The Alaska Bucket List

Your dream trip is waiting for you

“Visit Alaska” is a common answer to the question: What items are at the top of your bucket list? But Alaska is a big state and impossible to see in its entirety. So we thought we’d take the opportunity to narrow down that all-encompassing response based on activities and interests. Here, we tell you the best photography spots depending on your subject matter. We show you where to hook the big fish. And for those wanting a grand sampling tour of the state in a single trip, we guide you through our eight magnificent national parks. There’s no time like the present to check the Alaska box off your list. But a word of warning: Once you come here, your list will get longer—not shorter. You’ll want to come back again and again. After all, Alaska’s the stuff that dreams are made of.

Photographers are a little like birders. Either on paper or in our heads, we keep a “life list” of images we’d like to take before we leave this earth. Beyond our gear and lens envy of others, we covet the well-timed, remote and seemingly impossible wild shot. More often than not, those photos, the ones we dream about, are in Alaska. The northern lights? Check. Brown bears? Yep. Whales and glaciers? Sure. Unending mountain ranges with volcanoes, waterfalls and turquoise-blue lakes. You bet. Even on a foul-weather day here, it’s tough to take a bad photo. Alaska remains poised for her close-up, and some of the best places to go are listed here. We only hope you’ll step away from the camera long enough to enjoy the moment you’re capturing in real-time.


Ice calving off of Hubbard Glacier (photo by ©Robert O’Toole)

It’s hard to shoot a bad picture here.

[by Michelle Theall]


Brown Bears

It’s an iconic image: Congregating brown bears with gaping jaws stand atop Brooks Falls waiting for spawning salmon to land on their tongues. Many visitors come to Alaska hoping to see a brown or grizzly bear ambling along a roadside in Denali or foraging on a beach as their cruise ship passes by. While that can and does happen, if bears are on your bucket list, you owe it to yourself to book a day-trip into Katmai National Park and Preserve. More than 2,000 brown bears fish the rivers around Brooks Camp, serenaded by the shutter clicks of avid photographers perched on the viewing platforms above them. You don’t need to be lucky, possess a sixth sense or backpack for hours into remote wilderness to find these massive creatures. The best time to go is from mid-June through the end of August. katmailand.com

Northern Lights

Vibrant colors dancing across the sky on a crisp Alaska night seem exotic, mysterious and elusive. Unlike the bears waiting for you to show up in Katmai, the aurora borealis demands patience, persistence and a bit of luck in order to capture it. The fall and winter months from around 10pm to 3am provide the clearest and darkest skies, and thus the best opportunities for aurora visibility. Plus, you’ll want to avoid light pollution of towns and cities. Chena Hot Springs Resort, located outside of Fairbanks beneath a particularly active band of northern lights, remains one of the best places in Alaska for aurora chasers to see the phenomenon. Book a three or four-night stay to accommodate for uncooperative weather. At the resort, you can stay up all night or ask to receive an “aurora wake up call” if you stay at the Moose Lodge. The most relaxing and warm spot to watch the lights? The natural hot-springs lake on the property. No parka and gloves required. chenahotsprings.com

Whales and Glaciers

Alaska has no shortage of whales or glaciers. Gray, beluga, humpback, minke and orca whales gather in the open water and along shorelines in various locations May through September. A small boat multi-day cruise in Southeast’s Inside Passage virtually guarantees whale sightings along with calving glaciers. Get the perfect tail shot, breach or killer whale spout from the deck of a ship. Peer down from your balcony on humpbacks bubble feeding below. Listen for a crack of white thunder as ice chunks fall like collapsing 12-story buildings into the bay. Summertime small boat cruises provide more route flexibility and allow passengers to get closer to the action than large cruise liners. Try Alaskan Dream Cruises for off-the-beaten path, authentic Alaska itineraries combined with the major attractions of Tracy Arm and Glacier Bay National Park or the more adventurous Un-Cruise options with kayaking, paddleboarding and skiff excursions offered along the way. alaskandreamcruises.com; un-cruise.com

Scenic Landscapes

You won’t have to look far to find panoramic views worthy of filling up a memory card or two. Even flying into Alaska from the Lower 48, you’ll be shooting out the window. Noteworthy regional spots to cross off your bucket list for scenic landscapes are the Kenai Peninsula in Southcentral Alaska, the Brooks Range in the north (especially the Arrigetch peaks in the Endicott Mountains) and our favorite—Denali National Park and Preserve in the Interior. Denali offers a diverse multitude of vistas from every shuttle stop or trail, oftentimes with wildlife in the foreground. The classic shot at Wonder Lake at the end of the Park Road might just yield a trifecta for bucket-list photo accomplishments if you’re lucky enough to find a wading moose, Denali’s clear reflection in the water and a sunset to complete the picture. Early fall provides great color, along with fewer crowds for the best photo ops. nps.gov/dena

A pod of orcas in front of Perl Island makes its way into the Gulf of Alaska. (photo by ©Hastings A. Franks / hastingsafranksphotography.com)

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