How to Visit Alaska in 2021

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I often have clients say to me, “I’d love to visit Alaska,  but I don’t like boats.”  As the conversation progresses,  I then realize that because of the over-marketing of cruise ships,  many clients don’t realize that there are other ways to visit Alaska!  This is one of the most awe-inspiring states I’ve ever visited, and it’s my belief it’s the perfect match for so many travelers’ wishlists. Here are 5 ways to visit Alaska, all possible in 2021.

Alaska ticks all the boxes for travel in 2021:

  • Natural social distancing & wide open spaces – there are 17 national parks in Alaska & 16 wildlife refuges!
  • Trains currently have reduced capacity of 50%, reducing crowds even further 
  • Glaciers? Check.  Incredible National Parks? Check. Bears? Oh my! 

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Alaska by Rail or Shuttle Coach

Did you know it’s perfectly possible to see a wide variety of Alaskan sights without renting a car or participating in an organized escorted tour? This is the perfect solution for people who feel more comfortable traveling independently but don’t want to rent a car.

The beauty of this customizable option is that you can focus on the areas that you’re most interested in,  or spend additional time in towns that a guided tour might rush through.  You also can fully relax and enjoy the scenery and watch for wildlife by the tracks instead of worrying about your driving skills. And if you’re interested in winter travel,  you can often still enjoy a rail adventure even though cruises and guided tours have stopped running. (The Alaska Railroad regularly sells out in March for trips to Fairbanks to see the Northern Lights!)

Where can you go by train or shuttle? Here is just one sample itinerary for a rail-based vacation, but there are a million ways to customize.

From Anchorage, take the Glacier Discovery Train for a full day adventure. Your first stop is the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, home to bears, moose and more. Re-board the train to continue on to the Spencer Glacier Whistle Stop, where you’ll disembark to raft amid glacial icebergs in full view of Spencer Glacier. Ride the rail to Girdwood and overnight at the Hotel Alyeska.

The next day, enjoy spectacular views of backcountry glaciers aboard the Coastal Classic Train to the charming port town of Seward. You can overnight in Seward, or for an amazing wilderness experience travel by boat to your home for the evening: the island getaway of Kenai Fjords Wilderness Lodge.

Watch for wildlife and glaciers aboard a day cruise of stunning Resurrection Bay. Upon your return to Seward, board the Coastal Classic Train for a late evening arrival into Anchorage

After spending the night in Anchorage, you can travel to Denali National Park aboard the Denali Star Train. Upgrade to GoldStar Service for a glass-domed train carriage and hot meals included. This scenic, full-day trip from Anchorage offers views of Denali along with wildlife and backcountry beauty. The late afternoon arrival at the park leaves time for exploration and you’ll overnight close to the train depot.

On your first full day in Denali, take advantage of the best wildlife viewing as you travel 92 miles into the farthest reaches of the park on the restricted access park road. Incredible wildlife sightings are common, including grizzly bears, moose, wolves, foxes, caribou, eagles and much more. Spend the night at Denali Backcountry Lodge.

Denali Backcountry Lodge includes your meals and activities, so spend your second day here enjoying the Denali scenery, with options to hike, pan for gold, fish for grayling, mountain bike or just relax. Overnight at Denali Backcountry Lodge.

You’ll be transferred to the Denali Train Deposit for the short train trip to Talkeetna. This funky little village is known for its spectacular views of Denali. Arriving late in the afternoon, travelers can stretch their legs with a short guided hike, spotting wildlife and learning about old-growth forests. Overnight in Talkeetna.

In Talkeetna, a jetboat ride takes you deep into the National Wild River Park of Devil’s Gorge on a tour before reboarding the train. Depart on the Denali Star Train for the final leg from Talkeetna to Anchorage, arriving in the evening. Overnight in Anchorage – or if it’s more convenient, take the train from Talkeetna to Fairbanks for one last overnight and then fly home from Fairbanks (usually requires a layover in Anchorage).

This itinerary is also possible with certain coach bus shuttles to replace some of the train trips.

How to visit Alaska: Self-drive

It’s absolutely possible to do a self drive of Alaska if you’re someone who loves roadtrips or the flexibility of your own itinerary. Your self-drive vacation can still mirror many of the sample itineraries I’ve listed in this article – and there are indeed some areas of Alaska where the train doesn’t go. For instance, to fully explore the Kenai Peninsula, you do have to drive (or be on an escorted tour) as the train only goes as far as Seward and Whittier.

Here’s what I normally suggest for the Kenai Peninsula, known as “Alaska’s Playground” and home to some of the most photogenic areas of Alaska. This 7 day trip focuses solely on the Kenai area so you can see how you can choose a different area of Alaska to focus on each time you return!

