This article was originally published by Alaska magazine and is reprinted here with permission.
People travel to Alaska for a variety of reasons, and we’re here to give you a few more. While most visitor’s guides highlight the glaciers, marine life, and mega-fauna prevalent in Alaska, we decided to take a different approach for this year’s vacation planner, focusing on activities, sports, and interests. While enjoying things you already love or learning a new hobby, you’ll remain surrounded by natural beauty and wildlife. Get inspired and take your favorite pastime or fresh endeavor to a new level in the Last Frontier.
Yes, you can surf in Alaska. It might sound crazy, but when you think about the vast coastline around the 49th state, it makes all the sense in the world to ride a wave. Is the water cold? Sure, but the bragging rights will last forever, and, likely, you’ll be one of a few in line with your board.
Turnagain Arm (Anchorage)
Twice a day at high tide, surfers don wet suits for the opportunity to ride the waves created by a bore tide just outside of Anchorage. The Turnagain Arm bore tide, created when a narrow outgoing tide slams into an incoming ocean tide, is the only one occurring in the U.S. and can create swells topping out at 12 feet.
Fossil Beach (Pasagshak on Kodiak Island)
Surf the Pacific Ocean waves amid sea lions at Fossil Beach, which provides a point break with bigger swells shaped by beds of seaweed and rocks.
Snappers and Point Carrew (Yakutat)
Travel to this surfer’s haven in northern southeast Alaska by daily jet service from Seattle, Anchorage, or Juneau. Surfers hit the waves surrounded by towering peaks of the St. Elias Mountains, enjoying beach break barrels, glassy faces, and head-high washing machines.
Birding in Alaska is unparalleled for its biodiversity and habitat supporting 471 documented species, including the rare McKay’s bunting on uninhabited and remote St. Matthew Island in the Bering Sea. While you might not be able to travel to St. Matthew, the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge encompasses 3.4 million protected acres of essential habitat for 40 million seabirds, which should keep you busy for a while, along with these other hotspot locales.
Paradise for birders (and birds) can be found on the isolated cliffs and beaches of St. Paul and St. George islands. Here you’ll find 75 percent of the world’s red-legged kittiwakes, one of 240 bird species, including Alaskan and Siberian migrants. Also on the checklist: horned and tufted puffins, thick-billed and common murres, auklets, and even a hybrid McKay’s/snow bunting.
In the western Aleutians, serious birders travel to Adak during the spring migration in search of Asiatic migrants and other vagrants including tufted duck, Siberian rubythroat, brambling, and greenfinch. In addition, more common regular sightings are of rock ptarmigan, Arctic tern, whiskered and crested auklet, emperor goose, and arctic loon.
This North Slope location with its high-latitude tundra allows birders the opportunity to see all four species of eider, along with snowy owl, pomarine jaeger, yellow-billed loon, and buff-breasted sandpiper. Bonus: polar bears sometimes can be spotted on the shore.
Join the Copper River Delta Shorebird Festival in May as birds migrate north in staggering numbers from wintering grounds as far south as Peru. Virtually all of the world’s population of western sandpipers and Pacific dunlins stop here in the spring, making it a must-see for birders.
The Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve is a great place to spot bald eagles while rafting in the summers; however, the fall and winter months bring thousands of the raptors to the rivers here to feast on the end of the salmon run. Watch them steal fish from each other, lock talons, and create chaos in an annual spectacle like no other.
This Bering Sea town is rife with avian activity. Red-throated and Pacific loons, Aleutian and arctic terns, rare red-necked stint, nesting gyrfalcon, bar-tailed godwit, and curlew fill the landscape, along with muskox as an added benefit.
For more information on birds in Alaska:
Every town and city in Alaska invite you to spend your money to buoy the local economy. You’ll find everything from carved furniture to fur hats, as well as culinary delights of canned blueberry jams and packs of smoked salmon. While we couldn’t list all the possibilities, we thought we’d highlight a few unique options, especially during the holiday gifting season.
Polar Bear Gifts Outlet Store (Anchorage)
This downtown staple offers the best souvenir selection for the price. You can get three t-shirts for $10, or choose from rows of baseball caps, magnets, stickers, shot glasses, bookmarks, and hoodies—all branded with the word “Alaska.” There’s something for everyone here.
Russian Goods (Sitka)
The Russian American Company in Sitka stands behind more than 40 years of importing and curating Russian collectibles, along with one-of-a-kind Alaska Native art. From nesting dolls to whalebone and mammoth ivory carvings, the store specializes in authentic wares.
Santa Claus House (North Pole)
Pet reindeer, sit in Santa’s lap, and come home with ornaments you can brag were purchased at the North Pole—in Alaska, that is. It’s Christmas year-round here.
Native Arts (Juneau and Utqiagvik)
If you’re looking for authentic Alaska Native goods to bring home, look no farther than the Sealaska Heritage Center in Juneau or the Inupiat Heritage Center in Utqiagvik. Both locations showcase the talents of indigenous people through art, sculpture, carving, weaving, and scrimshaw.
Salts and Seasonings (Homer and Sitka)
The Alaska Salt Company in Homer and Alaska Pure Sea Salt Co. in Sitka make sure you have the natural ingredients to add flavor to that salmon, halibut, or crab feast.
