Things to Do in Alaska
No visit to Juneau is complete without a close-up look at the Mendenhall Glacier, one of Alaska’s most popular attractions. The 13-mile-long (19-kilometer-long) glacier ends at Mendenhall Lake and is easily viewed from the historic Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center. The glacier is beautiful on sunny days but arguably even more impressive on cloudy, drizzly afternoons when the ice takes on a deeper shade of blue.
Encompassing 1,047 square miles (2,711 square kilometers), Alaska’s Kenai Fjords National Park is named after its numerous glacial-carved fjords—beautiful ice valleys that sit below sea level. The fjords run down the mountains into the iconic Harding Icefield, one of the largest ice fields in the United States with 40 tidewater glaciers flowing into it. The stunning landscape is also a wildlife-watcher’s dream, thanks to its abundant marine animals, birds, and other native wildlife.
The tallest peak in North America at 20,310 feet (6,190 meters), Denali, formerly known as Mt. McKinley, is the centerpiece of Denali National Park and Preserve in south-central Alaska, an enormous area covering 6 million acres (2.5 million hectares). Founded in 1917, the park protects the native animals who roam free in its remote alpine tundra wilderness.
Encompassing 17 million acres, the Tongass National Forest is the largest forest in the United States. Originally the Alexander Archipelago Forest Reserve, a project of Theodore Roosevelt started in 1902, the park was developed and renamed in 1908 to pay homage to the Tongass Clan of the Tlingit Indians. Visitors to Tongass National Forest have an enormous array of activities and experiences to choose from: bird-watching, trekking, fishing (there are five species of salmon here, among other fish), camping, visiting glaciers, lake canoeing, off-roading and just relishing pure fresh air and pristine natural beauty. In fact, there are 17,000 miles (27,359 kilometers) of lakes, creeks and rivers to enjoy within the forest. Wildlife is also prevalent, with chances to view otters, brown and black bears, wolves, eagles and Sitka black-tailed deer.
Those who truly want to experience the best of the Tongass National Forest can kayak on Amalga Harbor to see the famous Mendenhall, Eagle and Herbert glaciers while also keeping an eye out for whales, birds, seals, porpoises and sea lions. There are also opportunities for hiking and lake canoeing in the forest, which can be done in a Native American-style canoe. Before visiting the Tongass National Forest, you may want to visit the Tongass Historical Museum in Ketchikan to learn about the area’s geography and Native Alaskan heritage.
Situated just beyond the outskirts of Sitka on a 17-acre (7-hectare) reserve bordering the Tongass National Forest, lies the famous Alaska Raptor Center. This raptor rehabilitation center is world famous for its public education efforts and for its development and care for injured owls, eagles, hawks, falcons and other birds of prey.
Their permanent residents include twenty-four raptors which have come to the center through various means, though all are in need of some sort of rehabilitation. The center prides itself on returning all of the raptors it can to the wild, but every once-in-a-while, a raptor appears that will become one of these permanent residents. Volta, an American Bald Eagle, is one such resident. Over half of the existing 100,000 or so Bald Eagles live in Alaska, and Volta helps to make sure that through public awareness, they stay adequately protected. Thus, he travels a bit, but can typically be seen at the center.
Bald eagles have a safe home at the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve. Created in 1982, the huge park protects the world’s largest collection of bald eagles and their habitat.
Natural salmon runs are also protected in the preserve, where the Chilkat, Kleheni, and Tsirku Rivers meet.
For the best views of the eagles, head to the Haines Highway by the river flats surrounding the Chilkat River. To ensure the eagles aren’t spooked by your presence, stay off the river flats themselves and keep to the area near the highway.
From October to February, the eagles are attracted to the wetlands by the spawning salmon. During these months around 3,000 bald eagles have been known to stay at the preserve; the number of year-round inhabitants is between 200 and 400.
As well as eagle viewing, a visit to the preserve might take you river rafting on the Chilkat River to spot beavers, brown bears, moose and waterbirds.
Black and brown bears are the main attraction at this wildlife rescue site. Here, animals that are unable to return to the wild have free access to playgrounds and open space to roam. It’s one of the best places in Alaska to safely see a black bear or grizzly from a short distance away.
Just 22 miles (35 kilometers) outside of Ketchikan lies the vast and remote Misty Fjords National Monument—a collection of sea cliffs, deep-cut fjords, glacial valleys, thick rainforests, and roaring waterfalls. Accessible only by boat or floatplane, Misty Fjords is an outdoor playground for hikers, kayakers, and day cruisers.
