18 Essential Things to Know about Alaska Before You Go

Welcome to the captivating realm of Alaska, a land as expansive as the curiosity of a cat. Affectionately called the 49th state, Alaska offers a realm of feline fascination. Stretching over 663,000 square miles of untamed territory, Alaska is the largest state in the United States. From towering mountains to unspoiled coastlines, this territory is a beacon for cats who want to prowl through its hidden treasures.

As we embark on this journey through the Last Frontier, you’ll discover the wonders that make Alaska a place like no other on Earth – a place where a cat’s inquisitiveness meets nature’s grandeur. From the captivating dance of the Northern Lights to the regal presence of Denali, the highest peak in North America, Alaska offers a tapestry of delights. Whether you’re planning a visit or simply curious, this guide provides plenty of things to know about Alaska. 

When to Visit

Alaska offers unique experiences in every season. Whether you’re chasing the Midnight Sun, embracing the snow-covered landscapes, or looking for a quieter adventure, Alaska has something to offer during every season.

Summer Months: June to August (Peak Season)

Alaska’s summer months, from June to August, are the peak season. During this time travelers experience nearly 24 hours of daylight in the Land of the Midnight Sun. This time of year offers a fantastic opportunity to maximize your adventures and explore to your heart’s content.

Summer is also a great time for wildlife enthusiasts, especially those interested in bird sightings. Each summer millions of birds migrate to Alaska to feed, mate, and raise their young. The abundance of plant life, insects, and fish makes Alaska the premier destination for many rare birds like the Gray-headed Chickadee, the Emperor Goose, and Kittlitz’s Murrelets. 

Things to know about Alaska - summer in Alaska, coastline in June
Alaska in June

Perhaps the best reason to visit Alaska in the summer is the weather. Most days the temperature will range between 60 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit, with the temperature rising the further you get from the coast. Prolonged sunlight and mild temperatures are sure to keep you invigorated for your Alaskan adventures! 

Winter Months: November to March

While winter months may not be the first choice for some travelers, they offer a unique and enchanting side of Alaska. Winter is the prime time for witnessing the mesmerizing Northern Lights. The extended darkness and clear skies create the perfect backdrop for this celestial display.

Another great reason to visit this time of year is winter sports. Skiing and snowboarding enthusiasts travel from all over the world to experience Alaska’s pristine wilderness. You can also try out some more traditional Alaskan activities like dogsledding, snowmobiling, or ice fishing.

Finally, winter in Alaska is chock-full of festivities that keep a lively feel throughout the long stretches of darkness. Aside from events surrounding the Iditarod, the world-famous dog sled race, events like the NYO (Native Youth Olympics) Games and the Fairbanks World Ice Art Championships draw crowds of interested onlookers each year.

The Shoulder Seasons: April-May and September

The shoulder seasons serve as a bridge between the summer and winter months, offering a more serene and less crowded Alaskan experience.

While the weather during these can be less predictable, it is generally still nice enough to be outside for long stretches of time. The shoulder seasons tend to bring a mix of rain and snow, leaving the ground muddier and iceier than in the winter. During the spring this means increased water flow through Alaska’s pristine rivers and rushing waterfalls throughout the state. 

The shoulder seasons are a great time to view wildlife. During the spring the bears are their most active as they start to come out of hibernation. This is also the time of year when moose give birth. During the fall you may have the joy of watching Alaska’s fat bears going into hibernation as well as the mating season for moose. 

While you may deal with some unpredictable weather, if you are looking to see Alaska without the crowds, the shoulder seasons are a great time to visit. 

How to get around

With all of its grandeur and beauty, simply traveling within the state of Alaska is a treat in and of itself. One thing that makes Alaska unique is that most of the state is not accessible by the freeway. “The highway system”, as the locals call it only covers a small portion of the state. Some of Alaska’s most popular destinations require access by either airplane or boat. This goes for Juneau, the state capital! With that said, to see the real Alaska, you’ll need multiple forms of transit. 

Exploring by car

Embarking on a road trip through Alaska is a fantastic way to experience the state’s diverse beauty and captivating scenery. Touring Alaska in a car provides a lot of flexibility to stop and explore the many wonders you’ll find on your way. 

Things to know about Alaska - road trip to Fairbanks in January
Road trip to Fairbanks in January

One thing to keep in mind, however, is that in some remote areas, gas stations can be scarce. A good rule of thumb is to always gas up when you see one! Depending on how far you are going, you may also want to stock up on food before your trip. In some towns restaurants and grocery stores close early and you don’t want to risk arriving at your destination with nothing to eat. 

