The final frontier is calling and you must go!
That being said, Alaska is also the biggest state in the USA – coming in at a whopping 630 million square acres. Following swiftly by the state of Texas at 261 million acres. So needless to say, it’s a big place and there is ALOT to see! It really comes down to how much time you have to dedicate to your trip, because driving from A to B will likely take a bit longer than you think, and what your priorities are!
1- Time of Year
Seeing as Alaska is so far north, the peak of summer has almost 23 hours of daylight. Controversially, winters the farther north you go can have less than 1. So when thinking about where you want to go to Alaska, consider when strongly! Best times to visit in the summer months for hiking, sight-seeing, fishing, whale watching and helicopter trips to a glacier are from June-August. It is also when most places are open for business, and is the main tourist season. However, the best time to go see the northern lights in Fairbanks is anytime from Christmas to Valentines Day!
2- Do you need a car?
Like I said, Alaska is a magnificent place. Having a car 9/10 is the best way to see the state, as it allows you to stop and go, and pull over at as many lookouts as you like! Plus public transportation is essentially limited to Anchorage, or if you are with a tour group that has arranged their own transport so don’t plan to count on that.
The only exception to needing a car would be if you are visiting SE Alaska, especially the capital city of Juneau. Being that is it an island, and the road only goes 40 ish miles, having a car is not essential. Most of the main tourist companies have offices downtown, which is extremely walkable, or you can just do the like locals do and take a boat everywhere! Juneau is a major stopping point for cruise lines from Canada, so they also offer day trips fishing, helicoptering up a glacier, and what watching.
3- Self sought or guided?
This applies to just about anywhere you want to visit in the world, but consider strongly how independent a traveler you are and ask yourself how much responsibility you want for logistics and safety. Internet service in the interior is spotty at best, sometimes gas stations are over 50 miles apart, and if you have zero survival skills or sense of direction, you may find yourself in a tight situation. It is called the Final Frontier for a reason, and there are elements of safety to consider when venturing out. So that being said, if you are not an experienced traveler or hiker etc, consider hiring a guide or going with a group!
1- Denali National Park
If you’re coming all the way to Alaska, missing this park would be a mistake. Stop at the small town of Talkeetna on your way in- it’s a cozy mountain town that is the launch point for climbers attempting Denali Peak. Which, if you didn’t know, is one of the most difficult mountains to summit. Why? because at a peak of over 20,000 ft it actually creates its own weather patterns and is notoriously difficult to arrange a rescue mission. That being said, you can equally admire Denali from the patio at Denali Brewing Company, which leaves little to be desired for atmosphere. Once inside the park, the vast open tundra and forested lands are home to moose, wolves, Dall’s sheep, and bears galore! Its a massive park, full of adventure, and a must see on your trip!
The ocean dwelling town of Seward is big hub for cruise ships coming up the coast, and therefore has all the amenities of a tourist town. If you drive in from Anchorage, you won’t miss the Seward Highway, which skirts the coastline down from Anchorage and is quite possibly one of the most stunning highways in America. So plan atleast one pull off here to admire the scene. If you arrive by car to Seward, be sure to check out Whale Watching tours, or get yourself on a boat to go see some of the most beautiful fjords and glaciers I’ve ever seen. Or, if hiking is more your scene, there is plenty of that to do as well!
As the capitol city, Juneau boasts a cosmopolitan vibe. Surrounded by giant peaks that jut out of the ocean and nifty coffee shops on street corners, this port town has a rich history in mining and tourism, which any stroll on the boardwalk will teach you a thing or two about. Worth a stop is Tracy’s Crab Shack on the boardwalk – extra butter and don’t neglect the chowder (seriously yummy eats!) The other big attraction in Juneau is a trip out to Mendenhall glacier- which is one of the biggest glaciers that you can drive up to in North America. The visitor center has really compelling information about the history of the glacier and is worth a stop. You can also catch tours out to Glacier Bay National Park and preserve, which is best viewed by air! (see photo below)
Fairbanks is a wild town. During the summers people flock to this northernmost city for the t-shirt that said “I was here” and the close to 24 hours of sunlight which means the party never really stops. (seriously, the sun never totally sets here, which is insane!) but really the star of the show for Fairbanks attendees is most certainly the northern lights viewing. With some of the most stunning Aurora Borealis, Fairbanks comes alive in the winter months for all things star lights. What better way to observe Northern Lights in sub zero temperatures than from the pools of a hot spring, which is another huge attraction for visitors.
5- Wrangall St.Elias National Park
NOT ONLY is this one of the the largest national park in the US (which is awesome) but its slightly difficult to get to, which really cuts down on the volume of visitors. It is out of the way, by all standards, but its totally and 10000% worth the time. There is really only one road into town, otherwise there is an option to fly in (but that costs a pretty penny) So you just have to hunker down for the 28 miles of washboard roads in order to earn the views.
This old mining town sits at the merging of two giant glaciers, overseen by an active volcano. This National Park allows you to walk out onto the glacier, explore the surrounding caverns of ice, and take in Alaska’s magnitude from the base of Chugach range.
While those are my top 5 places in Alaska to date, I would be remiss to not at least mention Glacier Bay, Kenai Fjords National Park, The Dalton Highway (for the especially adventurous) and anything along the Inside Passage. Alaska is such an incredible and immense place- with towering 20,000ft peaks and some of the best fishing in the world. It boasts scenery like you have never seen before, and is overwhelmingly empty of human habitants. The only downside to visiting the interior of Alaska during the summer months would be the horrendous masses of mosquitos that will positively annoy the crap out of you. So again, just come prepared for all the conditions but also for some of the most magnificent landscape in the entire planet.
So. Where will you go first?