First timer’s guide to Alaska

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Seward, Alaska sunrise

Read time: 9 1/2 minutes

As one of the most popular travel destinations in the world, Alaska’s draws are known globally. Home to beautiful forests, snow-capped mountains, mammoth glaciers, incredible wildlife and rich history, Alaska certainly lives up to its stellar reputation. Whether you are exploring the 49th state on a road trip or planning an Alaska cruise, there is a lot to know before travelling here. In this article, we break down all the information you’ll need.

What is Alaska’s history?

Alaskan totem pole

Alaska’s rich history comes from its indigenous residents, who have been living in the state for thousands of years. After being colonised by Russia in the 17th-century, Alaska was transferred into the hands of the United States in the 1800s after being purchased for $7.2 million in what was known as the Alaska Purchase. Despite this, it wasn’t declared a state until January 3rd, 1959.

What to pack for an Alaska holiday

Exploring an Alaskan Glacier

When packing for an Alaska holiday, it’s important to pack layers as even in the summertime the temperature is unlikely to pass 20˚c. During the spring and autumn, the temperature can drop to the single digits, so it’s sensible to pack clothes that are designed for these conditions. We’d suggest packing a warm waterproof coat, hiking boots, and layers like t-shirts or long-sleeved tops and light fleeces. These can be built up for chillier days or stripped down if you’re hiking in the summer sunshine. As well as your outdoor clothes, make sure you remember the essentials like a camera and sun cream. When cruising, you may want to dress up for an evening meal, so feel free to pack something for the evening (although Alaska cruises tend to be more relaxed than their tropical counterparts).

SEE ALSO: What to pack for the Rocky Mountaineer & Alaska Cruise

Main places to visit in Alaska

1.        Anchorage

Anchorage, Alaska, is a popular destination as it sits at the foot of Chugach State Park and is the largest city in the state. Thanks to this, it’s very metropolitan but also has a lot of great places where you can learn more about the state’s native heritage.

2.      Seward

Situated on the coast of the Kenai Peninsula, Seward is a prominent port city with stunning views. As your cruise ship pulls into port, you’ll be surrounded by towering green mountains capped with snow. When you get into Seward, there is a great range of restaurants and activities which everyone will love.

3.      Juneau

Juneau is the capital of Alaska and is tucked into the Alaskan panhandle. The city itself is a hub of activity and there is lots to do, but we’d recommend straying just outside of the city lines to see the stunning Mendenhall Glacier.

4.      Icy Strait Point

If you are a lover of adventure, Icy Strait Point is the destination for you. With bear watching expeditions, ATV and Jeep excursions, whale watching tours and the world’s largest zip line, you’ll never run out of things to get your heart racing here.

5.      Ketchikan

If you want to explore Alaska’s history, then a trip to Ketchikan is a must. Explore Creek Street, the iconic wooden walkway built above the water, or leave the city for a hike in the stunning Tongass National Park.

6.      Denali

Six million acres of wild land, Denali is a great place for nature lovers to visit as you can explore high alpine tundra and snowy mountains as well as having the opportunity to see a variety of wildlife including grizzly bears, moose, reindeer and Dall’s sheep to name a few.

7.      Fairbanks

Fairbanks is a canvas or the aurora borealis, the midnight sun and sunsets and sunrises that last forever. With abundant wildlife, stunning lakes and eye-catching mountains there’s lots you can do here. Fairbanks is also a great place to learn about Alaska’s heritage by exploring the Museum of the North and visiting Pioneer Park, a theme park inspired by the state’s history.

What to see and do in Alaska

Map out the places you want to see before your visit

Alaskan road and mountains

We spoke to The Mandagies, a travelling husband and wife duo who love the outdoors. They tackle blogging together, with Emily taking charge of the writing, and Bert feeling more at home behind the camera. Their travels take them everywhere, but they spend a lot of their time documenting the Pacific North West. Together, they have spent a lot of time travelling Alaska and Canada by road, opting for car camping to keep them going.

