Land of the midnight sun, bears, moose, 100,000 glaciers and remote areas only reachable by plane or boat, Alaska will take you on an adventure to places that will leave you with a longer bucket list than you came with. After traveling there for the past few years, I have a pretty solid idea of the best summer activities in Alaska!
As a well known tourist destination in the summer, Alaska takes some planning. She’s not somewhere you can just wing it – there are a lot of outdoor activities and excursions that absolutely require you to book well in advance. Even so, there is still plenty that you don’t have to reserve!
This article contains the most valuable, bang for your buck, experiences for your first time to Alaska. Like I said, you will leave with an even longer bucket list, therefore these are what I consider the “must do’s” for Alaska first timers whether you get them all done or not!
First things first: there are things you need to be aware of when traveling to Alaska, especially in bear season. Read about those here so you don’t put yourself or others in danger and enjoy your vacation in one piece!
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I hope you fill up your itinerary with all of these amazing things to do. Don’t forget to put this on Pinterest while you’re planning!
Weather & Timing– Alaska has wet Springs and harsh (but wonderlandly beautiful) Winters. The best time to visit is Mid May-September. June & July are the most beautiful with lush green forests, blooming fireweed and blueberry picking! Keep in mind it doesn’t get dark here so bring an eye mask to be able to sleep when camping!
Hotel & Auto Reservations – This is not a drill: book your accommodation and car rental ahead of time!!!!!! Alaska is a VERY popular cruise destination, resulting in higher rates and less rental availability the closer you get to your date of arrival. Book. Ahead. I recommend booking 4+ months in advance, heavy on the “+”.
I always have luck using Booking.com, they have a great rewards program and since I’ve been on the Genius Level 2, I get discounts and rewards. I’ve used them for the past five or so years and I’d say about 95% of the time they have the best rates. Check out availability below.
Food – Compared to the lower 48, the food is slightly more expensive, but not much more/the same as, the West coast. Everything here is imported, Alaska has slim to no farms at all. Make sure your accommodation has breakfast included, or a kitchen to make your own food if local eats aren’t within your budget.
Must pick up when you get to Alaska – If traveling in the Summer, bear spray is a non-negotiable unless you live life on the wilder, more The Revenant side. You can pick them up when you get there (if they aren’t sold out already) along with a bear bell. This is literally just a large jingle bell that clips to your backpack/belt loop, whichever. You’ll need bug spray as mosquitos are strong any time between June and August. Natives were saying recently that Deet just wasn’t working. I opted for a store-bought “OIL OF” (that’s important) lemongrass and eucalyptus. They didn’t bother me AT ALL and I walked through some thick waves of them.
With hundreds of thousands of miles of land, the second tallest mountain in the world and holding more than half of the U.S.’s national park lands, hiking is a no brainer. From easy to incredibly difficult, you can find a trail that suits your style without sacrificing views!
When you arrive, make sure you download All Trails, my favorite trail app. Hikers from all over the world post and record their hikes and reviews/photos.
A few of my favorite hikes to get you started: Mount Baldy – Eagle River Thunderbird Falls – Eagle River Twin Peaks Trail – Eklutna Lake Ptarmigan Creek Trail to Ptarmigan Lake – Outside of Seward Lost Lake Trail – Seward (pictured) Matanuska Glacier – Chugach Mountains Flat Top – Anchorage Kincaid Park trails – Anchorage Exit Glacier – Seward
2. Berry Picking
Raspberries, salmonberries, blueberries – all of these are a staple to your experience in Alaska. Grab a basket, your buddy, a Wild North adventure beer and head to these spots near Anchorage for some berries!
Drive 2.5 hours south of Anchorage to Seward (if there’s not obnoxious construction). This is my favorite town in Alaska. The Chugach Mountains nestle up against Resurrection Bay – it makes just standing there worth the visit! If you came to Alaska to catch fish, you’re in the right place. During the early summer, the famous salmon run is happening, state wide. There’s TONS of locations for that. In Seward, take a charter boat and get in on the Halibut and Yelloweye Rockfish, or go snagging!
4. Whale watching
When it’s April – September in Southcentral Alaska, Seward will be your hub for most ocean adventures. Resurrection Bay is home to Kenai Fjords National Park, which tour boat companies cruise through for their whale watching and kayaking/glacier/overnight camping tours. Kenai Fjords Tours and Miller’s Landing are my favorite companies! Lots of the resorts/hotels work with these companies to give their guests the ultimate Southcentral Alaska experience. Check with your hotel for deals or offers, or use this website to book excursions (I used them all throughout Ireland and loved the experience – read about it here)!
This is a must. It’s prime weather for camping, even if the mosquitos are bad, just wear good bug spray. Don’t forget, “OIL OF” lemongrass and eucalyptus, or Deet if it’s working that season, is a great product and recommended by the locals. You can backpack and camp or pick a reservation somewhere using The Dyrt, Hipcamp or Campspot, Recreation.gov (great for well-known camp sites that the state operates), Reserve America. There are so, so many options!
My personal favorite camping spot I’ve ever experienced is on Thumb Cove, Resurrection Bay. Take a boat out through Millers Landing and camp overnight! Seward has a big campground in the middle of town if you don’t want to stray far from your base, or Kenai Lake about 20 minutes outside of Seward. Girdwood, Anchorage and anywhere in between Girdwood and Seward have amazing locations with even more picturesque views of that glacier-blue water.
This location is on Resurrection Bay, we used Miller’s Landing to get there.
6. Helicopter Tours
To see Alaska in all her glory, take a helicopter tour! You’ll be able to see ice fields and glaciers from above, and might even get a glimpse of Denali if you didn’t on your flight in. From flightseeing, to landing on a glacier and walking around to meeting up for a dog sled or snowshoeing excursion, there are options for everyone! Alaska Helicopter Tours is a great option, check out their Instagram and see all their tours on their website here.
