Alaska is the largest state in the US by a long shot. Bordering the Arctic Ocean, you would be forgiven for assuming it to be frigid cold. Alaska can be surprising, however, containing volcanic islands, marshlands, and rugged mountain ranges. Equally surprising may be the number of lovely towns scattered across the state’s vast expanse. Many of these towns hold breathtaking scenery, with several established during the Gold Rush. There is a rich history to explore in Alaska, and there is no better way to do it than by visiting its small towns in 2023.
Looking to get off the beaten path? Cordova is a great place to start. You will have to book a ferry, but the town is worth it. Cordova has over 100 miles of trails to explore at the Chugach National Forest. Cordova rests on the Prince William Sound, an area known for its exceptional beauty and its diverse wildlife. Sitting at the mouth of the Copper River Delta, the salmon fishing here is out of this world. The Sheridan Glacier is a popular tourist attraction and is worth visiting. Cordova is remote and secluded, the perfect place to escape it all.
The town of Haines has approximately 2,000 full-time residents, but what the town lacks in size, it makes up for in adventure. Haines even refers to itself as the "adventure capital of Alaska." The town sits on the Lynn Canal Fjord, one of the deepest and most beautiful in all of Alaska. Chilkoot State Park, Chilkat State Park, and the Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve are within arms reach for all your hiking and camping needs. One of the most popular things to do is get out on the Fjord in a kayak and paddle past glaciers. Out on the water, Alaska’s beauty is unmatched.
It is the most wonderful time of the year all year in the North Pole. Though finding Santa may prove a challenge, having a good time here will not. Festively painted street lamps and signs make the North Pole truly unique. At the center of town is the Santa Claus House, a must-see for kids. The best time to visit is in December when the town comes alive with caroling and lights. Chena Lake Recreation Area is a great place to cleanse your pallet from candy canes and hot chocolate, and the town is a fantastic place to see the Northern Lights.
Due to the popularity of Alaskan cruises, many waterfront Alaskan towns are tourist traps. Not Petersburg, though. The boats that dock here are smaller, much like the town’s stores, which are largely local-owned. Harbor Sandy Beach Park features a picnic area at the edge of a lovely lagoon and is a must-see. There are also plenty of glaciers in Petersburg, and you can explore them in LeConte Glacier Bay by boat. If you visit in May, you can even experience the town’s Viking heritage through its Little Norway Festival!
After being purchased from Russia by the US in 1867, Sitka was made the state’s first capital city. The town is drop-dead gorgeous, and visitors can marvel at both the Pacific Ocean and the stoic Mount Edgecumbe in the distance. There are still remnants of the Russian Empire here, like St. Micheal’s Cathedral and the Russian Bishop’s House. There is also a rich Native American heritage to Sitka, which you can explore further at Sitka National Historical Park, where totem poles punctuate the greenery. Lastly, for an extra cool treat, you can even view bald and golden eagles at the Alaska Raptor Center, a convalescence home for eagles.
Only 45 minutes from Haines by ferry, Skagway is a former frontier town turned Gold Rush hotspot. There are more than 100 historic buildings in Skagway, with some dating back to the boom times of 1897. Visitors can hike the Chilkoot Trail and trace a route that prospectors of old took to reach the Yukon. Back in town, Olivia’s Bistro serves Alaskan crab and elk loin for the adventurous. If hiking is not your thing, the White Pass Railroad follows the same route trains did into Canada back in 1898. This railroad has even been called an International Historic Civil Engineering Landmark, much like the Eiffel Tower.
The town of Wrangell can only be reached by air or by sea, but the stunning geography on display makes the journey worthwhile. Make no mistake, Wrangell is as rugged as the mountains it shares its name with. This is a plus, however. Where else could the Anan Bear Observatory, with its throngs of feasting bears, exist but the Alaskan wilds? Petroglyph Beach is another worthwhile Wrangell oddity: a beach full of carved rocks dating back up to 8,000 years some believe predate the Tlingit Indians who inhabit the area. If you like fishing, Wrangell is the place for you. The rivers here are teeming with rockfish, salmon, halibut, and (depending on the season) bears.
