5 Things I Wish I Knew Before I Visited Alaska

Published: February 10, 2016

Planning a trip to Alaska can be overwhelming for people when they are in the earliest planning stages.  To simplify your planning, we’ve compiled this list of the top 5 things that are frequently the most surprising to first time Alaska visitors.  Hopefully these will help you make the most out of your time in our unique and welcoming home.

#1: Alaska is BIG!

Alaska is more than twice the size of Texas, the largest state in the U.S., and larger than the combined area of the 22 smallest U.S. states. Only 20 percent of Alaska is accessible by road. Despite a land mass of 586,412 square miles, Alaska only has 12 numbered highways. This means most of Alaska is wilderness – untamed, untouched wilderness, rare to find anywhere else in the US. When planning your Alaska vacation, distances can be deceptively large.  It is important to allow yourself enough time in your itinerary to not only visit, but to experience each place. You also will need to move around the state in order to have the opportunity to experience all the diversity here.


#2: Alaska’s Wildlife is EVERYWHERE 

Although Alaska is home to 98% of the U.S. bear population and the state has almost 1 million caribou and a countless number of moose, it can still be difficult to spot these animals in the vast wilderness of the state. Alaska wildlife is notoriously shy and the size and inaccessibility of their habitats makes it difficult to pinpoint exactly where you might have the best opportunity to spot them. Bus tours into Denali National Park offer one of the best opportunities to spot wildlife as well as day cruises into Kenai Fjords National Park and Prince William Sound.  If your trip to Alaska will not be complete without a bear sighting then you should consider booking a bear viewing tour in advance. Certain Alaska locations have such strong runs of salmon they can draw up to 20 bears at one time.

a moose and a GMC vehicle on a paved road in Alaska; mountains and spruce trees in background

Alaska Moose Sighting (Kent Miller/NPS)

#3: Denali National Park Is Unlike Any Other National Park

Denali National Park includes six million acres of wild land, bisected by one ribbon of road only 93 miles in length.  This park, larger than the state of Massachusetts, is a designated wilderness area and vehicle traffic is restricted to permitted Park Service buses only. We recommend the 6 to 8 hour Denali Tundra Wilderness Tour which travels a little more than 50 miles into the park for possible views of Denali (formerly known as Mount McKinley), stunning scenery and excellent wildlife viewing opportunities.  Want more? You can also explore deeper with a 12 hour Denali tour which travels the full length of the road and includes some time off the bus at the end of the road. If you are looking to be more active in the park you can also book a stay at the lodges inside the boundaries where the activities include daily guided hikes.

Denali.Mt. McKinley2

#4: Alaska’s Roads Are Actually – Quite OK!

Even though the Alaska Railroad is a very popular and well rated option for touring our state, one thing many visitors do not know is our Alaska road system is also pretty great! Our state boasts 5 nationally designated Scenic Byways and three of them depart from Anchorage, the state’s biggest city. Even if you don’t want to tour our entire state by car you can take a few days enjoying the scenery with day trips from Anchorage. We recommend taking a day to explore the Glenn Highway which passes through Palmer and the Matanuska River.  A little more than 2 hours from Anchorage takes you to our largest accessible glacier from the road, the Matanuska.  Another great optional day trip, only about 40 minutes from downtown Anchorage, is the Eagle River Nature Center.  This gateway to Chugach State Park offers up mild walking trails, taking you to overlooks of Eagle River or picturesque waterfalls.

green bands of aurora over a paved road in Alaska in winter

Aurora Over Denali (Kent Miller/NPS)

 #5: Alaskans Are Some of the Friendliest Folks on Earth

With less than a million residents, Alaska as a state feels much like a small town even in its largest of cities. Most people don’t just “end up” in this state, we are here by choice. Alaskans are also extremely proud of their state and LOVE to show it off to visitors. We love to give advice, directions or just discuss our latest weekend adventure. So introduce yourself as you travel around. You’ll enjoy yourself even more!

Alaska, Rafting, Kenai River, Kenai Peninsula, family on upper Kenai raft tour, MR