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Outdoors

10 Epic Experiences You Shouldn’t Miss in Alaska

By Marissa Kozma
Read time: 6 minutes

Alaska encompasses 586,000 square miles of land, making it by far the largest state in the U.S. Aptly nicknamed the “Great Land,” Alaska is double the size of Texas and one-fifth the size of the entire lower 48, making it highly unlikely you’ll get to explore its vast wilderness on one trip alone. So, where do you start? From cosmopolitan cities like Anchorage to pristine national parks and coastal hamlets, here are 10 of the most epic experiences for an unforgettable Alaska vacation.

Kayak Around Glaciers

Couple kayaking next to glacier in Alaska
Photo credit: Photo courtesy of Juno Kim/ Visit Anchorage

With around 100,000 glaciers, Alaska has the world’s highest concentration of glaciers — and you don’t have to venture far from major cities to view them. Case in point: Within 50 miles of Anchorage, visitors can discover a whopping 60 glaciers. One of the most accessible and popular to visit is the 10-story-tall Portage Glacier. In summer, many visitors take boat tours to this mighty glacier, but for a unique vantage point, you can rent a kayak and paddle around Portage Lake. Nearby attractions include the five-mile Trail of Blue Ice, a hiking path which connects several of the region’s glaciers, plus the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center — where you can see species such as brown bears, moose, bison, muskoxen, and wolves.

Catch a King Salmon at Ship Creek

Aerial view of bridge over King Creek in Anchorage, Alaska, with people salmon fishing
Photo credit: Photo courtesy of Frank Flavin/ Visit Anchorage

Now Alaska’s most populated city, Anchorage traces its origins to a 1915 railroad settlement at Ship Creek. The protected area was the safest place for ships to anchor at the time, hence the city’s name. Today, Ship Creek is famous for another reason: Chinook salmon, also known as king salmon. 

From January to mid-July, aspiring anglers can catch their very own salmon without even leaving Anchorage. The massive fish can weigh up to 30 pounds, and your best chances to land a big one are in June. Before fishing, make sure you review the state’s sport fishing regulations to obtain the proper license and learn more about how to get your salmon stamp (an official requirement when you catch one). Head to the Bait Shack to rent rods, bait, waders, and other gear. 

Attend a Cultural Event at Alaska Native Heritage Center

Tour group at the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage
Photo credit: Photo courtesy of Brian Adams/ Visit Anchorage

To fully appreciate and understand the beauty of Alaska, one must see it through the eyes of the Indigenous peoples who first called the land home. The Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage is a fascinating way to experience the culture, stories, and traditions of Alaska’s 11 major cultures. Visitors can watch native game demonstrations, take art classes, watch films about the different cultures and regions of Alaska, and more. It’s an essential stop for understanding and appreciating Alaska’s vast landscapes and the people who have inhabited them for centuries. 

See the Bears of Admiralty Island

Brown bear and cub wading in Alaska river
Photo credit: DreamArt123/ Shuttterstock

Alaska’s Admiralty Island — the seventh-largest island in the United States — is home to around 1,600 brown bears. That is the highest concentration of brown bears in the world, all thanks to the island’s thriving salmon population. To see them for yourself, head to Admiralty Island National Monument in the southeast corner of the state. The Pack Creek Bear Viewing Area is where you can safely watch the bear feed on the fish from an observation tower. You may also even spot a nesting bald eagle.

Visit Kennecott Ghost Town

Abandoned buildings on hillside in Kennecott, Alaska
Photo credit: Steven Schremp/ Shutterstock

Mining for precious metals was a major part of Alaska history, and one of the best places to uncover the state’s past is this abandoned copper mine. Kennecott (also known as Kennicott) was once the world’s richest copper mine, and a bustling settlement developed here at the turn of the 20th century. Visitors today can stay at Kennicott Glacier Lodge in Glenallen to check out this National Historic Landmark located within Wrangell-St. Elias National Park — America’s largest national park. Stop by the old post office and general store to get a glimpse of daily life for early settlers.  

Ride the White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad

Vintage rail car traveling by flowering fields and mountains in Alaska
Photo credit: SCStock/ Shutterstock

Between early May and late September, visitors have the chance to experience a historic train ride aboard the White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad. Built in 1898, the train originally transported Klondike gold miners from Skagway, Alaska, to Whitehorse, in the Canadian territory of Yukon. The passage was heralded as the “Scenic Railway of the World” and required the labor of 35,000 men to complete. Today, travelers can experience the breathtaking beauty of Alaska’s mountains, glaciers, and tunnels from the railroad’s vintage train cars. Before boarding in Skagway, stop by the Red Onion Saloon, which has been serving thirsty patrons since 1897. 

Soak at Chena Hot Springs

Photo credit: Pep Roig/ Alamy Stock Photo

Chena Hot Springs Resort in Fairbanks is considered one of the best places in the world to see the northern lights — the natural phenomenon that occurs when particles from the sun collide with gaseous particles in the Earth’s atmosphere and emit vibrant streaks of color. But before you look up to the night sky, soaking in the resort’s famous hot springs is a must. Heated pools and spas are located both indoors and outdoors, and day pass holders and overnight guests can dip in the natural Hot Springs Lake, which is a balmy 106 degrees Fahrenheit year-round. In winter, the resort also has an ice museum, which is made using 1,000 tons of snow and ice and is illuminated at night.

Wander the Totem Trail in Sitka

Totem poles along forest trail in Sitka, Alaska
Photo credit: Mark A. Johnson/ Alamy Stock Photo

Finding the perfect hiking trail in Alaska is like deciding on which ice cream flavor to order — you really can’t go wrong. But one of the state’s most unique trails — one you won’t find elsewhere in America — is the Totem Trail, a relatively easy mile-long loop in Sitka. This charming coastal city is about a six- to eight-hour ferry ride (or a faster flight) from the state capital of Juneau. Totems from local Haida and Tlingit villages dot the path between the trees — a testament to the living tradition of wood carving and a reminder of Alaska’s Indigenous past and present.

Shop the Boardwalk in Ketchikan

Colorful buildings of Ketchikan, Alaska's waterfront boardwalk
Photo credit: SCStock/ Shutterstock

The Alaska coast is dotted with colorful fishing villages, but the quiet community of Ketchikan makes for the perfect day trip south of Juneau for shopping and experiencing the laid-back lifestyle of Alaska. Located on Revillagigedo Island, Ketchikan is especially known for Creek Street, a boardwalk mounted on stilts that’s home to restaurants, curio shops, a museum, and historic dwellings. In town, you can watch migrating salmon at the Salmon Ladder.

Go Dog Sledding at the Husky Homestead in Denali

Pack of sled dogs resting in Alaska
Photo credit: Dene’ Miles/ Shutterstock

It wouldn’t be a trip to Alaska without spotting Denali — America’s tallest peak — in the distance. Named after this 20,310-foot mountain, Denali National Park is one of the most stunning national parks in the U.S., covering over 7,400 square miles of glaciers, rivers, boreal forests, and alpine tundra. For a memorable activity near the park, try your hand at dog-sledding. Husky Homestead is just outside the park entrance, and visitors can meet the active pups before racing through the surrounding snowy wilderness. You’ll be a pro at mushing by the end of the day. 

Tip: Make Visit Anchorage your first stop for everything you need to plan your Alaska vacation. 

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