Dog Sleds and Northern Lights: The Essential Guide to Visiting Alaska
Dog Sleds and Northern Lights: The Essential Guide to Visiting Alaska - Anchorage - Gateway to Alaska's Wilderness
As the largest city in Alaska, Anchorage serves as the gateway to the state's remote wilderness. Its convenient location makes it the perfect starting point for adventures into Alaska's majestic national parks, glaciers, and forests.
Anchorage offers plenty for visitors before they embark into the Alaskan bush. The city has a vibrant downtown with great restaurants, breweries, museums, and shops. Foodies will delight in the fresh Alaskan seafood, while culture lovers can learn about native history at the Anchorage Museum.
Just minutes outside the city, flora and fauna abound. Chugach State Park has over a half million acres of wilderness right on Anchorage's doorstep. Hike through alpine meadows straight from downtown, spot moose and bears, or cast for salmon along Campbell Creek.
Many travelers pass through Anchorage on their way to Denali National Park. The Alaska Railroad offers a scenic 8-hour ride from Anchorage to Denali, with opportunities to see wildlife along the way. Various bus tours also make the trip between Anchorage and Denali.
Seaplanes are another interesting option for accessing Alaskan wilderness from Anchorage. These small bush planes can land on lakes and rivers, bringing you to remote cabins, fishing lodges, and villages. Pack creek bear viewing, fly fishing on Bristol Bay, heli-skiing in the Chugach—the possibilities are endless when departing from Anchorage.
No visit to Anchorage is complete without exploring its surroundings on foot or bike. The Tony Knowles Coastal Trail offers 11 miles of paved pathways with Cook Inlet views. For off-road fun, hit the trails in Far North Bicentennial Park or Kincaid Park, popular with fat-tire bikers.
What else is in this post?
- Dog Sleds and Northern Lights: The Essential Guide to Visiting Alaska - Anchorage - Gateway to Alaska's Wilderness
- Dog Sleds and Northern Lights: The Essential Guide to Visiting Alaska - Denali National Park - Spotting Wildlife Along the Sled Dog Trails
- Dog Sleds and Northern Lights: The Essential Guide to Visiting Alaska - Chena Hot Springs - Relaxing in Natural Geothermal Waters
- Dog Sleds and Northern Lights: The Essential Guide to Visiting Alaska - Fairbanks - Experiencing the Magic of the Northern Lights
- Dog Sleds and Northern Lights: The Essential Guide to Visiting Alaska - Juneau - Whale Watching and Glacier Cruises
- Dog Sleds and Northern Lights: The Essential Guide to Visiting Alaska - Ketchikan - Exploring Alaska's Coastal Culture
- Dog Sleds and Northern Lights: The Essential Guide to Visiting Alaska - Katmai National Park - Watching Brown Bears Catch Salmon
- Dog Sleds and Northern Lights: The Essential Guide to Visiting Alaska - Matanuska Valley - Visiting Iditarod Sled Dog Races
Dog Sleds and Northern Lights: The Essential Guide to Visiting Alaska - Denali National Park - Spotting Wildlife Along the Sled Dog Trails
Stretching over 6 million acres, Denali National Park is one of the crown jewels of Alaska's wilderness. While many know Denali for its famous views of 20,310-foot Denali (formerly Mt. McKinley), the park also offers incredible opportunities for spotting wildlife along its sled dog trails.
Denali was the traditional homeland of the Athabascan people, who relied on sled dogs for transportation and subsistence hunting. Today, sled dogs are still part of Denali's allure, pulling visitors on unique tours through the park's backcountry. Gliding behind a dog team is the best way to spot Denali's abundant wildlife in their natural habitat.
Winter and late spring offer prime viewing along the sled dog trails. Ride through rolling taiga forests draped in fresh snow, keeping your eyes peeled for lynx, foxes, wolverines, and the occasional moose. Listen for the yip-howl of coyotes as your sled glides by. If you're lucky, you may even glimpse a wolf pack on the hunt.