  • Day 1 – Arrival in Anchorage
  • Day 2 – Today, start your tour with a scenic drive along Turnagain Arm, a National Scenic Byway. Watch for Dall sheep on the mountains to your left and for beluga whales in the ocean to your right. Recommended stops include Portage Glacier, the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, and Exit Glacier. Visit the state-of-the-art marine science aquarium, the Alaska SeaLife Center, at your leisure.
  • Day 3 – Seward is known as the gateway to Kenai Fjords National Park. Today, enjoy a 6-hour boat cruise into the park, a 1760 square mile coastal wilderness. This lush area is home to abundant wildlife, including humpback and orca whales, puffins, seals, and Stellar sea lions! Cruise up close to a tidewater glacier for a chance to watch the ice calve off into the ocean with a splash. Lunch is included.
  • Day 4 -Spend the day touring Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula. You will travel along the turquoise blue Kenai River, a world-class salmon fishing area. Continue to Homer with opportunities to stop in historic villages, or take advantage of great photographic opportunities along the Cook Inlet coastline. Homer is positioned at the end of the Sterling Highway on a 4.5-mile long spit of land stretching out into Kachemak Bay. This is as far west as you can drive in the Americas. Overnight in Homer.
  • Day 5 – Today is at your leisure to explore the town and the bustling Homer Spit, where you will find water taxis, bear viewing flights, and fishing charters available, as well as many gift shops and art galleries. Homer’s nickname is the “Halibut Fishing Capital of the World”. 
  • Day 6 – As you depart Homer, stop for a view across Cook Inlet of four active volcanoes. Continue back up the Sterling Highway to Soldotna or the small town of Kenai, both of which are located on the Kenai River. Overnight in Soldotna / Kenai.
  • Day 7 -Drive east on the Sterling Highway and then north on the Seward Highway to reach Girdwood. Girdwood is the home of one of the best hotels in Alaska, the Hotel Alyeska. In the afternoon you have the opportunity to do a hike through the rainforest. When blueberry season is in full swing, the trail is blooming with scrumptious delights sure to please everyone. For the more adventurous, there is a great trail leading up Mt Alyeska, offering amazing views of the surroundings and the Turnagain Arm.
  • Day 8-Depending on your flight departure time, you might have time for some more optional activities, such as a helicopter flight to a glacier for a dog sled ride on the snow. Drive back to Anchorage along the spectacular Turnagain Arm. Return your vehicle to the airport rental station before catching your flight home.

You can also drive north to Denali National Park, although bear in mind you can’t drive your own car into the park further than about 15 miles, which is why most people use the National Park Service buses and why it’s not as important to rent a car if your sole objective in Alaska is to visit Denali (it’s easily accessible by train and coach bus).

How to visit Alaska: Escorted Land Tours

For those who prefer to travel in small groups, Alaska is a fantastic destination for a guided tour. A small group tour can often get you to areas inaccessible by train or public shuttle, without worrying how to drive yourself there, and give you access to cultural immersion activities or behind the scenes VIP experiences.

Here are some of the highlights of many escorted tours:

  • Matanuska Valley, a region of scenic mountain vistas, spruce forests and thousands of lakes. Rustic lodges, farmsteads, and small towns unwind along wilderness highways until you arrive at Big Lake, a popular area for camping, fishing and water sports; in winter, the passion here is dog sledding, and the big annual event is the Iditarod race from Anchorage to Nome.
  • Happy Trails Kennel, where four-time Iditarod winner Martin Buser breeds and trains sled dogs for the world-famous 1,000-mile marathon
  • Talkeetna: with a population of less than 500 and one paved road, its rustic character offers a taste of small-town Alaska, from the general store to the roadhouse, as well as a staging area for climbing expeditions to Mt. McKinley.
  • Explore the scenic places surrounding Talkeetna on a morning hike with a naturalist guide. The town’s setting at the confluence of three rivers makes it an attractive area for outdoor sports, and a magnet for wildlife (beaver, moose, bears, and bald eagles) that frequent the lush forests and shorelines. Your morning hike takes you around Byers Lake, a true nature paradise inside Denali.
  • Visit the Talkeetna Historical Society Museum; the town evolved from gold mining days to its status today as the gateway to Denali (the peak formerly known as Mt. McKinley) and Denali National Park.
  • Board a ski plane for a flightseeing tour (weather permitting) of the national park. Denali (the Athabascan name, meaning “the High One”) lives up to its legend, soaring 20,000 feet above sea level, and your bird’s-eye view takes in all its breathtaking landscape, from alpine tundra and snowcapped peaks to vast rambling glaciers within Denali National Park.  If conditions allow, your ski plane may touch down on a glacier for an unforgettable close-up view, before you fly on to Wasilla.
  • Stay at Knik River Lodge, featuring wilderness cabins and the comforts of home, in a tranquil mountain setting.
  • Visit the nonprofit Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, where orphaned and displaced animals are cared for, rehabilitated, and sometimes re-released into the wild. =
  • Head to the coastal town of Seward, nestled beside Resurrection Bay on scenic Kenai Peninsula.
  • Full day’s excursion cruising the Kenai Fjord, where you’ll have an opportunity to learn about the species that live here. You may get a chance to see puffins, whales, porpoises, sea lions and other fish that whales feed on.
  • Go behind the scenes on a visit to the Alaska Sealife Center, an aquarium, ocean wildlife rescue center and research facility. Enjoy close encounters with puffins and octopus, and view other Alaskan sea life while rubbing shoulders with the scientists who study them.
  • Portage Glacier: one of the most visited glaciers close to Anchorage
  • From Anchorage, board a seaplane for Redoubt Mountain Lodge,  located within Lake Clark National Park and surrounded by stunning mountain landscapes. Today’s bear-watching excursion on beautiful Crescent Lake will be sure to awe and inspire you! Fly back to Anchorage the same day for your next-day flight home.

