Have you ever dreamed of seeing a tidewater glacier calve house-sized chunks of ice into the ocean, or watching a wild brown bear scoop salmon right out of a stream? If the answer is yes, you’re not alone—in fact, these unforgettable sights (and many more) draw millions of visitors to Alaska every year. Keep reading for five more “only in Alaska” moments.
Most dog kennels offer summer tours and a chance to ride in a wheeled cart being pulled by the eager dogs. You can also take a short helicopter ride from Juneau, Skagway, Seward or Girdwood to a glacier, where you can still ride a dog sled on snow in the peak of the Alaska summer. But for the ultimate mushing adventure, consider splurging on a multi-night expedition out of Fairbanks or Bettles, where you’ll learn to drive your own dog team as you mush between remote cabins and lodges, searching for signs of the northern lights overhead. You can also bid on a much-prized “Iditarider” spot, which lets you ride in the basket of an Iditarod sled during the ceremonial start in Anchorage.
Panning for Gold
Alaska’s first major gold strike was in 1880, and even today, hopeful prospectors are still panning, sluicing and dredging for gold throughout the state. You can try your hand at gold-seeking with tours out of Nome, Fairbanks, Skagway and even Girdwood. For the most authentic experience, look for tours where you scoop your own pay dirt into the pan (as opposed to pouring it out of a bag). My favorite is Gold Daughters in Fairbanks, where the covered, outdoor panning troughs are set in an open-air museum of historic mining equipment.
Sometimes, when you’re traveling in a state big enough to stretch all the way from coast to coast of the continental United States, the only way to take it all in is from the air. “Flightseeing” tours take you on incredible journeys: soar around the nation’s tallest peak, 20,310′ Denali, with beloved local air operator Talkeetna Air Taxi, or take in a bird’s eye view of the nation’s largest national park, 13.2-million-acre Wrangell-St. Elias. For a one-of-a-kind thrill in Kodiak, take a helicopter flightseeing tour with Deckload Aviation.
One note: Safety is paramount when you’re flying in small planes or helicopters, so always check flight operators’ safety records, and never push a pilot to fly when weather is dicey.
Alaska’s oceans are full of rich marine life, but humpback whales—the breaching, spy-hopping, tail- and fin-slapping ballerinas of the sea—are the most charismatic species in the water. Although you have good odds of seeing humpbacks almost anywhere in Alaska’s southern coastal waters, some places are known hot spots. In Southcentral, take one of the longer cruises out of Seward, or keep an eye out for whales during a glacier-viewing cruise out of Valdez; the Lu-Lu Belle gives you the most time and flexibility for seeing wildlife. In Southeast, you have more options, including tours out of Sitka, Juneau and Glacier Bay National Park. Personally, the best whale watching experience I’ve ever had was with Whale Song Cruises in Frederick Sound out of Petersburg.
Seeing the Northern Lights
Even the locals will charge out of bed at 3am if they hear that the northern lights, AKA the aurora borealis, are visible. But in order to see the lights, you must be here when the skies are dark and clear, away from city lights and far enough north that the aurora shines overhead instead of on the horizon. For most visitors, that means Fairbanks, where you can stay in a semi-isolated property like the Taste of Alaska Lodge or make the 60-mile drive from Fairbanks to Chena Hot Springs Resort, where you can luxuriate in a rock-lined hot springs pool while the aurora dances overhead.