Chapter 2: Top 10 Things to Do in Alaska – and How A Basecamp is your Key to it All.
Alaska is so immense that one could literally spend a lifetime exploring it and still come up short of wandering it all. So we spent a great deal of time researching the absolute must-see experiences before we went. And since many of our top 10 things to do were quite distant from each other, we devised a strategy to maximize our experiences while reducing our stress: basecamping . . .
As one of our 2023 Top 10 Travel Destinations, Alaska never disappoints. However, it’s not a place you just drop in to unexpectedly. Well, you can. But you won’t enjoy it much. In fact, you would likely be very disappointed. Alaska does take planning and the understanding that you cannot see it all in just one trip.
Many of our friends, young and old, have opted for the cruise approach. We thought about it as well. Imagine having everything planned out for you – food, special events, when and where to get off the boat . . . when to get back on the boat whether you want to or not . . . and who you set next to EVERY night for dinner. Truth is, cruising is not the best way to experience Alaska. We were able to spend twice the length of time there and experience 10 times more of the real Alaska than a cruise would ever allow us. Plus, we did it for less money – with the freedom to decide what we experienced and at our own leisure.
Why you should use a basecamp in Alaska
Since distances can be daunting and there is so much to see in our top 10 list, we strongly suggest choosing a basecamp location. It should be centralized to all the things you want to do. You could choose any number of locations. For us, Anchorage was the key. It worked wonderfully. It gave us immediate access to advanced medical facilities in case of an emergency, a major international airport to reduce flight costs, and a variety of affordable dining options (including streetfoods). It also put us within a couple of hours by car or rail to every top 10 destination. Plus, it was within walking distance to Anchorage’s outstanding museums and the main Alaska Railroad depot, allowing us to slow down, relax. That definiitely made our wandering more enjoyable.
Depending on where you wish to wander in Alaska, your basecamp may be elsewhere. Kenai Fjords, for example. It would provide a more reclusive experience while still being within driving distance of several key glacial areas and the museums in Anchorage. However, it would be too far to drive to Talkeetna, the key jumping off point for Denali National Park and some exciting flightseeing. It just depends on where you feel your adventurer’s heart is leading you.
So once you decide which of the top 10 things to do you’d like to experience, get a map, locate them, and find a suitable basecamp central to all. In general, this should be where the majority of sites are located but no more than a three hour drive from the farthest site. In our case, selecting Anchorage as a basecamp allowed us to wander to all 10 of the sites with ease.
Top 10 things to do in Alaska
We wandered to all of the top 10 sites during one 9 day adventure and enjoyed them all. But we also visited many others during our wandering. We had fun and enjoyed them, but picked the cream of the crop for you. So rest assured, if you stick to this list you will enjoy your Alaskan adventure greatly – and have memories that last a lifetime. By the way, we’ve also included website links for your convenience.
- First, we suggest you ease into your Alaskan Adventure with a half-day of local history at the Anchorage Museum. Here you’ll find beautifully detailed, and quite authentic, artifacts from the many tribes native to the region. You’ll gain knowledge and unique perspectives on the original inhabitant’s cultures and daily lives. Plus, you’ll see some amazing craftsmanship that rivals anything we’ve seen during our global travels. This information came in very handy throughout our wandering in Alaska, helping us connect the dots on place names and geography. Definitely a must-see.
- Hungry? Make your way to downtown Anchorage for a quick lunch at the infamous caribou sausage food cart located just outside the official Anchorage Visitor’s Center. Yes, it’s real caribou. We spent some time talking to the cart owner (who prepares each order to your taste) and he said he gets the caribou from a local source we won’t repeat (it’s definitely fresh). It tasted great and we highly recommend you try it, at least once. Afterwards, take a short walk across the street to the Alaska Public Lands Office and Museum. Often overlooked, this small museum is free and definitely worth your time. They had free gifts for us that day – NPS 100th anniversary bandanas, plus a wonderful documentary about the great 1964 earthquake that caused significant damage to the area. We were glad we took a break, sat for a spell, and watched it. It was a perfect after-lunch retreat.
- Connect with locals at the Alaska Native Heritage Center. Here you’ll get personal tours of multiple village complexes relating the daily lives and structures of the original tribes. Each home has been constructed by hand to highlight traditional building techniques. Plus, hourly presentations of native dance, music, clothing styles, and stories handed down over centuries will give you a true appreciation of their way of life. Since we were basecamping in Anchorage, we “Uber”ed it to the museum and back. Both drivers were of local tribal ancestry and we had wonderful conversations with them.
