Discover Alaska's Untamed Beauty: Unveiling the Best Places to Travel
Alaska, the last frontier, holds an awe-inspiring array of natural wonders and breathtaking landscapes that beckon adventurers from across the globe. From snow-capped mountains to glacial fjords, and from vibrant indigenous cultures to ethereal displays of the Northern Lights, this vast and untamed state promises an experience like no other. Anchorage, Glacier Bay, and Denali National Park are just a few of the best places that deserve a spot on any Alaska travel itinerary. So, get ready to embark on a journey that will immerse you in untamed wilderness, unveil the wonders of indigenous heritage, and leave you with memories to last a lifetime.
Once you come to the realization that Anchorage isn't just a typical metropolitan city on the outskirts of the wilderness, but rather a bustling city nestled right within the heart of the wilderness, everything starts to make sense. This unique town seamlessly blends hiking trails with traffic jams, small art galleries with Big Oil, like no other city can. Amidst the big chain stores and mini-malls, there is a hidden gem of over 100 miles of city trails winding through verdant greenbelts and a downtown creek where anglers gather to reel in trophy salmon.
During your stay in Anchorage, you can fill your days with various activities such as visiting the Anchorage Museum, going on invigorating hikes, discovering exceptional restaurants tucked away in unassuming strip malls, and conquering the summit of Flattop Mountain. However, it's important to also make time for an afternoon nap to recharge your energy, especially when the sun still shines brightly outside until 11 pm in June. On any given summer weekend evening, the downtown area of Anchorage is infused with an electric atmosphere. Pushcart vendors entice passersby with sizzling sausages on 4th Avenue, horse-drawn carriages transport passengers near the iconic Hotel Captain Cook, frisbees soar through the air in Delaney Park, and the crowd at Chilkoot Charlie's eagerly awaits the explosive performances of the house band.
Embark on a captivating wildlife watching and iceberg spotting experience in Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska © Maridav/Shutterstock
Glacier Bay stands as the crowning jewel of the cruise-ship industry and a dreamlike destination for anyone who has ever paddled a kayak. This icy wilderness is renowned worldwide, with seven tidewater glaciers spilling out from the majestic mountains, transforming the sea into a stunning display of icebergs in various shapes, sizes, and captivating shades of blue.
Beyond its impressive collection of tidewater glaciers, Glacier Bay serves as a flourishing habitat for humpback whales and boasts a diverse array of wildlife. Spotting porpoises, sea otters, brown and black bears, wolves, moose, and mountain goats is a common occurrence in this expansive park. Although visiting Glacier Bay can be a pricey endeavor, it is a worthwhile side trip. A trip from Juneau alone would typically cost at least $400. Of the annual visitors, more than 95% arrive via cruise ships and never disembark. The remaining travelers consist of a mix of tour-group members, who head straight for the lodge, and adventurous backpackers, who are drawn to the allure of the free campground.
Accessible by bus, Denali National Park captivates visitors with its breathtaking vistas © Jonathan A. Mauer / Shutterstock
Denali National Park
Known as the "Great One," as christened by the Athabascans, Denali is an awe-inspiring sight with its towering 20,237-foot mass of ice and granite. This colossal mountain stands as a dominant presence, further enhancing the already remarkable landscape of tundra fields and vibrant ridgelines. The mountain's grandeur evokes a profound sense of admiration, a feeling that alpinists who attempt its ascent can truly comprehend.
Every summer, Denali attracts over a thousand enthusiastic climbers. However, the surrounding national park is even more popular, as it spans a vast 6 million acres of easily accessible wilderness teeming with wildlife. Exploring the national park on a bus tour allows visitors to immerse themselves in this captivating habitat.
Scientists predict the stunning Mendenhall Glacier will vanish within the next 25 years © davidgoldmanphoto/Getty Images
Glaciers often leave us at a loss for words, prompting us to reach for eloquent phrases to describe their indescribable beauty: noble ice, majestic mountains, sublime grandeur. The awe-inspiring Mendenhall Glacier is a prime example of why we need to expand our vocabulary. Embark on a mesmerizing hike around this icy river that cascades from the mountains, venture into the mesmerizing ice caves, or marvel at the spectacle of icebergs majestically floating down the Mendenhall River. However, it's crucial to savor these experiences while they last, as scientists anticipate that the majority of the glacier will vanish within the next 25 years.
