Updated: Aug 4
Ready for an awe-inspiring Alaskan adventure filled with glacier hikes and dog sledding, whale-watching and flightseeing, the old-fashioned charm of towns you can only access by air or sea, and the breathtaking beauty of snow-covered peaks and wildflower valleys perfectly reflected in clear blue waters? Overwhelmed with it all and looking for help? Read on for my most popular Alaska itinerary and contact Show Them the World to get started! Even better, join us on our multi-family Inside Passage cruise summer 2024!
Vacationing in Alaska
Tourist season in Alaska runs all summer long (May-September with the peak in July/August). Don’t expect summer weather, but you’ll get the warmest weather Alaska has to offer. You’ll also get daylight until long past your bedtime, which allows you to make full use of your time there. Keep in mind that whales (humpback, gray, orca) like Alaska summers as well as mosquitos. Yay for whales, boo for mosquitos!
Alaska is so vast that it’s best to start with geography for grounding. At more than 650,000 square miles - 1/5 the size of the Lower 48 states - there's a lot of ground to cover. The first map shows the most popular tourist stops - Anchorage and points north to Denali and Fairbanks and then southeast on an Inside Passage cruise to Vancouver, Canada. The second map shows all of Alaska for scale.
Inside Passage route + Anchorage to Denali (left), Alaska map (right)
A popular and efficient itinerary for an Alaska experience is an Anchorage–Talkeetna–Denali land tour, then back to Anchorage (Whittier) for an Inside Passage cruise. For this itinerary, you'll need at least 10 days and several modes of transportation - cruise ship plus car/bus/train - to see even a fraction of it all. My family and two neighbor families will be doing this itinerary summer 2024!
*If cruising is not your thing, you can head to Seward after Denali and fly or ferry to other destinations on your list.
Let's explore the major stops on the list to understand all the adventures that lie therein.
Most people start their Alaska adventure in Anchorage so we’ll start there as well. While Anchorage has incredible beauty surrounding the city, most people use it as a jumping off point vs. spending a lot of time in the city itself. My husband lived in Anchorage when we met, so I spent a week in Alaska before we were married. In fact, we got engaged on top of Flattop Mountain! Anchorage has beautiful trails and vistas as well as some great restaurants - don't miss F Street for the halibut chunks! However, I wouldn’t spend more than a day or two there unless you are making Anchorage your home base for day trips like we did.
Top five picks for Anchorage
Hike or bike the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail (an 11-mile gentle trail), Chugach State Park or Flattop Mountain (about 30 minutes from Anchorage).
Kayak Fox Island
Ride the Glacier Discovery Train
Drive to Girdwood and stay at the Alyeska Resort (45 minutes from Anchorage). Check out the views on the Alyeska Tramway, pan for gold at Crow Creek Mine, hike the Winner Creek Trail or North Face Trail, and snowmobile on a glacier. See wildlife living their best life at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center.
Watch grizzly bears catch salmon in mid-air at Brooks Falls. Only accessible by plane, you can do a day trip from Anchorage and fly to King Salmon, AK and then catch a float plane to Brooks Lodge.
Hike, bike, kayak, snowmobile, get engaged on top of a mountain, and wildlife watch!
Talkeetna, a small town midway between Anchorage and Denali, is one of the best places to view mighty Denali and is famous for its flightseeing. What Talkeetna lacks in size, it makes up for in its mix of natural beauty and heritage. Talkeetna sits at the confluence of three rivers – the Susitna, Talkeetna, and Chulitna. They run like thoroughfares through the densely forested region, so traveling on them gives you access to remarkable places you wouldn’t otherwise see.
Top five picks for Talkeetna
The best way to see the grandeur of Denali National Park and the Alaskan Range is by flightseeing. We don't have the time to make the drive all the way up to Denali, so this how we'll experience "The High One".
Talkeetna sits at the meeting point of three rivers, so as you can imagine, kayaking and water sports are the name of the game in this small town. Try jet boating for a thrilling way to explore!
