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Things to Do in Alaska

Known as America’s Last Frontier, Alaska magnetizes travelers with untamed wilderness and the promise of solitude. A region of extremes, Alaska swings between warm summers and demanding winters (when the Yukon River freezes solid), from bustling port cities to outdoor expanses. Fairbanks serves as a gateway to Chena Hot Springs and the Arctic Circle’s Northern Lights, while cruises past abundant marine wildlife in Kenai Fjords National Park are best accessed from Seward. Dogsled and pan for gold on the Skagway section of the Yukon River; go white-water rafting on rapids that flow from the Mendenhall Glacier; soar over Denali National Park on a flightseeing tour; or feast on salmon and enjoy easy access to Mt. Roberts from Juneau’s historic downtown. If you’re looking to cover the highlights of the vast state, take the scenic Alaska Railroad route to popular visitor stops such as Anchorage, Talkeetna, and Whittier, or delve into Gold Rush-era history on a journey to White Pass Summit. At Ketchikan’s zipline adventure park, kids and adults alike will love flying over the Alaskan rain forest and observing black bears. With opportunity for adventure at every turn, you’re sure to submit to the call of the wild during your time in Alaska.
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Kenai Fjords National Park
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Encompassing 1,047 square miles (2,711 square kilometers), the Kenai Fjords National Park is named after the many glacial-carved fjords, or glacial valleys that sit below sea level. These fjords run down the mountains and into the iconic Harding Icefield, one of the largest ice fields in the United States with 40 glaciers flowing into it.

There are many ways to experience the park’s beauty, like taking an aerial tour, kayaking on the fjords, hiking to the top of the Harding Icefield Trail or exploring the trails around Exit Glacier. You can also fish for salmon and Dolly Varden within the park’s backcountry. For those interested in wildlife spotting, the parks icy waters and dense woodland are home to a number of creatures like mountain goats, black bears, bald eagles, Steller sea lions, puffins, Dall's porpoises, and humpback and orca whales.

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Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve
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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.

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Denali National Park and Preserve
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At more than 6 million acres (2.5 million hectares), Denali National Park is a breathtaking wilderness area, which includes North America’s highest mountain. A single road curves 92 miles (148 kilometers) through the heart of the park, leading to off-trail hiking opportunities, abundant wildlife, and stunning tundra panoramas.

Wildlife in Denali National Park, including mammals such as marmot and moose, is easy to spot. Caribou, wolves, and brown bears are crowd favorites. The park is also well known for its bird population, especially during late spring and summer. Birdwatchers may find waxwings, Arctic Warblers, and the majestic tundra swan. Predatory birds include a variety of hawks, owls, and the striking golden eagle. Ten species of fish, including trout, salmon, and arctic grayling share the waters of the park.

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Tongass National Forest
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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.

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White Pass & Yukon Route Railway
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Taking a ride on the narrow-gauge White Pass and Yukon Railroad is a fun way to see spectacular historic scenery from a train inching up steep tracks that were carved out of the side of the mountains. A number of routes take you through White Pass, which travels from Alaska to Canada on historic trains.

You begin your journey on the White Pass and Yukon Railroad in Skagway. The summit excursion takes you 20 miles (32 kilometers) from Skagway to the White Pass Summit, 2,865 feet (873 meters) high. Another trip takes you up to the summit, then down to British Columbia. The historic cars are more than 100 years old, and you’ll definitely get a sense of how travelers in the late 19th century got around. While you’re traveling you’ll see breathtaking mountain and forest vistas – you may even see a bear or caribou frolicking about.

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Dalton Highway
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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.

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Trans-Alaska Pipeline Viewpoint
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The Trans-Alaska Pipeline is a 48-inch oil pipeline that traverses 800 miles (1,300 kilometers). It was built by the Alyeska Pipeline Service Company in 1977 to transport crude oil from Prudhoe Bay’s oil fields to a port in Valdez to be loaded onto tankers and shipped to U.S. refiners. The cost to construct the pipeline was $8 billion, making it one of the largest privately-funded construction projects in Alaska. Moreover, it’s one of the largest pipeline systems in the world, and because much of the ground that it is laid on is frozen sections of the pipeline are either built above ground or buried and insulated.

It’s astonishing that the pipe has withstood the harsh Alaska weather for so long. Today, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline is a popular tourist attraction, especially for those who want to get a photograph of themselves touching it.

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Chena Hot Springs Resort
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An hours’ drive from Fairbanks, Alaska’s Chena Hot Springs Resort includes an indoor chlorinated pool for families and a natural-rock outdoor lake filled with pure hot spring mineral water for adults.

