Spotlight: Top Experiences in Alaska

Spotlight on top experiences in Alaska

Alaska, the Great Land, is fundamentally about having fun in the Great Outdoors, whether your travel focuses on adventure, relaxation or culture. Here we feature ten of the finest Alaskan experiences.

Take A Walk on the Wild Side

Alaska offers many chances to get up close and personal with its wildlife, from Kodiak brown bears to tundra caribou to arctic wolves. Take an Active Vacation exploring one or more of the National Parks. Kenai Fjords National Park is a mere two-and-a-half-hour drive south of Anchorage and offers both easy walks with Glacier views as well as day hikes leading to 360-degree views of snowcapped mountains and Resurrection Bay.

An experience within Denali National Park defines Alaska for many visitors. Home to North America’s highest peak, the 20,320- foot Mt. McKinley, and six million acres of wild land, Denali National Park is its own country, where the forces of nature and its animals reign and humans are mere observers. The National Park Service has created a checklist of nearly 40 mammals to watch for while traveling through the park. The park is ringed by accommodations ranging from RV parks to luxury hotels, but for a unique perspective on the vastness of one of America’s greatest natural treasures,Camp Denali and its sister property, North Face Lodge, can’t be beat.

Alaska by Boat

The best way to ease into the bigger-than-life Alaskan experience is by boat. Thousands of visitors annually arrive aboard cruise ships, opting to sail one way and fly the other.

A less well-known option is to take an Alaska state ferry, which can’t be equaled for value and local color. Alaska naturalists usually are on board to describe the leisurely trip’s marine and coastal wonders. The ferries are a great way to meet Alaskans and get local tips about where to go and what to do. They are kid-friendly, too, with plenty of room to play games and enjoy quality family time.

Exploring the islands, glaciers and fjords of Alaska by water offers a unique vantage point for experiencing wildlife and the wilderness. Whether you choose a small ship voyage through the Inside Passage, a day of sea kayaking though the Kenai Fjords or a rafting adventure along the Tatshenshini River, this experience will be a highlight of your Alaska journey. f you have only one day to spend on the water, a trip into Kenai Fjords National Park or Prince Williams Sound is likely to reward you with sightings of humpback whales, Orca pods, sea lions, seals, sea otters and a number of bird rookeries – such a cruise is a must for birders.

The Wild Blue Yonder

If you want to see as much as possible in a short time, do what Alaskans do — take to the air! Flightseeing is available anywhere there is an airport, gravel landing strip or sand bar! Whether it’s float, ski or plain old wheels you’ll want on your airplane, you can find your aircraft of choice in every city, town and village.

At Anchorage’s Merrill Field, headquarters for many of the state’s most experienced flight services, veteran pilots are available for charters to remote fishing cabins, the shores of isolated lakes, glacier tours, or just an afternoon spin with the family around the summit of Mt. McKinley.

A fine example of flightseeing companies is TalkeetnaAir Taxi, an “old”, by Alaska standards, air service. It was started by legendary Bush flier Don Sheldon, who was the first “rescue” pilot of climbers stranded on Mt. McKinley and the first to ever save an injured mountaineer at the 14,000-foot level of North America’s highest mountain. Former Alaska Lt. Gov Lowell Thomas, Jr., bought the air taxi and turned it into a multiple passenger flightseeing operation. Still flying today at age 84, he no longer owns Talkeetna Air Taxi and has sold it to younger pilots who carry on the tradition of ferrying mountaineers as well as providing exhilarating flightseeing tours of Denali and Mt. McKinley, including landing on glaciers.

To get an historical overview of how important aviation has been, and continues to be, in the Great Land, visit Anchorage’s Alaska Aviation Heritage Museum, then watch the non-stop takeoffs and landings at Lake Hood near Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport. And don’t be surprised if you see airplanes parked in front yards and driveways – many residential subdivisions were built just for that purpose, in case the family pilot decides to take off on a whim to get away from it all!

Bear Spotting

If you are determined to spot a bear on your Alaska vacation, visit the Stan Price State Wildlife Sanctuary’s Pack Creek Bear viewing area. Located at the mouth of Pack Creek on the shore of Admiralty Bay and only 30 miles south of Juneau, the sanctuary provides protected habitat for brown bears while allowing visitors an opportunity to observe and photograph the bears from close-range. Plan ahead though, public access requires an advance permit and during peak seasons (July 10 – August 25) numbers are limited.

