Where to go and what to do in Alaska - your essential travel guide

With millions of acres of sweeping landscapes, snow-capped mountains, glacier lakes and thousands of native wildlife species, it’s no surprise that Alaska is the US vacation destination on everyone’s lips. After international travel was suspended earlier this year, more travellers in the US are wondering where to go and what to do in Alaska, so they can get their 2020 domestic vacation on the go.

Many countries abroad still have border restrictions, meaning domestic trips to US National Parks and beauty spots are on the rise.  The enormous state of Alaska is an attractive holiday prospect for couples, families and solo travellers to explore one of the most unique places in the world, whilst keeping their physical distancing in check.

Alaska is the largest state in the US by far, with a rich history and a bounty of national parks and cultural landmarks to explore, so it’s important that you take your time when planning a trip to Alaska. Read on for our top tips to experiencing the best things about Alaska on your 2020 US vacation.

What to do in Alaska

Denai National Park

From viewing the spectacular Northern Lights, to dog-sled races across snowy tundra, things to do in Alaska are plentiful – try planning out your trip activities before-hand.

If you’re planning to visit one of the 24 national parks and protected nature reserves in Alaska, Denali National Park is the juggernaut of wildlife adventure and is also home to the highest mountain in the US. Mt. Denali (otherwise known as Mt McKinley) is over 20,000 feet high; the third highest peak in the world. A visit just before sunset might mean you get to experience the famous ‘alpenglow’ effect, where the setting sun reflects off the snowy mountain peak, setting up the most gorgeous view.

Most visitors come to Denali National Park to see the wildlife, as the park is home to the ‘big five’ mammals – caribou, moose, wolves, curly-horned Dall sheep and grizzly bears! There are also over 160 types of bird to be found here, including bald eagles.

Grizzly bears in Alaska

Other things to do in Denali National Park include cycling, white-water rafting, wild camping, flightseeing (where a pilot flies you around the spectacular mountain range), bird watching and dog sledding demonstrations led by park rangers.

Fishing is popular at Savage River inside the park, but you can get a better catch by fishing on Alaska’s coastline, which is over 6,000 miles and bigger than all other state coastlines combined.

A trip to Prince William Sound might be the day you catch your first Pacific Salmon, halibut, rainbow trout or char – the area (and much of Alaska) is known for being rich in fish, seafood and marine life.

If you’d rather watch bears do all the work, visit Katmai National Park, an area renowned for high numbers of salmon found in the Brooks River. Bears stand at the top of waterfalls to catch salmon in the summer months as the fish spawn and leap up from the water – an unmissable sight.

Log cabin accommodation can be found at Katmai National Park, as well as other national parks in Alaska, which will put you in good stead for days of wildlife exploration. If you’re looking to stay in-city, Anchorage and Fairbanks are both cities with good transport links, shopping, restaurants, nightlife and of course, hotels and bed-and-breakfasts. Visit Fairview for the best opportunity to see the Northern Lights in Alaska – the natural phenomenon can be spotted more than 2/3 of the year in Fairview’s open sky.

In Anchorage, ride the Alyeska Tramway for breath-taking 2,000m mountain views, try your hand at gold panning in India Creek, go whale watching at Turnagain Arm or visit Anchorage Museum, which tells the story of Alaska and is the state’s largest museum.

Planning an Alaska road trip

Northern Lights in Alaska

If you’re considering how to get around in Alaska, a road trip is a great opportunity for spotting wildlife and experiencing a different side to the state. The Matanuska Susitna Valley is a trail known for scenic country roads and beauty spots, including Thompson Pass, the snowiest area in Alaska where you can catch a gorgeous view of the Worthington Glacier.

You can drive through the ‘Mat Su’ Valley on route to Valdez, the ‘Little Switzerland’ of Alaska, which offers views of the Chugach Mountains, a rich Native American history and is one of the many exciting mini-trips on Trafalgar’s ‘Alaska and the Yukon’ two-week tour.

Hatcher Pass is another scenic drive in the Talkeetna Mountains, which is a 3-hour round trip from Anchorage and offers beautiful views in summer and winter, as well as the Independence Mine Historical State Park. Here you can learn about the Gold Rush, go on a hiking trail, look out for marmots, pikes and golden eagles, or pick blueberries in late summer.

