The Last Frontier, as it’s affectionately known, is still a wild place where everything from the animals to the landscape feels more grandiose than anywhere else in America.
Alaska is a state of extremes. Winters are cold and shrouded in almost total darkness for months at a time, but also serenely beautiful with a sparkling white canvas often lit by the surreal dancing glow of the northern lights. In summer, fiery sunsets take place around midnight, but the sky never really darkens past twilight in most of the state, allowing for limitless adventure opportunities.
There are many reasons to visit the 49th state in both seasons, but here are four to start with.
1. See the Northern Lights in Fairbanks
If seeing the aurora borealis dance across the night sky is on your bucket list, Fairbanks is one of the best places on the planet to do so. Fairbanks’ location just 188 miles south of the Arctic Circle and long, clear nights make it probable you’ll see this natural light phenomenon four out of every five nights during the dead of winter peak viewing season. (The light show is visible, however, between late August and mid-April.)
Almost all Fairbanks hotels offer courtesy text alerts if the lights are visible during the night, but to see them from prime locations, consider joining a tour. These include flightseeing trips to above the Arctic Circle for a truly one-of-a-kind experience. Just outside Fairbanks, Borealis Basecamp has 20 elegant igloos you can stay in. The camp also runs dogsledding, snowmobiling and fat-tire biking excursions.
2. Watch Bears Fish in Katmai National Park
If seeing Alaska’s famed brown bears feast on salmon is an adventure you’ve always dreamed about, then head to Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park in July or August. This is when spawning salmon travel upriver to the falls, and the park’s 2,200 brown bears come in droves to fish for them. The park has constructed elevated platforms around the falls, which allow for a premier viewing (and photography) experience.
Katmai National Park can only be accessed by plane or boat, and most travelers book an all-inclusive vacation package to see the bears. Brooks Lodge is one outfitter. The only full-service lodge within walking distance of the falls, it offers multi-day bookings as well as day trips from Anchorage if you are short on time. If you love bears, this is truly an unmissable experience. Seeing the little cubs wrestling is as exciting as watching their parents fish.
3. Explore Denali National Park
One of Alaska’s crown jewels is Denali National Park. It is a mostly roadless wilderness that’s home to the 20,320-foot Mt. Denali, North America’s tallest peak. There is just one road through this visually stunning park surrounded by the mountains of the Alaska Range, and only the first 15 miles of it are open to private vehicles (park shuttle buses take you in deeper).
There are also only a handful of marked hiking trails in Denali, centered around its visitor’s center. The rest of the park is designed for wild explorations, where you set GPS coordinates and walk in that direction. Wildlife, from grizzly bears to moose, are plentiful.
Denali is best visited in the summer. The park is about a four-hour drive from Anchorage, but you can take the Alaska Railroad here. The Denali Star Train runs between Anchorage and Fairbanks with a stop in Denali. It operates daily in both directions between the first week of May and the third week of September.
Denali Cabins, about 15 minutes outside the park entrance and accessible by a shuttle service, is a top place to stay. It’s nothing fancy, but the self-contained wood cabins are cozy. And there are two hot tubs and a barrel-shaped wooden sauna for guests. All sorts of activities, from ATV tours to flightseeing trips around Mt. Denali, can be arranged.
4. Gawk at Glaciers and Fjords on the Kenai Peninsula
The Kenai Peninsula, located south of Anchorage, is home to Kenai Fjords National Park, where you’ll find classic Alaskan glacier and fjord scenery to gawk
at. The park is home to the 700-square-mile Harding Icefield, where you’ll find numerous glaciers, supersized brown bears and long stretches of empty coastline.
The scenic town of Seward, near the northern end of the park, is the main entry point. The town can be reached from Anchorage via the Alaska Railroad or the Seward Highway. Exit Glacier is the only part of the park where you can enter with a vehicle, and the road is open to cars only in summer. In winter, you can get here via cross-country skis, fat bikes or snowmobiles.
Most people explore the park on one of the many tours that depart from Seward. One reputable operator is Kenai Fjords Tours, which runs unique ocean cruises. Seward is also a jumping-off point for Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge, which protects the Kodiak bear among other rare creatures.