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20 Fantastic Alaskan Experiences Worth Paying For

Alaska is a unique and magical place, with majestic snow-capped mountains and picturesque glaciers that will leave you breathless. If Alaska isn’t on your bucket list, it should be. The state is big, twice the size of Texas, and Alaskan experiences are one-of-a-kind.

If you’ve dreamed of taking a dog sledding excursion or hiking on an icefield, Alaska offers this and so much more. While some unique Alaska experiences may give you sticker shock, it may be one of the few places globally to enjoy these encounters. 

While most travel to Alaska by cruise ship, others come by air and road. Alaska offers some great hotel stays, and your memorable journey will leave you wanting more. 

Humpback whale's tail

So, grab your wallet and prepare for these Alaska bucket list activities.

Dog Sledding On A Glacier

  • Location: Juneau, Skagway, Seward | Cost: USD 650.00+

Dog sledding on a glacier requires a helicopter to reach the dog sled camp. You can take this dog sledding excursion in Juneau, Skagway, and Seward, with Juneau offering the most tours. In winter, you can enjoy dog sledding in Anchorage.

Bucket List Alaska Tours

While these tours are expensive, they sell out months in advance. Booking direct with a tour operator saves money, as cruise lines charge up to USD 999 per person.

To experience real dog sledding, you need snow and ice. Most operators provide snow pants and boots.

Don’t hesitate to book if this is on your Alaska bucket list. Due to limited seats on the helicopters, tour operators do not offer discounts.

Remember to dress warmly with layers and bring a camera and sunglasses because the snow is very bright, even on a cloudy day.

Polar and Maggot, two sled dogs
Two of our sled dogs

Go Whale Watching

  • Location: Juneau, Icy Strait Point | Cost: USD 175.00+

If you have never seen a whale in the wild, you’re in for a treat in Alaska. If you are traveling by cruise ship, you can easily spot whales on the way.

Be sure to bring a pair of compact binoculars to see them from your balcony stateroom. If you travel to Alaska by air or road, whale watching tours are plentiful in Juneau, Icy Strait Point, Sitka, and Seward.

I have taken several Juneau whale-watching excursions and have always seen whales and seals. The large mammals are so plentiful in the nearby waters that most tour operators offer a money-back guarantee if you do not see any whales.

Humpback whales migrate from Hawaii in April. They arrive in Alaska in May, just in time for cruise ship season. However, you could also see gray, orcas, beluga, and blue whales. 

Humpback whale tales spotted on a whale watching tour in Juneau
A humpback whale tail

You are most likely to see humpbacks during an excursion, but orcas can sometimes surprise you.

Whales are majestic creatures, and their immense size will shock you once they surface next to your small boat. The law states that boat operators cannot get within 100 yards of the whales and must maintain a safe distance. However, once the vessel is idling, it doesn’t stop the whales swimming close to you.

In fact, during my last whale-watching excursion, I was in awe as two adults and a baby humpback swam toward and under my boat.

Another Alaska bucket list item checked off for me. How about you? Do you plan to go whale watching in Alaska?

Ride The Yukon Train

  • Location: Skagway | Cost: USD 134.00+

Experience the breathtaking mountains of the Yukon and marvel at the engineering of wooden trestles on the White Pass & Yukon train. Board the train in Skagway for a spectacular railroad journey in the comfort of a vintage rail car.

White Pass & Yukon Route train
The White Pass & Yukon Route vintage rail cars

This Alaskan experience is on everyone’s bucket list when visiting Skagway, a gold mining town frozen in time. The excursion takes 2-3/4 to 3 hours on a narrow-gauge railway and climbs into the mountains.

During the journey, passengers enjoy cascading waterfalls, tunnels, snow-capped mountains, and Alaskan wildlife if you’re lucky. You can go outside the carriage onto a viewing balcony during the journey to take photos of your train traveling through the majestic mountains.

The wooden trestles are fantastic to see, as is the view of the train as you round the wide curves in the railroad.

This excursion is great for those with mobility issues since you can board the train immediately after disembarking your cruise ship. At under USD 150.00 a person, it won’t break the bank, and you’ll enjoy one of the most scenic train journeys in the world.

Flightseeing Tour

  • Location: Ketchikan, Juneau. Talkeetna | Cost: USD 250.00+

Alaska is immense, and much of it remains remote and inaccessible. So, what better way to experience the beauty of its untouched landscape than by air?

