Alaska is the largest state in the United States by a long stretch, but it’s also the most remote, the most isolated and the wildest destination in the country.
Alaska is unlike anywhere else in the USA, and you can find some of the most unique and beautiful landscapes in the world here. Alaska is sparsely populated, and there are vast tracts of wilderness waiting to be explored. There are glaciers, ice fields, active and dormant volcanoes, enormous mountain peaks and dazzling lakes and fjords.
It’s made for adventurers and outdoor lovers, and there are many great things to do in Alaska from hiking and walking on glaciers to dogsledding and scenic flights.
Alaska also has some quirky cities to explore too, from Juneau to Anchorage, and you’ll quickly find that this is a state that will have you mesmerized on every level. To inspire your trip to America’s largest state, here’s our guide to the best things to do in Alaska.
Don’t leave home without: Lonely Planet Alaska (Travel Guide)
21 of Our Favorite Things to do in Alaska
Visit Juneau, Alaska’s Capital
Juneau might not be the largest city in Alaska, but it is the state capital, and it’s a great place to visit to learn more about local culture and history. Juneau is perhaps the most interesting state capital in the USA.
It is a city of just 30,000 people in the south-east of the state, that’s found in an incredible location overlooking waterways, glaciers and glorious scenery. Take the tramway to the top of the city lookout for exceptional views over Juneau, before visiting the Alaska State Museum to delve into local history.
After exploring downtown, it’s time to head out into the wilderness, because from Juneau you are just a short journey from waterfalls, lakes and huge ice sheets that never melt. We spent a whole week getting up to all kinds of adventure in Juneau and it’s hands down one of our favorite places in the USA.
Our top recommended tours including Juneau:
- Juneau Helicopter Tour and Guided Icefield Walk
- Juneau Whale-Watching Cruise and Brewery Tour
- Juneau Whale Watching Tour
- Half-Day Tour to Mendenhall Glacier and King Crab from Juneau
Go Whale Watching
Alaska can be one of the best places in the world to spot whales if you are there in the right season. During the spring, when the waters are warmer, many species of whale are seen migrating along the coast and are regularly spotted in the fjords around Anchorage and other parts of the country.
You can join dedicated whale watching tours that take visitors out in search of these magnificent creatures during the spring and summer.
Our top recommended tours including Whale Watching:
- Whale Watch and Mendenhall Glacier Combo Tour
- Juneau Whale Watching Tour
- Juneau Wildlife Whale Watching & Mendenhall Glacier
Visit the Mendenhall Glacier
Just a few miles away from Juneau, you can visit Mendenhall Glacier, which is one of the best things to do in Alaska. As well as being one of the most beautiful glaciers in the state, it’s also one of the most accessible, as it’s so close to the city.
You can visit the Mendenhall Glacier Visitors Centre to learn more about the natural history of the area, and for spectacular views over the lake that the glacier calves off into.
There are several walking trails through the surrounding area too, and as well as the glacier, you might be lucky enough to spot bears and other wildlife in the nearby valley.
Our top recommended tours including Mendenhall Glacier:
- Whale Watch and Mendenhall Glacier Combo Tour
- Whale Watching, Mendenhall Glacier, and Tracy’s King Crab Shack Combo Tour
- Mendenhall Lake Canoe Adventure
- Mendenhall Glacier Trek
Take an Alaska Inside Passage Cruise
Any cruise in Alaska is going to be phenomenal, it is such an amazing place you really cannot go wrong. That said, we chose to take an UnCruise through the Inside Passage and it was one of the highlights of our travels. We’ve been traveling since 2001, so that’s a bold statement!
The Inside passage is untouched, untapped and overflowing with nature. When you take an UnCruise, you are on a small ship, maximum 80 people and you never go to port. Your days are spent kayaking, hiking and touring by skiff in the great Alaskan wilderness.
Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve
If you’re interested in seeing more glaciers, then one of the best things to do in Alaska is to explore Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve. This wonderful national park is found north-west of Juneau and is one of the most spectacular destinations you could visit in the state.
The park is home to more than a few glaciers, but due to the remote and icy nature of Glacier Bay, it’s difficult to travel to. You can cruise along the edge of the bay, or if you are feeling adventurous, take flight seeing tours in the air from Juneau that fly over the preserve.
Our top recommended tour including Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve:
Ketchikan is a small city that’s found at the far southern end of the state, and it’s in a beautiful location surrounded by fjords and glaciers. The population of Ketchikan swells in the summer months when cruise ships call into the city, but it’s well worth visiting to explore what there is to see here.
Visit the Totem Heritage Centre to learn more about indigenous culture in Alaska, and to find out why Ketchikan is home to the largest number of free-standing totem poles found anywhere in the world.
