With 34,000 miles of shoreline, 17 of North America’s tallest mountains, 27,000 glaciers, more than 3 million lakes and more than 100 volcanoes and volcanic fields, it’s no wonder Alaska is still referred to as “the Last Frontier.” Everything, it seems, is big here—from king crabs with a six-foot leg span to bull moose standing more than 7 feet tall and grizzly bears weighing more than 1,000 pounds. Not to mention the northern lights, which are drawing record numbers of visitors to brave the winter cold for the chance to see nature‘s most dazzling fireworks show.
Luckily, the list of things to do here is as outsized as everything else, with hundreds of activities and experiences on offer to help visitors experience and enjoy this wealth of natural beauty. Here, we have the 25 top choices to help you plan your dream Alaska adventure.
25 Best Things to Do in Alaska
1. See the World’s Tallest Mountain
The tallest mountain in North America, Denali (formerly Mount McKinley) rises 20,310 feet above sea level and ranks as the highest in the world when measured from base to summit. It’s the steepness of this ascent that makes “The Mountain”—as Alaskans call it—such a stunning sight, soaring seemingly straight up from a base elevation of just 2,000 feet. But when it comes to actually glimpsing that famous silhouette, that extreme elevation difference causes problems, creating atmospheric changes such that the peak is surrounded by dense cloud cover much of the time. In fact, park rangers coined a term for the problem, the “30 percent club,” referring to the fact that fewer than one-third of all park visitors actually get to see the mountain. So how do you make sure you’re one of the 30 percent? Your best bet is to take one of the many types of flightseeing trips offered by local operators. Go by helicopter with TEMSCO Helicopters or Alaska Helicopter Tours, or choose Fly Denali for the chance to include a glacier landing.
2. Ride the Denali Star
Those images you’ve seen of a bright yellow Alaska Railroad train thundering across 296-foot high Hurricane Gulch train trestle? That’s the legendary Denali Star, which makes the 356-mile journey from Anchorage to Fairbanks once a day. Make the trip in one 12-hour stretch or break it up with an overnight in the lively village of Talkeetna just outside Denali National Park, but either way, you’ll likely spot moose, deer, and maybe even bear foraging calmly along the tracks and possibly glimpse the mountain itself from several choice angles. GoldStar Service is well worthwhile for access to the glass-domed dining car as well as the three seated hot meals and drinks.
3. See the Northern Lights
If seeing the aurora borealis, or northern lights, is on your wish list, then look no further than Alaska, where viewing opportunities are easily as good as those in Iceland and Norway. There are three requirements for epic aurora viewing—dark skies, clear weather and solar activity, and Fairbanks has all three thanks to its location under the aurora oval (the band in which the solar flares responsible for the lights are most active). While the solar flares continue year-round, it’s only from August 21 until April 21 that the skies above Fairbanks and points north become fully dark, triggering the official “aurora season.” One of the easiest places to watch for the lights is from Aurora Pointe, which offers panoramic views and a comfortable lodge to hang out in while hoping they make an appearance. Photographers swear by the Aurora Chasers, whose premier tour bases its flexible route on up-to-the-minute tips, giving you the best chance of catching the action. Borealis Basecamp, 25 miles north of Fairbanks, offers guided viewing from their 100-acre forest property.
4. See the Bears in Katmai National Park
Katmai National Park and Preserve was originally founded to protect the Valley of 10,000 Smokes and other volcanic features created by the 1912 Novarupta eruption. But today the biggest focus for most visitors to the 6,395-square-mile park is the bears of Brooks Falls, who wade out into the tumbling waters to fish for spawning salmon. The Katmai Water Taxi shuttles visitors from the King Salmon airport to the National Park Service dock, where you catch the park service boat for the 45-minute trip across Naknek Lake to Brooks Camp.
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5. Attend the Biggest Bear Party in the World
Just north of Katmai National Park, the McNeil River State Game Sanctuary protects the world’s largest concentration of brown bears. And every summer, when the chum salmon come to the McNeil River to spawn, the bears come too, gathering along the banks to catch the fish as they leap up the rapids and rest in a series of cascading pools. The spectacle is so popular that those hoping to see it must enter a state lottery for permits, with applications opening in March.
