America’s final frontier is a mythical collection of natural beauty. Glaciers stand guard at the edge of jagged coastlines, chains of towering summits circle valleys with roaming bears and midnight-blue fjords shelter hidden coves where whales still thrive. This is not a place of parking lots and crowded trails. It's an incubator of adventure.
Ready to stake your claim to an adventure in Alaska? Here’s what this Alaska travel guide will cover:
- Why Travel to Alaska?
- The Top Things to Do in Alaska
- The Top Outdoor Activities in Alaska
- How to Plan Your Trip
Why Travel to Alaska?
Thirty-nine mountain ranges, more than 3,000 rivers, 1,800 named islands and 17 of the 20 highest peaks in the United States fill an area the size of Texas, Montana and California combined. The basic math of Alaska is impressive enough, but the wild beauty those numbers can't convey is far more impressive. Along the southern coast, humpback whales, orcas and sea lions reside in tucked-away inlets, deep fjords and open bays. In the interior, grizzly bears browse the berry thickets and salmon-rich rivers, moose plow through deep snow-covered valleys and caribou navigate windswept sand dunes on the edge of the Arctic Circle.
“Alaska offers nonstop opportunity to quench your thirst for untamed adventure. Its wide open spaces, prolific wildlife, stunning beauty and its utter disconnect from the mainstream make it the perfect destination for those of us wanting full immersion in nature,” says Heather Gyselman, REI Adventures program manager for North America.
The Top Things to Do in Alaska
Throw a dart at a map of Alaska and you’re very likely to land in the middle of pristine wilderness. The state’s potential can feel intimidating for first-time travelers, so Gyselman recommends avoiding over-planning your inaugural visit. “There’s too much to see,” Gyselman says. “Trying to fit everything in will leave you stressed and unable to fully immerse yourself in the experience. Use your first visit as a scout and commit to going back again.”
Six million acres of protected wilderness surround North America’s tallest peak. Topping out at 20,310 feet, Denali’s summit overlooks sweeping boreal forests and wide swaths of tundra that fill the spaces between the park’s other snow-covered mountains. And in all that space, there is only one way in.
Denali Park Road stretches for 92 miles through the park’s interior, but public vehicle access is only allowed to Savage River, about 15 miles in. After that, tour buses take travelers between campgrounds and trailheads that lie deeper in the park. Tight control keeps the park wild, and for those who venture beyond the road, there is nothing to stand between you and pure, untamed wilderness. Make sure you’ve got a plan before you go by checking in with the National Park Service about buses, schedules and backcountry permits.
Strings of aquamarine lakes, wide open meadows flecked with wildflowers and snowcapped volcanoes define Lake Clark National Park & Preserve, whose namesake lake stretches for 42 miles. Like so many destinations in Alaska, getting here is half the journey. There are no roads, requiring most visitors to arrive by chartered flight. Once inside, unlimited opportunities await, like fat-biking across Lake Clark’s frozen waters in the winter or walking in the footsteps of the area’s ancestors along the Telaquana Route, which connects Telaquana Lake to Kijik Village.
In the far north, Gates of the Arctic provides a sneak peek at some of the most extreme environments on Earth. Between mountains of granite and limestone, the landscape is cloaked in tundra and tussock-dotted lowlands. In the winter, ice and snow swirl in temperatures that drop to -50 degrees Fahrenheit, and the northern lights dance through the sky. In the summer, backpackers seeking complete solitude will find it on demanding treks across challenging topography. For paddlers, a maze of rivers—including the Alatna and Kobuk—provides the perfect backdrop for the float of a lifetime.
Sand dunes, migrating caribou and 9,000 years of cultural tradition fill the boundaries of Kobuk National Park. Here, on the doorsteps of the Arctic, you’ll find extreme environments and incredible beauty. Visitors can investigate the area’s cultural heritage, trek along the shores of the Kobuk River and catch glimpses of the northern lights. But be prepared, as there are no roads or services of any kind within the park, and temperatures dip below freezing even in the summer. Kobuk is for those who want ultimate isolation.
