A summer vacation in Alaska appeals to lots of travel interests. Some of the most popular things to do in Alaska include being active in the great outdoors, learning about native cultures, and seeing wildlife in their natural habitat.
Cruising is a favorite way to discover Alaska’s treasures, but in February 2021, the Canadian government disallowed most cruising in Canadian waters through February 2022. A maritime rule called the Jones Act requires foreign-flagged cruise ships (as most are) to call in an international port (such as Canada) between U.S. ports. Ships under 100 passengers and U.S.-flagged ships may continue to sail without stopping in Canada, but (at time of writing) most cruise lines must put their Alaska season on hold due to Canada’s ban.
You don’t have to give up your dream of going to Alaska this summer! Delta Airlines announced a significant increase in its service to Alaska, making it easier than ever to fly into Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau, Ketchikan, and Sitka. From those arrival airports, the Last Frontier awaits your exploration by land.
Things to do in Alaska are as diverse as the people who visit the state, however, here they are loosely grouped into adventure, culture, and nature.
Undertake an Outdoor Adventure
Let’s just stipulate that “outdoor adventure” is a category that can be painted with broad strokes. For some, adventure is staying in rustic luxury at the remote Stillpoint Lodge, accessible only by boat, floatplane, or helicopter. Others may enjoy a more independent adventure like a self-drive tour of Denali and the Kenai Peninsula.
There are plenty of outdoor things to do in Alaska. Adventures run the gamut from physically challenging activities such as glacier ice climbing, sea kayaking, or dog sledding to more tame quests such as seeing the Northern Lights, fishing for King Salmon, or taking a flightseeing tour over the fjords.
Explore Native Cultures
Alaska’s native people are of three primary ethnicities – Indian, Eskimo, and Aleut – each with distinct cultural and linguistic groups within. This diversity gives Alaska the broadest range of Native cultures of any U.S. state. That diversity also underlies a rich cultural fabric based on subsistence and oneness with the land. Many Alaska Natives live in villages and practice the traditional hunting and fishing lifestyles that have been preserved for generations. Alaskan Native heritage can be seen in official attractions and everyday life all over the state. Some excellent choices include:
- Visitors can see over 600 rare Southeast Native Alaskan cultural artifacts at the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center in the Anchorage Museum.
- At Saxman Native Village near Ketchikan, more than two-dozen cedar totem poles make up one of the world’s largest collections of totemic art in the world. There you can take a tour of the carving center and see live demonstrations, learn about the Tlingit language and the life-ways of a clan house, and watch a dance performance.
- The Alaska State Museum in Juneau also has a superb collection of Native artifacts. Area tours to Mendenhall Glacier often include Native stories of how the Raven made the first people and when the first white settlers met the tribes.
Learn Gold Rush History
Another group impacted Alaska’s frontier culture. During the 1896 gold rush, miners stampeded into the Yukon permanently altering the landscape by stripping entire forests, depleting wildlife, and ruining streams. These outsiders didn’t have the same connection with or care for the natural environment that the Natives had for thousands of years.
Nonetheless, gold rush history is part of Alaska’s legacy that is interesting to relive. Today you can still pan for gold yourself in many places and keep what you find. For a creepier gold rush experience, visit Treadwell Ruins, one of the many ghost towns that are remnants of headier days.
Heed the Call of the Wild
Despite the impact of the gold rush, Alaska maintains abundant and pristine wilderness. After all, the state is one-fifth the size of the entire lower 48. Of all the things to do in Alaska, arguably the most unique is witnessing wild animals going about their normal wildlife business in their natural habitats.
Seek a Wildlife Encounter
You can watch bald eagles, grizzlies, moose, and whales in spectacular, untouched environments. Wildlife encounters can never be guaranteed, but guides know the best places to search. And during your pursuit, you have the bonus of viewing the jaw-droppingly scenic landscapes. Of course, you can also consider the scenery your primary objective and wildlife sightings the bonus. Either way, it’s a win-win.
- Safely watch brown bears fishing for salmon from a platform above gurgling river rapids.
- Take a scenic float down the Chilkat River through the famous Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve to spot the American symbol of freedom soaring overhead.
- Go whale watching with a naturalist photography guide who will help you enhance your images of not only feeding humpbacks, but wildflowers, glacial mist, and all of the glorious nature surrounding you.
Visit a Glacier
Of course, visiting a glacier is one of the most popular things to do in Alaska. The gigantic, slow-moving frozen masses can be seen in several ways without cruising. There are an estimated 100,000 glaciers in Alaska. Only 616 are named and a few favorites that you can visit.
- Mendenhall Glacier, just 12 miles from Juneau, is one of the most accessible by tour bus or taxi.
- Kennicot Glacier is much more remote, but you can stay at a lodge overlooking the ice.
- The Alaska Railroad will take you to Spencer Glacier where you can float or hike to the ice.
- To see tidewater glaciers calving, take a half-day cruise in Prince William Sound.
- To see alpine glaciers near Mt. McKinley, take a flightseeing tour from Talkeetna and peer into the 5,000-foot deep Great Gorge that contains Ruth Glacier.
Outdoor adventure, indigenous culture, and spectacular nature are just the “tip of the glacier” of fun things to do in Alaska. And now you know that you don’t have to take a cruise to explore Alaska. There are so many experiences and things to do on land that you just may want to return. Get in touch with a Covington vacation advisor to start planning your trip for this summer.