Alaska Travel Guide

Alaska is The Last Frontier.

Traveling throughout one of the wildest states in the United States is an amazing experience and a bucket-list destination for many people.

Alaska is a state filled with friendly locals, quirky towns, vast landscapes, and really BIG wildlife.

With rugged mountains, including the tallest peak in North America, Denali, eight national parks, mesmerizing views of the Northern Lights, and even a town with a former cat Mayor, the state of Alaska has something for everyone.

You can spend years traveling around Alaska. I was born and raised in Alaska and I always find new adventures to go on.

In fact, by the time you finish a week-long trip, you will probably see more of the state than most of the people that live here! How insane is that?

Alaska is not always the easiest place to travel, especially for backpackers or independent travelers.

This Alaska travel guide will tell you how to plan a trip to Alaska like a local, with insider tips on the best time to go, how much things costs, and everything in between.

Quick Facts

Here are seven quick facts to get you started on planning your trip to Alaska:

  1. Alaska is huge! It’s the largest state in the United States and twice the size of Texas.
  2. The best time to visit Alaska is during the summer months of June, July, and August. Alaska’s tour operations don’t open until mid-May and close for the season by mid-September.
  3. Alaska gets hot. In 2019, temperatures reached 90° F and it feels 10 degrees warmer on top of that because of its higher latitude.
  4. Alaska is known as “the Land of the Midnight Sun.” During the days surrounding the summer solstice, we get to enjoy 24 hours of daylight!
  5. Alaska has insane mountains. 17 of the 20 highest peaks in the U.S. are located in Alaska, including Denali, the tallest peak in North America.
  6. January and February are the best months to see the Northern Lights and many hotels in Alaska offer Northern Lights wake-up calls upon request.
  7. Alaska doesn’t have a sales tax making all products free of tax, from food to clothing, among other things. Some smaller towns do impose their own sales tax.

Alaska Travel Costs

Accommodation – Accommodation in Alaska can be very expensive. Hostels start at around $40 USD per night for a dorm bed. Budget hotels start at around $80 USD for a standard double room and luxury hotels and lodges can be more than $450 USD a night.

Airbnb is another good option to find accommodations and they offer a lot of different types. You could stay in anything from a yurt or a cozy cabin to a beautiful log home. Prices on Airbnb during peak season start around $65 USD a night.

Wild camping is a good budget option since BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land provides plenty of opportunities for free camping. This is important because the chances that you end up camping on private land in Alaska could turn into a bad situation. Some landowners are not the friendliest and may even greet you with a gun.

If you’re planning on backpacking, you’ll find that a lot of trails don’t have designated camping spots. You can pitch your tent anywhere (following basic trail etiquette, of course). Some trails offer a system of public use cabins that you can stay in but most of these get booked up early in the year. If you missed the booking window, there’s still a chance to find a public use cabin. I share my insider tips on how to reserve public use cabins in Alaska.

If wild camping isn’t your thing, there are a lot of campgrounds all over the state. A campsite may run you $10 USD per night and up to $25 USD for a site with amenities. This is a good budget option to see Alaska as you travel along the road system. Make sure you book your campsite in advance as securing a spot can be more difficult during peak season.

Food – There are plenty of food options in Alaska from street carts and food trucks to four-star restaurants. You can sometimes find hot dog vendors on the streets of downtown Anchorage during the summer season that will cost you a few dollars. There are plenty of fast food options like McDonald’s but you’re won’t find anything out of the ordinary on the menu. If you’re looking for a cheap lunch, there are a few places that offer pizza by the slice like the infamous Moose’s Tooth Pub & Pizzeria. A normal meal at a sit-in restaurant could cost anywhere from $10 to $30+ USD per meal. Some restaurants offer a happy hour but it’s not common due to state laws.

It is easy to prepare your own meals when you’re traveling in Alaska. There are a lot of grocery stores where you can stock up and that may cost you $1 to $5 USD per meal. The cheapest grocery store chain is Walmart and Fred Meyer’s. There are a few Costco’s scattered throughout the state which could be a good option if it makes sense for you to buy in bulk. Costco is a wholesale warehouse but it does require a membership. Anchorage has recently banned plastic bags, so make sure to bring a reusable bag with you when you go shopping.

If you’re looking for a drink, beer usually costs around $6 USD for a pint on draft and a glass of wine will cost you about the same, and cocktails will set you back around $7 to $10 USD. If you’re on a budget you’ll likely want to stick to beer. You can buy your own alcohol at liquor stores and grocery stores.

Alaska really covers the entire landscape when it comes to alcohol with local wineries, cideries, distilleries, and even a meadery. It also ranks sixth in the nation for the number of breweries per capita, with over 40 breweries. Be aware that there are some places in Alaska where it’s illegal to buy or sell alcohol.

Activities – Most museums and cultural centers in Alaska cost around $10 to $15 USD per person. A lot of vendors offer student discounts, so don’t forget to bring your Student ID with you. The cost of tours varies widely. You can go on a 3.5-hour whale watching tour for $94 USD per adult or go on a bear-viewing tour that will cost you $650+ USD per person.

There are tons of free activities in Alaska, such as hiking and camping. If you go hiking, you will find that most state parks that have road access and a parking lot will usually charge a $5 USD parking fee. It’s a self-pay system and yes, they do check.

Most of Alaska’s state and national parks are free to enter but if you are heading to Denali National Park, it’ll cost $10 USD per person to enter.

Alaska Suggested Budgets

It is possible to visit Alaska on a budget. If you’re on a backpacking budget, you should still plan to spend between $100-140 USD per day. On this budget, you’re staying in a hostel or wild camping, preparing your own meals, renting a car through sites like, and only doing things like visiting museums on free days or hiking.

On a mid-range budget of $320 USD per day, you can stay in budget hotels, rent a car, eat out three times a day, drink a bit, and participate in a wider range of activities.