When daytime temperatures climb above freezing in April, look for bears emerging from hibernation. Massive grizzlies lumber through the valleys waking up from their long winter's nap. You may spot a sow with cubs just learning to forage. Summer sees huge herds of caribou streaming through green alpine meadows flushed with wildflowers. Calves scamper to keep up with the larger herd.
Fall brings the bugling call of bull moose and the skittering of snowshoe hares between spruce and birch trees. Birds flock south for the winter, including swans, sandhill cranes, and falcons. Your best chance of seeing the Northern Lights dances across the sky from late August through April.
While the park buses offer excellent wildlife viewing, riding behind a dog team provides an intimate backcountry experience. Denali's kennels house around 150 working sled dogs, their ancestral lineage tracing back over a century. Take an overnight camping tour for true immersion into the park's wilderness surrounded by your new furry friends.
Dog Sleds and Northern Lights: The Essential Guide to Visiting Alaska - Chena Hot Springs - Relaxing in Natural Geothermal Waters
After days spent exploring Alaska's rugged landscapes, unwind in the steaming mineral waters of Chena Hot Springs. Located 60 miles east of Fairbanks, Chena Hot Springs Resort provides the ideal spot to relax weary muscles and rejuvenate the spirit.
The resort's main attraction is its namesake hot springs, sourced from water heated deep underground. Temperatures average 106°F, creating an idyllic natural spa. There are indoor and outdoor pools, private bathhouses, and even an ice museum kept frosty by the hot springs' geothermal heat.
Soak up the healing benefits of the mineral-rich waters, which are said to aid circulation, ease arthritis pain, and promote restful sleep. The rocks and pebbles lining the pools offer reflexology massage for your feet. Just sitting neck-deep in the 105°F water already begins lowering stress levels.
Try a massage or body wrap at the resort's Aurum Spa for next-level pampering. Saunas, steam rooms, and an adults-only pool take the relaxation up a notch. The spa uses natural elements like mud, herbs, and geothermal clay in its treatments.
Accommodations range from standard hotel rooms to private cabins, many with their own outdoor hot tubs. Dine at the resort's Borealis Bistro, featuring craft brews and dishes highlighting Alaska's natural bounty like reindeer sausage and local fish.
In addition to the hot springs, Chena offers winter activities like snowmobiling, dog sledding, ice fishing, and snowshoeing. Summer brings hiking, canoeing, ATV tours, and fishing for grayling, pike, and salmon in nearby streams and rivers. Aurora viewing tours depart nightly when the skies are clear.
Dog Sleds and Northern Lights: The Essential Guide to Visiting Alaska - Fairbanks - Experiencing the Magic of the Northern Lights
Fairbanks is widely considered one of the best places in the world to experience the ethereal magic of the northern lights. Its location directly under the Auroral Oval means prime viewing opportunities for this celestial phenomenon from late August through April. For many travelers, glimpsing the aurora borealis is a once-in-a-lifetime bucket list dream.
As darkness descends on Fairbanks, excited aurora hunters gather nightly hoping the weather conditions will align for a dazzling light show. Solar flares and geomagnetic storms cause the shimmering colors to erupt across the night sky. Greens and pinks shimmy and shake, as if the sky is alive with color.
Locals describe the lights as dancing, flickering, and pulsing. Watching the aurora is an experience that merges science and spirituality. This cosmic interaction between the sun's particles and the earth's atmosphere creates a magical visual symphony.
Diehard aurora chasers plan visits during the new moon around the spring and fall equinox when activity peaks. However, the lights can be fickle, requiring dark pristine skies free of clouds and competing light pollution. Flexibility is key, as is finding the optimal viewing location.
While you may catch lucky glimpses of the northern lights right in downtown Fairbanks, your best bet is heading away from the city lights. Many hotels around Fairbanks offer nightly aurora wake-up calls when the lights are out. Bundled up under blankets in a heated viewing shelter, you'll craning your neck skyward as the colors dance across the heavens.
