Alaska, the 49th state, the Last Frontier. Wild, rugged, stark, mysterious and jaw-droppingly gorgeous. With no shortage of wild mountain landscapes, beautiful glaciers, and abundant wildlife Alaska will pull you in with its beauty and refuse to let you go from its icy grip. In this complete guide we share absolutely everything that you need to know for your trip to Alaska.
QUICK TIPS FOR YOUR VISIT TO ALASKA
First let’s start with a few quick tips for your trip to Alaska, I will dive into each of these in more detail in the following sections.
- The best time of year to visit for most is in the summer months of June-August, although this is the most popular time. The shoulder season of May and September are great months to visit as well.
- Rent a car! Distances in Alaska are vast; having your own wheels will make your trip much easier.
- If you want to see the Aurora (I know many of you do!) you need to visit between September and April, however these are the colder months.
- Pack layers! Alaska’s weather is as wild and unpredictable as its wildlife.
BEST TIME TO VISIT ALASKA
The most popular months to visit Alaska as it’s summertime. The weather tends to be warmer and most of the backcountry is easier to access in these months, but it’s also crowded and more expensive.
Temperatures steadily decrease as fall descends into winter. It’s not uncommon for Alaska to be blanketed in snow by mid-October, and not unheard of to have an occasional snow shower in September. With that said, September is typically a delightful month for a visit. Most of the tourists have headed home, it’s possible to see the Aurora so long as a solar flare heads our way and we have clear nights, the fall colors are making their way down the valleys, and hiking is prime.
If you love winter sports, this is your time to head to the Last Frontier! Most the state is covered with snow. This is a great time for skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, snowmobiling (we call it snowmachining), and ice skating. With the long dark nights this is the best season to catch the Aurora if conditions are right.
Days are getting longer and the snow’s melting! If you enjoy spring skiing you can usually catch some in the earlier part of April. May can be a great month to visit Alaska- temperatures are getting near summer temperatures, the tourists haven’t quite showed up in full force, and plants are green and coming to life!
WHAT TO DO IN ALASKA
Alaska is jam-packed with adventure at every twist and turn! There are so many activities to choose from, you will want to make sure to plan your itinerary to include your top picks. Here are just a few activities to enjoy :
- SKIING & SNOWBOARDING: Winter sport lovers can rejoice! Alaska has no shortage of backcountry options and even a few ski resorts to hit up as well.
- CRUISING: All you have to decide is between which kind- wildlife or glaciers? There are many day cruises daily in summer that will take you to see glaciers calve right before your eyes, or to watch whales as they make their way up to the cold Alaska waters. For those that enjoy cruising you can take an Inside Passage cruise that makes stops along Alaska’s Southeastern Panhandle between Anchorage and Seattle.
- GLACIER TREKKING: Alaska has several easy to access and even some roadside glaciers. Ever dream of getting out on one? Here’s your chance!
- FISHING: Alaska is world renowned for its top notch fishing. Whether you head out to a luxury fishing lodge, join the anglers on the Kenai casting for salmon, or take a halibut charter out on the open ocean, there’s a perfect adventure here for just about any fisherwoman (or fisherman!).
- WILDLIFE VIEWING: Alaska’s wildlife is everywhere. Want to see bears, moose, bald eagle, whales, caribou and more? Some of the best places to view wildlife include Denali National Park, Brook’s Falls, and Kenai Fjords National Park. Not quite that adventurous? You can also visit the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center: you can view wild Alaskan animals that have been rescued and brought here, and it’s conveniently located just south of Anchorage.
- KAYAKING & WHITEWATER RAFTING: From lazy trips into quiet coves to rollercoaster like rapids, Alaska has just about every level of water sports enthusiast covered.
- ROAD TRIPPING: Even though the road system in Alaska is extremely limited the road trip options are bountiful. Get in the car and just drive- sometimes this will lead you to some of the state’s most beautiful places.
