It’s not hard to find a unique or unusual adventure in this state. Alaska offers adventures on every level to visitors and residents alike, and you can find an adventure that’s just right for you. It can be DIY or guided, individual or with a group, extreme or gentle. Finding a one-of-a-kind adventure is only as hard as getting to Alaska in the first place.
Aviation has a storied history in Alaska, and it’s still one of the more efficient methods for getting around the state. Even now, the only way to get to much of Alaska is to fly. One thing that an aerial perspective will give you is a sense of just how huge Alaska really is. Mountains are big from the ground, but they’re even bigger when you can see the whole range stretching to the horizon. Glaciers are tall from the ground, but they’re massive when you can see them winding like rivers from the ice field. (Yes, we appreciate the irony of a company specializing in road trips encouraging you to fly, but that’s the reality of living and adventuring in Alaska!) Just an hour in a bush plane will give you insight that isn’t possible from the road.
A bush plane will also get you out to the best bear viewing, and that could be any combination of hour-long flight seeing tours, day-trips to secret spots, or multi-day excursions to lodges, cabins or camps where you’ll see bears congregate on salmon streams in numbers you’d never have imagined. Try a trip out to Lake Clark National Park, where you can land and eat your lunch while watching the bears eat theirs. Or take a trip out to Katmai National Park from Homer, where you can watch bears wander the beach or eat their fill at Brooks Falls, where fish literally jump into their mouths. Catch a flight from one of the many air taxis at Lake Hood, in the heart of Anchorage, known as the busiest float plane base in the world, or catch a flight from a smaller airport, air strip, or lake in one of Alaska’s smaller communities. Alaska has no shortage of pilots or of airplanes.
Dogsledding is another iconic Alaskan activity, and also one that can sometimes be combined with flight. Dogsledders are as plentiful as pilots up here, and many veteran mushers open their kennels to guests during the summertime, both to educate visitors and to help train the dogs. Visit a kennel and learn how Iditarod mushers handle the dogs while out on the trail, what it takes to run a kennel and feed, house and train the dogs, and how to care for the dogs in camp. Take a training run on a summer sled—usually a cart or four-wheeler with space for gear and people—on a forested trail and feel what it’s like to be pulled by a team of champion huskies. Or, combine your dogsledding tour with a flight, and helicopter up to a glacier and take the dogs for a run on snow, their natural element. And chances are, you’ll also get to play with the puppies that are learning to socialize. You can find helicopter-glacier-dogsledding excursions in Seward or Girdwood, and probably a few other communities, too.
Glaciers are plentiful in the Southeast and Southcentral areas of the state, and you can both hike to them and hike on them for a unique adventure not found in the Lower 48. Hiking to a glacier can be easy, like in the case of Byron Glacier in the Portage area, which only requires about a mile-long walk on a flat trail from the parking lot, or it can an adventure, like in the case of the Grewingk Glacier in Kachemak Bay State Park, which first requires a water taxi ride from the Homer Spit, and then requires a 4-mile hike over a ridge, including pulling yourself in a hand-tram over a creek.
Hiking on a glacier doesn’t necessarily require any ice- or mountain-climbing skills, unless of course you want it to. Hire a guide or take a tour—we don’t recommend hiking on a glacier without a guide. Guides have intimate knowledge of the glaciers and can help you avoid dangerous areas like hidden crevasses and unstable ice, and they can also direct you to the unique features that you might miss on your own, like ice caves, wind sculptures, and the best views from the top. Matanuska Glacier, east of Palmer, and Exit Glacier, near Seward, are two of the most easily-accessible glaciers for hiking, and area guides will provide training and equipment for your trek. Combine a glacier hike with a flight and make it even more Alaskan: helicopter-glacier hikes can be done on Knik Glacier, Spencer Glacier, and maybe even one of your choosing.
Surfing the Bore Tide
Surfing is becoming more and more popular here in Alaska—something about its uncrowded breaks and extreme adventure. We don’t do things halfway up here: If you want to surf Alaska, you’ll have the wave to yourself, but you’ll have to catch it via boat or, of course, helicopter or bush plane. Guide services based in Seward can take you out to find the best waves, on day-trips or on multi-day excursions.
But you don’t have to be extreme to catch an extreme wave. One of the longest waves in North America can be found just south of Anchorage on Turnagain Arm. During periods of extreme low, or minus, tides, usually during a new or full moon, the returning tide rushes into the inlet in what’s known as a tidal bore, creating a wave that can be up to 6 feet tall and miles long for that elusive long ride coveted by surfers the world over. You don’t even have to surf it—you can catch the wave on a stand-up paddle-board or in a kayak, or through the viewfinder of your camera. You can chase the wave down the length of Turnagain Arm in your travel van, as the Seward Highway parallels the arm from its mouth near Anchorage to its head near Portage. The bore tide is easily predicted: the page on alaska.org has a wealth of information on tide tables and catching the wave, on a surfboard or otherwise. (If you do plan on surfing, hire a local guide, as the waters of Turnagain Arm, and the mudflats at low tide, can be treacherous.)
Alaska Native Olympics
Explore Alaska’s rich cultural history through the Native Youth Olympics or the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics. The WEIO happens in July each year in Fairbanks, and participants compete in traditional and unique games and competitions, such as the seal hop, the stick pull, the high kick, the ear pull, and the blanket toss. The events celebrate native cultural history as they display the strength a person would have needed to perform everyday yet vitally important tasks, like gripping the tail of a salmon, carrying game back to camp, enduring the pain of frostbite, and also enjoying the thrill of a successful hunt or a celebration of togetherness. The Native Youth Olympics incorporate most of these same games, but are open to young people only.
While the games happen once a year, Native Heritage is celebrated all year throughout Alaska, at various cultural centers throughout the state, and especially at the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage or the Museum of the North in Fairbanks. Many facets of traditional Native life are demonstrated, and visitors are able to participate in some WEIO games and in crafts, stories and meals that hold special significance for Alaska Native peoples.
It doesn’t have to be cold to see the aurora borealis, just dark, and in the Land of the Midnight Sun, darkness starts to fall in very late August and September. To DIY a northern lights adventure, camp somewhere without an obstructed view of the night sky to the north, on a clear night, and look up. Sometimes the lights are faint, and you’ll see wisps and feathers of white and green dancing through the sky, disappearing and reappearing at random. But if they’re bright, you’ll see shades of green, yellow, orange, red and even purple, swirling together and across each other, dancing in multiple lines across the sky. Green is the most common color; red and purple are pretty rare. If you want to increase your chances, sign up for a tour or hire a guide, and you’ll have access to the best viewing spots plus help with planning the trip and timing it for the right day and part of the day. Bookmark the website for UAF’s Geophysical Institute, which monitors the solar and atmospheric data and predicts the activity and intensity of the lights, and how far south they’ll be visible.
Alaska offers a wealth of opportunities to take part in some unique and unusual adventures. Don’t forget about our strange and kooky festivals, many of which are scheduled to be revived in summer 2021, or the outdoor adventures you can find in the heart of Alaska’s biggest city. If it’s offbeat, off-the-grid or off-kilter, chances are you can find it here, and at your own comfort level. What’s on your bucket list?
Ready for a unique and oh-so-Alaskan adventure? Book now and start planning!