Top 10 Alaska highlights for your next trip off the beaten track

In Alaska, where there's salmon, you'll find bears.
In Alaska, where there's salmon, you'll find bears.

From train rides to kayaking and wildlife-spotting, Jocelyn Pride reveals the top 10 highlights to include on your Alaskan itinerary.

Alaska can be overwhelming (in the nicest possible way). It offers travellers some of the best experiences anywhere in the world, but you do need to get off the beaten track in order to explore the United States' largest and most sparsely populated state.

Ride the rails

Steeped in gold rush history, the White Pass railroad triptops the excursion-popularity charts year after year. Following the trail of the 19th-century gold prospectors (who did it on foot) from Skagway across the summit of White Pass into Yukon, Canada (don't forget your passport), this narrow-gauge track crosses death-defying trestle bridges above stunning deep ravines and delves into tunnels cutting through treacherous mountain terrain.

Bear all

In Alaska, where there's salmon, you'll find bears. For a couple of bear-viewing excursions that won't break the bank (or involve a flight), Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau is a black-bear hotspot while the tiny village of Haines is popular with brown bears. Many cruise companies have excursions at Icy Strait Point, part of Chichagof Island where there's a high concentration of brown bears.

Take a paddle

Kayaking is big in Alaska so what better place to paddle the glassy water of the fjords and hidden coves and catch an eye-level glimpse of harbour seals, sea lions, Dall's porpoises and possibly even humpback whales. With so many tiny islands, kayaking is excellent in Sitka. From Juneau you can paddle out to the spectacular Mendenhall Glacier, and in the north, Denali and Chugach state parks are popular with adventure-loving kayakers.

Embrace the culture

Southeast Alaska is a rich tapestry of stories and artwork that includes a range of cultures from the indigenous Tlingit and Haida Indian communities to the Russian and Norwegian influence. Walk through the magnificent totem parks of Sitka or Ketchikan to learn why these works of art are important historical records, take an excursion to a native village from Ketchikan, or catch a cultural dance in the tribal houses of Wrangell or Sitka.

Take to the skies

With very few roads, float planes and helicopters are the taxis of Alaska. Flightseeing from Ketchikan over the Misty Fjords National Monument will literally take your breath away. Towering mountains dip into glassy waters surrounded by dense rainforest dotted with cascading waterfalls. Or from Juneau take a flight across the majestic glaciers of the Juneau Icefield where you might even be lucky enough to witness a calving. If that's not enough of a thrill, there's also an adrenaline-rushing zipline in Juneau.

Step back in time

Relive the gold rush days as you wander through the beautifully preserved village of Skagway. Take a walk with a "madam" to hear tales of the ladies of the night. Here you can even pan for gold at Liarsville Camp (and discover the story behind the name) or take a horseride through the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park. Creek Street in Ketchikan is also a must-do heritage experience.

Go mushing

Skagway, Ketchikan and Juneau all offer fantastic dog-sledding experiences. Picture: Shutterstock

Skagway, Ketchikan and Juneau all offer fantastic dog-sledding experiences. Picture: Shutterstock

What could be more Alaskan than being on a sled with a team of dogs charging through the snow and ice? With the help of a helicopter you can even have this adrenaline rush in summer or, for a slightly more sedate experience, many kennels hitch their dogs on sleds with wheels in the warmer months. Either way you'll get to pat adorable puppies. Skagway, Ketchikan and Juneau all offer fantastic dog-sledding experiences.

Catch a big one

You only have to see the number of cooler boxes at an airport in Alaska to realise it's the ultimate fishing destination. Commercial fishing is a major industry, however there's plenty left for the sporting angler. Salmon will give you a run for your money or try for a monster halibut. Most ports offer fishing excursions, especially Juneau, Sitka and Ketchikan. If you're lucky, your itinerary might take in the tiny Norwegian village of Petersburg, between Juneau and Ketchikan. The town is home to the big commercial fishing vessels.

Have a whale of a time

The Inside Passage is one of the best places in the world for whale watching. This is where hungry humpbacks gorge themselves in the nutrient-rich waters before migrating to their breeding grounds off Hawaii and the Baja Peninsula, Mexico. Juneau offers brilliant viewing opportunities and towards the end of the season, Sitka is also an excellent spot. In addition to humpbacks, you may be fortunate enough to see Orca whales that transient these waters.

Shop for souvenirs

Alaska might not be high on your list as a shopping destination, but you'll be surprised by the treasures to be uncovered. Alaskan-made products, especially jewellery and other crafts, are creative and highly sought after keepsakes. Villages throughout the Inside Passage all have a quaint shops typifying quintessential Alaska. Look for printed signs that say the shop is owned and operated by an Alaskan family to ensure the authenticity of your souvenir.

MEET THE LOCALS

With more animals than people, Alaska is one of the greatest places on earth to encounter wildlife. Here are five of the best.

1. Bears

Bears usually top everyone's wish list. There are about 100,000 black bears and 35,000 brown bears in Alaska and they're all hungry; follow the food and you'll have your fill of bear encounters.

2. Bald eagles

Alaska is a birder's dream and bald eagles are in abundance; look for their large nests in trees along the Inside Passage. Other species to spot are puffins, kittiwakes and trumpeter swans.

3. Sea otters

Back from near extinction due to fur hunting in the 1800s, playful sea otters can be seen in Glacier Bay National Park floating on their backs in groups known as rafts.

4. Whales

The distinctive blow of a whale can fill the air anywhere along the Inside Passage. If you're super lucky you might have an encounter with a pod of Orca, the holy grail of whale watching.

5. Harbour seals

When they're not lazing on floating icebergs, ever-curious harbour seals love to pop out of the water to check you out. You'll also see (and smell) Steller sea lions.