- A short drive to Talkeetna, Alaska will open up your world to a Denali adventure of a lifetime. We got there by renting a car for a day via Turo.com. Considered classic “small town Alaska” and said to be the inspiration for the television series Northern Exposure, Talkeetna features some great little restaurants and shops where you can peruse local crafts and enjoy some excellent food (I personally recommend the pizza shop). It’s also the best place in Alaska to mount an expedition to North America’s tallest mountain – Denali. If you’re not into mountain climbing, we suggest an extended charter flight with K2 Aviation. They’re the experts when it comes to fearlessly navigating the glaciers and peaks of Denali for once in a lifetime views. Oh, and be sure to visit the Iditarod Museum located just south of Talkeetna if you’re driving up from Anchorage. We did, and it had a great documentary and tons of memorabilia.
- Riding the rails on the historic Alaska Railroad has provided inspiration to legions of writers and wanderers for decades (myself included – I even started a short story during our journey). A variety of routes are available, running from Fairbanks in the north to Anchorage, and to Whittier and Seward in the south. The Alaska Railroad offers prime views of Denali National Park and the many coastal mountain ranges in the south. The double decker seating cars were extremely spacious and comfortable, and the crew very friendly. Best of all, we just relaxed and took it all in while someone else did all the driving. By using Anchorage as our basecamp, we were able to enjoy a day trip on the Alaska Railroad to Whittier, charting a 26 glacier cruise once we arrived. I review our journey on the Alaskan Railroad.
- Get close up and personal with wildlife at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. Featured on National Geographic Television and a short drive from Anchorage, the center is host to a wonderful array of native wildlife, including black bears, muskox, reindeer, elk, wolves, and more. Best of all, you can walk at your own pace throughout the park, coming face-to-face with the wildlife (behind a protective fence of course). I’ll never forget get my conversation with a very h**** (word removed because, hey, this is a family site) wood bison who snorted loudly, pawed up the ground, and charged me aggressively. I guess he didn’t like my hat – or maybe he liked it too much!
- To truly experience all that Alaska has to offer, you should spend 1 to 2 nights in Seward, home to Kenai Fjords National Park. It’s about a 2 hour drive from Anchorage and home to some serious seafood dining, quirky shops, and world famous salmon runs. You can also hike to Exit Glacier in Kenai. It isn’t often you can see a glacier up close, let alone walk on one. Seward became the highlight of our wandering due to the numerous glaciers we encountered as well as the King Salmon runs. But when it comes to viewing wildlife and glaciers at Kenai, truth is they’re best seen from sea. And while we discourage wandering Alaska from the deck of a cruise line, we do strongly encourage you to check out one of the various half and full day cruises offered by private companies around the towns of Seward and Whittier.
- Kenai Fjords Cruises located in Seward offers an excellent 9 hour cruise (with lunch onboard and dinner at Fox Island). This proved the most exciting experience of our trip as our ship wandered upon a pod of whales feasting on small fish. We were able to spend 45 minutes lingerly watching them breach (leap out of the water) and blow (spray water vapor from their spouts). We were also blessed to hear their whale songs as they seranaded each other. If you have limited funds, earmark them on this.
- See the salmon running upstream. It was quite a humbling site to see hundreds of salmon swimming so anxiously against the currents in an attempt to pass on their genes. It’s no wonder they die after that! Their colors were stunning and their persistence inspiring. But your timing must be exact to experience this rare event – between May and August (depending on the type of salmon). Our July visit blessed us with prime viewing of the massive King Salmon runs. So plan accordingly. We’re glad we did.
- Experience the Iditarod. Even if you’re not visiting in March during the actual 1,000+ mile dog sled race, you can still get a feel for the action. We did so by joining the Seavey family, long-time Iditarod contenders and champions, as we headed back to our basecamp from Seward. The meet and greet with their champion sled dogs and one of the Seavey family mushers took place at their Kenai Fjords retreat known as Ididaride. We even got to hold the young puppies that will someday soon pull mushers across the finish line. Our visit also included hoping onto one of their dog sleds for a quick run through Kenai Fjords, pulled by several former Iditarod champion dogs.
Now that you know the top 10 things to do and see on your Alaskan adventure, we encourage you to start prepping for the trip by getting up to speed on what every wanderer should pack for every trip. And lastly . . .
“Always remember, you’re not a tourist on this planet. You’re a wanderer – one seeking the truth. And that’s what life and every little thing in it is all about. Truth.” -Kenneth R. Dodson, Wanderer
In Part 3 I’ll reveal the best glacier cruise to take while in Alaska.
Plus, be sure to check out Part 1 and learn how to prepare yourself mentally for the Alaskan adventure of a lifetime, you’ll be glad you did.
Railroad buff? Find out if the Alaskan Railroad is worth a ride.