They say a picture is worth a thousand words and Alaska never runs out of things to say. With mountain peaks that touch the clouds, pristine forests and everything from grizzly bears to humpback whales calling it home, Alaska is teeming with wow factors that attract over a million travelers each year. And you may be wondering where to begin planning your vacation in a state so overwhelmingly vast and full of natural wonders.
As we explore only five of Alaska’s top destinations, AAA Ohio’s Director of Travel Operations Jan Sliva joined us to offer advice and share some of her own trip highlights.
“It is really a large state with a lot to do and it is hard to see it all,” said Sliva. “You must really focus on what you want to see or plan to stay a month.”
Anchorage is Alaska’s largest city and a popular starting point for most visiting tourists. It serves as a gateway to Alaska’s indigenous heritage and wildlife, featuring the Alaska Native Heritage Center, Anchorage Museum, Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center and the Alaska Zoo. Discovering the Alaskan wilderness is still within your reach, too, with several cruising opportunities, wildlife adventure excursions and national parks orbiting the city.
When asked about one of her top three favorite Alaskan experiences, Sliva answered, “Walk on a glacier. You can do this from Anchorage with Salmon Berry Tours—it was awesome!”
Denali National Park and Preserve
Arguably one of the most popular of Alaska’s eight national parks, Denali is home to North America’s highest peak and a treasure trove of outdoor activities. Hiking, biking, camping, rafting, fishing, glacier tours, sled dog kennel tours, wildlife viewing, flightseeing—Denali has it all!
If seeing as much of the wildlife as possible is on your Alaskan bucket list, Sliva recalled encountering bears, moose and several other animals on a Tundra Wilderness Tour offered by Denali’s park services. She also recommended taking a flightseeing helicopter tour.
“We did the tundra one that took us to the top of the mountain and landed,” said Sliva. “The views were breathtaking.”
Stretching 500 miles along the Pacific Ocean with spectacular scenery around every bend, the Inside Passage is Alaska’s most popular cruise route for a reason. Coastal fjords, glaciers, whale watching and the Tongass National Forest—the largest intact temperate rainforest in the world—are only the tip of the iceberg of must-see Passage highlights.
Sliva was fortunate enough to take a boat tour into Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, voyaging 130 miles through a rich landscape full of marine life, stunning views and beloved tidewater glaciers. A noteworthy highlight for her: watching sea lions laying around and playing in the water.
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park
At 13.2 million acres, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park rightfully holds the title as America’s largest national park—about six times the size of Yellowstone! Among several outdoor adventure activities like ice climbing and flightseeing, visit North America’s second-highest peak, Mount St. Elias, or fly over the Bagley Ice Field, the largest non-polar ice field in the world.
If you enjoy naturally scenic road trips, McCarthy Road could be the highlight of your Alaskan vacation. This 60-mile gravel road follows old railroad tracks through unspoiled wilderness and historic towns with eye-catching views along the way.
Sliva hopes to visit Wrangell and its famous abandoned copper mining town, Kennicott Mine, on her next visit up north.
As Alaska’s second largest city, Fairbanks—or the “Golden Heart City”—is a popular year-round destination used as a jumping-off point for visits to Denali and journeys into the Arctic Circle. It’s home to several museums, including the Pioneer Air Museum and Fairbanks Ice Museum.
Tourists flock here every year during the winter months for the chance to catch a glimpse of the elusive, but beautiful Northern Lights. The city is located directly under the Auroral Oval, where the light’s activity is very concentrated. And with minimal light pollution, this makes it a prime location to chase the Aurora.
Ready to Journey to Alaska?
For people visiting Alaska for the first time, Sliva offered this advice:
“Use a travel agent and plan ahead of time,” she stressed. “Go with a cruise or tour company to see the state highlights, then stay longer on your own to explore places that weren’t on your itinerary. You’ll want to read up on Alaska to make sure you see what you want. The state is so large, you can’t just decide on a whim to see a copper mine when it could very well be five hours away.”
Looking for an Alaskan adventure? Visit AAA.com/AlaskaTour to discover upcoming AAA guided tours exploring the Last Frontier.