With that said, however, exploring Alaska by car remains a popular choice due to the flexibility it offers. 

Taking the train

The Alaska Railroad offers travelers a unique and picturesque way to explore the state’s natural wonders. One reason that travelers may choose to take a train is the panoramic vistas of Alaska’s stunning landscapes. In fact, the Alaska Railroad is widely considered one of the most scenic railroads in the entire world. Snaking through grand mountain ranges and hugging the rugged coastline, a ride on the Alaska Railroad gives guests a view of Alaska that you can not get anywhere else. 

Aside from traveling between the main towns in Alaska, you can also utilize the train to access backcountry wilderness. One popular destination is Spencer Glacier Whistlestop, which is just a short walk away from Spencer Glacier and Spencer Lake. This area is best known for its dramatic icebergs and extensive hiking.


While flying is often the quickest way to get from point A to point B, it can also provide amazing views of nature. Flying over Alaska’s snow-capped mountains and unique coastline is a great way to take in the unique landscape. 

In addition to efficiency, travel by air is actually required to access some parts of Alaska. For example, most of southeastern Alaska is not connected to the highway system. This includes popular destinations like Juneau and Glacier Bay National Park

Finally, chartering a flight to remote destinations is a popular way to explore Alaska. In fact, many wilderness lodges provide fly-in and fly-out services. Flight charters are also a common way to access bear-viewing tours and remote fishing adventures. 

Exploring by sea

Alaska’s extensive coastline and numerous islands make ferry travel a unique and picturesque option. The Alaska Marine Highway System runs a series of ferry routes that connect most of the major coastal towns. While the ferry can be a slower way to travel, it is scenic in a completely different way than traveling on the road. 

One amazing way to appreciate the famous Inside Passage is to take the ferry route from Seattle to Anchorage. Another popular option is to take a day boat between Whitter and Valdez, which is a great way to see Prince William Sound. 

Alaskan Cruises

You can’t talk about exploring Alaska without mentioning the quintessential Alaskan cruise. Cruise ships are a popular way to explore Alaska due to their unique blend of luxury, adventure, and access to wilderness. Taking in Alaska’s landscapes from the deck of your cruise ship is a comfortable way to get up close and personal with Alaska’s towering glaciers and snow-capped peaks. 

View of the Inside Passage in Alaska
Sailing through the Inside Passage

Aside from access to the amazing landscape, cruising through Alaska also affords many opportunities for wildlife viewing. From the deck of your ship, you may spot humpback whales, orcas, sea otters, and so much more. Bald eagles soar overhead, and the chance to witness grizzly bears foraging along the shoreline is a thrilling highlight of many Alaskan cruises.

In addition to viewing wildlife from the ship, you’ll also have the opportunity to disembark in a few different coastal towns. Taking a cruise through Alaska is a great way to easily experience multiple towns and have access to adventures like glacier tours, dog sledding, deep-sea fishing, and aurora viewing. 

While cruises are a great way to see the coastal areas of the state, you may want to pair your cruise with some extended exploration on land so that you can see some of the interior parts of Alaska like Fairbanks and Denali National Park. 

Some of the most popular cruises around Alaska are run by Holland America, Disney, Princess Cruises, and Royal Caribbean. 

The history of the people

The history of Alaska is rooted in its diverse cultures and the traditions of its indigenous peoples, who have inhabited this land for thousands of years. These remarkable communities have forged an enduring connection with Alaska’s pristine landscapes and are an integral part of the state’s identity.

Alaska’s indigenous history dates back over 10,000 years. Archaeological evidence suggests that the first settlers crossed the Bering Land Bridge from Asia, entering the vast wilderness that would become Alaska. These early peoples developed unique languages, cultures, and societies tailored to their surroundings.

Today Alaska remains home to a multitude of indigenous groups, each with its distinct heritage. Among the most prominent are the Iñupiat, Yup’ik, Aleut, Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian, to name just a few. These cultures thrived in a variety of environments, from the Arctic tundra to the temperate rainforests and coastal regions.

The arrival of European explorers and settlers in the 18th century brought significant changes to Alaska’s indigenous communities. The fur trade, diseases, and cultural shifts presented challenges, yet indigenous peoples demonstrated resilience, adapting to new circumstances while preserving as much of their culture as possible. 

