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At nearly 600,000 square miles, Alaska is the largest state in the U.S. home to the country’s last true frontier. Its diverse landscapes include everything from rugged coastline to soaring mountains, glaciers and sparkling lakes where one can be immersed in nature while watching for an abundance of wildlife. While most people are familiar with places like Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau, there are many fantastic small towns for enjoying the scenery and watching for all sorts of animals on land and water.
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Located in a deep fjord on a narrow peninsula in Southeast Alaska, Haines is one of Alaska’s most beautiful small towns. It’s surrounded by 20 million acres of wilderness protected area, while the Takinsha Mountains tower above and the famous Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, home to the world’s largest known concentration of the species, just on its outskirts. Not surprisingly, this is a great place to watch the massive birds and Haines also hosts the Bald Eagle Festival annually in November. Whale and bear sightings are common too. A nearby wildlife center offers guaranteed encounters with animals that had been orphaned or abandoned, including grizzly bears, wolves, lynxes, reindeer, and porcupines.
Homer is a spectacular panorama of snow-dusted peaks, towering mountains, glaciers, beaches and the Homer Spit, a long strip of land that juts out into the sparkling bay where one can enjoy fishing, beachcombing and bird watching, with more bald eagles than you can count. It’s considered one of the best places to visit when exploring Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula. Moose, waterfowl and all sorts of sea birds can be spotted too. Right across the bay is Kachemak Bay State Wilderness Park, a 350,000-acre paradise of glaciers, mountains, protected coves for paddling and an extensive trail system to hike. The artsy town itself hosts many great restaurants, coffee shops around nearly every corner, art galleries, museums, live theater and music venues.
Located at the southern tip of the Inside Passage, the network of waterways that wind through some of the most world’s most stunning wilderness scenery, Ketchikan is an alluring Alaskan town with lots to do, famous for its salmon, Alaska Native culture and wildlife. Guided tours often include sightings of bears, mink, marten, bald eagles, owls and bears. You can also watch king salmon fight their way up local creeks to spawn. Eagle Creek, one of the richest salmon spawning streams in the state, is home to a fish hatchery. Floatplane flights will take you over the Misty Fjords and you can also watch for whales, sea lions and other marine life right from shore.
Skagway is characterized by wooden sidewalks, old-fashioned saloons and shops, while people donning attire from around the turn of the 20th century greet visitors as they did back in its heyday when more than 40,000 people arrived in the hopes of getting rich quick from the gold. Today, it’s all part of Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park. But this beautiful town also offers breathtaking scenery and wildlife. The Taiya River flows nearby offering magnificent glacier views and abundant wildlife, including bears and bald eagles.
Seward offers a little bit of everything Alaska has to offer, making it ideal for visitors with limited time. It’s easily reached via one of the world’s most scenic drives along the Seward Highway from Anchorage. You’ll take in dramatic views of the shorelines of Turnagain Arm, the towering, craggy peaks of the Chugach Mountains, waterfalls, glaciers and valley lakes while watching for moose, eagles and bears. Seward’s Resurrection Bay is inhabited by humpback whales, orcas, harbor seals, porpoises, otters and sea lions, while bald eagles can be seen in nearly every direction.
Sitka, located at the southern tip of Baranof Island, can only be accessed by sea or air. With its waterfront setting, it’s popular for kayaking, fishing, and many other outdoor adventures, while some of the wildlife that can be spotted include humpback whales, sea lions, harbor seals, sea otters, seabird rookeries and, occasionally, orcas. In town, enjoy small-town charms with galleries, restaurants, cafes and unique shops. Some of the most popular attractions are the Alaska Raptor Centre, Baranof Castle Hill, the Saint Lazaria National Wildlife Refuge, and the Sheldon Jackson Museum.
Located beneath the shadow of Mount Denali, Talkeetna was founded at the height of the Alaskan gold rush. Today it attracts draws visitors who want to enjoy outstanding fishing on the three rivers that converge here, as well as kayaking and four-wheeling. The winter is popular for snowmobiling, dog sledding, and nordic skiing. This area is home to Caribou, moose, grizzly bears, sheep, black bears, wolves, fox, otters, eagles and much more. Take a stroll around town to see the historic buildings that stand to a testament to local craftsmanship, housing quaint shops, local breweries and restaurants.
