Traveling to Alaska? Here's Everything You Should Do
If you're looking to go someplace off the beaten path on your next trip, try exploring your own backyard by visiting Alaska. Whether you’re interested in outdoor adventures, unique encounters with nature, discovering new cultures or enjoying the nightlife abroad, Alaska will entertain any traveller with experiences you can’t get anywhere else in the world.
Travelling there and getting around the north can be tricky. But these travel tips and vacation highlights will make your vacation in The Last Frontier easy and exhilarating.
When to Go
Traveling to America's only arctic state can be daunting because of the weather. So you'll want to book your trip for the right season. The Last Frontier is most accessible from mid-June to late August. That's when the days are warmest and brightest in America's northernmost state, with big cities like Anchorage getting as much as 19 hours of daylight and Fairbanks getting as much as 22 hours of sun during the Summer Solstice.
So be sure to bring your sunscreen. And an umbrella since Alaska is rainier than most U.S. States in the summer. Pack some long-sleeved shirts and jeans as well because the average temperatures in the state range from 60-80 Degrees Fahrenheit in the daytime and 40-50 at night, depending on the region. As you'd expect, average temperatures get colder the further north you travel.
Hikers hoping to explore the northern part of the state should wait until late June because the tundra doesn't usually melt until then. And if you're worried about getting bitten by Alaska's notorious mosquitos, plan to arrive around late July, when night-time frost kills off those annoying little bloodsuckers.
So mid to late summer is generally the best time to visit Alaska -- unless you're a sky gazer. If catching the Northern Lights is crucial to your visit, you'll need to plan your trip between September and April 20th. Because the darkest months are best for seeing this breathtaking phenomenon. And we can't think of a more mesmerizing way to spend 4/20 watching the Aurora Borealis
The quickest and easiest way to get to Alaska is by plane, flying through American Airlines or Delta. American Airlines offers trips to major cities like Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau as well as the southern towns of Ketchikan -- home of Totem Pole Park -- and Sitka, the former capital of Russia's colonies in Alaska.
Delta offers stops in all of those cities and towns as well as Barrow (America's northernmost city), Nome (located on the Bering Sea) and the southern towns of Bethel, Cordova, Gustavus, King Salmon, Kodiak, Petersburg and Yakutat.
Depending on where you live, you might also be able to book through Alaska Airlines, which services cities in 31 states across America.
If you have time to take a scenic route, there are two great travel options by land and sea. Travellers living in or near Bellingham, Washington, can visit some of Alaska's coastal regions by hopping aboard a ferry run by the Alaska Marine Highway System. Ferries are equipped to accommodate vehicles ranging from bicycles to RV's. You can even bring a kayak along if you feel like hopping off at one port and rowing for a bit.
If you're a Northwesterner who'd rather drive, you can explore the rugged outdoors by taking the Alaska Highway, which begins in Dawson Creek, British Columbia -- sorry for getting that song stuck in your head -- and runs through Canada's Yukon Territory en route to a handful of Alaskan destinations, including Tok, Delta Junction, Fairbanks and Anchorage.
Getting to Alaska is a lot easier than getting around The Last Frontier. If all you want to do is check out northern city life in Anchorage, Fairbanks or Juneau (Alaska's biggest metros), then you won't have trouble driving or cabbing (sorry, no Uber).
But if you're more adventurous, there are many ways to explore some of the area's remoter regions.
To check out coastal towns along the Gulf of Alaska, the Bering Strait, the Pacific Ocean and the Aleutian Islands, all you need to do is hop (or drive) aboard the Alaska Marine Highway System, which stops at over 30 ports across the state -- many of which aren't accessible by land. Like Juneau, the state's capital. Juneau is also the only major city on the route, so you should consider staying there if you want to enjoy urban nightlife and explore the wilderness on your trip.
The Alaska Marine Highway's fleet of ferries ranges from small shuttle ships -- offering same-day trips to two or three ports -- to mainline ferries that take multiple days to reach the state's remote regions. Those larger vessels are equipped with cabins, showers, cafes, lounges and restaurants for travellers. But if you feel like saving money, you can rough it by pitching a tent on the ferry's upper deck.
Flying is the best way to explore Alaska's mysterious interior. And there are various ways to fly. Big cities like Fairbanks as well as smaller communities like Bethel and Nome have airports offering flightseeing adventures in bush planes that visit Alaska's native villages and other remote settlements that aren't accessible by sea or road. But many of them don't have hotels, so you'll have to book a day trip.
