What to expect when visiting Alaska in the summer: Where to go and the one thing you won't see

·8 min read

After being cooped up during the pandemic, heading to a place where horizons are your only walls might be just the tonic. And there is no place with more distant, awe-inspiring horizons than Alaska.

But the 2021 Alaska summer tourist season looks a lot different, especially since cruise ships will not be sailing there until at least July. This means most visitors will be coming on their own.

Stuff to know before you go

Southeast Alaska is cut off from rest of the state by Canada, whose border remains off-limits to leisure travelers until June 21.
Southeast Alaska is cut off from rest of the state by Canada, whose border remains off-limits to leisure travelers until June 21.

Don't forget about the closed Canadian border. You can avoid roadblocks by doing a little research. Keep in mind that there are very few roads in Alaska, and the southeast part of the state is cut off from the mainland by Canada, whose border remains off-limits to leisure travelers until June 21.

The airlines are urging Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to begin laying the groundwork to reopen it by the end of the month, and border city mayors held a virtual meeting with Canadian Public Safety Minister Bill Blair on May 28 about easing COVID-19 cross-border policies once the restrictions expire on June 21, Niagara Falls, Ontario, Mayor Jim Diodati told USA TODAY.

But the Canadian federal government has yet to confirm any firm plans for easing border restrictions with the U.S. So for the time being, Americans need a compelling reason to visit and a negative coronavirus test, and they have to quarantine in a hotel for 14 days – even if they're fully vaccinated.

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You may have to get creative to find a rental car. Because so many agencies sold off their fleets during the pandemic, rental car availability in Alaska is tight – so tight that Denali National Park rangers are seeing people show up in rented U-hauls.

Of all the cities in Alaska, Anchorage is your best bet for finding a rental car. But if you come up empty, look at peer-to-peer car rental sites such as Turo, which connects people with cars they're not using with people who need them short-term. The company has safety requirements for participating cars, you can choose your level of insurance, and rentals come with roadside assistance. You can cancel and get a full refund up to 24 hours in advance, and the car can be delivered to you at the airport.

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Two birds, one stone

If you have a hard time finding a hotel room and a rental car, consider renting a small RV near the Anchorage airport. Another option is use a peer-to-peer rental site like Outdoorsy, a sort of Airbnb for campers, RVs and other recreational vehicles.

What to wear

There is an Alaskan saying about summer: Go north to Fairbanks to get warm and south to Anchorage to get cool. Fairbanks hovers around the 80s in the summer, while Anchorage tends to be in the 70s.

Denali: A must-see spot

Denali (formerly known as Mount McKinley) is the highest mountain in North America at 20,310 feet.
Denali (formerly known as Mount McKinley) is the highest mountain in North America at 20,310 feet.

You will be cheating yourself if you don’t take the opportunity to see Denali, North America’s highest peak at 20,310 feet. If you’re not able to get a rental, a train ticket on the Alaska Railroad to Denali National Park from Anchorage is $176, $325 if the dining car is included.

“Come with flexibility,” advises Sharon Stiteler, a public affairs officer at Denali National Park.

Though Denali Park Road extends 92 miles into the park, most tour busesgo only as far as Eielson Visitor Center, 66 miles into the park. The tour buses are operated by Doyon Aramark, which sells tickets online. The $162 adult fare includes park admission. The ride goes through bear country with abundant moose and caribou. Denali itself can be viewed at various advantage points and is spectacular.

Backcountry permits (available now through Sept. 22) are free, but you will have to pay the entrance fee ($15) and the price of the transit bus (Doyon Aramark fares). You will also have to attend a backcountry orientation session and reserve your pass at least two days in advance but no more than 14 days before your planned start date.

The drive between Anchorage and Valdez is the best in Alaska.
The drive between Anchorage and Valdez is the best in Alaska.

Fairbanks: The 'real Alaska'

How to get there: From Denali, Fairbanks is 4 hours by rail and about 2½ by car. Many Alaskans describe Fairbanks as “the real Alaska”. The gold rush never ended here, and there are corporate and individual working gold mines. It is a city of construction, gold and oil – as well as home to Alaska’s primary university.

What to do: The university’s Museum of the North has a vast collection of Native and natural exhibits including Blue Babe, a preserved 36,000-year-old bison. You can also sail the river by old-fashioned paddle boat and tour Gold Dredge 8, learning how gold is mined in Alaska’s interior. For gearheads, there's the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum, which has 70 working antique automobiles.

Where to eat and drink: Recommendations include the Turtle Club, Silver Gulch Brewery and Restaurant, Ivory Jack's and Chatanika Lodge with its 1956 Thunderbird. They are all just outside town.

