Book Now for These Only-in-Alaska Experiences
NOTE: In 2015 President Barack Obama officially renamed Mount McKinley to its Athabascan given name, Denali, meaning "the High One."
Alaska is one of a kind – a land bigger, wilder and more remote than anywhere else in the United States – and there are tons of once-in-a-lifetime experiences only to be had here. So if you’ve been to the beach, seen the geysers, hit the boardwalk and cruised the interstate and are ready to up the ante on your next vacation, read on to learn about amazing and life-changing sites, destinations and events you’ll only find in Alaska.
Let’s start with the northern lights. Also known as the aurora borealis, the northern lights are one of Alaska’s biggest attractions during the winter months. The lights are theoretically visible anywhere in Alaska, but the best and most predictable viewing is found in places like Fairbanks, Coldfoot, Deadhorse and Barrow, which sit beneath what scientists refer to as the “auroral oval,” the place on earth where displays of aurora are brightest and most frequent. The lights themselves are caused by energetic particles that enter the earth’s upper atmosphere. Their appearance can vary depending on the strength of the display, from a faint green glow on the horizon to unmistakably dramatic bands of light ranging from green to white to red and sometimes even purple that hang like curtains in the sky and flutter as though blown by a gentle breeze. There are a variety of tour operators, lodges and destinations that specialize in helping visitors experience the northern lights, so be sure to visit the northern lights viewing directory to get in touch with an expert. Not planning on visiting in the winter? While winter is definitely the best time for northern lights viewing, it’s not the only time. Visitors to the Interior and Far North regions who travel in late April/early May or in September may have a chance to see the lights as well. The only thing preventing their visibility in the summer is Alaska’s abundant summer daylight, which waxes and wanes dramatically on either side of the summer solstice, June 21.
Alaska’s state sport is dog mushing, and Alaska is indisputably the world headquarters of the sport and opportunities to experience the thrill of mushing are abundant year round. In the summer, many professional mushers augment their racing income by offering kennel tours and other visitor-friendly experiences like a ride in a wheeled cart or the opportunity to snuggle with the latest litter of husky pups. These tours can be found in virtually every community in Alaska. In some communities, summer visitors can also fly by helicopter to the top of a nearby glacier to ride on a sled and visit teams working on off-season training. In winter, races like the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race and the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race are the twin behemoths of the sport and lure thousands to the start and finish lines to cheer on racers. Shorter sprint races are also held in many communities. But perhaps the best way to get a feel for the sport is to book your own winter adventure by dog sled. A full range of experiences, from fully guided backcountry adventures to short day trips, is available in winter.
Life in Alaska is a bit different, as you’re probably beginning to realize, which makes it no surprise that our celebrations and events are a bit different too. Summer’s biggest hoorah falls on June 21, the solstice, as Alaskans celebrate the light and warmth of the season sometimes jokingly referred to as “not winter.” Virtually every town in Alaska has some sort of festival, parade or other public celebration marking the year’s longest day. In Fairbanks, the Alaska Goldpanners, the local amateur baseball club, host the annual Midnight Sun Game, which begins at 10 p.m. and is played without artificial lights. The game is a tradition more than 100 years old (which is pretty old for a state as young as Alaska), and Fairbanks has seen literally hundreds of future Major Leaguers suit up and take the field during that time. Late-night athletics aren’t limited to baseball – another favorite way to celebrate the midnight sun is golf, with tee times at more than a dozen courses statewide available late into the night, if not all night. Independence Day is an American, not Alaska, holiday, but Alaskans have a special connection to it. Back in the days when mining anchored the state economy, the mines only shut down two days a year – Christmas and the Fourth of July. The break from constant noise and a precious day off made these holidays particularly special in Alaska. There’s no better place to experience Alaskans’ enthusiasm for the Fourth than in Seward, where a community-wide celebration centers on the annual Mount Marathon race. Revelers gape in awe as mountain runners ascend 3,022-foot Mount Marathon in just 1.5 miles and then barrel back down the mountain toward the finish line in downtown Seward.
Winter is a time when Alaskans like to get creative and blow off steam, so there are plenty of winter festivals as well. Many of them are exclusively Alaskan and not something you will see or do anywhere else in the world. In Cordova, the annual Iceworm Festival is held in honor of the humble ice worm, the only worm known to live its entire life in glacial ice. Anchorage’s Fur Rendezvous Festival features the annual Running of the Reindeer (Alaska’s nod to Pamplona), snowshoe softball, ice bowling and much more. The only thing that comes close to a lottery in Alaska is held each year in the small town of Nenana, and draws wagers from around the world. The Nenana Ice Classic is an opportunity to guess when the ice will break up on the Nenana River each year, with the winnings north of $300,000 each year. A festival called Tripod Days celebrates the raising of the tripod used to detect when the ice starts to give way, and features a moose call contest, a competition for the grungiest Carhartts, and the Sheri Jo Hawkins Memorial Arm Wrestling Championships, among much more. These are just a few of the lively and fun events you won’t find anywhere but Alaska.
And finally, the list of only-in-Alaska experiences wouldn’t be complete without mentioning North America’s highest peak, 20,237-foot Mount McKinley. The mountain sits within Denali National Park and Preserve, which, at 6 million acres, is a fitting home for such a majestic landmark and the thriving wildlife populations that are her neighbors. There are dozens of ways for visitors to experience the park and Mount McKinley itself, but the classic excursion is a flightseeing tour. There’s no better way to truly appreciate the size and scale of the mountain than to encircle its peak in an aircraft and get a bird’s eye view of its pinnacles, spires and the glacial forces that have carved its unique appearance. Flightseeing tours are available from Anchorage, Talkeetna, the park itself, Healy and Fairbanks. Another great option is to book a stay at one of the few backcountry lodges in the park or take the shuttle bus out for a day trip to Wonder Lake. Views of the mountain from deep within the park are the best you’ll get from the ground, and Wonder Lake is named that way for a reason – sitting near the base of the mountain, the lake captures a breathtaking reflection of the mountain that is a must for your Alaska photo collection.
There are dozens of other special experiences, places, personalities and natural wonders in Alaska that you won’t find anywhere else, so don’t wait to plan your trip. In summer or winter, life-changing experiences await!