A sea plane leaving from Ketchikan
Float plane heading to Misty Fjords National Monument

A flightseeing excursion flies over the snow-capped mountains, ancient forests, and endless glistening glaciers. Choose between a floatplane or helicopter excursion, some of which land on glaciers or a lake for a walkabout.

Alaska contains numerous glaciers and provides vital fresh drinking water. While viewing a glacier from land or by cruise ship is magnificent, seeing one by air takes your breath away. 

Whether you choose a Misty Fjords floatplane tour from Ketchikan, a Mount Denali sight-seeing from Talkeetna, or a Taku Lodge Flight and Feast from Juneau, Alaska rarely disappoints.

Alaska Flightseeing Tours

Visit Denali National Park

  • Location: Denali National Park | Cost: USD 350.00+

Denali National Park is the epitome of unspoiled wilderness. If you’re seeking wildlife encounters and want to experience the best of the outdoors, Denali should be on your bucket list.

The Alaska national park encompasses six million acres of the Alaskan interior, highlighted by the 20,310-foot Denali (Mt. McKinley) mountain. This massive peak is the tallest mountain in North America.

Denali, Alaska
No Alaskan experience is complete without seeing Denali

Should you be lucky enough to view it, its snow-covered peak will take your breath away. This magnificent preserve has endless forests, awe-inspiring glaciers, tundra, and plenty of wildlife.

The variety of wildlife includes caribou, grizzly bears, black bears, wolves, elk, sheep, and moose. There is only one road in and out of Denali National Park, but travelers with their own vehicles can only drive the first 15 miles.

The road beyond is open to buses and cars that have won the “Road Lottery” or a chance to purchase one of the limited passes. Staying in the park is a must to have the ultimate Alaskan experience. Many wilderness lodges provide picturesque views of the towering peak and surrounding flora.

If traveling to Alaska by cruise ship, consider booking a cruise with a land itinerary.

Take A Northern Lights Tour

  • Location: Anchorage | Cost: USD 500.00+

There are only a few places globally to view the northern lights or aurora borealis, and Alaska is one of them. Although unpredictable, when the northern lights appear, the skies over Alaska dance with shades of red and green.

The aurora borealis is the result of charged particles from the sun hitting the earth’s atmosphere. It would help if you were away from city lights, with the optimum months for viewing is September to April. So, if you visit Alaska in the winter months, take a northern lights bucket list tour.

Northern lights in Alaska
Aurora borealis or northern lights

There is no guarantee that the aurora borealis will display its beautiful colors. However, the chase of seeing them can be compared to the paparazzi trying to get the next shot of a superstar. 

The best chance of viewing the aurora borealis is in Fairbanks and above the Arctic Circle. If you stay in a hotel in the optimum viewing area, some hotels offer wake-up calls in the middle of the night to see the prenominal dancing lights.

Tracy Arm Fjord & Glacier Explorer

  • Location: Juneau or your cruise ship | Cost: USD 250.00+

The Tracy Arm Fjord and Glacier Explorer allow cruise passengers and Juneau travelers to get up close and personal to the Sawyer Glaciers in Tracy Arm.

The unforgettable journey includes:

  • Feeling the mist from gushing waterfalls.
  • Viewing seals on floating bergy bits.
  • Having a front-row seat to glacier viewing. 
The Tracy Arm Fjord and Glacier Explorer vessel
Tracy Arm Fjord and Glacier Explorer

While cruise ships sail through Tracy Arm and Endicott Arm, they cannot get too close due to the amount of ice in the water. On the explorer excursion, the smaller vessel travels closer to the fjord walls and wades through the icebergs to reach the tidewater glaciers. 

This magnificent Alaska bucket list experience heightens the senses during glacial carving. Calving is when chunks of ice break off at the terminus or end of a glacier. 

Early in the season (late May to early June), it’s not unusual to witness a harbor seal birth on an iceberg. Overhead, the bald eagles soar, watching for their chance to consume the afterbirth. Your memorable tour may include with mountain goats and whale sightings if you’re lucky.

Explore Mendenhall Glacier Ice Caves

  • Location: Juneau | Cost: USD 359.00+

Travelers to Alaska flock to Mendenhall Glacier due to its easy access from Juneau. Visitors to the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center can view a waterfall and glacier but don’t have access to the ice.

