The state of Alaska is hard to undersell. With stupefying scenery, and iconic wildlife, most Americans have a soft-spot for their nation's Northernmost territory. With that said, this large, minimally-populated place is full of smaller towns that tend to fly under the seaplane radar. Whether choosing to visit in order to forge deep into The Last Frontier, or rub elbows with grounded, yet eccentric, locals, picking the right place to hunker down is key. The following 8 small towns are some of the flat-out best, but underrated, ones to visit North of the contiguous United States.
Kaktovik (or Inuuniagviat Qaaqtuvigmiut) is a small Inupiat whaling community on Barter Island, just off the coast of Northeastern Alaska. This isolated, one-square-mile settlement has recently seen a seasonal influx of polar bears, due to a change in the climate as well as the whale carcasses left behind on the shore that serve as bait. The residents have an amicable relationship with these "Kings of the Arctic," and have largely welcomed the adventure-tourism that the bears generate. Tour companies offer viewings from a safe distance, and the Alaskan-Natives encourage visitors to respectfully observe, learn about, and perhaps even engage in their traditional practices. Though some 382 miles removed from the closest international airport (Fairbanks), Kaktovik has started to garner some attention.
Another kind of red, white, and blue flag flies in respectable numbers throughout this Norwegian-founded fishing village. Petersburg sits on Mitkof Island (part of the Alexander Archipelago), encompassed by Frederick Sound, in the Southeastern sliver of the state that hugs the British Columbia, Canada border. Explore the glaciers of Stikine-Leconte Wilderness Area, or the country's largest national forest (Tongass National Forest) on the adjacent island. Better yet, kick back and let wild Alaska come to you. Petersburg is close to the summer feeding grounds for hundreds of humpback whales. If visiting the town in May, try to catch the 4-day-long Little Norway Festival!
115 miles North of Anchorage, where the Susitna River meets the Talkeetna River, the hamlet of Talkeetna awaits. This tiny town barely eclipses 1,000 permanent residents, yet it is not only charming, but an excellent base from which to explore Alaska's famous backyard. Denali State Park is only a short drive North on the scenic Parks Highway, and Denali National Park and Preserve picks up just across the Susitna River from there. Though an aerial tour will be the pricier approach, the views will be worth every penny. The closer you get, the more striking North America's highest mountain, Denali (20,310-feet), becomes. Furthurmore, Talkeetna's Main Street is brief but crammed with Gold Rush history and aesthetic.
Just a short drive outside of Fairbanks, on the banks of the Tanana River, North Pole keeps the Christmas spirit chugging year-round. For many Americans, the sights and sounds of the winter holidays trigger a flood of nostalgia and joy. This festive, 2,700-resident community, with streets named things like Santa Claus Lane, Mistletoe Lane, and Kris Kringle Drive, ensures a steady holiday fix. The main attraction is the Santa Claus House – a mega toy store filled with ornaments, souvenirs, Christmas clothing, and all kinds of locally-made trinkets and crafts. There also happens to be a 50-foot Santa sculpture on the property, for ample selfie-taking pleasure. For a dip into nature, and prime camping spots while staying in the area, scoot East to the 2,000-acre Chena River State Recreation Area.
Though quite popular by Alaskan standards, it is fair to say that this small Southern Alaskan city (2020 population of 5,522) is underrated by the rest of the country. Homer is a slice of paradise on the Kenai Peninsula, where Kachemak Bay opens to the sizable Cook Inlet. The community is blessed with stunning views of the Kenai Mountains in Kachemak Bay State Park. Homer is a preferred destination for anglers, as it is known as the "Halibut Fishing Capital of the World." This place is also a great basecamp for surrounding adventures. A universally crowd-pleasing highlight involves taking a floatplane tour of Katmai National Park and/or Lake Clark National Park to watch healthy populations of hefty Alaskan brown bears in their gorgeous natural habitat.
On the East side of the Kenai Peninsula, nestled at the tip of Resurrection Bay, the port city/railroad town of Seward cannot be missed. This charming little spot sports the state's only public aquarium, SeaLife Center. Seward also has a gorgeous beach (Fourth of July Beach), a bustling marina, a fun-loving downtown filled with cool shops and small-scale galleries, and of course, quintessential and arresting Alaskan scenery as far as the eye can see. Tour companies are ready to take you to all the best whale-watching and glacier-viewing spots, with one of the marquee attractions being a full-day cruise along the shores of Kenai Fjords National Park (which can also be reached by land, only minutes West of Seward). Finally, there's no better spot to celebrate the nation's independence, as the 2,717 residents put on a fireworks-filled festival, boat parade, and a popular, yet grueling foot race known as the Mount Marathon Race.
Also part of the 300-mile-long Alexander Archipelago, on Baranof Island, at the base of Sitka Sound, is the 8,458-resident city of Sitka. The earthy greens, blues, grays, and whites blend here as well (or better) than any other picturesque spot in The Last Frontier. Sitka is a place for climbing mountains, hiking through bear-shared rainforests, boating, fishing, and once again, tremendous summertime whale-watching opportunities. The oldest national park in the state, the 113-acre Sitka National Historical Park shows off even more spectacular views, plus the iconic totem poles of the Tlingit and Haida people. While in town, be sure to visit the Fortress of the Bear, an educational bear rescue center that rehabilitates and relocates orphaned ursines, as well as the historical emblems of Russia's long presence in this region.
Valdez has gotten a raw deal over the years; suffering from the largest recorded earthquake ever to hit North America, in 1964, and subsequently got slammed by the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989. Given the tumultuous track record, and the lengthy road trip required to reach this resilient Southeastern Alaskan settlement (300 miles East of Anchorage), Valdez is underrated but well-worth visiting. Beautifully situated on the small Port Valdez (with the Lowe River joining from the East and Valdez Arm linking from the South), the town is sheltered by enormous peaks, and five massive glaciers. Columbia Glacier, Worthington Glacier, Valdez Glacier, Meares Glacier, and Shoup Glacier can all be accessed with the help of a local tour guide. Outdoor recreation and adventure are the name of the game here, therefore bringing a backpack, crampons, ice axe, bike, and/or paddle craft is essential.
Alaska is a mostly untouched land where the people remain as wild as the famed mountain mammals. There is no better place to seek solitude, have an epic adventure, or simply swap stories in a friendly, understated watering hole. Settling into the rhythm of one of these 8 small towns will give you a chance to taste what life is really like all the way up North. It isn't just the endless shorelines, snow-capped peaks, and blinding glaciers that define this state, it is the salt-of-the-earth people that make their home in unpretentious, welcoming towns.