If it’s polar bears you want to see, you will have to travel farther north on a circumpolar trip for visitors who want to get out into the Alaska bush for a six-day “Polar Bear Watching & Whale Harvesting in Alaska” tour. The adventure starts in the Bering Sea village of Barrow and takes travelers to the oil fields of Prudhoe Bay and to Kaktovik, the only village in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Traveling in specially-equipped vans, travelers will see polar bears in their natural habitat and observe centuries-old ceremonies by the people of Kaktovik as they harvest whales for their food.

Fish On!

The quintessential Alaska experience involves fish: salmon, halibut, trout. Some of the greatest fishing in the world is found in the state’s gin-clear lakes, abundant off-shore coves, and mighty rivers. Fly-fishing, saltwater fishing, freshwater fishing — even ice fishing — attract amateur, veteran and professional anglers to all parts of Alaska. Kodiak Island is the hotbed for halibut fly-fishing, where access to relatively shallow waters and desirable weather conditions make success more likely. Kodiak Island is also a good choice for rainbow trout. Afognak Island, located slightly north of Kodiak Island, is also home to legendary rainbows, which can be coaxed from the waters of Afognak, Portage and Malina lakes.


Alaska is synonymous with the Iditarod, a national tradition since 1973. The 1,150-mile sled dog race brings competitors and viewers from all over the world, and inspires even more to try mushing. If you want to travel in your own pack, book an Iditarod package with Alaska Wildland Adventures. If you don’t just want to watch the start of the race, but participate in it—you can! The Idita-Rider Program allows anyone to bid on a seat in any of the racer’s sleds for first 11 miles of the race. Bids start at $500.

Viewing the Northern Lights

Alaska provides one of the best spots on earth to see the northern lights. Beautiful and mysterious curtains, the colors range from green to red to purple, with the brightest and most common color, a yellow-green. Be sure to check the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute new web site before planning your aurora viewing trip to Alaska. The site offers a 28-day forecast allowing visitors to narrow dates for the best likelihood of catching the dancing sky. Prime viewing is at 64 degrees north — right below the auroral oval — just outside of Fairbanks.

Learn about the First Alaskans

Descendants of the First Alaskans still fish, hunt and practice their culture on their ancestral lands throughout the state. Arriving thousands of years ago, Native Alaskans are not a single homogeneous group, but are broadly identified as Indians, Aleuts and Eskimos, with 20 language and culture groups. Before a trip to Alaska, visit First Alaskans and Native Federation online for a brief educational primer on two of the most influential organizations working today on behalf of Alaska Native peoples. Then, when you arrive in Anchorage, head straight to the Alaska Native Heritage Center to see hundreds of years’ worth of cultural artifacts preserved in authentic exhibits. The center offers visitors the rare opportunity of seeing beautiful Alaska Native artwork, such as intricately beaded mukluks (boots) and hand-carved traditional native masks. There are also live dance performances, hands-on art demonstrations, and Alaska Native storytellers who spin magic with their legends, which are rooted in thousand-year-old traditions.
Farther north, Riverboat Discovery in Fairbanks offers an Interior Alaska look at Native culture, and includes a three-and-a-half hour cruise with stops at an Athabascan Indian village and fish camp, and an Alaska Native-led tour of the Chena Indian Village. Icy Strait Point near Glacier Bay National Park in Southeast Alaska, is the newest port destination on the map. Owned by the Hoonah Totem Corporation, an Alaskan native village corporation, the port is built on the grounds of a defunct salmon cannery that has been restored and filled with an active canning line, history display, museum, and family-owned shops. Passengers can tour the nearby Tlingit village of Hoonah (the largest Tlingit Indian settlement in Alaska), experience native dances and tribal stories, walk a history trail, go on a brown bear and wildlife tour, or go whale watching or salmon and halibut fishing.

Hop on Board!

The Alaska Railroad’s classic train travel through the Last Frontier offers some of the most spectacular scenery in the world while sacrificing none of the comforts of old-fashioned rail travel. The Glacier Discovery train combines active adventure with a scenic excursion. From Anchorage, the train travels south along the Turnagain Arm and Chugach Mountain Range deep into the Chugach National Forest. Arriving at Spencer Lake, professional guides greet guests with a deli-style lunch before escorting them on a gentle float tour. The float begins among icebergs in Spencer Lake and continues down Placer River before meeting back up with the train. Ride the rails all the way from Anchorage to Fairbanks for an intimate glimpse of the great empty interior, passing through Bush Alaska in comfort.

Tad Bartimus

Eons contributor

Tad Bartimus (Eons member Taddie) is an award-winning journalist and syndicated columnist. Read Tad’s weekly blog posts from “Elsewhere in America”, on Eons. Her weekly column “Among Friends,” is distributed by United Features Syndicate


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