For a luxury budget of $750+ USD per day, you can afford to stay in four-star lodging in remote areas, hire a rental car, eat out for every meal, and do as many activities as you want.

You can use the chart below to get an idea of how much you need to budget daily. Keep in mind that these are rough estimates. You may spend more or less depending on many factors like how many miles you’ll travel and what kind of activities you do. Prices are in USD.

Accommodation Food Transportation Activities Average Daily Cost
Budget $40 $15 $50 $35 $140
Mid-range $80 $50 $90 $100 $320
Luxury $350 $90 $130 $180 $750

Alaska Travel Guide: Money Saving Tips

Here are some ways to save money during your trip to Alaska:

  1. Visit off-season or during the shoulder season. The months of June, July, and August are the most expensive.
  2. Pack a cooler. Hit up the grocery store and prepare your own meals.
  3. Rent a car and do a self-drive. If there’s more than two of you then traveling by car will be cheaper than any other combined transportation.
  4. Use airline miles. Most airlines have a rewards program and can be used for your flights to and from Alaska.
  5. Spend the night in a tent. After flights, accommodation is the next biggest expense. You can save a lot of money by pitching a tent along Alaska’s road system.
  6. Bring your student ID. There are a lot of places that offer a student discount and you can save on entrance fees.
  7. Make some friends. It’s easy to join a local Facebook group or Meetup group and find people that are willing to take you out on an adventure.

Do You Need a Visa For Alaska?

Alaska is part of the United States and travelers must follow US immigration regulations and laws. If you are a citizen of one of the 39 countries of the Visa Waiver Program you do not have to apply for a tourist visa to Alaska. Instead, you can apply for an ESTA here, which is basically an online process to get travel authorization for the U.S.

You’ll be able to travel freely around the U.S. for up to 90 consecutive days. Upon arrival in Alaska, you’ll be required to present a valid passport and a valid ESTA or U.S. tourist visa.

When to Go to Alaska

Summer (May – August) The best time to visit Alaska is from June to August when the weather is the warmest and the days are endless. With such short summers, you can expect the state to be full of energy during this time as locals soak up the midnight sun. This time of the year is also peak tourist season so expect prices for gas, accommodations, and tours to be higher. You’ll find that most tour operations begin mid-May, including Alaska cruises.

June 21 is the longest day of the year, with 19 hours of daylight in Anchorage! Temperatures are really pleasant during this time with daytime highs from 60°F to 80°F and nighttime lows from 40°F to 50°F. Summer weather in Alaska also brings rain. The weather in Alaska is unpredictable and you never know whether your trip will be filled with bluebird days or pouring rain.

This is a great time to see wildlife, as bears are feeding on salmon and whales are migrating. Just watch out for those pesky mosquitoes, they can be really bad this time of year.

Fall (August – October) By mid-September most tour operations are closed. Towns that thrive in the summer, like Talkeetna and Homer, turn into ghost towns as many locals leave the state for the winter season. The plus side is that “shoulder season” provides a 10 to 25% drop in prices.

As the days get darker, chances of seeing the Northern Lights, or aurora borealis, are increased. I’ve seen the Northern Lights as early as late August on a backpacking trip just an hour south of Anchorage. Temperatures are dropping steadily and during a normal Alaskan winter, you’ll see snow on the ground by the end of October.

Fall in Alaska is almost non-existent. But if you’re lucky enough to time it right, you’ll get to see incredible red, orange, and yellow fall foliage amongst turquoise blue, glacial-fed rivers and lakes, and large patches of purple fireweed blooms.

Winter (November – March) Wintertime in Alaska can be summarized as long and dark, which makes it the perfect time of the year to see the Northern Lights. They can be seen throughout the state but I always recommend my friends and family to head to the city of Fairbanks during the months of January or February. Just remember that the Northern Lights is a natural phenomenon and the chances of seeing them are based on solar flare activity.

During the coldest winter days, temperatures reach below 0ºF and some places in Alaska can even reach -60ºF. Alaska is the place where no matter what time of year it is, you should always bring lots of layers!

If you enjoy winter sports, you won’t run out of things to do during the wintertime. Slopes are open, trails are groomed, and the hot toddies are ready! You’ll find people hiking, fat tire biking, backcountry skiing/snowboarding, cross-country skiing, snow-machining, snowshoeing, ice fishing, and more.

Looking for winter activity ideas? Check out 13 Best Winter Activities in Alaska.

Spring (March – April) Days are slowly getting longer and the snow is starting to melt outside. By the month of May, most of the snow on the ground, if not all, has melted. Hiking trails start to become more accessible during this time but tend to be wet, muddy, and avalanche prone. Always be prepared before heading into the backcountry.

Fur Rondevouz, or Fur Rondy, is a 10-day winter festival held in Anchorage in late February that ends with the kick-off of the crazy race with the sled dogs that you may know about, the Iditarod. There are all sorts of events that happen during this festival like Running of the Reindeer, Outhouse Races, and ice carving.

If you’re into Spring skiing, March and April are great months for it. April always seems like a great month for the weather. The days feel so warm, the roads are usually dry, and there tends to be a lot of bluebird days.

How Long to Stay in Alaska

I would suggest a minimum of ten days in Alaska if you have the time. However, you can also have an epic adventure over a long weekend if you hire a rental car and know where you’re going. The longer you stay in Alaska, the more you’ll get to explore. There are so many small towns, hiking trails, beautiful landscapes, and off-the-beaten-path adventures. It would take you years to see it all.

If you’re traveling along the Alaska Highway in a van or RV, I would recommend having four to six weeks in the state. This will give you plenty of time to travel long distances and enjoy the incredible scenery.

What to Wear in Alaska

Any true Alaskan will tell you to never forget layers. The weather in Alaska is very unpredictable. There’s always a chance for you to get rained or snowed on at any time of the year. And if you plan on being on the water, expect it to feel a lot cooler. Read my tips on what to pack for Alaska in the packing list section below.