- HIKING & MOUNTAINEERING: Home to Denali, North America’s highest peak sitting among some of the continent’s more technical climbs in the Alaska Range. But don’t worry if you’re not a serious mountaineer- Alaska has a hike for just about every physical fitness level.
- CYCLING: Like to spend most of your time on two wheels? Anchorage has a decent network of bike trails around the city that link to the beautiful Coastal Trail that hugs the Turnagain Arm south of Anchorage. For those more serious you can cycle the Haul Road- the Dalton Highway that ends in Prudhoe Bay.
- FLIGHTSEEING: Want a different perspective on Alaska? Get above it! Several companies run small planes and helicopters to some of Alaska’s most scenic of places such as Prince William Sound and Denali National Park. Also note that to visit some of Alaska’s more remote parks you do have to arrange an air taxi (small plane) to take you out there.
ACCOMMODATION OPTIONS IN ALASKA
You have a few options in way of accommodation in Alaska including hotels, hostels, camping, RV, AirBnB, and Couchsurfing. Hostels are starting to spring up more and more, but expect to really only see them in larger cities like Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau, Homer, and Seward. Hotels can get quite expensive, especially in the high season, but if you shop around you can sometimes get a good deal. AirBnB can be great value especially if you’re traveling as a family or a group.
Another great option for families and groups is to rent an RV, that way transportation and accommodation is taken care of. For the more adventurous, pack a tent and head out to the great outdoors! There are plenty of amazing places to camp in Alaska. If you’re on a budget, or just looking to mingle with locals, sign up for Couchsurfing!
Find the best price on hotels in Anchorage.
- Captain Cook
- Hotel Alyeska
- Arctic Adventure Hostel
- Base Camp Anchorage Hostel
Find the best price on hotels in Fairbanks.
- Borealis Base Camp
- Pike’s Waterfront Lodge
- Sven’s Base Camp Hostel
- Billie’s Backpacker Hostel
Find the best price on hotels in Juneau
- Baranof Westmark Hotel
- Alaska’s Capital Inn B&B
- Juneau International Hostel
CITIES TO EXPLORE IN ALASKA
SOUTH CENTRAL ALASKA
- ANCHORAGE: Alaska’s busy and biggest city. Plenty of hotels, nightlife, restaurants, and shopping here.
- WASILLA & PALMER: These cities sit side-by-side about a one hour drive north from Anchorage. Nearby attractions include Hatcher’s Pass Recreational Area and Matanuska Glacier.
- SEWARD: Small fishing town on the Kenai Peninsula, south of Anchorage.
- HOMER: Small city just south of Kenai & Soldotna on the Kenai Peninsula. Great place to catch fishing charters out of and sits in the beautiful Kachemak Bay. Has a hippy-vibe to it and is home to Bear Creek Winery.
- WHITTIER: A small city that sits in the western Prince William Sound. You have to drive through a tunnel from Anchorage to get here by road.
- VALDEZ: Small city at the the head of a fjord in the eastern Prince William Sound.
- FAIRBANKS & NORTH POLE: The second largest city in Alaska nicknamed ‘The Golden Heart City’ as word of gold found in the creeks around Fairbanks sent the Goldrush stampeding. One of the best places in Alaska to base yourself for chasing the Northern Lights. A great hotel to check out, if within your budget, is the domes at Borealis Base Camp, where you can watch the aurora from inside your room! North Pole is located just north of Fairbanks and is home to the Santa Claus House.
- TOK: Small town that you will pass through if driving into Alaska from Canada or vice-versa.
- CHICKEN: Located 250 miles southeast of Fairbanks and located about 80 miles northeast of Tok on the Taylor Highway. A year round population of 7 lives here, but don’t worry there’s at least a saloon. The biggest draw to Chicken every year is the annual Chickenstock Music Festival held in June. Chicken is a stop along the ‘Top of the World’ road trip that continues to Dawson City, Canada.
