It's easy to get overwhelmed by the sheer number of locations and activities in Alaska. So if you need help whittling down your bucket list, consider these 10 Alaska experiences you shouldn't miss—and will never forget.
10 - Watch a Tidewater Glacier Crash into the Ocean
If you ever need to be reminded of the power of Mother Nature, watch a five-story face of ice shear off a glacier and explode into the ocean below. Consider this: A baseball-sized piece of glacial ice weighs about half a pound, so you can imagine the weight and impact of an entire wall of ice breaking free.
9 - Flightsee Over an Alaska Mountain Range
Flying over a sea of mountains, glaciers, and crevasses is an other-worldly experience. As you sit in the warmth and comfort of a plane or helicopter, you’ll see peaks and glacial formations that have never felt the press of a human foot. And while plenty of people assume that you have to tour Mt. McKinley to get the full effect, don’t let that limit you: almost any flightseeing trip will do. (Wrangell-St. Elias National Park makes another great tour.)
8 - Get Face-to-Face with a Wild Beast
There’s nothing like the primal feeling of looking into the eyes of a wild animal (from a safe distance, of course). If you’ve ever made it through a week-long backpacking trip with nothing but freeze-dried food, you might have a little extra empathy for their lives: Imagine living for years off the land, surviving the bitter cold of Alaska’s winters without shelter or clothing. One of the top experiences is a Bear Viewing Tour, where you can view bears in large numbers for hours at a time.
7 - Dog Sledding
You're speeding through Alaskan forest, sitting on a sled that's being pulled by some of Alaska's most powerful creatures. This is dog sledding—and it's not only an Alaskan tradition, but also a state obsession, one that's celebrated every March with the running of the 1,150-mile Iditarod Sled Dog Race from Anchorage to Nome. Taking a dogsledding excursion is a chance to see what the fuss is all about. You'll meet Iditarod racers and their dogs and hear what it's like to run this brutal race. And often, you'll experience the thrill of dogsledding first-hand.
This is an outing you can do from Anchorage, Denali, Fairbanks, Girdwood, and Juneau. Options vary, but usually include touring the kennels of these champion dogs, seeing how they're trained, and cuddling their puppies.
6 - Gold Panning
Almost every major town or city in Alaska has gold mining as a major part of its history—and in some places, that history is still being written. Lots of people who come to Alaska end up looking for gold, whether it's just for a fun afternoon or a lifelong passion.
But first, two bits of bad news: You can't just start panning anywhere. Prospecting is only allowed on certain pieces of land: designated public lands or private lands. Second—remember, this is for fun, not to get rich. At some places, you'll be happy to find a few pieces small enough to make some earrings.
5 - See Alpenglow at Midnight
Long days in Alaska bring a kind of freedom you may never have experienced—what a famous Alaska poet describes as “the freshness, the freedom, the farness.” Indeed, with the expanded daytime that comes with the Midnight Sun—and all of the new possibilities that result from it— you might feel like a kid again, as if there are no rules. The views are inspiring—such as that rosy band of Alpenglow you might see around the mountains. A lot of people even say that the sun re-awakens them to the magic of life.
4 - Alaska Arctic Tours
Want to make an Alaskan jealous? Complete your vacation with a tour of the Arctic Circle. One third of Alaska lies above the Arctic Circle, but it is so vast and so remote, that most residents don’t get the chance to explore it. Also, many guests don’t put this option on their itinerary due to time constraints. But if you have the extra time, this is an opportunity that should not be missed. You will witness the vast wilderness north of the Arctic Circle and the fascinating cultures who call this region home.
3 - Watch a Whale Shatter the Surface
It may not be rare to spot whales during their annual, thousands-of-miles journey to Alaska. But it’s especially stirring when you see these immense creatures—which live in the deep of the ocean, far below the surface—throw their tons of mass into the air. They're so graceful, too, that it seems effortless and magical.
2 - Meet an Alaskan
Author John McPhee described them best: “Ordinary people with extraordinary dreams.” These could be the friendliest, most trusting people in America. When you spend time with people who grew up in Alaska, or have made Alaska their home, you’ll regain a renewed appreciation for a lifestyle that has fast disappeared in the Lower 48.
1 - View the Northern Lights
Your best chance to see the northern lights is during the cold, clear winter nights between September and April. The prime time to see them in all their glory in usually after midnight. Be spontaneous, brave the cold, and embrace a late night adventure to see the stunning natural phenomena Alaska is known for. Bundle up to enjoy the dynamic color show under the vastness of Alaska's night sky, and don't think twice about missing out on a little sleep to witness the display for yourself.