Bereft of sun-loungers and ocean-front promenades, Alaska redefines the traditional image of a beach. Here, in the land of humongous glaciers and polar bears, palm trees are mock-ups made from whale baleen, golden sands really do contain gold and, if you want to go swimming, you may have to break a hole in the ice first.
But, before you write off Alaska’s beach credentials, consider that the 49th state has more coastline than the entire Lower 48 states combined. The beaches of the Last Frontier state are places to commune with nature and get active – we promise you won't miss the sunbathing!
Here's a guide to the best beaches in Alaska.
Go gold panning on Golden Sands Beach, Nome
Nome, on Alaska’s chilly western shoreline, was the hub of a frenzied 1899 gold rush (Klondike’s unruly sequel) when hunks of the precious metal could be found quite literally lying on the beach. While the big fortunes are long gone and Wyatt Earp and his gang of gold rush gofers are now fading ghosts, Golden Sands remains open to recreational mining.
On long summer days, amateur miners set up temporary camps along the stretch of shore running a mile east of town along Front St. Some pan or open a sluice box on the beach itself; other more serious prospectors rig up sluices and dredging equipment on pontoon boats anchored offshore.
If you fancy chancing your arm, practically every gift shop and hardware store in town can sell you a black plastic gold pan. Striking it rich is not all feverish fantasy – in 1984, a beach-combing visitor uncovered a 1.29oz nugget at the eastern end of the seawall that was worth well over $1000.
Ride the surf at Cannon Beach, Yakutat
Endowed with soft glacial silt sand and battered by gloriously surfable waves, this windswept beach runs for 10 miles near the isolated settlement of Yakutat on Alaska’s "Lost Coast." Named for the remnants of US military hardware left over from WWII, the beach is bookended by two naval gun batteries and scattered with other wartime debris, including an old landing craft.
These days, the biggest threat to your sandcastles is not the guns or the tides, but the huge brown bears that frequent the area – look out for their paw-prints in the sand and stay alert. Beyond the driftwood and military junk, tall grasses and thick coastal rainforest attract a plethora of birdlife.
Yakutat is considered Alaska’s best surfing hub and there's a small local surf scene and a friendly surf shop renting boards and highly necessary wetsuits.
Dip your toes in the Arctic Ocean on Barrow Beach, Utqiaġvik
There’s not a whole lot to do in frigid Utqiaġvik, aka Barrow, the most northerly settlement in the US, except grin and bear the weather, keep a close eye out for polar bears and dip in the Arctic Ocean. In fact, many visitors come here just so they can say they’ve paddled or plunged into the uncomfortably cold waters of the world’s most northerly sea.
The town’s dark-sand beach is usually accessed via a whalebone arch close to the Top of the World Hotel (the town’s coziest nook). You can stroll for a short distance along the northern rim of America to view umiaks (traditional kayaks), the giant jawbones of bowhead whales, fish-drying racks and Arctic pack ice, which floats like a jumbled jigsaw on the horizon even in July. Don’t wander too far beyond the town limits: polar bears prowl the surrounding tundra.
If you come in the height of summer, expect it to feel more like winter in New York and dress accordingly. If you’re considering coming in the winter, don’t – unless you're planning a pilgrimage to the setting for the 2007 vampire flick 30 Days of Night.
Spot wildlife on Lowell Point Beach, Seward
At this small beach, 3 miles south of Seward on the Kenai peninsula, you can sit on a log on the pebbly shores of Resurrection Bay and watch sea otters floating contentedly on their backs, while sea lions play in the surf and cruise boats glide past for an afternoon of glacier-viewing in Aialik Bay.
Safe, tranquil and walkable from Seward along an unpaved road, Lowell Point is a state recreation site and also the trailhead for the Tonsina Creek Trail, which connects to another beach a short walk to the south. In the lush Sitka spruce and hemlock forests that lie behind the shoreline, bald eagles congregate like pigeons in Central Park.
Cast your reel from Kenai Beach, City of Kenai
Few would claim that the City of Kenai is Alaska’s prettiest settlement, but this utilitarian oil town has an interesting quirk: it has a sweeping sandy beach, flanked by volcanic peaks and revered by fishing enthusiasts. It’s not just the sand that makes Kenai extraordinary; guarding the mouth of the Kenai River and lapped by the waters of Cook Inlet, the beach attracts hundreds of dip-net fishing enthusiasts in June and July, when migrating sockeye salmon fill the bay.