Byron Glacier Ice Caves Alaska Travel Guide
Byron Glacier Ice Cave

Top 5 Things to See and Do in Alaska

1. View the Northern Lights

Alaska is one of the few places in the world where you have a chance to see the Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis. You can see the Northern Lights as early as late August through April. In order to spot the lights, the conditions have to be just right. You will have to escape light pollution and hope for clear and dark skies, which is why wintertime is the best time to see them. Most people head to places like Fairbanks or Denali to view them but you can never guarantee when and where you will see them.

2. Denali National Park

Denali National Park is Alaska’s most well known national park and home to North America’s tallest peak, Denali. Only one road goes through the national park and leads you to one of your best chances to see moose, caribou, Dall sheep, wolves and grizzly bears! Most of the year, personal vehicles are only allowed on the road up to mile 15, but the park hosts a road lottery every year, allowing winners to drive as much of the road Denali Park Road as they wish.

3. Go on a bear-viewing tour

One of my favorite experiences in Alaska is going on a bear-viewing tour. There’s nothing cooler than being surrounded by huge bears in a remote part of the state. A bear-viewing tour to Katmai National Park or Lake Clark National Park will cost you over $650+ per person. Tours usually depart from Homer. Did you know Alaska also has polar bears? Polar bear viewing happens in Kaktovik, a village in the north of Alaska.

4. Stand on a glacier

Alaska has over 100,000 glaciers and most visitors want to see them! There are so many ways to see glaciers around the state, you can drive, hike, fat-tire bike, cross-country ski, or see them from the sky. If you want to stand on top of a glacier, your best options are to head to Matanuska Glacier, Mendenhall Glacier near Juneau, Root Glacier, or Ruth Glacier on a flightseeing tour near Talkeetna.

5. Catch a cruise

Whether you’re on a week-long cruise through Alaska’s Inside Passage or on a day cruise getting up close with transient Orca whales, being on the water in Alaska is something that every visitor should experience. You’ll get to enjoy some of the best scenery that Alaska has to offer, including glaciers, majestic mountains, secluded coves, and marine wildlife.

Looking for more things to do in Alaska? Click here to read 25 Best Things To Do in Alaska

Denali Mountain Alaska Travel Guide
Denali (20,310 feet)

Where to Go in Alaska

Southcentral Alaska

Anchorage – This is Alaska’s largest and most populous city. Anchorage is the hub of the state and one of the most common starting points for any Alaska adventure. I don’t recommend spending much time in Anchorage but there are plenty of great restaurants, shopping, parks, and paths for you to enjoy. Rent a bike downtown and enjoy riding along the 11-mile Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, check out the Anchorage Museum, or head deep into the Chugach Mountains.

Heading to Anchorage? Start planning with my Anchorage Travel Guide.

Chugach State Park This is the closest state park to Anchorage, making accessibility super easy. The park includes 495,000 acres of land and is actually one of the four largest state parks in the United States! There are a ton of awesome hikes and huts in this park. Some of my favorite adventures in this area are Williwaw Lakes, Eagle and Symphony Lakes, Barbara Falls, Crow Pass Trail, Rendezvous Ridge, Knik Glacier, Serenity Falls Hut, and the Girdwood Bike Path. Find more places to go on this Chugach State Park map.

Palmer & Wasilla These towns are located less than an hour north of Anchorage. There are plenty of trails and fun experiences in this area. Popular nearby attractions include Hatcher Pass State Management Area, Matanuska Glacier and Palmer Hay Flats. One of my favorite quick hikes in this area is Bodenburg Butte and I still have my eye on summiting Pioneer Peak. Reflections Lake Trail and Eklutna Tailrace are some other cool places to explore in this area.

Matanuska Glacier – At 27 miles long and four miles wide, Matanuska Glacier is the largest glacier accessible by car in the United States. However, it requires payment to access because the road crosses private property. Self-guided access is only available during the summertime and costs $30 per person. Winter tours cost $100 per person. Special Alaska resident pricing is available.

McCarthy & Kennicott – Located within Wrangell St. Elias National Park, McCarthy and Kennicott offer a variety of activities. In order to reach McCarthy, you’ll leave your car at the end of McCarthy Road and cross over a footbridge. There are shuttles available to take you the rest of the way to Kennicott but it also makes for a great biking trip! Four miles later, you can explore the abandoned copper mine and access one of my favorite glacier trails, Root Glacier.

Valdez – This port town, where the mountains meet the sea, has a lot to offer, including glaciers, insane backcountry skiing, world-class ice climbing, waterfalls, and more. Worthington Glacier is a glacier hike that is accessible by road or you can hop on a cruise to check out Columbia Glacier. During the winter, Valdez receives over 300 inches of snow annually, which makes Thompson Pass a great place to ski, snowboard, or snow machine. The Valdez Ice Climbing Festival is held every February and draws people from around the world to climb the world-class ice of Keystone Canyon. In the summer, those ice falls melt into stunning waterfalls!

Girdwood – One of my favorite little towns in Alaska! Girdwood is that idyllic Alaska mountain town that’s worth a visit. Located just 45 minutes south of Anchorage, locals and visitors head here for all kinds of adventures. For foodies, eat a steak at Double Musky Inn, cure your hangover with brunch at Girdwood Picnic Club, get a deep-dish pizza at Chair 5, and try the Fizz (a well-kept secret) with breath-taking views at Seven Glaciers. For outdoor enthusiasts, hike Winner Creek Trail, Virgin Creek Falls, and Crow Creek Pass or get into some downhill biking at Alyeska.

During the winter, hit the slopes at Alyeska Resort then grab a drink at the Sitzmark Bar & Grill and dance the night away with some local Alaska bands. There are also plenty of awesome annual events here, including Forrest Fair, Blueberry Festival and Slush Cup. Every time I’m in or passing Girdwood, I always stop at The Ice Cream Shop for my favorite local honey fireweed ice cream, this place is on my list of 5 best ice cream shops near Anchorage. It’s that good!