6. Explore Kenai Fjords National Park
Made up of more than 35 glaciers, the Harding Icefield flows down to the edge of the Kenai peninsula, creating a series of fjords where the fingers of ice meet the sea. Exploring this inaccessible landscape, described by Kenai Fjords National Park rangers as the land where the ice age lingers, is most easily done by expedition—the 8.2-mile Harding Icefield Trail offers access for those who can handle a strenuous and challenging climb. Explore deeper into Kenai Fjords National Park by signing up for a guided trip with Adventure Sixty North, which offers half-, full, and multi-day kayak and canoe trips along with gold panning, fishing and more. In winter, Adventure Sixty offers snowmobile and snow cat trips to Exit Glacier—the only company with a permit to use the park road, which is gated in winter.
7. See Orcas and Other Sea Life in Resurrection Bay
Bald eagles soar overhead, otters bob in the water, and—if you’re lucky—an orca or two might nose above the waves as you explore Resurrection Bay on a boat trip with Seward Ocean Excursions or Northern Latitude Adventures. Both locally owned Seward companies offer several options including four-hour, six-hour, and full-day trips to destinations such as Bear Glacier and Aialik Glacier within Kenai Fjords National Park.
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8. Ride the Alaska Railroad Coastal Classic
Few train rides pack as many photo ops into one five-hour journey as the Coastal Classic, which winds along the shore of the Gulf of Alaska’s Turnagain Arm and crosses the Chugach Mountains before descending to Seward on the shores of Resurrection Bay. You’ll arrive by noon, allowing time for a half-day Resurrection Bay boat tour, or stay overnight to allow more time to explore Kenai Fjords National Park.
9. Go Whale Watching in Auke Bay
Humpback whales put up a legendary show as they enjoy the plentiful food in their summer feeding grounds of Auke Bay. Watch them breach and spy hop with expert commentary from Juneau Whale Watch, which offers a 5-hour combo tour that includes a visit to Mendenhall Glacier. There’s even time enough to see Nugget Falls for those who want to make the short hike.
10. Learn About Indigenous Culture and Daily Life
Alaska is home to more than 11 major indigenous cultural groups, and you can learn about them all at the Alaska Native Heritage Center. Walk among six lakeside installations, each featuring a life-sized dwelling and set of artifacts demonstrating what daily life was like for thousands of years.
11. Send a ‘Gram from the Arctic Circle
Drive 196 miles north of Fairbanks and you reach the Arctic Circle, defined as the southernmost latitude in the northern hemisphere at which the sun doesn’t set at least one full 24-hour day in summer and doesn’t rise at least one full day in winter. While the intrepid driver can take technically take this trip independently, rental car agencies don’t allow their vehicles to make the challenging drive, so you must have your own car. Or go with Arctic Circle Tours in their heated coach.
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12. Drive the Dalton Highway to Coldfoot
Made world famous by the History Channel’s “Ice Road Truckers” reality show, the Dalton Highway is easily one of the loneliest and most rugged roads in America. The truck stop at Coldfoot Camp, located halfway between Fairbanks and the Arctic Ocean, makes a good endpoint for this adventurous trip, with lodging available as well as hot meals in the picturesque restaurant. Coldfoot Camp also serves as one entry point to largely inaccessible Gates of the Arctic National Park, thanks to the Arctic Interagency Visitors Center—open from mid-May to mid-September.
13. Take Alaska’s Most Affordable Boat Tour – the Ferry
Covering 3,500 of jagged coastline and connecting coastal communities like Bellingham, Washington, to the remotest points along the Alaskan peninsula, the ferries of Alaska’s Marine Highway are a key part of the state’s transportation system—and one of the best ways to see wildlife while en route. Most exciting of all is “the Inside Passage,” the route connecting the islands of Haida Gwaii in British Columbia with Skagway, passing through fjords and routing around more than 1,500 islands. Day boats connect smaller communities, such as the Juneau-Skagway route.
14. Go Ice Climbing on a Glacier
Land right on the remote Knik Glacier with help from Alaska Helicopter Tours, which runs their ice climbing experience year-round. After instruction in using ropes, harnesses, crampons and ice picks, you’ll prove yourself by ascending the glacier wall. In winter, this trip includes the option to go inside a glacier ice cave as well.
15. Experience Dog Sledding, Alaska’s Original Transport
Dog sledding might be a winter sport, but dog sled teams train year-round by moving to training grounds on glaciers and high-altitude snowfields—making it possible to go dogsledding no matter when you visit. Alyeska Tours, Seavey’s Ididaride and Alaskan Husky Adventures are good choices for summer tours. In winter, Outer Range Dogsled Tours, just outside the entrance to Denali National Park in the village of Healy, offers rides of varying lengths as well as a “mushing school” experience where you’ll have the chance to drive the sled yourself as well as learn all about the team of sled dogs and how to care for them. And many mushers offer kennel tours and dog interaction experiences year-round.
