Top 10 Things to Do in Alaska
Watch Wildlife in Denali National Park
Set on a massive area larger than the state of Massachusetts, Denali National Park is most famous as the site of Mt. McKinley, the largest mountain in North America. Situated 240 miles north of Anchorage and 120 miles south of Fairbanks, Denali was first established as a game refuge in 1917. Well known for its diversity of wildlife, it is not uncommon to spot grizzly bears, caribou, moose and Dall sheep when visiting the park. Black bears and wolves are occasionally seen, although the wolverine has proven to be much more illusive. Unfortunately, the peak of Mt. McKinley is hard to catch sight of as well -- the chance of catching the summit playing peek-a-boo during the busy months of June through August is only about 35 percent. Still, a visit to Denali National Park is one of the most quintessential things to do in Alaska.
Ride the Rails of the Historic Alaska Railroad
One of the best ways to get to know Alaska is by train. With wide windows and domed ceilings, the passenger cars on the Alaska Railroad fill up during summer months. Routes stretch between Seward to Fairbanks, running through Anchorage, Denali and Fairbanks with offshoots to Whittier and Palmer. Tours last anywhere from two to twelve hours, and luxury seating is available. One of the most unique routes is along "Hurricane Turn," the area between Talkeetna and the Hurricane area that has no roads. Residents flag the train by waving white flags or cloths, making it one of the last remaining flag-stop railway routes in the United States.
With snow-capped mountain ranges, massive tidewater glaciers and a diverse range of wildlife, Glacier Bay National Park is the embodiment of most people's visions of Alaska. Located in the panhandle of Alaska, just 65 miles from Juneau, most visitors discover the park from the deck of cruise ships. Wildlife commonly spotted in the park include humpback whales chasing schools of fish, sea lions resting on rocky islands, and harbor seals breeding on floating ice. Land animals such as moose, bears, wolves and coyotes are also bountiful, but more difficult to spot from the water. Besides whale and wildlife watching, kayaking is one of the most common things to do. In Alaska, you must take a ferry or plane to get to the park.
Alaska is a dream destination for fisherman, where the rivers teem with salmon, halibut, rainbow trout and other sport fish. If planning on fishing, you will first need to apply for a fishing license -- then it is up to you whether you want to hit the stream alone or hire a day-long (or week-long) charter. From the inside passage to the arctic, Alaska has 21 recognized species of sport fish that draw anglers from all around the world.
Follow the Iditarod National Historic Trail
Perhaps one of the most iconic things to do in Alaska is trace the Iditarod National Historic Trail, a thousand-plus mile system connecting a point 50 miles north of Seward through Iditarod and then to Nome. When explorers and prospectors came to Alaska, they learned from Native Alaskans the best way to reliably move goods across the frozen landscape was by employing dog sled teams. The road was surveyed in 1908, soon after a stampede of gold rushers were passing over the trail. Today, the Iditarod Trail can be explored year-round by foot, as well as by snowmobile, ski or dogsled in the winter months.
Drive the Deathly Dalton Highway
Officially known as Alaska Route 11, the Dalton Highway is a 414-mile road extending just north of Fairbanks and ending near the Arctic Ocean. Originally built as a supply road to support the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, it is one of the most isolated roads in the country. Only three towns are situated along the route, which features breathtaking views and several must-stop milestones, including passing the Arctic Circle at mile 115, the northernmost truck stop in the world; Coldfoot, the Atigun Pass from miles 244 through 248; and the Coastal Plain viewpoint at miles 356. Just be sure to drive carefully: nicknamed 'Haul Road' for the number of trucks that traverse the route, the highway has been featured on NBC's "America's Toughest Jobs", as well as the third and fourth seasons of "Ice Road Truckers" on the History Channel.
Catch Sight of the Northern Lights
Also known as the 'Northern Lights,' the aurora borealis are dancing, natural displays of color that light up the sky in polar regions. Catching site of the glow is unpredictable, but you have a better chance in Alaska. The phenomenon is most visible in March and September, when skies are clear and the weather is mild. Aurora borealis is seen more clearly in places far away from city lights, and the best time to keep your eye on the skies is roughly an hour and a half after sunset.
Glimpse a Glacier
Glacier Bay National Park is not the only place to catch sight of a glacier: it is estimated there are 100,000 glaciers across the state. In fact, the rivers of ice cover about three percent of the Alaskan landscape. Large chunks of tidewater glaciers, found at the head of fjords or inlets, often break off and fall into the sea. Listen for creaking sounds before hearing the roar of pieces crashing into the water -- an experience just as impressive as the visual spectacle. Glacier Bay is home to a collection of 16 tidewater glaciers, but Hubbard Glacier is the longest at an impressive 76 miles.
See If Any Gold Pans Out
Alaska's hills and streams still glimmer with gold -- and it just takes a little elbow grease to find it. Those looking to hit the gold nugget jackpot can try their luck for free in several places throughout the state. One of the best places to start is in Fairbanks, where the gold rush began, although panning can be done just about anywhere, including the beach east of Nome and in places along the Dalton Highway.
Travel to the End of the Earth
One of the lesser-known things to do in Alaska is to pay a visit to Barrow, the northernmost city in the United States. A tiny town of less than 5,000 people, no roads connect the city to the rest of Alaska -- it is only accessible by plane. Barrow is blanketed in complete darkness for between 50 and 70 days every year, and then the sun shines and never sets from May to early August. Besides being able to boast visiting the true "end of the earth," while in Barrow you can visit the Pigniq archaeological site, where 16 dwelling mounds from a culture that existed from 500-900 AD sit, catch sight of aurora borealis during the dark season, and witness the traditions of both whaling and dog sledding.
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