Alaska is a bucket list destination in and of itself. People dream their whole lives about coming to the Great Land, drawn by its stunning scenery, unique way of life, disappearing glaciers, and plentiful wildlife. It’s a place people choose to visit to mark or celebrate major life events: honeymoons, 50th anniversaries, milestone birthdays, final vacations in the face of a terminal illness. Even those who have never had a real urge or ability to travel make an exception for Alaska; when I worked as a tour director, many of my guests took their first airplane rides to get there.
Believe the hype. The place is just that special.
This month, we’re celebrating all things Alaska on Full Life, Full Passport. Each week will feature a new post about the Last Frontier that will be full of all the photos, tips, tricks, and insider information you’ve come to expect around here. Be on the lookout for Alaska cruise tips, an account of my adventure following the Alaska Pipeline from the Arctic Ocean to Fairbanks, a list of things to do in one of my favorite Alaskan towns, and even a full ten-day suggested itinerary for visiting without a cruise ship.
Today, however, we’re kicking it all off with the ultimate bucket list of Alaskan adventures to whet your appetite for the Great Land. Below you’ll find twenty-five unique and unforgettable sights, experiences, and road trips that represent some of the best the 49th State has to offer. While it would take a lifetime and more to fully exhaust all the charms of Alaska, this list should get you well on your way!
Check it out, and be sure to let me know which Alaska bucket list items you’ve checked off or hope to in the future!
The Ultimate Alaska Bucket List
Unforgettable Alaskan Sights
1.) Spot the “Big Five”
One of the most common reasons people travel to Alaska is to see wildlife, and it’s considered a major accomplishment if you can check each of the “Big Five” (grizzly bear, moose, Dall sheep, caribou, and wolf) off your list. If spotting the Big Five is on your list, or if you just want to see as much wildlife as possible, make sure to spend some time on land rather than just cruising.
2.) Catch sight of “The Mountain”
Denali, formerly known as Mt. McKinley, is the highest mountain in the United States and famously elusive. It is estimated that only one out of three visitors to Alaska gets to see the entire mountain, and even that feels like a generous estimate in my experience leading tours. When the clouds part and the summit appears, however, it’s a spectacular sight that will leave you in awe.
3.) Witness the Iditarod or Yukon Quest
There’s possibly nothing more famously Alaskan than the Iditarod dogsled race, and catching the ceremonial start of the race in Anchorage is a fun, unique experience. The Yukon Quest is a less famous, but more difficult, race that runs each February between Fairbanks and Whitehorse, Yukon, and it’s equally impressive to witness.
4.) Revel in the fall colors in Denali
There is something absolutely magical about fall in Denali National Park and Preserve. The entire landscape changes color, with much of the groundcover turning a brilliant crimson and the trees adorning themselves in oranges, golds, and greens. It’s jaw-dropping, heart-stopping beautiful.
5.) Experience the Northern Lights
This unforgettable experience not only adorns most Alaska bucket lists, but many lifetime bucket lists as well. Alaska is one of the best places on Earth to view the northern lights, also known as the aurora borealis. If you’re traveling to the Great Land during the late fall or winter, check the aurora forecast from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, cross your fingers, and hope to get lucky!
Unique Alaska Experiences
6.) Take a “flightseeing” tour
An absolute can’t-miss excursion in Alaska is to take a tour from the air. Seeing the incredible landscapes from a plane is an unforgettable, once-in-a-lifetime experience that is worth every penny. Bonus points if you land on a glacier as part of the trip.
7.) Go whale watching
Whether you’re keeping an eye out from the deck of your cruise ship or taking a designated whale watching tour, you’re not going to want to miss the opportunity to see some of these massive marine mammals in the wild. Tours are particularly good out of Seward and Juneau.
8.) Visit a sled dog kennel
Dogsledding has been an integral part of Alaskan life for centuries, and there are lots of places in the 49th State to learn more about this fascinating culture. Many kennels get you up close and personal with the dogs, including any puppies, and at some you can even take a ride on a dog-pulled sled, ATV, or other vehicle.
9.) Eat Alaskan game
Seafood may get most of the attention in Alaska – and for good reason – but there are plenty of other unique and interesting proteins to try as well! Take a bite of Alaskan culture by ordering some dishes you might not be able to get back home. One of the most popular and easily accessible meats is reindeer sausage, which you can find on almost any breakfast menu. Other options include moose, bear, caribou, and even musk ox!
