The rules of the Lower 48 have never applied to Alaska. Mountains are taller. Waters are bluer. National parks are grander, summer days are longer, and wildlife is wilder. When you’re here, even time works differently: Within an expansive summer afternoon, you’ll fit in what feels like months’ worth of memories and experiences, while later in the season the northern lights will make you wish the nights would never end.
But no matter how much time you have on your hands — and no matter how many times you’ve been — any trip will be the “trip of a lifetime” in Alaska. Whether you’ve got little more than a long weekend or a lot more than a week, here’s how you can make it happen now.
Note: Please contact all locations prior to visiting to confirm hours of operation and safety guidelines.
The Southeast region of the 49th State, dominated by the Inside Passage, strings together more than 1,000 islands as well as countless fjords, coves, and bays along the Pacific. With no roads connecting its hub city, Juneau, to the rest of the state — yes, that’s how rugged the region is — this glacially marked natural masterpiece comes purpose-built for unforgettable adventure.
You may be thinking it’s impossible to squeeze a trip to Alaska into what basically amounts to a long weekend. But by focusing on a single region and taking advantage of shorter-than-you’d-expect flights to Juneau from many locations in the Western US and beyond, you absolutely can fit your much-anticipated Alaska trip into 4-5 days. Here’s how!
Welcome to Juneau! Now prepare to be awed...
Welcome to Juneau! Now prepare to be awed: The Juneau Icefield hangs 2,000 feet above downtown. Helicopter tours give an incredibly cool view of the 1,500-square-mile icefield (the fifth largest in North America) and its brilliant blue crevasses and icefalls. Keep those eyes peeled for mountain goats on the peaks!
If you have the time and energy after the heli tour, plan a hike through the mountains and rainforests you just spotted from above—aka Tongass National Forest, the largest national forest in the country. Otherwise, consider a canoe trip that takes you past Mendenhall Glacier, a 12-mile-long icy behemoth dressed in surreal shades of blue. Of course, you could cover more ground with a hike (or even a guided ice climb) on the glacier itself.
Photo: State of Alaska/Mark Kelley
Your next port of call, reached via plane or ferry, is Sitka...
Believe it or not, Alaska’s capital has no roads connecting it to the rest of the state, so you’ll need to arrange a flight to nearby Sitka. Or, if your schedule allows, hop on the Alaska Marine Highway System ferry for a 9.5-hour sightseeing ride.
Once in Sitka, get your dose of history at Sitka National Historical Park, the site of an 1804 battle between the Kiks.ádi Tlingit and Russian traders. Next, pay a visit to the Alaska Raptor Center, where you can watch as rescued eagles, owls, and falcons go through rehabilitation. This one’s always a hit with the kids!
Photo: State of Alaska/Mark Kelley
Head back to Juneau and onward to your next side trip...
When you’re ready to leave Sitka, head back to Juneau and then onward to your next side trip: Gustavus. This small, amenity-rich settlement on Icy Strait is the gateway to Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve and only a 30-minute flight from Juneau. After exploring town, get to know the park—and its majestic mountains, fjords, forests, and tidewater glaciers—with a flight-seeing tour, take to the waters on a catamaran trip, or get your boots on the ground with a hike. Here, wildlife outnumbers humans by a long shot.
For your second day in the national park, hop on a whale-watching tour—April through September—or go for a morning paddle on the tranquil waters of Bartlett Cove, once the terminus of a 100-mile-long glacier. This is the only developed area of the park, and it’s where you’ll find kayak rentals, the visitor center, and plenty of water to wander.
Photo: State of Alaska/Brian Adams
For one last checkmark on your list, hop on a short flight to Ketchikan...
For one last checkmark on your list, hop on a short flight to Ketchikan, the southernmost town of the Inside Passage. Its streets are built into the forests that slope towards the water—in other words, grab your camera, even if you’re just walking around downtown. You can follow South Tongass Ave toward hiking trails and totem poles, or consider a trip to Misty Fjords National Monument, a jaw-dropping maze of sea cliffs, dramatic waterfalls, and strikingly narrow fjords.
When you can convince yourself to do so, head back to Juneau or catch a direct flight from Ketchikan to Seattle. Either way, you’ll no doubt be inspired to start planning next year’s Alaska trip of a lifetime.
Photo: Ros Fraser/Shutterstock
With Anchorage as its hub, Southcentral Alaska marries two very different worlds: the accessible and the backcountry. The region comes with a network of roads and amenities — never a given in a state like Alaska — that can set you up for journeys into some of the most dramatic landscapes imaginable.