Read: 5 Best Hikes in Girdwood

Portage & Byron Glacier The town of Portage doesn’t exist anymore but the area still offers a lot to do. It’s a great area for some wild camping and day hikes. If you follow Portage Glacier Road, you will make it to views of Portage Glacier. Unfortunately, this glacier has receded tremendously in recent years and the best way to see it is via boat or kayak during the summer or by foot, bike or skis during the wintertime when the lake freezes over.

Nearby, you will find the short and mostly flat hike to Byron Glacier, which is the place to go if you’re interested in exploring ice caves. Just be careful in this very unstable environment.

If you continue along Portage Glacier Road, you will soon be driving through the longest combined vehicle-railroad tunnel in North America! This tunnel leads you to the town of Whittier, a small town where all of its 217 residents live in the same building.

Hope – A little historic community off-the-beaten-path, Hope makes for a great camping trip. Activities in this area include white-water rafting down Six Mile Creek, the start of the 39-mile Resurrection Pass Trail, and Gull Rock Trail. During the weekends, you can find local music playing outside of Seaview Cafe & Bar and it’s always a really good time! In the morning, head to Grounds for Hope Espresso for your morning coffee.

Read: Top 10 Things To Do In Hope Alaska

Seward – If you want to see marine wildlife, Seward is the place to go. This small fishing town is just 2.5 hours south of Anchorage and the southern end of the Alaska Railroad’s main train line. There are plenty of day cruises that will give you a chance to see Steller sea lions, sea otters, harbor seals, sea otters, humpback whales, Orcas, bald eagles, seabirds, and more! On top of that, you’ll get to see glaciers, fjords, and snow-peaked mountains. Mount Marathon is a classic mountain race that happens every Fourth of July. Some of my favorite hikes in Seward include Exit Glacier and Harding Icefield, Caines Head, and Lost Lake. Kayaker’s Cove is also a great destination for an overnight adventure. Other things to do include flight-seeing, dog sledding, kayaking, and a visit to the Alaska SeaLife Center. I definitely recommend getting on the water here!

Read: Top 25 Things To Do In Seward Alaska

Cooper Landing – A small town on the Kenai Peninsula, Cooper Landing is the place for salmon and rainbow trout fishing, bear-viewing, hiking, river rafting on turquoise rivers, and more. There are plenty of options for hikes, including Johnson Pass, Devil’s Pass, Russian Lakes, Ptarmigan Lake, Slaughter Gulch, Primrose Trail, and Crescent Lake. There are plenty of salmon viewing areas as well, which eventually turn into bear-viewing areas.

Kenai National Wildlife Refuge – This area covers over two million acres on the Kenai Peninsula and is the most accessible and most visited refuge in Alaska. With a range of habitats, comes a range of wildlife, including black and brown bears, lynx, wolves, moose, Dall sheep, caribou, wolverine, and king salmon. You can fish or float the Kenai River or portage 120 miles of trail traveling across 70 lakes on the Kenai Refuge Canoe System.

Homer – At the end of the Sterling Highway, you’ll find one of Alaska’s coolest fishing towns. Homer is known for its halibut fishing, sea kayaking, bear-viewing, hiking, seafood, and more. The main attraction here is the Homer Spit, a 4.5-mile strip of sand and gravel stretching into Kachemak Bay. The spit is lined with lots of tourist shops and is a popular spot for campers and RVs. Head to Homer Brewing Company for a good beer and make sure to try the fresh oysters that are available for purchase outside. Homer is also where you’ll find bear-viewing trips to Lake Clark National Park or Katmai National Park. If you make it to the Homer spit, don’t forget to grab a drink in the Salty Dawg Saloon.

Read: Top 15 Things To Do In Homer Alaska

Kachemak Bay State Park – Across the bay from Homer, you will find Alaska’s first state park. There are a ton of kayaking, hiking, and camping options in Kachemak Bay State Park and they’re just a short water taxi away. Some of my favorite experiences in this area are hiking Grace Ridge, paddleboarding in front of Grewingk Glacier and kayaking around Tutka Bay. Check out a map of the park here.

Interior Alaska

Nancy Lake State Recreation Area – Just 90 minutes north of Anchorage, you will find this awesome recreation area. During the summer, this area is great for canoeing, fishing, hiking and camping. There are a ton of Public Use Cabins to use, which makes it great for multi-night trips. In winter, the area is ideal for cross-country skiing, dog mushing and snow machining. But my favorite thing to do here is winter fat biking trips! Take a look at the trail map here.

Talkeetna – This small town is known for its former Mayor, Stubbs the Cat, and being the gateway to Alaska’s most iconic park, Denali National Park. There’s a lot more to Talkeetna’s one-mile-long main street full of bars and restaurants. Talkeetna is great for camping, cross-country skiing, mountain biking, canoeing, and there’s even a fun zip-line that you can try. Before you leave, you must try a razzy from the Talkeetna Roadhouse. It will change your life.

Denali State Park – Located adjacent to Denali National Park is a massive state park that is less frequented by visitors. Denali State Park offers just as much without the cost of visiting the national park. The park offers great camping, cabins, incredible views of Denali and plenty of popular hiking trails, including Ermine Hill, Byers Lake, Curry Ridge, and the multi-night trip along Kesugi Ridge.

Healy – This year-round community is located 11 miles north of the entrance to Denali National Park. There are a few tours that are offered here like dog mushing and ATV tours. This area is also famous for the bus where Christopher McCandless, the subject of Into the Wild, lived and died. Many people attempt to visit the bus and unfortunately, there have been many fatalities. The bus was removed in 2020. Head to 49th State Brewing Co. along the Parks Highway and see a replica of the bus while enjoying tasty beer! If you’re lucky, you may get to dance to a local band in their amazing beer garden. I also recommend trying the beer cheese pretzel here.

