Alaska is expansive. Just look at a map and it’s easy to see why travelers quickly find that they just don’t have time to go everywhere they want. But it doesn’t mean - if you’re limited on time - that you have to miss out on an Alaska vacation altogether. A five-day getaway can be just as epic as a two-week odyssey.
As The Daily Beast writer Daniel Modlin says, “Here’s the thing about Alaska: There are no wrong decisions, only decisions to be made.”
If you’re planning a shorter trip, most likely you’ll be flying in or out of one of Alaska’s bigger cities: Anchorage, Juneau or Fairbanks. These towns could keep any traveler entertained for days and provide jumping off points for multiple adventures. We asked a few locals for their suggestions on where to go if a traveler is short on time.
If you’re flying into Juneau
Off the bat, Travel Juneau’s Liz Perry suggests three places to start in town: “Alaska visitors must come to Juneau and experience Mendenhall Glacier and the visitor center there. Inside are interpretive exhibits explaining the glacier’s story, animals, and plant life, as well as a viewing area that looks over beautiful Mendenhall Lake to the glacier face. I love taking the walk out to Photo Point, where I can see – and hear! – Nugget Falls about a mile away. While at the visitor area and depending upon the time of year, I'll walk out to the viewing platform over Steep Creek to watch the bears catch fish and feed their cubs,” she said.
Perry continued, “Another great spot to visit is the Alaska State Archives and Museum, also known as the Father Andrew P. Kashevaroff Building. This award-winning facility helps tell Alaska’s story through exhibits honoring our Alaska Native heritage, early western contact, and onward through the gold rush days. My whole family enjoys the rotating exhibits of historic artifacts and contemporary artwork, as well as the kids’ area.”
Last but not least, Perry said, “And what Juneau trip would be complete without some great food? Too many spots to mention, but if you want to sample Juneau fare, take a walk with Juneau Food Tours! Your tastebuds will thank you and you’ll leave with some great food memories.”
This three-day itinerary shares even more ideas on what to do in Juneau, including one of Elizabeth Hall of John Hall’s Alaska’s favorite spots: Tracy Arm Fjords. Hall says, “This is my favorite place in all of Alaska. When done on a small day boat vessel, the visit is absolutely incredible, filled with giant cliffs, beautiful glaciers, the ocean waters, seals and pups along with the possibility of whales near the entrance. It’s well worth the day trip over!”
Want to see just a little more of Alaska’s Inside Passage, follow this short itinerary to Haines and Skagway too. White Pass & Yukon Route’s Jacqueline Taylor Rose says: “A trip from Juneau to Skagway is a 45-minute plane ride away and travelers can immerse themselves in Klondike Gold Rush history without the arduous journey the stampeders had to take to the Yukon Territory over 120 years ago. Be sure to include an excursion on the White Pass & Yukon Route railway. The train features views of the Tongass National Forest, cliff hanging curves, trestle bridges, tunnels and stories of the gold seekers making their way over the Trail of ’98. It is the most comfortable way to see the best of Skagway!”
If you’re flying into Anchorage
As Alaska’s largest city, Anchorage may feel more urban than some places in Alaska, but it’s also just as wild. While you might want to start your time in Anchorage at the Anchorage Museum as Modlin recommends for “a well-thought out, easily accessible history of the state,” don’t be afraid to spend much of your time in the city enjoying the outdoors.
“From scenic mountain views to hundreds of miles of hiking trails to captivating Alaska Native history and culture, a trip to Anchorage provides the best of Alaska,” says Visit Anchorage’s Kathy Dunn. “First things first, get the lay of the land with a flightseeing tour of Chugach State Park or Denali. Flightseeing planes take off from Lake Hood — the floatplane base is directly adjacent to Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport — and you can easily spend a few hours enjoying expansive views of snow-capped peaks and sparkling glaciers.”
Dunn continued, “You won’t want to miss a stop at the Alaska Native Heritage Center. It’s an ideal place for learning about Alaska’s Indigenous cultures. And then cap off your day at one of the many restaurants that reflect the city’s global draw and diverse community. You can sample fresh Alaska seafood, wild game, produce harvested from local farms or locally produced craft brews.”