Fairbanks is a prime location for witnessing the mesmerizing Northern Lights © Steve Burns / Getty Images
The Northern Lights
When it comes to natural spectacles, few can rival the surreal, mesmerizing dance of colors known as the Northern Lights. While glossy photos can capture the enchanting hues of the aurora, they fail to encapsulate the true magic of experiencing this phenomenon live. Beginning in late August, Fairbanks takes center stage as the undisputed capital of Northern Lights sightings, boasting a staggering 200 shows a year. According to some locals, you can even influence the movements of the aurora by whistling when it appears.
Embark on a remarkable paddle around the fjords of Kenai Fjords National Park © James Courtney Forte/Getty Images
Kenai Fjords National Park
Established in 1980 to safeguard 587,000 acres of Alaska's awe-inspiring and impenetrable wilderness, Kenai Fjords National Park is nothing short of breathtaking. The park's crown jewel is the massive Harding Ice Field, the source of countless tidewater glaciers that cascade into dizzying fjords along the coast. As you paddle through this remarkable landscape, you may be treated to the thunderous calving of tidewater glaciers, the lively presence of sea lions at their haul-out sites, or the mesmerizing harmony of a kittiwake rookery. Near Peterson Glacier, plump harbor seals gracefully float on glacial ice, while breaching whales often steal the show at the mouth of Resurrection Bay. Exploring this marine wonderland by kayak offers an orca's-eye view of a rich ecosystem, and it is a dream come true for any blue-water kayaker.
Given the park's extraordinary terrain and abundant marine wildlife, it is a major draw for tourists. However, it is important to note that visiting this mesmerizing destination can be quite expensive. Fortunately, the road-accessible Exit Glacier stands as the park's highlight attraction. Hardier adventurers can embark on an ascent to the Harding Ice Field from the same trailhead, but only experienced mountaineers equipped with skis, ice axes, and crampons can fully explore the vast expanse of ice spanning over 900 square miles. The majority of visitors either opt for a brief visit to admire Exit Glacier's face or indulge in a tour-boat cruise along the captivating coastline. For those seeking a more immersive experience, the coastal fjords offer a kayaker's utopia painted in shades of blue.
Discover indigenous culture while exploring Ketchikan, known as Alaska's "first city" © sorincolac/Getty Images
Although Anchorage currently holds the title of the largest "Native village" by population and showcases non-indigenous influences throughout, the essence of traditional native cultures still thrives in settlements across the state. While most of these settlements are just a bush-plane flight away, one can begin their journey of understanding by visiting urban cultural centers run by Alaska Natives.
Leading the charge in the recent resurgence of Alaska Native culture is Sealaska Heritage in Juneau, which boasts an impressive collection of ceremonial masks. Equally captivating are the historic house posts in Haines and the revitalized Haida cultural village in Kasaan. These totem poles and clan houses provide a metaphorical window into the rich Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian cultures found in and around Ketchikan, fondly referred to as Alaska's "first city."
Kodiak Island offers unparalleled bear-spotting opportunities © Dirk Freder / Getty Images
Kodiak Island is a haven for giant brown bears and lucrative crab fishing. Nestled amidst lush mountains, the island boasts serene, crescent-shaped bays where the contented people of the main town sport wide grins as they go about their daily lives. Unlike other parts of Alaska, Kodiak Island rarely sees a large influx of cruise ships, making it one of the most authentic Alaskan experiences.
While witnessing bear-viewing and engaging in phenomenal fishing adventures are absolute musts, make sure to reserve extra time to explore lesser-known attractions on Kodiak Island. These hidden gems include WWII military batteries, onion-domed Russian churches, and challenging day hikes that offer a glimpse into an ethereal wilderness.
The Denali Star train showcases the stunning beauty of the Nenana River Gorge © The Washington Post / Getty Images
Denali Star train
The northernmost railway line in the United States stands as a testament to Gilded-Age engineering triumphs. Dating back to 1923, when President Warren Harding ceremoniously drove in the last spike, the railway continues to work its enchantment through the Denali Star train. This luxurious train embarks on a scenic journey between Anchorage and Fairbanks, offering passengers a captivating expedition.
Passing through rich grazing grounds teeming with wildlife, quaint towns, and awe-inspiring gorges, the Denali Star train allows travelers to take in the beauty of their surroundings. However, all else pales in comparison when the clouds part to reveal the majestic Denali, soaring above the dense forest.