10.) Spend a day in Glacier Bay
Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve contains some of the most spectacular landscapes in all of Alaska, and it’s completely inaccessible by highway! The easiest way to visit is by cruise ship, where you’ll spend an entire day surrounded by mountains, glaciers, seabirds, marine life, and floating ice.
11.) Ride the White Pass & Yukon Route
One of the best things to do in Skagway, Alaska, is taking a ride on the White Pass & Yukon Route Railway. Frequently touted as one of the best train rides in the world, this scenic trip follows in the footsteps of Klondike Gold Rush prospectors through the mountains of the gorgeous White Pass. Along the way, you’ll learn about the gold rush and the colorful history of the area.
12.) Bike or walk the Coastal Trail in Anchorage
The Tony Knowles Coastal Trail is a mostly-flat, eleven-mile paved trail that winds through Alaska’s largest city. Featuring great views of Anchorage, the Chugach Mountains, and the water/mudflats of the Cook Inlet, it’s a popular place to be on a nice day. You can walk or bike all or parts of the trail easily, and it’s not uncommon to spot moose along the way.
13.) Drink an Ice Axe Ale in Talkeetna
Talkeetna is a funky town that’s well worth a visit, and it’s a celebrated tradition there to indulge in an Ice Axe Ale at the West Rib Pub and Grill. The town is the jumping-off point for Denali climbing expeditions, and many mountaineers celebrate with an Ice Axe Ale upon returning from their treacherous adventure. Just be careful – at over 9.0% ABV, more than one might jeopardize your ability to make any more progress on your Alaska bucket list that day!
14.) Take a glacier cruise
Along with wildlife, glaciers are one of the most common things visitors to Alaska want to see on their trip. One of the best ways to spot glaciers – other than a flightseeing tour – is to take a boat trip that will get you up close and personal with these disappearing behemoths. One of my favorites is a tour of the Kenai Fjords out of Seward, but the Tracy Arm from Juneau and Prince William Sound from Valdez are also great options.
Honorable Mentions: Ride the Alaska Railroad; drink a spruce tip ale at the Skagway Brewing Company; check out the massive vegetables at the Alaska State Fair; eat king crab legs at Tracy’s King Crab Shack in Juneau; catch the Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show in Ketchikan.
Breathtaking Alaskan Adventures
15.) Hike the Chilkoot Trail
In 1897 and 1898, the treacherous Chilkoot Trail was one of the main thoroughfares by which Klondike Gold Rush stampeders began their trek overland toward the goldfields in Dawson City, Yukon. Today, it’s a bucket-list-worthy multi-day hike through history and beautiful, sometimes unforgiving terrain. Spend a few hours hiking a portion of the trail from Skagway, or take three to five days to traverse the entire thirty-three miles.
16.) Journey above the Arctic Circle
Crossing the Arctic Circle is definitely something to check off your travel list. There are lots of ways to accomplish this feat in Alaska, including taking a road trip up the Dalton Highway (see below), joining a flightseeing tour to an Alaska Native village from Fairbanks, jetting off on a polar bear-spotting adventure, or including a far-north town like Barrow on your itinerary. For those looking for a photo op, there’s a big sign just off the Dalton Highway about five hours north of Fairbanks.
17.) Fish for salmon or halibut
It’s one thing to eat fresh seafood in Alaska, but it’s another thing entirely to experience the thrill of catching your dinner yourself. Fishing has been a way of life in the Great Land for centuries, and there are lots of opportunities for you to participate. From something as simple as casting a line into a river choked with salmon to taking a charter out of Homer in search of halibut, it’s an experience you – and your stomach – won’t forget. As a bonus, you can easily ship your frozen catch back home.
18.) Go sea kayaking
There’s something truly spectacular about being out on the water surrounded by snow-capped mountains. With so many coves, fjords, and inlets, Alaska is a great place for sea kayaking. Any kayaking adventure will have you reveling in the natural beauty of the state, but some of the best will get you up close and personal with glaciers, seabirds, and other wildlife. From half-day excursions to multi-day liveaboard boat trips, there’s something for everyone!
