Alaska, the final frontier of adventure travel is at the top of many bucket lists. The largest state in the United States is a destination that offers visitors an unparalleled opportunity to experience the natural beauty and rugged wilderness of the Arctic. Alaska is a place that captures the imagination and the spirit of adventure. From the bustling city of Anchorage to the remote wilderness of Denali National Park, there is no shortage of places to visit in Alaska. And we’ve seen them all!
Top Places to Visit in Alaska
Alaska’s landscape is diverse, ranging from snow-capped mountains to glaciers, fjords, and an expanse of forests. We fell in love with Alaska the first time we visited in 2011 and when taking my parents on a Holland American Cruise last summer, we were thrilled to be able to share its beauty and introduce them. When choosing your cruise or land tour through Alaska, it can be difficult to decide where to stop or what to see, so we’re rounding up some of the best places to visit in Alaska that we’ve been to help you plan your trip.
Denali National Park and Preserve
There are 17 national parks in Alaska, and Denali National Park and Preserve is certainly the most popular of them all. It cannot be seen from a cruise and needs to be added as a land tour or traveled independently. This vast wilderness area is located in central Alaska and is home to North America’s highest peak, Denali (Mount McKinley) which stands at 6190 meters (20,310 feet),
The national park covers an area of more than 6 million acres and is home to a diverse range of ecosystems, including tundra, boreal forests, glaciers, and snow-capped mountains.
One of the first things visitors usually do is to hop aboard converted school buses to enjoy a guided scenic tour in search of grizzly bears, moose, wolves, caribou, and Dall sheep.
We took this ATV adventure which was a hoot riding along trails. The adventure includes 360° overlook views of the Alaska Range, Otto Lake, and the Healy Valley.
One of the most popular activities in Denali National Park is hiking. The park has a network of trails that range from short walks to multi-day backpacking trips. It has 6 campgrounds which do get busy in the summer months so it is a good idea to make a reservation. Be sure to check in with the Denali Visitor Center before venturing out into the park.
McKinley Chalet Resort
We stayed at McKinley Chalet Resort which was spectacular. Located less than 2 miles from the national park entrance, we felt right in the middle of the wilderness. The newly renovated suites in our wing were chic and modern with that rustic mountain lodge feel. Our balcony looked over the mountains. The property is large with different areas detached from the main lodge. We enjoyed a fun evening watching The Music of Denali as we our servers performed on stage while feeding us fresh Alaskan salmon, ribs and mashed potatoes, family style.
Denali – Mt. McKinely
If you are lucky while visiting the park, you may be able to spy Denali (Also known as Mount McKinley). It is usually overcast, but we’ve been lucky enough to see it from our land tour and by a scenic flight.
A scenic flight was an absolutely gorgeous way to experience North America’s tallest peak. Seeing the glaciers and ice fields from above was an intimidating sight. At times it felt as if we could reach out and touch it. Avid climbers can attempt to conquer Denali. But unlike Mount Kilimanjaro, it requires serious climbing experience and winter camping. If you are new to mountaineering, it is better to stick to taking in scenic views.
Book this scenic flight over Denali where you will fly close to the summit of Denali, enjoy views of the Alaska Range, and witness the Tokositna and Ruth Glaciers. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Glacier Bay National Park
Glacier Bay National Park is one of the most unique places in the world. It is designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site and rightly so with history packed in every single molecule of its ancient glacier history.
The Grand Pacific Glacier was more than 4000 feet thick just two centuries ago but has shrunk significantly. Today the glacier has been divided into many small ones and many of them are calving to this day. That means at any moment a giant block of ice could fall off of them, which also means many of the glaciers have to be enjoyed from a distance.
The park is made up of more than 3 million acres and can only be reached by ship or float plane. Alaska’s inside passage in Glacier Bay takes you from forest to ice and is breathtaking to experience as you float the fjord. When you’re in the inside passage it is almost as though nothing else exists.
During our Holland America Cruise, we circled the bay enjoying panoramic views of the glaciers from the front deck. By having a balcony suite, we then retired to our room to enjoy the views with a glass of champagne as we relaxed in privacy taking in this wonder of the world.
One of our favorite places to visit in Alaska is Ketchikan. The Salmon Capital of the world and Alaska’s first city, this is a town where most cruises stop either first or last!
