Looking for the ultimate destination for adventure junkies? You can’t go wrong with a trip to Alaska. America’s Final Frontier offers an endless array of one-of-a-kind experiences for visitors. From whale watching in summer, to glacier climbing in fall and winter, Alaska doesn’t disappoint. Not to mention, there’s boundless backcountry, mountains, and fjords to explore. Bottom line, your itinerary won’t be lacking in Alaska. There’s just so much to see and do. What are the must-dos on an Alaska vacation? Whether you’re after supreme solitude, or you want to get up-close-and-personal with wildlife, these are 10 of the best things to see and do in Alaska.
1. Whale Watching
In Alaska, visitors encounter wildlife in nearly every corner of the state. But one of the most majestic Alaskan wildlife experiences is whale watching. Every spring and early summer, whales migrate into Alaska’s cool waters and put on a show. Be on the lookout for beluga, humpback and orca whales. They flock in abundance each spring. In all the major ports of call, you’ll find whale watching tours that take you to some of Alaska’s famed spots, like the Icy Strait or Kenai Fjords National Park.
When to Go: Spring, Early Summer
Where to Go: Glacier Bay National Park, Kenai Fjords National Park
Why You Have to Go: Alaska is a must-visit for whale watching; one of the best destinations in the country.
2. Ice Climbing
Who says you shouldn’t visit Alaska in winter? During the long, cold nights, Alaska is an adventurer’s paradise. And numerous climbers come for icy challenges. From frozen waterfalls, to crystal-blue glaciers, there’s tons of ice climbing terrain to check out. One ice climbing hotspot is the Seward Highway. Tucked into the nearby Chugach State Park you’ll find dozens of frozen waterfalls, offering challenging courses for beginners to advanced climbers. Matanuska Glacier is another favorite, and it’s located near Anchorage, making it accessible for most visitors to the state
When to Go: Winter
Where to Go: Seward Highway, Alaska Highway and Anchorage
Why You Have to Go: Alaska offers the most ice climbing terrain in North America. Whatever you want to climb – waterfalls, glaciers, or snowfields –you’ll find that here.
Pro skiers and snowboarders flock to Alaska in winter for the best in backcountry powder. Alaska is the world’s heliskiing mecca, with some of the most challenging and pristine terrain in the world. Many of the state’s best skiing spots are accessible only by helicopter, and snow sports enthusiasts have the take of the pick. From incredible vertical drop-offs, to spine runs, there’s no shortage of great skiing in Alaska… you’ll just need a helicopter to get there.
When to Go: Winter
Where to Go: Anchorage, Fairbanks, Prince William Sound
Why You Have to Go: Heliskiing the most intense terrain, in the deep, deep backcountry. The powder’s 50 feet deep in some locations.
4. Bear Viewing
Whether you’re in the south, or the Far North, you’ll be sharing the woods with wildlife. And bears are in particular abundance in Alaska. Always in search of salmon, black and brown bears romp around Alaska’s lush landscapes and raging rivers in spring and summer. If you want to go bear viewing in Alaska, choose any one of the state’s immense national parks or forests. Denali is an iconic destination, but Tongass National Forest in the southeast offers tons of great bear-viewing spots as well.
When to Go: Spring to Fall
Where to Go: Denali National Park, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Tongass National Forest
Why You Have to Go: Encounter bears up close in Alaska’s amazing parks and nature preserves. Just be sure to bring your camera.
5. Yacht Charters
Whether you want to charter a luxury yacht in Alaska, or you’re more into a small fishing charter, Alaska has a vibrant charter industry. The Inside Passage and Gulf of Alaska are perfect places for Alaska yacht charters. Here you’ll find an endless assortment of fjords, crystalline bays, and hidden islands to discover – most only accessible by boat. Plus, you’ll be treated to some amazing experiences. A yacht charter is best for glacier hopping, whale watching, fishing, or just escaping into untouched backcountry.
When to Go: Summer (mid-May to August)
Where to Go: Juneau or Sitka
Why You Have to Go: Alaska has an amazing yacht charter industry, with options for every budget. For the full experience, explore the Inside Passage on a 7-day crewed charter.