Oomingmak Musk Ox Producers’ Co-Operative (Anchorage)
A small shop in downtown Anchorage brings qiviut knitting arts to the masses. Qiviut, the underwool shed by the muskox, is eight times warmer than wool, lightweight, shrink-resistant, and incredibly soft. Handwash your newly acquired hat, scarf, or sweater and wear it for years in all types of weather.
There are more than 50 national historic landmarks in Alaska, ranging from Alaska Native ruins to World War II bases and gold-rush mines. If you’re a history buff, you’ll find more than enough to do and see in the 49th state than can be listed here.
Fort William H. Seward (Haines)
From 1925 to 1940, Fort Seward was the only active Army outpost in Alaska, but it was originally constructed to maintain order among the mob of gold seekers during the gold rush of the early 1900s. Constructed in 1902, it was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1978.
Castle Hill (Sitka)
This lofty location overlooking the ocean served as the place for the formal transfer of Russian America to the United States in 1867, and is also known as the American Flag Raising Site, where the first official raising of the 49-star national flag occurred. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1962.
In 1942, Japan occupied Attu, in the Aleutians, giving it an unprecedented tactical advantage in WWII. The Americans recaptured Attu in the only WWII battle fought on North American soil. Attu was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1985.
Kennecott Mine & Ghost Town (Kennecott/Wrangell-St. Elias National Park)
Hauntingly picturesque, tours of this mine explore the campus of a bygone operation that extracted copper ore valued in 1938 at $200 million.
Chilkoot Trail/White Pass & Yukon Route Railway (Skagway)
Hike the Chilkoot Trail at your own risk. This 33-mile rugged recreational path sees more than 10,000 tourists each year wanting to experience the late 1800s trade route of the Klondike Gold Rush, while passing hundreds of abandoned artifacts along the way. Another way to immerse yourself in the frenzy of the times is to board the White Pass & Yukon Route train into Canada on a course that remains a true feat of engineering.
Museums & Native Culture
Traditional carvings of the Southeast tribes are on full and glorious display at Totem Bight State Historical Park and Saxman Totem Park (both in Ketchikan) and at Sitka National Historical Park.
History comes alive with exhibits and recordings of language, artifacts, archeological finds, arts, dance, music, traditional dress, housing, and subsistence life.
Alutiiq Museum (Kodiak)
The collections here tell the Alutiiq story, illuminating the heritage of its people through more than 250,000 items.
Alaska State Museum (Juneau) and Sheldon Jackson Museum (Sitka)
The Alaska State Museum includes 1,700 objects from the Russian colonial era and the American period, as well as 1,800 items in its fine art collection. The exhibits are truly one-of-a-kind and impressively displayed and are dominated by Alaska Native materials. The Sheldon Jackson Museum includes objects from each Native group in Alaska: Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, Aleut, Alutiiq, Yup’ik, Inupiat, and Athabascan. The museum often features an artist in residence practicing his or her craft for visitors.
This museum recognizes Alaska Native contributions through a permanent exhibit featuring more than 600 objects from the Smithsonian collection, while offering a rotating selection of topical historical and present-day displays.
& GEM HUNTING
There’s gold in them thar hills, but there are also minerals, crystals, geodes, and diamonds. In fact, Alaska is an excellent place to excavate hidden treasures.
Jade Mountain and Jade Creek (Kobuk Valley National Park)
The name says it all. Jade is the official gemstone of Alaska, and you’ll find plenty of it along the Kobuk River and throughout the Seward Peninsula.
Fancy a pair of diamond earrings? Head to Shulin Lake just outside of Talkeetna in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.
No Name Creek Region
Crack open a geode to see what’s inside. Look for them in the No Name Creek region of Denali in Kantishna and Wonder Lake. Other hotspots include Yukon River, Talkeetna River, and Chickaloon.
Amethysts can be found in Tok—purple crystals that will brighten any rockhound’s day.
The world’s biggest garnet mine is near Wrangell, and garnets remain common there and throughout Alaska.
Alaska encompasses 663,300 square miles of land and only a few roadways, which is why the state has six times more pilots per capita than anyplace else in the U.S. Thus, the best and fastest way to travel around Alaska and see the state is by air. A fun way to celebrate this hub for pilots and aviation enthusiasts is by attending a fly-in event or airshow.
Alaska Aviation Museum
Lake Hood Seaplane Base in Anchorage boasts the largest and busiest float plane airport in the world. Watch the action with a drink in hand from the back deck of the Millennium Lakefront Hotel before walking over to the Alaska Aviation Museum along the lakeshore.
Great Alaska Aviation Gathering
The Alaska Airmen’s Association in Palmer serves more than 2,000 members and hosts the annual Great Alaska Aviation Gathering with competitions, exhibits, and activities, including the “Duct Tape Masterpiece” category for aircraft that you can’t imagine would actually fly.
Arctic Lightning Airshow
Displaying the military might of Alaska, the Arctic Lightning Airshow at Eielson Air Force Base in Fairbanks includes numerous performances, including the U.S. Navy Blue Angels and the U.S. Air Force Parachute Team.
Beyond the aerobatics and flying competitions, attendees can participate in a flour bombing and balloon bust competition, and kids can create a balsa wood plane of their own.
Complete with a 5K road race, egg toss, and scavenger hunt, this Port Alsworth, Lake Clark, fly-in might seem more like a summer family festival than an aviation event. The good news is that it’s both. Beyond the barbeque and relay race, visitors can enjoy an aviation-themed film festival and flying competitions for shortest take-off, spot landing, and the pizza drop.