If you're feeling particularly adventurous, you can save money by tagging along for a "mail run" flown by a seasoned bush pilot delivering letters and parcels to remote communities. Warbelow's Air -- a local airline based in Fairbanks -- offers visits to up to 12 remote villages, including stops in the Arctic Circle. And roughing it on the mail route is generally cheaper than booking a flightseeing tour or charter a plane.
Travellers interested in seeing Alaska's landscape more than its settlements should consider booking helicopter tours. These excursions often land on mountaintops and glaciers, allowing passengers to go hiking and dogsledding (yes, even in the summer months).
If you'd rather keep your feet on the ground, there are many scenic routes along the state's highways, offering views of glaciers, national parks, wildlife reserves and cultural sites. So you don't need to charter a plane to dip your toe in a fjord, glimpse a living moose and hike through Denali National Park. Just hop in your car and take one of the byways recommended by the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Alaska is rich in outdoor activities. The Last Frontier is heaven on earth for diehard hikers because it's home to more national parks than any other state aside from California. These parks include Denali (named after the tallest mountain in North America), Glacier Bay (featuring droves of grizzly bears, mountain goats, whales and eagles), Lake Clark (home to four active volcanoes) and five other sites.
Whether you're flightseeing or driving along one of the state's byways, there's a great chance you'll catch a glimpse of some of the state's wildlife. But if wildlife watching is at the top of your to-do list, you should check out one of these special locations for viewing salmon, caribou, whales, walruses, puffins, bears and more indigenous critters.
For an even closer look at the state's most ferocious creatures, you can take a guided bear viewing tour. These excursions offer the best chance of seeing large groups of black, grizzly and even polar bears in nature, doing bear stuff like foraging for berries, fishing for salmon or simply romping around in the wilderness. And travellers who would rather keep a safe distance from these beasts can check out bears and other local wildlife at the Alaska Zoo in Anchorage.
If fishing is your thing, you owe it to yourself to check out the chartered fishing trips along the state's 34,000 miles of coastline. You can also go riverbank fishing or take a boat out to angle on the ocean. The experts on hand will supply the gear and help novice fisherman as well as expert anglers catch some legendary Alaskan salmon, halibut and other regional favorites. They'll also help you clean and mail your catches so that you can enjoy them at home after your trip.
Best Cities for Nightlife
When it comes to Alaskan nightlife, one city stands out from the rest. Anchorage, the state's largest city, knows how to keep its 400,000 residents entertained with mouth-watering menus and thirst-quenching drinks.
Downtown Anchorage is home to cafes, fusion restaurants and many hearty steakhouses like Club Paris, which offers four-inch steaks, house-smoked meats and fresh Alaskan seafood -- including Red King Crab. And these restaurants are located near the Performing Arts Center, so you can have a hearty dinner and catch a play, concert or musical for dessert.
Then you can wash down the show at the Crow's Nest -- which boasts a wine cellar stocked with over 10,000 bottles -- or sample one of the 50 beers on tap at Humpy's Great Alaskan Alehouse. And there are many other bars and pubs around downtown if you feel like taking a sipping tour.
More daring diners can venture just outside Anchorage and check out the Seven Glaciers Restaurant in the resort town of Girdwood. Getting there is an adventure unto itself because you have to take a tram up Mount Alyeska to get to the venue, which is 2,300 feet above sea level. But the ride's worth it because the restaurant offers panoramic views of the ocean as a free side to their gourmet entrees.
If you'd rather travel outside of Anchorage, there's plenty of evening entertainment elsewhere. Beer lovers should definitely visit the Silver Gulch Restaurant in Fairbanks, where diners can sample one of the establishment's twelve house-brewed suds or sample their extensive collection of bottled brews while enjoying unconventional entrees like yak meat.
Juneau, the state capital, offers a unique Alaskan feast at the Gold Creek Salmon Bake -- a seasonal venue open from May 1 to September 30. This eating adventure begins with a hike into the outskirts of an Alaskan rainforest, where you get a glimpse of where their dinner spawned in the Salmon Creek Waterfall. Then the scent of salmon smoking on alder wood fire will whet your appetite for the all-you-can-eat cookout in the woods. And for dessert, guests you can roast marshmallows in the rainforest.
Legal Cannabis Procurement
America's northernmost state offers stunning mountain vistas, awesome encounters with nature and a taste of legal marijuana. Alaska legalized recreational cannabis consumption in 2014. But that doesn't mean anything goes in The Last Frontier. Here are some of the rules and regulations that you need to know before taking a cannabis adventure.