The Ted Stevens Anchorage Airport makes this a convenient place to start your Alaska trip. There are direct flights from many major cities, including San Francisco (4.5 hours), Denver (5 hours), Los Angeles (5.5 hours), Chicago (6.5 hours), and New York City (7.5 hours). Once you arrive, you’ll be ready to leap immediately into the Alaska itinerary of your dreams. Here’s what that could look like.
Welcome to Anchorage, where the mountains meet the sea...
Welcome to Anchorage, the state’s biggest city, where the mountains meet the sea. To get the blood pumping right off the bat, walk from downtown to the 11-mile Tony Knowles Coastal Trail—or rent bikes to pedal along the shoreline.
Along the way, you’ll be treated to views of downtown Anchorage, and, if you’re lucky, Denali (the highest peak on the continent) on a clear day. Pack a picnic and make a pitstop at Kincaid Park, a 1,500-acre, right-in-town haven for moose, black bears, and bald eagles, along with nature lovers of the human variety.
Photo: State of Alaska/Matt Hage
Ready to gain some elevation?...
Get yourself to Girdwood for a hike up Mount Alyeska’s North Face Trail...
Get yourself to Girdwood for a hike up Mount Alyeska’s North Face Trail. The 2.2-mile path (from base to tram) ascends 2,000 vertical feet. Once you’re at the top, grab a bite at Bore Tide Deli while taking in views of Mount Alyeska and the hanging glaciers of Turnagain Arm.
Feeling a bit tuckered after yesterday’s excursion? Take the Alyeska Tramway up instead of hiking. If you aren’t staying at Alyeska Resort, it’s $35 per person for one day of unlimited rides. But luckily, it’s free to hike up and ride the tram back down!
For some much-deserved R&R after all that hiking, visit the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center in Portage, 15 minutes south of Girdwood. You’ll get guaranteed downtime with musk oxen, reindeer, wolves, bears, wood bison, and porcupines, just to name a few!
Photo: Image Source Trading Ltd/Shutterstock
Get ready for some jolts of adrenaline in Palmer...
Get ready for some jolts of adrenaline in Palmer, about 45 minutes outside of Anchorage, with a heli ride over Knik Glacier. Not only will you fly above its expansive crevasses and glacial lagoons, you’ll also land on the glacier and have the chance to roam (safely) or even fat-tire bike among the strangely beautiful ice formations, depending on your chosen outfitter.
When you’re ready, continue your drive on the Glenn Highway until you reach Glennallen or Chitina on the edge of the country’s largest national park: Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve.
At 13.2 million acres, the country’s largest national park...
At 13.2 million acres, the country’s largest national park makes it difficult to narrow down your options. Start at the Wrangell-St. Elias Visitor Center (mile marker 106.8 on the Richardson Highway) to scope out the exhibits, stamp your passport, and take advantage of the rangers’ expert knowledge on this incredibly vast preserve.
With four mountain ranges, hundreds of icefields and glaciers, countless rivers and streams—and even an active volcano—the park is awe-inspiring no matter which section you explore. In addition to backcountry options galore, don’t miss the historic mining town of McCarthy and the nearby Kennicott Mine site, especially if you’re with the kids. Most of the original mine buildings have been restored, and a tour will provide you with an unforgettable look at this slice of Alaska history. Back in McCarthy, you can take your pick from the many guided excursions that depart from town. You have two days to experience whatever strikes your fancy in Wrangell-St. Elias—make them count!
Photo: State of Alaska/Matt Hage
For a last hurrah you’ll want to point your GPS to Valdez...
It’s time to move on, and for a last hurrah you’ll want to point your GPS to Valdez. Keep your eyes peeled for waterfall viewpoints on your way in. The scenic town is set in a dramatic deep-water fjord, which means simply walking around the harbor would be a sufficient itinerary. Those eager for more can rent kayaks in town, take Mineral Creek Trail to mountainside mining ruins, go for a day cruise in Prince William Sound, or whitewater raft through Keystone Canyon.
Eventually, it’s back to the Anchorage area. The drive takes a little over five hours if you return the way you came. But another option, if you have extra time, is to catch the six-hour ferry from Valdez to Whittier, and from there pass through the 2.7-mile Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel and link up with the Seward Highway. Choose a short hike or scenic pull-off on the Turnagain Arm to mark the end of your magnificent Alaska trip!
Photo: Jon Manjeot/Shutterstock
The Arctic is one of Alaska’s most fascinatingly diverse regions: The topography varies from coastal plains to mountain ranges; Alaska Native people maintain a traditional subsistence lifestyle that stretches back millennia; gold-rush days still feel tangible; and the northern lights paint the Arctic nights.