Fairbanks – This is the second largest city in Alaska and it gets 24 hours of sunlight for seventy days from May 17 to July 27. Fairbanks is a great place to start your Alaska road trip. It’s also one of the best places to see the Northern Lights, or aurora borealis. March tends to have the most solar flares, increasing your chances of seeing the lights during that time. There’s a lot to do in this city like relax in Chena Hot Springs, visit the Ice Museum, or meet some reindeer at the Running Reindeer Ranch.

Read: Top 10 Things To Do In Fairbanks in Winter

Tok – If you’re driving the Alaska Highway, you’ll be welcomed by Tok, Alaska’s first community across the Canadian border. Most businesses here are open year-round but if you plan on staying overnight during the peak summer season, you should plan on making a reservation in advance. Some of the activities to do in Tok include panning for gold, museums, restaurants, shops, and horseback riding.

Dalton Highway – The Dalton Highway is the most northern highway in Alaska and one of the most isolated roads in the U.S. The highway consists of 414 extremely dangerous miles. The route only passes through three towns as you travel north, which means that for most of it there are no restaurants, no toilets, no cell phone service, no hotels, and no medical facilities for most of it. The road isn’t often traveled by visitors to the state but if you decide to brave it out you’ll be in for one hell of an adventure which may include fog, flat tires, potholes, gravel, bears, rain, snow, a shattered windshield and I’m sure you’ll run out of gas. Good luck!

Southeast Alaska

Juneau – You might be surprised to find out that the capital of Alaska, Juneau, is not the largest city in the state and you can’t reach it by car. You’ll either visit Juneau by flying in or on your cruise through Alaska’s Inside Passage. Juneau’s landscape comprises of lush green rainforest, towering peaks, cascading streams, and deep blue ice fields. And there is an overwhelming amount of things to do here. You can go flightseeing, bear viewing, whale watching, sea kayaking, and even walk across Mendenhall Glacier. Make sure to pack your rain jacket, you’ll need it here.

Read: Alaska Whale Watching Guide: Best Time and Place to See Whales

Sitka – This town sits in the Tongass National Forest and is towering with totem poles. If you’re looking for awesome hiking trails, fishing, rich culture, and wildlife, then Sitka is the place for you. My favorite places to visit in Sitka are the Sitka National Historical Park and the Fortress of the Bear, an educational bear rescue center. If you’re interested in festivals, check out the Sitka Summer Music Festival, Sitka WhaleFest, and the Sitka Seafood Festival.

Ketchikan – Set at the southernmost entrance to Alaska’s Inside Passage, Ketchikan is known for its stunning scenery, fishing, and rich culture. It’s also known as the “Salmon Capital of the World.” Explore the beautiful fjords at Misty Fjords National Monument, zip-line through the forest, hike through the Tongass National Forest, or check out the Southeast Alaska Discovery Centre.

Skagway – Set at the southernmost entrance to Alaska’s Inside Passage and accessible by road, Skagway is known as Alaska’s gold rush town. This town sees nearly 1 million tourists each year. The town is home to one of the oldest hotels in Alaska and one of the most photographed buildings in Alaska, the Arctic Brotherhood Hall. It’s also the gateway to the Chilkoot Trail, a 33-mile long historical trail that’s known as the world’s longest outdoor museum. If you don’t feel like hiking then hop on for a Skagway White Pass Railroad Summit Excursion, which is one of the most popular tours here.

Inside Passage – Alaska’s Inside Passage in Southeast Alaska is a water route between the Gulf of Alaska and Puget Sound. It’s a popular cruise route and a popular way to visit Alaska, especially the places that are completely inaccessible by road. Along the Inside Passage, you’ll see wildlife, incredible islands, glaciers, and more. The most popular destinations in Alaska’s Inside Passage are Glacier Bay National Park, Juneau, Ketchikan, Sitka, Skagway and Haines. Off-the-beaten-path destinations include Petersburg, Wrangell, Yakutat, and Gustavus.

Southwest Alaska

Kodiak – The city of Kodiak is located on Alaska’s largest island, Kodiak. The Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge takes up almost two-thirds of the island and is popular for its bear viewing. There are more than 3,500 bears on the island. Kodiak is also a great place for fishing with six species of salmon in the area. If you end up in Kodiak in late May, look into the week-long Kodiak Crab Festival.

Bethel – Those looking for an insight into rural life in Alaska will find themselves here. This is the largest rural community in Alaska. Bethel is completely off the road system and flying in is the only practical way to reach it. Bethel is the main port on the Kuskokwim River and the major hub for all 56 surrounding villages. Birders can also enjoy the 20-million-acre Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge, where birds return to nest every spring.

Aleutian Islands – This archipelago consists of 14 large islands, 55 smaller islands, and many islets. These remote islands offer incredible, untamed landscapes that are rarely explored by visitors. The Aleutian Islands are part of the “Ring of Fire” with 57 volcanoes and the weather here is often extreme. Visitors can explore Aleut villages and WWII battlefields, learn about the native culture, view birds and enjoy world-class fishing. Dutch Harbor, Unalaska, Akutan, and Sand Point are some of the places to check out on your island-hopping adventure through the Aleutians.

North to the Arctic

Kaktovik – This tiny village sits along the Arctic Coast. This is the place to go to see polar bears in the wild but a trip like this will cost you a fortune. Most tourists visit in the fall when bears are forced toward land because sea ice is the farthest away from the shore. This is also the time to watch them feed on what’s left of the bowhead whales killed by the local residents.

Utqiagvik – Formerly known as Barrow, Utqiagvik is the largest city in Northern Alaska and the northernmost city in the U.S. Located 320 miles north of the Arctic Circle, Utqiagvik experiences darkness for more than two months and temperatures are at or below zero degrees 160 days per year. Earn your Polar Plunge certificate by submerging your full body into the Arctic Ocean and take part in the local culture during the Whaling Festival, called Nalukataq, held in late June. Don’t forget to take a picture with the Whale Bone Arch on Barrow Beach.