Glacier ice cave
A glacier ice cave

Taking a “Glacier Paddle & Trek” means you’ll avoid the crowds on land and experience a unique Alaskan adventure. Remember to bring a camera to capture the luminescent blue ice from your canoe.

Once you reach the glacier, you’ll spend up to two hours exploring the ice. Your experienced guide will survey the ice and search for ice caves. Alaska ice cave tours are popular. Further north, you have the option to do such an excursion at Matanuska Glacier.

It’s important to remember that glaciers are dense bodies of ice that consistently move. Caves can appear and disappear as quickly as they form. Should you find a cave, you’ll experience a dream-like adventure like none other.

This “cave of wonders” excursion requires some fitness level as the canoe paddling lasts three hours. While you’ll end your tour exhausted, you’ll appreciate you’ve seen something that most will never see.

Take A Bear Viewing Tour

  • Location: Various locations | Cost: USD 125.00+

Alaska’s grizzlies, brown bears, and Kodiak bears are the largest, most elusive, and most dangerous wildlife creatures in Alaska.

Icy Strait Point, Juneau, Anchorage, Kodiak Island, Ketchikan, and Katmai National Park offer bear-viewing excursions. Some of these bear-viewing areas are generally located in remote areas and require a plane ride.

The isolated camps are strictly controlled to camouflage your presence, so the bears will continue their daily activities without knowing you are there. 

A coastal brown bear family
Coastal brown bears

Pack Creek Bear Tours offers an adventure to Chichagof Island or Admi­ral­ty Island. Home to over 1500 Alaskan brown bears, visitors reach the island by a short floatplane ride from Juneau.

Once there, expect to spend a few hours viewing the bears in their natural habitat without them knowing you’re there. Juneau is one of the best places for wildlife viewing.

Kat­mai Nation­al Park is another popular place for bear watching, as is Neets Bay. Neets Bay bear watching is fantastic but isn’t budget-friendly. So, should you prefer a more cost-effective tour, Ketchikan offers a walking tour to view bears. This three-hour excursion starts at USD 215 per person.

Ride The ZipRider

  • Location: Icy Strait Point | Cost: USD 160.00

For the adrenaline junkies, you can experience the world’s longest zip line ride in Icy Strait Point, Alaska. Known as the ZipRider, riders can race each other on side-by-side lines, reaching speeds of over 60 mph.

Riders start high in the treetops and travel on one of six 5,330 feet lines, descending 1330 feet as they savor views of Hookah and their cruise ship.

The ZipRider in Icy Strait Point
Riders on the ZipRider in Icy Strait Point

Participants take a gondola ride to the top of the mountain. Then, walk down a steep trail to the zip line platform. With a 3,2,1 countdown, riders are propelled out of the starting gate and pick up speed during the descent.

The views are spectacular on the one-minute ride. So, take your GoPro strapped to your chest or secure your cell phone in a lanyard. Anything loose will be lost by the force of the wind ripping by.

Pan For Gold

  • Location: Juneau and Skagway | Cost: USD 40.00+

Gold panning is a great family activity that you can do in Alaska. While most tours don’t offer “genuine” gold panning, it gives an immersive experience that transports you back to the Gold Rush period.

Skagway’s Liarsville Gold Rush Trail Camp allows visitors to pan for real gold in a setting that recreates the gold rush era. Nearby streams and rivers also provide locations for independent gold panning. 

The Gold Creek and Last Chance Basin hold rich gold panning areas in Juneau. Guided tours here teach proper gold panning techniques, providing a hands-on experience. You can combine your tour in Gold Creek with a fantastic Juneau salmon bake.

Gold Creek Salmon Bake sign
Gold Creek Salmon Bake entrance

Whether you join an organized tour or explore independently, the area’s rich gold history and abundant resources await discovery.

See Puffins At Kenai Fjords 

  • Location: Kenai Fjords, near Seward | Cost: USD 130.00+

Seeing puffins at Kenai Fjords National Park is an unforgettable experience. Two primary types of puffins are found here: the Horned Puffin and the Tufted Puffin. 