A journey into the Arctic begins in Fairbanks, whose international airport offers many nonstop flights from the Lower 48. If you’re coming to Fairbanks as part of a longer stint in the state, the city is a six-hour drive (or one-hour flight) due north of Anchorage; the Alaska Railroad also connects the two. Once you arrive, prepare for adventure unlike anywhere else.
Ground your trip with a 101 on the Arctic...
On your first day in Fairbanks, ground your trip with a 101 on the Arctic, its communities, and its history. Look for the Arctic nature-inspired architecture of the University of Alaska Museum of the North, where you’ll come face to face with 2.5 million artifacts and specimens. Otherwise, how about a different kind of Arctic intro? Relax at Chena Hot Springs—either indoors (try the Jacuzzis!) or outdoors in the steamy wading lake.
If you’ve got a crew of animal lovers, spend your next day on a dog sled tour. Older kids can stand on the runners and learn to mush, while little ones can chill in the sled and see how the pros do it. After your adventure (which will vary by outfitter), spend time with the dogs and ask as many questions as you’d like.
Once night falls, remember: You’re in Fairbanks, where the northern lights like to hang out August–April. Opt for a guided tour or ask your hotel for an aurora wakeup call. Fingers crossed, at least once on this trip you’ll see the sky glitter, dance, and gleam.
Photo: State of Alaska/Matt Hage
If you love road trips, here’s the king of them all...
If you love road trips, here’s the king of them all. The James W. Dalton Highway, a 414-mile paved and gravel stretch through expansive Arctic landscapes, is mostly used by long-haul truckers. Only a handful of towns break up the entire drive, with little but Mother Nature to keep you company.
If you nabbed a Dalton-approved rental car—and you’re into sleeping outdoors—set up camp at Five Mile Campground and spend time exploring the mighty Yukon River. For something a little more developed, head a bit farther on to Wiseman, a village north of the Arctic Circle. It’s an ideal base camp for fishing and hiking outings, complete with log-cabin lodging and B&Bs.
Past Atigun Pass, Galbraith Lake, and scores of unnamed mountains, you’ll eventually wind up at the highway’s terminus in Deadhorse. From here, celebrate with a quick shuttle ride and an unforgettable experience: dipping your fingers (briefly!) in the Arctic Ocean.
This national park is a true natural wonderland with no roads...
Don’t go back to Fairbanks just yet. The community of Coldfoot, on the Dalton Highway, is the prime access point for Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve. A true natural wonderland with no roads or trails, the park covers 8.4 million acres of wilderness, and experienced backcountry travelers love the remoteness of the park. From multi-night backpacking treks to float trips, whatever flavor you prefer your adventures to come in, you’ll find it here.
Tip: The Arctic Interagency Visitor Center, in Coldfoot, can set you up with backcountry permits and itinerary advice for an epic couple of days.
Denali National Park & Preserve is easily accessible via train or bus tour from Fairbanks...
Return to Fairbanks, take whatever breather you need, and then let someone else do the driving. Denali National Park & Preserve, located in Interior Alaska, is easily accessible via train or bus tour from Fairbanks (though you certainly can rent a car and drive there yourself). Once in the park, transit buses will get those with energy left to hiking spots and campsites; tour buses will take you through the park, narrating the views—and wildlife!—you’ll see along the way.
The park is yet another superlative slice of Alaska nature, home to the continent’s tallest peak (20,310 feet!), incredible wildlife and history, and cozy lodges to make your adventure a wild-yet-comfortable one.
Utqiaġvik is the northernmost community in the US...
Back in Fairbanks after your trip to Denali, catch a flight to Utqiaġvik (previously known as Barrow), the northernmost community in the US. From mid-May to early August, you’ll be able to experience 24 hours of sunlight here; from spring through fall, meanwhile, the birdwatching and other wildlife-viewing opportunities are worth writing home about.
Make sure to visit the Iñupiat Heritage Center, where you’ll learn what it takes to survive in this unique climate. If you time it right, your visit can coincide with the annual winter community whale hunt, when local hunters spend weeks camping on the ice to harvest bowhead whales to feed their families. (Maybe you remember the 42-foot bowhead whale skeleton at the University of Alaska Museum of the North?)
Finally, it’s time to return to Fairbanks one last time and fly back home—with a trove of Alaska travel tales to last you a lifetime.
Photo: Real Window Creative/Shutterstock