Things to know about Alaska - the Healing Totem Pole in Glacier Bay  National Park
Healing Totem Pole in Glacier Bay National Park

Today, Alaska’s indigenous cultures are experiencing a resurgence. Language revitalization efforts, traditional art forms, and cultural festivals contribute to a vibrant and enduring heritage. Indigenous voices play a crucial role in shaping the state’s policies and environmental stewardship. 

If you are lucky enough to visit Alaska make sure to stop by local museums like the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage to learn more about the history of the land. Depending on the time of year you are traveling you can also check out a multitude of events like the Nalukataq—Spring Whaling Celebration, World Eskimo Indian Olympics (WEIO), or the Festival of Native Arts.

Main areas to visit

Choosing which area to visit in Alaska depends on your interests. The landscape is so varied that it’s almost like 4 states in one. From dense rainforests to sky-high mountain tops, you’ll have a lot of options for adventure no matter where you go. 

Southeastern Alaska

Southeastern Alaska, often referred to as the “Panhandle” region, stands out as a truly unique and enchanting part of the state. Somewhat separated from the rest of this state, this area has a distinctive climate, and history as well as many unique activities to enjoy. Keep in mind that Southeastern Alaska is not connected to the road system, so you’ll need to either fly or take a ferry to access this coastal wonderland.  

Home to one of the world’s largest temperate rainforests, this area is characterized by abundant rainfall and lush greenery. The Tongass National Forest, covering much of the region, showcases towering Sitka spruce and western hemlock trees, creating a mystical landscape that contrasts with the stark wilderness found in other parts of Alaska.

The Panhandle is dotted with charming coastal towns like Juneau, Sitka, Ketchikan, and Skagway. These communities have a maritime heritage and a rich history tied to fishing and trading. Visiting Southeastern Alaska is a distinct cultural experience, reflecting its connection to the sea.

This area is also home to Glacier Bay National Park, which boasts stunning fjords and tidewater glaciers. This national park does a particularly good job of preservation by limiting boat traffic in protected areas. The boat tour, offered by the National Park Service is the best way to explore this amazing park. 

Juneau, Alaska
Juneau, Alaska

While you are in the area, make sure to take some time to learn about the indigenous peoples who originally occupied the land. Southeastern Alaska is the ancestral homeland of the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian peoples. These cultures have a deep-rooted connection to the land and sea and can be experienced at cultural centers like the Alaska State Museum.

Anchorage & surrounding area

Home to the state’s major airport, most travelers will pass through the city of Anchorage. Spending time in Anchorage is a great way to get to know what day-to-day life in Alaska really looks like. While Alaska is best known for attractions outside of the city, there are still plenty of great things to do in and around Anchorage. 

Within the town of Anchorage, you’ll find an 11-mile coastal trail that starts downtown. This is a great place to get near the water and stretch your legs. If you are looking for something more urban, downtown has a plethora of good seafood restaurants and pubs. The 49th State Brewing Company is particularly popular due to its rooftop patio with a 360-degree view. 

If you are looking for a quick day trip from Anchorage, check out Girdwood and Whittier. Girdwood, just 45 minutes south of Anchorage is best known for the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center and the Alyeska Ski Resort. Even if you are visiting in the summer, Alyeska has a scenic ariel tram that is always a crowd pleaser. 

Just 30 minutes beyond Girdwood, you’ll find the picturesque town of Whittier. Whittier is a great access point for Portage Glacier, one of the more popular glaciers in the state. The area around Portage Glacier also has a ton of great hiking. Make sure to spend some time in town though so you can enjoy great seafood, as well as, amazing views of Prince William Sound.

Interior Alaska

Interior Alaska is mostly wilderness and best known for its dramatic mountain ranges and great views of the aurora Borealis. Home to Denali National Park, many nature enthusiasts travel here each year. The main town in Interior Alaska is Fairbanks, which is easily accessible by car, plane, and train. 

Perhaps the best reason to tour Interior Alaska is to see the crown jewel of the state, Denali National Park. This massive wilderness area encompasses the towering Denali, North America’s highest peak, and its surrounding wilderness. The park’s rugged terrain, diverse wildlife, and awe-inspiring landscapes are just a few reasons to add Denali to your Alaskan itinerary

Due to its distance from the coastline, Interior Alaska tends to have clearer skies in both the summer and winter. This means the best views of the aurora Borealis in the winter and a more extreme experience of the midnight sun in the summer. One must-do activity is a visit to Chena Hot Springs, located just outside of Fairbanks. These hot springs are well known as one of the best places to view the northern lights during wintertime. 

