With over half a million square miles of land, measuring 1400 miles north to south and 2500 miles east to west, and with more than 15,000 miles of roads, the vastness of Alaska can be overwhelming. Those who live here have the luxury of exploring Alaska a little at a time – in bite-size chunks if you will. But if you’re planning your first trip to Alaska, where do you even begin?
One of the most common questions we hear, often goes something like this: “We’re planning our first trip to Alaska and will be there about ‘x’ number of days. What are the ‘must do’ activities, sights & adventures we need to experience?
The answer to this question is often another question, or, more accurately, several questions. There are as many ‘best ways’ to see Alaska as there are visitors who come here. Each of us is unique, with varying abilities, priorities, preferences and goals. Early in the planning process you should get an idea of interests and priorities of each member of your group. With this information you’ll be able to determine if you’ll want to spend some time in smaller groups with more common interests than the whole, or even plan some individual time. That said, any way you do Alaska, there are a few things that stand out above the rest as “don’t miss” activities.
…the park and the mountain. Denali National Park & Preserve encompasses over 6 million acres of Alaska’s Interior region. The park is home to, arguably, the greatest sampling of free roaming wildlife in Alaska. It’s common to see both black and grizzly bear, moose, caribou, wolf and Dall sheep, in addition to a vast array of smaller animals. For the majority of it’s operating season, park buses are the only vehicles allowed past mile 15 of the park road. You can drive your rental car in that far, but to really see the park you’ll want to get on the bus. Summer, 2022, due to a landslide, buses will only go in to mile 42. You’ll choose from narrated, or transit buses, depending on how much structure and direction you want in your bus ride. Check the National Parks website for more information. Our recommendation for most people is to spend a full day in the park. There are numerous accommodations within a short distance of the park entrance, so you may want to stay the night before and after near the park. If you can’t find the time for the bus trip into the park, flightseeing tours from Anchorage or Talkeetna can give you a unique view of the park and mountains in a fraction of the time.
Little more than an hour North of Anchorage, Hatcher Pass is part paved, part gravel road traversing an amazing mountain pass between Palmer and Willow. Camp, Hike, bike, ski, snowboard, hunt or fish (check local regulations), but at the very least, drive through (as allowed by your vehicle rental contract as it relates to travel on gravel roads.) You might stop to check out the Independence Mine State Historical Park, which offers tours twice daily as of the time of this writing. If you’re the hiking type, find a trail such as Archangel or Cragie Creek, which is really a jeep trail, but some of the most unbelievable mountain scenery you’ll find anywhere.
Valdez is a great place, and worth checking out, especially if your interests include fishing or marine wildlife, but the journey may be at least as good as the destination. Driving from Anchorage or the Matanuska-Susitna (Mat,Su) Valley, the drive is amazing, until you ascend the Richardson Highway into Thompson Pass. At this point, there are few words to describe the scene except otherworldly. Here, the highway climbs alongside rivers and between mountain peaks, through rolling hills and tundra that could be the setting of any number of adventure or fantasy movies. On the descent from the summit of the pass toward Valdez, you’ll drive through a canyon along the Lowe River with cliffs and waterfalls towering hundreds of feet on both sides. This is arguably the most scenic drive in Alaska, and if you can spare a day or two, definitely worth the journey.
4. The Kenai River
Whether floating, fishing or just checking out the scenery and wildlife, you’ve got to see the Kenai River at least once in your lifetime. This can work out great for the traveler, as there are so many other attractions to explore on the Kenai Peninsula. Seward, the City of Kenai and Homer are just a few. For hikers, some of the greatest Alaskan wilderness trails are on the Kenai Peninsula. Check out Resurrection Pass Trail or Johnson Pass Trail if you’re looking for multi-day hikes in the area; but I digress. Due to the high concentration of glacial minerals, the Kenai River itself is an emerald color unlike any other you’ll find. The waters of the Kenai and its tributary the Russian River, are trophy trout fishing waters, so if you’re into fishing, you’ll find world-class flyfishing opportunities here. The Kenai and Russian Rivers also host some of the greatest returns of a variety of Pacific salmon, and outstanding fishing opportunities abound.
5. Matanuska Glacier
Most visitors to Alaska will want to see a glacier while they’re here. While strictly speaking, visiting a glacier may not be a uniquely Alaskan experience, it isn’t something you can do regularly for most of the rest of the world. About two-hours north of Anchorage, you’ll find the Matanuska Glacier, the largest glacier in the world with road access. Glaciers are no place for the inexperienced explorer to go poking around. Moulins, crevasses and other hidden hazards can sit just below a thin layer of snow, and be deep enough to make survival unlikely in the event of a fall. Fortunately, the team of guides at the Matanuska Glacier are trained and experienced in keeping guests out of harm’s way. Tours start at scheduled intervals several times daily, year round. During these tours, you’ll spend about two hours hiking ON the glacier, with a guide leading and informing you, as they show you the most amazing of glacial features. If you’re interested in an all inclusive Matanuska Glacier experience, check out our partner company, Tent City Tours, at http://www.Alaskatentcitytours.com. For the adventurous traveler, Alaska Wildlife Adventures offers a hike to Raven Glacier in Crow Pass. From the trailhead to the glacier you’ll cover about four miles and 2000 feet of elevation gain, this is an all-day adventure. We often see black or brown bears and mountain goats on this trip.
6. The Aurora
For many, viewing the northern lights is a “bucket list” experience that they may dream about for many years. You’ll be among the most fortunate if you’re able to put together a successful aurora viewing trip during tour time here. This will only work out for those planning a visit to Alaska outside the peak travel months of summer. In most of Alaska, you’ll have a fair chance of seeing the northern lights between late August and late April. If you are planning on being in Alaska during those months, you’ll certainly want to set aside some time to chase the aurora, or northern lights. You’ll notice the word chase used there as opposed to see or view. Seeing the lights can be a real challenge, because there are several factors that have to come together at any given time to allow you to see them. First is the amount of aurora activity during the window of time you have available. There are several good resources for keeping an eye on the aurora forecast, which is an indication of the forecast auroral activity level a few weeks into the future. Know this though, the forecast changes daily. Also, there have been times with a poor forecast for northern lights activity, but it turns out to be an amazing display. The photo above, for example, was taken on a night with a very low activity forecast. Second, the aurora can be blowing up the night sky, but it’s worthless if it’s above a solid layer of clouds. For these reasons, it’s best to leave yourself as much time as possible to chase the lights. Our recommendation is to schedule a tour with a reputable guide early in your trip. You’ll gain valuable insight and understanding, and if the stars align for you, so you speak, you may catch an amazing display of auroral activity. Many tour companies, ours included, will offer to keep you informed if a night near your scheduled trip looks to be much better for viewing the aurora than what you’ve booked. After a night chasing the aurora with a guide, you should have the experience to maximize your chances of seeing them on your own time. Any way you do it, it’s certainly an experience you won’t want to miss, and it’s absolutely worth the lost sleep!
Of course, there’s much, much more to see and do in Alaska than we can fit into this short article, the options outlined here will be a great start to planning your first trip!