(Header photo courtesy of Chillylee/Visit Nome)
Every Alaska visitor has a checklist of “must-do”, “must-see” Alaska bucket list experiences. Some of those lists are packed with quirky activity curveballs and off-the-radar locations. These are often the picks of adventure travelers who are happiest when wandering off the beaten path, avoiding the crowds, and embracing the many unique and fun outdoor adventures found only in Alaska. For them, perfect journeys extend beyond cell phone reception, rental car access, and the din of Alaska’s busy summer season. These off-the-beaten-path adventures provide endless opportunities for creatively assembling unforgettable fun. Here are five of our favorite “off the beaten path” Alaska adventure tours.
#1: Coldfoot: Creating Warm Memories above the Arctic Circle
Part of the lure of Alaska travel is venturing to the great wild north. For most travelers, Fairbanks is as north as they’ll go. Yet, a unique landmark lures a particular type of traveler even further north: the Arctic Circle. A number of travel pros offer itineraries to get folks to and above the Arctic Circle: some by plane, others by shuttle van, a few offering a combination, all with the finest in Interior scenery of forest, tundra, hilly domes and a few prominent peaks.
There are day trips, but overnight packages include quaint cabins in Coldfoot, a tiny truck stop hub where two of Alaska’s biggest boom eras converge: the Gold Rush and the Trans Alaska Pipeline System’s construction. Upon reaching the Arctic Circle, about 200 miles north of Fairbanks, guides will roll out a literal red carpet and take photos of travelers standing in front of a cool highway Arctic Circle sign. Some even provide a certificate for further proof of reaching that destination.
There’s plenty of old-time Alaska charm and history in Coldfoot, too, and some travelers extend their itinerary and continue nearly 250 highway miles further north to Prudhoe Bay/Deadhorse, the heart of Alaska’s oil industry. There, they can dip their toe, or do a big-time belly flop, into the Arctic Ocean. Brrr.
No matter what you decide, this is one trip travelers probably shouldn’t and often can’t do on their own; most rental car companies don’t allow their vehicles on the Dalton Highway, a scenic but rough road teeming with no-nonsense truckers and known for wicked weather, even in summer.
That said, a few truly enthusiastic travelers will wander to Coldfoot in the winter, when it is a primetime viewing platform for northern lights. Just remember that winter is when Coldfoot lives up to its name – it’s very, very cold there, as in multitudes of degrees below zero. Coldfoot is just 30 miles from Prospect Creek, a long-gone pipeline construction camp that recorded 80 below temperatures in January 1971. Dress warm and enjoy those lights!
The (Gold) Rush of Visiting Kennicott-McCarthy
Nestled deep inside the unbelievably massive Wrangell/St. Elias National Park are the twin towns of Kennicott and McCarthy, two Gold Rush-era communities that in many ways haven’t changed much since those days. And that’s a great thing for travelers who want to feel instantly transported into a time long ago. This place is packed with nostalgia and history within its museum, abandoned ramshackle mining buildings, old-fashioned accommodations, and happy-to-tell-tales locals. The old-time Alaska vibes here are tangible.
McCarthy/Kennicott is on the road system, but it’s a very long and sometimes often drive to get there from most Alaska travel hubs. Of course, the rugged ride on the McCarthy Road is part of the fun. If you go by vehicle, it will likely be on a shuttle – most rental car companies won’t allow their cars on this road. While the ride is scenic, some choose to fly into the area on tiny planes that feel even smaller when gliding over the spectacular peaks and glaciers of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park.
Once you arrive, you’ll realize that the longer you stay, the more adventures unfold. After exploring the mining areas with guides and absorbing the area’s archelogy, architecture and atmosphere, you can go for traditional hikes, level-up to harder hikes on glacier fields, take rafting and kayak trips, and even book a flightseeing tour to soak in the grandeur of one of the nation’s grandest parks from a bird’s eye perspective.
In the summer, the Midnight Sun brings a little extra energy to this usually quiet little area. Wildlife roam the roads, and locals play music, sell snacks and offer rides to those walking the short distance between the two towns. While chatting up a local, you can attempt to unwind one of Alaska’s long-running riddles: What’s the difference between Kennicott and Kennecott?
Nome Sweet Nome
Alaska’s boom-and-bust town of Nome was once the destination for so many dreamers traveling to the far north to strike it rich or go broke trying during the storied Gold Rush. Today, the gold mining tradition carries on in some families and businesses, yet visitors can experience so much more than searching for elusive gold nuggets.
