Everybody is a kid in Alaska. Whether it’s a sitting by a stream full of bright red salmon or watching a bald eagle winging its way across an open sky, encounters with nature’s wonders will captivate five-year-olds just as much as their parents.
Best Regions for Kids
- Anchorage & Around
Packed with parks, urban salmon streams, bike paths and plenty of artificial amusements. Head south to ride the Alyeska Tram or take the whistle-stop train out to Spencer Glacier for unique ways into the backcountry.
- Kenai Peninsula
Ice-blue rivers for floating and fishing, boat tours that cruise right up to calving glaciers and sea-lion rookeries, and wilderness cabins for roughing it – but not too much.
- Denali & the Interior
A combination of intensely wild lands and the distractions of ‘Glitter Gulch’ or Fairbanks, the Interior entertains with big animals, huge mountains, hot springs and even an amusement park. Plus there’s pizza readily available.
Gold mines and glaciers, whales and salmon, hiking trails and boat tours: the Southeast has a little bit of everything but on an Alaskan-sized scale.
Alaska for Kids
The best that Alaska has to offer cannot be found in stuffy museums or amusement parks filled with heart-pounding rides. It’s outdoor adventure, wildlife and scenery on a grand scale, attractions and activities that will intrigue the entire family – whether you’re a kid or a parent.
If your family enjoys the outdoors, Alaska can be a relatively affordable place once you’ve arrived. A campsite is cheap compared to a motel room, and hiking, backpacking and wildlife-watching are free. Even fishing is free for children, since anglers under 16 don’t need a fishing license in Alaska.
The key to any Alaskan hike is to match it to your child’s ability and level of endurance. It’s equally important to select one that has an interesting aspect to it – a glacier, ruined gold mine, waterfalls or a remote cabin to stop for lunch.
Paddling with children involves a greater risk than hiking due to the frigid temperature of most water in Alaska. You simply don’t want to tip at any cost. Flat, calm water should be the rule. Needless to say, all rentals should come with paddles and life jackets that fit your child. If in doubt, hire a guide to go along with you.
Children marvel at watching wildlife in its natural habitat but may not always have the patience for a long wait before something pops out of the woods. In July and August, however, you can count on seeing a lot of fish in a salmon stream, a wide variety of marine life in tidal pools, and bald eagles where the birds are known to congregate. Marine wildlife boat tours work out better than many park shuttles because, let’s face it, a boat trip is a lot more fun than a bus ride. Nature tours that are done in vans are also ideal for children as they stop often and usually include short walks.
Like elsewhere in the USA, most Alaskan restaurants welcome families and tend to cater to children, with high chairs, kids' menus of smaller sizes and reduced prices, and waiters quick with a rag when somebody spills their drink. Upscale restaurants where an infant would be frowned upon are limited to a handful of places in Anchorage. Salmon bakes are a fun, casual and colorful way to introduce Alaska’s seafood, especially since they often come with corn and potatoes – familiar items at any barbecue.
- Flattop Mountain Trail Anchorage’s most popular family day hike.
- Mt Dewey Trail Short grunt up steps and over boardwalks to the top of a wooded hill above Wrangell.
- Perseverance Trail A path into the heart of Juneau’s mining history.
- Park Entrance Area Around the entrance to Denali National Park lies an assortment of short, safe trails, including the Horseshoe Lake Trail leading to an oxbow lake where moose are often seen.
For a Rainy Day
- Anchorage Museum Tons of stuff for kids, including an Imaginarium Discovery Center and planetarium.
- Alaska Sealife Center Diving seabirds, swimming sea lions and a tide-pool touch tank are found in Seward’s marine research center.
- Dimond Park Aquatic Center Flume slides, bubble benches, tumble buckets and interactive water sprays in Juneau.
- Sitka Sound Science Center Five aquariums, three touch tanks and a working hatchery.
- Pioneer Park Train rides, salmon bakes and genuine pioneer history entertain the offspring in Fairbanks.
- Mendenhall Glacier Fascinating and easily accessible natural feature that's capable of dropping the jaws of any age group.
- Sitka Sound Sheltered waters, plenty of wooded islands and a good local guiding company make this one of Alaska's best family sea-kayaking spots.
- Petroglyph Beach Search for ancient rock carvings and sea life at low tide in Wrangell.
When to Go
Summer is by far the best time to visit: the odds of spotting wildlife are good, salmon are swimming upstream, hiking trails are free of snow and the weather is as good as it’s going to get. Crowds and lines are rarely a problem, unless everyone is stopped and staring at the same large mammal, so traveling during high season doesn’t pose too much of a problem crowd-wise. Festivals abound during the summer, and most are family friendly.
A lot of Alaska's tourist-oriented businesses close down between October and April.
Note that between May and September you’re going to have to deal with bugs. A lot of them.
Many independently owned accommodations and lodges in small towns won’t offer amenities such as rollaway beds or cribs, but chain motels will. If you absolutely need a crib at night, either check in advance or bring your own travel crib.
Sleeping under the stars – or Alaska’s midnight sun – can be a memorable experience and is easy on the budget. Numerous campgrounds are connected to the road system, which means you won’t have to lug heavy backpacks around. For toddlers and children younger than five years, the best way to escape into the wilderness is to rent a wilderness cabin. Many are reached by floatplane, an exciting start to any adventure for a child. The rustic cabins offer secure lodging in a remote place where children often have a good chance of seeing wildlife or catching fish. Cabins usually sleep between four and eight.
Many national car companies have safety seats for toddlers and young children for about $10 extra per day. Unfortunately, the smaller, independent agencies away from the airports, which generally offer better rental rates, often do not have car seats.
One of the best ways to see Alaska with toddlers or young children is on a cruise ship. The larger the ship, the more family amenities and activities it will offer. Disney cruises serve Alaska. Smaller cruise ships, those that hold fewer than 200 people, do not work as well as they are usually geared more toward adventurous couples. But the Alaska Marine Highway System is well suited to families. Children have the space to move around, and large ferries such as the MV Columbia, MV Kennicott, MV Malaspina and MV Matanuska feature both current movies and ranger programs on marine life, birds and glaciers.
On the Alaska Railroad children can walk between passenger carriages and spend time taking in the scenery from special domed viewing cars.
For all-round information and advice, check out Lonely Planet’s Travel with Children.
What to Pack
You’ll be able to find almost anything that you forgot to pack in the larger towns. The most important thing to remember is layers – you simply can’t pack warm enough. High-quality outerwear, especially rain gear, is important on any hike or camping trip. Don’t forget a hat. Finally, sunscreen and insect repellent are indispensable.