Are you planning to visit Alaska? You are in the right place! I have been there recently and here I will share everything you need to know before visiting Alaska, including some things I wish I had known before my trip.
Alaska, or “The Last Frontier,” calls to adventurers and nature enthusiasts with its staggering landscapes, untamed wilderness, and unique way of life.
Denali National Park is one of the Alaskan centerpieces. This beautiful park encompasses 6 million acres of land and is home to North America’s tallest peak, Mount McKinley – now known as Mount Denali.
People also flock to Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city. You can begin your exploration at the Alaska Native Heritage Center and learn about the indigenous cultures. It’s also a great starting point for nearby wilderness areas like Chugach, Kenai, and Talkeetna.
And the fun doesn’t stop there. Alaska is a vast country, and there’s so much to do if you’re interested in raw and rough wilderness, untouched nature, and off-the-beaten-path adventure.
But first, there are some things you should know before you visit Alaska.
In this comprehensive guide, I’ll delve into the heart of America’s largest state and share some essential knowledge you need for a memorable trip to Alaska, all based on my recent experience.
Looking for places to visit? Head over to my post The Best Travel Destinations In Alaska.
What You Must Know Before You Visit Alaska
Alaska is the largest state in the United States at 663,300 square miles. Texas is the second largest state in the United States, and Alaska is two and a half times as large as Texas, so it isn’t even close.
For further comparison, Alaska can fit up to 19 other U.S. states within its border. And it’s the same size as some countries. It’s comparable to the size of Iran and Venezuela.
Here’s one more example – France is one of the largest countries in Europe, and Alaska is more than twice the size of France.
What’s most surprising is much of this last is uninhabited. That’s right, very few people live in Alaska.
According to the 2022 U.S. Census Bureau, the population of Alaska is roughly 730,000 people. That means Alaska is the third least populated state in the United States despite being the largest by far.
In fact, only about 5% of Alaska is inhabited. Most of the population is centered around hot spots like Anchorage, Juneau, and Fairbanks.
So, if you think you are going to Alaska and exploring from top to bottom, think again. Most of Alaska is uninhabited, and the environment can’t support much human life or activity.
That said, there is still so much to do and see here.
Between the incredible hikes and national parks, the wildlife trails, the glaciers, and the history behind the magical state, you’re trip will be action-packed from start to finish.
There are earthquakes in Alaska
There are a lot of earthquakes in Alaska. In fact, Alaska has more earthquakes every year than all other U.S. states combined and is considered one of the most seismic areas of the world.
Alaska averages about 1,000 earthquakes each month and is home to the 1964 Great Alaska Earthquake, the second-largest earthquake ever recorded with a magnitude of 9.2.
The 1964 Great Alaska Earthquake hit about 120 kilometers (75 miles) southeast of Anchorage. The earthquake triggered a massive tsunami, and the two effects were strongly felt by Anchorage, Chitina, Glennallen, Homer, and several other vicinities.
The earthquake and tsunami led to the loss of 131 lives and the equivalent of $2.3 billion USD today.
Other significant earthquakes in Alaska include the 1965 Rat Islands Earthquake, the 1957 Andreanof Island, and the 2021 Chignik Earthquake.
Fortunately, Alaska is considered relatively “quake-proof.” The ground is almost always rumbling somewhere in Alaska, but the effects are rarely felt or noticed. And many earthquakes occur far from civilization and anywhere you’ll be
So, it’s just something to keep in mind and prepare for, just in case. The chances of traveling around Alaska during a nearby destructive earthquake are pretty slim, so don’t let it deter you from checking this bucket list destination off the list. For reference, I felt none while I was there!
Best time to visit Alaska
Despite popular belief that Alaska is cold year-round, Alaska experiences all four seasons (Winter, Spring, Summer, and Fall). And the seasons are incredible.
Here is the general breakdown of the seasonal months in Alaska:
Winter: November-Early April
Spring: Late April to May
Alaska has extreme seasons and an almost unbearable winter for those not used to the cold and dark days. Winter in Alaska is characterized by extreme cold and dark days, with temperatures frequently falling below -40°C (-40°F). That being said, winter in Alaska is also a magical time.