Embark on a legendary drive along the Dalton Highway © stanley45 / Getty Images
When you look at a map of Alaska, the untamed northern coast feels incredibly remote, a distant land seemingly accessible only by air. However, a road exists that leads to the top of the world, and it stands among North America's finest drives. Buckle up, set the sound system to play some Springsteen, and get ready for the ride of a lifetime. The 500-mile journey along the Dalton Highway, from Fairbanks to the Arctic Ocean, may not offer the smoothest ride, but it undoubtedly ranks as one of the most legendary. Despite the lack of asphalt on this infamous "haul road," a succession of surreal ecosystems awaits, ranging from the breathtaking boreal forests of the interior to the desolate tundra of the North Slope.
This meandering truck route spans 414 miles, cutting through Alaska's Interior and the North Slope, tracing the path of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline back to its source at the Prudhoe Bay Oil Field. Along the way, you'll pass through evergreen patches of taiga, bear witness to the Gothic splendor of the Brooks Range, and experience the chilling flatness of the Arctic tundra. While the road remains accessible throughout the year, it is advisable to tackle it between late May and early September, when endless daylight and minimal snow and ice prevail. With an average speed of 40 mph, expect two demanding days to reach Deadhorse, the northernmost point of civilization.
After three nights on a ferry, you'll arrive at the remote Aleutian Islands, where indigenous culture thrives © Los Angeles Times / Getty Images
15 of the Best Places to Visit in Alaska
Alaska boasts a diverse range of stunning locations, from bustling cities to untouched wilderness, that showcase its unparalleled beauty. Discover some of the top attractions in these best places to visit in Alaska.
Ketchikan, situated on the southernmost edge of the Inside Passage in the Tongass National Forest, is a vibrant city renowned as the "Salmon Capital of the World." Sports fishermen travel from all over the globe to experience the thrill of fishing in its famous blue waters. Adventure seekers and wilderness campers also flock to the area during the summer months, where they can choose from a variety of trails and lodging accommodations. Kayaking is a highly recommended activity in Ketchikan, offering breathtaking scenery and a sense of peaceful solitude. The city is also home to the Alaska Rainforest Sanctuary, a protected space showcasing the wild Alaskan landscape and native communities' rich culture.
2. Totem Bight State Historic Park
Totem Bight State Historic Park is a must-see attraction in Southeast Alaska. Established in 1938, the park aims to preserve and rebuild totem poles left behind by native villagers. Skilled carvers pass down their traditional techniques to young artisans, resulting in the creation of 15 remarkable totem poles. Visitors can explore the park, admire the totem poles, and learn about the indigenous cultures that once thrived in the area. The Totem Heritage Center is recommended for those seeking more in-depth knowledge of the project's purpose and significance.
Anchorage, Alaska's largest city with a population of over 300,000, seamlessly combines modern city life with the surrounding wilderness. From September through April, it offers an excellent opportunity to view the mesmerizing Northern Lights. Animal lovers can visit the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center and the Alaska Zoo, while culture enthusiasts can immerse themselves in the Alaska Native Heritage Center and the Anchorage Museum. Sightseeing options include flightseeing excursions, biking along the scenic Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, and engaging in whale watching or bear watching adventures.
4. Wrangell St. Elias National Park & Preserve
Wrangell St. Elias National Park & Preserve is the largest national park in both Alaska and the United States, covering an expansive 13.2 million acres. This majestic park features numerous mountain peaks, glaciers, volcanoes, streams, and lakes. It is also home to the historic Kennecott Mines National Historic Landmark, which offers a glimpse into the area's mining past. The park is a paradise for backcountry campers, hikers, and climbers, with remote cabins and an abundance of wildlife thriving in the tundras and rainforests.
Juneau, Alaska's capital located on the coast, provides a wealth of attractions for visitors. In addition to shopping, fine dining, and hiking trails offering panoramic city views, Juneau is home to the Shrine of St Therese, the Alaska State Museum, and the Goldbelt Mount Roberts Tramway, which offers breathtaking city views. Whale-watching excursions, the Glacier Gardens Rainforest Adventure, and tours of the AJ Mine Gastineau Mill are also highly recommended.
Seward is a picturesque coastal town known as the "Mural Capital of Alaska." Twelve stunning murals, created by local Alaskan artists, depict different aspects of the town's history and the surrounding natural beauty. Festivals, such as the Silver Salmon Derby, add to Seward's charm. Visitors can explore the town via water taxis, go flightseeing or fishing, and visit the Alaska SeaLife Center to get up close to various marine animals.
7. Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve
Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve span a vast 3.3 million acres, showcasing rainforests, fjords, mountains, and awe-inspiring glaciers. Boat tours, hiking, and wildlife spotting opportunities abound within the park. One notable attraction is the Huna Tribal House, where visitors can learn about the Tlingit culture and traditions.