Located on the Inside Passage, Ketchikan is a premier place in Alaska to watch black bears feeding on salmon. We took a float plane out to Neets Bay to watch bears feast on spawning salmon as they fattened up for winter hibernation. This was one of the best experiences we’ve ever had. Make sure to book it early as these excursions fill up quickly.
Things to do in Ketchikan
Besides bear watching, there are plenty of things to do in Ketchikan. This frontier town was once a thriving settlement for the gold rush and as you walk along the boardwalks of Creek Street, you can see historic buildings from the red light district dating back to the 1800s.
Ketchikan also has the world’s largest collection of standing Native American totem poles. Make sure to look up to see them all. If you want to delve into Indigenous culture, visit the Totem Heritage Center and learn about the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian Peoples who have called this land home for thousands of years.
Misty Fjord National Monument
One of the star attractions in Ketchikan is Misty Fjord National Monument which is located just 22 miles east of Ketchikan. Sheer rock walls reach 3000 feet straight out of the ocean where you’ll witness steep sea cliffs, steep fjords, and rainforests. This is best seen by the float plane.
Where to Stay in Ketchikan
If you are staying in Ketchikan, check out the Inn at Creek Street – These restored historic buildings offer unique accommodation in the heart of downtown. Most rooms have kitchenettes and refrigerators. Details here.
The Landing – The Landing Hotel is located in downtown Ketchikan. It has The Landing Restaurant & Jeremiah’s Pub on site.
Juneau – Mendenhall Glacier
Many cruise ships also start and finish their journeys in Juneau, Alaska. I know we have! Named after Joe Juneau, a French-Canadian miner, and prospector Juneau is one of the more happening towns in Alaska. One of its main tourist attractions is the enormous Mendenhall Glacier located on the Juneau Ice field.
Juneau is a place in Alaska that requires at least a couple of days to explore. The town itself has a fun old-west vibe complete with saloons, boardwalks, and plenty of attractions. It’s also one of the premier places in the world to spot bald eagles with them being so plentiful there is a beach actually called Bald Eagle Beach. Read more about all the 28 Amazing Things to do in Juneau, Alaska
Where to Stay in Juneau
Four Points by Sheraton – Located on the waterfront and directly across from the UnCruise port, we found this to be a very convenient hotel. For us, it was within walking distance to downtown and a lot of the top things to do in Juneau downtown. Plus it has easy access to the Seadrome Marina.
Ramada Inn by Wyndham – Another great location in Juneau just a little farther away from the historic downtown than the Sheraton. But still within walking distance and we loved their restaurant and bar.
Mendenhall Ice Caves
The Mendenhall ice caves are one of the coolest things to see in Juneau. This natural attraction will make you feel as though you have been transported to a planet of ice and glass. The Mendenhall ice caves are usually accessible between July and September.
Book this highly-rated Mendenhall Glacier Ice Caves Tour. For the adventure of a lifetime, paddle the Mendenhall Lake to the Glacier where you’ll get to explore the glacier up close and personal. Something that very few people have the chance to do.
Or you can join a canoe trip to the glacier where you’ll search for wildlife, paddle around ice flows and finally step foot on the glacier to explore.
If you want to try a truly authentic experience, make sure to drive the Alaska Highway from Dawson’s Creek in British Columbia. This epic road trip crosses through southeast Alaska letting you see a different side of the sate. We made a similar journey along the Dempster Highway in the Yukon and let me tell you, there is nothing like it on Earth.
The Alaska Highway is a 1400-mile trip that ends in Fairbanks, Alaska. Along the drive, you’ll encounter glaciers and mountains and grizzly bears, and more and it will definitely be a trip you won’t forget. Of course, you don’t have to take the highway, you can simply take a plane and land yourself in one of Alaska’s big cities.
The very first place we ever visited in Alaska was Fairbanks, Alaska and this town is awesome. When visiting Alaska in the summer it is truly the land of the Midnight Sun. There are so many things to do in Fairbanks from learning about Native American Culture and exploring the Chena River to relaxing in the Chena Hot Springs.
One of the more interesting places to visit is the Yukon Quest Alaska Headquarters. This is the start of the Yukon Quest dog sled race where you can learn about the famous dog mushers and teams who have taken part over the years. Including our friend Hank McCready who ran the prettiest team in Alaska. Another stop is the fountainhead auto museum where vintage cars are on display. It is consistently ranked as one of the best auto museums in the world.
