Stories from Alaska

An insider's journey through Alaska's best kept secrets

What to do on your second Alaska trip

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If you have traveled to Alaska, there’s a pretty good chance you’re savoring those memories while also daydreaming about your return. Alaska just gets under your skin. And while it is enticing to recreate an itinerary similar to your first – because that was so amazing and the planning would be easy – Alaska is very, very big and its offerings of unforgettable travel options and adventures are even bigger. So, consider these five tips as you plan your second Alaska vacation.

Keep traveling north.

Around half of Alaska’s visitors set their sights on Southeast Alaska and never travel beyond the region. Who can blame them? With its massive trees and wondrous wildlife, colorful history, welcoming locals, massive mountains and grand glaciers, sparkling waterways, wide range of urban and rural adventures, the Southeast is pretty darn incredible. But in many ways, it’s also simply the gateway to Alaska, the figurative tip of the state’s exploration iceberg.

There are so many more one-of-a-kind regions, communities and experiences to discover and absorb, including many that you can’t find in Southeast. Denali and its namesake national park. The chilling and breathtaking Arctic. The big bears and wilds of Katmai. The mining history and northern lights of the Interior and Fairbanks. The culture and cuisine of Anchorage. We could go on and on and on. The great thing is: so can you!

Arctic Circle Fly Drive Adventure from Fairbanks.

By land or by water?

If your first Alaska visit was with a guided tour, you likely spent copious travel time either on a cruise ship or in a big bus, with connections by train, van, boat or plane. The views from buses and cruise ships both deliver – and deliver very different vistas at that. Plus, by letting those big vessels and their tour experts take you to special places and provide commentary on history, you maximized your time, relaxation and every bit of the AK experience. Both ways of travel are unique and can take you to areas the other cannot. So if you like the guided touring experience and your first trip to Alaska was on a cruise ship, plan your next trip on a bus. That way you can explore the road system, hit some of Alaska’s famous roadhouses and catch glimpses of breathtaking mountain ranges and pristine lakes. Likewise, if you hit the road your first trip, climb aboard a cruise ship and access memorable villages, breathtaking scenery and incredible coastlines that can only be seen from the water.

Drive yourself.

While we’re on the topic of getting around Alaska, here’s another idea: rent a vehicle and drive yourself! The beauty of this approach: YOU can create a strict itinerary or have no itinerary at all. You can pull over for a selfie or a wildlife photo, a snack, a hike, or even a nap, all on your own schedule. Having your own vehicle gives you the flexibility of driving around a town or down rural roads that tour buses can’t or don’t travel. If you want to stay at a museum, in a restaurant or on a trail for an extra hour or two, you totally can!

Alaska’s renowned road system spans from the frigid banks of the Arctic Ocean to the spectacular southern sites of Resurrection Bay out of Seward, Kachemak Bay in Homer over to Prince William Sound, with countless parks, mountains, and towns in between. You can really see it all on your own timetable, at your own pace. Pro tip: be sure to check your vehicle rental agreement to make sure you aren’t traveling to areas deemed too rough for the rental car.

Winter fun in Alaska on a guided dog sledding adventure.

Warm up to winter.

The majority of Alaska visitors arrive in the summer to maximize long days of the Midnight Sun, enjoy popular tours and hit up desirable destinations. Summer is special here, and there is certainly warmth (literal and figurative) and giddiness in the Alaska air. But winter is also wonderful, as well as overlooked and underrated.

Sure, winter in Alaska can be cold. And yes, it’s darker than most travelers are used to. But it’s also a quieter and calmer season for travelers and locals alike, and if you crave cool adventures, it’s the perfect time to visit. Oh, and there are northern lights! Popular local spots, and even some places that cater to travelers, do stay open year-round and sure love their winter visitors. During winter, you can take your time, have the hotel hot tub all to yourself and get a table right away at that popular restaurant. A bonus is you’ll usually pay less for lodging.

You don’t need to be an X Games pro or winter survivalist to have fun outside in Alaska’s winter. Snowshoes, touring skis, downhill skis, snowboards and fat-tire bikes are available for rent in most towns, and trails to outdoor fun are practically everywhere. If you dress in layers and have good boots, gloves and a hat, you will be just fine. If you plan a trip with a snow machine group or dog sled team, they will keep you warm on your rides. And if you prefer to rent cold weather gear instead, you can do that!

The sun does disappear for longer-than-usual stretches, but the reflective light from white snow and a bright moon creates almost magical evenings in the seemingly darkest places. Reliable headlamps are small, lightweight, affordable and bright. And then there are the northern lights, which can brighten an entire sky with dancing, colorful bands. Every winter, people from around the world visit Alaska just to view them. When you experience them in their full glory, you’ll know why.

Dinner at Seven Glaciers on top of Alyeska.

Eat like a local.

On first trips, savvy travelers strive to knock off the majority of items on their must-visit and must-do lists. That goes for must-eat lists, too. Every Alaska town, as well as a few remote stretches of Alaska highways, boast can’t miss restaurants with local menus, creative chefs and authentic Alaska dining experiences.

One of the coolest things about Alaska’s dining scene is that restaurants often feature some of the state’s best and freshest foods, like delectable Alaska-caught seafood and tasty Alaska-grown vegetables. Better yet, some of the state’s most interesting and reliable chefs and creations can be found in casual and low-key, locations: roadside lodges, greasy spoon diners, dives bars and unassuming strip mall restaurants. If you follow your nose and ask the right locals, you can find dining experiences every bit as delicious and authentic as the top-rated restaurants, usually at half the price and none of the wait.

Another tip: some of the best places to dine in Alaska are destinations because of their succulent settings. Everything tastes better with an incomparable view! A table that gazes upon a mountaintop or shoreline, or a spot on a sunny deck or patio on a bright summer evening, create ambiance that’s a bonus to already-amazing food and drink.