First off, you must be 21 or older to legally purchase, possess and consume cannabis. But you can't use it in public -- not on the street, not in your car and not in parks -- especially federal parks. Since marijuana is still prohibited by the American government, it's illegal to possess it -- let alone consume it on federally owned land. So don't bring a joint along for your hike through Denali National Park.
Also, high driving is illegal, so take a cab if you've had a puff or a nibble.
Buying cannabis legally in Alaska is still a bit tough right now because there are very few dispensaries open. The state began accepting applications for retail marijuana licenses in February 2016, so even though cannabis has been legal since 2014, the new industry isn't totally off the ground yet.
Right now, there are one or two stores operating in each of the following cities: Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau, Sitka, Wasilla, Kenai, Skagway and Valdez. More will be opening up in the weeks ahead, so check Leafly's dispensary listings for the latest updates.
Generally speaking, the stores that are open now offer the same basic products:
- dried cannabis for smoking or vaping
- edibles (cannabis-infused food, drinks or candy)
- concentrates (potent extracts like hash, wax and shatter)
- topicals (creams, lotions and other products that relieve pain without getting you high).
But plan your purchases carefully. There are state-wide limits on the amount of cannabis products that you can get. Like you can't buy more than one ounce (28 grams) of dried leaf from a dispensary at a time. Although that shouldn't be a problem since you can't stock up. Transporting marijuana out of the state is illegal, so don't buy more than you plan to consume on your trip.
Before taking a puff, you need to find a place to legally enjoy it. Right now, public consumption is strictly prohibited in Alaska. That extends to cafes and bars as well as the street. Yes, there are cannabis social clubs in cities like Anchorage and Fairbanks that allow patrons to smoke and vape onsite, but they're operating illegally. The state is working on rules to permit on-site consumption at certain businesses, but those regs aren't ready yet.
So you might need to make some friends while you're visiting so that you can have a puff at a local's pad.
If you're looking for something fun to do after having a puff in Anchorage, check out the Aurora Show -- a 40 minute cinematic gallery showing of photographer Dave Parkhurst's breathtaking shots of the Northern Lights.
That's just one of the state's cultural hotspots. Alaska's big three cities offer plenty of theatrical entertainment, whether you're interested in catching a musical at the Performing Arts Center in Anchorage, watching an original Alaskan play at the Perseverance Theater in Juneau, or seeing a concert at the Carlson Center in Fairbanks.
Alaska is also rich in museums, galleries and research centers. And not just in the big three cities. You can learn about the region's indigenous peoples at the Inupiat Heritate Center in Barrow. Check out Alaska aquaculture at the Sea Life Center in Seward. And learn about the region's gold rush history at the Mining Museum in Hope.
And some towns are museums unto themselves, like the Russian settlement in Sitka. The 23 blocks of 19th century buildings that are still standing in the gold rush settlement at Skagway. And the ghost town of Kennicott, which has been taken over by the National Park Service (so don't bring any marijuana with you or else it might disappear like the mining town's inhabitants).
On top of the main attractions, Alaska has many hidden gems to discover on your trip. Here's a sampling to whet your wanderlust.
- Beer Run on the Rails: Big Swig Tours offers a unique pub crawl called Hops on the Rail. -- a daylong train ride from Anchorage to Talkeetna that includes tours of 4 Alaskan breweries and samplings of at least a dozen local beers.
- The Dr. Seuss House: If you take the train ride to Talkeetna, check out the strange home in the woods that locals call the Dr. Seuss House. No, the children's author didn't live there. But the 14+ story home looks like something out of his stories.
- Santa's Digs: Alaska is also home to the Santa Claus House in the small town of North Pole, which boasts Christmas decorations all year round. North Pole is located just outside of Fairbanks, so if you feel like taking a holly jolly detour, hit the road and check out the town whose slogan is "Where the spirit of Christmas Lives Year Round."
- Glass-Bottom Boat Ride: get up-close and personal with ocean life with the Sea Life Discovery Tour's glass-bottom boat excursion in Sitka Sound, located on the state's southeastern coast.
- Coolest Museum on Earth: The Chena Hot Springs Resort just outside Fairbanks is home to the Aurora Ice Museum, which features mesmerizing ice sculptures by champion ice carver Steve Brice. The chilly attractions are open to the public year round.
Time to Rejig Your Bucket List
Getting to Alaska may be tricky, but the unique experiences tucked away up north will make the trek worthwhile. So consider bumping up Alaska on your bucket list. The journey might just give you the energy to finish those other things to do before you die.
As American author Sam Keith once wrote, "This country makes a man younger than his birthdays."