You might associate Alaska with cold weather, but the colorful wildflowers, plentiful sunshine and yes, balmy Alaska summer temperatures will delightfully defy your expectations. Whether you compete for salmon with a hungry bear along a crystalline stream or enjoy more civilized eats inside one of the state's craft breweries, summer vacations in Alaska are eclectic, exciting and full of surprises. Here are some of the top Alaska summer activities to enjoy in the land of America's "midnight sun."
1. Hike Amid Alaska's Wildflowers
Thanks to the perpetual sunshine and warm weather, one of the best things to do in Alaska in the summer is hike. Whether you take to some of the tamer trails of Denali National Park or attempt to hike the entire 33 miles of the challenging Chilkoot Trail, colorful wildflowers are everywhere you look, from purple lupines to magenta fireweed, to the rare Arctic iris, which is bluer and cooler than the varieties you'll find farther south.
Of course, this is not to say you can't take in any snowy scenery as you hike in Alaska during the summer. Routes like the Exit Glacier Trail and the Harding Icefield Trail, both located in Kenai Fjords National Park, allow you to see magnificent glaciers (or at least, what's left of them during the summer months), sometimes just a few feet away. The Exit Glacier Trail is especially appealing for families traveling with small children since parts of it are paved and less than a half-mile in length.
2. Take a Scenic Fjord Cruise
There's practically no better way to appreciate the beauty of Alaskan scenery than under bright sunshine. Another highlight of summer vacations in Alaska is taking a boat trip into the state's stunning fjords. Finger-shaped inlets that jut into the state's mountainous coastline (which is sometimes still covered in glaciers, even in summer), fjords are also home to a wide variety of marine and land life, including bald eagles and various species of whales.
The most popular part of Alaska to see fjords is Kenai Fjords National Park, which is located near the city of Seward less than three hours south of Anchorage. If you're in Juneau, on the other hand, consider visiting the Tracy Arm Fjord, which is less than an hour away from the capital and makes for a great half-day trip. No matter which option you choose, you'll enjoy marveling at the contrast of the white snow and ice, the emerald vegetation and the perfectly blue sky and sea that define Alaskan fjords.
3. Cast Your Line for Salmon
For many travelers, the highlight of Alaska summer trips is the opportunity to fish for salmon. Although the optimal time to cast your line amid Alaska's famous runs can vary, depending on which of the five Alaskan salmon species you want to catch, May through September is always the best season for it, whether you scour for massive king salmon (also known as chinook salmon) in the Kenai River, or fish for silver salmon at Ship Creek, which is actually located in the heart of downtown Anchorage.
Of course, many of the best salmon fishing experiences in Alaska are not so convenient. In particular, the "fly-in" style of fishing trip is popular. If you splurge on fly-in fishing, a professional fisherman and pilot (sometimes, the same person) will fly you from a large city (probably Anchorage) to a remote river somewhere in the wilds of Alaska. You might literally have to compete with wild bears or other animals for the plentiful salmon swimming in the streams here!
... or Trout
If you consider fishing to be one of the top things to do in Alaska in the summer, but aren't a fan of salmon, there are plenty of other options. The most popular choice would be to go fly-fishing for rainbow trout, which, like salmon, are at their most active during the summer. Many of the best places to fish for trout in Alaska during the summer are located in the southern part of the state, which makes them especially convenient if you want to go fishing with your kids or parents.
The Kenai Peninsula's Russian River is probably the most popular place to fish for trout in Alaska during the summer, although more remote location like Lake Creek and the Kulik River are options if you have more time and can travel farther away from civilization. Wherever you decide to go trout fishing in Alaska, do your best to fish when salmon runs aren't at their peaks to avoid crowds. Since you will likely be traveling with a guide, their tour company can help you schedule your trip for the optimal experience.
4. Say 'Cheers' at Alaska's Breweries
Temperatures can often climb into the 80s or even the 90s during summer vacations in Alaska, which presents the perfect opportunity to throw back a cold one. Thankfully, the state is home to plenty of breweries large and small, from the busy Alaskan Brewery and Bottling Company in Juneau, to craft outlets like Klondike Brewing Company in Skagway and Homer Brewing Company, whose oceanside location means you can enjoy fresh seafood like oysters as you sample beers.