The vast areas of untouched land also make this area a haven for wildlife enthusiasts. It is one of the best places to spot iconic Alaskan animals, including grizzly bears, moose, caribou, wolves, and Dall sheep. Here you’ll find plenty of incredible opportunities for wildlife viewing and photography.

Mt Denali, as seen from Talkeetna, Alaska
Mt. Denali

The town of Fairbanks also has a lot to offer. Hosting some of the state’s most popular cultural events like the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics (WEIO) and the Midnight Sun Festival, Fairbanks is a popular destination for Alaskans as well as travelers from around the world. Make sure to also check out the Museum of the North to learn about the history of the land. 

The Kenai Peninsula

The Kenai Peninsula, located in southern Alaska, is well regarded as one of the most beautiful areas of the state. Home to scenic seaside towns like Homer and Seward, this is where Alaskans go to relax.

This region is renowned for its rugged coastline along the Gulf of Alaska and the stunning Kenai Fjords National Park. Here, visitors can witness massive tidewater glaciers calving into the ocean, explore intricate fjords, and spot marine wildlife such as humpback whales, orcas, sea otters, and harbor seals. 

The Kenai Peninsula is also a fishing enthusiast’s dream. It is famous for its salmon runs, including the prized king salmon and sockeye salmon, attracting anglers from all over the world. The Kenai River, in particular, is renowned for its fishing opportunities and record-breaking salmon catches. 

Aside from fishing, there are plenty of other outdoor activities to explore on the Kenai Peninsula. From hiking and camping in the Chugach National Forest to kayaking in the Kenai Fjords, there are endless opportunities to immerse yourself in Alaska’s stunning nature. 

Finally, visitors to the Kenai Peninsula should not miss the charming coastal towns of Seward, Homer, and Kenai. These quaint, coastal communities offer a blend of local culture, excellent restaurants, and vibrant arts scenes. Homer, in particular, is known for its quirky and artistic community, as well as its iconic Spit, a narrow strip of land extending into Kachemak Bay.

National Parks

Alaska is a land of untamed beauty, where rugged wilderness stretches as far as the eye can see. Within this vast expanse lies a treasure trove of national parks. Alaska boasts a total of eight main national parks: Denali, Gates of the Arctic, Glacier Bay, Katmai, Kenai Fjords, Kobuk Valley, Lake Clark, and Wrangell-St. Elias.

In this article, we’ll deep dive into Alaska’s most celebrated and awe-inspiring national parks: Denali, Glacier Bay, Kenai Fjords, and Wrangell-St. Elias. 


Denali National Park is a place where nature’s grandeur is on full display. Upon entering the park, visitors are greeted by the continent’s highest peaks. Dominating the Alaskan skyline, the namesake Denali, formerly known as Mount McKinley, reigns supreme at 20,310 feet.

This national park is a sanctuary for those who seek the true Alaskan wilderness. It sprawls across six million acres, offering a pristine landscape where wilderness remains largely untouched. While there are some short trails near the entrance of the park, Denali is really known for the opportunity to explore a trailless wilderness. 

For those who want to get off the trails, but are not prepared for overnight camping, Denali also offers a handful of wilderness lodges located at the end of the park road. While experiencing the Alaskan backcountry, from the comfort of an off-grid lodge can be expensive, it is sure to provide a once-in-a-lifetime experience. 

Glacier Bay

Located in the southeastern part of the state, Glacier Bay National Park is a testament to the transformative power of glaciers. It’s well known for being one of the best places on Earth to witness the spectacle of glacial retreat and the birth of new landscapes.

Things to know about Alaska - tidewater glacier in Glacier Bay National Park
Tidewater glacier in Glacier Bay National Park

At Glacier Bay National Park, immense tidewater glaciers reach down to the sea, calving icebergs into the frigid waters below. One of the best places to witness this natural marvel is from the decks of the tour boats that navigate the icy fjords. These excursions offer a front-row seat to the breathtaking scenery and the opportunity to spot marine life like humpback whales, sea otters, and harbor seals.

Land lovers can explore lush rainforests, hike through colorful wildflowers, and spot wildlife like brown bears and bald eagles. The park is also home to a rich cultural heritage, with a history intertwined with the indigenous Tlingit people.

Kenai Fjords

Kenai Fjords National Park, located on the rugged coast of the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska, is a place of beauty and remarkable wildlife. This national park is renowned for its stunning fjords, tidewater glaciers, and abundant marine life, making it a must-see destination for nature enthusiasts.