Both species display captivating appearances and behaviors. Tours often depart from Seward, Alaska, the gateway to the park’s breathtaking glaciers and wildlife. Experienced guides lead boat tours, allowing visitors to observe puffins in their natural habitat. 

Excursions range in length from half-day to nine-hour lengthy tours. The all-day scenic ride travels further into the Kenai peninsula and increases your chance of seeing Steller sea lions, whales, and sea otters.

The rocky cliffs and coastal waters provide a perfect environment for these seabirds, who nest on the steep terrain and dive for fish in the icy waters. 

Many tourists choose the summer months for their visit, when puffins are most active, offering an up-close and personal view of these remarkable birds. The sight of puffins flying, swimming, and interacting with each other is a highlight of any trip to the Kenai Fjords.

Hike To Exit Glacier

  • Location: Kenai Fjords National Park, near Seward | Cost: Free

Alaska offers many exhilarating hiking trails, some near the cruise ports. However, if you’re spending time around Seward, one hike you must do is the trail to Exit Glacier. 

Exit Glacier in Alaska
Exit Glacier

The trailhead starts at the Kenai Fjords National Park’s nature center near Seward and is easily accessible by car. Entering the park is free, but parking may incur a small fee. The trail itself varies in difficulty, offering something for everyone. 

The well-marked 1.5-mile round trip to the Glacier Overlook is a moderate hike that most people can enjoy. If you’re looking for something more challenging, the 8.2-mile round trip Harding Icefield Trail will not disappoint. It’s considered strenuous, with an elevation gain of around 3,000 feet. 

The best time to hike is from late spring to early fall, as the trail may be covered in snow or icy during other parts of the year. Check local weather and trail conditions before embarking on your hike.

Drive The Klondike Highway

  • Location: Skagway | Cost: Free or cost of a rental car

The Klondike Highway offers a breathtaking view of mountain passes, glacial lakes, and picturesque waterfalls. Stretching from the coastal town of Skagway, Alaska, to Dawson City in British Columbia, this highway is a must-visit for those who love a road trip. 

If you’re visiting Skagway via a cruise ship, renting a vehicle and driving to Emerald Lake in Yukon is highly recommended. However, you will need a passport since you’re crossing a border.

As you head out on the Klondike Highway, the vast wilderness of Alaska and Canada unfolds. The road weaves through towering mountains, and along rivers, you may see bears en route.

Yukon Suspension Bridge over the Tutshi River
Yukon Suspension Bridge

Remnants of the Gold Rush era, the Yukon Suspension Bridge, and the Carcross Desert beg for exploration. Emerald Lake, the highlight of the road trip, glistens with its turquoise-green color.

Snorkel In Alaska

  • Location: Skagway | Cost: USD 170.00

So, snorkeling in Alaska might not be on your bucket list, but it offers a unique experience you may not have considered. While snorkeling in cold water may not sound appealing, participants wear 7mm wetsuits to keep them cozy.

Snorkel Alaska, the tour operator, runs the excursion in Ketchikan. Expect to spend up to 80 minutes witnessing marine creatures, including starfish, sea urchins, and various species of fish unique to the Alaskan waters. 

Groups are limited to ten, so you can enjoy an intimate experience with two SCUBA instructors on hand. If you feel comfortable, you can wear dive belts with weights to aid in diving below the surface.

Eat King Crab In Alaska

  • Location: Everywhere | Cost: USD 70+

King crab from Alaska is one of the most sought-after seafood delicacies in the world. Fishermen in Alaska catch these crabs using specialized pots during specific seasons, adhering to strict regulations that ensure sustainability. 

Crab legs at Tracy's Crab Shack
Crab legs at Tracy’s Crab Shack

The Bering Sea, especially, is a prime location for harvesting king crabs. They are known for their large size, with some specimens weighing up to 24 pounds and boasting a leg span of five feet. 

The taste of Alaskan king crab is rich, sweet, and succulent, making it a favorite amongst tourists. However, since king crab season was canceled in Alaska, expect to pay higher than average prices to try it.

Besides Tracy’s Crab Shack in Juneau, you can purchase crab at Crab n’ Go in Ketchikan, Skagway Fish Company, and Halibut Point Crab and Chowder in Sitka.

Paddling With Icebergs

  • Location: Everywhere | Cost: USD 65+

Sea kayaking in Alaska gives you an appreciation of the Last Frontier. These small group excursions stay close to the shore, allowing you to see bald eagles, bears, and marine life. 