The site was first discovered by gold miners in 1905 and sits at the center of a 40-square-mile geothermal area. The spring waters have to be cooled before bathing; otherwise you’d be dipping into scolding 156° F waters. In winter, Chena is known for its Aurora Borealis displays, and the resort is also home to the Aurora Ice Museum and Ice Bar. The resort has 80 rooms for guests, a restaurant, lounge bar and an onsite cafe. In summer, the site is also a popular base for mountain bikers, hikers and horseback riding, and it’s also possible to go grayling fishing in the local streams.

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Mendenhall Glacier
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Alaska's famous drive-in glacier, Mendenhall Glacier, is Juneau's most popular attraction, flowing 12 miles (19 kilometers) from its source, the Juneau Ice Field. On a sunny day it's beautiful, with blue skies and snow-capped mountains in the background. On a cloudy and drizzly afternoon, it can be even more impressive, as the ice turns shades of deep blue.

Near the face of the glacier is the visitors center, which houses various glaciology exhibits, a large relief map of the ice field, an observatory with telescopes and a theater that shows the film, Magnificent Mendenhall. Outside you'll find a salmon-viewing platform overlooking Steep Creek, as well as 6 hiking trails, including a short photo-overlook trail to a longer trek up the glacier's west side. Another trail, the East Glacier Loop trail leads through the forest for views of a waterfall near the glacier’s face. Though a little steep, it’s perfect for school-age children.

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More Things to Do in Alaska

Misty Fjords National Monument

Misty Fjords National Monument

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The Misty Fjords National Monument encompasses 3,594 square miles (5,783 square kilometers) of wilderness and lies between two impressive fjords - Behm Canal (117 mi/188 km long) and Portland Canal (72 mi/115 km long). The two natural canals give the preserve its extraordinarily deep and long fjords with sheer granite walls that rise thousands of feet/meters out of the water. Misty Fjords is well named; annual rainfall is 14 feet (4 meters).

Misty Fjords National Monument draws many kayakers, who head for the smaller but equally impressive fjords of Walker Cove and Punchbowl Cove in Rudyerd Bay, off Behm Canal. Dense spruce-hemlock rainforest is the most common vegetation throughout the monument, and sea lions, harbor seals, killer whales, brown and black bears, mountain goats, moose and bald eagles can all be seen there.

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Fortress of the Bear

Fortress of the Bear

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Animal lovers heading to Sitka should consider visiting Fortress of the Bear, a non-profit bear rescue facility and the largest of its kind in the United States. Focused on educating the public on bears and how to help their populations, Fortress of the Bear takes in orphaned bear cubs and creates a protective and enriching environment for them. The operation was started by couple Les and Evy Kinnear who transformed Sitka’s old pulp mill into a place where baby bears could be cared for. Visitors can watch the bears being fed, observe and photograph bear interactions, and hear the story of each bear and how it ended up at Fortress of the Bear.

Keep in mind this is not like a typical zoo where you see an animal in a cage. Instead, you’ll watch the bears playing with large barrels and tire swings and being active in a large expanse of land. Additionally, the attraction has a non-touristy, non-commercial feel, allowing for a more authentic experience.

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Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center

Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center

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Alaska is known for its wildlife, and at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center you can see an array of native species in one place. You’ll learn the individual stories of each animal and their species in general from knowledgeable staff members. The animals you’ll probably see—and get surprisingly close to—include bears, moose, eagles, reindeer, elk, musk oxen, wood bison, lynx, caribou, Sitka black-tailed deer and porcupine. The center works to rehabilitate the animals and reintroduce them into the wild. In fact, the center is currently working toward reintroducing the once-extinct wood bison through a breeding program.

Make sure to ask staff for a schedule of events, as there are a number of visitor programs and activities such as taking a stroll with Hershey the reindeer, seeing the moose and ox calves get bottle fed and learning about porcupines with Snickers, the center’s resident porcupine.

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Mt. Roberts Tramway

Mt. Roberts Tramway

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Arcing upwards from the waterfront at Juneau’s cruise terminal to the crest of Mt. Roberts, a ride aboard the Mt. Roberts Tramway is one of Juneau’s signature experiences.

The enclosed gondolas swing away from the dock to glide over downtown Juneau and up through the rainforest to the 1,800-foot (540m) summit of Mt. Roberts.

Panoramic views take in stunning vistas of sea and mountains, over to the Chilkat Mountains to the north, the Gastineau Channel, Douglas Island and Silver Bow Basin. Peering down, you might be lucky enough to spot marmots, deer and even a bear.

The ride ends on the top of the mountain at the Mountain House cultural center, picturesquely surrounded by Sitka pines and wildflowers. Visit the nature center to learn more about this beautiful part of the world, or follow one of the hiking trails winding away from the terminal. There’s a wheelchair-accessible trail, and a short mile-loop trail with interpretative signage.