Where to Stay in Fairbanks
For Aurora viewing check out Aurora Villa. This modern retreat is a boutique hotel offering views of the northern lights nestled in the mountains above Fairbanks.
If you want to go even more remote, continue on from Fairbanks to Deadhorse along the Dalton Highway near the Prudhoe Bay Oil fields and the Arctic Ocean. We haven’t done this drive, but we have been up to the Arctic Ocean in the neighboring Northwest Territories in Canada and the scenery here is truly magnificent. The Dalton Highway is considered one of the most isolated roads in the United States. It crossed the Arctic Circle and we did this on the similar Dempster Highway. it is the coolest thing to drive right across the Arctic Circle. It’s truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Enjoy reading our 15 Great Road Trips in America
Kenai Fjords National Park
The Kenai Fjords National Park in the Kenai Peninsula is one of the best places to visit in Alaska with glaciers, an icefield, and bears and seals lolling about. The best way to see this remote destination is to get out on a cruise where you can get out on kayaks to explore the fjords.
Make sure to visit the Kenai Fjords National Park Visitor Centre in Seward before you head out to learn about trail conditions and the Kenai Peninsula before you head into the park. And don’t miss seeing Exit Glacier located just 10 minutes Seward, it one of the Alaska’s most accessible roadside glaciers.
Kenai Fjords National park was a national monument and then became a National park designed to protect the misty fjords, rainforest, and wildlife that make up the area. Today, the Kenai Peninsula is a beloved part of the local Anchorage community as it’s just a two-hour drive outside of the city.
Harding Ice Field Trail
The Harding Ice Fields is a major draw of the park and for good reason. These glacial sheets of ice go as far as the eye can see and make you feel like you’ve just stepped onto another planet.
You can hike the Harding Icefield Trail but be warned it is considered difficult if you are not experienced. But you’ll also get a chance to see sides of the fields that you just can’t witness on the beaten path. Additionally, the trail has a waterfall and is also frequented by black bears. If you decide to go, make sure to take bear spray and spikes and poles wouldn’t hurt either.
Tongass National Forest
It’s hard to believe that Alaska has a rainforest but Tongass National Forest is the largest functioning temperate rainforest on Earth. The size of Tongass is mind-blowing at more than 16 million acres of land. It is made up of lots of ice and rock as well as that forest.
If you’re in Juneau, you can take a mere 15-minute drive and come upon the Mendenhall Glacier. The Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center will give you the down-low of all that you need to know about your visit. You can also find out about tours at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center. Besides Mendenhall, there are numerous other glaciers spread across the park.
The park is home to all sorts of wildlife like wolves, black bears, and deer. You can even spot humpback whales and sea lions in the nearby waters. Tongass National Park has the comforts of the city within it as well as the comforts of the wild throughout.
A visit to Alaska wouldn’t be complete without seeing Anchorage. It is the largest city in Alaska and an international hub with access to Alaska’s interior and coast. It is here that you can hop on the Alaska Railroad to explore the great frontier. Anchorage was the start of our cruise down to Glacier Bay National Park with Princess Cruises after getting off the railways. With cafés and restaurants, it has all the amenities of a big city. A highlight to visit is the ultra modern Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center and The Alaska Native Heritage Center exploring the life and culture of Alaska’s indigenous people.
Wrangell Elias National Park
It’s larger than Yellowstone National Park, in fact, it’s larger than all North American national parks, Wrangell St. Elias National Park is America’s largest national park at a whopping 13.2 million acres. It’s a national treasure that few people get to see. Check out America’s first national park: Best things to do in Yellowstone NP.
The park is full of volcanoes and glaciers and the unique landscape attracts all sorts of wildlife like mountain goats and brown bears. (same as grizzly bears) Wrangell St Elias National Park is part tundra and temperate rainforest. It is also home to moose, Dall sheep, bison, goats, and caribou.
One of the most interesting things you might see are ice worms. From the name, you’d think they should be see-through or white, but ice worms are actually black and you can see them through frozen surfaces. If you’re a bird watcher, you’ll love the Copper River Basin Area which is part of the migratory route of numerous bird species. Additionally, you’ll likely see bald eagles, swans, ravens, and owls too.
