Alaska: the name is a symbol of wild, untamed, natural beauty and expansive, seemingly never-ending landscapes yearning to be explored.
"The last frontier" isn’t simply a license plate motto but a way of life in North America’s crown jewel of wilderness. For those seeking to find their spirit through exploration, epic hikes and outdoorsy fun, there are few comparisons. Even the campfires are going to be big and go late under the midnight sun – one of the best times to visit. Given the scope of how big Alaska is, a few trips by land and sea are part of the experience in this most mighty of wild places.
With so much ground to cover, here are the best places to visit in Alaska.
Best place for big scenery and hikes
The High One is North America’s highest peak, grandest of grand and tallest of tall. The name Denali refers to the peak itself, the region and one of the grandest set of parks in the world. There's good reason the peak itself is the stuff of legend, most notably its height. At 20,310ft (6194 m), starting at almost sea level, Denali is the tallest mountain in the world, measured from its base to summit. On a clear day – or even a foggy one – the backdrop of this peak and the surrounding wildlife-filled Taiga northern boreal forest through the Alaska Range makes for an explorer’s paradise with countless hikes and journeys awaiting the well-equipped traveler. The park’s bus system is a great family option, making for an interpretive wildlife safari in the shadow of the park’s namesake mountain.
Local tip: Give yourself multiple days to ensure mountain views; it can be elusive due to the weather. For backpackers, check out the backcountry office and plan out an unforgettable trip in the national park. Another less crowded option is to utilize the trail system of Denali State Park next door, which has more easy-access campgrounds for those using vehicles.
2. Wrangell St Elias National Park
Best place for a wilderness experience
Grand and expansive, Wrangell St Elias is the continent’s second-highest peak and largest wilderness preserve. Far less developed or visited than other iconic wilderness parks, it's home to the funky mountain folk town of McCarthy. Remnants of the bygone century’s homesteading and copper mining history, this wild park provides countless opportunities for exploration.
Local tip: Bring a tire kit and honor rental car policies, which state you cannot drive there, as the road is full of nails from its days as a railroad track.
3. Glacier Bay National Park
Best place for big ice
Accessible on land by small expedition ships and independent boats, Glacier Bay provides mysterious and wondrous views of the frosty forested world of ice. Explorer and writer John Muir said it best in his 1915 book Travels in Alaska: "To the lover of pure wildness Alaska is one of the most wonderful countries in the world...it seems as if surely we must at length reach the very paradise of the poets, the abode of the blessed."
4. Gates of the Arctic National Park
Best place for treks above the Arctic Circle
Arguably the most difficult national park to reach in the US, Gates of the Arctic is the home of masses of migrating caribou. For the ultimate off-grid destination for those with time to face the elements to explore after a relatively short flight in a bush plane. Typically, not for first-time Alaska travelers, the difficulty in reaching it is half the reward for the experience of being so far above the Arctic Circle.
5. Katmai National Park
Best place for bear viewing
Alaska's most iconic species is the coastal brown bear. Katmai is home to the famed Brooks Camp, host of Fat Bear Week, when the world votes on their favorite bear as they prepare for the harsh winter ahead. Many bars around Alaska show livestreams of the bears feasting in the late summer, but what's even better is getting up close on a ranger-guided hike just above the bears on the boardwalks – it rates as a fondest memory among many a photographer and wildlife lover.
Best for mountain scenery
Famed, frigid in winter and warm in every way in summer, Alaska’s coolest little village of Talkeetna doesn’t disappoint, serving as a basecamp of scenic flights up around Denali and the logistics-ville for expedition climbers. Denali Brewing Company, one of the most popular breweries in the state, is the place to go after a day hiking, biking, or enjoying the mellow convergence of several rivers that give scenic float trips a whole new meaning under the shadow of the mighty interior mountain range.
Best coastal town off the beaten path
A Viking longboat in the middle of this quaint fishing port says it all. Petersburg is ideally placed by several straits to see migrating humpback whales up close and personal. Accessible by sea via the Alaskan Marine Highway or as a stop on a small ship expedition-style cruise, this town boasts fishing possibilities that rival more well-known or road-accessible places.
Best place visited by large cruise ships
Ketchikan, the southernmost entrance for the Inside Passage, might be one the wettest towns in North America, but it doesn’t disappoint. A stone’s throw away from Misty Fjords National Monument, this seaside town is surprisingly mild. Surrounded by lush coastal temperate rainforests, striking granite cliffs and mystic journeys deep into winding, rocky fjords with skyscrapers of stone above, this is a perfect place to start a kayaking, climbing, or small-boat trip into the surrounding wilderness.
Local tip: Totem poles dominate throughout the town and make a great walkable tour to see a classic example of indigenous Tlingit culture.