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge – Known as America’s last great wilderness, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) encompasses 19.6 million-acres of remote wilderness. Here is where you’ll find some of the most diverse and spectacular wildlife in the north with the second largest Porcupine caribou herd, polar bears, moose, musk oxen, grizzly and black bear, fish, Dall sheep, and more. Most visitors access the refuge by air taxi and enjoy a variety of activities including hiking, wildlife viewing, camping, hunting, birding, berry picking and more.

Nome – Nome is set at the tip of the Seward Peninsula and overlooks the Bering Sea. This small town is a 90-minute flight from Anchorage and once you get there you have access to 350 miles of roads. It offers culture, dramatic scenery, world-class sporting events, and rich history. Most people are familiar with Nome because it’s the finish line for the 1,049-mile Iditarod Sled Dog Race that happens every March. There are also a ton of festivals that take place every year, including the Midnight Sun Festival and Salmonberry Jam Folk Fest.

Alaska’s National Parks

Alaska has eight national parks with jaw-dropping scenery and some are only accessible by air.

Denali National Park – Alaska’s most iconic national park and home to the tallest mountain in North America, Denali. Getting here is a 5-hour drive from Anchorage or a 3-hour drive from Fairbanks. Denali Park Road begins at the George Parks Highway and ends at Kantishna. You can find the Denali Visitor Center at mile marker 1.5 on the park road. It’s the main source of visitor information. Hopping on a bus is one way to explore more of the park but it’s also common to use the hop-on, hop-off shuttles to hike sections of the park or ride a bike.

Read: Everything You Need to Know to Visit Denali National Park in 2022

Kenai Fjords National Park – Alaska’s smallest national park still covers over 600,000 acres on the Kenai Peninsula. Seward is a 2.5-hour drive from Anchorage but you can also take the train or charter a flight. You can find the Kenai Fjords National Park Information Center near the small boat harbor. The best way to see this park is on a day cruise from Seward. This will give you plenty of opportunities to see glaciers, fjords, and wildlife in the park. One of the best day hikes in the area is Harding Icefield, an 8.2-mile roundtrip trail that leads to a breathtaking view of the ice field.

Wrangell St. Elias National Park – At 13.2 million acres, this is the largest national park in Alaska and the U.S. The park encompasses four major mountain ranges: Wrangell, St. Elias, Chugach, and part of the Alaskan Range. Wrangell St. Elias National Park is a 7-hour drive from Anchorage. There are two roads that go into the park, the Nabesna Road and McCarthy Road. These roads are open year-round but they are not maintained regularly during the winter. There is no entrance fee to the park and permits are not required to hike or camp in the backcountry. Some of my favorite things to do in this park are exploring Kennicott Mine and hike out to Root Glacier.

Read: Iceberg Lake to Bremner Mine: 8-Day Wrangell St. Elias Backpacking Trip

Glacier Bay National Park – Located near Gustavus, Glacier Bay National Park covers 3.3 million acres and is a highlight on an Alaska Inside Passage cruise. This park is known for its massive, calving tidewater glaciers, snow-capped mountains, and abundant birds and marine wildlife. You can get to the park on a ferry from Juneau with the Alaska Marine Highway System and you can also hire a private boat. Glacier Bay Lodge offers the only lodging within the park.

Katmai National Park – This park is known for the brown bears that are drawn to feed on the salmon in Brooks Falls. Located southwest of Homer, access to Katmai National Park is exclusively by plane or boat. You can’t drive to it. Trips to Katmai can be done on a day trip or you can stay overnight at Brooks Camp. The best time to see bears are the months of July and September because there is more food in the river. If you’re not interested in bear viewing, you can also fish, hike, kayak, and tour the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. And if you can’t make it to Katmai National Park, the next best thing to do is watch bears fish on live webcams at Brooks Falls.

Gates of the Arctic National Park – This park covers 8.4 million acres of some of the most untouched wilderness in northern Alaska. There are no roads, no trails, and no established campsites in this park. Gates of the Arctic National Park is great for hiking and backpacking, camping, bird-watching, and river kayaking. Most visitors access the park by air taxi, but you can also access the park if you hike in from the Dalton Highway or from the village of Anaktuvuk Pass. There are no trails into the park and preserve from any location, and if you hike from both Anaktuvuk Pass and the Dalton Highway, you will encounter river crossings.

Lake Clark National Park – This is another remote national park known for its bear viewing opportunities. With four million acres, Lake Clark National Park has something for everyone. You’ll find coastal brown bears digging for clams or fishing for salmon along the shore. You can plan a backpacking trip, visit Dick Proenneke’s cabin, fat tire bike across the frozen lakes and rivers during winter, or go fishing. The park is a trail-less wilderness and backcountry permits for camping and hiking are not required. I highly recommend going on a bear viewing trip here.

Kobuk Valley National Park – This remote national park is located 25 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Because the costs to get here are high, the Kobuk Valley National Park is the least visited national park in the U.S. One of Kobuk Valley National Park’s most iconic sights is the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes, the largest active sand dunes in the Arctic. The sand dunes rise unexpectedly out of the trees along the southern bank of the Kobuk River. You can also see enormous herds of caribou migrate across the park every year.

Getting In and Out of Alaska

By Land – Alaska isn’t part of the Continental United States, so the only way to get in and out by land is by driving through Canada on the Alaska-Canada Highway. This is a great option for those that have more time or are moving in or out of the state. Alaska also marks the start or end of any trip along the Pan-American Highway, which is a bucket-list trip for many.

By Air – The three primary airports in Alaska are in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau. Alaska Airlines usually offers the most availability for travel to and within Alaska and has partnerships with several smaller carriers for service between more rural communities in the state. Flying in and out of Alaska has become a lot more affordable in the past years with companies like Delta and JetBlue that started fighting for its share by offering seasonal flights. Most flights in and out of Alaska will stop in Seattle on the way.

