On my most recent adventure to Alaska, I overnighted in eight different towns, from Juneau and Skagway in the southeast to Fairbanks in the east-central section of the state. Spread over hundreds of square miles, my itinerary showed the vastness and idiosyncrasies of this spellbinding territory.
I've only just scratched the surface in terms of getting to know this state, which is nearly four times the size of California, but I’ve boiled down a good list of must-see activities or places I strongly recommend experiencing. Here, in no particular order, are eight essential Alaska highlights—and for even more ideas, check out the State of Alaska’s official tourism website (travelalaska.com).
One: Drink your share of Alaska craft beer
What Alaska lacks in gay nightlife, it makes up for in quirky, offbeat bars with diverse, generally gay-friendly followings. Some of the best of these hangouts are craft-beer pubs, and Anchorage has the greatest number of them. A few blocks apart in the city's downtown, Glacier Brew House (737 W. 5th Ave. #110, glacierbrewhouse.com) and Humpy's (610 W. 6th Ave., humpys.com) both serve first-rate beer and great food. In Midtown, the Bear Tooth Theatrepub and Grill (230 W. 27th Ave., (beartooththeatre.net), and nearby Moose's Tooth Pub and Pizzeria (3300 Old Seward Hwy, moosetooth.net), are popular with the gay community and serve casual pub grub like wraps, pizzas and burritos. While you wait for your movie screening, quaff a homegrown beer like Pipeline Stout, Polar Pale Ale or the namesake Beartooth Ale.
In Juneau, the venerable Alaska Brewing Co. (5429 Shaune Dr., alaskanbeer.com) is one of the foremost craft beer makers in the country, and although there's no brewpub on site, you can stop by for a tour and tastings. The company's beer—like the limited edition Baltic Porter or the year-round IPA, Amber and more—is widely available at bars all over Alaska. Also in southeast Alaska, the funky and friendly Skagway Brewing Co. (7th and Broadway, skagwaybrewing.com) is a great place to sip Spruce Tip Blonde, a locally distinctive beer flavored with hand-picked Sitka spruce tips, and munch on tasty bar food like fish and chips with local Alaskan halibut.
Fairbanks is home to another terrific brewpub, the Silver Gulch (2195 Old Steese Hwy North, silvergulch.com) which is as well-regarded for its malty Pick Axe Porter as for such delicious fare as beer-braised pork ribs and porter beer cheese soup.
Two: Experience Denali National Park without the crowds
Visitors to Alaska's spectacular national park, Denali (nps.gov/dena), are sometimes overwhelmed by the sheer immensity of this six million-acre wilderness crowned by North America's highest peak, Mount McKinley (20,320 feet). The park is best explored over the course of a few days, but even with one full day, it's possible to cover a remarkable amount of ground. There's just one, 92-mile road into the park, and in summer, only official park tour buses are permitted beyond the first 15 miles. In fall, private vehicles can travel all the way to Teklanika River (Mile 30), weather permitting.
After Labor Day, some park services and visitor centers close up shop for the season, but beautiful scenery and fewer crowds make a fall visit to Denali worthwhile. There are no guided or structured activities within the park post-Labor Day, though trails are accessible from the winter visitor center, the Murie Science and Learning Center (at Mile 1.5). Day hikes from easy-to-moderate trails near the Murie Center will likely bring you into contact with all the charismatic megafauna you could hope for, including caribou, Dall sheep, golden eagles, moose, wolves and grizzly bears. Just remember to keep a safe and lawful viewing distance: If your presence alters the behavior of any animal, you’re too close.
One feature of Denali is best seen in fall and winter: the remarkable aurora borealis, the “northern lights.” Fall’s decreasing hours of daylight make it more likely that the mysterious solar flares will make an appearance. The same goes for stargazing, an activity enhanced by Denali’s exceptionally clear, low-humidity air.
Three: Explore the Kenai Peninsula
With relatively easy access to Anchorage, a slew of engaging towns and attractions, and rugged, spectacular scenery that encompasses massive glaciers, icy fjords and dense forests, this peninsula—about half the size of South Carolina—is ideal for road-tripping.
The top towns for visitors are the artsy and progressive fishing town of Homer (the farthest from Anchorage, at 220 miles); scenic Seward, the gateway to Kenai Fjords National Park (nps.gov/kefj); and secluded Whittier, situated at the end of Passage Canal, which links to Prince William Sound. You can also forego driving and take the Alaska Scenic Railroad (alaskarailroad.com) from Anchorage to Seward or Whittier, enjoying some close-up glacier views along the way.
On your way to the peninsula, consider tacking on a night or two in tiny Girdwood, just 40 miles from Anchorage, and spending the night at the elegant Alyeska Resort (Arlberg Rd., alyeskaresort.com). This upscale hotel and ski resort has beautiful rooms, a full spa and one of the top destination restaurants in the state, Seven Glaciers, which is reached via aerial tram. From Girdwood, it's a short drive to one of the peninsula's most fascinating attractions, the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center (Mile 79, Seward Hwy, PO Box 949, Girdwood, alaskawildlife.org). Others must-sees include the Alaska SeaLife Center (Milepost 0, Seward Hwy, alaskasealife .org) in Seward, and the Alaska Islands & Oceans Visitor Center (95 Sterling Hwy, Suite 1, islandsandocean.org) in Homer.
