Alaska’s wilderness and wildlife provide incredible family vacation adventures, from humpback whales and grizzly bears to glaciers and northern lights.
Alaska, the 49th state, is twice the size of Texas and consists of five distinct regions: Inside Passage (with Juneau, Glacier Bay, Skagway), Southcentral (with Anchorage, Seward), Interior (with Fairbanks, Denali Park, Chena Hot Springs), Arctic and Southwest (with Kodiak).
Seeing wildlife IN the wild and enjoying the great outdoors is what Alaska is all about. The wilderness is everywhere as the state has more than 200 parks and preserves, including 8 National Parks. You can see Alaska’s “Big Five” in their natural habitat…the grizzly bear, moose, caribou, Dall sheep, and wolves.
Here are just a few of Alaska’s highlights and ways to enjoy the beautiful state.
DENALI NATIONAL PARK
Covering 6 million acres, Denali is larger than the state of Massachusetts. It has the tallest mountain peak in North America at 18,000 feet which surpasses Mount Everest!
There’s only one road further into the Park past Mile 15, and you can only travel it on a park-approved bus, a bicycle, or your own feet. This almost guarantees you can see some of the over 40 species of mammals that live here.
Denali is the only National Park with a working kennel. Since 1922, Denali’s sled dogs and park rangers have protected the Park. When you visit, you can see mushing (or dogsledding) demonstrations.
WRANGELL-SAINT ELIAS NATIONAL PARK
This is the nation’s largest National Park covering 13 million acres. Named for the mountain ranges running through the Park, it has 9 of the 15 highest U.S. mountain peaks.
The Park has the nation's largest glacial system, with glaciers (huge, slow-moving masses of ice and rock) covering more than a third of it. (Did you know over 5% of Alaska is covered by glaciers, and there are over 100,000 within the state?!)
Hubbard Glacier is North America’s largest tidewater glacier (glaciers that calve icebergs into the sea). It’s 7 miles wide, 600 feet tall (350 feet exposed above the waterline), and flows 76 miles long to the sea. The ice falling off it is as much as 500 years old. Listen for the “white thunder” as huge chunks of ice crash into the bay.
KATMAI NATIONAL PARK & PRESERVE
Katmai has the highest concentration of bears in the world. Watch them catch Sockeye Salmon in Brook Falls. The Park is also the site of the world’s largest volcanic eruption in the 20th century and home to horned puffins.
GLACIER BAY NATIONAL PARK & PRESERVE
This 3.3-million-acre Park is an icy wilderness. Today, glaciers still cover 27 percent of the park. It’s home to humpback and minke whales, harbor porpoises, seals, Steller sea lions, and sea otters. Experience the Park in a kayak, on a flight tour, or by a guided walking tour.
Anchorage is Alaska’s biggest city. With half of the state’s population living here, there’s so much to do.
The Alaska Native Heritage Center teaches visitors the traditional and contemporary ways of Alaska’s 213 Indigenous tribes. Exhibits span over 10,000 years of history and culture and include dance, art, full-scale traditional dwellings, and even totem poles.
Fish for king salmon in Ship Creek, an urban fishery that runs right through downtown. Look for the rare white Beluga Whales swimming off Beluga Point.
In the winter, you can find 1,500 moose roaming the city streets. The first weekend in March, the ceremonial start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race takes place here.
Juneau is the only state capital in the United States that can only be reached by airplane or boat.
It’s popular for whale watching experiences that run from April to September, as whales migrate to Alaska in springtime. Gray whales typically come back first in mid-April, followed by orcas in May, and humpback whales in June.
Whale watching tours are a popular way to see the diverse marine life in the area, including Steller sea lions, Dall’s porpoise, killer whales, and humpback whales. Juneau has about 60 humpbacks that frequent the area and are very commonly seen.
When gold was discovered in the Yukon Territory in 1896, Skagway became the gateway to fortune for tens of thousands of people.
Visit Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park and take the historic White Pass & Yukon Route railroad to the top of the mountain pass north of town. Seated in parlor cars, you ride up the most spectacular part of the trip, viewing scenery such as Glacier Gorge, Dead Horse Gulch, and Bridal Veil Falls. At the top you’ll see the White Pass, the international boundary between the United States and Canada.
Fairbanks is Alaska’s largest inland city and the gateway to the Interior and the Arctic regions.
This is a great place to try chasing the Northern Lights as the city sees roughly 200 auroral appearances a year.
Visit Running Reindeer Ranch and go for a stroll with some of Alaska’s most iconic animals. The family-owned ranch offers reindeer walks through the scenic boreal forests, complete with photo stops, cookies, and hot cocoa.
And you can visit North Pole, Alaska, where it’s always Christmas, just a 15-mile drive southeast of Fairbanks.
Seward is home to fjords, marine wildlife, icebergs, and crystal-blue waters. One of the easiest ways to explore the shores is with a guided kayak or canoe tour. Traveling through Kenai Fjords National Park and Resurrection Bay, the tours offer up-close views of wildlife like whales, puffins, and sea otters.
HOW TO SEE ALASKA
As there is so much ground to cover in Alaska, a cruise or guided vacation tour can be a great way to explore.
Alaska Railroad is also a great way to explore the state. The entire line extends from Seward in the south to Fairbanks in the north, with several scheduled stops along the way, like Anchorage and Denali National Park. You have amazing views of dramatic coastline, snow-capped mountains, wildlife, and more from the second level outdoor viewing platform. Onboard are knowledgeable tour guides that narrate the trip with stories about Alaska’s history and point out animals.
Everyone in the family will enjoy this vacation. Alaska Adventure Awaits!