Because Alaska is so big and the logistics of transport are challenging, it can take three weeks to hit the highlights. To plan a shorter trip, choose one or two regions from the following Alaska itinerary. Plan additional rest time (or time cushions in case of weather delays) into your trip as you think you’ll need it.
Most Southeast Alaska communities are on islands, so travel takes place almost exclusively by sea or air. Ferries work more like a bus line than a cruise, stopping at each community for just long enough to load and unload passengers, cargo, and cars.
That means that if you choose to disembark, you’re committed to staying for at least a couple of days until the next ferry comes through. With that in mind, the following itinerary features more air travel. (Unlike ferries, the planes come and go at regular intervals.)
Arrive by flight (or ferry) to Ketchikan, the first port of call for seagoing visitors to Alaska. Ketchikan has the highest concentration of standing totem poles of any community in the state, so spend half a day exploring the many parks and museums where they stand. Top the day off with a two-hour flightseeing trip to stupendous Misty Fjords National Monument (or, if you don’t like small planes, go fishing or take the only snorkeling tour in Alaska), then end your day with a stroll along picturesque Creek Street, where the historic buildings stand on stilts over a creek that flows right through downtown Ketchikan. Turn in early for a good night’s sleep.
If the timing works out for an early-morning ferry, take the six-hour ferry ride to Wrangell. If there is no early ferry, catch the morning Alaska Airlines flight to Wrangell instead, then take an afternoon bear-viewing trip to the Anan Creek Wildlife Observatory. This special place mostly showcases black bears, but sometimes you’ll get to see brown bears fishing here, too. When you get back to Wrangell, take the time to visit the Chief Shakes Tribal House (which you can enter for a fee, prior arrangements required) and take the mile-long walk to Petroglyph Beach State Historic Park, where ancient petroglyphs are still out in the open. Get an early dinner (the few restaurants in Wrangell all close early) and get an early night’s rest at your hotel.
Take the morning flight to Juneau, the state’s capital and the air transit hub of Southeast Alaska. This should leave you time to check into your hotel and stop by the spectacular Walter Soboleff Center in downtown Juneau, then catch a shuttle bus—or rent a car—and visit the beautiful Mendenhall Glacier. Many visitors also love riding the Mount Roberts Tramway in downtown Juneau, which carries you 1,800 feet up Mount Roberts to walking trails, a small gift shop, and beautiful views over Juneau and the Gastineau Channel, which runs between Juneau and the neighboring island suburb of Douglas. The tramway runs later into the evening than the shuttle buses to the glacier, so leave it for last.
On your second day in Juneau, take a big adventure. For most people, this will be a one-day bear-viewing tour to nearby Admiralty Island, which has the densest population of brown bears in the world, as well as one of the longest bear-viewing seasons. If you’re intent on seeing these massive, shaggy, and beautiful apex predators, this is one of the best places to do it. If you’d rather see humpback whales—also known as the ballerinas of the seas—go whale watching instead. Southeast is the only place in the world where you might get to see humpback whales bubble-net feeding, a cooperative behavior in which several whales work together to “round up” a school of fish in a net made of air bubbles, then lunge up through the middle of the net to gulp the fish down.
Leave Juneau for an overnight trip to Skagway. Take the five-hour ferry ride (a jet is not an option here, although you could book a small plane shuttle) and spend an afternoon in the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park. There are lots of historical buildings and shops to explore, some lovely day hikes in the area, an interesting brothel tour in the Red Onion Saloon, and a dinner theater show, The Days of ’98 Show. Spending the night here will give you a little bit of a rest day, plus a chance to take a scenic train ride in the morning.
Take a morning tour on the historic, narrow-gauge White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad, then head back to Juneau on the ferry. If your ferry gets into Juneau early, you can squeeze in one more short day tour (try fishing, kayaking, or ziplining), or spend the afternoon browsing the wonderful locally owned shops downtown. End your day by hopping an evening flight from Juneau to the gorgeous island community of Sitka.
Spend the day exploring Sitka National Historical Park, which has many beautiful totem poles and a cultural center where you can meet and chat with Alaska Native artisans. There are also many historical Russian buildings scattered throughout town; they’re run as mini museums and are typically open during business hours. Spend the night here.
Take a rest day or, if you’re still feeling energetic, book a whale watching or fishing trip, or explore some of Sitka’s wonderful hiking trails. Take the evening flight from Sitka to Anchorage.
Anchorage and Southcentral
Southcentral is the heart of Alaska’s rudimentary road system, which means it’s much easier to get around on your own schedule. That said, the distances between towns often come as a huge surprise to visitors—for example, it takes most people eight hours to drive from Anchorage to Fairbanks. If you don’t want to rent a car, there is usually limited shuttle service between communities along the Kenai Peninsula, although that will force you to extend your itinerary by at least a couple of days to accommodate the shuttle schedules.
Visit the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center and the Alaska Native Heritage Center; you can easily spend most of the day at these two sights. Top it off by renting a bike and pedaling the 11-mile Tony Knowles Coastal Trail to Kincaid Park, where you have very good chances of seeing a moose, then enjoy dinner in one of Anchorage’s excellent restaurants before you turn in for the night.