They offered us their advice to Alaska first-timers: “When travelling to Alaska, we recommend driving north from Anchorage to explore the famous George Parks Highway. Along this route are incredible stops full of Alaskan culture! The historic town of Talkeetna is a great place to stop for lunch or a relaxing coffee break. Denali National Park is a perfect stop for an afternoon of wildlife spotting. Finally, Fairbanks is a must-visit for iconic Alaska activities like Northern Lights viewing (in the non-summer months), visiting ice castles, and scouting out hot springs.” “Travelling to Alaska is an amazing way to see the rugged and wild countryside. However, many people underestimate the size of the state, and don’t realise many of Alaska’s attractions are very spread out! Before setting off on your trip, it’s important to map out the places you want to see and estimate the driving time to each destination. This will help you set reasonable expectations, and make sure you fit in everything you want to see in Alaska!”

SEE ALSO: How to plan a road trip in Canada

Take your time to enjoy the beauty of Alaska

Beautiful blue Alaskan lake

Patricia and Bruno, known online as Ze Wandering Frogs, are big fans of Alaska. The couple is currently on a round the world tour, where they are hoping to explore every inch of the globe. They have a keen interest in the outdoors, from extreme sports to nature watching. Together, they took a self-drive tour of Alaska, starting at Anchorage, and they told us why they love the state: “As first-time travellers to Alaska, we were stunned by the landscape. Rough, tall, majestic: Alaska is the ultimate outdoor paradise. We loved the diversity of the adventures and activities: trekking in Denali National Park, watching brown bears catching salmon in Katmai National Park, kayaking and cruising the waters of the Kenai Fjords National Park searching for whales or orcas, and flying high above glaciers in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. A visit to the Anchorage Native Heritage Center taught us about ancestral traditions and customs. From the sea to the mountains, cultural heritage to wildlife, Alaska has it all!”

They offered their advice to people visiting: “Alaska is a vast state, and the distance between destinations can be long. Don’t plan too much. Instead, take your time to soak in the views. The rugged, remote environment demands to be adequately equipped, with good hiking shoes and a waterproof jacket to stay warm against the rain and wind of the ever-changing weather. Summer is the best time to visit Alaska when the weather is the most agreeable. Days are so long in June and July, you won’t even know when it’s midnight!” “Last but not least, the animals that call Alaska home are no pets. Not just for your own safety, but the safety of the wildlife you came to admire, respect local safety guidelines. Binoculars will be handier than a selfie stick to spot animals from afar. Be camera-ready for grizzly bears, wolves, and moose!”

SEE ALSO: Hidden gems and wonderful things to do in Alaska

Take a cruise to Glacier Bay

Glacier Bay, Alaska

James blogs at Only By Land, where he documents his travels. In 2012 he travelled from Antarctica to Alaska, without flying and taking 3 cruises whilst also travelling across the land all the way up South America, across the Panama Canal and then up North America to Alaska. He told us about his impressions of the state: “It’s not as cold or as isolated as you think. As Alaska is a US state, you’ll find lots of those familiar American supermarkets, restaurants, hotels as well as excellent highways and transport options. In addition, there are excellent value cruise ships which visit Alaska and they also combine a cruise with an overland trip.”

James told us where he would recommend everyone visits in Alaska: “The place I recommend you visit is Glacier Bay and the Margerie Glacier in particular. You must visit on a boat or as part of a cruise but it’s worth the effort. In my opinion, the view of Margerie Glacier from within the bay is one of the most beautiful places on earth (on a sunny day!). Glacier Bay is filled with emerald coloured water with the huge Margerie Glacier and snow-covered mountains as a backdrop.”