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Denali

Denali

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At 20,322 feet (6,194 m), Mt McKinley is North America’s highest mountain peak. Formed 60 million years ago, this granite mountain is a part of the Alaska Range and features both a northern and southern summit. The higher southern summit is the most climbed of the two, and a number of large glaciers sit on the mountain. You’ll always find the caps covered in snow.

While nobody successfully summited Mt McKinley until 1913 (the first attempt was in 1903), today it is climbed very regularly. Typically climbers opt for the West Buttress Route, which begins at 13,000 feet (3,962 m) and is known as the least technical route. Still, only about half who attempt this trail make it to the top. Mt McKinley is not an easy climb, and preparations must be made to stay safe and avoid dangerous predicaments.

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Resurrection Bay

Resurrection Bay

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Located on the on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula, Resurrection Bay is a perfect example of pristine Alaskan wilderness. Littered with glistening glaciers, majestic fjords, secluded coves and small islands set against a backdrop of snow-capped mountains, otherworldly rock formations and dramatic fog, this is a haven for those who enjoy striking landscapes. Not only is Resurrection Bay beautiful, it’s also filled with opportunities for outdoors recreation.

Those interested in bird-watching and wildlife spotting should be on the lookout for puffins, bald eagles, Dall's Porpoises, Stellar Sea Lions, orca and Humpback Whales, harbor seals and sea otters. Additionally, the waters are popular for kayaking, sailing and flightseeing. And because Resurrection Bay never freezes, the waters are easily navigable for tours.

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Port of Skagway

Port of Skagway

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A century ago, Skagway was the gateway to the gold fields of the Klondike. Today, the scenic cruise port still has the feel of its Gold Rush past, complete with an historic downtown filled with false front buildings and wooden sidewalks. It’s one of Alaska’s most popular ports of call and a departure point for exploring the vast Yukon.
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Port of Ketchikan

Port of Ketchikan

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If you’re sailing north by cruise ship, Ketchikan Cruise Port will be your first port of call on the Alaska Marine Highway. The former salmon fishery town offers visitors a real taste of Alaska’s frontier personality.

Cruise boats dock right on the waterfront, so the attractions, bars and restaurants are just a short stroll away.

Get a feel for old-time Ketchikan by taking a walk along the Creek Street boardwalk, and shop for Alaskan souvenirs like toy moose and eagles at the port’s many shops.

Ride the cable car to a nearby hill for stellar views, visit Deer Mountain to learn about salmon hatching and eagle feeding habits, or take a scenic flight over the stunning granite cliffs of Misty Fjords National Monument.

Of course, if you’re into fly-fishing you’ll be in heaven in Ketchikan when the salmon are running. Other visitors take the opportunity to paddle a canoe, or see totem poles at the Saxman Native Village.

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Sitka National Historical Park

Sitka National Historical Park

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Old Sitka Dock

Old Sitka Dock

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Cook Inlet

Cook Inlet

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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.

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Juneau Cruise Port

Juneau Cruise Port

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Juneau’s cruise port is right by the historic downtown area of the city, perfectly located for shore excursions, dinner, shopping and entertainment while you’re cruising Alaskan waters.

Founded during the gold-rush days, Juneau is a terrific port to get a sense of the pioneer days and frontier history. Wild West-themed restaurants and pubs are rustic and fun, and menus highlight the region’s snapping-fresh king crab and other seafood.

Shore excursions take you to Mendenhall Glacier for alpine hiking, rafting trips and Alaskan wildlife. Flying there by helicopter is surely the way to go!

Don’t miss the chance to ride the Mt. Roberts Tramway for iconic alpine and Juneau views, theater and museum exhibits, and terrific dining at the terrace grill. The tramway departs right from the cruise port.

While you’re in port, take the opportunity to shop for Alaskan souvenirs, handicrafts and gold nugget jewelry.

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Portage Glacier

Portage Glacier

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If you’re staying in Anchorage and reading about the glaciers that are so much a part of Alaska, then head to Portage Glacier, just a little more than an hour outside of the city. Portage Glacier is truly worth the drive. Once you’re here, you can watch for huge chunks of ice to break away and crash into the lake.

Sitting inside the Chugach National Forest, Portage Glacier is breathtaking to say the least. You approach it by boat, and you’re rewarded with a stellar view of the glacier. The visitor center features a number of programs on the historical and natural wonders of the valley. A film, Voices from the Ice, provides a spectacular view of many glaciers and wildlife. The visitor center also houses exhibits demonstrating how glaciers move and gives insight into the retreat of Portage Glacier.

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Katmai National Park and Preserve

Katmai National Park and Preserve

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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.

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