Glacier Bay extends for more than 4,688 square miles along Alaska’s Inside Passage. Filled with blue-ice glaciers, moss-covered rain forests and narrow fjords, the park’s wild expanses are reachable only by plane or boat. Those who make the effort to get there are rewarded with incredible backcountry hiking opportunities and the chance to kayak through the park’s fjords. If you’re staying overnight, bring a tent to sleep under the stars in the backcountry or at the Bartlett Cove Campground. For those who like more amenities, look no further than the historic Glacier Bay Lodge, which offers the only hotel accommodations within the park.
Home to the 700-square-mile Harding Icefield, Kenai Fjords National Park has something for everyone. Kayakers can spend their days exploring glacier-framed fjords and their nights camping out on rugged coastlines. Hikers can don crampons for a trek along the Harding Icefield (8.2 miles), and wildlife seekers can hop on a guided boat tour to watch for orcas, humpbacks, sea otters and other marine mammals who spend their summers in the fjords’ protected waters. In the off-season, snowshoers and cross-country skiers can enjoy rewarding backcountry conditions. For more creature comforts and a rustic setting, book one of the public-use coastal cabins. In the winter, skiers can hang their poles at a forest service cabin near Exit Glacier.
Claiming 13.2 million acres, America’s largest national park is the size of Yosemite, Yellowstone and Switzerland combined. It’s home to four mountain ranges that converge to create a smattering of soaring peaks including nine of the highest mountains in North America, active volcanoes and pale blue glaciers. Between them, countless rivers crisscross wide stretches of lowland forests and fields of lichen where caribou roam.
Where the park meets the Gulf of Alaska, over 150 miles of coastline define its southern boundaries. Visitors can explore the area’s copper- and gold-mining past in the communities of McCarthy and Kennecott and get up-close views of mountain ranges from Nabesna in the north or Copper Center in the west. Kayakers can reach the coast by plane or boat, usually from Juneau. But for those that want a truly epic introduction, the park’s wide open backcountry beckons.
Even if you’ve never heard of it, you’re probably familiar with Katmai’s most famous attraction: the brown bears at Brooks River. Hungry bears congregate near Brooks Camp to snatch spawning salmon as they leap out of the water to navigate the river’s falls. The spectacle became so popular that a webcam was installed, which now offers anyone with an Internet connection the chance to watch the whole thing live. But those who come to Katmai just for the bears are missing out.
Isolated in Alaska’s southwestern corner, Katmai National Park & Preserve gives visitors the chance to see the powerful impact of the largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century. In 1912, a new volcano, Novarupta, formed, then erupted for more than two and a half days, covering the landscape in a blanket of ash and magma.
Backcountry hiking trips into the Valley of a Thousand Smokes are the best way to see this scarred, yet starkly beautiful environment. Visitors should take special caution to learn about the dangers of trekking across the ash-covered landscape.
The Top Outdoor Activities in Alaska
Alaska’s sheer variety of environments allow travelers to experience the state in almost any way they want. Roadtripping hikers can cruise between campgrounds that offer quick access to day hikes, while those seeking more isolation can find their own path in the vast backcountry.
Rookie and veteran kayakers can explore deep fjords, cobalt lakes and icy rivers. Cyclists can pedal along winding roads that lead deep into national parks, and mountain bikers can explore singletrack routes along alpine ridges. This guide will focus on hiking, cycling, kayaking and winter activities, but rest assured, there is a place for nearly every outdoor adventure in the Land of the Midnight Sun.
The best hike in Alaska is the one that you discover yourself. Endless backcountry opportunities encourage a spirit of exploration that’s uncommon—and in some cases, discouraged—in most of America’s national parks and protected areas. But that freedom demands respect for Alaska’s extreme conditions. Careful trip planning and previous backcountry experience are necessary for most solo jaunts. So, if it’s your first time, consider hiring a guide service to introduce you to the joys of going off-trail.
For hiking experiences that are easier to nab in a day, consider a few of Alaska’s most popular trails, including:
Worthington Glacier State Park is a wonderful place for a day trip if you’re basing your Alaska adventure out of Valdez. This ridge-topping, 1.3-mile one-way hike climbs quickly—1,322 feet of elevation gain in just under a mile and a half—but the view is well worth the effort. At the top, you can snap photos of Worthington Glacier and Thompson Pass. The landscape is especially stunning in the spring when wildflowers blanket the valley below.
