6 Iconic Places to Visit in Alaska: Bucket List Destinations & Beyond!

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From dramatic, towering mountains and icily majestic glaciers to wild rivers, deep, dark forests, and a staggering array of amazing wildlife, Alaska is one of the most exciting vacation destinations in the US, if not the world.

In fact, the best places to visit in Alaska might surprise you! No matter how beautiful and wild you think it is, hopefully when you arrive, you will find it even more so!

Read next: The Best National Parks in Alaska

Why Visit Alaska?

It remains remarkably untamed; a true wilderness that has defied any attempts to conquer it, and remains a vast landscape of raw, unspoiled beauty just waiting to be explored.

The sheer size of the USA’s 49th state is, at times, overwhelming, and getting to grips with the Last Frontier can be a challenge.

It is hard to put into words how stunning a place Alaska is, and the sort of scale the state deals in similarly defies easy explanation.

When your vacation destination boasts a National Park that can comfortably accommodate entire other states with room to spare, you know you’ve got somewhere special on your hands!

Due to the bitter cold of the winter, the best time to visit Alaska is during the summer, from May to September.

Peak season runs from June to August, when the temperatures are at their highest and the Denali Park Road is open, but anytime during this window offers a great Alaskan experience.

Taking on the might and magnificence of Alaska is not for the faint-hearted, and an Alaskan vacation is first and foremost an adventure.

If you are looking for something warm, sunny, and metropolitan, then a Mediterranean cruise in 2022 might be a better option!

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But if the thought of exploring the untamed wilderness and discovering the stunning beauty and power of nature is appealing, then a trip to Alaska might be just the thing.

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Essential Travel Resources for 2021 & 2022

These are my favorite companies that I use on my travels.

Find the best deals on hotels & vacation rentals on Booking.com.

For road trips and ground transportation, rent a car through Discover Cars.

Find the best city tours, day tours, bus tours, & skip-the-line tickets on GetYourGuide.

For packing and travel essentials order via Amazon.

For travel guidebooks to have with you during your trip, I always pick one or two (or five) from Rick Steves, Lonely Planet, Moon Travel Guides, or Fodor’s Travel Guides.

Get reliable travel insurance through World Nomads.

Book an affordable family or romantic photography session on your trip through Flytographer (Use the code HISTORYFANGIRL for 10% off your first photoshoot).

The Best Places to Visit in Alaska

To get you started on your travel planning for next year’s adventure, here are 6 of the most iconic spots that Alaska has to offer.

Anchorage

Alaska - The Best Places to Visit in Alaska - Anchorage

Anchorage is the starting point for most Alaskan adventures. The biggest city in the state, almost everyone who comes to Alaska starts in Anchorage. But all too often visitors see the city as not much more than a launchpad; somewhere to get their bearings, perhaps stay for a night, before setting off for the more picturesque delights of the wilderness.

But pigeonholing Anchorage as just a big city on the edge of the wilderness would be a big mistake. It is as much a part of nature as the rest of the state, an urban blend of tarmac, forest, hiking trails, and cosmopolitan culture. It is a fascinating city, effortlessly combining boutique stores and art galleries, big-box chains and mini-malls, and over 100 miles of urban nature trails that criss-cross the city, encompassing greenspace tucked away in small pockets, and a gorgeous creek filled with salmon.

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There’s so much to do in Anchorage you could almost spend an entire vacation here, so choose your highlights wisely. The Anchorage Museum is a wonderful spot, covering art, history, ethnography, ecology and science. It’s focus is on studying and exploring the land, peoples, art and history of Alaska, so it’s a great way to start your Alaskan vacation. A hike to the top of Flattop Mountain will give you a taste of the more challenging adventures you’ll face further out in the wilderness, but there’s plenty of cosmopolitan energy to the city as well. With excellent restaurants, trendy bars, street vendors, and horse-drawn carriages, it is a buzzy, lively city that is just as exciting after dark as it is during the day.

Once you’ve taken in everything this wonderful city has to offer, it’s time to set off into the great outdoors and begin exploring the rest of Alaska.

Glacier Bay

Glacier Bay is an almost ridiculously photogenic destination, the crown jewel of Alaska’s natural landscape. It is a mindblowing blend of jagged mountains, ice-cold crystal-clear water, floating icebergs of all shapes, sizes, and hues, and seven tidewater glaciers that seem to pour out of the mountains that ring the bay.

Glacier Bay is one of the main destinations for Alaskan cruise ships, partly because it is a pricey place to visit on a stand-alone trip. A guided tour from Juneau can set you back at least $400, and most visitors to this gorgeous spot stay on board their ship the entire time. The exception to this rule is those who take advantage of the still, mirror-like water of the bay to kayak in this picture-perfect tableau, a truly out-of-this-world experience.

Apart from the natural beauty of the mountains, glaciers, and icebergs, the main attraction of Glacier Bay is its wildlife. Humpback whales are regular visitors to the bay, and the chance to see these majestic creatures up close in their natural habitat is one not to be missed. In fact, the bay teems with marine life, with sea otters and porpoises rubbing shoulders with dolphins, sea lions, seals, and orcas. The surrounding landscape is full of exciting creatures to spot as well. Black and brown bears roam the forests, along with wolves, coyotes, and foxes. Mountain goats cling precariously to seemingly impossible ledges, while moose, dall sheep, and deer graze the open pastures.

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Although landscape photography and wildlife spotting are the main attractions, there are plenty of more active things to do in Glacier Bay. Hiking, camping, and mountaineering are all popular, and fishing for halibut and trout can be an exciting option as well.