Life in Soldotna revolves around the Kenai River. The world’s largest king salmon was caught there in 1985 and hangs in the Soldotna Visitor Information Center today. The river itself is glacial-fed and maintains an ice-blue sheen. The Kenai National Wildlife Refuge is two million acres of boreal forest and alpine tundra, featuring over 110 miles of trails and a 74,000-acre lake. Consider exploring the refuge by water; the canoe trail system here is extensive. Soldotna is also great for families as there are festivals throughout the summer in Soldotna and an ice skating loop in the winter months.
Found only minutes from Anchorage, Eagle River benefits from both the Alaskan wilderness in its backyard and the amenities of big-city living. Spotting grizzly bears and moose around town is perfectly mundane here. Hiking trails are plentiful in Eagle River, Mt. Baldy, and the Mile High Saddle Trail has more than enough to keep you occupied. The whitewater rafting in Eagle River is top-notch. Access the river from Echo Bend at the town nature center and battle the rapids for a white-knuckle ride you will not forget. If you visit in July, the Bear Paw Festival is one for the books. It features a chili cook-off, a car show, and the Miss Bear Paw Pageant.
The town of Nome overlooks the Bering Sea and is well-known as the end point of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. There are no trees in sight around Nome, a break from the verdant forests that surround many Alaskan towns. Nome is only a 90-minute flight from Anchorage, and necessary to visit this isolated town. There are several quirky events hosted throughout the year, such as a golf tournament played on ice and a bathtub race through the center of town. A former Gold Rush town, visitors can still panhandle and sift like the pioneers of old.
Welcome to Utqiaġvik, the northernmost community in the US. Here, extremes reign: The town receives constant daylight for a few months beginning in May and total darkness each November until January. The town’s whaling history is obvious immediately, thanks to the enormous jawbones found throughout. There is also a Nalukataq whaling festival held each June to commemorate a successful whaling season. Visitors to Utqiaġvik often hire tours to see the polar bears, walruses, and snowy owls that call the region home. Utqiaġvik is the perfect place to view the Northern Lights, and there is even a dog mushing team in Utqiaġvik to explore the tundra.
The Alaskan surfing town of Yakutat is an outdoors enthusiast's dream. The portion of the Inside Passage that Yakutat occupies has legendary waves, with some reaching 25 feet in height. Be warned, the water here is on the frigid side! The town is also a great base for exploring the Hubbard Glacier and Glacier Bay National Park. Fishing is another popular pastime around Yakutat. The trophy salmon found in the lakes and rivers within the storybook Tongass National Forest are highly sought after.
The town of Hoonah is Alaska in a nutshell. The town only has a population of about 850, but the town punches well above its weight class. Local Tlingit carvers have erected totem poles in the middle of town, and freshly caught Dungeness crab, salmon, and halibut are all on offer here. There are more brown bears per square mile in Hoonah than anywhere else on Earth, and tours are available for a safe way to sightsee. Icy Strait Point is a private cruise ship port one and a half miles from Hoonah, which you have to see. The world’s largest zipline is here, as are aerial gondolas up the mountain.
The burgeoning artists’ haven of Homer is eclectic, colorful, and always interesting. Pratt Museum features exhibits centered on Alaskan aboriginal cultures and natural history. The town sits on Kachemak Bay and has a mild climate by Alaskan standards. This makes outdoor exploration of Kachemak Bay State Park pleasant almost all year. The halibut fishing here is world-class, and there are even restaurants in town that will fry up your catch for you. Most of the shopping can be done along the Homer Spit, a 4.5-mile outcrop of land jutting into Kachemak Bay. You can hire a fishing charter from there, view eagles, or simply enjoy the scenic views of the bay.
There is something indescribable about Alaska. While the frontiers of the world continue to shrink with urbanization and development, Alaska remains wild in all the best ways. Acres upon acres of rainforests, colossal glaciers, and exotic animals make the state a one-of-a-kind adventure. This remote and secluded place at the end of the world has a beauty all of its own, and the best way to explore it is through its gorgeous towns.