The path less traveled
There are places in every destination, no matter how big or small, that are considered “must visits.” And then there are the “off-the-beaten-path” spots that more and more travelers are intentionally seeking out, whether it’s to be different, avoid crowds, experience more culture or expand their perspectives.
Because of Alaska’s limited road system, it has more off-the-beaten-path places than your average destination. But then again, at more than double the size of Texas, Alaska has more opportunities to wander than just about any other vacation destination out there.
While it may not be hard to venture onto a path less traveled in Alaska, we certainly have some recommendations on where you might get started:
Cordova is a small fishing community in Southcentral Alaska on Prince William Sound. Reachable by ferry or plane, it’s ideal for adventurers, birders and fishing enthusiasts. Book a charter boat to hook salmon and halibut; arrange a guided kayak tour in Orca Inlet; hike to Saddlebag or Sheridan glaciers; time your trip to the Copper River Delta Shorebird Festival in May; or raft the Copper River. You’ll quickly feel welcome in this small seaside village with big adventures.
Kodiak Island’s eponymous city draws travelers from all over for bear viewing and fishing, but Kodiak’s culture and history are just as enticing. Learn about the island’s Native people at the Alutiiq Museum, the city’s period as the capital of Russian-controlled Alaska at the Kodiak History Museum, and the area’s World War II history at Fort Abercrombie State Historical Park (a gorgeous place for hiking even if you’re not a history buff). Spend a short time here and you’ll understand why it’s called the Emerald Isle.
An adventure lover’s paradise, McCarthy is set inside Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, the largest park in the nation. You can explore the park’s 13.2 million acres by glacier trekking, river rafting, backcountry hiking and camping, flightseeing or mountain biking. Don’t miss the guided tour of the Kennecott Mine in the nearby ghost town. Stay a few days and you will meet most of McCarthy’s few dozen residents and fall in love with its quirks.
Nome may look about as far off the beaten path as you can get in Alaska on the Seward Peninsula along the Bering Sea Coast, but it’s the ultimate destination for dog mushers and spectators each March in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. If you’re seeking out Alaska’s Gold Rush history and Alaska Native culture, you will want to make it yours too. Drive the local roads to see remnants of the town’s mining days, but also abundant wildlife, such as musk ox, caribou, moose, fox and a variety of birds.
The small Inside Passage community of Petersburg lies at the end of the Wrangell Narrows, so only a few small-ship cruise lines call on the coastal port. If you want to spend more than a few hours exploring the town’s Norwegian culture, arrive by ferry or plane. The Little Norway Festival takes place in May, but dance performances and Norwegian foods can be experienced all year round. Be sure to visit LeConte Glacier and go whale watching, kayaking or fishing during a stay too.
About halfway out the Aleutian Chain in the Bering Sea, Unalaska and the Port of Dutch Harbor have been made famous by Discovery’s “Deadliest Catch” reality TV show. But its crab fishery and processing plants are definitely not the only draw. Unalaska offers a variety of outdoor adventures, fascinating World War II history and rich Alaska Native and Russian history. Birders flock here to see rare species seldom seen outside the Aleutians. And while you may not be able to haul in your own crab pots, you will eat the freshest crab of your life at local restaurants.
Utqiaġvik, formerly known as Barrow, is the farthest north community in the United States, sitting along the Arctic Ocean. You may come to dip your toes in the ocean or experience 24 hours of sunlight in summer, but you will stay to experience the Iñupiat culture. Visit the Iñupiat Heritage Center to learn about local traditions and history, as well as purchase artisan crafts. Arrive in June and you may catch the annual whaling festival, which celebrates the hunting season. Local tour guides can also take you to view polar bears or snowy owls in the right season, so time your trip accordingly.
Wrangell is one of the most interesting and oldest towns in Southeast Alaska, originally home to the Tlingit people and then occupied by Russia and England before it became part of the United States. Visit the Wrangell Museum and Chief Shakes Island to learn more about area history. Wander Petroglyph Beach State Historic Site to view primitive rock carvings. Head to the Anan Wildlife Observatory to see bears in the summer, or take a jet boat tour up the Stikine River to explore the wilderness. There’s also plenty of birding, fishing and kayaking to keep you busy for days.
If these small towns have piqued your interest, go ahead and order an Alaska vacation planner. You’ll find even more reasons to visit Alaska inside.
Editor’s note: The health and safety of Alaska’s visitors and residents, along with its member businesses, remains a top priority to the Alaska Travel Industry Association throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Many Alaska tourism businesses are open under the Reopen Alaska Responsibly plan and can help you decide if it’s right for you to travel now or in the future. We encourage you to stay in touch with your travel providers for the latest updates and guidelines.