With its combination of outdoor adventures, wildlife encounters, and scenic beauty, Alaska will always be a bucket list destination. But with so much to discover in the Last Frontier, it’s difficult to choose what to do (and how to cram it all in) on your Alaska family vacation. Here, we highlight the can’t-miss experiences to help you make your decisions. These are the Alaska bucket list adventures your family will be talking about for years to come.
1. Go to Denali National Park
At 20,310 feet, Denali is the tallest peak on the continent. Denali National Park and Preserve is certainly a must-do for any trip to Alaska, but be sure to keep your family’s expectations in check because the mountain is often shrouded in clouds and only visible 30 percent of the time. However, in addition to the mountain, Denali National Park is home to abundant wildlife (see below), hiking opportunities, dog sled demonstrations, and Junior Ranger programs. Families can pick up a free Denali Discovery Backpack at the Denali National Park Visitor Center. The pack contains activities for kids, including binoculars and guides to identify animals and plants, a water testing kit for scientific experiments, casting powder and mold to make a cast of a wolf print, and more.
Hotel Recommendation: Take the Alaska Railroad north from Anchorage (or south from Fairbanks) to Denali. Stay at the Denali Bluffs Hotel, where the staff meets families at the depot and distributes room keys on the shuttle so you can head directly to your room while the bell staff delivers your luggage. Denali Backcountry Adventure is a full-day tour of the national park and the only one that travels the entire length of the 92-mile park road.
2. Witness a Sled Dog Demonstration
One of the most popular ranger programs in Denali National Park is the sled dog demonstration at the kennels. Denali is the only national park in the country with a working kennel, and sled dogs are still used to give rangers access to remote areas in the winter. In the summer season, visitors can tour the kennels, meet (and pet) the sled dogs, and attend one of the demonstrations that occur three times per day; all kennel tours and demos are free. During the sled dog demo, national park rangers tell the story of the Alaska husky in the park’s history, and discuss the role of each position on the sled dog team before letting the dogs run with a cart.
3. See Glaciers Up Close
Ancient glaciers have carved the Alaskan landscape for millennia, and with nearly 100,000 glaciers, approximately 5 percent of the state is covered in ice year-round. If your goal is to see glaciers in Alaska, they’re not hard to find. If you fly into Anchorage, there are 60 different glaciers just a day’s travel from the airport. The difficulty comes in determining just “how” you’d like to see your glacier. Spencer Glacier is only accessible via the Alaska Railroad. Other glaciers can be viewed via flightseeing tours, boat trips, hiking trails, or dogsled teams.
Hotel Recommendation: Head to Kenai Fjords National Park and stay at the Seward Windsong Lodge just outside the town of Seward. Owned by the same group that operates Kenai Fjords Tours, the hotel allows guests to bundle a room with a boat tour, making it easier to see some of the 40 glaciers that flow from the park’s Harding Icefield. Windsong Lodge sits on the same road that leads to Exit Glacier, the only part of Kenai Fjords National Park accessible by road, making it easy to squeeze in a hike to that glacier as well.
4. Encounter Wildlife
Soaring bald eagles, majestic humpback whales, menacing grizzly bears, and stately moose are all regularly sighted throughout Alaska. Whether you’re a birder, marine mammal spotter, or on a quest for Denali’s “Big 5,” Alaska’s wildlife viewing opportunities make for plenty of memories and photographs. The Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward is an excellent starting point for an overview of the ecosystem surrounding the Kenai Peninsula. More than an aquarium, the Alaska SeaLife Center is the only marine mammal rescue and rehabilitation facility for the entire state.
Birdwatchers can find different species throughout the state, from seabirds such as puffins along the coast to eagles patrolling for prey. Fairbanks, in the interior of Alaska, is along the flyway for sandhill cranes. Massive flocks of these large birds gather in Fairbanks each fall as they migrate from eastern Siberia on their way across Canada, eventually ending up in the southeastern United States.
In Denali National Park, grizzly bear, moose, caribou, Dall sheep, and wolves make up the “Big 5,” and many of these species are observed on the bus tours that traverse the park road, such as Denali Backcountry Adventure.
5. See the Northern Lights
The northern interior of Alaska sits under the Auroral Oval, and August 21 to April 21 is “Aurora Season” in Fairbanks. During Aurora Season, the Northern Lights will be visible an average of 9 out of 10 clear nights during any two week period. Families staying a minimum of three nights around Fairbanks who are out during the evening hours have a 90 percent chance of seeing the aurora. Of course, the frequency and intensity of the Northern Lights will vary, but this region of Alaska has some of the best aurora viewing in the world.
Hotel Recommendation: Drive an hour north of Fairbanks and stay at Chena Hot Springs Resort. Families can ride to the top of a mountain for 360-degree unobstructed views, heated yurts, and complimentary hot beverages and snacks while waiting for the aurora to appear. Those wishing to sleep-in can receive personal wake-up calls when the Northern Lights are spotted and head outside to the “Aurorium” to watch.
6. Explore Alaskan Culture
Families interested in history and culture should spend time exploring the traditions of Alaska’s first nation peoples. The Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage makes a great starting point to learn about each of Alaska’s cultural groupings. Stroll around a lake through six authentic life-sized Native dwellings, and learn about the traditions of the Athabascan, Inupiaq/St. Lawrence Island Yupik, Yup’ik/Cup’ik, Aleut, Alutiiq, and the Eyak, Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian people.
Other museums and cultural centers around the state, such as the Anchorage Museum and Fairbanks’ Museum of the North, bring to life the rich history of the Last Frontier from its Russian Heritage to the Yukon Gold Rush. Kids are sure to get a thrill panning for gold in Fairbanks’ Gold Dredge 8, where they’re guaranteed to strike pay dirt.
Dave Parfitt lives in Rochester, New York, with his wife and two daughters. A runner with a PhD in neuroscience, he lived in numerous Northeastern and Midwestern U.S. cities before taking a college job in the Finger Lakes. He’s traveled worldwide, but a Walt Disney World trip with two budding princesses is the trip that elicited the family travel wanderlust. He shares his vacation tips and tricks on AdventuresbyDaddy.com and Instagram.