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12 Tips for Your First Alaska Vacation

Shane's a lifelong travel enthusiast who loves nothing more than finding the next adventure.

Alaska: A Land Unlike Any Other

I lived in Alaska for four years and travelled extensively even during that time. I also returned multiple times to visit friends and then would just take an overly long time to book a return flight as an excuse for exploring more of the wonderful date.

I've been extremely fortunate to see many different parts of Alaska: Fairbanks & the Interior, Anchorage, Denali, The Kenai, Nome - and every trip back is yet another experience added to a rich travel life.

Alaska was a truly unique place to live and visit, and I want to use my firsthand experience to help make any first-time visitor's trip all the more special.

The Last Frontier, the official nickname for Alaska, is a unique and amazing place - and I want visitors to fall in love with it as much as I did moving there.

Beautiful Grewingk Glacier Park Photo

One of my favorite photos (among hundreds) of when my friends and I hiked Grewingk Glacier Park across the bay from Homer.

One of my favorite photos (among hundreds) of when my friends and I hiked Grewingk Glacier Park across the bay from Homer.

1. Focus on Any Lifelong Dreams to Start

Alaska is a huge state, and there are certain events that can only happen during one particular season. This means if there is a particular sight, goal, or experience in particular that you have ever associated with a dream vacation to Alaska then you should focus on that first and build the rest of your trip around it.

If you've always obsessed about seeing The Northern Lights (which are beyond stunning), then you need to do the extra planning and preparation for a winter visit. If you are like my dad and love fishing, look at when the freshwater and saltwater fishing seasons are traditionally best in Alaska.

Or maybe endless summer days, a Midnight baseball game in the sunlight, and hopping multiple National Parks is your thing.

If you have a main focus, start with that and plan the rest of your vacation around it. It's impossible to do everything in one trip in Alaska, and after one visit you will want to come back, so start the planning with the big dream first!

2. Don't Overpack Your Schedule

There is so much to do and see in Alaska, so a natural instinct is to pack every single day with everything you can possibly do. This would be a huge mistake!

Finding out about special events from locals (ever see an outdoor Shakespeare performance that included a "battle" of actors on four wheelers going around the benches set up for the audience?), seeing unbelievable picture opportunities at scenic outlooks or rest stops, or just finding some amazing people happy to show you the area - these are all reasons to take your time and have some free time in your schedule to go on the adventures that present themselves.

If nothing much is happening, you can always add more onto your schedule of things to do!

There's a Reason You Want Time to Wander in Alaska

Beautiful park that isn't a federal park, not a state park, but literally just a park slash rest stop on the Kenai Peninsula. Yes, there are rest stops that look like this in Alaska!

Beautiful park that isn't a federal park, not a state park, but literally just a park slash rest stop on the Kenai Peninsula. Yes, there are rest stops that look like this in Alaska!

3. Everything Will Take More Time

Assume most things will take more time than you plan. It's easy to laugh as an American when you hear about Europeans assuming they can fly into New York City on Thursday, drive to Miami on Friday, then jump over to Las Vegas on Monday.

In the exact same way that Europeans are often amazed by just how huge the United States is, many first-time visitors can't believe just how huge Alaska is. Look at a map. See that small distance between Anchorage and Fairbanks?

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In near perfect conditions that's a 7 hour drive, and that's just to reach each place not including time to get to downtown locations. It's an 11-12 hour train ride.

Things are very spaced apart, places are spread out, and when it's the weekend, a relaxed pace is the rule of thumb in many places, so give yourself plenty of time to stretch the legs or get from point A to point B.

4. Add in an Alaska Railroad Trip

There is one thing I do every single time I travel to Alaska and that's take the Alaska Railroad from Fairbanks to Anchorage. Or Anchorage to Fairbanks. Or both. Depends on the itinerary, but I never miss a chance to take a day out of my schedule to enjoy that 11-12 hour train ride.

This is an outright experience. The food is excellent, the leg room is fantastic, and the views are unmatched. I've done this route one way or the other at least a dozen times at this point and it just doesn't get old.

Great Video on Alaska Railway Anchorage to Fairbanks

5. Bring Some Long Sleeve Shirts or Sweatshirts

Even in the early parts of traditionally summer months, it can get cold. Depending on what part of Alaska you're in, snow can still be on the ground into the first week of May and evening temperatures in the 40s or low 50s aren't uncommon.

This is also true of late August/early September because winters in Alaska are long. That means unless you're visiting in the middle of July, there's a good chance of cool or even cold temperatures at least one night on your travels.

Even if not, some light long sleeves can be good because as anyone who has spent any amount of time in the Interior can tell you: mosquitoes are terrible. Even if you're from "Areas where they swarm," you probably haven't seen anything comparable to a bad day in Fairbanks.

So bring the long sleeves...and some bug spray to boot!

6. Don't Let a Lack of a Driver's License Stop You

While renting a car to drive around Alaska is a great way to see the state, don't let a lack of vehicle or license stop you. There are plenty of ways to get around! There are bus tours out of Anchorage up and down the Kenai Peninsula as well as to Denali and back.

