DIY Outdoor Adventures in Alaska
With over 322 million acres of public lands, 46,600 miles of shoreline, and more miles of urban and wilderness trails than we can even begin to count, Alaska is truly a wonderland for outdoor enthusiasts. We have vast landscapes and endless recreation opportunities, and it might feel intimidating to explore on your own. The good news? There’s an endless array of DIY Alaska adventures that are perfect for independent travelers who prefer to go at their own pace. Read on to learn about the best self-guided hiking, biking, and paddling trips in Alaska.
From paved urban nature trails to multi-day through-hikes in the mountains, Alaska has a trail for everyone. If you’re renting a car or RV you’ll be able to access an endless array of hiking trails along the road system. However, you don’t need a car to hit the trail. Many communities have trailheads within walking distance - and just because a trail is close to town doesn’t mean it’s an “urban” trail. Dramatic scenery, solitude, and wildlife viewing opportunities can be found on trails just minutes (and sometimes even within!) town. Wherever you go, one of the best places to start is the local Visitors Center to get hiking recommendations and maps.
Cruise ship and independent travelers alike will find plenty of hiking opportunities right from town in port communities along the Inside Passage. In Juneau, the Mount Roberts Trailhead is less than a 20-minute walk from downtown and ascends through the boreal forest to connect to the top of the Mount Roberts Tramway for beautiful views of Lynn Canal. The Perseverance Trail is also walkable from downtown and climbs gently through a valley for views of mining ruins, a waterfall, and access to other trails.
To combine hiking with Alaska Native culture in Sitka, explore the trails of Sitka National Historical Park and walk among Tlingit and Haida totem poles nestled among giant Sitka spruce trees. Sitka’s Indian River Trail is another easily-accessible option, meandering among old growth forest to the scenic Indian River Falls. If you’re looking for amazing mountain and ocean views and a good workout, the Gavan Hill and Harbor Mountain Trails climb steeply into the mountains right from the edge of town. The northern Inside Passage towns of Haines and Skagway also offer plenty of trails close to town, including the Dewey Lakes Trail System and Gold Rush Cemetery & Upper Reid Falls Trails in Skagway and the Battery Point and Mount Riley Trails in Haines.
Kodiak Island’s rugged coastline and verdant mountains make for some epic hiking, with several great trails within a couple miles of downtown Kodiak. From town you can easily access the Spruce Cape Trail for forest and coastal views, climb into the mountains above town on the Pillar Mountain Trail, or explore World War II history and cliffside views at Fort Abercrombie State Historical Park. If your adventures take you even further southwest to Unalaska/Dutch Harbor, you can explore the area’s green hillsides and treeless terrain on several hikes that start close to town including Mount Ballyhoo, Bunker Hill, and Mount Newhall. Most trails venture into land that is privately owned by the Ounalashka Corporation and require a recreation permit to access, which you can purchase at the Ounalaska Corporation Office.
For hikers spending time in Anchorage without a car, a shuttle service will take you from downtown to the Glen Alps Trailhead for a small fee. From there, you’ll have three hours to explore an extensive trail system in the mountains in Chugach State Park, from the mostly-flat Powerline Pass Trail to the challenging but popular Flattop Trail. Keep an eye out for moose, Dall sheep, eagles, ptarmigan, and bears. If you’re staying in nearby Girdwood, two fantastic trails leave from the grounds of the Alyeska Resort: the Winner Creek Trail, winding through serene temperate rainforest; and the North Face Trail, climbing over 2,000 feet in elevation to dramatic views of the surrounding mountains and Turnagain Arm. Your reward for the climb? Enjoy lunch and a drink at the tram house and take the tram back down the mountain!
In Seward, grab your trekking poles for the climb up Mt. Marathon, which leaves from the edge of town, or take a leisurely walk along the paved Waterfront Path that connects downtown to the Small Boat Harbor. Be sure to watch for Steller sea lions, sea otters, eagles, and sometimes even whales cruising along the shoreline in Resurrection Bay. If you have your own car in the Southcentral region, two popular self-guided hiking areas are Portage Glacier – with both paved and un-paved trails to view the area’s glaciers, rivers, and mountains – and Hatcher Pass – home to several alpine hikes among the jagged Talkeetna Mountains and the fascinating Independence Mine State Historical Park.
