The pristine wilderness and wide-open spaces of Alaska tap the intrepid spirit. As we move deeper into the 21st century, its nickname of “The Last Frontier” holds up thanks to its vast and mostly untamed landscape—a rare quality in our modern world.
The options on how to travel Alaska (where to go, what to see) can seem as vast as Alaska itself. To narrow things down, we tapped the expertise of Ashley Knebelsberger, a AAA Travel Advisor with more than 20 years of worldwide travel experience, including several trips to Alaska under her belt.
“Once you go to Alaska, it won’t be your last time,” she says. That’s one reason why she emphasizes not putting off a trip. “A lot of people wait until they retire, but by that time, they might not be able to do some of the [more physically demanding] activities.”
She also encourages working with an experienced travel agent to craft an adventure that suits your style of travel and budget. “There’s more to Alaska than organized cruises,” says Knebelsberger, who has customized Alaska trips by air, water, and land for her clients and considers the destination a personal favorite. “You can piece things together with the help of a travel agent for a more personalized experience.”
With that in mind, here are her five “musts” when planning your Alaska vacation.
Aurora Winter Train. Photo courtesy of Justin Low/Alaska Railroad
THE ALASKA RAILROAD: ANCHORAGE TO DENALI
The Denali Star Train departs Anchorage for Denali National Park, taking you past some of the most stunning natural settings during its 234-mile journey aboard the Alaska Railroad—no hiking required. You’ll get your first glimpse of Denali, the tallest peak in North America, about 30 minutes into the trip. Once within the national park, says Knebelsberger, stay for at least one night (if not more) to get a true flavor of this natural treasure spanning 6 million acres. She also recommends touring Denali from the sky. You can do this by pre-booking a flightseeing tour that will take you high above the glaciers and forests. If conditions are right, you can even experience a glacier landing. This is something that Knebelsberger has done herself and calls a mind-blowing event worth the splurge.
Centennial Footbridge crossing the Chena River during the Midnight Sun Festival in Golden Heart Plaza, downtown Fairbanks
This “Gateway to the Arctic Circle” is a wonderful spot to catch one of the world’s most bewitching natural wonders: the Aurora Borealis, also known as the Northern Lights. In Fairbanks, this otherworldly dance of light in the nighttime sky is best viewed from Aug. 21 to April 21. Knebelsberger has crafted Alaska itineraries that tie this experience together with dog-mushing and overnight stays in glass igloos. For those who visit in peak summer months, timing a trip with the Midnight Sun Game, a Fairbanks tradition since 1906, is a fun novelty. It may require some extra caffeine, however, since it’s a game that begins at “high noon at midnight.”
Totem Guard at Saxman Village Near Ketchikan. Photo courtesy of Creatista/iStock.com
Ketchikan is the first city on the southern tip of the Inside Passage, a 500-mile stretch popular with cruises for its wildlife-filled fjords, towering glaciers, and pristine island scenery. That makes it a first introduction to Alaska for many visitors. Among the highlights: the largest collection of Native American totem poles in the world, and easy access to the largest intact temperate rainforest in the world, Tongass National Forest. Knebelsberger recommends getting into the spirit of the salmon culture in this “Salmon Capital of Alaska,” where seeing black bears feasting on spawning salmon isn’t uncommon for guided bear-viewing tours in summer. Fish for and feast on freshly caught salmon yourself, too. “You can take a floatplane to a local lodge and eat fish just caught there,” Knebelsberger says.
Bear Family. Photo courtesy of Travel Juneau
Alaska’s capital is home to more than just politicians. Wildlife also rules here. Among the popular animal-centric activities in Juneau: whale watching adventures (especially of humpback whales and orcas) and floatplane trips to Admiralty Island, which is home to the world’s highest density of brown bear populations and nesting bald eagles. Mendenhall Glacier is a can’t-miss attraction, says Knebelsberger. This ever-evolving relic from the Ice Age is the only glacier in Alaska accessible by road, just 12 miles from downtown Juneau. It drops 4,500 feet over 13 miles and is punctuated by waterfalls, lush forest, ice caves, and backcountry trials (for experienced hikers).
Several boats are harbored at Sitka, Alaska. Photo courtesy of John McQusiton
Knebelsberger says this small town located on the Inside Passage is like stepping into another country. “It feels like you’re in Russia,” she says. While you can’t see Russia from Sitka, you can experience its colonial history in Russian America, as everywhere you wander, its influence lives in the architecture and artisan work for sale in shop windows and galleries. The influence of the original Tlingit people who first settled in Sitka some 10,000 years ago is also predominant in places such as the Sitka National Historic Park and the Sheet’ka Kwaan Naa Kahidi Tribal Community House, where traditional Tlingit dance performances educate and inspire guests. When not exploring Sitka’s cultural bounty, the gorgeous setting invites outdoor exploration in the form of kayaking, hiking, and fishing. Because the town resides on an island in Sitka Sound, you can only arrive by sea or air—extra effort that perhaps adds to its appeal for the intrepid traveler.