Cruise through the fjords, and journey out into the mystical surrounds of the Misty Fjords National Monument to discover more of the outstanding glacial nature that’s found here.
Our top recommended tours including Ketchikan:
- Ketchikan All In One
- Totems, City & Wildlife by Cable Car Trolley
- Bering Sea Crab Fisherman’s Tour from Ketchikan
- Private 4-Hour Ketchikan City Tour
Take a Road Trip
One of the highlights from the month we spent in Alaska was road tripping across the state. Having our own wheels allowed us to go anywhere we wanted, stop anytime we wanted and explore at our own pace. We saw so much of Alaska this way and highly recommend this.
Our road trip started in Anchorage and we headed far north to Fairbanks, worked our way back down and into the Kenai Peninsula. Our only regret? Not planning another month.
Anchorage is the most well-known city in Alaska, and it’s very different the capital, Juneau. This is the state’s largest city, and with a population of almost 300,000 people, it’s almost three times the size of Juneau.
Anchorage makes for a great base from which to explore the multitude of national parks that surround it, including the famous Denali National Park, while the city itself is, of course, one of the best things to do in Alaska.
This is where nature meets the metropolis and it’s not uncommon to see bears and moose wandering through downtown. There are excellent museums, and you can learn about the history of the state, and learn more about the indigenous cultures that lived here before Europeans arrived too at the many historical and cultural institutions found in Anchorage.
Our top recommended tours including Anchorage:
- Glacier Discovery Tour
- Bear Viewing Excursion and Airplane Adventure Tour
- Anchorage Northern Lights Tour
- Alaska Wildlife Tour
Hike around Chugach State Park
Chugach State Park is one of the best things to do in Alaska, and this natural preserve extends right onto the Anchorage city limits, making this easily accessible for anyone. The state park encompasses a huge area of wilderness that includes mountains, lakes and glaciers.
You can join trips departing Anchorage that venture deep into the national park, along hiking trails or off-roading in summer, or over the ice and snow in the cold winter months.
Our top recommended tours including Chugach State Park:
- Wilderness, Wildlife & Glaciers with Free Photo Lesson Tour May-Sept
- Sunset Wilderness, Wildlife, Glacier & Nature Free Photo Lessons-May thru Sept
Go to Bear Camp in Lake Clark National Park
This is hands down one of the top wildlife experiences you can have in the entire world. It is also the best place to see giant coastal grizzly bears, up close and personal in one of the most beautiful national parks in the USA.
Lake Clark National Park is the third least visited National Park in the USA, meaning you won’t see many, if any, other people during your time at bear camp. Owned and operated by Great Alaska Adventures, you will fly from Kenai on a small plane for an hour over to the camp. The plane lands on the beach and even as you arrive, you’ll see dozens of bears.
We spent 4 days here glamping in the wilderness, viewing and photographing bears. It was incredible, it was exclusive and one of the top wildlife experiences we have ever had.
Get Up Close with Denali National Park
Denali National Park is one of the most impressive destinations in the USA because it’s home to Denali the highest mountain peak in North America. Previously known as Mount McKinley, Denali stands well over 6000 meters in height.
While you won’t want to tackle the mountain peak unless you’re fully kitted out and trained for an expedition, the mountain itself can be seen from afar, or by taking scenic flights. The park itself is also full of great hiking trails, and teeming wildlife.
Our top recommended tours including Denali National Park:
- Denali Hiking Tour
- Mt Denali Flight-seeing Tour from Anchorage with Glacier Landing
- Denali Park Zipline Adventure
- Denali National Park Walking Tour
Go Heli-Hiking in Denali State Park
Embrace your inner explorer and head off into the remote reaches of Denali State Park by helicopter. This unique adventure flies you into the park, where you are dropped with an experienced guide and left to navigate through the park for approximately 3 hours before being retrieved again.
The helicopter ride to and from doubles as a scenic flight too. This adventure gives you a chance to really feel and experience the dramatic nature of Alaska’s wilderness while learning about the flora, fauna and topography of the area.
Kenai Fjords National Park
The Kenai Fjords National Park is also found close to Anchorage, and it’s also one of the best things to do in Alaska. This beautiful area is found to the south of the city, and it protects a vast area of glaciers and ice fields that flow into the surrounding fjords.
This is Alaska at its best, and amongst the glaciers, you can find glistening lakes fed by the melting ice and panoramic views that will quite literally leave you breathless.
Our top recommended tours including Kenai Fjords National Park:
- Kenai Fjords Wildlife Cruise with Optional Buffet Lunch
- Full-Day Kenai Fjords National Park Cruise
- Kenai Fjords National Park Cruise from Seward
- Seward Shore Excursion: Kenai Fjords and Resurrection Bay Cruise
Head North to Fairbanks
Fairbanks is found far to the north of Anchorage, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, but if you are looking for a gateway to the wilderness then this is the city to visit.