Quite possibly the most fun way to experience a panoramic view of the Alaska Range is by ziplining high above Talkeetna.
Experience backcountry wilderness while dog sledding.
Stroll Talkeetna's Main Street, a two-block street with cafes, art shops, restaurants, and microbreweries. Don’t miss the West Rib Pub and Grill, a Talkeetna mini-museum and a great place for a burger, beer, and conversation with mountain rangers.
Flightseeing Denali, dogsledding, kayaking and old-town charm
Denali National Park, Alaska’s most visited attraction, induces awe with its height (highest in North America and technically highest in the world), spectacular scenery, and a plethora of wildlife. You have many options for getting to Denali from Anchorage: driving is quickest (five hours) and it gives you maximum flexibility to take side trips or stop along the way. You’ll also have the option of staying in Healy where it’s less touristy than the park lodging. If you stop first in Talkeetna, it’s around three hours to Denali.
If you book a tour or a cruisetour to Denali, you’ll travel by motorcoach and/or train. Either option will take longer than driving yourself, but you can relax and enjoy the scenery. The train isn’t cheap, so you can train one way and motorcoach the other to save money and experience more. Many people see the train as a once-in-a-lifetime luxury because of glass dome cars with spectacular views, onboard dining, and wilderness you’ll only see by train.
Denali, "The High One", by air, rail and road
Once you get to Denali, if you want to ride the entire 92-mile park road both ways, count on a 13-hour tour on a school bus. The view at Wonder Lake is supposedly worth the drive!
Top five picks for Denali
Ride all or part of the Denali park road. If you want the full experience, take the 13-hour "school bus" tour of all 92 miles.
Hike on your own or with a tour. Denali hiking is not for novices, but there are several nature trails you can do on your own – Taiga Loop Trail, McKinley Station Loop Trail, Rock Creek Trail, Triple Lakes Trail, Savage River Trail, and Mt. Healy Overlook Trail.
Get out on the Nenana River for a scenic float, whitewater rafting, and kayaking.
Mountain bike on the first 15 miles of the park road, which are paved. The best time to bike is late evening when buses have stopped for the day.
Visit Husky Homestead for a dog sled experience.
Now let’s switch gears and head south of Anchorage…
Two and a half hours south of Anchorage, Seward is a small coastal community with jaw-dropping scenery because it’s surrounded by Kenai Fjords National Park, Chugach National Forest, and Resurrection Bay. The drive along Turnagain Arm through Cook Inlet is one of the most beautiful in the country. Be on the lookout for the beluga whales and dolphins at Beluga Point!
Seward: Gorgeous views, whale watching, kayaking, glacier hiking, dogsledding, and fishing
When I visited my now-husband, we made the trip to Seward from Anchorage twice, but I’d recommend staying in Seward versus doing the drive back and forth. If you’re in Seward without a car, no worries! The town is small and walkable. Plus, there's a free seasonal shuttle that runs a 30-minute loop through several spots in town. Many local companies also provide transportation to and from their tours, making stops at the cruise ship dock, train depot, and local hotels.
Top five picks for Seward
Whale watch and explore glaciers in Kenai Fjords National Park.
Kayak Resurrection Bay, where you can spot sea otters, seabirds, and spawning salmon.
Hike Exit Glacier, one of the most accessible glaciers in Alaska. For those wanting more of a challenge, try the Harding Icefield hike, which takes about 6-8 hours.
If you didn’t dog sled in Talkeetna or Denali, try it here at the Seavey sled dog experience (friends raved about this one) or Turning Heads Kennel tour and dog sledding.
Seward offers world-class fishing. Deep-sea fish in Seward or go river fishing in Cooper Landing.
We’re now beyond driveable tourist spots as we head into the Inside Passage route, which is easiest to experience on a cruise. The Inside Passage of Alaska is a unique place featuring coastal rainforests, glacial fjords, and of course, lots of wildlife.