You must check out the Wrangell St Elias National Volcanic Field when you’re at the park. It is incredible to see steam rising out of Mt. Wrangell’s vents on cold days. The park is also an absolute playground for mountain climbers with some of the highest peaks in all of the US sitting in the park.
In fact, the second-highest US Peak is Mt. Elias, which sits in the Wrangell St Elias National Park and towers up to 18,000 feet. The highest US peak is in Alaska too we’ll tell you about it in just a bit. The park is also home to the Hubbard Glacier. The Hubbard Glacier is the largest tidewater glacier in the US and all of North America.
Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge
First established to protect the great brown bears that live on Kodiak Island, today the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge protects a whole lot more. Sitting close to 2,000,000 acres the refuge encompasses Ben Island and parts of Kodiak Island, Uganik Island, the Red Peaks, and Afognak Island.
It is full of rivers and streams and is a nesting ground for several hundred species of birds including the Bald Eagle. Today the mission of the refuge is not only just protect the brown bears, but also to conserve all wildlife, sea lions, and fish populations in the area.
It is a big breeding ground for five species of salmon that also feed the hundreds of birds that live on the island. This is hands down one of the best places to visit in Alaska. The area is only accessible by floatplane or boat so if you want to visit, you definitely should plan ahead.
Skagway is a bustling town when the ships are in with so many things to see and do. It can be overwhelming spending just a day in Skagway. This old wild west town is filled with energy. In town you can visit the Klondike Visitor’s Center to learn all about the Gold Rush that attracted people to this part of the world.
We took the best of all of Skagway by taking a helicopter flight over the glaciers out to the national forest in search of wildlife before hopping on the historic White Pass and Yukon Railroad. The vintage locomotive takes you along the Chilcoot Trail where prospectors risked their lives in search of gold. If you are walking around town, make your way to Pullen Creek Stream Walk to see the salmon run.
White Pass Railway and Skagway Historic District
Take a step back in time and visit the Skagway Historic District. It is located in the town of Skagway and the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park has managed to ensure that ancient buildings from the Gold Rush days are still intact.
Make sure to visit Mascot Saloon for a throwback in time and check out how folks in the old days enjoyed their libations. Other national register buildings available for tours include the Jeff Smiths Parlor Museum and the White Pass and Yukon Broadway Depot which is a visitor’s center now but was a train depot in the olden days. Just walking through Skagway downtown will make you feel like you yourself have traveled back in time to when searching for gold and grabbing a pint after was all in a day’s work.
While summertime in Alaska gives visitors the chance to experience the midnight sun with nearly 24 hours of daylight, when the cooler temperatures arrive you can make a trip to Alaska to see the Northern Lights. The best time to see the northern lights in Alaska is in early fall or spring as well as winter. Folks say the interior and ultra north of Alaska are the best places to view the lights, but even if you’re not in those places, you can still see them.
Light pollution will be your enemy so if you want to get the real Aurora experience, the best places to visit will be outside of Alaska’s big cities. You can ask the hotel that you’re staying at to wake you when the lights are out as quite a number of hotels in Alaska offer this service.
To view the Aurora Borealis stay at the Northern Sky Lodge in Fairbanks. The lodge is nestled among 21 acres, only 30 minutes from Fairbanks International Airport and 90 minutes from Denali National Park. It makes for a great base to explore the interior of Alaska.
Alaska Native Heritage Center
To truly appreciate the Alaskan climate and lifestyle it is definitely a good idea to learn about the indigenous history of the state. Your visit to the Alaska Native Heritage Center will give you a glimpse into the lives of 11 Alaska cultures including the Haida and Tsimshian First Nations whose territory goes right into Canada and down into British Columbia.
You will get to watch traditional dancing, meet Indigenous artists, and even visit dwellings that give you a chance to experience how the Indigenous people lived in the winter in Alaska before there was electricity.
It doesn’t matter where you land in Alaska, there will be a boat tour waiting for you. It is one of the best ways to see the totality of what Alaska is. You can travel along coastal waters and in fjords to get an up close and personal look at glaciers as well as the sea life.
The great thing about taking a boat tour is the views of course, but also you’ll have an informed guide who can give you detailed descriptions of what you are seeing. With that, you’ll get the history of the places as well as a little bit of science so your trip will not only be a beautiful one but one in which you get to do some learning too.