If you're not a beer drinker or simply want a more serene experience, you could head to an Alaskan winery instead. Visit Alaska Denali Winery in Anchorage, or Bear Creek Winery in Homer. Or, for a truly unique winery visit, try Alaska Berries, which is located in Soldotna halfway between the two. Since the site is also home to a berry farm, many of the wines here have sweet and wonderful flavors, including raspberry and gooseberry, and even some non-berry flavors, like rhubarb.
5. Discover Native Alaskan Culture
Warm weather makes Alaska summer trips perfect for a deep dive, though maybe not into any of the state's bodies of water (which are still very cold). Take advantage of cultural experiences that allow you to learn more about Alaska's natives, from well-known tribes like the Inuits to lesser-known cultures such as the Yupik, Aleut and Eyak.
If you plan to be in southern Alaska near Ketchikan, consider visiting Totem Bight State Park, which spotlights the colorful totem poles of various native groups amid towering evergreen forests. Fairbanks' Morris Thompson Cultural & Visitors Center, meanwhile, displays rotating exhibitions of indigenous art. If you want to discover the culture, art and even cuisine of Inuit people, meanwhile, you'll want to head all the way north to Barrow, which is definitely at its most pleasant during the summer.
6. Ride America's Most Scenic Railroad
If you want to enjoy Alaskan scenery but are traveling with young kids or elderly parents, consider riding the White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad, which connects the Alaskan city of Skagway with Whitehorse, the capital of Canada's Yukon territory. Often known as the most scenic railroad in America, this adventure is accessible to the whole family and is without a doubt one of the top things to do in Alaska in the summer, no matter what kind of traveler you are.
Specific points of interest along the route, which generally takes you past towering mountain peaks, over crystalline lakes and through enchanting evergreen forests, include Bridal Veil Falls and Dead Horse Gulch. The guide on the train will also announce when you're passing by the Klondike Trail, which is now defunct but was an essential element of the Alaskan Gold Rush of the late 19th century. Note that although the train crosses the border into Canada, you don't need a passport to ride (so long as you plan to return to Alaska when the journey is over!).
7. See Alaskan Summer Wildlife
Another advantage of Alaska summer trips over winter travel is the ease of being able to see Alaska wildlife. One of the easiest and most family-friendly ways to do this is with a bus tour along Denali Park's main road. You and your family can peer out on animals such as bears, moose and caribou from inside the safety and comfort a bus, which travels slowly enough that you can get plenty of amazing pictures through the window.
If you're looking for a more exhilarating wildlife experience, consider booking a guided expedition to get a more intimate look at animals, such as a "bear viewing tour" to see some of the tens of thousands of black and brown bears that call Alaska home. If you want to see marine wildlife, this is another reason to consider taking a fjord cruise in Alaska. In addition to the incredible scenery, which can sometimes include sea ice, you can also see sea animals like whales, sea otters and porpoises.
8. Get Up Close and Personal With a Glacier
It might sound surprising, but one of the best things to do in Alaska in the summer is to see a glacier, although chances are that the one you visit will be at least partially melted. One popular activity near Anchorage, for example, is to ride ATV vehicles through the glacier scenery of the Knik River Valley. During some parts of the summer, you'll actually be riding through the melting parts of the glacier itself, with chunks of ice so close you can touch them. An exclusive experience that allows you to get even closer to a glacier starts in the city of Seward, where you'll take a flight to a remote glacier that remains mostly frozen during the summer. Once you touch down, you'll get onto a dog sled, where a pack of dutiful Alaskan huskies (not unlike the ones that compete in the famous Iditarod) will take you on an adventure you won't soon forget.
9. Catch the Sun Setting — If It Does
The "midnight sun" phenomenon is inextricable from summer vacations in Alaska, particularly if you visit around the summer solstice on June 21, or travel to destinations far north such as Barrow. One of the reasons visiting Alaska during the summer is so incredible, whether you take a glacier hike or go fly-fishing, is that you can expect at least 16-18 hours of bright sunshine per day.
With this being said, Alaska summer sunsets are incredible, even if you have to stay up late to see them. Whether you watch the sun set into the sea from Kincaid Park near Anchorage or see Fire Island live up to its name as colors blaze in the sky above it, you'll never regret waiting for the sun to set in Alaska in the summer. Plus, if you visit later in the summer, namely during the months of July and August, the sun can set as "early" as 10 or 11 p.m.!