Home to 30,000 people this is the most populous city in the north, and you can find a wonderful museum that delves into the history of the locals and pioneers that made this remote place home.
From Fairbanks, you can venture out into the wilds, in search of beautiful scenery, mountains or in winter, the Northern Lights.
Our top recommended tours including Fairbanks:
- Northern Lights and Chena Hot Springs Tour from Fairbanks
- Arctic Circle Day Trip from Fairbanks with Lunch
- Alaskan Heritage and Sightseeing Tour in Fairbanks
- Fairbanks City Highlight Tour
Go Panning for Gold
Alaska’s history intertwines with some amazing stories of perseverance, adventure and determination around the gold rush. Hundreds of people began to flood into Alaska when it became known as a gold hot spot.
Mining town and culture were established and the remnants of this amazing period in time can still be seen today. Heck, companies are still digging gold out of the ground in Alaska at an impressive rate.
Leaning how to pan for gold is a right of passage to anyone who visits Alaska and let me tell you, it’s not as easy as it looks.
Soak in Chena Hot Springs
Just outside of Fairbanks is an amazing natural spa, the Chena Hot Springs. Gold miners used to make their way here to soak their sore, tired, aching bodies in these naturally occurring hot springs.
Over time, there was accommodation and dining options established for people to extend their stay. Today, it stands as a private resort with rustic cabins, a new lodge, indoor pool, restaurant and numerous adventures to be had. It’s also a top place to view the northern lights in the winter months.
White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad
Another epic train journey that you can make in Alaska, is the White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad. This is actually a cross country journey, as the train ride takes you from Skagway in southern Alaska, deep into the heart of the Canadian Yukon.
This is an old gold mining rail route, and you’ll be traveling in the footsteps of pioneers as you go from Alaska into Canada.
Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve
Head even further north of Fairbanks, you can find the remote Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve. This nature preserve is well within the Arctic Circle, and it’s a land of extremes, yet a land that’s beautiful too.
This isn’t a place that’s easy to get to, but if you are looking for a real adventure at the edge of the world, then this is the national park to visit.
Ride the Alaska Railroad
The Alaska Railroad is an epic feat of engineering that can take you all the way from Fairbanks to Anchorage, and then further south to Seward. This is an epic journey, and you’ll spend the whole day traveling but looking out of the window mesmerized by the passing landscapes.
If you don’t have time though, then you can ride the shorter, more touristic section of the railroad to Seward, from Anchorage, where you can explore glacial lakes and see the fjords before returning to the big city the same day.
Our top recommended tours including Alaska Railroad:
- Alaska Railroad Anchorage to Seward Round-Trip Same Day Return
- Alaska Railroad Anchorage to Seward One Way
- Alaska Railroad Denali to Anchorage One Way
A great Alaskan past time to partake in is dogsledding. More than just an experience for tourists, for many, dogsledding is the main form of transport, particularly in remote areas or when the snow and ice have fallen in winter.
You can join dogsledding trips out into the wilderness, to see how the locals get around, and to get you closer to the wildlife and to the wonderful nature that’s found all over Alaska.
Our top recommended tours including Dogsledding:
- Wilderness Dog Sled Ride and Tour
- Sled Dog Discovery in Juneau
- Juneau Helicopter Tour and Dogsledding Experience
- Dog Sledding and Mushing Experience
Flight Seeing is a Must
One of the most popular things to do in Alaska, at least if you can afford to, is to take flight seeing tours of the wilderness. Being incredibly remote and isolated, many parts of the state are almost inaccessible to travelers, particularly if you are short on time.
With flight seeing tours you can take off from the cities and be flying over the wilderness within minutes, while many planes can even land on glaciers or ice fields, to get you even closer to the natural scenery.
Our top recommended tours including Flight seeing:
- Denali Experience Flight seeing Tour
- Mt Denali Flight seeing Tour from Anchorage with Glacier Landing
- Southside Explorer Flight seeing tour from Talkeetna
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More on Alaska:
- 13 Epic Things to do in Fairbanks, Alaska Besides Northern Lights
- Ultimate Alaska Road Trip Guide
- 9 Unreal Northern Lights Tours
- Alaska National Parks-The Fabulous 8
- 2017 Travel Review – 7 States and 7 Countries
- Is Spring the Best Time to Cruise Alaska?
- Ultimate Guide to Visiting Chena Hot Springs
- Denali State Park Heli-Hiking Adventure in Remote Alaska
- 11 Reasons to Take an Alaska Inside Passage Cruise with UnCruise
- 19 Photos That Prove Juneau, Alaska is More Than Just A Cruise Stop
- The Ultimate Alaska Packing List