Alaska is truly a state that has it all: towering, glaciated peaks, sparkling turqoise lakes, rugged coastlines teeming with wildlife, and magnificent expanses of arctic tundra. Although the beauty is seemingly endless, the sheer size of the state makes it nearly impossible to explore everything in a single trip (or even a single lifetime).
Larger than California, Texas, and Montana combined, Alaska is truly massive. As of the 2000 Census, nearly 95% of Alaska is considered "uninhabited", and over 52% of Alaska's land mass is protected wilderness. This means that if the National Parks, Wildlife Preserves and Wilderness areas of Alaska were combined, they would become the largest state. All of this is to say if you consider yourself a nature buff - whether it's hiking, backpacking, kayaking, or simply sightseeing - and you haven't made it to Alaska yet; you've made a major mistake.
Our goal with this trip was to see as much of Alaska as possible within a reasonable time frame. Some of our adventures are very accessible, and some are extremely difficult to both plan and execute. Just keep in mind that this is in no way an exhaustive guide to experiencing the Frontier State, just our version of cramming as much fun into a trip as we possibly could.
Flying into Anchorage will almost always be the cheapest and easiest option. Every town in Alaska has some sort of a small airport, but the smaller charter flights are incredibly expensive, and you'll miss a ton of incredible stuff between the towns.
To maximize both flexibility and sightseeing, I recommend renting a vehicle. It's legal to camp basically anywhere in AK that isn't a driveway, so a campervan (like the one we used from Get Lost Travel Vans) allows you to explore as much as you want, without the inconvenience, and expense, of needing to find a nearby hotel. Pull up at the beach and watch the bald eagles swoop for fish until you fall asleep, and then wake up the next day and pick up right where you left off.
Exploring Near Anchorage
Although the sheer size of Alaska makes it super tempting to immediately skip town and head to the nearest national park, there are incredible sights to be found right outside the city limits. Eklutna Lake is an all-time classic, with options to hike, bike, or even kayak. The Knik River Lodge is only about 20 minutes outside the nearby town of Palmer, and features beautiful rustic cabins, incredible homecooked food, and a backyard helicopter pad. Spend a few nights here exploring the local landscape, or take a helicopter tour with Alpha Air to the nearby Knik Glacier for dogsledding, hiking, or spectacular flightseeing.
The drive south from Anchorage to the Kenai Peninsula is one of the most beautiful roads in North America. You'll follow the coast almost the entire way - tracking along the Turnagain Arm past the towns of Girdwood and Portage, finally arriving in the spectacular town of Seward. In addition to being one of the most adorable coastal towns imaginable, Seward is the gateaway to Kenai Fjords National Park. Kenai Fjords is the crown jewel of coastal parks: teeming with wildlife, towering peaks, massive glaciers and rugged coastlines as far as the eye can see. You could spend weeks in this town exploring, but the best way to really experience the park is with a Kenai Fjords Tour. You'll start out the trip with a stop at Fox Island, where you'll eat lunch and go sea kayaking before heading out to the Aialik Glacier for some world-class sightseeing.
On the other side of the Kenai Peninsula lies the town of Homer. Homer is a pristine paradise surrounded by wilderness, with Kachemak Bay State Park (Alaska's first state park) on one side, and Lake Clark and Katmai National Parks on the other. Kachemak Bay is famous for extraordinary hiking and camping, as well as exceptional salmon and halibut fishing during certain times of year. Katmai and Lake Clark National Parks are, of course, world-famous for perhaps the best bear-viewing of anywhere on Planet Earth. Take a boat across the cook inlet to Chinitna Bay, or book a float plane to land at Lake Crescent or the park's namesake: Lake Clark.
Denali National Park
While of course Denali isn't exactly considered a hidden gem of Alaskan adventure, it's very much on most people's bucket list to explore the park and see the tallest mountain in North America. There's only a single road into the park, and public cars aren't allowed past mile 15 so visit the NPS website to book your bus ticket. Tour and transit buses run the entire length of the park's 92-mile road, and you can hop off at any of the designated spots to hike, camp, or explore. A quick word of warning; the road doesn't get super close to the mountain, so you'll have to rely on a bit of luck for the proper weather to see this towering behemoth. The NPS states that only 30% of visitors to the park are actually lucky enough to see the mountain.
If getting up close and personal is your goal, services like Talkeetna Air Taxi offer incredible sightseeing options, including a glacier landing at basecamp, or a flyover of the summit.
Fairbanks and the Arctic
As the last major city heading North, Fairbanks is an exploration-haven. The most popular pushing-off-point for any expeditions into the arctic, Fairbanks is worth the visit in and of itself. In addition to abundant hiking and biking, Fairbanks is also the Northern Lights Viewing Captial of North America during the winter months. The aurora borealis are visible in Fairbanks from August through April, meaning there's an astounding nine months of aurora viewing! Of course, the aurora are only visible when it's dark out, so between September and March will offer the most opportunities.
Of course, the other ingredient for an incredible display of northern lights is clear skies. Thankfully, due to Fairbanks's inland location, clear skies during the winter are extremely common. The general rule of thumb is that only 4 days in Fairbanks is all it takes to more or less guarantee a night of aurora!
In addition to literally more outdoor activities than you could possibly conquer in a lifetime, Fairbanks is also home to several top-notch craft breweries, exceptional art galleries and a world-class university conducting extensive research on Arctic systems.
The spectacular Dalton Highway (made famous by the hit TV show Ice Road Truckers), extends over 400 miles north from Fairbanks, terminating in Prudhoe Bay, on the shore of the Arctic Ocean. Although the road is open year-round, it's not for the faint of heart (or small cars), so do a bit of research before committing to the drive.
National Parks and Wildlife Preserves
Fairbanks is the preferred preparation and departure town for adventures into the Alaskan Arctic, which includes over 60,000 square miles of protected wilderness: Kobuk Valley National Park, Gates of the Arctic National Park, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and the Noatak National Preserve.
As a heads up, you can't simply drive up and make a quick weekend visit to any of these areas like you can with most National Parks in the lower 48. These all require fairly detailed planning and transportation arrangements, but with a reward that far exceeds the investment. Read about our experience visiting Gates of the Arctic National Park to get a better feel for if this fits into your trip goals.
Alaska is absurdly large, with seemingly endless options for exploration and adventure. Although we spent nearly a month in the 49th state it still feels like we barely touched the tip of the iceberg, and we'll definitely be back to continue cataloging the unending wilderness to be found in the Frontier State. Check out our favorite gear from the trip here, and follow along on additional adventures, at www.nateluebbe.com, on Instagram @nateinthewild and @autpops.