Cruise ships also make viewing the coastal areas recommended by the National Geographic Society east. Bu t you don’t need to take a cruise to enter and exit glacier space, you can take a smaller private boat tour too.
Iditarod National Historic Trail
The historic Iditarod Trail is best known these days for the Iditarod Dog Sledding Race but prior to the race, it was a route used by Native Americans prior to the introduction of other vehicles.
This trail took folks 50 miles north of Seward all the way to Nome. They weren’t just going for a leisurely mush however, these folks carried heavy supplies to remote communities. Dog sleds played an important part in Native transportation and Europeans that came after also adopted this efficient transportation method in the harsh northern climate.
These days you can make your own memories on the trail by walking it or using a tour operator that will take you on a traditional dog sled on the trail. The Iditarod Dog Sledd Race takes place in March and attracts a lot of attention. If you happen to be there during that time it is definitely something you shouldn’t miss.
If you’re a bit of a romantic then the idea of taking a railroad across the wilderness will get you excited. The Alaska Railroad was established in 1903 and still runs today. It traverses almost 500 miles from Seward up to Fairbanks with stops along the way.
If you want a comfortable visit in Alaska whole checking out the Alaskan wilderness while riding a line folks did a century ago, you should book a seat on the Alaska Railroad. The ticket price will vary based upon how far you travel and which cabin you decide to book. Additionally, you can enjoy breakfast, lunch, and dinner entrees on your trip while enjoying the beauty of the Pacific Ocean, Alaska glaciers, rivers and mountains.
Prince William Sound
It is truly a stunning sight to see so many salmon all in one place. If you’re looking for a fun day trip then look no further than Prince William Sound.
The Sound is located on the south end of Alaska with incredible scenery and is one of the prettiest places you’ll visit. You can take a boat tour out to visit the sound and also enjoy a delicious meal on the water. The Sound is surrounded by glaciers and the biggest tidewater glacier is the Columbia Glacier.
You’ll feel like what a goldfish feels like as the surroundings seem bigger than life. There is also a lot of wildlife in the area so keep your camera handy for epic pics you can look at over and over again. This might not be one of the most well-known Alaska destinations, but you’ll be rewarded with an awe-inspiring scene if you decide to be one of the few that visit.
Chugach State Park
You can stay in the lap of comfort while also enjoying outdoor adventures in the wilderness if you visit Chugach State Park. Most of the park sits in Anchorage which is the largest city in Alaska in terms of population. It has modern hotels and restaurants and is a great place to stay.
There are numerous trails for mountain biking and many hiking trails in Chugach National Forest such as the Devil’s Pass Trail which sits in the Kenai Mountains. For a fun day outing, you can take the Glacier Discovery Train and explore Spencer Glacier Whistlestop and check out the Chugach Mountains.
There are opportunities for kayaking among the glacial elements in this arctic national park too. There are more than 20 campgrounds in the park to truly experience the Alaskan outdoors and don’t forget your fishing rod as there is some great salmon fishing in the park too.
Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center
If you want to guarantee viewing Alaska’s wildlife then you should check out the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. The center aims to protect and preserve the wildlife of Alaska through education and research.
The center is located off the Seward Highway near the Portage Valley Glacier on Turnagain Arm. It is 200-acres of pure wonder as you get a chance to see bison, coyotes, bears, and other wildlife up close. The conservation center is sectioned off into areas for different wildlife. You can drive through, park your car and then take a walkthrough.
Frequently Asked Questions
What are the prettiest places in Alaska?
If you visit any of the national parks in Alaska, you will be assured of finding a pretty place. Nothing really beats Glacier Bay National Park but Katmai National park is one of the prettiest places around. Katmai national park is also one of the best places to see brown bears in the wild.
What should you avoid in Alaska?
If you are not a seasoned hiker or climber, it’s best to stay away from the glaciers and just view them from afar or hire a guide or tour to see them with a professional. Additionally, it is best to stay off unmarked trails unless you are very experienced and don’t venture to the backcountry unless you have experience.
What is the best way to see Alaska in 10 days?
The best way to see Alaska in 10 days is to take a cruise ship down or head to the capital city of Juneau and make your way up from there.
And these are the best places to visit in Alaska. Have you been to Alaska? Alaska is one of our favourite travel destinations on earth and we look forward to going back soon. What did we miss and where should we go next?