SEE ALSO:

Explore inland Alaska

Getting Stamped Homer Alaska

Image source: Getting Stamped

We spoke to Hannah and Adam at Getting Stamped. Another couple whose travels have landed them in Alaska. They have travelled all around the world but visited Alaska in their homemade campervan after taking off from Wisconsin, America. They told us about their experience: “Alaska should be on everyone’s bucket list! For us, that involved a month-long trip driving to Alaska from Wisconsin. We loved road trips and driving the Alcan Highway is a road trip of a lifetime. For those that cruise to Alaska make sure you add on a few days or a week if possible, to explore the interior of Alaska. Our day at Denali was amazing, we had a clear day with blue skies and sun!

They told us where they’d recommend people visit: “Our favourite place in Alaska was Homer. One of the main things to do in Homer Alaska is Halibut fishing. We did go fishing and caught our limit of Halibut. But besides fishing the town itself was great. We loved the beach, the landscapes, hiking, and the flight out of Lake Clarke National Park where we got so close to brown bears it was crazy. “We may have crossed off Alaska on the bucket list but there is so much yet to explore. We can’t wait to return again!”

SEE ALSO: Brewery tour of Alaska

Alaska isn’t as cold as you may think

Alaskan view

Linda On The Run is a blog that discusses travel, lifestyle and fitness for over 60’s. Linda has been blogging for a long time and has now made her passion full time in order to be able to embrace life. She spoke to us about her time in Alaska: “Of all the places I have travelled, Alaska remains my favourite destination. There are spectacular landscapes and jaw-dropping seascapes where the snow-capped mountains meet the most magical blue-green glacially fed waters all around the state.”

Linda told us about some of the things she didn’t know before she visited: “Depending on the time of year, and the specific region of Alaska you visit, you may find warm, even balmy temperatures. I personally thought Alaska was always cold, snowy and icy. That is not the case! You won’t see the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) when you travel to Alaska in the summertime. The skies need to be pitch black for the aurora to be seen. However, you WILL experience the ‘midnight sun,’ where the sun hardly sets or sets very late in the day (like 11:00 PM) and that in and of itself is a very unforgettable experience.” We then asked Linda where she would recommend people visit whilst in Alaska: “Due to my personal experiences in Alaska, here are a few recommendations. I believe Denali National Park and Preserve is a must-visit Alaskan destination. Here you have a great shot at seeing some of Alaska’s native wildlife in their natural habitat. “My personal favourite towns are Seward and Homer. If you can, I highly suggest you travel the Seward Highway. The raw beauty of the forested mountains right next to the waters of Cook Inlet will leave you speechless. Seward is situated on Resurrection Bay surrounded by the glacially covered mountains of Kenai Fjords National Park. You will definitely want to visit Exit Glacier, right outside of Seward. It is a popular destination because the glacier is very easily accessible. There are even stroller- and wheelchair-acceptable trails with great glacier views. “Homer is located on Kachemak Bay surrounded by the Kenai Mountains. The world-famous Homer Spit is a great place to shop for handcrafted souvenirs by the locals, and a stop at the Salty Dawg Saloon is a must. You will love hiking in Homer too.”

Alaska is all about enjoying the great outdoors

Hiker overlooking Alaskan river

Macca is a blogger at An Adventurous World. A lover of Alaska and Canada, Macca has travel in his blood and one of his first travel experiences was being bitten by a crocodile in Gambia! He spoke to us about Alaska: “I think Alaska is one of the most beautiful places in the world, it is just so, so, so, stunning. The one thing people need to know about Alaska before they go is it’s big. Getting around Alaska takes time, so if you’re planning on visiting here make sure you give yourself a least a week to do it properly and see a few places.”

“A perfect example of this is the Dalton Highway. This stretches over 400 miles into Alaska’s Far North region and it is just one of the most incredible roads and drives around. For me, Alaska is all about getting into the outdoors – sometimes that means just driving to a random trailhead and taking a hike for a few hours!” If you have never been to this part of the world and have been inspired, then make sure you take a look at our range of Alaska cruises.

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