Summary: After visiting Alaska in winter and summer, I’ve had some incredible experiences. Keep reading for my top 10 Alaska bucket list adventures.
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After visiting Alaska in winter and summer, I have a renewed sense of awe about America’s largest state. Alaska has such incredible scenery and so many bucket list adventures available. Personally, I prefer Alaska in winter. It’s dark most of the day, it’s the best time of year to see the northern lights, and you can get all the cozy vibes escaping the cold with a blanket and a hot drink! That said, Alaska any time of year is a good idea.
If you love the outdoors, you’re in for an incredible trip regardless of when you visit. Here are the top bucket list adventures that I’ve experienced over the past few years:
1. Taking an Alaska Wildlife Cruise (Seward)
This was hands-down my favorite activity on our most recent trip. We took the 6-hour Kenai Fjords National Park cruise with Major Marine Tours. Kenai Fjords National park is stunning and full of wildlife. We got to see otters, whales, puffins, sea lions, bald eagles, and more. If you want to see all of these animals in action, check out the YouTube video I made from this trip!
Not only is there an abundance of wildlife on this cruise, but you also pull up to a glacier running off of Harding Ice Field. This thing is massive! We stayed parked in front of the glacier for about 20 minutes waiting to see ice break off, but we didn’t end up seeing it. However, the crew scooped some floating glacier ice onto the ship, broke it into pieces, and used it to make margaritas which was equally as fun.
My favorite part about this cruise was the scenery we got to see. Alaska is full of uninhabited, wild islands and you really get a sense of that here. You cruise past countless mountanous islands covered in pine trees and topped with ominous fog. The rainy weather just added to the mystical feeling and I couldn’t get enough of these gorgeous landscapes.
Want to see this post in YouTube form? Click here!
2. Hiking to the Harding Ice Field (Kenai Fjords National Park)
If you’re into challenging hikes, this one NEEDS to be on your Alaska bucket list!
The wildlife cruise I mentioned above is the best way to see Kenai Fjords National Park from the water, but now let’s talk about how to see it from land. Harding Ice Field is hard to comprehend when given the stats. It’s basically a sheet of ice that is hundreds of miles long and thousands of feet deep. Sounds pretty amazing, right? Great, let’s hike up to it!
The Harding Ice Field Hike in Kenai Fjords National Park is roughly 9 miles round-trip with over 3,000ft of elevation gain. This is pretty steep, but I also have to mention that part of it is in the ice/snow. If there’s still snow on the trail, this hike is not for the faint of heart. The first 3 miles drain you with the steep incline. Then, you get to the snowy part and have to keep your footing on a similar steep incline.
Don’t worry – there are a few options for you if you’re not feeling that adventurous. First, I’d make sure to stop in the visitor’s center to talk to a ranger. They will be able to tell you how the trail conditions are and when the snow starts. There were two overlooks with AMAZING views before we ever got to snow. I’d still recommend this hike to get to these overlooks if you don’t make it to the top.
If you do want to try to make it all the way, hiking poles are very helpful in the snow as well as microspikes. I will say, there were plenty of people that did this hike without spikes, but I don’t know if I, personally, could have finished without them. At the top, you’ll find a small shelter that you can warm up in before you head back down.
3. Seeing the Northern Lights in Winter (Fairbanks)
I know the Northern Lights are on almost everyone’s bucket list and Alaska is an excellent place to see them! You’ll need to visit in Fall or Winter for your best chances at catching the Aurora Borealis. We visited in late December and we saw them almost every night we were there. This is uncommon, but it does happen.
Anchorage does get their fair share of sightings, but to increase your chances even more, head even further north to Fairbanks, Alaska, and pick an accomodation that is outside of town. I chose The Taste of Alaska Lodge when we visited and it was perfect. There was absolutely no light pollution around us and they even did courtesy calls to let you know when the lights were out so you could go outside.
Pro tip: keep an eye on this Aurora Forecast from University of Alaska. The higher the KP Index is, the more likely you’ll see them!
4. Skiing at Alyeska Resort (Girdwood)
If you like winter sports like skiing, snowboarding, snowmobiling, etc., Alaska will be a huge playground to you in winter! Alyeska Ski Resort is a famous spot for skiiers to come from around the world. The lodge, itself, is beautiful, so it would be a great place to stay if you are skiing multiple days.
Their ski season lasts about five months out of the year and they offer everything from day passes to season passes. I would consider myself somewhere between beginner and intermediate and the smaller hills at Alyeska were perfect for me. Austin tried snowboarding for the first time here and it was difficult for him to make it down, so I would recommend having some experience before coming here, unless you want to sign up for a lesson.
5. Seeing Wolves and Bears at Alaska Wildlife Concervation Center (Girdwood)
Of course, when you go to Alaska, you’ll want to see wildlife! Visiting the Alaska Wildlife Concervation Center (AWCC) is an almost guaranteed way to see wolves, bears, moose, and more while you’re there. This center takes in injured and abandoned animals from all over Alaska and rehabilitates them. Oftentimes, they can’t reintroduce them back into the wild because they become dependent on humans, so they have a home for life here.