By Water – If you’re traveling to Alaska by water, you’ll most likely find yourself on one of Alaska’s Inside Passage cruises. Alaska’s cruise season runs from May through September and most visitors choose this as their way to visit the state. The cruise route makes a round-trip journey from Seattle or Vancouver, B.C., to the southeastern area of Alaska. Inside Passage cruises will usually stop at three or four ports: Skagway, Ketchikan, Juneau, and Sitka or Haines. There are also options for one-way trips through the Gulf of Alaska that start or end in Seward or Whittier, Alaska.

How to Get Around Alaska

Public Transportation Public transportation in Alaska is horrible. I wouldn’t suggest relying on it to get around. But if you must, there is a public bus system available in Anchorage.

Hitchhiking – Hitchhiking in Alaska is not very common but I have seen it done and I’ve picked up a few hitchhikers myself. If you have the time you can try it but it can be very unpredictable. You can also search sites like to find potential rides. If you choose this option, just make sure to use your best judgment.

Ride-Sharing – Uber and Lyft are common ways to get around larger cities in Alaska, such as Anchorage and Fairbanks. These ride-sharing platforms are cheaper and safer than taxis. You can also check sites like and for any available rides to join.

Van or RV – The van life is a good life, am I right? Traveling in an RV in Alaska is extremely common and vans are becoming more popular. Whether tourists are traveling up the Alaska-Canada Highway or locals are heading out for a weekend fishing trip, there’s a reason people travel in these home-on-wheels. If you’re not up for wild camping and want to save some money on accommodations, then this might be a good option for you.

Motorcoach – Fortunately, most of the top places to visit in Alaska like Denali National Park and Anchorage are along the state’s main road system that runs from Seward to Fairbanks. The Park Connection Motorcoach is one of the main bus operations in the state and you can check routes and schedules here. Another company is Alaska Bus Company, which offers routes all the way from Homer to Anchorage, and the cool thing is that the bus runs on recycled vegetable oil!

Rental Car – Hiring a rental car is the best way to see Alaska, especially with the lack of public transportation. With a rental car, you can tour the state at your own pace, stop whenever you see a bear or a moose, and even sleep in the back if you needed to. A small rental car will cost you $90 USD per day during peak season and gasoline is usually around $3.30 USD per gallon. You can also check for cheaper rental options.

Train – Traveling by train is expensive but it’s also a comfortable way to see Alaska. The Alaska Railroad winds through breath-taking scenery from Seward to Fairbanks. There are a ton of different activities that pair well with the train schedule, which makes it a great option for a day trip. Most people tell me that the Coastal Classic Route between Anchorage and Seward is their favorite but the Denali Star route between Anchorage and Denali will offer you views of Denali on a clear day and that is hard to beat.

Ferry – The ferries of the Alaska Marine Highway are a way to see Alaska by boat. The ferries stop in 35 communities from Bellingham, WA to Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands. The ferry has cabins but you can also just pitch a tent on the deck. This is a great way to get off the beaten path in Alaska, especially for solo travelers.

Cruise – The average cruise through Alaska’s Inside Passage takes around seven days and there are a ton of options for outdoor adventures. The main destinations you’ll visit in Southeast Alaska include Glacier Bay National Park, Juneau, Ketchikan, Sitka, Skagway and Haines. Off-the-beaten-path destinations include Petersburg, Wrangell, Yakutat, and Gustavus. If you decide to take a cruise, make sure to combine it with a land tour because you only get a glimpse into what Alaska really has to offer when you’re stuck on a boat.

Plane – Flying is one of the main ways to get across Alaska and most likely your only option when flying to remote areas. It can be very expensive to fly within the state of Alaska, which is why most locals tend to fly out of state instead. You’ll find daily flights between Alaska’s cities and if you’re planning on heading into rural Alaska then you’ll probably need to charter an air taxi.

Alaska’s Driving Laws

If you are planning on driving through Alaska when you visit, you need to be aware of the driving laws. You can drive in Alaska if you are at least 16 years old and have a valid driver’s license from another state, US Territory, or country. If you plan on driving in Alaska for more than 90 days, you have to get an Alaska driver’s license.

Food You Must Try in Alaska

  • Alaska King Crab – The only kind of crab that’s worth the hassle! Also very tasty prepared as a crab cake. The Crab Cake Benedict at Snow City Cafe in Downtown Anchorage and the crab cakes at the Alaska State Fair are my favorites.
  • Salmon – There are six different species of salmon to try in Alaska and it’s all fresh. I enjoy eating salmon in all kinds of ways but my favorite is smoked or mixed a homemade salmon dip.
  • Halibut – This is a lean white fish that is very tasty. You can find halibut in restaurants all over the state but it’s even tastier when you order it in a coastal fishing town.
  • Caribou – One of the few game meats that you can actually order at a restaurant in Alaska. Stop by Indian Valley Meats along the Turnagain Arm and pick up some caribou sticks or sausage.
  • Reindeer – Head to a hot dog cart in Alaska and you’ll come across a reindeer sausage. It’s juicy, and worth a taste.
  • Oysters – Oysters thrive in the clean saltwater of Alaska’s coastline because the water is so cold. My favorite oysters in Alaska are outside of the Homer Brewing Company.
  • Blueberries – If you’re in Alaska in August and September, you can go berry picking and pick your own fresh blueberries.
  • Fireweed – This is a plant that grows in Alaska and its full bloom is known to mark the beginning of winter. You can find it as an ice cream flavor and other tasty treats.
  • Baked Alaska – This is a dessert consisting of ice cream and cake topped with browned meringue. If you’re looking for a real treat, head to Wild Scoops in Anchorage and try the Baked Alaska cone.
  • Beer – There are so many microbreweries in Alaska and the beer is so good!
  • Coffee – Alaskans drink a lot of coffee. You’ll find a lot of drive-through coffee shops all over the state. Most of them carry the local Kaladi Brothers Coffee, which is the best in the state.

Matanuska Glacier Ice Climbing Alaska Travel Guide
Matanuska Glacier

Water in Alaska

Water in Alaska is pristine and you can drink it from the tap and even its direct source. You should bring a reusable water bottle with you so you can refill it along the way and save the environment at the same time! If you’re out in the backcountry, make sure to use a sterilizer or water filter to clean your water from bacteria, such as giardia.