Get up early to rent a car, if you haven’t already, and make the scenic five- to six-hour drive (depending on traffic and photo/rest stops) to Homer for some of the state’s best food, fishing, and art, all in one place. Once you get to Homer check into your hotel and spend the afternoon exploring the Homer Spit, a narrow, four-mile peninsula containing some of the state’s best art galleries, gift shops, and restaurants. Don’t forget to stop by the iconic Salty Dawg Saloon to pin your signed dollar bill to the wall.
Start your second day in Homer at the small but spectacular Pratt Museum, then take a stroll along Bishop’s Beach, which is much nicer for walking and less crowded than the Spit. Your options for the rest of the day include a fishing or sea kayaking trip or, if you’re more of a landlubber, take a guided nature tour across Kachemak Bay with the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies. But don’t miss the chance to take the 5pm Danny J ferry to Halibut Cove (this is a small, private ferry, not an Alaska Marine Highway System ferry), where you can have dinner in the world-famous Saltry Restaurant before heading back to Homer for another night.
Get up early for the 4.5-hour drive to Seward. Once there, take a half-day sightseeing, whale watching, and wildlife viewing cruise through beautiful Kenai Fjords National Park. If you’re here in very early spring, this is one of your best chances for seeing migrating gray whales—but, as always, nothing is guaranteed. The captain will usually point out the ruins of old World War II coastal emplacements, too, although you can’t get very close to them from the water. Stay in Seward for the night.
You have two missions today: One, stop by the Alaska SeaLife Center and take a behind-the-scenes tour so you can get up close and personal with the animals at this education, conservation, and rehabilitation center for all manner of aquatic wildlife, from octopi to sea lions and seabirds. Two, take a half-day tour to Caines Head State Recreation Area. You’ll paddle kayaks out to the beach, then take a moderate hike to explore the old WWII-era Fort McGilvray. Finally, make the three-hour drive north to Anchorage and spend the night there.
Interior Alaska is a mix of easy road access (primarily to Fairbanks, Alaska’s second largest city) and remote communities, like the tiny, traditional village of Anaktuvuk Pass, which can only be reached by air. Gold-mining history, the wonderful day tours out of Fairbanks, and the sheer experience of exploring a remote part of the state tend to be the biggest draws here, although in the last few years Fairbanks has really come into its own as a hip, happening place to be, with lots of food, art, and music for city-minded visitors to enjoy.
There’s no rush today, as long as you make the 2.5-hour drive north from Anchorage to quirky little Talkeetna in time to spend the afternoon exploring the shops along Main Street. Go ahead and spend the night there to enjoy the way Talkeetna turns back to its quaint, quirky self once the tourist buses leave. There’s often great live music at the Fairview Inn.
Drive another 2.5 hours north to Denali National Park and Preserve and spend the day exploring the park’s three visitor centers, touring the park’s working sled dog kennels, and either day hiking or taking a short day tour in the park; your options include horseback riding, ATV tours, flightseeing, white-water rafting, and ranger-guided hikes. Turn in early at your hotel or campground near the park entrance—tomorrow will be a long day!
Take a shuttle bus ride into the park. You can choose between shuttle buses that drive the entire length of the 92-mile road or just part of it. Make sure you have your binoculars handy and camera ready for great wildlife and landscape photo ops. Once the adventure is over, turn in for a good night’s sleep and another early start the next day.
Make the 2.5-hour drive north to Fairbanks and check out a few of its best attractions. Stop by Gold Daughters to try your hand at Fairbanks’s most authentic gold-panning experience, then visit the Pipeline Viewing Station, which is just across the highway, for an up close and personal view of one of the state’s most impressive engineering accomplishments. Then spend 2.5 hours on an astonishingly fun nature walk among a herd of reindeer at Running Reindeer Ranch before you cap off the evening by catching the hilarious Golden Heart Revue dinner show in the Alaska-themed Pioneer Park.
Choose between a relaxing day trip to Chena Hot Springs Resort (about 60 miles east of Fairbanks) or exploring a remote stretch of Interior Alaska. Your options include booking a day tour to the nearby village of Anaktuvuk Pass (which includes a flight in a small plane); riding along on a bush mail flight with Warbelow’s Air; or booking a fly/drive adventure up the Dalton Highway, AKA the Haul Road, north of the Arctic Circle. Settle into your Fairbanks hotel as early as possible; you’ll make another long drive tomorrow.
In the morning, stop by downtown Fairbanks and do a little shopping, then visit the gleefully kitschy Santa Claus House in North Pole, Alaska (about 20 minutes outside of Fairbanks) as you start your six-hour drive southeast to Valdez. This small community of about 4,000 people has seen many of Alaska’s most historic moments, from the gold rush to the Great Earthquake of 1964 and the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989. Make sure you stop to take in Worthington Glacier, Bridal Veil Falls, and Horsetail Falls on the way into town.
Back to Southcentral
Take a boat tour from Valdez to the massive Columbia Glacier, one of the largest and most active tidewater glaciers in the world. If you’d rather, you can book a kayaking tour to paddle through the glacier’s massive ice field, but you won’t get as close to the glacier’s face.
Stop by the Valdez Museum; it’s easy to spend the whole morning here and at the Valdez Museum on Hazelet. Make sure to ask about the scale models of Old Town Valdez. You’ll pass a marked turnoff for the Old Town Valdez townsite on your way back out of town. It’s about a six-hour drive back to Anchorage (or Fairbanks) to catch your flight back home tomorrow.
Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Alaska.