Fairbanks’ watering holes can be intimidating, but two that ought to be experienced are the Howling Dog Saloon and Skinny Dick’s Halfway Inn, both just outside town.

Anchorage: Alaska's best eats

Watch the float planes come in for a landing on Lake Hood from the  Millennium Lakefront Anchorage.
Watch the float planes come in for a landing on Lake Hood from the Millennium Lakefront Anchorage.

Best breweries, bar none: Anchorage is home to a multitude of breweries. It boasts of watering holes like Chilkoot Charlie’s (aka Koot’s), the Peanut Farm Sports Bar & Grill, Humpy’s, F Street Station, McGinley’s Pub and Alaska’s ultimate dive bar, Darwin’s Theory.

Fine dining in America's last frontier: For foodies in search of upscale dining, the city offers Jen’s, Simon & Seafort’s, Glacier Brewhouse and Kincaid Grill, with casual offerings at Moose’s Tooth, Snow City Café’, Bear Tooth Theatrepub and Gwennie’s Old Alaska Restaurant.

Must-see seafood stops: Girdwood to the south has the eclectic Double Musky Inn, serving Alaskan seafood New Orleans-style, and Seven Glaciers, perched on top of the surrounding mountain peaks, where the aerial tram deposits passengers.

Relax and take in the view: Fancy Moose Lounge at Millennium Hotel’s Lakefront offers patrons panoramic views of Lake Hood, the landing spot for float planes as they return from the Alaskan bush.

Qiviut products are made from the inner wool of muskox, which is roughly eight times warmer than wool.
Qiviut products are made from the inner wool of muskox, which is roughly eight times warmer than wool.

Souvenir stop: Anchorage is a unique city in a unique location offering unique shopping. One place is Oomingnak downtown. A cooperative owned by 250 Native women, the store sells qiviut products. The inner wool of muskox, roughly eight times warmer than wool, and the lightweight qiviut are offered in the form of sweaters and scarves.

Juneau: Explore on the cheap

Auke Bay is one of the most photo-worthy places in Alaska.
Auke Bay is one of the most photo-worthy places in Alaska.

Getting around: Juneau is the entryway to Southeast Alaska, with most places open save for a few restaurants along the waterfront, which are closed awaiting the return of cruise ship traffic. If you can't find wheels, Juneau is a good place to explore car-free. The city’s bus system, Capital Transit, is excellent. You can go virtually anywhere for $2.

Instagrammable spot: Juneau is fractured into more than one town. The University of Alaska Southeast is in the quaint town of Auke Bay, one of the most photo-worthy places in Alaska.

Hike through history: Douglas is across the bridge from Juneau. You can hike the ruins of the Treadmill Mine, once the most productive gold mine in the U.S.

Haunted hospitality: Downtown Juneau’s Imperial Saloon was where poet Robert Service witnessed a shooting, inspiring his "The Shooting of Dan McGrew." The Red Dog Saloon has Wyatt Earp’s pistol. The Alaskan Hotel is supposedly haunted, and it has a great 19th-century bar.

Food with a view: Hangar on the Wharf has some of the best views in Alaska while you eat. Douglas’ Island Pub has a reputation for fine, handcrafted pizza. And the Sand Bar and Grill near Auke Bay has the best halibut in the state.

Everywhere in between

From Juneau, float plane services are eager to fly you over the southeast Alaskan fjords, and the Alaska ferry system can send you off to small rubber-boot fishing ports dotting the region. If you go to Skagway, do not miss the Red Onion Saloon, which operated as a brothel during the Klondike Gold Rush.

Get up close with glacier and seals on the Lu-Lu Belle.
Get up close with glacier and seals on the Lu-Lu Belle.

For scenery, the drive between Anchorage and Valdez is the best in Alaska, bracketed by the volcanic Wrangell Mountains. Valdez offers several boat tours of Prince William Sound. You can also take in Columbia Glacier and seal haul-outs. Recommended is Captain Freddie’s Lu-Lu Belle, a small craft that will get you close and personal with glaciers and seals for $150 a person.

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The one thing you can't do in summer

Alaska's 20-hour-long summer days give you plenty of time to check items off your must-do list but they also mean it's hard to experience the Northern Lights.
Alaska's 20-hour-long summer days give you plenty of time to check items off your must-do list but they also mean it's hard to experience the Northern Lights.

Sadly, one sight unavailable during the Alaskan summer is the Northern Lights. The lights can be seen year-round, but with Alaska’s 20-hour summer daylight, they are almost impossible to see.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Alaska travel: What to know if you're visiting in the summer