Glacier Bay National Park
Glacier Bay National Park
One of the most remote and stunning places you'll visit is Glacier Bay National Park with over 3 million acres of unspoiled wilderness. The highlight is seeing glacier calving. This happens so often and with such force that cruise ships must stay more than two miles away. It sounds like cannons blasting!
If you’re cruising the Inside Passage, make sure Glacier Bay is on your itinerary. If not, you can take a short flight from Juneau or a longer ferry ride. Stay at the Glacier Bay Lodge, the only hotel accommodations within the park.
The gold rush town of Skagway has all the historic sights packed into a few blocks, all an easy walk from the cruise ship dock.
Top picks for Skagway
Travel by train from White Pass Rail to Bennett Lake – a fully-narrated three-hour mountain-climbing, cliff-hanging route. Sit on the left side of the train on the way out.
Take a guided walk through Jewell Gardens and watch glassblowing (or try it yourself!).
Go on a scenic Klondike rock climbing and rappelling adventure with routes for all ability levels.
Skagway White Pass Rail, gorgeous lake views, and small-town charm
Of all the towns I visited in Alaska, Juneau was my favorite. This charming and walkable downtown makes exploring easy. Mendenhall Glacier, the most easily accessible glacier in Alaska, is nestled against the ice blue Mendenhall Lake and is one of Juneau’s top attractions with trails and waterfalls. Take a guided hike of Mendenhall Glacier or explore Mendenhall wetlands by kayak.
Top five picks for Juneau
Explore Mendenhall Glacier on your own or book a guided hike. To get up close, take the Juneau Icefields helicopter tour.
Kayak across the lake and get a close view of the glacier itself or experience whale watching by kayak. See Mendenhall Glacier up close and personal on a Mendenhall Lake Canoe Tour.
Mt. Robert’s is a nice hike to get a bird’s eye view of Juneau. You can hike up Mt. Roberts and then take the tramway down. For an easy trail with beautiful views and waterfalls, hike Preservance Trail.
Catch “gold fever” and pan for gold at Gold Creek.
Stroll the charming downtown and visit Red Dog Saloon, Juneau’s most historic bar.
Juneau: an adventurous and charming town that's easy to explore on your own
Known for its totem poles, art, hilly streets, and salmon fishing, Ketchikan is a well-loved stop on the Inside Passage route. Enjoy the views at Misty Fjords National Monument with green mountains reflected in icy waters, waterfalls, and islands.
Top five picks for Ketchikan
Ketchikan is considered the Salmon Capital of the World, so salmon fishing is a must! Or experience what it's like to be a commercial fisherman in Alaska and haul a 700-pound king crab pot at the Bering Sea Crab Fishermen’s Tour (from Deadliest Catch) including eagle feeding.
Kayak out to Orcas Cove for a prime location to view wildlife. Or take a boating expedition to the Tongass National Forest and see bald eagles, bears, and whales.
Go snorkeling in Alaska! Don a wet suit and snorkel through the calm tide pools and submerged rock walls around Mountain Point. See sunflower stars, bright blood stars, sea cucumbers, and more.
Stroll the historic Creek Street and visit the Totem pole parks.
Experience a taste of Ketchikan’s lumber history at the Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show.
Ketchikan's famous charm and gorgeous views
Let's start planning your awe-inspiring itinerary to Alaska! Even better, join us on our Inside Passage cruise summer 2024!
Heather Vergara is a former Pepsico marketing executive who left the corporate world to be a Mom and never found her way back. Instead, she focused on her passion for travel and adventure and created Show Them the World, a travel concierge service for busy families longing to reconnect and see the world together. In two years, she's helped more than 200 families experience Hawaii, Alaska, Costa Rica, France, England, Greece, the Caribbean, National Parks, and more to come!
Heather has an MBA in marketing from Indiana University, a Digital Marketing Executive Education certificate from Columbia University, and a BA in Journalism from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She lives with her husband, two kids, and two furry dogs in Zionsville, Indiana.
The photo above is in Juneau, Alaska at Mendenhall Glacier a couple days after we got engaged!