Home to numerous tidewater glaciers that flow down from the Harding Icefield, you’ll enjoy awe-inspiring vistas and witness calving icebergs into the waters below. The park also has one glacier that can be reached by a hiking trail, called Exit Glacier. This is a popular attraction as it is one of the most accessible glaciers in the entire state. 

Perhaps one of the park’s most captivating attractions is its thriving population of sea otters. These charismatic marine mammals are often spotted floating on their backs, using tools to crack open shellfish, and frolicking in the chilly waters. Their playful antics make them a favorite among visitors.

The best way to experience Kenai Fjords National Park is via a boat tour. Several tour operators will take you deep into the fjords to view wildlife, and glaciers, and learn about how the land is changing over time. 

Wrangell-St. Elias

Wrangell-St. Elias National Park is a true gem in the Alaskan wilderness. It is an awe-inspiring expanse that encompasses over 20,000 square miles, making it the largest national park in the United States. Located in the eastern part of Alaska, near the border with Canada’s Yukon Territory, this park is a testament to the grandeur of the Last Frontier.

At Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, visitors are treated to a vast and diverse landscape that includes towering mountains, gigantic glaciers, deep valleys, and pristine rivers. The park is named after two of its major mountain ranges, the Wrangell and St. Elias Mountains, which are part of the larger Pacific Ring of Fire.

One of the park’s prominent features is the mighty Mount St. Elias, which stands as one of the tallest peaks in North America, reaching heights of 18,008 feet. Adventurers and mountaineers flock to the park to conquer its challenging summits and witness its dramatic glacial landscapes.

Whether you’re hiking through alpine meadows, rafting along pristine rivers, or simply soaking in the breathtaking vistas, a visit to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park is a great opportunity to connect with the untamed spirit of Alaska.

Touring the Arctic

Finally, we can not write about Alaska, without mentioning access to the Arctic Circle. While you can technically drive into the Arctic Circle using the Dalton Highway, the highway has a lot of damage from potholes, there is no cell service, and is extremely remote. For safety purposes, it’s recommended to take a tour. The good news is that there are plenty of tours that will drive or fly you into the Arctic Circle.  

This remote and pristine area is known for its extreme conditions, where temperatures can plummet, but it also offers unparalleled opportunities for wildlife viewing and experiencing the Arctic’s untouched beauty.

One highlight of touring the Arctic is the chance to witness the Arctic Ocean. Whether it’s viewing frozen sea ice or taking a dip in its frigid waters, the Arctic Ocean is a central feature of this region. Tour operators often organize activities that facilitate engagement with this unique environment.

The Arctic is also home to a diverse range of wildlife, including polar bears, muskoxen, and Arctic foxes. While exploring, keep an eye out for these incredible creatures, and remember to maintain a respectful distance to protect both their habitat and your safety.

Many Arctic tours also provide opportunities to connect with indigenous communities, such as the Inuit, Aleut, and Yup’ik peoples. These cultural interactions offer a deeper understanding of the Arctic’s rich heritage and traditions.

The last thing to keep in mind about touring the Arctic is how the time of year will affect your experience. If you visit in the height of summer you can expect 24 hours of daylight as well as bearable temperatures (up to 40 degrees Fahrenheit!). If you choose to visit in the winter you can experience 24 hours of darkness as well as one of the most dramatic landscapes the world has to offer. Winter tour operators will often help with appropriate clothing and gear to stay safe in this extreme environment. 

Conclusion on things to know about Alaska

Alaskan Wildlife - Black bear outside of Anchorage
Black bear, spotted outside of Anchorage

From the mesmerizing Northern Lights to the regal Mt. Denali, Alaska offers a tapestry of delights. Whether you’re planning a visit or simply curious about this magnificent state there are certainly a lot of things to know about Alaska! 

This unique state can be toured by car, train, ferry, or plane and will provide a different kind of experience for each season. Alaska is so large and diverse that you can always find a new experience. 

From the rainforests of Southeastern Alaska to the vast tundra of the Arctic Circle, Alaska offers a vast array of outdoor activities in a variety of ecosystems. And while you are exploring, don’t forget to check out some of the state’s best National Parks like Glacier Bay and Wrangell-St. Elias.  

Whether you are chasing wildlife or deep diving into the history of Indigenous peoples, Alaska has something for everyone. Its beauty, diversity, and sense of adventure make it a place like no other on Earth.

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