From train rides to kayaking and wildlife-spotting, we reveal the top 10 highlights to include on your Alaskan itinerary. Alaska can be overwhelming (in the nicest possible way). It has some of the best experiences for travellers anywhere in the world, but you do need to get off the beaten track in order to explore this largest and most sparsely populated US state.
Ride the rails
Steeped in gold rush history, the White Pass railroad trip tops the excursion-popularity charts year after year. Following the trail of the 19th-century gold prospectors (who did it on foot) from Skagway across the summit of White Pass into Yukon, Canada (don’t forget your passport), this narrow-gauge track crosses death-defying trestle bridges above stunning deep ravines and delves into tunnels cutting through treacherous mountain terrain.
In Alaska, where there’s salmon, you’ll find bears. For a couple of bear-viewing excursions that won’t break the bank (or involve a flight), Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau is a black-bear hotspot while the tiny village of Haines is popular with brown bears. Many cruise companies have excursions at Icy Strait Point, part of Chichagof Island where there’s a high concentration of brown bears.
Take a paddle
Kayaking is big in Alaska so what better place to paddle the glassy water of the fjords and hidden coves and catch a glimpse of harbour seals, sea lions, Dall’s porpoises or possibly even humpback whales at eye level. With so many tiny islands, kayaking is excellent in Sitka. You can also take a beautiful trip in Skagway and from Juneau you can paddle out to the spectacular Mendenhall Glacier.
Embrace the culture
Southeast Alaska is a rich tapestry of stories and artwork that includes a range of cultures from the indigenous Tlingit and Haida Indian communities to the Russian and Norwegian influence. Walk through the magnificent totem parks of Sitka or Ketchikan to learn why these works of art are important historical records, take an excursion to a native village from Ketchikan, or catch a cultural dance in the tribal houses of Wrangell or Sitka.
Take to the skies
With very few roads, float planes and helicopters are the taxis of Alaska. Flightseeing from Ketchikan over the Misty Fjords National Monument will literally take your breath away. Towering mountains dip into glassy waters surrounded by dense rainforest dotted with cascading waterfalls. Or from Juneau take a flight across the majestic glaciers of the Juneau Icefield where you might even be lucky enough to witness a calving. If that’s not enough of a thrill, there’s also an adrenaline-rushing zipline in Juneau.
Step back in time
Relive the gold rush days as you wander through the beautifully preserved village of Skagway. Take a walk with a “madam” to hear tales of the ladies of the night. Here you can even pan for gold at Liarsville Camp (and discover the story behind the name) or take a horseride through the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park. Creek Street in Ketchikan is also a must-do heritage experience.
What could be more Alaskan than being on a sled with a team of dogs charging through the snow and ice? With the help of a helicopter you can even have this adrenaline rush in summer or for a slightly more sedate experience many kennels hitch their dogs on sleds with wheels in summer. Either way you’ll get to pat adorable puppies. Skagway, Ketchikan and Juneau all have once-in-a-lifetime dog-sledding experiences.
Catch a big one
You only have to see the number of cooler boxes at an airport in Alaska to realise it’s the ultimate fishing destination. Commercial fishing is a major industry, however there’s plenty left for the sporting angler. Salmon will give you a run for your money or try for a monster halibut. Most ports offer fishing excursions, especially Juneau, Sitka and Ketchikan. If you’re lucky, your itinerary might take in the tiny Norwegian village of Peterborough, home of the big commercial fishing vessels.
Have a whale of a time
The Inside Passage is one of the best places in the world for whale watching. This is where hungry humpbacks gorge themselves in the nutrient-rich waters before migrating to their breeding grounds in Hawaii and Baja, Mexico. Juneau offers brilliant small vessel viewing opportunities and towards the end of the season, Sitka is also an excellent spot. In addition to humpbacks, you may be fortunate enough to see Orca whales that transient these waters.
Shop for souvenirs
Alaska might not be high on your list as a shopping destination, but you’ll be surprised by the treasures to be uncovered. Alaskan-made products, especially jewellery and other crafts, are creative and highly sought after keepsakes. Villages throughout the Inside Passage all have a quaint shops typifying quintessential Alaska. Look for signs that say the shop is owned and operated by an Alaskan family to ensure authenticity.