The train can also take passengers to Fairbanks and Soldotna, with all the stops in between. Most towns of any size have regional airports for bush planes meaning that visitors always have options for getting around.

Uber and Lyft have made their way to larger towns and cities in Alaska, and both Anchorage and Fairbanks have decent public bus systems.

So don't let a lack of a car or license stop you - there are options!

7. Visit During the Right Season

Early May, especially in the Interior, is closer to winter than it is to summer. Late September isn't fall - it's going hard into winter. Do your research to make sure you're visiting Alaska at a time when the temperatures are what you want them to be, and also pack accordingly.

This might mean extra sweatshirts and thick socks, or it might mean rain gear, especially if you're around Juneau or on the Kenai during early summer. Plenty of rain, so while it's common for Alaskans to just walk around without a care in the world, even without an umbrella, you might choose to bring some rain gear if you're not of the same mindset.

Northern Lights Are Stunning...and Not Out During Summer!

The northern lights are a sight like few others in the world.

The northern lights are a sight like few others in the world.

8. Chat Up Some Locals

So many major local events don't advertise. Locals just knew when a certain brewery was celebrating their spring opening with a giant party, what local bars offer insane platefuls of deep fat fried bar food and a good cost, and what odd and ends are going on in any given area.

You might get invited to a local bonfire among the many cabins surrounding Fairbanks, get a good line on an amazing fishing captain in Homer who has been on a hot streak halibut fishing, or learn about a local camping area that isn't in the tourism books.

Locals know the good stuff, and are often happy to share and show off.

9. Do Your Research Before Settling on an Itinerary

A little bit of research can go a long way. If you want to spend time exploring Denali, do some searches on guided and independent tours or things to do, look at both hotel and non-hotel lodging options. Check local stats on crime, weather, and wildlife.

You'll find that packing for a Fairbanks leg of a trip may be very different than when prepping for glacier and whale viewing cruises around Juneau or spending two weeks exploring everything that the Kenai Peninsula has to offer.

Researching specific geographic areas in Alaska will help you figure out any special items or clothing you will need to be comfortable during the trip. A little research can go a long way to creating a better vacation experience.

10. Carve Out Some Time to Wander

Alaska isn't just magical at marked scenic outlooks or popular tourist destinations. The state is uniquely its own and giving yourself time to wander to find the small stops, try the food at local cafes, or find your own hiking trails, parks, and events that locals enjoy can add some truly incredible memories to your trip.

The vast wilderness of Alaska is everywhere, and being able to take a few days where you're not being herded onto the next tour bus, but can wander to any area that looks or feels interesting is the best way to experience the state and put your personal spin on your vacation to this great state.

Hiker Admiring Denali

With views like that, you'll want to be able to stop and enjoy your surroundings.

With views like that, you'll want to be able to stop and enjoy your surroundings.

11. Don't Skip Denali

I'm one of those travelers who will often skip a popular National Park, especially during busy seasons. While I recognize these National Parks receive that special designation for a reason, Denali park's sheer size, the sheer beauty, and the fact that private cars aren't allowed after a certain point makes Denali an exception to that personal travel rule.

Denali is an incredible location and has plenty of bus and train tours from both Fairbanks and Anchorage. This central location between two of the largest cities in Alaska also allows it to fit into a general Alaska travel plan.

If your dream vacation to Alaska is to just explore The Kenai, to go whale watching off of Juneau, then by all means do that but if you are looking for a general taste of a lot of Alaska, don't skip Denali.

This is a one of a kind National Park and provides views and close ups of wildlife that just aren't going to be matched elsewhere.

One of Thousands of Beautiful Pictures of Denali

Denali is truly breathtaking on a clear day.

Denali is truly breathtaking on a clear day.

12. Learn Wildlife Safety

Knowing how to deal with wildlife safely is an extremely important skill to have in Alaska. Even if in urban areas. Many of the most popular park trails in Alaska are used by bears, and more than once in Fairbanks I stepped out to light a cigar from a friend's apartment, heard a crunch on gravel, turned, and saw a full sized moose within 20 feet chewing on something and staring at me.

FYI, nonchalant is the way to act in this situation before slowly retreating back indoors. The cigar can wait.

Understanding the appropriate precautions to take around wildlife can help make sure that you can enjoy seeing wildlife safely from a distance and be prepared for those worst case scenarios that hopefully don't occur.

Amazing Alaska Travel Video by Through My Lens

Make Sure to Visit This Amazing Place!

There are legitimate concerns from visiting Alaska. There are large numbers of wildlife that are above man in the food chain and while they generally prefer to be left alone, it's still important to understand the legitimate safety concerns.

And while crime tends to be much more of a winter and concentrated area problem, Alaska does indeed have a crime problem.

But don't let those things scare you away. Most of Alaska is safe, especially with the proper precautions, and this is a truly special place to visit. Things are much safer during the tourist seasons and the overwhelming number of people you will meet are kind and helpful.

Alaska is an incredible place and you won't want to let unfounded doubts or fears prevent you from visiting this truly special place for a once in a lifetime trip.

© 2022 Shane Dayton

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