Plan the Perfect Alaskan Vacation

Alaska’s wilderness is one of the final frontiers for travelers seeking adventure, unparalleled natural beauty or just a chance to get away from it all.

Miles of vast, scarcely charted wilderness stretch as far as the eye can see. At every turn there lies a sense of the spectacular and the sublime. This is Alaska, a place of dreams and mystery. 

Perhaps it’s the rugged landscape of soaring peaks, crawling glaciers and wind-swept tundra that gives Alaska its unique appeal. Maybe it’s the spirited locals who embrace the land, knowing they’ll never fully tame it. It could be the hardy ecosystem—the spindly spruce struggling for a century to grow a two-inch trunk, the polar bear padding across the jagged arctic ice, the gangly moose dipping its head to drink in a glassy pond. Or maybe it’s simply knowing that in Alaska, you’ll never be done exploring and you’ll never be able to take it all in.

Outdoor adventures

Whether you’re looking for ecotourism, adventure travel or just making great memories to last a lifetime, Alaska will ante up. And while it’s known as the last bastion of hardy individualism, Alaska is a great place for families as well. Plunging down whitewater rapids, swirling a pan in hopes of spotting gold, watching a mother bear shoo her cubs off the road or just relaxing in the midnight sun—all sorts of unique family bonding experiences await. Kids will find that Alaska has more adventure choices than Disneyland, but that it isn’t a bad thing.

Begin by investigating the options for what you want to see and do, and involve the kids if they’ll be joining you. Alaska’s plentiful mountains are a given. Most folks yearn to catch a glimpse of Mount McKinley, the tallest peak in North America, also called Denali. But it’s so tall that it makes its own weather, so 70 percent of visitors end up gazing at clouds instead of the mountain. Adjust your expectations accordingly and relish in the almost six-million acres of unspoiled wilderness within Denali National Park.

And don’t overlook Alaska’s other mountains, including those in seldom-visited Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, which rivals Denali in the awe factors of size and beauty.

Alaska’s glaciers delight both parents and children. Wild rivers, tumbling waterfalls, and sprawling forests round out the mix of natural attractions. Wherever you can, be sure to get off the road and into the woods to experience nature firsthand. Alaska’s forests, hills, and valleys are chock-full of trails, many of them easily accessible from Anchorage. Local family favorites include Potter Trail, Eklutna Lake, and Flattop Mountain. You’ll slap a few mosquitoes in the backcountry, but if you keep well-covered (including a head net for the more remote spots), you’ll manage just fine.

If hiking is not your thing, chug through the wilderness on the Alaska Railroad, a definite kid-pleaser. Bring your binoculars and scan for Dall sheep navigating the rocky mountainsides.

Where to go, what to see

Whenever you can, take a chance to mingle with the locals. From native peoples steeped in tradition to modern-day pioneers, Alaskans are a special breed. Orient yourselves to Alaska’s multi-faceted history and cultures by visiting the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center, the Alaska State Museum in Juneau or the Museum of the North at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks.

Lesser-known but worthwhile stops include the Alaska Heritage Library Museum in Anchorage and the Fairbanks Community Museum. Explore the diverse heritage of the Yup’ik, Tlingit, Inupiat, Aleut, and Haida people at the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage.

Take time to venture beyond Alaska’s Big Three, the cities of Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Juneau. Though these modest urban areas offer unique attractions and fewer people than most cities back home—Alaska’s entire population tops out at just over 670,000—the small towns and communities dotting the road system have appealing character.

Seward, Whittier, and Skagway are fun, though they’re overflowing with tourists when the cruise ships dock. At the end of the Sterling Highway, artsy Homer is a local favorite, but you’ll have to fight traffic to get there when the salmon are running in the rivers of the Kenai Peninsula. To get further off the beaten trail, head to Haines to watch the eagles soar, or drive the winding road to tiny Eagle, once a big player in the frenzied rush for gold.

Where to stay

Alaska’s bed-and-breakfasts are friendly places that make families feel right at home. Be sure to chat with your host about what it’s really like to live in the area.

If time and money permit, take off in a float plane for one of Alaska’s premier wilderness lodges. The best of these tours offer lodging, first-rate meals, and a slew of outdoor activities such as fishing, bear-watching, ice cave exploration, kayaking, and rafting.

As in all things Alaskan, research the available options before you sign on. Here lodge can mean anything from the all-inclusive resort experience of a lifetime to a collection of ramshackle cabins with an outhouse out back. If you can’t do a fly-out, road-accessible lodges are another great way to get a taste of real Alaska.

Transportation: The best ways to get to and around Alaska

Plan to visit for at least a week, preferably three or four. There are all sorts of ways to get here, and all sorts of ways to get around once you’ve arrived. By sea, you can cruise the spectacular waterways of the Inside Passage, oohing and ahhing at breaching whales, icy fjords, and snow-capped mountains.

By water 

A host of big-name cruise lines offer all sorts of land/sea packages through this popular coastal route. For the truly adventurous, the Alaska State Ferry system transports independent travelers and their vehicles from point to point along the Inside Passage and into the Gulf of Alaska.

By air 

Dozens of airlines provide service to Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city, from all over the United States and around the world. If you arrive by air, try to book a day trip on the surrounding water, especially if you want to see wildlife. Bear, moose and wolves often elude visitors because they have so much room to roam, but in the ocean you’ll likely spot sea otters bobbing in the waves, sea lions sunning themselves on the rocks and whales spouting in playful pods.

By road 

The Alaska, or Alcan, Highway gives you a chance to get up close and personal with the state, provided you have the time to drive and don’t mind the soaring cost of gas. You’ll see so many jagged peaks, rushing rivers, and plunging waterfalls that you’ll think you’ve tumbled into a postcard.

The road improves every year, though you’ll still encounter long stretches of gravel and miles of dips and potholes where permafrost prevails over the best efforts of highway maintenance crews. Plan on five to seven days to make a comfortable trip from the northern or western United States, and keep in mind that services are few, far between and less than plush. If you are driving, be sure to bring along a copy of Milepost, an indispensable mile-by-mile travel guide updated yearly by Morris Communications.

When to visit

A lot of Alaskan destinations, whole towns even, more or less shut down from October through April. However, for the truly adventurous, there’s a lot of winter fun to be had here, from snowshoeing and skiing to taking in the excitement of the world-famous Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. But if you’re like most visitors, you’ll come in the summer, when you can escape the heat back home and enjoy almost endless daylight in Alaska. The shoulder seasons, May and September, offer cooler weather but fewer crowds and better deals. Whenever you come, dress in layers and don’t over-pack. Hats, gloves, fleece, polyester, and good rain gear come in handy whatever the season.

Whenever you visit Alaska’s wild paradise, be forewarned. One visit never seems to suffice. You’ll most likely be back one day, looking to explain the unexplainable and recharge your dreams.

Destinations: Alaska, Anchorage, Denali National Park and Preserve

Themes: Family Travel, Outdoor Adventures

Activities: Hiking, Camping

User Comments

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