15 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Alaska
As Alaska is big, so too is its beauty. A vast, uninhabited wilderness overwhelms the comparatively small cities in the state, such as commercial-minded Anchorage, with its many things to do, and tucked-away Juneau (a curious state capital with no road access). This natural beauty can be enjoyed while hiking, paddling, and fishing in the great outdoors, especially as the state and national parks here are some of the largest in the United States.
Though there are a number of museums and other tourist attractions in the major centers, towns are perhaps more accurately used as jumping-off points for exploring the Alaskan wilds, such as Denali and Kenai Fjords national parks. But wherever your sightseeing may take you, the scale of Alaska is sure to impress.
1 Denali National Park
In the northern part of the Alaska Range, Denali National Park is the one of the largest in the United States and encompasses North America's highest mountain. Denali is the 20,320-foot peak's traditional name, but modern explorers dubbed it Mount McKinley. The name is a strong point of local contention. But names aside, the six million acres of wide river valleys, tundra, high alpine ranges, and glacier-draped mountains are purely spectacular. A single road leads into the park, and only park-approved buses are permitted to travel beyond Savage River. Views of Denali can be enjoyed from the park road, weather permitting.
Located midway between Anchorage and Fairbanks, Denali is the home of grizzly bears, wolves, reindeer, elk, and other animals. More than 167 species of birds have been recorded in the park. Another favorite among the park's many things to do are the Sled Dog Kennels, which offer demonstrations and are home to dozens of energetic huskies.
2 Tracy Arm Fjord
A fjord edged with glaciers, Tracy Arm is located south of Juneau and is a popular destination for cruise ships and boat tours. Waterfalls tumble down the sharp rock walls and glaciers calve, creating small icebergs. The scenic setting lies within the Tracy Arm-Fords Terror Wilderness of the Tongass National Forest. At the head of the fjord sit the twin Sawyer Glaciers. Wildlife sightings are common on tours, whether it's a brown bear or moose on land, or the whales and seals that inhabit these waters.
Tracy Arm offers just a small slice of glacier viewing in Alaska. Other tourist favorites include Glacier Bay National Park, northwest of Juneau, and Prince William Sound, near Anchorage.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Juneau
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- 9 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Juneau
3 Kenai Fjords National Park
Protecting much of the fjord-riddled coastline of the Kenai Peninsula (south of Anchorage), this national park offers some of the best sightseeing in Alaska. Not only do panoramas take in the many glaciers of the 700-square-mile Harding Icefield and an uninhabited coastline, but the national park is home to monstrously large brown bears that feed on the fat-rich salmon. Many tourist options converge in the surrounding areas, be it the end of Hwy 1 in Homer, or the terminus of the Alaska Railroad and access to the Exit Glacier, both in Seward.
4 Alaska Highway
Also known as the Alaska-Canada Highway (Alcan Highway), The Alaska Highway runs from Dawson Creek in British Columbia (Canada) through the Yukon Territory to Delta Junction near Fairbanks. It was built for military purposes in 1942, during WWII, in the record time of only eight months. But since the end of the war, the route has been the most important means of access by land to the Yukon Territory and southern Alaska, and a favorite with recreational vehicle travelers. The highway passes through Whitehorse, Canada before crossing the international border into Alaska and ending in Delta Junction. Motels, shops, and gas stations lies at intervals of 30-50 miles.
5 University of Alaska Museum of the North
Located in Fairbanks, the University of Alaska Museum of the North offers more than one million historical artifacts and natural history pieces. The permanent collection includes ethnological items made and used by indigenous groups, a fine arts collection that focuses mainly on Alaskan art, archaeological finds from prehistoric cultures, a bird collection, and paleontology specimens.
The building that houses the museum is also noteworthy. Designed by Joan Soranno, the white structure features interesting lines and curves intended to resemble the Alaskan landscape. Visitors are encouraged to explore the museum at their own pace, and larger groups can call ahead to book a customizable tour experience.
6 Inside Passage
The most popular way to visit the Inside Passage is to cruise through the fjords on large ships, charter boats, and private yachts, or to stop off the highway at Haines, Skagway, or Hyder. This section of southeast Alaska offers incredible scenery of glaciers, mountains, and ocean, and is home to an abundance of wildlife. The area is also inhabited by the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian peoples.
Along the coastal passage, the Tongass National Forest covers 17 million acres and includes islands, mountains, glaciers, ice fields, fjords, and waterfalls. Included in the forest is Prince of Wales Island, one of the largest islands in the US. Major towns along the route include Skagway with its Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, the once-chief town of Russian America Sitka, and Ketchikan, where stoic totems are on display at both Totem Bight State Historic Park and the Totem Heritage Center.
7 Dalton Highway
Accessible from Fairbanks and Anchorage, the Dalton Highway stretches over 400 miles into Alaska's Far North region, eventually reaching the outpost of Prudhoe Bay. Built adjacent and in conjunction with the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, the road is extremely remote, rugged, and not well-traveled outside of oil-field workers. Well-prepared sightseers have an incentive to navigate the lonely highway, though, with both Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge lining the roadside.