Gustavus is a popular base for visiting nearby Glacier National Bay, a 65-mile stretch of glaciers, fjords and marine life, with some 40 different species, including orca whales, humpbacks, harbor porpoises, harbor seals, Steller sea lions, and sea otters. The town itself has only a few paved roads with a population of only around 400, although there are a handful of restaurants, cafes and coffee shops. It’s the place to go for anyone seeking peace, solitude and wilderness scenery.
Kodiak is the main town on Kodiak Island, reached by a scenic ferry from Homer, or a flight from Anchorage. Staying here in this outpost settlement, you’ll be surrounded by beautiful scenery while being in the best place to see a Kodiak bear. There are miles and miles of trails for hiking, opportunities to learn about the indigenous Alutiiq people, especially at the Alutiiq Museum & Archaeological Repository and multiple tours for viewing the famous bears.
Peter Buschmann settled here from Norway in the late 1800s, which led to many other Norwegian settlers following among other Scandivanian immigrants, which earned Petersburg the nickname “Little Norway.” Visiting here you’ll see lots of Norwegian flags and even a miniature replica Viking ship. Learn more about the town’s culture, art and the lives of the residents at the Clausen Memorial Museum, and at Eagles Roost Park, birdwatchers can see bald eagles. Fishing, berry picking, hiking, beachcombing and wildlife viewing are all popular here. In addition to bald eagles, there are seals, whales, sea lions, wolves, black bears, moose, deer, and trumpeter swans.
The city of Valdez, located in the Port Valdez at the head of the 11-mile long fjord in the Prince William Sound, is often associated with its oil terminal for the Tran-Alaska pipeline, but for thousands of years, the Chugach and Ahtna native people used the area for trading copper, furs and jade, as well as for fishing. The Chugach Mountains shelters the area, keeping the port ice-free year-round. It offers jaw-dropping scenery with lush rainforests, waterfalls, majestic mountains, glaciers and abundant wildlife, both in the sea and on land.
Originally known as Glacier City, Girdwood is surrounded by seven glaciers, just 47 miles south of Anchorage. Along the drive, beluga whales, Dall sheep and bald eagles are frequently seen, and right in Girdwood, brown bears and moose can be spotted too. For guaranteed sightings, you can get up close to all sorts of creatures like wolves, bears, elk, coyote, bison, reindeer, moose and musk ox at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center which rescues injured, sick and orphaned animals. To get a stunning view of the scenery from above, ride the Mount Alyeska Tram to the top of Mount Alyeska.
The magical town of Craig, home to only around 1,250 on the western coast of Prince of Wales Island, is rarely talked about but it’s absolutely breathtaking. It offers access to the Tongass National Forest, fishing, hiking, wildlife viewing and much more. If you take a fishing charter, you can test your luck at catching trophy-sized King salmon, battling silvers and monster-size halibut. Out on the water, there’s a good chance you’ll spot humpbacks and other marine life like seals, sea lions and sea otters.
This remote island in Southeast Alaska has a population of only around 2,400 but it’s filled with wildlife and striking natural beauty. Visitors can experience it all, including lots of outdoor adventures like sea kayaking and fishing for halibut and all five species of salmon. No matter where you are, watch for the eagles, shorebirds, herons and songbirds that soar through the skies and dot the trees. A variety of boat tours can bring you to view black and brown bears, sea lions, whales, harbor seals, migratory birds, and eagles. You can also check out Rainbow Falls and visit attractions like the Chief Shakes Tribal House, Totem Park and the Wrangell Museum.
If you head south on the scenic Seward Highway from Anchorage for about 100 miles, about 30 miles before Seward, you’ll reach the tiny alpine town of Moose Pass on the banks of Upper Trail Lake, surrounded by the Chugach National Forest. It’s so small, home to only around 200 residents, you might miss it if you blink, but it’s incredibly picturesque. It got its name in 1903 when a moose got in the way of a mail carrier’s dog team, and there are still plenty of the animals around today. Some of the popular activities here include hiking, berry picking, birdwatching and fishing, especially for trout and grayling.