You can see these athletic fish jumping in and out of the water just yards from the shore as they head upriver by the thousand to spawn. Add in Frisbee throwers, picnickers and family reunions, and you’re looking at a full-on Alaskan beach party.
Kenai is probably best known for the views of conical Mount Redoubt across Cook Inlet. The 1989 eruption of this stratovolcano was the second costliest in US history (after the eruption of Mt St Helens in 1980). When incorporated into a fiery sunset, the broken crater is a sight to behold.
Go swimming at Rotary Beach, Ketchikan
You have to travel almost to the southernmost point in Alaska to find a beach where getting into the water doesn’t make you feel like running straight out again. Rotary Beach is Ketchikan’s Coney Island without the kitschy amusement parks. Locals come here at weekends to picnic, set up a barbecue and let the kids run wild in the water.
The area has great tide pools teeming with sea urchins, octopi and anemones. Credit for the warmish (by Alaskan standards) water goes to the cement causeway, which creates a protected pond regularly replenished by the tides of adjacent Nichol’s Passage.
Located 3.5 miles south of Ketchikan on the South Tongass Highway, the beach was once owned by a Norwegian miner, Martin Bugge, who staked a claim here in 1915. Colloquially, it’s still known as Bugge Beach.
Become an amateur paleontologist on Fossil Beach, Kodiak
Some 46 miles south of Kodiak City on the island of Kodiak, this remote beach is hemmed in by smooth cliffs and backed by a couple of diminutive lakes, and there are multiple reasons to visit. The beach was named for the fossils of ancient shells and vertebrates that can be picked up on the foreshore, dating back to the Neogene period, 20 million years ago.
Soccer-ball-sized concretions of fossils, sand and silt line the cliffs at either end of the beach. Pick your way carefully around the easternmost cliff at low tide and you’ll spot more fossils entombed in the sandstone. Head left up the hillside where the road ends and you'll reach a series of bunkers and the remains of a searchlight station on Narrow Cape left over from WWII.
While Kodiak is celebrated for its brown bears, Fossil Beach is better known for the herd of bison that roams the sandy expanses close to shore and sometimes blocks the road. Gray whales are often visible offshore (look for the spray from their blowholes) along with the occasional brave surfer.
Go beach-combing on Kincaid Beach, Anchorage
Anchorage’s best beach is nestled in a much-loved 1400-acre park on the western ‘nose’ of a rounded peninsula that juts into Cook Inlet. If you’re heading south from downtown on the perennially popular Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, this is where you’ll end up.
Unpaved side-trails wind down through rolling, forested hills to a clean sandy beach backed by dune-like bluffs. While it’s too cold to comfortably swim on Kincaid, beach-combing can throw up some surprising souvenirs, including prized glass fishing floats, lost decades before by fishing boats operating off the coast of Japan.
Widescreen views of mountains and water are marred only by the periodic roar of incoming jets (the airport is nearby). Fire Island guards the teal-blue waters of Cook Inlet and, on a clear day, it’s possible to make out the snowy humps of Mt Susitna and 20,310ft (6,190m) Denali, America’s loftiest peak.
Discover Alaska Native history at Petroglyph Beach, Wrangell
If you thought Alaska's history started with the Klondike gold rush, you’re out by several millennia. For proof, come to this boulder-strewn beach just north of Wrangell on the southeastern panhandle, where primitive Tlingit rock carvings have resisted the forces of time and weather for thousands of years.
Protected by a state historic park, the beach has rocky outcrops and boulders bearing some 50 faint etchings, many of them resembling spirals and faces. A wooden viewing deck by the entrance has interpretive boards explaining the main theories about their origins and meaning. Come at low tide to see the best selection. You can also view some more recent wrecked fishing vessels at the north end of the beach.
Grab a bite to eat and go shopping on Homer Spit, Homer
This elongated finger of land – known colloquially as "the Spit" – is a 4.5-mile sandbar jutting into Kachemak Bay near Homer on the Kenai peninsula. It's the most un-Alaskan of Alaska’s beaches, doing a good impersonation of a New England coastal resort. The Spit pulsates all summer with diners tucking into fish and chips and cruise ship passengers inflicting irreversible damage on their credit cards in gaudy gift shops.
The hub of local activity is the small boat harbor which, with more than 700 boats, is surprisingly large. Beachcombing, lighting bonfires, bald-eagle watching and joining the recently docked fishers chewing the fat at the Salty Dawg Saloon are all favorite activities.
You can go clam collecting at Mud Bay on the east side of the Spit, or just walk along the pebbly gray-brown sand admiring the stilt-supported buildings and the noble peaks of the surrounding mountains.