The aurora's evanescent nature only adds to its mystique. Jaw-dropping shows of multi-colored curtains folding across the entire sky one night may be followed by no activity the next. This cosmic hide-and-seek makes sightings feel extraordinarily special.
Speak to any lucky aurora spotter and their eyes will light up remembering their magical moment. Descriptions of "sheer magnificence" and "hypnotic" are common. The northern lights have a way of creating an almost spiritual awe for viewers lucky enough to experience their glory.
Dog Sleds and Northern Lights: The Essential Guide to Visiting Alaska - Juneau - Whale Watching and Glacier Cruises
As Alaska's remote capital, Juneau sits nestled between the icy waters of the Inside Passage and massive glaciers creeping down from mountain valleys. This singular location makes Juneau a prime departure point for whale watching and glacier cruises. Breaching humpbacks, rumbling blue ice, and quiet fjords combine for an unforgettable Alaskan cruise experience.
Gliding through Stephen's Passage, keep your eyes trained for telltale puffs from the blowholes of feeding humpback whales. These 40-ton marine mammals put on quite an acrobatic show, breaching almost fully out of the water before crashing back down with an impressive splash. Seeing a fully-grown humpback launch its entire body into the air will leave you in awe of nature's majesty.
In the bubble-net feeding technique, humpbacks work together to herd fish into a tight ball by blowing bubbles around the school. Then the whales burst up from below with mouths open wide, engulfing hundreds of small fish in one huge gulp. Witnessing such coordinated teamwork reminds that we still have much to learn from these intelligent creatures who have called Alaska's waters home for centuries.
Juneau cruises also ply the waters of Glacier Bay, where colossal rivers of ice slowly grind their way down from the peaks of the Fairweather mountain range into the sea. Watching mammoth chunks of blue and white ice calve off the glacier's face and crash into the water is humbling. Glacial ice emits otherworldly creaks and groans as the frozen flow advances inch by inch across the rocky terrain.
Most glacier cruises make a stop at Margerie Glacier, whose mile-wide face and 250-foot height never fail to impress. Kayaking across the tranquil waters of Glacier Bay towards these icy behemoths provides a true sense of scale. Dwarfed by nature's raw power, you'll likely emerge renewed and inspired from this up-close taste of Alaska's formidable landscapes.
Dog Sleds and Northern Lights: The Essential Guide to Visiting Alaska - Ketchikan - Exploring Alaska's Coastal Culture
With its picture-postcard harbor, bustling boardwalk, and colorful buildings perched on forested hills, Ketchikan exemplifies the coastal charms of Southeast Alaska. Famed as the "Salmon Capital of the World,” this southernmost Inside Passage port gives visitors a taste of native cultures adapted to the rugged landscapes and rich marine resources of Alaska's panhandle.
Ketchikan’s rich native heritage shines through in clan houses like the Cape Fox Cultural Center, where Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian history lives on through art, dance, language classes, and more. Watching dancers dressed in hand-carved masks reenact ancient stories provides insights into the region's indigenous cultures. Tribal youth keep these traditions vibrantly alive through drumming, singing traditional songs, and sharing ancestral practices like weaving spruce root baskets and curing salmon over alderwood fires.
The world's largest collection of standing totem poles draws legions of admirers to Ketchikan’s Saxman Totem Park. Brilliantly colored and intricately carved, these monumental cedar poles display clan symbols like ravens, whales, and bears. Totems once served to identify family lineages and landmark important events. Modern poles continue this legacy, recording contemporary stories like the passing of revered elders.
No trip to Ketchikan is complete without feasting on the sea's bounty. Dungeness crab, halibut, salmon, spot prawns - you name it, Ketchikan restaurants serve it fresh. For total immersion into Tlingit culture and cuisine, book a meal at a tribal homestead through Ketchikan's Native Chef program. Share a meal featuring traditional foods like smoked salmon and blueberry akutaq (Eskimo ice cream) with Alaska natives eager to share heritage passed down for generations.
