Alaska fascinates people.
It wasn’t just a preference for colder weather that led me to try and get an assignment up there, after all. And even though my wife tends to prefer warmer temperatures, even she fell in love with the place after all her visits. Friends dropped in while I was up there – not necessarily to come out of their way to visit me, although it was always nice to meet up – but because they were making their long-anticipated ski trip to the Last Frontier, or the combination cruise-train ride they’d been planning for years.
Since I’ve moved back to Washington, I still hear about people wanting to visit Alaska.
My having lived there continues to be a reliable conversation starter. Just last week, one of the guys I swim with mentioned he was thinking of taking his boat up the Inside Passage this summer and asked what spots I felt he should visit.
He also wondered if the time to book is now.
Spoiler alert: It is.
The difference between the offseason and tourist season is astounding. Entire places in Southeast Alaska and the interior are completely shut down from mid-September to around May. Even in Anchorage, a city of more than 300,000, the seasonal influx is noticeable. Stores – especially the ones specializing in tourist-targeted kitsch – stay open longer, as do several restaurants. The roads are full of motor coaches, hauling visitors between the train station, hotels, and airports as well as to destinations on the Kenai Peninsula.
All of that got me thinking that if I were ever to offer suggestions on things to see in Alaska (based on nothing more than my having hung out there for three and a half years), now would be the time of year to do it.
The Honorable Mention: Anchorage
Anchorage doesn’t make my top five, but it’s not because I didn’t like the place – I did. True, it’s strangely zoned and, for various reasons, sometimes crime there spikes (to the point that Alaskans outside the city sometimes snootily refer it as Los Anchorage – though that often comes from people in places like Eagle River or Wasilla, which aren’t exactly the bush).
But it does have plenty going for it. Its network of greenbelts and trails through the city is a treasure; so is the massive Chugach State Park to the east and south as well as Independence Mine and Hatcher Pass an hour north. A public lands information center in the old federal courthouse on 4th street downtown is a good first stop for finding trails to explore.
Anchorage from Earthquake Park - Karl Sander
For every national chain restaurant, there are unique dining spots like 49th State Brewing, Humpy’s, and Glacier Brewhouse serve regionally inspired food (think salmon, halibut, yak, and reindeer). The Crow’s Nest offers an elevated venue atop the Captain Cook hotel, while down the road at Alyeska you can take the tram to Seven Glaciers and take in a more natural vista.
The Anchorage Museum downtown and the Alaska Native Heritage Center east of town document and preserve the area’s natural and human heritage. The Alaska Aviation Museum near the airport nicely showcases the state’s unique flying history.
Frankly, the single biggest reason Anchorage doesn’t make my top five? You’re probably going to pass through there anyway to get to most of the spots on my list anyway.
You might find Alaska surprisingly easy to get to, with Delta and Alaska offering several flights from Seattle to Anchorage every day – a trip that takes only about three hours. The first two spots on the list – Ketchikan and Juneau – may not have as many flights, but the journey is even shorter. From Seattle, it takes as long to get to Ketchikan as it does to get to San Francisco.
It’s also the first place you’ll stop in Alaska heading north through the Inside Passage. In recent years, the downtown has been developed to cater to the summer cruise industry, but for our money, the city was even more fun to explore independently. Saxman’s totem is a popular draw, and close enough to town to be an easy excursion for people with just a few hours ashore. But north of town, Totem Bight State Park also features restored or replica totem poles and a clan house, in a waterfront setting we had almost entirely to ourselves.
Creek Street, Ketchikan - Karl Sander
Creek Street is definitely worth checking out, and not just because of its colorful history as the town’s former red light district. While you’re certainly welcome to explore that aspect of the past – within limits, one presumes – at Dolly’s House, the timber frame buildings and boardwalk cantilevered over the banks of Ketchikan Creek is an impressive sight, especially if you have the good fortune of sunny skies.
Juneau is another destination that isn’t a terribly long haul from the Pacific Northwest; it’s a shorter flight from Seattle than Los Angeles. Its gold-rush era downtown is another popular destination for cruise ship tourists, and while there are indeed some great shops to check out, there’s plenty more to see.
First on the list of must-see places in Juneau is the Mendenhall Glacier. The U.S. Forest Service visitor’s center is easily accessible by road if you have a rental (or spring for a cab or Uber) – and an easy mile mosey from the nearest bus stop. There are a handful of benign trails that offer excellent views of the lake at the foot of the glacier and take you to the bottom of a waterfall streaming down from the icefield. On the opposite side of the lake, a trail climbs from the trailhead to the foot of the glacier itself. When we hiked it, it was a warm early summer’s day, but the temperature noticeably cooled as we neared the giant expanse of ice. This is the route you’d take to access the ice caves if your itinerary allows and you’re properly equipped.