How to visit Alaska: Expedition cruises

Visiting Alaska by boat is still possible in 2021. Sailings with under 100 passengers are still scheduled, and most of these fall under the “expedition cruising” category (you can also charter a 6-8 passenger boat for just your family for a similar experience). One of these is UnCruise.

So many people still haven’t heard of Uncruise Adventures and they are just fabulous.  There’s a reason why they call themselves “UnCruise” – because they are defying stereotypes!  I’ve had cruisers who have been on umpteenth cruises who call their UnCruise experience “the best cruise I’ve ever been on”.  Here’s why you should consider them for an Alaska experience:

Small ships:   Their smallest is a 22 passenger boutique adventure yacht.   Their largest is an 86 guest expedition vessel.   You can’t get much smaller than that.

Unique ports:   Because of their size,  they often skip the “typical” ports that the largest cruise ships call on,  and instead can anchor in remote villages  or update their itinerary at a moment’s notice.  They can also go where the big ship can’t go into narrow channels or closer to calving glaciers.   They will even wake you (at your request) if the Northern Lights are spotted.   If the captain spots whales or other wildlife,  he can pause or rotate the ship for everyone to see,  instead of worrying about a schedule.   Don’t worry,  they still also will show you the sights and ports on your bucket list, like Glacier Bay National Park or Icy Strait.

Excursions:  All your meals and excursions are included – there is no upselling or add-ons.  Because of the ship’s small size,  they can launch sea kayaks and skiffs straight from the vessel and take you up close and personal to a glacier,  or have their expert guides help you land on a small island and go looking for salmon.   If you get cold,  staff will have hot chocolate and other treats waiting for you when you get back!

City stays in Alaska

Although I typically plan trips to Alaska for 7-10 days, it’s still possible to do a shorter stay if you’re willing to have a lot crammed into a short amount of time (5 days). I generally work with you to find out how active you want to be, what’s on your wishlist, and what type of Alaska experience you really want to have, before suggesting activities that are all doable with Anchorage as your base. Here’s an example for a client short on time but who wanted to cross off their bucket-list of glaciers, bears, and whales:

  • Day 1 – arrive in Anchorage (many flights from the East Coast will arrive late afternoon/evening so I don’t generally plan activities on this day)
  • Day 2 – roundtrip flight to Lake Clark National Park or Katmai National Park for bear viewing
  • Day 3 – train or drive to Seward for a day cruise in Kenai Fjords National Park
  • Day 4 – Glacier walk on Matanuska Glacier (tour guide and ice equipment provided)
  • Day 5 – Anchorage city tour and/or Turnagain Arm tour with visit to Alaska Wildlife Conservation and scenic driving, before late night departure from Anchorage airport

Remember, summer in Alaska has daylight almost all the time, so it’s not unusual to have a higher activity level on Alaska trips than you would in other destinations.

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The Alaska trip planning process

These ideas are merely the tip of the iceberg (analogy seems appropriate for Alaska!). In order to plan your trip to Alaska you need to consider the following topics and talk them over with your travel advisor:

  • When would you like to go?
  • How many days can you spend on this trip?
  • What’s your overall budget? What types of splurges are you interested in?
  • Is there a particular animal experience you’re interested in? This can determine the best month to go.
  • Do you want to drive yourself, take the train/shuttle coaches, travel with an escorted group, or have a private driver/guide?
  • Do you want to squeeze in as much as possible or would you like a more relaxed pace?
  • Do you have a specific focus for this trip – animals, glaciers, bears, culture, history, luxury, wilderness, city, etc?
  • What is your concept of Alaska and what types of emotions are you hoping to experience?

Working with a travel advisor who has visited Alaska is one of the best ways to make sure you get the best vacation experience for your budget & expectations. Contact me if you’d like to find out more about my Alaska planning services.

This article was originally published as 5 Ways to Visit Alaska and revised in 2021. For up to date travel and entry requirements please consult your travel advisor as well as visiting: https://covid19.alaska.gov/travelers/