7. Glaciers in South Central Alaska
Everywhere you go there will be a glacier somewhere nearby. Driving down the Seward Highway you’ll see quite a few up close or in the distance! You could take a glacier cruise in Seward with KFT or hike up to one (Exit Glacier, Biron Glacier, and many many more!), or take a guided glacier walk in Matanuska! If you want to head out into the water and see some more off the grid glaciers, tour companies like KFT and Miller’s Landing do glacier tours of all sorts. Check them out and support local!
8. Experience Whittier
The “Gateway to the Prince William Sound” is quite the interesting town. Once a military operation site in WWII, specifically because of the cloud coverage (perfect for hiding a port city), is now a fishing, glacier and hiking haven. “It’s always shittier in Whittier” was coined for a reason. There will almost never not be clouds hanging over this quirky town. Every 30 minutes, the tunnel into the town opens up ONE way, so time your entry and exit accordingly! The schedule is online.
There’s a beautiful hike and mossy green bay outlook to check out – I highly recommend taking half a day to explore this town!
The unique entrance to Whittier
9. Water sports
Water sports are different here. Kayaking means floating next to small icebergs and chunks of glacier while looking at a giant fjord in Kenai Fjords National Park. At the same time, a whale is breaching and a bald eagle is flying over your head. You could also take a SUP on the plethora of lakes, like Eklutna (who also has kayak rentals for about $30-40 if I remember correctly) or raft down the glacier fed Nenana River in Denali with one of the tour organizers!
Check out some of these excursions near Resurrection Bay:
*Glacier water is not your average water, it can be dangerous and fatal if you don’t practice proper safety protocol. People can activate hypothermia after 5-7 minutes after exposure and make it very difficult to swim and function properly. Wear your life vest and understand your surroundings and safety procedures. Listen to what your guides tell you!
Nenana Rafting even recommends travel insurance – I highly recommend World Nomads, I use it every time I make a big trip with some risk involved (honestly, every trip is a risk especially since 2020 when you have a 50/50 chance of having your trip cancelled!) Click the World Nomads image below to insure your trip! There’s lots of options.
10. Wildlife viewing
This is kind of a no brainer but there are designated, guaranteed areas to see amazing wildlife and that’s Potter Marsh Bird Sanctuary, Alaska Sealife Center and Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. Potter Marsh, on the edge of Anchorage, is a world renowned bird watching marsh where at least 130 bird species have been spotted here. It’s a bird watcher’s paradise – professionals from all over the world come to Anchorage specifically for Potter Marsh.
AWCC is at the end of the Turnagain Arm, about an hour from Anchorage. They have brown and black bears, moose, caribou, elk, wolves, wood bison (which they brought back from extinction: read more here) and so many more! It’s $17 as of this writing for a day pass. Allow yourself extra time for travel, there is always construction which is why it can take upwards of an hour and a half to get there from Anchorage.
Alaska Sealife Center in Seward is dedicated to researching and rescuing wildlife and educating people on the importance of the Pacific Ocean’s marine life. They work tirelessly to rescue and rehabilitate injured or orphaned sea life, often including otters, walrus, sealions and seals. Stop by their gift shop around the holidays and get an ornament painted by a puffin or walrus – they make for a pretty thoughtful souvenir!
11. Denali National Park & Talkeetna
Kind of two separate areas but on your way to Denali National Park, stop in Talkeetna! It’s a wonderful, single street town on the river with great food and that special Alaskan atmosphere. Camp by the river if you want to stay overnight or get a room at one of their few accommodations.
Denali National Park surprises some people because of this fact: measured from base to summit, Denali is taller than Mount Everest. On the drive up, stop at Denali Viewpoint South, it’s a gorgeous panoramic overlook of “The Great One” and the other peaks of The Alaska Range.
Check the Denali National Park website for information on accessing the park and tour bus schedules. Cars are only able to go so far, and you have to win the lottery (a term amongst park goers for limited access points in popular National Parks) for a road pass. You have about a 1 in 7 chance of being drawn, so make plans accordingly.
12. Take the Alaska Railroad
I know a few people that work for this company and it’s their main source of income for the year! The railroad runs from May through September. Alaska relies on the tourism industry so supporting local tourism industries is essential to Alaska’s economy! The railroad typically picks up cruise-goers that land in Seward and take the train up to Fairbanks and many places in between – it’s your choice – but you can buy a ticket even if you aren’t a cruise guest. You’ll see glaciers, wildlife and epic scenery you just can’t see from above or in a car.
13. Guided Tours
Often times this is the only way to see some of the unique and serene landscapes and wildlife in Alaska. Kenai Fjords Tours operates many different experiences in the Kenai Fjords National Park. This park includes quite a bit of Resurrection Bay – allowing for views of fjords, glaciers, otters, whales, dolphins, sealions, puffins, etc.
14. Bear Viewing – The Ultimate Alaska Bucket List Item
This is the ultimate Alaskan experience. It’s not cheap, but worth every penny because it benefits the tourism industry which benefits the wildlife. The guides are so informative and really brings you up close and personal with conservation and wildlife. Alaska prides itself on keeping it as wild as possible, allowing only a few people to go on excursions at a time. You’ll be able to see bears catching salmon during the salmon run, a bucket list for any Alaska vacation and intimate experience with nature. Check out this website for more information on where you can go and how to get there!
Graciously provided by Brent Jones – Kodiak Island
I hope Alaska is everything you dream of and I am happy to be a part of planning your great Alaskan adventure. Shoot me an email or comment below if you have further questions or suggestions for other readers!