Dip your toes into the majesty of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park on this moderate 2.2-mile trek to the base of Root Glacier. Cross rushing creeks and follow in the footsteps of gold miners who once took this route to seek their fortunes in the Erie Mine, nearby. Complete the hike as an out-and-back, or bring your tent and stay the night at one of the sites scattered along the trail’s end. Mountaineers who want to explore more of the area can also use this as an excellent basecamp and entry point for pursuits that delve deeper into the park.
The 4.3-mile Savage Alpine Trail offers sweeping views of Denali’s soaring summit on clear days. Starting from the Savage River Campground, hikers follow a series of switchbacks over a ridge before descending toward Savage River. The trail ends back at the Denali Park Road, where you can catch a free shuttle back to the Savage River Campground or walk along the road to finish the hike as a loop.
Catch one of Denali’s shuttle buses to reach the Eielson Visitor Center and the start of the Eielson Alpine Trail. The short (.8 miles one-way) albeit steep route heads to the top of Thorofare Ridge for stunning views deeper into the park’s wildflower-filled valleys, Muldrow Glacier, Mount Galen and Denali.
Deep, protected fjords, calving glaciers, rugged coastlines and an abundance of marine life make Alaska a prime destination for kayakers. Opportunities to go kayaking are easy to find in established coastal towns like Valdez, Seward and Homer. For more off-the-beaten-path destinations, experienced paddlers can hook up with an air charter service that handles kayaks. These services open up far-flung paddling spots like Lake Clark, for extremely isolated multiday trips.
Not sure where to start? Here are a few of the most sought-after places to dip your paddle in Alaska.
Kenai National Park and the waters surrounding it are a mecca for more experienced paddlers who can handle the potential for rougher conditions coming in from the Gulf of Alaska. Kayakers can watch for orcas, humpback whales, porpoises, sea lions and sea otters, while exploring a treasure trove of routes that pass towering glaciers and untouched coastlines. Most trips start from Seward and the shores of Resurrection Bay, but kayakers can also jumpstart their trip with a water taxi to nearby launch points in Aialik Bay, Northwestern Lagoon or Bear Glacier Lagoon.
Prince William Sound
A maze of quiet, forested coves surround the open waters of Prince William Sound, where paddlers are surrounded by the snowy peaks of the Chugach and Kenai mountains. Entry points in Whittier and Valdez make it an easy paddling destination to reach. And, since most areas are well-protected, it’s an ideal spot for new kayakers looking for their first experience on the water.
A few miles from the tiny town of Gustavus, Bartlett Cove is the starting point for kayakers who want to explore the heart of Glacier Bay National Park. Here, expect to spend your days gliding through cobalt-blue fjords flecked with the crumbs of calving glaciers and watching for breaching humpback whales. Rental services are available in Gustavus, along with guides, and reservations are advised well in advance. Those who want to extend their visit can bring along a tent and camp out in the park’s backcountry, where the rocky shoreline gives way to thick, moss-covered forests.
3. Road Cycling and Mountain Biking
It’s no surprise that Alaska’s limitless wilderness offers plenty of opportunities for two-wheeled travelers to find a bit of adventure. In the summer, everything from paved city paths to epic singletrack routes entertain road cyclists and mountain bikers. And in the winter, you can hop on a fat bike to keep your feet on the pedals along frozen trails.
In Denali National Park, the first 15 miles of Denali Park Road are paved and reward riders with incredible views of Denali and its surrounding valleys. Beyond that, 77 miles of gravel beckon cyclocross riders further toward the park’s mountain-studded horizon. If you’re based out of Anchorage, the Tony Knowles Coastal Path (11 miles) is a great combo of city cycling, coastal views and forest solitude. And in Girdwood, the 12-mile Bird to Gird Trail traces the shores of Turnagain Arm—an inlet off the Gulf of Alaska—on a paved path beloved by cyclists, hikers and, more often than not, cross-country skiers.
