The largest US state—with more than 655,000 square miles to explore—Alaska beckons adventurous travelers. Even as we move deeper into the 21st century, its nickname of The Last Frontier holds true thanks to its vast and mostly untamed landscape.
“Once you go to Alaska, it won’t be your last time,” says Ashley Knebelsberger, a AAA travel adviser who counts Alaska among her favorite destinations. She has also customized Alaska trips by air, water and land for clients. She urges others not to put off a trip to the 49th state: “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.
“There’s more to Alaska than organized cruises,” she adds. “You can piece an itinerary together with the help of a travel agent for a more personalized experience.”
With that in mind, Knebelsberger shares her five “musts” for an Alaska vacation.
Enjoy the dramatic sights of the Alaskan wilderness from the comfort of Alaska Railroad’s Denali Star Train. Photo by Justin Low/Alaska Railroad
ALASKA RAILROAD: ANCHORAGE TO DENALI
The Denali Star Train departs Anchorage for a four-hour journey to Denali National Park, taking passengers past breathtaking settings such as the Chugach Mountains, remote cabins tucked into the wilderness and the quirky hamlet of Talkeetna (inspiration for the town in the popular TV show Northern Exposure). About 30 minutes into the trip, travelers get their first glimpse of Denali—the tallest mountain peak in North America at 20,000 feet—as it rises above the Susitna River. They may also spot eagles, moose and bears along the way. Book the glass-domed passenger cars for a panoramic experience.
Once the train has arrived at the national park, stay for at least one night (preferably more) to get a true flavor of this six-million-acre treasure, says Knebelsberger. Among the activities to fill your days are wildlife-watching bus tours in the park, guided walking tours, sled-dog kennel visits, wilderness ATV excursions and rafting trips.
Knebelsberger also recommends touring Denali from the sky by prebooking a flightseeing tour that will take you high above the glaciers and forests. If conditions are right, you can even experience a glacier landing. Knebelsberger attests that this opportunity is a “mind-blowing event worth the splurge.”
Chena Hot Springs offers soothing natural springs and a prime location for aurora viewing. Photo by Veruree/Stock.Adobe.Com
This Gateway to the Arctic Circle is a wonderful spot to see one of the world’s most dazzling 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 August 21 to April 21—considered Aurora Season—on nights when the sky is clear and dark. Knebelsberger has crafted Alaska itineraries that tie this experience together with overnight stays in glass igloos.
For those who visit in peak summer months, time your trip with the Midnight Sun Game, a novel Fairbanks tradition since 1906. This amateur baseball game may require some extra caffeine, however, since it begins at “high noon at midnight” and is played without the use of artificial light.
Fairbanks offers daytime activities, too, of course. Among the most popular: dog sledding, ice fishing, attending shows by Alaska Native performers and visiting nearby Chena Hot Springs, where visitors can soak in the same mineral-rich waters that soothed gold miners and early pioneers more than 100 years ago. Chena Hot Springs is also a renowned spot for open-air aurora viewing.
Ketchikan lays claim to the world’s largest. Photo by Creatista/Stock.Adobe.Com
Ketchikan is the first city on the southern tip of the Inside Passage, a 500-mile stretch popular with cruises for its towering glaciers, unspoiled scenery and dramatic fjords abounding with wildlife. The city provides easy access to the world’s largest intact temperate rainforest: Tongass National Forest. The massive wilderness area encompasses nearly 17 million acres and provides the opportunity to explore the wild Alaska you’ve likely seen in films and photographs.
Experience it on the ground with hiking and camping. Experience it from the water by joining a sightseeing boat tour or kayak excursion. Experience it from the sky with a float plane tour or zip-line adventure atop the forest canopy.
Ketchikan lays claim to the title of Salmon Capital of Alaska. Photo by Istock.Com/Gerald Corsi
Knebelsberger recommends also delving into the “fishy” culture of the Salmon Capital of Alaska by watching black bears feast on spawning salmon during guided tours in summer. Fish for salmon yourself, too. “You can take a floatplane to a local lodge and eat fish just caught there,” Knebelsberger adds.
You might even consider joining a guided tour with a focus on fish. Local outfitters offer wildlife cruises that include tastings of locally caught Alaska seafood delicacies such as smoked salmon, halibut, snow crab and oysters as well as a visit to the historic George Inlet Cannery, where you’ll learn the history of a process that’s made Ketchikan a bustling fishing center since the 19th century.
Alongside the bountiful seafood and natural splendor, Ketchikan is also home to the world’s largest collection of Alaska Native totem poles. More than 80 Native American totem poles adorn the town, each one intricately carved and painted, honoring a unique story or Native legend. Join a guided totem pole tour to explore these stories and to see how local wood is transformed into these masterpieces at a local carving workshop.
A short drive from downtown Juneau, Mendenhall Glacier is the only such glacier in Southeast Alaska reachable by road. Photo By Ruth Peterkin/Stock.Adobe.Com
The pioneer spirit is embedded into Alaska’s capital of Juneau. Stroll Historic Downtown Juneau to pop into artist galleries, where the stories and landscapes of the Last Frontier are beautifully immortalized. Across the city’s downtown and waterfront, sound installations feature stories as told by Juneau residents, and the Sealaska Heritage Institute and Alaska State Museum provide a fascinating window into the history of Alaska’s people and wildlife.
Whale-watching tours deliver common sightings of orcas, humpback whales and an array of other marine life. Photo courtesy of Travel Juneau
Wildlife rules in this capital city. Among Juneau’s popular animal-centric activities are whale-watching adventures (especially for humpback whales and orcas) and floatplane trips to Admiralty Island, home to the world’s highest density of brown bear populations as well as nesting bald eagles.
Mendenhall Glacier is another can’t-miss attraction, says Knebelsberger. This massive 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 trails (for experienced hikers only).
The effort required to reach Sitka, an island accessible only by sea or air, is well worth it. Photo by Skookum Photography/Stock.Adobe.Com
Visiting this small town located on the Inside Passage “feels like you’re in Russia,” says Knebelsberger. Nearly everywhere you wander, remnants of Russia’s time as colonial ruler live in the architecture of buildings like the Russian Bishop’s House and St. Michael’s Orthodox Cathedral, as well as in the colorful nesting dolls, hand-carved chess sets and hand-painted Russian eggs displayed in shop windows and galleries.
The influence of the indigenous Tlingit people who first settled in Sitka some 10,000 years ago is predominant in places such as Sitka National Historical Park and Sheet’ka Kwaan Naa Kahidi Tribal Community House, which presents traditional Tlingit dance performances and storytelling events.
When you’re not exploring Sitka’s cultural bounty, the gorgeous setting invites outdoor exploration in the form of kayaking, hiking, fishing— and even snorkeling. The sheltered waterways of Sitka Sound and its passages extending north and south make it a peaceful place to spend time on the water, framed by rugged forest and spectacular mountains.
Because the town sits on an island in the sound, you can arrive only by sea or air—extra effort that perhaps adds to its appeal for travelers.
The draw of Alaska as a travel destination is only growing as we emerge out of a multiyear pandemic that’s heightened people’s cravings for wide open spaces. While you may not be able to cram every recommendation provided by Knebelsberger into a single trip, heed her prediction: you will return.