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16. Watch the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race
The world-famous cross-country sled dog trail race takes place every March following alternating routes from Anchorage to Nome. Experience the thrill of the race year-round with a visit to the Iditarod Headquarters and Museum in Wasilla, where you’ll see movie showings, historic photographs and race history memorabilia. If you do want to see the race itself, the ceremonial kick-off begins with the dog teams touring an 11-mile circuit of downtown Anchorage before heading for Campbell Airstrip. Or for the full Iditarod experience, join a multi-day tour like one of these from Iditarod Adventures.
17. Soak in Historic Hot Springs
Native Alaskans enjoyed the healing powers of Chena Hot Springs for centuries before they were discovered by miners and settlers, who built the first facilities there in the early 1900s. Today, Chena is a wellness destination for all weathers and seasons, where the expansive rock-walled pool is open until midnight for those who want to stargaze through the steam. Chena is also a popular spot for aurora viewing due to the lack of ambient light. The onsite Aurora Ice Museum (pictured above) features a full cocktail bar carved from solid ice where you can order a drink while admiring the intricate ice sculptures that fill the refrigerated hall.
18. Experience Alaska’s First Nordic Spa
Opening in phases starting in spring 2022, the Nordic Spa at Alyeska Ski Resort outside Anchorage features a hydrotherapy circuit of hot and cold indoor and outdoor pools, along with saunas, steam rooms, and massage and skincare services. Alaska’s largest ski resort in winter, the resort has plenty to offer in summer and fall, including the Aerial Tramway with its expansive views over the Chugach Mountains.
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19. Help Deliver Mail by Plane
Many rural villages in Alaska remain reachable primarily by plane or boat, with roads nonexistent or impassable much of the year. To see what life is like in these remote locations and meet local residents, join one of the Bush Mail Flights operated by Warbelow’s Air, which also offers charter flights and photography tours.
20. Savor a Seafood Feast
From wild-caught salmon, halibut and cod (no fish farming is allowed in the state) to scallops, crab and prawns, Alaska’s seafood resources are vast and delicious. Try juicy red king crab, plump Kachemak Bay oysters and flaky black rockfish. One local delicacy you probably haven’t tried before is halibut cheeks, which have a texture and slight sweetness similar to scallops. And when it comes to salmon? You’ll find it all over menus served broiled, baked, roasted, smoked or grilled, so just keep experimenting to see how you like it best!
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21. Go Fishing – All Kinds of Fishing
There’s no question that that seafood dinner is going to be even more enjoyable when you catch it yourself, and that’s not so hard to do in Alaska. Whether you want to join a “six-pack” ocean fishing charter or day trip, head out to a remote fishing lodge or just bring your own gear and cast a line, you’ll find the only problem is choosing from the seemingly endless variety of fishing options. Or you can bring your own gear and pull off the road. A fishing license is required, purchasable from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
22. Get Your Photo Taken Under the Antler Arch
Of course, the Instagram phenom Antler Arch isn’t the only reason to visit the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitor Center in Fairbanks—in fact, you’ll find so much to see and do here you might forget to stop for your snap! The 9,000-square-foot exhibit hall offers a perfect one-stop introduction to the history, culture and geography of interior Alaska, while guides offer insights into local customs and events.
23. Go Snow Tubing
A favorite of families or anyone who just likes some lighthearted fun, the winter Tube Park at Arctic Valley Ski Area features numerous runs on groomed trails. And there’s a lift to pull you back to the top of the run, so you’ll have enough energy to fly downhill again and again.
24. Visit the North Pole
Mail a letter or postcard in North Pole, Alaska, and thrill or tickle the recipient with a postmark from Santa’s hometown. While that’s the main attraction of the town that really is named North Pole, the gift shop offers a well-curated selection of local products, crafts and gift items. Opportunities to get a photo taken with Santa or his reindeer are also offered year-round.
25. Commune with Reindeer
Keep up the holiday theme with a trip to Running Reindeer Ranch, where a visit includes a forest stroll with the friendly beasts and a photo op with one of the calmer members of the herd. Running Reindeer Ranch also offers their variation on goat yoga, with reindeer joining classes.
Next up, 17 best fall foliage trips to plan right now!