Denali National Park

Probably the most popular and famous of Alaska’s land sights, Denali National Park is a sumptuous expression of everything that is amazing about the state. Some of Alaska’s best highlights can be found within the preserve, including Mount Denali (previously Mount McKinley), wildlife galore, towering peaks, glacial river valleys, and wide-open tundra.

Denali is where the scale of Alaska truly hits home. You could comfortably fit the entire state of New Jersey within the boundaries of this National Park and still have plenty of room to spare! As a result, the idea of a ‘Denali Day Trip’ is almost ludicrous. An overnight stay, preferably two, is required to even begin to explore the glories of Denali, and if you want to go deeper and stay in Kantishna, you’ll need three or even four nights.

The principal attraction of Denali is the mountain itself. Nicknamed by the indigenous Athabascans ‘The Great One’, and you can see why when confronted by the vast, looming might of this 20,000 foot tower of ice and rock. Denali takes over the skyline wherever you approach it from, dominating the already impressive scenery with ease and awe. Over one thousand mountain climbers visit the National Park every year to scale the summit, a truly staggering feat of endurance and nerve.

Most visitors to Denali however don’t try to tame the mountain, instead exploring the 6-million acre preserve by bus. Tours cover varying lengths of the single park road, and explorers can hop on and hop off their chosen bus, taking to bicycles, ATVs, or just hiking to push deeper into the wilderness. The Denali Education Center is a great place to start your visit, providing the context, history, and culture necessary to truly understand this enormous outdoor space.

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Mendenhall Glacier

When you read florid prose about majestic landscapes and grandiose glaciers it can be easy to become inured to the stunning reality of some of these places. Mendenhall Glacier is one of the few destinations in the world that genuinely requires such hyperbole in its description – it truly is out of this world. A vast torrent of solid ice that pours out of the mountains, it is an awe-inspiring sight, and while you might be tempted to just stand and gawp at the sheer potency of nature, there’s plenty to do here as well.

It is one of the most accessible glaciers in North America, as it is just over ten miles from Juneau. Half a mile wide, over a mile deep, it’s a truly stunning sight, made even more remarkable by the fact that it is very much a time-limited attraction. Despite its vast scale and seemingly indestructible nature, scientists estimate that the glacier will be gone within a quarter of a century, due to climate change. The immediate effects of this can be seen by the increase in iceberg discharge into the Mendenhall River – a beautiful and impressive sight, but indicative of the sad decline of this natural wonder.

The Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center is a great place to start, offering an interesting and informative overview of this constantly shifting natural phenomenon. You can hike from the center, with numerous trails offering the chance to see the glacier up close, as well as explore caves of ice, a beautiful glacial lake, and a 377-foot waterfall.

The best time to plan a trip to the Mendenhall Glacier is during the summer. It is accessible all year, but the drier, sunnier months make for a more enjoyable, and a more photogenic experience.

Kenai Fjords National Park

Founded in 1980 in order to preserve nearly 600,000 acres of some of Alaska’s most beautiful scenery, the Kenai Fjords National Park is one of the most picturesque spots in the state. The highlight of the park is the enormous Harding Icefield, responsible for the majority of the tidewater glaciers that define and create the fjords which stretch like craggy fingers deep into the Kenai coastline.

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It’s a noisy place, with the crash of tidewater glaciers cutting into the landscape merging with the booming of sea lions, the shrieks of kittiwakes, and the vast splashes of whales breaching at the mouth of Resurrection Bay. One of the most enjoyable ways to appreciate the rich diversity of Kenai Fjords is to take a kayak out onto the water and join the sea creatures in their natural environment.

The Harding IceField can be a little tricky to access, and is mostly explored by veteran mountaineers. The majority of the visitors to Kenai stick to Exit Glacier (which is accessible from the road and only ten minutes by car from Seward!) and the coastal fjords, which don’t require as much equipment or effort yet provide just as much natural wonder.

Kodiak Island

The mysterious Kodiak Island is home of Alaska’s giant bears, the second largest bears in the world after polar bears. This unspoiled, sheltered haven boasts a pristine ecosystem and rich, verdant mountains which allow the torrent of salmon in the rivers to thrive…and keeps these enormous creatures well fed! Growing to up to 1400lb they are a remarkable sight, and any opportunity to see animals like this in the wild is worth taking.

Due to its remoteness, Kodiak is not overly-visited by tourists or cruise ships, so it remains under-the-radar and authentically Alaskan. While bear-sighting is obviously the most exciting activity, there’s plenty of other experiences to enjoy like the remains of Second World War military installations, the picturesque, gleaming onion domes of Russian Orthodox churches, and a bevy of exciting hiking trails to explore.

Kodiak is the second-biggest island in the US, after Hawaii’s aptly-named Big Island, and offers a mixture of the deep forests of the Alaskan mainland and the bleak, treeless Aleutian Islands. It is home to one of the US’s biggest fishing fleets, and the crab fishing industry in particular is enormously important.

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But the main charm of Kodiak (beyond its enormous ursine inhabitants) is the peaceful tranquility and laid-back ambiance of genuine Alaskan life. It is one of the best places to really get to grips with how ordinary folk exist day-to-day in this challenging yet wonderful part of the world.

Alaska is a truly spectacular destination, and a vacation here is guaranteed to be exciting, enjoyable, and full of surprises. There’s no better place in the US, and possibly in the world, to access the healing power of nature and to get up close and personal with the amazing creatures that inhabit one of North America’s last true wildernesses. The six destinations above are the most iconic, beautiful, and exciting places to visit in the 49th state, but wherever you choose to go you are guaranteed a special experience and memories that will last a lifetime.

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