I wrote the first version of these travel suggestions almost fifteen years ago when a friend was thinking about vacationing in Alaska and asked me for ideas on where to go. Over the next decade or so, my suggestions have evolved a bit, but have held up fairly well. I would welcome your thoughts for additions or corrections.
Because I have spent a fair amount of time fishing, hiking and generally hanging out in Alaska, I find that people often ask me for ideas when they are planning vacations there. If you are reading this, there is a pretty good chance that you fall into that category. What follows are some of my personal thoughts for what to do if you have the good fortune to be heading north to Alaska, especially as a first-time visitor to the last frontier.
I assume that you are planning a family vacation, not a heavy-duty wilderness camping expedition, and would like to be supported by some creature comforts and a fairly high degree of infrastructure on your trip. My suggestions are eminently “do-able” for people, including families, spanning a wide range of ages and fitness levels. That said, the suggested activities are not geared toward those with significant physical handicaps or limitations on personal mobility. I also assume you are largely making your own arrangements and are not on an organized tour such as a cruise ship or a land extension of a cruise, in which case all the arrangements will be made for you.
People from the Lower 48, or “Outside” as Alaskans say, often fail to grasp just how big a place it is. Alaska has a population of only about 700,000, half of whom live in or near Anchorage, but it accounts for 20% of the landmass of the United States. Think of it this way -- if Alaska were divided in half, Texas would be the third largest state. Mainland Alaska has more coastline than the 48 contiguous states combined, and if islands are included it has more coast than all of the other states, including Hawaii.
Given the size of the state, you need to come to grips with the fact that you can’t “do” Alaska in a lifetime, let alone in one vacation. Don’t try the peripatetic “if it’s Tuesday, this must be Belgium” approach – pick your spots.
One could quibble with my delineations, but I consider the major regions within Alaska to be: Anchorage/Kenai, the Interior, Southwest, Southeast, Alaska Peninsula/Aleutians, and Arctic. Now it gets personal because I will suggest narrowing the funnel and focusing on just a handful of these areas. In doing so, I will undoubtedly cause offense to someone, which I assure you is unintentional.
Unless you have some serious time for your trip, maybe a month or more, or you are a repeat visitor and have already traveled extensively in Alaska, I would make a threshold decision to drop both the Alaska Peninsula/Aleutians and the Arctic from your itinerary. This pains me, especially because I really love the Arctic and have made many memorable trips there. It is where I personally feel most at home in wilderness. For your first Alaskan vacation, however, these regions are simply too hard for you to get to as a practical matter.
Furthermore, if you are not on a cruise, as I have assumed, then Southeast falls in the same category of just too hard to get to within the parameters of a two-week vacation that originates in Anchorage. If you do happen to be on a cruise, on the other hand, you will spend most of your time in Southeast anyway as you explore the Inside Passage between the mainland and the barrier islands that shelter the coast.
The next threshold decision is whether fishing will be an important part of your itinerary. If it is, and you can afford to do so, I would strongly recommend spending a week at a lodge or tent camp in Bristol Bay, which is in the Southwest region. If you have two weeks to work with, that would mean doing only one leg of my suggested two-week itinerary. However, if anyone in your party is not a serious angler, I would forgo Southwest and maybe settle for a day charter of backcountry fishing with one of the air taxi services flying out of Anchorage. No matter what they say about having a wealth of activities for non-fishing spouses and the like, the Bristol Bay lodges are in fact highly focused on fishing and a non-angler will not be likely to have a quality experience.
This rigorous and admittedly somewhat arbitrary process of elimination leaves just two regions, Anchorage/Kenai and the Interior, which is plenty to bite off on your first trip. You will just have to come back again to see some more! Another reason for this more limited geographic scope is that you can do most of your travel by car, which is the most flexible mode of transportation, or by train on the Alaska Railroad, which is a very comfortable way to get around but has schedules to observe, and you may need some local car rentals anyway. This relative ease of transportation is no small point – in Southeast and Southwest, almost all travel is by airplane or boat, which are considerably more likely to be subject to the “weather permitting” condition that applies to all travel in Alaska.
Any trip suggestions are fraught with subjectivity and there are lots of great itineraries in Alaska. That said, since I am often asked, I think the sample itinerary on the linked pages would be a lot of fun for an initial two-week trip, but I definitely intend these suggestions to be illustrative, not prescriptive. Also, please note that reservations are necessary for most of the places I mention and you will be disappointed if you try to book too late. They all have websites where you can find more information.