The AWCC has over 200 acres of land for these animals and their goal is to give them as wild of a life as they can while still making sure they are safe.
While we were there, I was shocked to see how comfortable the animals were around humans. Of course, they rely on humans for food and care, but it seemed like they were all very comfortable coming right up to the fence which was about four feet from where we were standing. It was incredible to see these magestic animals so close!
6. Dog Sledding in the Mountains (Fairbanks)
Dog sledding is HUGE in Alaska in winter. In some parts of the state, locals rely on dog sleds as their transportation because roads either don’t exist or aren’t plowed often enough. Dog sledding should definitely be on your Alaska bucket list when you’re visiting in winter.
The company we chose to do our tour with was Black Spruce Dog Sledding in Fairbanks, Alaska. We started early in the morning and got to greet all of the dogs as they were waking up and getting excited for the day. Our guide was an Iditerod Racer, and as he was hooking the dogs up to their harnesses, you could tell they were getting excited by all the barking, jumping, and tail wagging going on!
We set off into the mountains. One of us was sitting on the sled and the other was standing behind. Rushing through the snow-covered pine trees was magic. It’s possible to see wildlife on this tour, but we didn’t during our ride. We did stop at the top for some pictures, though!
If you’re hesitent to do this because you’re worried about the well-being of the dogs, I’d suggest researching the company you’re thinking of going with beforehand. At Black Spruce, it is clear that the dogs are well taken care of and they love what they’re doing. These dogs are bred to do this. They love a trail, they love to pull, and they love having a job to do. I can attest every time I try to take my Siberian Husky hiking with me! He would love nothing more than to pull a sled in the snow.
7. Snowmobiling Through Snow-covered Pine Trees (Girdwood)
I’ll likely mention snow-covered pine trees a few times in this artcle because to me, there truly isn’t a more magical sight. In winter, Alaska is full of them! If you’re staying in or near anchorage, drive down Seward Highway to the small town of Girdwood. Here, you can embark on a snowmobile tour with Glacier City Snowmobile Tours and check snow machines (as the locals call them) off your Alaska bucket list!
This tour was very beginner-friendly. We also stopped halfway through to build a fire and eat lunch near a shelter. I highly recommend booking ahead of time. I also recommend the ice cream shop in the same strip mall you’ll visit to start your tour.
8. Staying at a Cozy Bed and Breakfast
When it’s cold and snowy outside, there’s no better feeling than stepping inside to a warm fire, shedding your clothing layers, and grabbing a cup of coffee or hot chocolate. You’ll get all that and more at the Taste of Alaska Lodge in Fairbanks, Alaska.
This lodge is set away from the city of Fairbanks, so you’ll need to rent a car to get to it, but it’s away from light pollution and in the perfect location to see the Northern Lights. When we visited in December, we saw the Aurora Borealis every night we stayed here. Since it usually happens in the middle of the night, they’ll even do courtesy calls when they see it!
My favorite thing about this bed and breakfast was the breakfasts every morning. It really felt like I was staying with family the way everyone gathered in the dining room to share a meal together before we started our separate days.
9. Hiking in Talkeetna to Catch a Glimpse of Denali
The Denali peak is very ellusive in Alaska. It’s said that only 30% of visitors see any part of Denali, and only 20% of visitors see the peak. Our local guide explained that since Denali is so tall (the tallest peak in North America), it has its own weather system and is often surrounded by storm clouds, making it difficult to see.
That said, if you’re in Talkeetna on a rare, clear day, the Curry Ridge Trail is perfect for catching a breathtaking glimpse of Denali. This trail is located in Denali State Park. It’s actually easier to see Denali from the state park, rather than Denali National Park because you’re a little further from the peak.
You can also drive around the state park and catch glimpses of Denali from a number of turn off points as well.
While you’re in this area, I’d head to the small town of Talkeena to spend an afternoon walking around their shops or sipping a beer in Denali Brewing Brewpub. If you end up missing the Denali peak, you might catch a glimpse of the mayor of Talkeena whose name is also Denali. This mayor just so happens to be a cat who took over when the previous mayor, Stubbs, died in 2017.
10. Riding on the Alaska Railroad
While you’ll want to rent a car if you’re flying into Alaska, the Alaska Railroad makes for an excellent mode of transportation to travel long distances. The railroad spans from Seward to Fairbanks, Alaska with several stops along the way. When we visited, we flew into Fairbanks, took the train to Anchorage, and then flew home from Anchorage.
This route takes you through Denali National Park, so this is another chance to see the peak!
Whether you take the railroad in winter or summer, you’ll get spectactular views the entire way. On board, they have a meal car serving tasty meals, or you can opt to bring your own food. The journey from Fairbanks to Anchorage took 12 hours, so we had a couple of meals on the train.
Trains are such a unique form of transportation to me because they take you through places that cars can’t go, and that you’d likely never walk to. For this reason, the Alaska railroad needs a spot on your Alaska bucket list!