Beginner's guide to Alaska
You don’t have to see the same places everyone else does. Here’s our guide to the coolest glaciers, biggest bears, and best small town
Same with Alaska. The state has 100,000 glaciers, thousands of brown and black bears, and 586,412 square miles—bigger than Arizona, California, Montana, and Oregon combined. How can you decide which glaciers/bears/square miles to see? The sheer overwhelming magnitude prompts many first-time Alaska travelers to take shelter in guided group tours, which visit all the same places your sister-in-law saw on her Alaska vacation.
There’s nothing wrong with that—Alaska’s standard tourist stops are, indeed, astonishing. But if you want your first Alaska visit to be even more extraordinary, plan on hitting these 10 destinations that locals mostly keep to themselves. You’ll leave knowing that your dream vacation has been one-of-a-kind.
While you’re there: For humpback whale–watching, take a boat to Point Adolphus, south of Glacier Bay. A good longtime outfitter is Gustavus-based Annie Mae Lodge (tours from $120; May 25–Sep 5; anniemae.com).
False-front buildings make Wrangell (population 2,100) look like a Wild West prop; in fact, Wyatt Earp turned down the job of sheriff here. Strong on nightlife it isn’t: In Wrangell, the hardware stores have better hours than the restaurants. But the setting can’t be beat—the rugged landscape explains why John Muir lingered here before he founded the Sierra Club. Give yourself three days to take in the Stikine River, fastest free-flowing river on the continent, and Anan Wildlife Observatory for prime bear-watching. (There’s also Wrangell’s Bearfest, held in July.) Want more quirk? Wrangell has Southeast’s sole regulation golf course, with its only-in-Alaska rules: Moose play through, and a raven stealing the ball is a mulligan.
Where to stay & eat: Stikine Inn ($$; rooms from $134; stikineinn.com)
While you’re there: A short ferry ride ($33; dot.state.ak.us) from Wrangell, Petersburg is a fishing town with a Scandinavian feel—check out the Little Norway Festival (May 17–20). The deli at the local fish-packing plant, Coastal Cold Storage ($; 907/772-4171), offers superior fish and chips. petersburg.org
To grasp McKinley’s vastness, rise above it on a plane. Talkeetna-based outfitters offer many flight-seeing options: Go for the longest (and most expensive) flights that circle the entire peak. K2 Aviation ($385; flyk2.com) is one reliable outfitter.
Spend the night: Kantishna Roadhouse gives you easy access to the park’s backcountry, and the kind of hearty Alaskan meals you need for exploring. From $440/person, including meals; 2-night minimum; Jun 4–Sep 12; kantishnaroadhouse.com
Info: From $169; late May–early Sep; allenmarinetours.com
While you’re there: Juneau has another good glacier 12 miles north of downtown: Mendenhall (907/789-0097), in the Tongass National Forest.
In the neighborhood: Homer is jumping-off point for trips to Tutka Bay, but it’s worth time on its own. Gallery hop on the Spit, the 4.5-mile-long curve of land that juts into Kachemak Bay. Then board a ferry for an elegant seafood dinner at the Saltry ($$$; May 26–Sep 2; halibut-cove-alaska.com), in Halibut Cove. homeralaska.org