At the northern end of the route, the Dalton Highway crosses into the Arctic Circle, where the summer solstice brings 24 hours of daylight and the winter means 24 hours of darkness. Driving a personal vehicle isn't the only choice to experience the Arctic Circle, and frequent bus and plane tours depart from Fairbanks and Anchorage. A popular reason to visit this northern latitude is the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights, which appear on many nights from September to Mid-April. Joining an aurora tour can help keep sightseers warm in this frigid season.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Fairbanks
8 Alaska Native Heritage Center
Offering more than just a look into the lives and values of Alaska's 11 major cultural groups, the Alaska Native Heritage Center provides hands-on interaction with music, people, and art. Located just outside Anchorage, the Heritage Center includes The Gathering Place for Alaska Native dancing and storytelling and the Hall of Cultures, filled with exhibits and local vendors displaying handmade crafts and works of art. Also on the grounds, the scenic Lake Tiulana is surrounded by traditional dwellings of Alaska Natives. Though the sightseeing attraction is located out of downtown, there is a summer-season shuttle from the modern Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center.
Address: 8800 Heritage Center Dr, Anchorage
9 Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve is the largest and most magnificent of Alaska's sprawling national parks, with nine of the 16 highest peaks in the United States. This grandiose mountain region on the frontier with Canada contains numerous glaciers, lakes, and mountain streams and is home to a rich variety of wildlife. It is superb country for climbers, walkers, and water sports enthusiasts. And the park's Kennecott Mines National Historic Landmark gives insight into the one-time mill town with barely preserved heritage buildings and abandoned mines.
10 Iditarod National Historic Trail
Alaska's only National Scenic Trail, the Iditarod National Historic Trail consists of a network of trails totaling more than 2,300 miles between Nome, on the Bering Strait, and Seward, near Anchorage. Originally used by ancient hunters and later by gold prospectors, the trail is now used, and best known, for the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Extensive landscapes surround the entire route, offering beautiful views of mountains, glaciers, and wildlife. Although it is primarily a winter trail, hikers do use sections during the summer months including the popular Crow Pass Trail within Chugach State Park.
11 Seward, Alaska
The journey to Seward is equally as alluring as the small town itself. To reach the community south of Anchorage, visitors travel by way of the Seward Highway. Here, along the shoreline of Turnagain Arm, stretches of the rugged Chugach State Park meet the saltwater. Or tourists can take the scenic Alaska Railroad. Beside the appeal of the town's excellent Alaska SeaLife Center, Seward is a base for exploring Kenai Peninsula attractions, such as Exit Glacier, and area fjords by boat.
Departing from Kenai Peninsula, avid wildlife watchers head to the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge, established to protect the Kodiak bear and other rare animals.
12 Totem Bight State Historic Park
In 1938 the US Forest Services began a project to salvage, reconstruct, and create totem poles - a tradition that was dying out. Funds were used to hire carvers from among the older generations, and abandoned totem poles were restored or recreated by these craftsmen. In the process of this work, they were able to pass on their skills to younger community members.
Fifteen poles were erected in Ketchikan's Totem Bight State Historic Park, now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Also on the site is a recreated clan house from the early 19th century. There are more heritage totem poles and local details available at the town's Totem Heritage Center.
13 Mendenhall Glacier
Located just 12 miles northwest of the state capital and accessible by road, the Mendenhall Glacier snakes down from the 1,500-square mile Juneau Icefield to touch the shores of a small lake. The Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center looks out over both the glacier and the iceberg-dotted waters, while trails venture along the shore to roaring Nugget Falls, as well as the impressive ice mass. Rafting and kayaking trips allow visitors to float among the bergs. Wildlife such as black bears, porcupines, and beavers are commonly spotted while exploring this dazzling blue landscape.
Location: 12 miles northwest of Juneau
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Juneau
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- 9 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Juneau
14 Alaska Railroad
Noted as the "Backbone of the Last Frontier," the Alaska Railroad is a prominent part of Alaska's history and a vital transportation option still today. Extending from Seward to Fairbanks, this railroad helped develop Anchorage from a tent town into what it is today, and the line played an important shipping role in World War II. Today, the Alaska Railroad is owned by the state and shuttles more than 500,000 passengers each year. Popular destinations along the route include the Chugach National Forest, Anchorage, and Denali National Park & Preserve. The Alaska Railroad offers a variety of routes, services, and special event rides including backcountry ski packages and a kids' Halloween Train.
15 Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park
Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park maintains lovely restored buildings in the Skagway historic district to commemorate the 1897-98 Gold Rush. Visitors can attempt to hike the 33-mile-long Chilkoot Trail, which begins at Taiya River Bridge and commemorates the path and struggles of past gold seekers. Visitors can also spend time exploring the on-site museum and visitor center.
The White Pass & Yukon Route Railway leaves from Skagway, climbing up to White Pass at a 2,865-foot elevation. The depot, one of Alaska's oldest, houses the visitor center.