Travel

Why you should see Alaska

A brown bear in Katmai National Park in Alaska

The sheer scale of the Last Frontier ignites a primal sense of awe. Alaska’s “bigness” puts the Lone Star State to shame. More than twice the area of Texas, Alaska lays claim to 17 of the 20 tallest mountains in the U.S., including the 20,310-foot Denali, the loftiest summit in North America.

Great icecaps and tidewater glaciers, ethereal volcanic landscapes such as Katmai National Park’s Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes and the exquisitely conical Mount Shishaldin stratovolcano in the Aleutian Islands, braided rivers, sand dunes, and trackless muskeg. The vast and lightly peopled terrain of Alaska takes the breath away, and the state’s human story is just as fascinating, from the diverse and vibrant indigenous cultures—Tlingit, Haida, Gwich'in, Inupiat, Aleut, and others—to a Euro-American history encompassing everything from Russian sea-otter hunters to gold-panning “sourdoughs.”

"Alaska is a great destination to travel to because it’s a reminder of how beautiful our country is," says Greta Goorsky, a travel product specialist with AAA. "Alaska is also a great destination because it catches the interest of people of all ages. From children to adults, there is something in Alaska for everyone."

With so many choices, advice from a travel advisor is invaluable. Here are just a few of Alaska's highlights, plus insights from Greta, who has cruised Alaska from Juneau to Anchorage.

AAA employee Greta Goorsky

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Greta Goorsky is here to share her tips and insights on Alaska. AAA can help you plan the perfect trip to Alaska, or wherever your dream vacation is. Contact a AAA travel advisor today, or visit a branch to meet with an advisor or take advantage of other travel services.

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Fast facts

Map of Alaska

 

The 49th state

Only Hawai‘i is "younger" than Alaska, which achieved statehood in 1959. The U.S. purchased the land from Russia in 1867, a $7.2 million deal mocked at the time as "Seward’s Folly" in reference to Secretary of State William H. Seward, who helped negotiate it.

Major communities

At about 32,000 residents, the state capital Juneau is the third-biggest city in Alaska, exceeded by Anchorage (nearly 300,000) and Fairbanks (a hair larger than the capital at close to 32,800). Smaller settlements include Sitka, Ketchikan, Valdez, and Seward along the southern coast; Unalaska in the Aleutian Islands; Nome on the Bering Sea; and Utqiagvik (formerly Barrow) on the North Slope.

Fun fact

Alaska may boast a lot of incredible wildlife, but it’s famously devoid of snakes—or perhaps almost devoid of them, as some speculate that (harmless) garter snakes reach the extreme southeast of the state.

What to see

A glacier calves at Glacier Bay

Glaciers cracking & calving

Alaska is host to a variety of glaciers; the most celebrated are the great tidewater glaciers sloughing out of southern Alaska’s coastal mountains directly into the sea. Glacier Bay is one of the premier places in Alaska (and the world) to see tidewater glaciers and occasional calving. Another spot is Portage Lake in the Chugach National Forest near Anchorage, where the Portage Glacier is a vigorous “calver.”

GRETA SAYS: Calving "doesn't happen every single time you're there. When I was there, I heard it but I didn't see a big chunk come down. But the crazy thing was just how loud it sounded; it was incredible to just listen to."

Flying over an Alaskan mountain range

Scenic flyovers of mountains

To truly appreciate the scale of Alaska’s great mountains, you’ve got to see them from the air. Scenic flyovers of the Alaska Range, the Saint Elias Mountains, the Kenai Mountains, the Chugach Mountains, the Brooks Range, and other mighty chains show off the chiseled peaks and glacial troughs in their full glory. The extreme remoteness and inaccessibility of most of Alaska’s high country makes such sightseeing flights all the more thrilling.

GRETA SAYS: "We flew over 5 different glaciers. It was just incredible to see because if you only see the front, you don't realize how far back they actually go and how grand they actually are. And while flying over we had a headset on that's telling you what you're seeing and the importance of what you're seeing."