The Dalton Highway runs for 414 miles to Alaska’s northernmost mountains in the Brooks Range and nearly all the way out to the Arctic Ocean. Running through valleys surrounded by jagged peaks, the highway connects Interior Alaska to the Prudhoe Bay oil fields and is technically part of the northernmost highway in the U.S. Also one of the most remote, the Dalton Highway parallels the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. Visitors who take the drive themselves will need to note that much of the road is still mostly gravel. Unless you’ve appeared on Ice Road Truckers, you might want to skip the ride in winter.
Public access ends at the small town of Deadhorse, just before the Arctic Ocean, and if you want to reach those last 8 miles of private road out to the coast, it’s possible to join private tours from Deadhorse. At the Coldfoot truck stop, 250 miles north of Fairbanks, the Arctic Interagency Visitor Center gives details on road and backcountry conditions along the Dalton Highway, as well as information on recent wildlife spottings of the likes of grizzlies, black bears, and dall sheep. There’s also a picnic area and sign showing where the road crosses the Arctic Circle.
An hour’s drive from Fairbanks, Chena Hot Springs Resort is renowned for its natural hot-springs lake, year-round ice museum, and Northern Lights viewing opportunities. Discovered over a hundred years ago by gold miners who saw steam rising from the Chena River Valley, the curative waters have been soothing weary travelers ever since.
More Things to Do in Alaska
Resurrection Bay on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula—dotted with glistening glaciers, majestic fjords, and secluded coves set against a backdrop of snowy mountains and dramatic fog—is a haven for those who enjoy striking landscapes. Not only is this pristine wilderness beautiful, it’s also filled with opportunities for outdoors recreation.
Rising 1,800 feet (550 meters) above sea level from the Juneau waterfront up Mt. Roberts, the Mt. Roberts Tramway is a favorite for those visiting the Alaska state capital. The ride itself provides views of Chilkat Range, Gastineau Channel, downtown Juneau, and Douglas Island, while the summit area features outdoorsy and cultural things to do.
Inching up steep tracks carved into the sides of mountains, the narrow-gauge White Pass & Yukon Route Railway is a fun, historic way to see spectacular scenery. A number of routes travel through White Pass, a mountain route that links the port town of Skagway, Alaska, with the Yukon Territory capital city of Whitehorse in Canada. Climb aboard this International Historic Civil Engineering Landmark and experience mountains, glaciers, waterfalls, and historic sites from the comfort of a century-old railcar along “the railway built of gold.”
Alaska is known for its wildlife, and at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center you can see an array of Alaskan species—bears, bison, moose, elk, musk oxen, and lynx among them—all in one place. Learn about each animal species from knowledgeable staff at this center that works to rehabilitate animals and reintroduce them to life in the wild.
The Trans-Alaska Pipeline traverses 800 miles (1,287 kilometers) through the Alaska wilderness from the oil fields of Prudhoe Bay to Valdez where it is shipped to refineries. Built between 1974 and 1977 and requiring over 28,000 people to build, the pipeline is considered one of the world’s most amazing engineering marvels and the viewpoint outside of Fairbanks is one of the best places to view it.
Situated in Chugach National Forest about 50 miles (80 kilometers) south of Anchorage, Portage Glacier ranks as one of Alaska’s most visited attractions. Icebergs from the glacier bob in the waters of Portage Lake, while at the visitor center, travelers can see live ice worms, explore a simulated ice cave, and touch an iceberg.
Sitka National Historical Park is Alaska's oldest national park. Established in 1890 to commemorate the 1804 Battle of Sitka, as well as to preserve Native totemic art, the park strives to combine beautiful temperate rainforest with history. Northwest Coast totem poles line much of the coastal trail here, and the Russian Bishop’s house stands as one of the last existing examples of Russian Colonial architecture in North America. Visitors can also attend ethnographic exhibits and the Southeast Alaska Indian Cultural Center, where guests are allowed to watch native artists at work. In addition, you can still visit the site of the Tlingit Fort and battlefield near the heart of this 113-acre (45-hectare) national park, and though not much remains of the last major battle between Europeans and the Alaskan Natives, it remains an interesting glimpse into the past, surrounded by towering spruce and western hemlock.
The Gold Rush Cemetery is a fascinating place, allowing a glimpse into the past of the area’s people. The dates listed on the stones date back to 1897, and one of the most famous is that of Jefferson “Soapy” Smith, a notorious con artist and Old West gangster, known for opening businesses where he quietly robbed his customers and for manipulating political campaigns. Visitors will also find the graves of many individuals involved in the Gold Rush, while an informative entrance display provides even more insight into the cemetery and its inhabitants.
If you enjoy hiking, continue past Gold Rush Cemetery to Lower Reid Falls, a popular trekking route that’s about two miles (3.2 km) each way. The actual falls are gorgeous, a gushing narrow cascade gliding over rock and mountainside. To better understand the trails—especially if you want to explore more of the area—head to the Skagway Visitor Information Center before visiting the cemetery and pick up a trail map.