Wherever you decide to visit on your Alaska road trip, you’ll interact with the natural world in a completely new way – wild moose are even known for causing traffic jams across the state which is a sight you don’t want to miss (unless you’re in a hurry!) Bring these items along on your Alaska road trip for ultimate wildlife exploration:

  • Rain gear and waterproofs
  • Wool socks (it’s cold in the Alaskan mountains!)
  • Wet suit (in case you want to splash around in one of Alaska’s three million lakes)
  • Long johns (long woollen underwear)
  • Trail shoes
  • Bear barrel (if you decide to go wild camping, these pressurised cans will keep bears from catching the scent of your corned beef sandwiches!)
  • Binoculars
  • Re-usable water bottles
  • Cold box (for an ice-cold Alaskan raspberry wheat beer at the end of the day – an all-time favourite in the state)

Best time to visit Alaska

Hiking boots

So, you’ve decided you want to go on a vacation to Alaska, but when is the best time to travel?

Most tourists visit Alaska in summer months (between June and August), but the state is beautiful all year round – the best time to visit Alaska really depends on what your priorities are.

If you’re after the warmest weather for water sports, hiking and outdoor activities, try visiting Alaska in June or July, where temperatures will stay in the mid-teens, the weather should be dry and the days long.

If you want the best chance of seeing the Northern Lights, visit Alaska between September and April – the peak month is March, when the shorter days and darker skies offer tremendous opportunity to see the Northern Lights in Alaska. Stay up past midnight till around 3am to catch the best views. The winter months in Alaska are very cold and most days are sub-zero freezing, but as trees lose their leaves, you can see a whole new side to the state. Watch the largest bald eagle migration in November near Chilkat River, or visit in Alaska ski season between December and March for powdery snow, ice carving competitions and winter carnivals across the state.

If you’re looking to avoid crowds and get some solitude, visit Alaska in April or May. These are the state’s quietest months for tourism but offer some of the longest days in the year, meaning you’ll have stacks of time for Alaska sightseeing.

Alaska Travel Tips

Afognak Island, Alaska

When you’re getting to Alaska, you might want to fly into Anchorage from Chicago, Seattle, Salt Lake City – just some of the US cities that offer direct flights to the area. You can also fly direct to Fairview, Juneau and Ketchikan airports, depending on where you’d like to start your vacation in Alaska.

Alaska can also be reached when driving from Western Canada, via the Alcan highway – one part of the legendary Pan-American Highway which traces all the way from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska to Ushuaia in Argentina!

If you want a chance of spotting dolphins, whales and sharks on your journey, you can also visit Alaska by water. Through May to September, there are Alaska cruises running from Seattle (via the Inside Passage) or Washington (via the Alaska Marine Highway System).

If you had fun on your cruise on the way into Alaska, why not explore the sprawling coastline, with fjords, glaciers and rugged islands on an Alaska cruise tour? You can experience Glacier Bay National Park, Haines, Juneau and other Alaskan hotspots on our Alaska and the Yukon tour with a cruise extension – the ideal way to experience the best things about Alaska from the comfort of a luxury cruise liner.

Top 5 best things to do in Alaska

Alaska ice cave

There are so many things to do in Alaska, with each season offering unique travel experiences that many tourists re-visit the state year after year. Here’s our list of the top-five experiences to have in Alaska, no matter when you decide to visit.

1. Experience Alaska cuisine

Salmon, halibut and king crabs are so plentiful in Alaska waters that you’ll be able to find delicious seafood dishes all across the state. Try Firecracker King Salmon with crispy skin, straight off the grill for a true introduction to Alaskan seafood. You can also try moose, bear, caribou or mountain goat in many of the restaurants around the state serving local produce.

2. Learn about Native American culture

Whether you want an all-round introduction to the five indigenous groups in Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage, or want to visit the old Inupiat town of Barrow, it’s important to get a sense of Alaska’s legacy when visiting.

3. Visit an Ice Cave

These extraordinary ice formations will be Instagram heaven – connect with Alaskan nature by walking through one of the state’s many ice caves. Mendenhall Ice Caves near Juneau and Matanuska Glacier Cave near Anchorage both offer guided tours and some of the longest ice caves in Alaska.

4. Learn about the Gold Rush

In 1896, hundreds of thousands of gold prospectors and workers travelled into Alaska to find their fortune. Visit Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park and trace their footsteps, visiting historic towns, saloons and mines that were built in this period.

5. See the Northern Lights in Alaska

How can a trip to Alaska be complete without seeing this natural phenomenon? While it’s best to visit between September and April for a chance to see the Northern Lights, they are actually active all year round in different parts of the state. Fairview offers the most consistent Northern Lights sightings.

Alaska moose

Ready for your 2020 Alaska vacation? Experience the real Alaska with Trafalgar, on our Alaska tours.

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