Mendenhall Glacier - Karl Sander
If you have the time it’s a short (if hilly) stroll from the heart of downtown to see the modest state capitol building and governor’s mansion. The downtown waterfront is also home to The Wharf, a pleasant dining and drinking spot with windows and a patio overlooking the cruise ship piers and a seaplane landing where people can take flightseeing tours. The same building is also where you’ll find Pel’meni and its amazing Russian-style dumplings. It’s a must-stop, whether you’re a bon vivant looking for a late night bite or just looking for a quick meal in the midst of your sightseeing.
#3 The Kenai Peninsula
Maybe it’s disingenuous to lump a few destinations together in one entry, but it saves me from having to make unpleasant decisions about what to leave out.
Everything on the peninsula is, at least in Alaskan terms, relatively easily accessible from Anchorage. Seward is the shortest drive, home to the annual 4th of July race up Mount Marathon and back (which for me is a great spectator sport, yet nevertheless draws enough interested runners that it uses a lottery system to decide who gets to participate). The Alaska Sealife Center is right downtown, where you can see everything from tiny puffins to giant sea lions. Whale-watching and glacier-viewing cruises and fishing charters leave from the waterfront, and just outside of town you can hike to the foot of Exit Glacier – or if you’re slightly more ambitious, to the Harding Icefield.
Sunrise in Seward - Karl Sander
Homer is another neat little town to check out. At the end of the spit is the somewhat famous Salty Dawg Saloon, and its waterfront is another excellent place to grab a fishing charter or sightseeing cruise. The Pratt Museum showcases local art and historical artifacts, and there are wildlife exhibits at the Alaska Islands and Oceans Visitors Center. On the drive to Homer, you’ll pass through the towns of Sterling and Soldotna the and along the banks of the cerulean blue Kenai River – if it’s during the salmon run, you’ll see the shores packed with anglers and understand where the phrase “combat fishing” comes from.
#2 Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve
Spreading out in the corner where Southeast Alaska connects to the rest of the state, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve includes peaks as high as 18,008 feet (Mount Saint Elias – the tallest peak in both the U.S. and Canada, as it sits right on the border) and rugged coastal fjords. Much of it is undeveloped, though there is a road that goes into the park to McCarthy, a small hamlet that hints at its remote interior Alaskan roots even as it serves 21st Century tourists. Up the hill from McCarthy is the historic Kennecott Mine. Once an active copper mine, it’s now a well-preserved and photogenic historical site that’s easy to explore. A handful of hiking trails head out from the mine, including one that lets you step right onto Kennicott Glacier (no, the different spellings aren’t typos).
Kennecott Mine - Karl Sander
If you stay somewhere in the Copper River Valley for your Wrangell-St. Elias visit, you’ll also be close to Valdez. Only one road reaches the seaside town, which snakes its way down to sea level from Thompson Pass. If it’s a sunny summer day, the pass is stunningly gorgeous. In winter, it’s one of the snowiest places in North America, and Valdez has been cut off from the rest of the road network for days at a time following big snows. In fact, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline is the main reason for the modern highway and the state’s efforts to keep it open in the winter – before the pipeline, Valdez was accessible in the winter only by boat or plane.
#1 Denali National Park and Preserve
Full disclosure, Denali was our honeymoon. So, I can’t definitively say that my ranking isn’t at least a little biased. But then, I did say my list was unscientific.
Encompassing North America’s tallest peak of the same name, the Park and Preserve nearly defy description. The Park Service endeavors to mitigate humankind’s footprint by having only one road in and out. And aside from guests camping for at least a few nights at Teklanika River and an annual road lottery for locals at the end of the season, you’ll most likely travel this road by bus. But the bus takes you to stunning viewpoints like Polychrome Pass, and places like Savage River and the Eielson Visitor’s Center where even casual adventurers can explore. And with someone else doing the driving, you’re free to keep a lookout for all the bear, caribou, and moose.
Denali Flightseeing - Karl Sander
You can reach the park either by driving along the Parks Highway from either Anchorage or Fairbanks, or taking the train for an even more memorable trip. There’s an array of lodges and other accommodations at the park entrance for people who don’t feel up to camping, and no shortage of places to eat (including the original 49th State Brewing Company location in Healy). There’s flightseeing here, too – and unlike Ketchikan, here we actually took advantage of the opportunity. A flightseeing trip into Kantishna at the end of the highway was my wedding gift to my bride. She’s kept me around so far, which I figure is a sign that she must have enjoyed it.