For many visitors, a trip to Alaska just isn’t complete without catching a glimpse of the massive, snow-capped centerpiece of Denali National Park. Topping out at 20,322 feet (6,194 meters), Denali (formerly known as Mt. McKinley) is North America’s highest peak. As it’s often completely shrouded in clouds, some say there’s only a 30-percent chance of seeing the peak in any one day.
The Klondike is synonymous with the gold rush days of the late 19th century, when the frontier settlement of Skagway exploded from a population of just two to 20,000 in a mere 10 years.
The Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park protects the memory of these days, preserving the trails, towns and buildings of the gold rush era. Skagway was the gateway town to the gold of the Klondike, which lay 550 miles (885km) north, near the junction of the Klondike and Yukon Rivers in Dawson City.
The Chilkoot Trail is the most famous of the gold rush routes followed by the miners, originally created by the Tlingit people. The park also preserves the downtown Skagway Historic District and its prized collection of authentic 100-year-old wooden buildings, including the fun Mascot Saloon and historic Moore House and Cabin.
Drop into the park’s visitor center to watch the video about the area’s gold rush history and pick up information about the local trails, including the famous Chilkoot Trail.
Rangers lead a range of activities, including walking tours and talks through the historic buildings and countryside.
Photo by Reywas92 sourced from WikiCommons
A watershed extending from Anchorage to the Gulf of Alaska, the Cook Inlet encompasses 180 miles (290 km) of beauty and recreation. It’s surrounded by mountains, waterfalls, glaciers and volcanoes, including the active Augustine Volcano and Mount Redoubt, linking the area with tsunamis and earthquakes in the past. The Upper Cook Inlet is also one of few places in the world that experiences a tidal bore, allowing visitors to see the unusual phenomenon of waves crashing against the current rather than with it.
The Cook Inlet also holds much history, from Russian fur hunters to European explorers like Captain James Cook—after whom the site is named—visiting and mapping out the area as they tried to find the Northwest Passage in 1778. Around Upper Cook Inlet were Native Alaskans from eight different villages, with some descendants of these families still living there today.
Along with its beauty and heritage, the area offers a wide range of experiences. Popular flightseeing excursions allow for dramatic aerial views of the Alaskan landscape, while charter boats offer salmon and halibut fishing trips. For a unique wildlife experience, there are occasional sightings of the Cook Inlet beluga whale, an endangered subspecies of beluga whale. Drive along the Turnagain Arm and you’ll have chances to see these whales as well as dall sheep, bears and bald eagles.
Insider tip: The Cook Inlet is a beautiful spot to take in at sunrise or sunset, especially with a view of 4,396-foot Mount Susitna, also known as the “Sleeping Lady,” shrouded in bright colors.
Following the Chilkoot Trail is to take a journey into the past, to the time before the gold-rush era of prospectors when the Tlingit people used the route to trade coastal products for pelts and plants with the people of the interior. The trail is a significant historic site, and has been described as ‘the world’s longest outdoor museum.’
The 33-mile (53km) trail is for walkers only, who take three to five days to follow the often difficult route that in gold-rush days was the most direct path from the port at Skagway to the gold fields of the Yukon. The route was shorter than White Pass but more deadly.
Prospectors taking the Chilkoot route were advised to carry a ton of gear and rations, enough to ensure self-sufficiency for one year. Alternative transportation systems devised to help carry their infamous ton of gear included aerial tramways, pack animals and Tlingit porters.
Hiking the Chilkoot Trail is such a popular recreational activity that permit numbers are limited during the peak season months of June to early September.
Photo courtesy of the National Park Service
Remotely located in Southwestern Alaska near Kodiak Island, Katmai National Park is one of the foremost places to see Alaskan brown bears, which come to feast on summer salmon runs. Covering more than 4 million acres, the park has one of the largest populations of brown bears in the world. There are 15 different volcanoes to explore, some of which are still active and releasing steam. In fact, the park was established to preserve the area round Mount Katmai and the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes after volcanic activity devastated the land in the early 1900s.
Hiking, kayaking, and canoeing among the crystal-clear waters are coming activities here, and bear-watching is best at the park’s Brooks River Falls. The many wild rivers and lakes not only draw bears but also sport fisherman, both of which are after the area’s five varieties of Pacific salmon as well as pike, rainbow trout, and Arctic char. The park’s location provides access to some of North America’s most remote wilderness.
Just beyond the edge of Alaska’s largest city and stretching 200 coastal miles (322 kilometers) from Anchorage to Canada, Chugach State Park encompasses nine distinct ecosystems including spruce forests, alpine tundra, and coastal wetlands. Nowhere on Earth is there so much biodiversity so close to a major city.
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