- JUNEAU: The capital city of Alaska and only accessible by boat and plane. Do not miss sights include Mendenhall Glacier, Auke Bay, and The Shrine of St Therese. Of course no trip to Juneau is complete without a stop in the Red Dog Saloon.
- SITKA: A beautiful seaside community that sits on the northern edge of Baranof Island.
- KETCHIKAN: Seaside city along the Inside Passage. Famous for its Totem Poles.
- SKAGWAY: Set along the Inside Passage with lots of Gold Rush era buildings. Unlike much of the rest of southeastern Alaska, Skagway is accessible by road via the Haines Junction.
- BETHEL: Largest community in western Alaska. It is the main port on the Kuskokwim River and the major hub for all 56 villages in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. Flying in is the only realistic option for most travelers to reach Bethel.
- NOME: Located in northwestern Alaska on the Seward Peninsula jutting out into the Bering Sea. Home to the world’s largest goldpan. Nome is most famous for being the finish line of the Iditarod- the sled dog race celebrating the 1925 delivery of the life-saving serum during a blizzard that was needed to combat the Diphtheria epidemic raging through the Alaska Native population.
- UTQIAGVIK (FORMERLY BARROW): It’s not as difficult to pronounce as it looks- Ooot-kee-yah-vik. Utqiagvik is the northernmost city in the United States. A great time to visit is during Nalukataq- a celebration held the third week of June each year for a successful whale harvest.
By area, Alaska is home to over half of the national park lands in the United States. There are no fees to the national parks in Alaska, with the exception of Denali National Park.
- DENALI NATIONAL PARK & PRESERVE: Home to North America’s highest peak, Denali (formerly Mt. McKinley). Abundant wildlife at every turn. Not open to private vehicles beyond the Savage River (except for during the Denali Road Lottery in September). If you want to go further in the park, you must take one of the park buses. There is a $10 fee to enter the park for those aged 16 and older.
- KENAI FJORDS NATIONAL PARK: Where mountains, ice and ocean all meet. Highlights included taking a fjord or whale watching cruise, hiking along Exit Glacier & Harding Icefield, and kayaking in the fjords.
- GATES OF THE ARCTIC NATIONAL PARK: This is vast, off the beaten path wilderness. Located in northern Alaska in the Brook’s Range. There is no visitor center, no roads, no trails, and no facilities. Those wanting to explore it will need to completely arrange the trip on their own.
- WRANGELL ST. ELIAS NATIONAL PARK: Rugged, beautiful, wild, and roughly the size of Yosemite National Park and the entire country of Switzerland combined, making it by land size the largest national park in the United States! Most who visit Wrangell-St. Elias will do so by visiting McCarthy, Kennecott Mine, and Root Glacier (about 8 hours drive from Anchorage).
- GLACIER BAY NATIONAL PARK: A highlight for many taking Inside Passage cruises to Alaska. Glacier Bay is located in southeastern Alaska near the community of Gustavus, just northwest of Juneau. You can arrange to take the ferry from Juneau to Gustavus and take a private boat tour of Glacier Bay if you are traveling independently.
- KATMAI NATIONAL PARK & PRESERVE: Home to the postcard picture of the grizzly catching the salmon out of the waterfall you think of when Alaska comes to mind. Katmai is also famous for all its volcanoes- Brook’s Falls and the Valley of the 10,000 Smokes are two of the biggest highlights here.
- KOBUK VALLEY NATIONAL PARK: Not only do half a million caribou migrate through this park every year, but Kobuk Valley is also home to Alaska’s famous sand dunes.
- LAKE CLARK NATIONAL PARK & PRESERVE: Similar in attractions to Katmai, many are drawn in by its grizzly bear viewing, fishing opportunities, turquoise lakes, jagged mountains, and a number of volcanoes.
MOST POPULAR STATE PARKS IN ALASKA
Alaska has more state parks than you can shake a stick at and to many to list! Check out the DNR website to read more about each one.
