider the shoulder season- (May & September).
- Shop for airline sales- airlines have more competition between May and September as many more airlines fly to Alaska in the summer months.
- Use mileage- Are you part of an airline rewards program? If you are, check to see if your airline or a partner of theirs flies to Alaska.
- Get outside- Most of Alaska’s natural attractions are free to visit aside from a parking fee at some sites. All national parks in Alaska have free entrance except for Denali National Park!
- Go camping- Accommodation can get expensive in the high season. For those adventurous enough, pitching a tent is a great way to save money as many managed campgrounds in Alaska have inexpensive fees.
Your packing list is going to vary largely on the time of year you plan to visit and what activities you would like to take part in. My biggest tip here is to always have layers with you as weather can be erratic and unpredictable.
If you do forget to pack anything you will find stores selling all of this stuff listed in most cities and larger towns.
Need help packing for Alaska? Check out my full guide to packing for your Alaska vacation
- Hiking boots
- Rain boots
- Rain jacket
- Rain pants
- Longsleeve fleece jacket
- Hoodie or sweater
- Long underwear
- Long sleeve tops
- Short sleeve tops
- Tanks tops
- Leggings (pro-tip- bring one pair of fleeces lined leggings)
- Bra & sports bras
- A variety of socks (think for everyday, hiking, warmer wool socks)
- Bikini or swim shorts
- Sun hat or baseball hat
- Mosquito repellant
*For spring and fall, I’d recommend adding a warmer jacket (I normally wear a snowboard/ski jacket in fall, winter and spring), and warmer gloves.
- Snow boots
- Ski/snowboard or winter jacket
- Snow pants
- Longsleeve fleece jacket
- Hoodie or sweater
- Long underwear
- Long sleeve tops
- Short sleeve tops
- Fleece lined leggings
- Bra & sports bras
- A variety of socks (everyday, wool)
- Bikini or swim shorts (in case you end up at a hot spring or a hotel with a pool)
- Fleece or other heavy scarf
- Winter gloves
Gear To Bring Regardless Of Season
- Daypack + rain cover
- Camera + all necessary charging devices, lenses, filters, timers, and other trinkets
- Optional: Inreach Explorer+ (Great for those planning to adventure a little more remotely where there may be no mobile coverage)
- Optional: Scrubba Washbag (For those looking to save money on laundry)
Camping & Hiking Gear
- 3-season tent
- Backpack (I personally recommend the Ariel 65 for women)
- Hydration Pack
- Sleeping bag (Make sure to grab one cold rated to the temperatures you’ll likely face overnight)
- Hiking boots (My favorite is the La Sportiva Nucleo High GTX)
- Katadyn water purifier
- Campstove and Cooking set
Internet & Mobile
Wifi is typically available at most hotels, hostels, B&Bs, and lodges. It is possible to purchase prepaid SIM cards at cell phone kiosks and shops in the state.
Alaska can be a wild and ruthless place, and yes- I am referring to the weather, wildlife, and the people.
Alaska does have an insanely high rate of rape, sexual assault, and violent crime per capita and it continues to get worse and worse- do be aware of this.
As someone that was born and raised here- people are what I am the most skeptical about in Alaska. With that said not all people are bad. Just use proper precautions and you should have a safe experience in regards to crime. Should you need help in an emergency situation call 911. Note that theft has exploded recently thanks to the explosion in opioid use.
Animals won’t hesitate to stomp or maul you to death, so DO NOT GET CLOSE TO WILDLIFE. Most commonly, people get stomped by female moose that they get too close to. This is an instinct of mothers protecting their calves, males are more likely to charge.
In summer 2017 we had an uptick in bear maulings in Alaska, so do make sure to carry bear mace with you and know how to properly use it if heading out on outdoor adventures. Wolves have killed people in Alaska, however, wolf sightings aren’t the norm near populated areas (I’ve lived here my entire life and have yet to run into one).
The weather can be relentless up here and hard to predict, that’s why having necessary gear with you is important when venturing outdoors.
Ready To Travel Alaska?
Need Alaska Travel Insurance for Alaska?
Start shopping plans over at battleface, my go-to travel insurance choice, or over at World Nomads.
2 thoughts on “The Ultimate Alaska Travel Guide”
What a comprehensive post! I was able to explore Alaska a bit this past December with a few adventurous ladies. I wrote about the first part of our trip where we road-tripped from Anchorage to Seward and back hiking up to Portage Pass in Whittier, taking a boat trip in Seward, hiking Eklutna Lake, and even getting up close and personal with the Matanuska Glacier! http://adventuretramp.com/2020/03/24/adventuring-in-alaska-part-1/
Sounds like you guys had a great time! I grew up messing around in all those places.