Plenty of outdoor adventures lie just beyond Anchorage too. Borealis Basecamp’s Adriel Butler suggests hitting the road to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, the largest park in the country. He says, “There are fewer people, more raw Alaska, and tons of room to breathe.” Follow this itinerary for a short stay in the park.
Both Butler and Hall have a special place in their hearts for Homer, a five-hour drive south of Anchorage. “The drive and experience is well worth it. The location is beautiful. Old Town Homer adds a whole additional piece with the artists, small stores and local restaurants. And with the ocean and beaches within reach, it’s like no other. Homer also comes with some of the best people in the state,” Hall says. Bonus: Homer provides excellent access to bear viewing, if you let this weekend getaway itinerary lead the way.
If you’re flying into Fairbanks
Start your adventures in town, with a few suggestions from the staff at Explore Fairbanks: “Float the Chena River, which runs through the heart of Fairbanks. You can go paddleboarding, canoeing, kayaking or just hop on board the ever-popular Riverboat Discovery. While navigating the river, you can snap your photo in front of the huge ‘Love Alaska’ sign.”
Next up, the Explore Fairbanks staff recommends, “At the University of Alaska Museum of the North, you’ll learn about Alaska Native cultures, natural wonders and diverse flora and fauna and be wowed by 2,000 years of Alaskan art. The museum is home to Alaska’s largest public display of gold, a 36,000-year-old steppe bison mummy, the ‘Into the Wild’ bus and Otto the huge grizzly that greets you at the entrance of the Gallery of Alaska.”
The Explore Fairbanks staff continued, “Normally people wouldn’t suggest you spend the evening looking up, but Fairbanks isn’t normal, it’s spectacular. Fairbanks is considered the Land of the Midnight Sun, where you can bask in the sunshine all night long while hiking, biking, canoeing, fishing or just relaxing during our 70 straight days of 24-hour light. If you look to the skies between August 21 and April 21, you can see for yourself why Fairbanks is considered one of the best places on the planet to view the aurora borealis, also known as the northern lights.”
For many travelers to Fairbanks, the Arctic beckons and a road trip on the 415-mile Dalton Highway offers a unique experience. The National Park Service’s Pete Christian says, “[The drive] allows you to travel from the boreal forest ecosystem around Fairbanks up into a subarctic (taiga) and arctic (tundra) ecosystem while crossing a major Alaska river (the Yukon) and mountain range (the Brooks Range). If you go the full distance, you can end your journey within sight of the Arctic Ocean. With only a few days, you can tailor your trip to be as long or as short as you need while getting a flavor of the Far North country.”
Christian continues, “Two great options for a day trip from Fairbanks on the Dalton are driving about three hours (one way) as far as the mighty Yukon River of Gold Rush fame. The elevation increases as the road stretches north of the river, providing stunning vistas of wide swaths of tundra strewn with rocky outcrops, including at the wayside rest stop for Finger Mountain (near Mile 98). The short, self-guided nature trail there also provides an opportunity to stretch your legs. The Arctic Circle at Mile 115 (approximately a 1.5-hour drive from the Yukon) can be another turnaround point. Driving an additional 60 miles to Coldfoot will provide additional stunning scenery, and the bonus of enjoying the displays and exhibits at the Arctic Interagency Visitor Center at Coldfoot (Mile 174).” Make a weekend out of the road trip following this itinerary.
For even more short jaunts, like a three-day trip to Nome or a weekend in Denali, check out these itineraries. Or go ahead and order an Alaska vacation planner. You’ll find even more reasons to visit Alaska inside.
Editor’s note: The health and safety of Alaska’s visitors and residents, along with its member businesses, remains a top priority to the Alaska Travel Industry Association throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Many Alaska tourism businesses are open under the Reopen Alaska Responsibly plan and can help you decide if it’s right for you to travel now or in the future. We encourage you to stay in touch with your travel providers for the latest updates and guidelines.