Nome, with its setting on the Bering Strait in Northwest Alaska, has a rich history of Alaska Native culture, which is celebrated year-round through arts, crafts and traditional lifestyles of subsistence husting and fishing, as well as at festivals and cultural centers. In additional, global characters ranging from bold explorers to World War II soldiers have left their respective mark on Nome’s history. This all makes for fascinating, if not tall, tales anchored in this fun and funky town.
Nome also has a surprising road system sprouting from the area that can get visitors out to see wildlife, wildflowers, migrating birds and colorful tundra, all especially amazing to witness under the radiating Midnight Sun. Oh, and Pilgrim Hot Springs are just down the road, too, in case you literally want to soak up the atmosphere and relax like a local.
Nome is probably most-known for its winter hospitality, especially its iconic role as the finish line for the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, the “Toughest Race on Earth,” which draws interest and crowds from around the world. This is a dog-crazy town in general, but when Iditarod rolls into town, its frosty streets are packed with mushing legends, hardcore fans and, of course, teams of hearty huskies.
Whether winter or summer, it’s easy to put together a multiday Nome trip filled with fun and adventure. Of course, with its far-off locale, the best and easiest ways to reach Nome are on commercial flights – though an occasional cruise ship stops there every summer (or you drive a dog team like an Iditarod musher). Find the right accommodations, check into local restaurants and must-see attractions, and vehicle rental, then work with a team like Alaska Tours to pin down an itinerary that’s perfect for you.
Off the Beaten Path at a Wilderness Lodge
Now here’s a way to get off the beaten path yet still live your best Alaska life. Alaska backcountry lodges are set in some of the most spectacular and remote Alaska locations, offering luxurious travel far from the worries of the world, as well as an array of Alaska adventures and the ultimate in relaxation, delicious cuisine and hospitality. The commute to these lodges alone is worth the price of admission: helicopters, tiny planes with wheels, skis or floats for landing gear, river boats and marine ferries, sometimes even by snow machine or a dog team! All of these modes of adventurous Alaska transportation offer incomparable views with thrilling commutes, as you enjoy the deep wilderness that’s rarely seen by other travelers — even by most Alaskans. And Alaska lodge hosts make sure there’s very little roughing it in these cushy lodges. The lodge experience promises top-shelf dining, drinks, and hospitality, the best-of-the-best in relaxation, with luxury amenities and action-packed activities.
Tutka Bay Lodge across Kachemak Bay from Homer at the end of the Kenai Peninsula is well-known for its ocean air and adventures like kayaking, hiking, wildlife viewing, and even yoga and cooking classes. The vibes here are healthy and happy, communal and positive, something of an extension of the hippy haven of homespun Homer.
Tordrillo Mountain Lodge goes big across the board in all seasons: world-class heliskiing in the winter, sensational sportfishing in the summer, fine dining and fun conversations year-round … and don’t forget that hot tub. A short flight northwest of Anchorage gets you to the greatest of remote Alaska lodging – set your eyes on this place, its lovely lodges and steaming hot tub, surrounded by volcanoes and even Denali, and you likely want to leave home base to ski or fish.
Kantishna Roadhouse is a rare gem, set deep inside Denali National Park. Here, you’ll feel the heart of the majestic park while also the warmth of the hosts, who keep cozy cabins, hearty food and drink, and plenty of adventure options on deck for you to enjoy your time.
These are just three of the dozens of remote luxury lodges across every region of Alaska, each offering their own unique upscale spin on backcountry AK adventures and accommodations. That means there’s a lodge with something special for everyone, whether you’re seeking certain adventures in certain seasons, a special level of comfort and convenience, or a range of budget.
Pretty and Gritty Gates of the Arctic
It doesn’t get more off-the-radar in Alaska than the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve. The park features 7 million acres of the Arctic’s most untouched, unforgiving and unbelievable landscapes, natural beauty and the wildest of Alaska’s wilderness and wildlife. Forget cell phone reception – heck, there aren’t even roads into this park! But for the bold traveler with a passion for epic outdoor outings, the park offers rare treks.
Expert outfitters and guides can help plan a multiday itinerary that includes small prop plane drop-offs and pick-ups, tent and food setups, a little packrafting, nightly camping under the Midnight Sun, and lots and lots of walking and hiking in a world of tundra, lakes and rivers, and massive peaks created by almost unimaginably large glaciers. Gates of the Arctic offers the ultimate in fresh air and solitude, with the exception of sharing the space with the local caribou, sheep, moose, bear and birds, of course. It’s also an Alaska trip of a lifetime that provides immeasurable memories of views, thrills and happily aching muscles that few will ever experience or appreciate.
Whatever your pleasure, if “off the beaten path” is your brand of adventure, look no further than Alaska. We specialize in everything remote, adventurous and fascinating