Summer is the most popular time to visit Alaska because of the warm weather and long hours of sunlight. There’s so much to do, and it’s even considered hot in some areas.
For this reason, the best time to visit Alaska is in the summer months, specifically between June and August. The temperature should be between 15°C (60°F) to 21°C (70°F).
And you’ll also experience 16-24 hours of daylight during these months.
If you want the best weather and an elevated chance of encountering wildlife, visit in June or July. These are the warmest months, with the most lively animals.
If you want the lowest prices, with pretty good weather, try to visit in the shoulder months (May and September). May is the start of the early season, while September is the end of the late season. Many hotels and tours offer discounts during these months.
Spring in Alaska begins with a lot of rain and wet climates. However, the temperatures warm up as the weeks go on, and the flowers bloom.
The beginning of autumn is one of the best times to visit Alaska. The temperatures are still pretty warm (by Alaska terms, that is!), and there are many fun activities, like hiking.
I visited Alaska between the end of August and the beginning of September and it was actually very wet, but locals kept saying it had been an unusually wet and cold summer.
If you want to experience possibly the most demanding winter of your life, visit in the winter months. In the winter, you’ll experience 20-24 hours of total darkness and below-freezing temperatures all the time.
It rains ALL the time (in the summer)
The wettest months of the year in Alaska are usually July and August, which means you need to prepare for a lot of rain if you wish to visit Alaska in the summer.
You’ll experience long periods of sun, and you’ll start to even get hot. But out of nowhere, it’ll start raining. That’s why layers are so important in Alaska, even in the summer (more about that in a bit).
In August, you can expect measurable rainfall every other day, as Anchorage sees an average of 15 days of rain throughout the month.
Overall, the rain doesn’t damper anything as long as you’re prepared.
Wearing layers is essential
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: layers are essential in Alaska.
Even in the summer, when temperatures can get up to 25°C (77°F) on rare occasions, it can also get closer to freezing temperatures. And even though there’s a lot of sun time, the temperature will drop for a few hours when the sun finally disappears for its nap.
You also might be getting up early for tours or exploring. It might be colder in the morning, at the start of your day. But you’ll start to warm up as you hike or walk around. Even on the coldest days, as soon as we’d hit the trails we’d start sweating.
You’ll be much happier if you dress in layers that you can remove or put on as you’d like.
And so is proper rain gear
So far, we know it rains a lot in the summer in Alaska. And we also know layers are important so you’ll be prepared for all temperatures and all activities.
It shouldn’t surprise you that proper rain gear is also essential. I learned this the hard way, after a very wet hike on the Harding Icefield. I made a beeline for a hiking gear shop in Seward as soon as we got back!
In fact, there’s nothing worse than being in the middle of one of the most beautiful hikes of your life, and it starts raining, and everything you have (including yourself) gets soaked to the bone.
That’ll make it difficult to enjoy yourself and bask in the beauty of Alaska.
So, come prepared, bring proper rain gear, and let yourself enjoy your time in Alaska, rain or shine.
You can see the northern lights in Alaska
Most people think of northern European countries, like Iceland or Norway, when they imagine seeing the northern lights. But you can witness the spectacular aurora borealis in Alaska, as well.
The best time to see the northern lights is between August and April when the long days slowly transition to longer nights.
The Geophysical Institute of the University of Alaska in Fairbanks monitors the northern lights activity and publishes the activity for a 27-day time span.
The best place to see the northern lights is near Fairbanks, Alaska, because there is little light pollution and longer nights. While you can see northern lights from anywhere in Alaska, the chances greatly diminish the further south you go.
Having said that, someone in my group actually saw the northern lights just outside of Anchorage. I am still mad at them for not having told us they’d be going!
Wildlife is great
Alaska is nicknamed “the last frontier” partially because of its abundance of uninhabited land. But do you know what is associated with uninhabited land? Wild animals roam everywhere, as they should be.
People travel worldwide to see Alaska’s “Big Five” (bear, moose, Dall sheep, wolf, and caribou).
Alaska has four types of bears: black bears, brown bears, polar bears, and grizzly bears. And many other kinds of animals you’ve probably never even thought about.