A totem pole in Sitka, Alaska

Totem poles & Russian history at Sitka National Historical Park

The island town of Sitka has been home to one of the best collections of totem poles in the world for more than 100 years. Today, they're part of Sitka National Historical Park, along with the Russian Bishop's House, where visitors can learn about the Russian-American colonial period.

GRETA SAYS: The national park "has all these amazing totem poles and there's different routes, so even if you don't want to hike, there's a really easy walking path. It's also where I saw a bald eagle. Within this national park they have reserves where they have all sorts of enclosures for animals they're rehabbing."

Humpback whale breaching off Alaska

Whale-watching, Alaska-style

You can, of course, see great whales all over the world, but not many places offer such breathtaking backdrops for a spouting or breaching behemoth as Alaska. Seeing a humpback whale perform supersized acrobatics against the towering coastal mountains of the Gulf of Alaska and its inlets is a bucket-list experience. Besides looking for baleen whales and orcas in the Inside Passage, Glacier Bay, and Resurrection Bay, you can also often see belugas hunting salmon in the Cook Inlet during the summertime.

A moose in Denali National Park

Denali's wilderness

Easily one of the crown jewels of Alaska, Denali National Park & Preserve puts the beauty of the Alaska Range on full display. Besides the chance of glimpsing North America’s mightiest peak—the often-cloud-swirled Denali itself—the park offers some of the state's best wildlife-watching conditions. Alaska’s "Big 5"—gray wolves, grizzly bears, moose, caribou, and Dall sheep—roam the wide-open tundra flats and foothills, as do black bears, lynx, wolverine, red foxes, and a slew of smaller mammals and birds.

GRETA SAYS: Cloudy weather makes it hard to see Denali's rocky peak most days. If seeing the summit is important to you, July and early August offer clearer weather.

White Pass & Yukon Route train goes around a corner

The White Pass & Yukon Route out of Skagway

Soak up spectacular and rugged scenery on the White Pass & Yukon Route railway, which also transports you through a few dimensions of time. This train line linking Skagway in Alaska and Whitehorse in the Yukon territory (and crossing a stretch of British Columbia in the process) came about during the fabled days of the Klondike Gold Rush at the end of the 19th century.

Downtown Juneau from the air

Juneau's bustling streets

Alaska's capital lies along the beautiful Gastineau Channel at the foot of snowcapped mounts Roberts and Juneau. While the town is on the mainland, the surrounding terrain is so tough that it's only accessible by sea and air. Known for its breweries and coffee shops, its most famous attraction may be the Red Dog Saloon, a bar and burlesque venue that's been open since the gold rush days.

GRETA SAYS: "One really popular thing is the Mount Roberts Tramway. Every age group has really enjoyed that: kids because they think that it's cool going up, and adults because they like the idea—even if they're older—that they can get to a top of the mountain and have beautiful views without doing all the hiking."

Ready to explore Alaska?

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What to eat

Alaskan king crab legs

Alaska's natural bounty

Alaskan cuisine still features plenty of ingredients hunted, foraged, and fished from the backcountry bush to the fertile ocean depths. In the seafood department, that includes barbecue halibut and king crab (among the prized quarry featured in Discovery Channel’s popular Deadliest Catch documentary series). For an unforgettable taste of terrestrial Alaska, branch out with caribou chili, reindeer burgers, and moose steak.

Barbecued Alaska salmon

Alaskan salmon bake

You've probably had Alaskan salmon, but have you ever had it prepared the Alaskan way, glazed and grilled over a wood fire?

GRETA SAYS: "I tried the salmon in Juneau and it was fabulous. I didn't want to skip out on eating salmon in Alaska at a salmon bake where they glaze it and they do all these nice things. Whether you're in Fairbanks or you're in Juneau, there's always going to be a salmon bake option."

Where to stay & how to get around

A cruise liner sails into Glacier Bay

The benefits of cruising

Traveling by boat is easier than traveling over land. Your ship isn't just a means of transportation, it's a hotel that floats to your destinations—no packing and unpacking necessary. Water transportation also makes for more comfortable touring than over land, since many of the sights can be seen from the ship.

