Alaska, the last frontier of United States, is a popular destination on many travelers’ bucket list. Alaska’s unique, vast and varied landscape of lush rain forests to glaciers to volcanic valleys to northern lights is sure to impress one and all. There are probably enough things to do in Alaska to fill up an entire encyclopedia. While planning a trip to Alaska, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the sheer number of activities and places of interest.
I visited Alaska in the summer of 2015 for a 5-day trip and this is a page out of my trip diary:
When to visit: July – Sept is the best time to visit Alaska. It is the peak of travel season here and you will find tons of options for activities, hotels and flights. You can look up the average weather here.
How to get here: One of the most popular ways to get here is by Alaska Cruises from SFO or Seattle area. They have 7-night and 14-night cruise packages with stop overs in Canada (Vancouver, Victoria). Celebrity cruises, Norwegian Cruise lines and Princess Cruises are three most popular cruise line services from United States. The Inside Passage in Alaska has some of the most breathtaking scenery you will every see. These cruises usually go up to the southern destinations in Alaska (Juneau or Skagway). If you are keen to cover Anchorage and Denali national parks (northern Alaska), you should book 14-day cruises.
You can also fly in directly to Anchorage, Alaska. This is the biggest and most busiest airport here with lots of flight options. Since I stay in Seattle area, it was cheaper for me to directly fly-in, but I do plan to do a cruise trip too someday.
Where to stay: Anchorage has all the major hotel chains as well as lot of Bed&Breakfast options to choose from. If you drive down south towards Denali, you can find few cabin rentals too. We booked a cabin midway from Anchorage to Denali. Our plan was to roam around anchorage the whole day and stay close to Denali as we had plans to visit Denali National Park the next day.
Places to See:
- 26 Glacier Cruise by Phillips Cruises and Tours – Highly recommended, DO NOT miss this tour. It is a 5 hours long cruise with some of the most amazing and breathtaking views of glaciers (See below). You can also see orcas whale sometimes along with seal, bald eagles etc. The tickets include free lunch and drinks, tour guide. The crew and staff is quite helpful too. Read the reviews on TripAdvisor here and you will surely not want to miss this. There are few other cruise companies that provide glacier tours too, but Phillips is the most famous one.
- Denali National park – Denali national park, about 4 hour drive from Anchorage, is Alaska’s most accessible national park and easily the most visited attraction in Alaska. It is advisable to take bus tours for roaming around the park as private vehicles are not permitted beyond a point (Savage river). There are three types of bus tours available:
- Shuttle buses – They start from within the park and one can disembark / re-board anywhere along the road. Shuttle bus drivers aim to help you experience the park on your own terms, but they are not narrated. They stop for wildlife viewing, restroom stops and beautiful scenery, just like tour buses. We booked a shuttle bus well in advance, as its hard to get a reservation during peak season. Ticket price varies from $26 – $51. More details.
- Tour buses – These buses take the same route and offer the same viewing experience as shuttle bus, with a guide and running commentary by a trained naturalist. There are three us tour options with varying length and ticket prices. Price varies $33 – $92. More details.
- Courtesy buses – These buses operate on the publicly-accessible portion of the Park Road and enable folks without vehicles, or those who wish to leave their vehicle behind, to travel between various facilities, campgrounds and day-use areas. There is no fees and reservation required to use them.
- Mt McKinley Flightseeing & Ruth Glacier landing tours – Mt McKinley is the highest peak in North America with an elevation of 21,000 feet above sea level. Did you know its possible to set your foot on Mt McKinley ranges without actually hiking your way up. Talkeetna Air Taxi is one of the popular flightseeing service based out of Talkeetna, a town about 2 hour drive from Anchorage. Its about 1.5 hour tour over Ruth’s glacier with a landing on Don Sheldon amphitheater. The ticket prices range form $300 – $450 per person. Its a bit pricey but worth every penny. You should check weather forecast before making a reservation as they might cancel the tours if weather is even slightly unfavorable.
- Hiking tours – Denali national park has nearly 50 day hikes with varying distances and elevation. Choose the one that suits your fitness level. Most of the popular trail heads like horseshoe lake trail, Mt Healy overlook trail, Igloo mountain are accessible by shuttle buses. I would suggest you to visit the visitor center and ask information desk about their current conditions before embarking on one of them.
- Seward & Exit Glacier tours – Its a small coastal town known for its scenic views, numerous visitor attractions, and as the gateway to Kenai Fjords National Park. I would recommend you to try out ‘Exit Glacier tours’, if you ever wanted to climb a glacier safely. You will be fitted in a helmet, backpack, crampons, and hiking poles by staff to prepare for your hike. Resurrection Bay also boasts of amazing views of snow capped peaks.
- Whittier & TurnAgain Arm scenic drive – Just south of Anchorage, the Seward Highway meets the shorelines of Turnagain Arm, which is arguably one of the most beautiful stretches of highway in America I have seen. The drive involves Hatcher pass drive, Matanuska glacier drive and Whittier tunnel drive.
- Fairbanks – Fairbanks is a small city north of Anchorage and is mostly the center of shopping, bar & restaurants but does have a few worthwhile attractions for visitors. I like the Museum of the North at UAF much more than the Anchorage museum, and the Riverboat Discovery is a nice way to see the region. If you have a car, you can drive out to North Pole to experience the novelty of year-round Christmas decorations.
- Juneau/Skagway are quite popular with Alaska cruises. Some of the attractions include Tracy Arm Fjord, Mendenhall glaciers and whale tours. Juneau was also home to the richest gold mining operation of its kind in the world.
Few helpful tips:
- If you planning to use Alaska cruises from Seattle or SFO, you will need multiple entry Canadian visitor visa. They have stop overs at Vancouver and Victoria and you will require a visa to disembark and go around these towns.
- If you plan to go hiking, keep in mind that bear sighting is quite common and bear-safety is an absolute must. Read this post to know more about bear-safety.
- Hire a car rental as public transportation is almost non-existent in Alaska. If you are an adventurous kind, rent a RV.
- During June/July, there is almost 24 hour of daylight. The sun sets at around 1 AM, its twilight until 2 AM and sun rises at 3 AM again. It was quite a unique experience for me.
- Going to Alaska with kids or parents? Don’t worry, Alaska cruises are a lot of fun with kids and families. The cruises are huge with all the amenities possible like kids play area, day care (for kids older than 4 years), Indian cuisine food, casinos, shows etc.
- I would recommend booking cabins near Denali National Park. Its a lot more fun to stay next to natural scenery of rainforests & creeks.
- If you don’t mind extreme weather and snow all around, try to visit Alaska during Oct or Feb/March months too. You can spot Northern lights and do dog sled rides which are quite awesome.