For the adventurous traveler looking for some independent outdoor adventures in the Arctic, there’s no place like Nome. Stop by the Visitors Center to get handouts for self-guided historical walking tours in town, plus a list of day-hikes in the area. Popular hiking trails close to down include Anvil Mountain and Monument Rock. Be sure to keep an eye out for wildlife including muskox, reindeer, moose, foxes, and bears.
Your best bet for self-guided hiking trips in Interior Alaska are in Denali National Park and Fairbanks. Near the Denali National Park entrance you’ll find the majority of the park’s designated hiking trails. Eight trails explore the lakes, rivers, and alpine scenery around the park entrance and range from flat and paved to steep and strenuous. You can also take the free shuttle out to Savage River, about 15 miles in on the Park Road, to hike the easy Savage River Trail or the strenuous Savage Alpine Trail – both offering stunning scenery and wildlife viewing opportunities.
A popular spot for wildlife viewing and walking in Fairbanks is Creamer’s Field Migratory Waterfowl Refuge. Several miles of trails and viewing platforms wander among peaceful forests and wetlands. The historic farm fields are a fantastic spot for birding, attracting more than 60 species annually, including sandhill cranes. If you have a car, a half-hour drive will bring you to Chena River State Recreation Area, a playground for outdoor activities. The area has an excellent trail system including the popular Angel Rocks Trail and Granite Tors Trail.
Winter or summer, road or trail, skinny tire or fat tire, human-powered or electric-powered – you’ll find lots of options for exploring Alaska by bike. Nearly every major community or town in Alaska offers some sort of bike rental option, whether it’s a fat bike for cruising over snowy trails, a mountain bike to explore some singletrack, or an e-bike for a little extra oomph to cover the miles. Bike rental outfitters are more than happy to provide recommendations for the best trails to explore based on your experience and type of bike – many with trails leaving within minutes of their buildings.
Looking to put a little power in your pedal? E-bike rentals are popping up all over the state to help you go the distance. In addition to cruiser e-bikes which are best for paved trails, many outfitters rent mountain e-bikes and fat tire e-bikes for dirt and winter trails. You’ll find e-bike rentals – along with conventional bike rentals – throughout the state, including Fairbanks, Denali, Juneau, Skagway, Haines, Sitka, Gustavus, Seward, Valdez, Anchorage, Girdwood, and Talkeetna.
KAYAKING, SUP-ING, & OTHER PADDLE SPORTS
If you’re eager to get out on the water to explore Alaska’s coastline, lakes, and rivers, there are a wide array of outfitters that rent kayaks, stand-up paddleboards, canoes, and even packrafts. Some outfitters are located conveniently along lakes or protected coastlines so you can launch right where you rent. Or, consider renting an inflatable kayak, SUP, or packraft so you can easily transport and inflate at a different location.
Outfitters can give you recommendations about the best places to paddle based on your experience level. Guided tours are recommended for more challenging and remote areas. Communities with rental outfitters and convenient options for self-guided trips in protected bays, lakes, and rivers include Gustavus, Juneau, Wrangell, Valdez, Seward, Whittier, Homer, Eklutna Lake, Anchorage, McCarthy, and Fairbanks.
HIT THE TRAIL!
If you’re ready to get out and explore Alaska on an independent adventure, make sure to be prepared and stay safe! Here are a few tips to ensure that you have the best (and safest) adventure possible:
- Be prepared! Pack plenty of food, water, warm layers, rain gear, a first aid kit, sunscreen, and bug spray.
- Let someone know where you are going and when you expect to be back.
- Find a map of your trail online or take a picture of the route map at the trailhead.
- Always give wildlife plenty of space. Be bear aware and bring a bear bell and bear spray.
- Check the weather forecast before you leave so you can be prepared for the conditions.
- If you’re more comfortable letting someone else lead the way, consider joining one of the many guided hiking, biking, camping, and paddling trips offered throughout the state.
- Have fun and enjoy Alaska’s amazing trails and scenery!
Alaska: AKA Your Next Adventure
Where will your Alaska adventure take you? Order our Official State of Alaska Vacation Planner and plot your course.