If you’re looking for bear viewing, Denali Park is one of the best places in Alaska. However, bears are everywhere, and you have a chance to spot one on any Alaskan excursion (we saw them on the Russian River, and another popular spot is Brooks Falls).
But it isn’t all about the “Big Five”; the marine life is also breathtaking here. After all, humpback whales, orcas, and grey whales call Alaska home for a significant portion of the year.
The best time to go whale watching is between May through September, although some species of whales, like the orcas, live off the coast of Alaska year-round. Although boat companies only offer tours during peak months.
Juneau is one of the best places for whale watching in Alaska near Mendenhall Glacier.
The best time for salmon fishing is the summer
Alaska is one of the best places in the world for salmon fishing. So, if you’re in Alaska during peak fishing season, you must try it.
Peak salmon fishing season is between May and October, when you’re almost guaranteed to catch a fish during the salmon run. A salmon run is an annual event when salmon swim upstream to spawn and lay their eggs. This is the easiest time to catch salmon.
Alaska has five species of wild salmon: king, sockeye, coho, keta, and pink. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has strict regulations on fishing purposes in Alaska, so make sure to go with a reputable tour company.
The Kenai River in south-central Alaska is the most popular spot for commercial fishing in Alaska. Still, many other rivers scattered around the country have great fishing during the salmon run.
Do you really need bear spray when hiking in Alaska?
Yes, you really need bear spray when hiking in Alaska. As mentioned, there’s a lot of wildlife, and the chances of running into a bear while hiking are higher in Alaska than elsewhere.
You should always use caution when hiking in bear country – generally, noises will keep bears away. So anything from chatting to singing and even carrying jingle bells works.
And bear spray works too. Bear spray has proven an effective deterrent in close encounters with aggressive and curious bears. So, don’t risk it, and just bring the bear spay no matter what.
It’s mosquito land
Mosquitos run rampant in Alaska and aren’t just your average mosquitos. The mosquitos in Alaska are large and swarm like crazy. The Snow Mosquito can get to the size of a small bee.
The mosquito problem is so prevalent that locals joke that the Alaska state bird is the mosquito.
However, mosquitos aren’t nearly so bad in popular tourist areas and towns. The biggest problem areas are near the rivers where you’ll be fishing, near a lake, or in the densely forested woods. We saw tons near the lake when we hiked the Curry Ridge trail in Denali State Park and left immediately.
Definitely add mosquito repellent to your Alaska packing list if you visit in the summer months!
It’s not cheap to visit Alaska
According to the World Population Review, Alaska has the sixth highest cost of living in the United States.
But it’s even worse for tourists and travelers who visit Alaska because you must consider your flights, transportation, and hotels (sometimes in towns with limited options).
Everything is expensive here, including hotels, restaurants, and flights, as well as excursions (I was quoted almost $900 USD for a flight from Homer to Brooks Falls to see bears).
But the thing that can sneak up on travelers is the cost of eating out. Restaurants are expensive in Alaska. It makes sense because only a little food is produced or manufactured here. But it can still take you by surprise if you aren’t careful.
Mind you, portions are huge so you can share. But when we commented to one of our waitresses that it’d make sense to serve smaller portions and decrease the prices a bit, she did not seem to get the point.
For the best travel deals, book in advance!
You want to book your trip to Alaska early to save a little money here and there. Alaska plans are not something you can save for the last minute.
Compared to other tourist destinations, there are minimal resources. Hotels, car rentals, and tour operators can fill up quickly, and prices may skyrocket right before the trip.
You can book a year in advance if you’re particular about your dates and plans. Just check the cancellation or rebooking policy before you book, and try to go with tours, flights, car rentals, and accommodations that are more lenient in case something happens.
For reference, I traveled to Alaska between the end of August and the beginning of September and I had my trip booked and everything finalized in March already.
There are only a few roads – but not much traffic
Alaska has a small population, and few people are making the grand trek up north for tourism needs, so the roads and highways are pretty bare, as expected.
Only a few main roads connect all of Alaska, and you’ll likely never encounter much traffic.
Most routes are on paved roads, with gas stations and convenience stores scattered here and there. There’s limited cell phone service in the remote areas of the highway, so be prepared.
