Planning a Trip to Alaska: Where and When to Go

Large rocks jut out of the ocean with snow-capped mountains in the distance.

The Kenai Peninsula is perfect for quick escapes from Anchorage. Photo © Leighton O’Connor/123rf.

For many visitors, planning an Alaskan adventure entails going to a travel agent or website and booking an all-inclusive voyage on the HMS Geezer, where everything is packaged neatly for mass-market vacationers. Cruises do provide an introduction to the state, but people who really want to see Alaska need to get off the megaships and get away from the canned bus tours, shops selling made-in-China totems, and “eco-adventures” where you paddle a kayak around the harbor. Independent travelers have a slightly more difficult time arranging a trip to Alaska, but they will be rewarded a hundredfold with a more authentic experience. With the right planning, an Alaskan adventure can be the trip of a lifetime.

Getting around such a vast state forces visitors to put transportation at the core of planning, especially when ferry and train travel are involved. Don’t schedule your trip too tightly since weather delays or mechanical problems may appear at the most inopportune moment.The type of travel you arrange, of course, depends on your interests, budget, and how much time you have. Retirees driving the Alaska Highway have very different needs from families riding the ferry to Juneau or mountaineers heading out on a grand wilderness adventure. Sit down with Moon Alaska and see what works for you.

Getting around such a vast state forces visitors to put transportation at the core of planning, especially when ferry and train travel are involved. Don’t schedule your trip too tightly since weather delays or mechanical problems may appear at the most inopportune moment. Leave some time in your schedule to relax, even if you have just a week. Those with specific must-see destinations such as bear-viewing flights, bus tours into Denali National Park, or three-day sea kayaking trips should be sure to make reservations well ahead of time. Lodging places in such prime spots as Brooks Camp within Katmai National Park may fill up a year ahead of the peak summer season.

A good starting point when planning a trip to Alaska is the Alaska State Vacation Planner, distributed by the Alaska Travel Industry Association (907/929-2200 or 800/862-5275).


Where to Go

Southeast Alaska

Southeast is Alaska’s “Panhandle,” a coastal region dissected by the Inside Passage, much of it within massive Tongass National Forest. The southernmost town, rainy Ketchikan is famous for totem poles and cliff-walled Misty Fiords National Monument. Juneau is both the state capital and a major destination for travelers. Nearby are the fjords and glaciers within Tracy Arm and Glacier Bay National Park. Other towns have their own flavor, including Petersburg’s Norwegian heritage, the picture-perfect setting for Sitka, and Skagway’s gold-rush history.

Anchorage and Vicinity

Anchorage is home to nearly half the state’s population, an international airport, and a multitude of cultural amenities. Hanging baskets of flowers and colorful gardens decorate Town Square in front of the Performing Arts Center. Especially notable are the Anchorage Museum, the largest in the state, and the Alaska Native Heritage Center. A paved trail skirts the shoreline, and great day-hiking is a short drive away within Chugach State Park. Head south along Turnagain Arm, with its enormous tides and beluga whales, to Portage Glacier and the ski resort town of Girdwood.

Kenai Peninsula

The Kenai Peninsula is perfect for quick escapes from Anchorage. Two primary roads—Seward Highway and Sterling Highway—cross the peninsula, which is dominated by Chugach National Forest, Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, and Kenai Fjords National Park. The last of these is based in Seward, where you can join boat or kayak trips or visit the Alaska SeaLife Center. Kenai and Soldotna are bases for Kenai River fishing. The hip town of Homer is a premier destination for fishing, sea kayaking, and hiking, with notable lodges, restaurants, and art galleries.

The Wrangells and Prince William Sound

This section of Alaska encompasses the Copper River Valley, Wrangell Mountains, and Prince William Sound. Glenn Highway crosses the northern edge, passing Matanuska Glacier before dropping to the town of Glennallen. The Richardson Highway heads north to Tok and south over Thompson Pass to Valdez, terminus of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. Wrangell–St. Elias National Park—the country’s largest—lies at the heart of this region, with picturesque red mining buildings at Kennicott as the main attraction. State ferries connect the Prince William Sound communities of Cordova and Whittier.

