There is a reason that Alaska is high on many family travel bucket lists. An Alaska family vacation is a bit mysterious, a little off the beaten path and full of adventurous activities and wildlife. It’s impossible not to get caught up in Alaska when you visit — you are surrounded and immersed in the destination. The largest state in the union, it’s twice the size of Texas and has a nearly infinite amount of excitement to offer families.
And best of all, it is closer than you think. It seems so far away, yet it’s only a 2-hour flight from Seattle to the Inside Passage towns of Juneau and Ketchikan. In 3 1/2 hours you can reach Anchorage, gateway to the beautiful Kenai Peninsula, where Alaskans go to play. With more time, venture to Denali National Park for a few nights. Regardless of where you go, whether by cruise or an inland route, there’s plenty to do. Here are some of our favorite options for families when exploring Alaska.
With around 100,000 glaciers in Alaska, exploring at least one or two on foot is simply a must. Mendenhall Glacier is a popular choice, with its 13-mile length at beautiful Mendenhall Lake. It is conveniently located near Juneau, making it easily accessible and a great introductory experience that can be customized for all activity levels. Glacier Bay National Park is also breathtaking, and kids are delighted by the wildlife viewing opportunities that are common. The park service’s junior ranger program creates meaningful ways for kids to engage in the landscape here. Within the park and accessible by boat, Lamplugh Glacier offers the stunning blue tone that many travelers are keen to see and Margerie Glacier is the perfect spot to witness the ice calving phenomenon.
Many ski resorts elsewhere in America are now offering this popular activity, but only in Alaska is it part of their way of life and culture. One popular way to try out the sport is to take a helicopter ride and then go dog sledding upon arrival. It’s an action-packed activity that checks off a couple of Alaska’s bucket list experiences in one day: amazing aerial views and racing along on a sled pulled by powerful pups! If your kids are fascinated by the Iditarod, plan a visit to the Temsco Dog Sled Summer Camp, where you’re likely to meet several dogs who are former Iditarod participants. The experience will include a kid-friendly 1.3 mile ride, plus it offers families the opportunity to learn all about mushing, visit a replica Iditarod outpost and meet the puppies.
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Alaska had long been known as a seafood and fish hotspot long before the popularity of television shows like Deadliest Catch, but the media exposure has only furthered its reputation. Fans of salmon will love the five different varieties available in the state, along with snow crab and king crab. We suggest families go salmon fishing with a guide on the Kenai Peninsula. They fully outfit their guests with all the right clothing and gear and know just where to go throughout the season. We’re happy to arrange custom fishing experiences for our travel planning clients to suit every interest.
We’ve always considered an Alaska trip to be the U.S. equivalent to an African safari, and that’s in large part due to the incredible wildlife you can see here. Alaska even has its own version of the “Big 5,” and bears are on that must-see list for most travelers coming to the state. It’s likely you’ll glimpse some without arranging any special experiences; many of Alaska’s national parks have built purposeful viewing platforms for this. A couple of incredible options include taking a plane and landing on a beach to see Kodiak bears, or scheduling your trip for a bit later in the summer to see bears feasting during the salmon run in Alaska’s rivers, creeks and estuaries.
Alaskan adventures are the epitome of the old saw “getting there is half the fun.” Proof? Flightseeing, in which you can land on water, a runway, a mountain or a glacier. Whichever you choose, you’ll never forget it. For those families with limited time, flightseeing can often be combined with other activities in a vacation package, and the experience doubles as your mechanism to get where you need to be. In fact, traveling by air is actually the most efficient way of getting around the state’s rugged, still largely undeveloped terrain.
Alaska has such rich history, and its unique transportation development is part of that story. We love a ride along one of the iconic Alaska railroad routes. One popular experience is to head to Skagway and pair a journey on the White Pass & Yukon Route railroad with Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park. It’ll allow your kids to envision what the miners’ experience might have been like prior to the railroad’s development, carrying a year’s worth of equipment through rough landscape and difficult weather.
Also high on most Alaskan wildlife-spotting priority lists are the stunning humpback whales that feed along the coast in groups in June and July. Look for the unmistakable bubbles that form when they are net feeding. The whole family will delight in watching them surface, mouths wide open to capture as many fish as possible. There are many dedicated excursion options to see the whales, but CB! advisors and clients have also sighted these majestic creatures swimming alongside small-ship cruises in Frederick Sound and even while kayaking further north in Resurrection Bay.
It’s obvious that water factors enormously into the ecosystem in Alaska, and the best way to get kids interested is to immerse them in it. While the sea is usually too cold for swimming (other than those brave enough for a polar plunge!), kayaking is the perfect way to actively involve children in Alaska’s coastal waters. The spectacular Kenai Fjords National Park on the Kenai Peninsula is a good spot for this. So is Saginaw Bay, where playful sea otters might just pay you a visit while you paddle.
You know to look to the water and the ground for Alaska wildlife viewing, but don’t forget to turn to the sky as well. Alaska’s bald eagle population is the largest in the U.S., as the coastal areas, rivers and islands are their ideal habitat. If this is high on your family’s wish list, a truly exceptional experience is to visit Haines during mid-November, when thousands of bald eagles gather to feast on the last run of chum salmon. The 48,000-acre bald eagle preserve here means their protection is prioritized.
We won’t sugarcoat it: Experiencing the Northern Lights isn’t inherently family-friendly and can be tricky with kids for lots of reasons. First, their visibility is dependent on many factors, like weather and clear skies. Second, they’re visible at night, making it difficult with younger kids who require uninterrupted sleep. But for those with older kids who are mature enough to appreciate the phenomenon, seeing the Northern Lights is definitely doable in Alaska. Your best chance is to focus on locations north of Fairbanks, which will require an additional flight, especially if you prefer luxury accommodations.
With jawdropping scenery as well as adventures geared toward every activity level, visiting Alaska appeals as much to a 5-year-old as to an 85-year-old — just one of the many reasons it is such a popular family travel option. There’s never a bad time to start planning a trip to this incredible destination … in fact, the earlier the better, and we can help!
Editor’s Note: Nicole Wiltrout contributed to this article. Photos by Kristi Marcelle except where noted.
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