When it comes to Alaska, the “big” cities—Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau, with populations of 300,000, 32,000 and 32,000 respectively—offer the widest range of shopping, accommodations and transport options. But it’s the small towns in Alaska that give you the clearest window into the quirky, independent and generous spirit that characterizes “The Great Land.” Consider adding at least one of these charming, small-town destinations to your trip.
Often credited as an inspiration for the classic Alaska-themed TV show “Northern Exposure,” this climbing town is also one of the best places for viewing Denali, the tallest peak in North America. Time your visit right and you can watch climbers taking off for Denali base camp from the community airstrip, or climb on board yourself (with the same flight provider) for a flightseeing trip around the mountain.
During peak season, Talkeetna’s Main Street is often choked with busloads of tourists browsing the town’s fantastic, independently owned gift shops—so make sure you stay into the evening to enjoy Talkeetna’s riverside park and live music without the crowds, just like the locals do.
No Alaska visit is complete without a story of epic adventure. Just getting to McCarthy, located in 13.2-million-acre Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, provides exactly that. But don’t let that stop you—it’s well worth the effort to spend a few days enjoying the slow, relaxed pace of lodge living. McCarthy is so far off the grid, you have to leave your vehicle behind and cross a narrow footbridge to get into town.
The easiest way to get there is via a small plane out of Chitina, or by letting either the Kennicott Shuttle or Wrangell-St. Elias Tours do the driving on the unpaved, narrow, and winding 60-mile access road. Of course, the most epic way to get there is driving yourself, although not all rental car companies will let you take their vehicles on this road, which was built on an old rail bed and occasionally still surfaces tire-popping railroad spikes as a reminder of its origins.
Valdez is the friendliest small town on Alaska’s paved road system, set against a stupendous mountain backdrop that has earned it the nickname “Little Switzerland.” Truthfully, the only problem you’ll face here is deciding how best to take advantage of the beautiful setting. Want world-class halibut and salmon fishing, right out of the deep-water port? Valdez has it. How about active tidewater glaciers that shed house-size chunks of ice into the sea, epic kayaking adventures in pristine Prince William Sound, or the dramatic, waterfall-filled beauty of Keystone Canyon? Valdez has all of those, too, along with great hiking and a couple of fantastic museums that document the prominent role this small community has played in Alaska’s history.
If you’re looking for a truly unique Alaska community, head straight to Petersburg. This Southeast town was founded by Norwegian fishermen who realized that icebergs from a nearby glacier offered a convenient way to preserve their catch. Its location in the Wrangell Narrows—too winding and shallow for big cruise ships to enter—has helped preserve that hard-working fishing culture, and the small cruise ships that arrive are often greeted by demonstrations of traditional Norwegian dress and dance. You’ll also see examples of rosemaling, a flowery form of traditional Norwegian artwork, stamped into the buildings and streets.
Visitors come here for a glimpse into everyday life in an authentic fishing town, but they stay for the spectacular whale watching in nearby Frederick Sound, the sea kayaking, remote cabins, and the cruises to the LeConte Glacier, which is so active it sometimes chokes its own bay with icebergs. Or you can rent a car and go “out the road” like the locals do for fishing, hiking, picnicking, and camping.