If Google Maps isn’t working for your trip, you can check the Alaska Department of Transportation for road closures, traffic incidents, road maintenance or roadwork, mileposts, and weather alerts.
Summer is for road work
The winters are so dark and harsh that roadwork in Alaska at that time of year is almost impossible. Therefore, summer is the best time for roadwork.
You’ll notice road closures or speed reductions throughout the highways and paved roads around Alaska. It might be annoying to some, but it’s perfectly reasonable.
They have to do roadwork every summer in many parts of the country because winter puts such strain and pressure on the paved roads.
So, never complain. Instead, appreciate the work put into keeping the roads drivable.
You can only drive so much into Denali
You can easily drive to Denali National Park, but only so far into the park.
The furthest point you can take your car is the Savage River Check Station at mile 15 of Park Road, where you’ll find the trailhead for the Savage Alpine Trail, one of the best hikes in Alaska. Beyond this point, you can only get around Denali by bus, bicycle, or foot.
This method is becoming more popular in National Parks around the United States as it helps preserve the park and reduce the environmental impact of heavy traffic.
Transit buses (non-narrated) and tour buses (narrated tours) are allowed past Savage River. If you book a tour of Denali National Park, you’ll likely be on one of these forms of buses.
If you’ve driven to Denali National Park on your own, there are several other options. You can still book one of the tours that arrange bus transportation or use the free park buses.
The free park buses go from trail to trail and stop at every significant point of interest. You can move around as you like and don’t have to make a reservation beforehand. However, buses can get crowded during peak tourist season.
We used the free bus in Denali National Park to get to the Savage Alpine Trail trailhead and back after the hike and found it very convenient.
There are some bits that are completely isolated by road traffic
Some parts of Alaska are entirely disconnected from the rest of the state. For example, Southeast Alaska is only accessible by plane or boat.
About 75% of southeast Alaska is covered by Tongass National Park, where you’ll find the largest temperate rainforest in the world. This is also where you’ll find Glacier Bay National Park, Misty Fjords National Monument, and other points of interest.
The north of Alaska is also pretty desolate. The Dalton Highway is an infamous highway built on permafrost in Northern Alaska. It’s considered one of the world’s most dangerous and lonely highways.
It’s easy to visit Alaska independently by car
I actually did a guided tour of Alaska, but with hindsight, I’d have been perfectly fine traveling independently and renting a car. It’s more than doable.
It’s really easy to visit Alaska independently. Many people organize tours to make sure they get the most out of their time while keeping planning down to a minimum. That’s what I did, but at times it felt like the rest of the people in my group were slowing me down (especially on hikes).
You won’t have any problems in Alaska if you’re an independent traveler. You can easily rent your car and organize your tour around much of Alaska.
However, make sure you carefully plan your gas station breaks, as there are few gas stations outside the cities.
I’d recommend not to let your tank get too low. If you’re passing by a gas station, and the tank is below halfway, you might as well fill it up.
I recommend using Discover Cars to compare the prices of car-rental before visiting Alaska.
Don’t take Wi-Fi for granted
Wi-Fi and cell signals are a hot commodity in most parts of Alaska. Of course, major cities and towns, like Anchorage, will have service, but once you venture away from the city lights, you’re likely venturing away from the cell signal.
Make sure you’re prepared with everything you might need (offline Google Maps) before leaving the town or city.
And when you do get service, enjoy it while you can.
Another thing you will notice is that some hotels only offer limited Wi-Fi – we stayed at a few that required a long registration process to get Wi-Fi, and then only allowed 30 minutes in total (per stay!). I guess you can use this to your advantage and completely disconnect!
This should be obvious, but it’s worth mentioning the importance of respect in Alaska (anywhere, but definitely in Alaska).
You need to respect the environment. This is one of the world’s most beautiful, harsh, jaw-dropping environments. Don’t litter or leave anything behind. Let nature be itself, without the over-pollution from us humans.
Respect the animals. The wildlife in Alaska may be very different from what you’re used to, but you don’t need to turn this rugged wilderness into a zoo. Don’t run up to any animals to pet them or take photos without permission from a local guide who knows what they’re doing.
Respect the people and communities. Alaskan culture and people have a vibrant history. Show respect to everyone here, and take a moment to learn about the history and culture.