Alaskan Adventures – How to become your own cruise director

After spending the summer of 2021 enjoying a wide range of Alaskan adventures, I’m convinced this is the next great travel destination of our time. Its abject beauty, distinct culture, easy access to outdoor adventures, and small crowds make this a dream trip for any traveler seeking a new kind of experience. Whether you are a WFH nomad, slow traveling for fun, on a fast-travel vacation from your corporate job, or just looking to get lost somewhere new, Alaska is sure to give you what you need. 

Alaskan Adventures - winter sunrise in Alaska
Winter sunrise in Alaska

To truly experience this awe-inspiring place, you must follow one rule. Do not set foot on a cruise ship. I know, it’s “common knowledge” the best way to see Alaska is from a cruise ship. And if you are looking for a “common” travel experience, that may be true.

However, this is a site for those seeking an extraordinary experience. As we all know, following the typical travel script will only land you in groups of other tourists, waiting for a curated “experience” that fails to reflect the true nature of the place being visited. Lucky for us, Alaska doesn’t even know the meaning of the word curated.

So, we agree, cruises are off the table. Now you may be wondering how to start planning your own Alaskan adventures? Glad you asked.    

What time of year to embark on Alaskan Adventures

This is the most common question when planning a trip to Alaska. While Alaska has all 4 seasons, summer (June-August) and winter (December-March) are by far the best times to visit. 

During the summer, you can truly experience Alaskan adventures at their best. Some highlights include the salmon run, summer solstice, glacier exploration, sealife tours, kayaking, deep-sea fishing, wildlife photography, ATV adventures, hiking, camping and so much more. 

Alaskan Adventures - winter in Alaska
Winter in Alaska

With that said, the winter provides some very intriguing Alaskan adventures, as well. Some activities include viewing the aurora borealis from Chena Hot Springs, exploring the untouched wilderness by snowmobile, visiting ice caves, ice fishing, ice skating, downhill skiing, snowboarding, cross country skiing, snowshoeing, and more. With only 5 hours of sunlight at the height of winter, Alaskans know how to make the most of the day. 

While Alaska is always stunning, the weather for the rest of the year can be challenging. As summer and winter transition into each other, expect plenty of ice and mud. These weather conditions can prevent driving, as well as a lot of outdoor activities. 

Getting to Alaska

Depending on your current location and duration of stay, you have three options to get to Alaska. 

Fly

You can access the airport in Anchorage (ANC) on every major airline. The benefit of flying is speed and cost. The downside is that you’ll need to figure out your own ground transportation once you arrive. If you are going for a quick vacation, I’d recommend shelling out for the high cost of a rental vehicle during the duration of your stay. You can try the major rental companies or use a peer-to-peer platform like Turo. My personal recommendation is to rent an adventure vehicle from Outdoorsy. Not only is this a great way to see Alaska, but it will also save you the cost of hotels during your stay. No matter your choice, remember to book early! Alaska is famous for low car inventory, especially in the summer. 

Protip: Planning on slow traveling this great state? One unique way to deal with transportation is to buy and resell a car during your stay. 

Take the ferry from Seattle to Anchorage

Sunset from the Seattle to Anchorage Ferry
Alaskan sunset in August

A once-in-a-lifetime experience, taking the Alaskan Ferry is one for the ages. The upside is that you’ll arrive in Alaska with your own vehicle while avoiding the high mileage of driving through Canada. The downside is the cost which is anywhere from $2500-$3000 one way, for a standard sedan. It’s also worth noting that the ferry is a slow mode of transit. You can expect a direct route to take around 5 days and 4 nights.  

Drive through Canada

Also an amazing experience, this option will land you in Alaska with your own vehicle. You’ll save on the high cost of the ferry ticket, but pay an additional 2260 miles on your car (assuming you leave from Seattle). Additionally, with a total drive time of 42 hours, your time commitment is similar. When planning your trip, also keep in mind weather and road conditions. This route is only recommended for May through September. 

Where to go

At 663,000+ square miles, planning to travel in Alaska can feel intimidating. However, once you realize the simplicity of the highway system, it’s easy to divide the state into regions. 

Anchorage + surrounding area

Home to the largest commercial airport in the state, Anchorage plays the role of home base for many travelers. The most densely populated part of Alaska, Anchorage, and its surrounding area is chock-full of Alaskan adventures.