6. The Northern Lights
In Alaska, the Aurora Borealis puts on a show in the Great North. The green and yellow lights are a favorite fall and winter sight here, as the lights are especially vivid during the shorter days. If you go, you’ll want to head north. Fairbanks and the surrounds are the most accessible destination, but if you go even further north, your chances of seeing this natural phenomenon will improve.
When to Go: November to February
Where to Go: Fairbanks, Gates of the Arctic National Park
Why You Have to Go: No better place to see the Northern Lights in North America. Plan an overnight in the backcountry for the full experience.
7. Mendenhall Glacier
Headed to Alaska’s capital? Well, if you’re in Juneau, the nearby Mendenhall Glacier is a must-see icon. The glacier is one of the most accessible and awe-inspiring in all of Alaska. Visitors can trek along the trails – easy to moderate options are available – and see wildlife and scenery along the way. Nugget Falls is a favorite stop. But the blue-grey glacier is a sight to behold. Visitors can watch as car-sized “calves” of ice drop off the glacier and crash into the waters below. It’s out of this world.
When to Go: May to November
Where to Go: Juneau
Why You Have to Go: Mendenhall Glacier is a behemoth, and it’s also super accessible. You can hike it, take boat tours, float the nearby river, or take a helicopter tour.
8. Sea Kayaking
Alaska, especially the southern areas, are best explored by boat. Yet, if you want to see all of the fjords, hidden islands, and coves, you’ll want to ditch the cruise ship or charter yacht, and pick up a paddle. Sea kayaking in Alaska is a favorite pastime of visitors and locals alike. And there’s an endless variety of terrain to explore. In Prince William Sound, kayakers can explore fjords, paddle up to glaciers, and view spring waterfalls. The Inside Passage also offers great places to explore, including hidden beaches of Tongass National Forest and the wilderness around Haines.
When to Go: Summer
Where to Go: Prince William Sound, Seward, Haines
Why You Have to Go: Relax and unwind while paddling beautiful waters. And you’ll be sure to experience wildlife, incredible scenery and solitude on a one- or multi-day trip.
9. Gold Panning
Consider yourself an amateur goldminer? Well, Alaska is certainly on your bucket list. There isn’t a better place to try your luck at panning. All across the state, you’ll find recreational mining and panning spots that allow visitors to search for gold. A few options: Head to Hope, Alaska. The tiny town on the Kenai Peninsula has a rich mining history. And Hope’s Resurrection Creek allows for public panning, with local mines offering tours and demonstrations. Juneau is another amazing panning destination. In Juneau, you can tour history mines, learn about local mining history, and try your luck at panning.
When to Go: June, July or August
Where to Go: Juneau, Fairbanks, Kenai Peninsula
Why You Have to Do It: Live like a gold prospector for a day, and keep what you find!
10. ATV Tours
Alaska has tons and tons of backcountry to explore. One of the best ways to experience Alaska’s wilderness is on an ATV Tour. Fly down logging roads in the state’s sprawling parks and forests. Many tours take you into the deep backcountry, allowing you to feel the true solitude of Alaska. The Tongass National Forest is a favorite ATV spot. The forest is the country’s largest, and there are numerous tour options around Ketchikan, Haines, and Juneau. You might also want to try Alaska’s major parks. Denali, Wrangell-St. Elias and Gates of the Arctic are all favorite ATVing destinations.
When to Go: Spring, Summer or Fall
Where to Go: Ketchikan, Kenai Peninsula, Denali or Wrangell-St. Elias
Why You Have to Do It: There’s no better way to experience the Alaskan wilderness. ATV tours are exhilarating and give you a chance to see some of the most pristine sights and landscapes.
Start Planning Your Adventure in Alaska
You could spend a year exploring Alaska and still have things to do and see. The state is so boundless and immense, and there’s always some new adventure to try. Yet, if you’ve only planned a short stay, any of these 10 ideas will help you see a unique side of Alaska and provide a lifetime of memories. Now you’re ready to start planning your adventure in Alaska! What do you plan to do and see?
Written by Garrett Parker
Read more posts by Garrett Parker