Tipping in Alaska

Tipping for services in Alaska follows the same rules as tipping throughout the United States. Usually a gratuity of 15% to 20% at restaurants is common and anything more than that means you received exceptional service. If you order a drink at the bar, you can leave $1 USD per drink as a tip.

Internet in Alaska

Internet coverage in Alaska can be hit or miss. There are still many places that are off the grid. However, if you’re traveling along the main road system then you shouldn’t encounter many problems but there are still long stretches of the highway that don’t have cell service.

Buying a SIM card in Alaska is not cheap. You won’t see the same prices you do in other places around the world like Asia or South America. You can purchase prepaid SIM cards from a local service provider such as AT&T or from the nearest grocery store. Your phone will need to be unlocked in order to switch out your SIM card. If you’re traveling for a short period of time, you should check if your current provider offers fixed daily rates. If you decide to skip out on a SIM card, wifi is usually available at any type of accommodations. Many cafes also provide free wifi.

Apps to Use in Alaska

  • Alaska 511 This app provides travelers with state-wide traffic and road condition reporting.
  • Google Maps You’ll need some sort of navigation when you’re driving around Alaska. The best thing about Google Maps is being able to download offline maps, which is a huge deal when you drive through areas in Alaska that have no cell service (there’s a lot of them).
  • Uber or Lyft The ridesharing companies currently available in Alaska. You can use them to get around some of the larger cities.
  • My Aurora Forecast If you plan on chasing the Northern Lights then you’ll want to download this app. It will tell you if there is aurora activity and if the conditions are favorable for viewing.
  • All Trails This app is great for trail info, maps, directions, and detailed reviews of local trails. It’s also a great way to track your trips.
  • iOverlander This app is great if you want to find amazing places to stay during your drive. It includes camping, hotels, restaurants, mechanics, water, propane filling and more. Details are listed for each place, including amenities, photos, date last visited and GPS coordinates. 

How to Stay Safe in Alaska

Alaska is a pretty safe place to travel as a tourist. However, I will warn you that crime in Alaska, especially Anchorage, has increased in the last few years. Most tourists are able to avoid any problems by being well-informed and well-prepared.

It’s never a good idea to try to feed a bear or pet a moose. Make sure to keep your distance because wildlife will attack if they feel threatened, especially if they have cubs or calves nearby. If you’re heading into the mountains, you should pack some bear spray and know how to use it.

The backcountry can be a ruthless place to venture into. Always know where you are going and what kind of terrain you will be traveling across. There are many trails that have a lot of foot traffic due to popularity but it’s still easy to escape all of that and not run into anybody, especially if you are in a remote area. If you are backcountry skiing, you need to have avalanche awareness. They are many resources available to warn you of dangers.

Glaciers are always one of the top things to see in Alaska. Exploring ice caves is also increasing in popularity amongst visitors and locals due to easy accessibility. Glaciers and ice caves are extremely unpredictable and accidents do happen. If you are unfamiliar with this type of terrain, I highly recommend hiring a guide.

Earthquakes happen in Alaska all the time, but we don’t always feel all of them. You never know when they are going to happen but you can still familiarize yourself with earthquake preparedness.

Driving in Alaska is generally easy but sometimes the road conditions can cause challenges. You can check the Alaska 511 app (see recommended apps above) for road conditions and traffic reports. Also, make sure to download offline maps or carry a physical copy so you know where you’re going.

Most people in Alaska are super friendly and willing to lend you an arm and a leg, but crime does exist. Women should be careful on their own and everyone should be vigilant in larger cities like Anchorage and Fairbanks. There tends to be a lot of petty theft that happens and “smash and grabs” at popular trailheads. Make sure that any valuable items are out of view. You won’t find any of the typical travel scams that happen in countries around the world.

The weather in Alaska is very unpredictable. Make sure you have the necessary gear while you are exploring the outdoors and know how to use it. And always bring layers!

Book Your Trip to Alaska

Ready to book your trip to Alaska? Below are my favorite companies to use when I travel in, out, and around Alaska! Whether I need to book a flight or hotel, I always start with these sites.

  • Google Flights – This is always my first stop when searching for flights. It quickly gives me a general idea of prices. You can also sign up for fare alerts. It doesn’t always have the lowest fares, so I always explore other sites afterward.
  • Skyscanner This flight search engine will help you find the cheapest fares. It searches a lot of different airlines, including many of the budget airlines.
  • Alaska AirlinesYou’ll most likely be flying on Alaska Airlines during your trip to Alaska, which makes it a great place to search for flights. They have weekly airfare deals and a great mileage program. You can also look into their credit card for perks like free baggage and annual companion tickets.
  • From hostels to hotels, most properties in Alaska are listed here.
  • Airbnb This is a great place to find accommodations, especially if you’re looking for quirky yurts or cozy cabins. Airbnb is a cheaper alternative to a hotel, with all the comforts of a home.
  • World Nomads Alaska is definitely not a place to skip on travel insurance. I always buy my travel insurance from World Nomads. They have great customer service and competitive prices.

Alaska Packing Lists

I’ve written a few packing lists guides to help you figure out what to wear in Alaska and what gear you should bring.

Alaska Seasons Packing Lists:

Hiking Packing Lists:

Outdoor Activity Packing Lists

Read More on Alaska

Looking for more info? Check out some of the other articles I’ve written on Alaska to continue planning your trip.

Best Way to Visit Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park: Tips From a Local

Alaska Whale Watching Guide: Best Time and Place to See Whales

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Do you have any questions about your Alaska vacation? Leave them in the comments.

About Andrea Kuuipo

I was born and raised in Anchorage and have been able to travel to many places around Alaska. As an Alaska Travel Blogger, I love sharing my favorite things to see and do in my home state to help others plan an incredible trip!

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