Most people think of Alaska as a trip of a lifetime, and it is. But unlike French Polynesia, say, it needn’t cost your retirement savings and take 10 years to plan. Alaska is but a short flight from the Pacific Northwest (or a long ferry ride). And Alaskans speak English, take American currency and give you adventure — from the moment you arrive.
Alaska offers wildness and space on a grand scale.
Until you’ve taken the bus ride through 6 million acres of Denali National Park in the midst of the highest mountains on the continent, you haven’t experienced this kind of space. Wildness, too: The largest members of the deer family, moose, graze along roadways. Seeing a bear, Dall sheep or caribou from the road is almost as common in certain areas. A marine trip offers views of tidewater glaciers, humpback whales, orcas, Steller sea lions and more.
The choices of how to explore Alaska are as varied as the state itself. Here are three family-friendly, education-rich ways to see the best of our last frontier.
1. Have a ferry tale
The Alaska Marine Highway, otherwise known as the state ferry system, follows the same Inside Passage routes as cruise ships at a fraction of the price. A designated National Scenic Byway (the only marine route with such a designation), the Marine Highway starts at either Bellingham or Prince Rupert, British Columbia, and stretches more than 3,500 miles. If reservations are made far enough in advance, your family can reserve a berth, but more fun can be had by camping on the ferry deck. You can bring a car and even the family pet. While amenities don’t (and shouldn’t) match cruise ships, many ferries do offer kid-friendly perks, such as observation decks, arcades and even playrooms.
You can plan all sorts of DIY family itineraries with a ferry trip as the main journey or a starting point. Choose how long you want to spend aboard; traveling straight up the Inside Passage without side trips will take you about three days; you can also stop along the way for several days at a time. Costs vary with routes. One example: Round trip for a family of four traveling from Prince Rupert to Skagway in southeast Alaska (camping, no car) runs about $500. Find information and itineraries and book your trip here.
Routes to try: Take the Marine Highway to Sitka, a gem of a city in southeast Alaska, and spend a few days exploring its world-class arts as well as stunning mountains and coastlines. Or spend an extra day in Juneau and take a side trip to Glacier Bay National Park, home to 50 named glaciers as well as humpback whales, orcas, threatened Steller sea lions and more.
2. Go to camp
Since you’re likely planning for camps anyway, why not give your kids a truly wild camp experience by doing it in Alaska? The kids, or all of you (family camp is a great option), will learn about Alaskan wildlife, natural history or other topics while having time to soak in the surroundings. Note: Most camps are available for children ages 6 and older.
Camps to try
Alaskan Coastal Studies. Based in Homer, a coastal town on the Kenai Peninsula with the Chugach Mountains as backdrop, Alaskan Coastal Studies plans wonderful camps for kids and families. Consider the four-day “Mysteries of Mammals” camp, during which kids get to play wildlife detective and build a skeleton. Or attend a three-day family camp on Kachemak Bay, where you can explore tide pools, hike and watch wildlife. Costs range from $100 per person a day for day camps to $450 for a three-day family camp for a family of three.
Denali National Park. You can’t do Alaska without a stop in Denali, Alaska’s 6 million-acre national park. You’re likely to see bear, moose, caribou, Dall sheep and more, and if you’re lucky, a glimpse of Denali, the tallest mountain in North America and part of the amazing Alaska Range. Check the extensive possibilities through Road Scholar for the whole family, and look at opportunities through Denali National Park for the kids. Road Scholar programs run an average of nine days for $3,500 per person.
Wrangell Mountains Center. On the edge of Wrangell–St. Elias National Park, a spectacular and far less visited national park in south-central Alaska, is the historic mining town of McCarthy, complete with an old mine and a glacier within walking distance. The McCarthy-based Wrangell Mountains Center offers an ever-increasing number of camps that foster appreciation of the wildlands, history and mountain culture of Alaska. Try mountain science or mountain arts camp for the kids, or a family music camp where all of you can study folk music for a week — no previous experience required. The cost of a four-day camp is approximately $350, with multifamily member discounts available.
3. Cruise on a small boat
For a true Alaskan trip of a lifetime (including the price tag), consider a small-boat eco-cruise. While cruise ships are the most common way to see the Inside Passage, small boat tours provide a special way to experience the beauty of Alaska’s extensive coastlines. Their small size permits them access to experiences that cruise ships and ferries can’t offer, from spectacular calving glaciers to puffins, seals and breaching whales. Active expeditions are often a part of a small-boat tour itinerary, including kayaking, hiking, fishing, birding and nature walks, with guides leading the way. Tours last from a half day to a week.
Cruises to try
The Boat Company. The only nonprofit boat company in Alaska, The Boat Company donates to environmental causes supporting the southeast Alaskan seacoast and local communities. Two boats (which accommodate 20-24 guests) journey between Juneau and Sitka, offering a vast range of guided activities, from salmon fishing to kayaking. Families are welcome, and itineraries can be highly customized to match interest and family makeup. Costs start at $3,850 per person for a weeklong cruise, a bit less for kids.
Discovery Voyages. Operating around Alaska’s south-central coast on Prince William Sound, Discovery offers a range of small-ship trips, from an active adventure-themed trip to a land-and-sea adventure that includes a stay at Denali National Park. Costs for a seven-day trip start at approximately $500 per person a day.
Kenai Fjords Tours. Kenai Fjords Tours, a travel company based in the town of Seward on the southern Alaskan coast, offers half- and full-day tours that give travelers a look at the glaciers and wildlife of Kenai Fjords National Park, without requiring them to spend their whole vacation (or budget) there. Cost is $69–$150 for day tours.
Another reason to pay a visit to Alaska now? To see its glaciers — especially tidewater glaciers — before they disappear. The state, like other northern climes, is disproportionately affected by climate change. Effects include coastal erosion, which is forcing several Alaskan towns to relocate, and shrinking glaciers. Find out more at alaskawild.org or at Ground Truth Trekking, a site run by family Alaska adventurer Erin McKittrick.
Additional Alaskan adventures
If time permits, consider adding these experiences to your itinerary:
1. Ride the Alaskan rails: Take a trip on the Alaska Railroad between Seward and Denali (or extend it to Fairbanks) for a real trip through the wilderness — and through time.
2. Explore McCarthy. Whether or not you attend a camp at Wrangell Mountains Center, McCarthy (and the national park) is worth the trip. The old mine is amazing to see, and the Kennicott Glacier is even more interesting. Hike on and around the glacier and enjoy the old town of Wrangell, all amidst the extraordinary Wrangell and St. Elias mountain ranges.
3. Hike around Hatcher Pass. A personal favorite. As a side trip on the way to Denali, explore this area of the Talkeetna Mountains, which fall between the Chugach Mountains and Denali’s stunning Alaska Range. Don’t miss the historical park, which spotlights the area’s gold rush legacy.
4. Touch the Arctic Circle. Planning a trip to Fairbanks? Keep going; head north on the “Haul Road” (it’s your only choice heading that direction) and you’ll end up inside the southernmost part of the Arctic Circle, as close to the North Pole as your family might ever get. Carry extra gas!