19.) See the bears at Katmai National Park
Have you ever seen those famous photos of grizzly bears perched on the edge of a waterfall and snatching leaping salmon out of the air? Did you know that you can see that for yourself in Alaska? Katmai National Park and Preserve is one of the best places in the world to view brown bears. The park isn’t easy to access – you have to fly or boat in – but it’s definitely worth the effort to visit.
20.) Hike on a glacier
Nothing makes you feel small and insignificant – in all the best ways – like a glacier. These majestic rivers of ice are a must-see on any Alaska bucket list, and it’s even better if you can experience one up close. Many places in the state offer glacier hikes, from easily accessible treks like Exit Glacier near Seward to flightseeing adventures to hike on a glacier near Denali, Juneau, or Skagway.
21.) Explore the ice caves in Juneau
Visiting Mendenhall Glacier is one of the most popular things to do in Juneau, and one of the best ways to experience it is by exploring the ice caves it has created. It’s a truly unique adventure to enter this world of shimmering blue ice, and one that shouldn’t be missed when in Alaska.
Honorable Mentions: Visit polar bears in Kaktovik; spend the night in a “dry cabin” (no running water); go on a snowmachining (snowmobiling) adventure; take a jet ski tour around Prince William Sound and Blackstone Bay.
Great Alaska Road Trips
*Please note that all driving times listed in this section are very rough estimates and do not include stops for food, gas, photographs, activities, etc. Most of these suggested road trips also pass through remote areas where delays due to weather, road conditions, wildfires, tire blowouts, and lots of other complications are entirely possible. Be sure to build lots of time into your itinerary just in case.
22.) The Dalton Highway (Fairbanks to Deadhorse/Prudhoe Bay)
The ultimate Alaskan adventure! Popularized by the hit TV show Ice Road Truckers, the Dalton Highway was built to supply and support the operations of the Alaska Pipeline, which it largely parallels. It’s a remote and unforgiving stretch of road that passes through the Brooks mountain range and across hundreds of miles of permafrost-pocked tundra. At its end is the oil field community of Deadhorse on Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic Ocean. While Deadhorse may not be the most scenic town you’ll visit in Alaska, it’s definitely one of the most unique. (Estimated one-way driving time: 11-12 hours, best done over two days.)
23.) The Seward and Sterling Highways (Anchorage to Homer)
If you’re looking for an easy, scenic drive, look no further than the stretch of road between Anchorage and Homer. First, the Seward Highway journeys you south along the stunning Turnagain Arm of the Cook Inlet, which is lined by snow-capped mountains and frequented by the occasional beluga whale. Then, the Sterling Highway takes you through lovely landscapes and small, quirky towns before depositing you in the quirkiest of them all: Homer. There, you can spend an afternoon on “the Spit,” which stretches out into Kachemak Bay and is lined with art galleries, shops, and restaurants. (Estimated one-way driving time: 4.5 hours.)
24.) The Alaska Highway (Fairbanks to Whitehorse, Yukon or Dawson Creek, British Columbia)
This one will take you out of Alaska and into the Yukon, but it’s an incredible – and incredibly historic – drive. Despite overwhelming logistical challenges, the Alaska Highway was built to help fortify Alaska against the threat of Japanese invasion during World War II. Now, it stretches over 2,000 miles between Delta Junction, Alaska (south of Fairbanks), and Dawson Creek, British Columbia, passing through some of the most gorgeous and pristine wilderness imaginable. (Estimated one-way driving time from Fairbanks: 11 hours, best done over at least two days [Whitehorse] or 27 hours, best done over at least four days [Dawson Creek].)
25.) The Glenn and Richardson Highways (Anchorage to Valdez)
This scenic drive (is there any other kind in Alaska?) will take you through the magnificent eastern part of the state to the small city of Valdez. Along the way, you’ll pass through the shadow of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, the largest in the United States and a worthy detour. Once you arrive in Valdez, you’ll find an abundance of fun things to do, including hiking, glacier cruises, sea kayaking, snowmachining, snowshoeing, flightseeing, and all kinds of tours of the breathtaking Prince William Sound. (Estimated one-way driving time: 5.5 hours.)
So there you have it – the ultimate Alaska bucket list! Which sights or activities most excite you? What’s on your Alaska bucket list that I missed? What have you checked off your list already? Let me know in the comments below!
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