GRETA SAYS: A cruise is "the best way to see a lot of a beautiful state in a little bit of time. If you did it on your own, you'd be spending too much time at airports or on ferries. You really can't get to a lot of Alaska on your own, especially the destinations along the cruise routes, because you can't get to them by car. If you're wanting to do it on your own, you're needing 14 days, whereas if you go on a cruise, you can do it in 7 and see the same amount of things."

The city of Anchorage at night

Anchorage is Alaska's gateway by land

If you're planning an excursion on land, either as part of a cruise or by itself, Anchorage is a strong contender. It has plenty of attractions, such as Earthquake Park, where visitors can learn about the 1964 Good Friday earthquake, take in great views of the mountains, and maybe even see a moose. Major outdoor destinations like Denali National Park & Preserve and the Seward Peninsula are within driving distance. And if you're heading to any other major part of Alaska, there's likely a direct flight from Anchorage.

The view out of a plane window over mountains in Alaska

Getting around the state

Much of Alaska is roadless, accessible only by plane, boat, or foot—or, depending on the season, by dogsled or snowmobile (“snow machine” in local parlance). This includes the capital city, Juneau, which is only reachable by air or water. 

If you're traveling on a cruise, this won't present much of a challenge. Otherwise, air travel is usually the easiest way to get from place to place, as even relatively remote places like Utqiavigk and Nome have regular commercial service.

Other destinations to add to your trip

The Seattle skyline

Seattle, Washington

GRETA SAYS: Seattle is a great pre-cruise destination because it's a busy city. "If you wait to see it at the end of your cruise, you're just wanting to go home and find your own bed. The thing about Seattle is, people love their coffee, so that's the headquarters of Starbucks and you can do a tour. Seattle has a really good transportation system in the downtown area. It's a big up-and-coming city because of all the companies that are moving there, so there's plenty to do—lots of local restaurants, lots of craft breweries. It's definitely a little bit more laid back and relaxed."

Inner Harbour in Victoria, British Columbia

Victoria, British Columbia

British Columbia's capital city is famous for its natural beauty, European-inspired architecture, and picturesque Inner Harbour.

GRETA SAYS: "Victoria has a European touch. Every store that you walk past is very welcoming and wants you to experience their culture and their country. We just walked throughout the town and saw neighborhoods. It was fun to actually talk to people who lived in Victoria; I really felt like I was in their culture and knowing what their day-to-day life was. They also have a beautiful coastline, which we really enjoyed walking past."

Dawson City

Dawson City & Whitehorse in Canada's Yukon

Dawson City was the center of the Klondike Gold Rush, with gold first struck there in 1896 at Bonanza Creek. Today, visitors can visit historic buildings such as the Downtown and Eldorado hotels, and a replica of author Jack London's cabin. The Klondike Spirit paddlewheeler runs daily sightseeing trips on the Yukon River.

In Whitehorse, you can raft on the mighty Yukon or walk beside it on the tamer Millennium Trail. Seasonal attractions include migrating trumpeter swans March through April at the Swan Haven Interpretive Centre, and the salmon run in late July to early August at Whitehorse Power Dam, which features one of the world's longest wooden fish ladders.

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Explore Alaska cruise packages

Our powerful booking tool lets you search packages by date, cruise line, cruise duration, departure point, itinerary, and more—you can even search by the exact cruise ship you'll like to sail. Pick a package to see what AAA benefits are available, what the floorplan is, and what each kind of cabin looks like.

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AAA can help put together the right trip for you

Navigating all the options is no small task when considering a trip to Alaska. A travel advisor can help find the itinerary that's right for you, whatever your culinary, historical, artistic, and leisure goals. Get a AAA travel advisors help planning your personalized Alaska adventure by calling our dedicated travel advisor phone line, submitting a request for assistance online, or finding a AAA branch near you.

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