8. Kenai Fjords National Park
Kenai Fjords National Park, located in the Kenai Peninsula, offers a majestic wilderness where verdant forests meet icy seas. The park is dominated by the Harding Icefield, a 700-square-mile expanse with over 40 glaciers. Adventurous hikers can embark on the challenging 8.2-mile round trip day-hike of the icefield, while others can explore the park via boat tours, car rides to the mesmerizing Exit Glacier, kayaking through the Kenai Fjords, or camping in summer cabins.
9. Tracy Arm Fjord
Tracy Arm Fjord, located 45 miles south of Juneau, is a hidden gem for glacier viewing. Its remote and untouched location offers undisturbed natural beauty, characterized by towering rock faces, powerful waterfalls, and small icebergs. Wildlife such as seals, whales, bears, and moose can be observed in their natural habitats as visitors traverse through this fjord.
10. Mendenhall Glacier
Mendenhall Glacier, one of Alaska's largest glaciers, is a 132-mile-long glacier located near Juneau. It can be accessed via helicopter or shuttle bus, with the best times to visit being mid-summer to late fall. The glacier connects to Mendenhall Lake, where icebergs float beneath coastal mountains. Visitors can choose to hike the challenging Mendenhall Glacier West Glacier Trail or enjoy a leisurely stroll through the surrounding rainforest. Abundant wildlife, including black bears, bald eagles, and Coho salmon, can be spotted within this protected area.
11. Denali National Park
Denali National Park encompasses six million acres of pristine wilderness. The park, located between Anchorage and Fairbanks, offers breathtaking river valleys, mountain ranges, and alpine ridges teeming with bears, wolves, elk, moose, and other wildlife. The towering peak of Denali, the tallest mountain in the United States, is a prominent feature within the park. Denali National Park caters to outdoor enthusiasts, with options for hiking, backpacking, backcountry camping, and bus tours that showcase the park's stunning landscapes. The Husky Homestead is another popular attraction, where visitors can meet Iditarod champions and their sled dogs.
12. Katmai National Park
Katmai National Park, situated near Kodiak Island and Homer Island, is a paradise for nature lovers. It is home to the Novarupta Volcano, the centerpiece of the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, named for the gigantic ash flow left behind by its 1912 eruption. Visitors can explore the renowned Brooks Camp, the heart of the park, which offers opportunities for fishing, hiking, backcountry camping, and bear watching. The camp is accessible by floatplane and features a lodge, visitor center, and various trails awaiting exploration.
13. Inside Passage
The Inside Passage is a stunning coastal route stretching 500 miles along Southeast Alaska's rainforest-covered islands. Visitors can navigate this breathtaking passage by boat, cruise ship, yacht, or fishing charter. The area is known for its awe-inspiring fjords, icefields, waterfalls, and glaciers, making it a haven for outdoor enthusiasts. Wildlife sightings, including eagles, whales, and bears, are common in this region. The Inside Passage also offers insight into native cultures, with communities such as the Haida, Tsimshian, and Tlingit residing nearby.
14. Iditarod National Historic Trail
With over 2,300 miles spanning from the Bering Strait to Seward, the Iditarod National Historic Trail is Alaska's only National Historic Trail. Besides being renowned for hosting the annual Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race and Iron Dog Snowmachine Race, the trail offers visitors a chance to experience a challenging hike through stunning winter landscapes. The trail showcases the interconnectedness of Alaska's smaller communities, with captivating mountain ranges and glaciers dotting the route.
Sitka, located on an island, mesmerizes visitors with its breathtaking mountain and sea vistas. The island offers outdoor adventures such as ATV or kayak tours, allowing visitors to explore the captivating natural surroundings. Sitka also boasts numerous art galleries and museums celebrating the island's thriving arts community and native cultures. Wildlife enthusiasts can spot harbor seals, humpback whales, sea otters, sea lions, bald eagles, and brown bears in Sitka's pristine environment.
As you plan your next adventure, don't overlook the majestic wonders that await you in Alaska. From the vibrant city of Anchorage to the breathtaking beauty of Glacier Bay and Denali National Park, there is an endless array of jaw-dropping sights to behold. Whether you're seeking the wonder of the Northern Lights or the awe-inspiring glaciers, the indigenous culture or the remote wilderness, Alaska offers something for every traveler. So pack your bags, hop on the Denali Star train or brave the Dalton Highway, and embark on a journey that will leave you with memories to treasure for a lifetime. Alaska truly is a treasure trove of natural wonders, just waiting to be explored.
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