Alaska: the name is a symbol of wild, untamed, natural beauty and expansive, seemingly never-ending landscapes yearning to be explored.

"The last frontier" isn’t simply a license plate motto, it's a way of life in North America’s crown jewel of wilderness. For those seeking to reconnect with nature through epic hikes and outdoorsy fun, there are few comparisons. Even the campfires are going to be big – and go late under the midnight sun, one of the best times to visit

Given the scope of how big Alaska is, a few journeys by land and sea are part of the experience in this most mighty of wild places. With so much ground to you can cover, here are 8 must-visit places in Alaska.

A winding road in Denali National Park, Alaska
Denali National Park is also accessible by bus, an excellent option for families © Jonathan A. Mauer / Shutterstock

1. Denali

Best for epic scenery and hikes

The High One is North America’s highest peak, grandest of grand and tallest of tall. The name Denali refers to the peak itself, the region and one of the grandest set of parks in the world. There's good reason the peak itself is the stuff of legend, most notably its height. At 20,310ft (6194 m), starting at almost sea level, Denali is the tallest mountain in the world, measured from its base to summit. On a clear day – or even a foggy one – the backdrop of this peak, and the surrounding wildlife-filled Taiga northern boreal forest through the Alaska Range, makes for an explorer’s paradise.

There are countless hikes and journeys awaiting the well-equipped traveler here. The park’s bus system is a great option especially for families – making for an interpretive wildlife safari in the shadow of the park’s namesake mountain. Give yourself multiple days to ensure mountain views; the peak can be elusive due to the weather. For backpackers, check out the backcountry office and plan well for a memorable trip in the national park. Our first-timer's guide to Denali will help you plan the best trip for you.

Local tip: Another less crowded option is to utilize the trail system of Denali State Park next door, which has more easy-access campgrounds for those using vehicles.

2. Wrangell St Elias National Park

Best for a wilderness experience

Grand and expansive, Wrangell St Elias is the continent’s second-highest peak and largest wilderness preserve. Far less developed or visited than other iconic wilderness parks, it's home to the mountain folk town of McCarthy. Remnants of the bygone century’s homesteading and copper mining history, this wild park provides countless opportunities for exploration.

Local tip: Bring a tire kit and pay attention to your rental car policy. If it says you cannot drive here it's because the road is littered with nails from its days as a railroad track.

Cruise ship passengers get a close-up view of the majestic glaciers as they sail in Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve in Southeast Alaska.
Cruise ship passengers viewing the majestic glaciers in Glacier Bay National Park © lembi / Shutterstock

3. Glacier Bay National Park

Best for big ice views

Accessible on land by small expedition ships and independent boats, Glacier Bay provides mysterious and wondrous views of the frosty forested world of ice. Explorer and writer John Muir said it best in his 1915 book Travels in Alaska: "To the lover of pure wildness Alaska is one of the most wonderful countries in the world... it seems as if surely we must at length reach the very paradise of the poets, the abode of the blessed."

4. Gates of the Arctic National Park

Best for treks above the Arctic Circle

Arguably the most difficult national park to reach in the US, Gates of the Arctic is the home of masses of migrating caribou. For the ultimate off-grid destination for those with time to face the elements to explore after a relatively short flight in a bush plane. Typically, not for first-time Alaska travelers, the difficulty in reaching it is half the reward for the experience of being so far above the Arctic Circle.

A huge furry brown bear approaches the camera
Head to Katmai National Park to see Alaska's iconic brown bears © Dirk Freder / Getty Images

5. Katmai National Park

Best for bear viewing opportunities

Alaska's most iconic species is the coastal brown bearKatmai is home to the famed Brooks Camp, host of Fat Bear Week, when the world votes on their favorite bear as they prepare for the harsh winter ahead. Many bars around Alaska show livestreams of the bears feasting in the late summer, but what's even better is getting up close on a ranger-guided hike just above the bears on the boardwalks – it rates as a fondest memory among many a photographer and wildlife lover.

6. Talkeetna

Best for mountain scenery

Famed, frigid in winter and warm in every way in summer, Alaska’s coolest little village of Talkeetna doesn’t disappoint, serving as a basecamp of scenic flights up around Denali and the logistics-ville for expedition climbers. Denali Brewing Company, one of the most popular breweries in the state, is the place to go after a day hiking, biking, or enjoying the mellow convergence of several rivers that give scenic float trips a whole new meaning under the shadow of the mighty interior mountain range.

A row of brightly painted houses in Ketchikan, Alaska.
Explore indigenous culture in Ketchikan, Alaska's "first city" © sorincolac/Getty Images

7. Ketchikan

Best for kayaking and boating in the fjords 

Ketchikan, the southernmost entrance for the Inside Passage, might be one the wettest towns in North America, but it doesn’t disappoint. A stone’s throw away from Misty Fjords National Monument, this seaside town is surprisingly mild. Surrounded by lush coastal temperate rainforests, striking granite cliffs and mystic journeys deep into winding, rocky fjords with skyscrapers of stone above, this is a perfect place to start a kayaking, climbing, or small-boat trip into the surrounding wilderness.

Local tip: Totem poles dominate throughout the town and make a great walkable tour to see a classic example of indigenous Tlingit culture.

8. Petersburg

Best coastal town off the beaten path

A Viking longboat in the middle of this quaint fishing port says it all. Petersburg is ideally placed by several straits to see migrating humpback whales up close and personal. Accessible by sea via the Alaskan Marine Highway or as a stop on a small ship expedition-style cruise, this town boasts fishing possibilities that rival more well-known or road-accessible places. Getting there can be tricky check out our guide to the Alaska Marine Highway and if a cruise is more your speed, we can help you decide which cruise is right for you.

Keep planning your trip to Alaska:

Discover these 14 things you need to know before you go
Find out when is the best time to visit.
Add these top experiences to your itinerary.
Save this transportation guide on how to get around Alaska. 
And check out these budget-friendly tips before you book. 

This article was first published Jul 7, 2021 and updated Mar 19, 2024.

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