- CHUGACH STATE PARK: A gigantic state park that basically stretches from Anchorage to Valdez. A number of popular hikes are located in the park.
- HATCHER’S PASS STATE MANAGEMENT AREA: One of South-central Alaska’s easiest to access parks with countless hiking trails to explore between jagged peaks and turquoise mountain lakes.
- KACHEMAK BAY STATE PARK: Located near Homer, Alaska’s first state park and only wilderness park. There is over 80 miles of hiking trails to explore and countless camping possibilities.
- DENALI STATE PARK: Sits adjacent to Denali National Park & Preserve. Home to the famous 30 mile K’sugi Ridge hike with sweeping views of North America’s tallest mountain.
GETTING TO ALASKA
You can get to Alaska by land, by air or by sea. However, most people will arrive via flight at Anchorage International Airport.
- BY AIR: Commercial flights to Anchorage are the most common way to enter Alaska, followed by flights to Fairbanks. Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau, and Ketchikan all have international airports with connections to other US states as well as seasonal flights to/from Germany, Iceland, Canada, and Russia in the summer. US cities that have direct service to Anchorage are Chicago, Dallas, Honolulu, Kahului, Kona, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Phoenix, Portland, Salt Lake City, and Seattle.
- BY LAND: If you have the time to spare and are already planning to pass through Western Canada, driving into Alaska is an option via the Alcan (Alaska-Canada Highway). This is also part of the great Pan-American Highway: the road spanning from Ushuaia, Argentina to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska.
- BY WATER: Between May and September you can take cruise up the Inside Passage from Seattle to Alaska. Alternatively you can utilize the Alaska Marine Highway System. The Marine Highway starts in Bellingham, Washington, makes an international stop in Prince Rupert, BC, and connects the following communities by ferry: Akutan, Angoon, Chenega Bay, Chignik, Cold Bay, Cordova, False Pass, Haines, Homer, Hoonah, Juneau, Kake, Ketchikan, King Cove, Kodiak, Metlakatla, Ouzinkie, Petersburg, Port Lions, Sand Point, Seldovia, Sitka, Skagway, Tatitlek, Tenakee Springs, Unalaska/Dutch Harbor, Valdez, Whittier, Wrangell, and Yakutat.
GETTING AROUND ALASKA
82% of Alaska’s communities are not on the road system, making most of Alaska pretty inaccessible. However you can take in a lot of the wild beauty of Alaska from places that aren’t too difficult to reach. Public transport is non-existent between cities, so self-driving is going to be your best option for seeing the state.
- RENTAL CAR: Giving you the flexibility to go where you want when you want. This can be a cost-effective option if traveling in a group.
- BUY A CAR: This is a great option if you plan to travel Alaska for an extended period of time. Plus in the end you can likely sell off the car for close to what you paid for it.
- TRAIN: Alaska has a railroad system that connects Seward, Anchorage, Denali, and Fairbanks, has cars that cater to tourists and even has whistle stops from the more intrepid.
- HITCHHIKING: If you’re in a very tight budget, more on the fearless side, and not afraid to spend some time outdoors waiting for a ride, hitchhiking can be a budget-friendly option. Just be mindful, use common sense, and don’t accept a ride if you at all feel uncomfortable about it. A good place to search for rides is on the Anchorage page on Couchsurfing.
- CYCLING: Although Alaskan drivers can be a bit careless and crazy at times, if you’re a serious cycler this can be a great way to enjoy Alaska.
- MARINE HIGHWAY FERRIES: This is the ferry system that connect Washington state to Alaska’s Southeast Panhandle, South-Central Alaska, and the Aleutian Islands. You can take cars on the ferry.
- FLIGHTS: Depending on where you want to go in Alaska, flying there may be your only option. Many of Alaska’s communities have daily flights between them. For some of the more remote villages and communities an air taxi can get you there.
