There is so much to explore in Alaska, but where to begin? This year marked my husband Kevin’s 40th birthday so I knew we had to go big. I’ve visited Alaska at least a dozen times, so I’ve earned my stripes in knowing where to go (or not to go!). While it was tempting to take one of the popular Alaskan cruises, I decided to create our own road trip adventure. And quickly came up with a fun 5-day itinerary through Alaska — perfect for the first-time visitor.
While we enjoyed pretty much everything on the trip, there were a few standouts. It was tough, but we managed to narrow our picks down to our top 5 recommendations. And naturally, it includes a lot of animal encounters. I mean, Kevin even kissed a moose. Mid-life crisis moment? Or just caught up in the moment? In either case, he seemed to enjoy it (and I’ll try not to be too jealous!).
5. Fly High Over Denali National Park
You really shouldn’t leave Alaska without seeing Denali National Park. At a formidable 20,320 feet tall, Denali (formerly Mt. McKinley) is the centerpiece of the park. Since we only had 5 days in Alaska, we opted to take a pontoon plane from Anchorage and flew 45 minutes to reach the park (vs. the 5-hour trip if you drove!). The airplane ride is spectacular and you’ll get a birds-eye view of just how desolate the land around Anchorage really is. I can’t tell you how many times I yelled out loud, “Someone lives down there!?” This area is remote — and you’ll see cabins seemingly hundreds of miles away from civilization in every direction!
We went with Rust’s Flying Service, which conveniently is located near the The Lakefront Anchorage. They offer a variety of tours, but we really enjoyed the 3-hour flight that went above Denali’s lower peaks and viewed the entire length of the rugged Ruth Glacier.
You’re connected to your pilot the entire time on a 2-way headset where you can ask questions and learn more about the land below. We opted for the standard Denali sightseeing tour that included a quick stop along a lake (aka, a nice bathroom break halfway!). It was an exciting way to start off the trip and you’ll feel like you are definitely in Alaska! Cost: $425 per person plus tax for the standard Denali tour (with midway landing at the lake). Or $495 per person plus tax for the Denali tour with a landing on a glacier.
4. Walk on the Wild Side at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center
The Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, located just 45 miles south of Anchorage along the scenic Seward Highway, is a non-profit organization dedicated to animal conservation, research and education. A big part of their mission is protecting the native Alaskan wildlife spanning across its 200-acre plot of land.
You can just show up, or opt for one of their education programs. We loved their VIP “Walk on the Wild Side Tour,” which is a small tour led by one of the center’s staff who will take you behind the scenes of the center. We got to see a baby musk ox and feed a very hungry porcupine. It saw us coming and eagerly waddled his way out to see us!
The center also has elk, moose, bears, bison and foxes. Most of the animals at the center were either orphaned or injured. The special tour takes 1.5 hours, and is offered daily at 10 AM and 3:30 PM. Cost is $100 per person, which includes the admission cost to the center.
3. Kayak Along a Glacier
We absolutely loved the kayaking tour in Seward, Alaska, with Liquid Adventures. I honestly debated whether we should do their other option: stand up paddle-boarding. But something told me this probably wasn’t a good idea. Last time we did this activity, SOMEONE ended up in the water. And let’s just say, it’s probably a much easier plunge in Santa Barbara than in the ice-cold waters of Alaska!
The kayak tour in front of Bear Glacier was a major highlight. Curious seals swam up to our kayaks to check us out. Plus, we even saw a massive piece of ice break off the top of an iceberg and float away. It was like we were in our own nature documentary!
The 3.5 hour trip is definitely a workout. Though, this includes a 45-minute ride to and from the kayaking site (so you won’t be paddling the entire time). Or you can just get the back seat of the tandem kayak and your partner won’t ever know if you’re paddling or not! Cost of the Bear Glacier kayaking adventure is $299 per person.
2. Feed a Reindeer and Kiss a Moose at the Reindeer Farm
We are still talking about all the hilarious moments at the Reindeer Farm , located in Palmer, just a short 45-minute drive northeast of downtown Anchorage. They run tours regularly and no reservation is necessary. The tour also includes boots so you don’t have to worry about your shoes as you step inside the animal pens. It’s such an experience — both fun and a little frightening all at once. These guys LOVE to eat!
Tours of the reindeer farm take about 1 hour and cost just $11 for adults and $9 for children, seniors, Military or Alaska residents. We agreed – the best deal on the trip! You’ll get to enter the pen to pet and feed reindeer as well as visit Dolly the Bison, Rocky the Moose and the small herd of Elk. Food for the animals is included on the tour. Or you can get right into the action and feed their resident moose by sticking a branch in your mouth. My jaw dropped when Kevin was the first person to volunteer to do it.
The farm has a nice gift shop on the premises, where you’ll find all things reindeer including antler key chains, soaps and of course a T-shirt to mark the occasion that you kissed a moose. Though, what happens on the reindeer farm, stays on the reindeer farm. Well, unless I guess if we blog about it!
1. Bear Viewing Tour Near Homer
Talk about an adventure — our top pick in Alaska definitely goes to our tour with Smokey Bay Air to see bears in their natural surrounding at Katmai National Park near Homer. Smokey Bay Air offers small group tours right into the heart of brown bear country. When picking a tour company, you must make sure it has a strong safety record and offers quality service. We highly recommend them.
You arrive by plane – the only way in, and besides seeing all the bears, you’ll pass by spectacular nature including massive volcanoes.
Prime bear viewing season stretches roughly from June through the end of August. However, we ended up visiting the first weekend in September, which is technically towards the end of bear viewing season. But clearly, the bears didn’t get the memo. In total, we saw more than 20 bears on the trip!
Tour groups are kept very small — in fact, our group was just 5 people total, including myself. This is part of their effort to make as minimal of an impact as possible (as well as ensure everyone stays safe). The park is spectacular — and you may be so taken up by the bears that you might miss the other scenery. It honestly felt like we were in a National Geographic documentary. But wait… that’s because the park is actually regularly featured in documentaries including the big Disney nature film Bears.
This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. And well worth the journey. And best of all? The trip will get you back early enough to head back into Homer to explore the shops and grab a coffee. Tours last about five hours total—including flights and about three hours on the ground. Cost is $670 per person including tax.
And that’s a wrap — and here’s to our next Alaskan adventure!