If you take a kayaking tour from Seward or the area around Prince William Sound, you could be paddling by icebergs. Northwestern Fjord, Holgate Glacier, and Aialik Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park provide the best opportunities for glacier kayaking. 

Participating takes a certain level of fitness, and guests are expected to paddle for a few hours. 

Those staying in Anchorage can take a similar tour from Girdwood. This kayaking adventure travels to Spencer Lake and paddles alongside the terminus of Spencer Glacier.

See Glacier Bay National Park

  • Location: Everywhere | Cost: USD 65+

Glacier Bay National Park, located in southeastern Alaska, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site renowned for its breathtaking natural beauty. It encompasses a vast wilderness area featuring stunning fjords, temperate rainforests, and remarkable tidewater glaciers. 

Lamplugh Glacier in Glacier Bay National Park
Lamplugh Glacier in Glacier Bay National Park

If you’re not visiting by cruise ship, you can travel there on a small boat tour, which provides a scenic way to experience Alaska. Visitors can observe both tidewater and valley glaciers, some calving icebergs into the bay’s frigid waters. 

The area is a haven for wildlife, including humpback whales, sea otters, seals, and numerous bird species. Tours from Juneau often last about a day, with several options available. Many include a boat tour through the icy waters, providing an opportunity to witness glaciers up close. 

Traveling from Juneau to the park usually takes 4-5 hours by boat or 30 minutes by air, followed by a full day of exploration, making the trip unforgettable in one of the world’s most pristine environments.

If cruising Glacier Bay National Park isn’t on your Alaska bucket list, it should be!

Visit The Artic Circle

  • Location: Everywhere | Cost: USD 65+

Visiting the Arctic Circle from Fairbanks or Anchorage, Alaska, is an exciting adventure on some people’s bucket lists. From Fairbanks, it’s around 200 miles to the Arctic Circle, and the journey can be undertaken by car along the Dalton Highway. 

Alternatively, guided tours or flight services are available. From Anchorage, the distance is roughly 500 miles, making flights or tours a more viable option. 

The best time to visit is during summer when the weather is milder and the days are long. If you travel during the summer solstice, you can experience 24 hours of daylight when the sun never sets.

By venturing into undeveloped lands, you could see herds of caribou or visit small villages where Alaskan natives live a primitive lifestyle.

Hike The Chilkoot Trail

  • Location: Dyea to Bennett Lake  | Cost: USD 65+

The Chilkoot Trail is a 33-mile path that travels the same route the Gold Rush prospectors used in the late 1800s. It runs from Dyea on the coast of Alaska to Bennett Lake in British Columbia, Canada.

Chilkoot Trail, Skagway
Chilkoot Trail, Skagway

The US National Parks Service and Parks Canada maintain the trail. You can hike sections if you’re a notice. If you intend to hike the entire route, only recommended for experienced trekkers, you need a permit and a reservation.

Expect to spend 3 to 5 days hiking, depending on your ability. Hikers can only camp in designated areas. You’ll find four on the US side and five in Canada.

Alternatively, you can hike the Chilkoot Trail by taking the Chilkoot Trail and float tour from Skagway, which gives you a snippet of the prospectors’ route. 

Other Must-do’s In Alaska

While we all have different things on our bucket lists, there is something to appease everyone in Alaska. Whether your Alaska experiences include wildlife, flying, or something more mellow, they’re adventures you’ll treasure forever.

If you’re lucky enough to enjoy the beauty of Alaska more than once, there are numerous more experiences to enjoy. With my four visits (and two more booked), I’m slowly going through my Alaska must-do and must-see list. Here is a list of other interesting Alaska places and experiences.

  • Fishng for salmon                                                
  • Sampling Alaskan craft beer – or take a brewery tour.       
  • Visiting Mendenhall Glacier.                                                                                                                   
  • Take part in a polar bear swim.                                                               
  • Spot bald eagles in the tall trees.                    
  • Go glacier trekking.                                 
  • Sit in a hot tub next to a glacier – Yep, this one I did next to Hubbard Glacier in the freezing icy rainfall.                               

Happy travel ~ Karen

Some must-do Alaskan experiences - visiting Glacier bay National Park and whale watching