Of course, Ketchikan also embraces its history as an erstwhile red-light district. The rowdy lumber and fishing crews who once roamed the town’s rough-and-tumble streets live on through attractions like the historic Red Men Hall showcasing Ketchikan’s shady past replete with brothels and gambling dens. Embrace your inner renegade by ducking into hole-in-the-wall bars like the Sourdough Lounge, which hasn’t lost its frontier spirit.
Dog Sleds and Northern Lights: The Essential Guide to Visiting Alaska - Katmai National Park - Watching Brown Bears Catch Salmon
Each summer, brown bears congregate along Alaska's Katmai Coast to feast on nutrient-rich salmon returning to their natal streams. Katmai National Park provides prime viewing of these colossal bears snatching fish right from the water's surging currents. Watching a 1,000-pound bear expertly catch 30-pound salmon after salmon is a wildlife spectacle like none other.
As July nears, hundreds of brown bears emerge from hibernation driven by rumbling bellies. They migrate toward prime fishing spots along the Brooks River and Naknek Lake, where king and sockeye salmon amass during their summer spawning runs. Perched on the elevated platforms of Brooks Falls, visitors watch raptly as bears wade into the churning waters.
With lightning quick reflexes, the bears wait patiently for the right moment to strike. In an instant, a giant paw shoots into the currents and flips a thrashing salmon onto the rocky shore. Jaws open wide with leftover scraps flung into the air after the bear messily devours its prey. Full bellies fuel these bears to keep chasing down more fish throughout the summer season.
Seeing bears in their element up-close allows deep insights into their intelligence and resourcefulness. Watching cubs eagerly imitate their mothers’ fishing techniques provides an endearing glimpse into how survival skills pass between generations.
However, Katmai’s salmon bounty has not always been safe from human encroachment. Overfishing once threatened the bears’ primary food source. After landmark conservation efforts replenished fish stocks, bear populations rebounded. Exploring Katmai today shows how environmental protections can restore balance between humans and nature.
Travelers come away buzzing with a profound appreciation for Katmai’s brown bears and the park’s efforts supporting mutual coexistence. As one visitor shared, “It was just unbelievable to see these massive, powerful creatures in action as they hunted. Such an adrenaline rush. But also, deep respect for the bears and their place in Alaska’s ecosystem.”
Others express how their Katmai visit shifted their perspective: “Seeing those cubs learning to fish from mom transformed how I think about animals. Bears aren’t so different from us after all - they have families, passions, intelligence.”
Dog Sleds and Northern Lights: The Essential Guide to Visiting Alaska - Matanuska Valley - Visiting Iditarod Sled Dog Races
Sled dogs howling eagerly at the starting line, paws stomping down the trail, the musher’s shouts urging on their team – the Iditarod sled dog race perfectly captures Alaska’s pioneering spirit. Held annually in March, the race commemorates the 1925 serum run that delivered life-saving medicine to Nome by dog sled. Today, the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race follows a 1,000 mile route stretching from Anchorage to Nome through fierce Alaskan wilderness. Teams cover the distance in 8-15 days, careening down icy trails through mountain passes, spruce forests, and desolate tundra.
Many visitors experience the excitement of mushing by traveling to the Matanuska Valley outside Anchorage to take in the official race start. Standing with boisterous fans bundled in parkas, you’ll hear the cacophony of barking dogs as teams line up behind the starting banner. After the gun goes off, bells jingling on harnesses fade into the distance as teams disappear down the trail. It's a singular experience that connects you to Alaska's historic reliance on these hardy dogs.
The Matanuska Valley also hosts training camps and sled dog kennels open for visits and demo rides year-round. Meet fluffy puppies destined for Iditarod glory. I was amazed learning each dog’s unique role – wheelers set the pace upfront, swing dogs add pulling power, and wheel dogs steer the sled round hairpin turns. Strike up conversations with veteran mushers and you’ll hear how bonds between human and dog run soul-deep. As local musher Nic Petit says, “My dogs aren’t just teammates, they’re my family. The bond you build over thousands of trail miles is incredibly special.”