Aside from Anchorage, this region includes Girdwood (home to the famous Alyeska Ski Resort), Whittier, and Portage Valley. It’s known for glaciers, the coastal bike trail, hiking, breweries, and Turnagain Arm, one of the most scenic drives in the state. One could easily spend weeks doing day trips from Anchorage, but what’s the fun in that?

The Kenai Peninsula

Homer, Alaska

Welcome to a place that is so pristinely beautiful, the locals vacation here. Located southwest of Anchorage, this area is the classic Alaskan experience. 

Here you can visit the charming seaside villages of Seward and Homer, take a sealife tour, appreciate a myriad of river-based activities at Cooper’s Landing and go halibut fishing in Halibut Cove. 

Interior Alaska

For a completely different experience, travel to interior Alaska, where the population thins as the weather grows harsher. Dominated by the Alaskan Range and Susitna River, this area includes some highly sought-after adventures. 

The main towns in the area are Wasilla, Palmer, Talkeetna, and Fairbanks. Here you can chase a glance at the elusive Mount Denali, soak in Chena Hot Springs, hike on Matanuska Glacier, take a flightseeing tour or try to see the aurora borealis. This part of the state is truly wild and you never know what to expect.  

Southeast Alaska

Located furthest away from Anchorage, the best way to access this area is via flight or ferry. Despite its distance, exploring Southeast Alaska is worth the effort. A short flight will transport you to a completely different ecosystem. 

This area includes the state capital of Juneau, as well as, Sitka and Ketchikan. This is the home to Tongass, the United State’s largest National Forest and Glacier Bay National Park.

Top 5 Alaskan Adventures you can’t miss

No matter where you find yourself, there are a few adventure themes that run through the entire state. Make sure to plan time for these popular activities during your travels:  

Experience the glaciers

Seward Tours example - Aialik Glacier at Kenai Fjords National Park
Aialik Glacier

The very old and powerful masses of ice are literally reshaping the land as we speak. Visit both the valley and tidewater glaciers for an amazing glimpse into their history and natural beauty. You’ll have several options for experiencing glaciers. You can hike on top of them (requires a guide), hike near them, take a kayak, or cruise by on a boat. If you go in the summer you may just get lucky and witness calving, where parts of the glacier break off into the water.  

Explore by rail

The best-known railroad experience is the Alaska Railroad, which makes stops in Anchorage, Whittier, Seward, Talkeetna, and Fairbanks. Well renowned by travel authorities, this is an amazing way to see the backcountry of Alaska. If you are staying in Southeast Alaska, you can also check out the White Pass Yukon Route, based out of Skagway. They provide scenic day trips or overnight adventures. 

Take a sealife tour

There are many options to take a scenic boat ride on Alaska’s stunning coastline. The tour operators know where the wildlife lives, so you’ll get a good chance at spotting some of Alaska’s most beloved residents like the humpback whale, puffins, sea otters, harbor seals, coastal brown bears, and more. The Kenai Fjords boat tour, based out of Seward is highly recommended. Additionally, the Glacier Bay boat tour, operated by the National Park Service is the best reason to trek to Southeast Alaska.   

Drive a ATV or Snowmobile

Train rides in Alaska - the coastal classic
Alaska Railroad

Want to experience Alaska like a local? Explore its vast nature via ATV in the summer or snowmobile in the winter. There’s something special about accessing the backcountry from the comfort of your own motorized vehicle. You can either hop on tour or, if you are more experienced, rent your own. Either way, you are guaranteed to have a uniquely Alaskan experience. 

Catch a fish

No Alaskan adventure is complete without a fishing charter. A cultural linchpin, fishing is a way of life for a lot of Alaskans. Take this opportunity to learn about this amazing craft. You’ll have a ton of options, ranging from taking a deep-sea fishing charter (great for beginners!) all the way up to learning the special techniques used for catching salmon in the rivers. 

It’s time to choose your own adventure

No matter your length of stay or reason for travel, Alaska has something to offer all of those who make the arduous trek to see her. With so many options, you can literally choose your own adventure in Alaska. 

Start with your mode of transportation, then region(s) to visit, and decide which activities to experience. For my first week in Alaska, I used my own car, stayed in Anchorage, hiked on a glacier, and took a train ride. 

Use this guide and the articles on this site to plan a customized vacation that will be full of adventure while keeping you away from the crowds.

For more travel content across the US, visit Travel Guides. Only interested in Alaska? Visit Alaska Travel Guides