For mountain bikers, access to Alaska’s backcountry is opened up by means of the Forest Service’s network of trails and roads. Don’t miss the singletrack up Resurrection Pass, which weaves between alpine meadows and boreal forests on the Kenai Peninsula. Go the full length, or cut down Devil’s Creek to zip past quiet lakes and waterfalls on your way back down. In the winter, fat bikes keep Alaskan riders going on the Tony Knowles Coastal Path and in outdoor-loving resort towns, like Girdwood.
4. Skiing & Snowshoeing
The backcountry is as much a draw for hikers as it is for snowshoers and cross-country skiers. Many of Alaska’s national parks are open year-round and are perfect for a winter-wonderland escape. Denali’s Murie Science and Learning Center provides winter backcountry permits and also loans snowshoes, and Glacier Bay offers ranger-led guided snowshoe walks on weekends. In Girdwood, Alyeska Resort is a major draw for downhill skiers, who can explore 1,610 acres of powder-blanketed terrain served by seven lifts.
Eaglecrest Resort is a great option for those exploring the southeast. The resort has 640 acres of terrain, along with two Nordic trails for skiers and snowshoers. If you’re based out of Anchorage and need a quick downhill fix, head to Hilltop Ski Area. The humble 30-acre resort is just 25 minutes outside of downtown, so you can squeeze in a run between lunch and dinner.
And for an epic introduction to the potential of skiing or snowboarding Alaska’s backcountry, set your sights on Tailgate Alaska. The annual freeride festival connects riders of all abilities with some of the most incredible terrain on the planet. Spend your days cruising the endless powder of Thompson Pass and your nights hanging with like-minded riders in camps of RVs and trailers that give the festival its namesake tailgating vibe. The festival typically lasts 10 days and offers unlimited riding to attendees, along with plenty of entertainment along the way.
How to Plan Your Trip to Alaska
Alaska’s short season, extreme environments and popularity demand a bit more planning than most domestic destinations. “The operating season up there is one hundred days long, generally from the end of May through the beginning of September in a good year,” says REI Adventures Program Manager, Andy Kronen. “That leads to higher pricing, early sell-outs and booked campgrounds.”
Best Time to Visit
Peak season in Alaska is generally from mid-June through mid-August when endless daylight equates to endless adventure and warmer temperatures finally arrive. The high demand during this time of year requires early planning to reserve great accommodations and campground spots, along with guide services, so make an effort to nail down your itinerary by January.
In spring, wildflowers erupt from mountain valleys, and you might be able to combine snowshoeing and hiking on any given day, but be prepared for more unpredictable temperature swings. If rain is your sworn enemy, shoot for April, usually the driest month of the year, and avoid August, typically the wettest month.
Fall offers the chance to see Alaska’s forests in rich hues of gold and amber, but early snowfall could hamper plans to reach some destinations. The best advice? Plan for your ideal trip, but have a few foul-weather backup options in mind.
Winter’s short days and cold weather keep the crowds away (mostly), but also open up amazing snow-sport opportunities. Keep in mind, many tourist areas shut down during the winter, so adjust your accommodation planning accordingly.
In Alaska, bush planes and dog sleds are as likely to take you from point A to point B as a rental car. Water taxis and ferries link isolated towns along the Alaska Marine Highway. If you’re heading to southeast Alaska, plan on traveling by boat. To reach deep into the backcountry and speed up travel between major towns, look for air charter services that link to the destinations you’re interested in.
Finally, because of the logistical support required for many of Alaska’s more off-the-beaten-path destinations, consider hiring a guide to help you arrange your trip and any required gear.
REI makes it easy to explore this wild land with REI guided trips to Alaska.
What to Pack?
Summer weather in Alaska never reaches the balmy conditions of the Lower 48. Anchorage, for example, only reaches an average high of 65 degrees in July. At higher latitudes and elevations, expect more unpredictable weather and downright chilly days and nights.
“If you’re going to be in Alaska for a week, expect a few days of rain, no matter what the season is,” Kronen says. Along with quality rain gear, stock up on insect repellent, a good bug net hat, bear spray, and a bear-proof food canister for any backcountry excursions.