There are few places on Earth that compare to the great state of Alaska. Spanning more than 570,000 square miles, the snow-capped mountains, immense glaciers, deep fjords, native culture and intriguing wildlife are just a small sampling of the wonders that await in The Last Frontier.
The best way to see all that the 49th state has to offer is through a cruise or Land+Sea Journey with Holland America Line.
Here, we present, in no particular order, the top 8 experiences every Alaska visitor should have.
Alaska is riddled with glaciers—more than 100,000 to be exact. So any voyage here will surely include getting up-close and personal with at least one of them.
A common misconception about glaciers is that they are stagnate heaps of solidly packed ice. Glaciers are actually flowing rivers of ice (albeit very slow-moving rivers) that are constantly carving out their own paths as they make their way toward larger bodies of water.
One of Alaska’s most active glaciers is Hubbard Glacier, which flows for 90 miles before meeting the sea in Disenchantment Bay in the Inside Passage. It is here where you can watch in awe as enormous chucks of ice calve and tumble into the sea, a tremendous occurrence that Native Alaskans referred to as “white thunder.”
Numerous other glaciers can be seen along the Inside Passage, including those in Glacier Bay National Park, a protected area that only a few cruise lines (Holland America Line is one of them) are permitted to enter.
Ketchikan is known as the “Salmon Capital of the World” for good reason: Every summer, the creek that runs through the city is the setting for a spawning frenzy for five different types of salmon.
Depending on when you visit, you may be able to witness this natural phenomenon in all its glory as thousands upon thousands of salmon make their way upstream. The best place to see the salmon in action is at the salmon ladder toward the far entrance of Creek Street, a rustic boardwalk elevated on wooden pilings above the creek.
Colorful souvenir shops, galleries and restaurants now populate the pedestrian-only walkway, which, in the first half of the 20th century, was home to numerous bordellos. Stop by Dolly’s House Museum for a playful look back at this former red light district and the city’s most prominent madam.
Due to Alaska’s nutrient-rich waters, there is an abundance of fresh, local seafood to be had during the summer months. Of course, salmon is king, and there are plenty of ways to enjoy this local specialty, whether it’s baked, smoked, canned or in chowder.
But salmon isn’t the only seafood that rules this part of the country. Alaska king crab is also a culinary staple, often pulled fresh from the waters and delivered onto your plate the same day. Some surefire places to dine include Tracy’s King Crab Shack in Juneau, the Alaska Fish House in Ketchikan and the Skagway Fish Company.
Whatever your seafood preference, be sure to wash it down with a refreshing Alaskan ale; Juneau’s award-winning Alaska Brewing Company is the 12th-largest craft brewery in the United States.
Caribou, moose, wolves, Dall sheep and bears… oh my! Alaska is one of the only places in the world where you can spot such a diversity of wildlife in their natural habitat—and Denali National Park puts you right smack in the middle of it. Known as one of the best national parks for spotting wildlife, the sprawling 6 million-acre park is a haven for Alaska’s true native residents.
While Denali is certainly a prime sanctuary for spotting such animals, when in Alaska, you should always keep your eyes peeled, as the entire state is rife with wandering wildlife. This is especially true when you’re on or near the water, as thousands of humpback and killer whales migrate their way to Alaska’s waters during the summer months. These gentle giants are so prominent, many tour operators will literally guarantee sightings.
At the center of Denali National Park sits its crown jewel, which the Natives called Denali, meaning “the Great One.” You probably know of this 20,320-foot-tall mountain (the highest in North America) as Mount McKinley; but in August 2015, the United States government officially renamed the landmark to its former moniker.
There are several ways to admire this mist-shrouded fortress of nature—by foot, by tour bus, by horseback or by plane, arguably the best way to see Denali from its godliest vantage point.
It’s a little-known fact that dogsledding is Alaska’s official state sport, though it makes sense given the popularity of the Iditarod, the grueling 1,000-mile-long sled race through Alaska’s snow-blanketed wilderness that takes place every March. Although the race is reserved for the professionals, there are dozens of camps open throughout the summer that offer you a chance to get in on the action, including one atop Mendenhall Glacier, one of Juneau’s most popular attractions.
The camp is run by seasoned veterans of the Great Sled Race who will teach you the tricks of their trade and introduce you to their faithful sled companions (and their adorable offspring, official mushers in training) before whisking you away across the surface of the glacier on a sled pulled by a team of Alaskan huskies.
Much of Alaska’s modern history can be traced back to the turn of the 20th century, when gold was discovered in several locations in Alaska and Canada’s nearby Yukon Territory. Fairbanks is one of several Alaskan cities to be founded during this time of gold fever, as it acted as a hub for thousands of prospectors who made their way to the state in search of fortune.
Today, the city is still captivated by its gold rush history. You can witness the largest public display of gold in the state at the University of Alaska Museum of the North and even try your luck at panning for gold at the historic Gold Dredge 8, where you can search for your own gold nugget to take back home as a souvenir.
When you think of Alaska Natives, images of Eskimos and igloos may come to mind; but these stereotypes are far from reality. Instead, Alaska Natives, who make up 20 percent of the state’s population, are incredibly diverse, each with their own cultures, customs and languages.
The Tlingit, for example, have made their mark in Ketchikan, which is home to the world’s largest collection of native totem poles. Many of them can be seen at the nearby Saxman Native Village and Totem Bight State Park. In Anchorage, travelers are encouraged to visit the Alaska Native Heritage Center, where they can experience Native cultures first-hand through stories, dance and more.