WHAT TO EAT IN ALASKA
Most people don’t think of Alaska as a culinary destination but there’s great food all around in the 49th state. Here are a few great things to try:
- Fresh Alaskan Salmon: You’ll be hard pressed to find better salmon on this planet. Make sure and try Copper River Red Salmon.
- Reindeer: The only game meat in Alaska you’ll find in restaurants. For those wanting to try moose, you’ll need to buddy up with some local Alaskans who may have some in the freezer.
- Halibut: Lovely, delicious halibut. The best places to try it are in small fish restaurants in the coastal communities.
- King Crab: Alaska is known the world over for its soft, sweet and delicious King Crab legs.
- Blueberries: If you’re visiting in late August and into September it’s possible to go out berry picking. However, Alaskan blueberries are a bit more tart.
- Beer: Breweries are popping up more and more in Alaska. There are tons of craft beers to sample in Alaska.
BEST RESTAURANTS IN ALASKA
- Moose’s Tooth – Ranked one of the best independent pizza companies in the United States.
- Double Musky – The French pepper steak is perfection. Most dishes have a Cajun flare.
- Glacier Brewhouse – Serving up some of Alaska’s best seafood with a unique twist. If seafood isn’t your thing they also have delicious wood grilled meats.
- Seven Glaciers – Take the tram at the Hotel Alyeska on top the mountain to have dinner with a view.
- Simon & Seafort’s – An Alaskan favorite serving up Alaskan seafood, steak, and more.
- Crow’s Nest – A world class menu with a 360º view of Anchorage.
FAIRBANKS & DENALI
- Turtle Club – Located just outside Fairbanks in Fox. Great prime rib and seafood.
- Mile 229 Parks Highway – With a menu that changes daily as they only serve their daily harvests and seasonal offerings. It doesn’t get much fresher than Mile 229.
- 49th State (there’s one in Anchorage now, too!)- Craft beers and tasty twists on Alaskan favorite dishes. The brewery in Denali has a replica out front of the bus from Into the Wild.
- Lavelle’s Bistro – A good selection of wines, serving up globally inspired dishes and American favorites.
- The Channel Club – Serving up some of the best steak and seafood in all of Alaska, overlooking the water in Sitka.
- Tracy’s King Crab Shack – A waterfront, walk-up shack serving some of the best fresh-caught king crab in Alaska.
GENERAL COSTS IN ALASKA
To give you a rough idea of costs for planning a trip in Alaska, here are some examples:
- Gasoline: $2.88/gallon
- Hotel: $120-200/night
- Hostel: $40-80/night
- Campsite: $10 per night on average, $25 for ones with amenities
- Small car rental: $35/day in the winter and shoulder seasons, $100/day in the peak season
- Larger car/SUV rental: $50/day in the winter and shoulder seasons, $140/day in peak season
- Food: Preparing own meals: $1-5 per meal. Budget restaurant/cafe: $10-15 per plate. Midrange restaurant: $20-30 per plate. Higher end restaurants: $30+ per plate
- Entrance to museums and cultural centers: $10-15 per person
- Entrance to parks: Free to $10 per person. Most of Alaska’s state and national parks are free to enter. Denali charges $10 per person to enter. Many state parks with road access and a parking lot will charge a $5 parking fee.
TIPS TO HELP YOU SAVE MONEY
- Visit outside tourist season- June-August are the most expensive months to visit.
- Consider the shoulder season (May & September).
- Shop for airline sales- airlines have more competition between May and September as many more airlines fly to Alaska in the summer months.
- Use mileage- Are you part of an airline rewards program? If you are check to see if your airline or a partner of theirs flies to Alaska.
- Get outside- Most of Alaska’s natural attractions are free to visit aside from a parking fee at some sites. All national parks in Alaska have free entrance except for Denali National Park!
- Go camping- Accommodation can get expensive in the high season. For those adventurous enough, pitching a tent is a great way to save money as many managed campgrounds in Alaska have inexpensive fees.