The Interior

Interior Alaska is best known for Denali National Park, with caribou, brown bears, wolves, and other wildlife, plus amazing Alaska Range vistas. The town of Talkeetna provides a base for flightseeing trips to Mt. McKinley, North America’s tallest peak. In Fairbanks, the second largest city in Alaska, don’t miss the University of Alaska Museum of the North, Pioneer Park, and nearby Chena Hot Springs. The Dalton Highway pushes north across the Arctic Circle, paralleling the Trans- Alaska Pipeline over the Brooks Range all the way to Prudhoe Bay.

Southwest Alaska

Southwest Alaska encompasses a ruggedly beautiful mix of lush islands, active volcanoes, and wild, wild country from Kodiak out the Alaska Peninsula to the Aleutians. The weather—dominated by rain, fog, and wind—is notoriously challenging for travelers. Kodiak Island has forests on the northeast end near the town of Kodiak that give way to tundra. The island is famous for its massive brown bears. Bear viewing flights depart for remote parts of the island or to Katmai National Park on the Alaska Peninsula. The Pribilof Islands are known for seabirds, seals, and other wildlife.

Western and Arctic Alaska

This is true bush Alaska, where the marshy tundra, powerful rivers, and high mountains are virtually untouched by human developments. Commercial salmon fishing dominates around Bristol Bay, but visitors come to see walrus at Round Island or to explore Wood- Tikchik State Park. Farther north is the old gold-mining town of Nome and the little-traveled Arctic, with a handful of settlements, including Barrow and Kaktovik (polar bears). Intrepid adventurers hike spectacular Gates of the Arctic National Park or float rivers in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.


When to Go

Alaska is primarily a summer destination, and the vast majority of the 1.5 million annual visitors travel mid-May–mid-September, with the peak in July–August. The advantages of summer travel are obvious: long days, warmer weather, all the attractions are operating, and children are out of school, not to mention the return of salmon and the emergence of bears and other wildlife. Because of Alaska’s northern location, spring arrives late, and much of the state does not green up until mid-May. The road into Denali National Park is closed by snow until late May, and the landscape can be bleak before leaves emerge. Summer has its drawbacks too, including mosquitoes, high lodging prices, and crowded venues.

Fall comes early. Autumn colors (primarily yellows on the aspen, birch, and willows, with reds and oranges in alpine areas) typically peak in early September across Interior Alaska, and a couple of weeks later for Southcentral Alaska. Days shorten dramatically by October—en route to the December 21 winter solstice—but longer nights also make Alaska’s famous northern lights visible. Winter visitors come to view them, and to watch such events as the Iditarod and Yukon Quest. Interior Alaska can be bitterly cold in winter, but Anchorage and points south are typically milder, especially by mid-February.

Spring (especially April) is the ugly season, at least until the trees leaf out. Most winter activities are closed, and the summer fun hasn’t cranked up, so do what Alaskans do and head to Hawaii instead.


Before You Go

It pays to do some planning before your trip to Alaska, especially if you’re heading into remote bush parts of the state. This is a massive state, and unless you have months of time and a big bank account, you’re wise to pick one region to explore. Ferry travelers to Southeast Alaska will need to develop their travels around the ferry schedule since several days may pass before the next ferry arrives. Many travelers fly into Anchorage and launch out from there by rental car, RV, train, or bus. Lodging, meals, and travel will eat a big hole in your budget, but you can avoid some expenses by camping and finding places where you can cook your own meals. Book well ahead for bus trips into Denali National Park and for lodging around the park. Do your research by reading this book, checking out the websites of places you might want to visit, and requesting a copy of the Alaska State Vacation Planner.


What to Take

Summer visitors will want to bring a light waterproof jacket and rain pants plus a sweater or polyproplyene pullover for warmth. Hiking boots are recommended if you plan to spend any time in the backcountry, but good running shoes are fine for many purposes. Hikers in Southeast Alaska will need rubber boots and heavy-duty rain gear.

Winter visitors should be prepared for the cold and bring appropriate winter wear for extreme conditions, especially anyone planning a trip to Fairbanks, where temperatures are often well below zero, sometimes plummeting to ‑40°F. Southcentral winters are milder, with Anchorage temperatures often in the teens or single digits in January. Juneau and other Southeast Alaska towns have relatively mild winters with a mix of rain and snow.


Excerpted from the Tenth Edition of Moon Alaska.


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