If you'd prefer an all-inclusive touring approach to the Kenai Peninsula, with incredible outdoor recreational opportunities to boot, book a trip with Alaska Wildland Adventures (P.O. Box 389, Girdwood, alaska wildland.com), which has three one-of-a-kind accommodations on the peninsula: the Kenai Riverside Lodge, Kenai Backcountry Lodge, and Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge. AWA's trips include everything from adrenaline-pumping white-water rafting and sea-kayaking to easygoing hikes, float trips and fishing outings. These tours are ideal for families or groups of friends traveling together.
Four: Trek on a glacier
Opportunities to view glaciers abound from Juneau north into Denali National Park. One of the most amazing ways to experience these hulking masses of slow-moving ice is to hike directly onto one. In the historic gold-rush town of Skagway, at the northern end of the Inside Passage near Juneau, Packer Expeditions (P.O. Box 601, packerexpeditions.com) offers wilderness and snowshoe hikes onto Laughton Glacier. These full-day adventures involve riding the historic White Pass and Yukon Route Railway to a mountain trailhead, and then trekking about four miles through verdant woodland and then onto the glacier.
In Juneau, Above & Beyond Alaska (PO Box 211202, Auke Bay, beyondak.com) has developed an amazing glacier trek on which you'll hike three and a half miles through rainforest alongside Mendenhall Lake, then don crampons and ice axes and walk for more than an hour atop Mendenhall Glacier. If conditions permit, you may also hike inside one of the surreal, blue-walled ice cave that have formed beneath the glacier.
Five: See Alaska from the air
Alaska is home to more licensed airline pilots per capita than any other state. This is hardly surprising, given the fact that many communities, including the state capitol, can't be reached by road. Even commercial flights around the state can yield some tremendous views if the weather cooperates. A number of smaller airlines offer regularly scheduled service through the Inside Passage, with the trips from Juneau up to Skagway or Haines, or down to Ketchikan considered especially magnificent.
Flightseeing is also an easy and awe-inspiring way to view Denali National Park. Offering flights over McKinley's summit as well as actual glacier landings in Denali, McKinley Flight Tours (22651 South Terminal Ave., Talkeetna, talkeetnaaero.com) is one of that area's best air-tour companies, flying out of a small airport south of the park. In the funky town of Talkeetna, about midway between Anchorage and Denali, you can also book a variety of air excursions over the park with such reliable outfitters as K2 Aviation (14052 E. 2nd St., flyk2.com) and Talkeetna Air Taxi (14212 E. 2nd St., talkeetnaair.com).
Six: Hide out at one of Within the Wild's secluded lodges
Renowned chef and cookbook author Kirsten Dixon and her husband Carl, of Within the Wild (withinthewild.com), operate three of the most enchanting wilderness lodges in the state, each with just a handful of warmly appointed guest cabins, and all of them serving artful, locally grown food. Winterlake Lodge is about 200 miles northwest of Anchorage (reached by floatplane or ski plane depending on the season) on the Iditarod Trail; and Redoubt Bay Lodge lies about an hour by floatplane southwest of Anchorage in one of the state's densest bear habitats.
The easiest of the properties to reach, Tutka Bay Lodge, still requires a spectacular water-taxi ride from Homer across Kachemak Bay. Once there you'll discover a grand retreat at the mouth of a fjord, nestled beneath Sitka spruce trees, and complete with its own cooking school, which has been built ingeniously inside a former crabbing boat. Spend at least three or four days at any of these secluded hideaways—once you arrive, you'll have a difficult time pulling yourself away.
Seven: Do as locals do (mostly)
Most of the state's major communities have at least a few gay-friendly inns, which have typically distinctive settings and offer guests the chance to gain a better sense of what it's like to actually live in Alaska. Anchorage has several quirky options, including the affordable Copper Whale Inn (440 L St., copperwhale.com), which is within walking distance of downtown attractions. Other gay-owned options like the Wildflower Inn (1239 I St., alaska-wildflower-inn.com) and the City Garden B&B (1352 W. 10th Ave., citygarden.biz) are centrally located and within stumbling distance to those brewpubs you keep hearing about.
Dale and Jo View Suites (3260 Craft Ave, dale andjo.com) is a luxurious, cozy spot with never-ending views in Fairbanks, while Juneau's renowned Pearson's Pond (4541 Sawa Cir, pearsonspond.com) is one of the most sumptuous places to stay in Juneau. Groovy Homer is home to such welcoming B&Bs as Brigitte's Bavarian B&B (P.O. Box 2391, akms.com/brigitte), which is set on a birch-shaded hillside, and the sunny and contemporary Bay Avenue B&B (1393 Bay Ave., bayavebb.com), which overlooks rippling Kachemak Bay. And in Skagway, you'd be hard-pressed to find a more welcoming, reasonably priced accommodation than the centrally located White House B&B (475 8th Ave., atthewhitehouse.com).
Eight: Hang out with Family
Finally, if you're looking for an excellent, gay-friendly resource to help plan or even guide you on your trip to the Last Frontier, get in touch with LGBT-owned Out in Alaska (1819 Dimond Dr., outinalaska.com), which offers an impressive variety of small-group trips throughout the state, from multiday cruises and overland adventures to quick jaunts around Anchorage, where the company is based. These tours range from rafting and camping adventures in the wilderness to hotel-based trips, and Out in Alaska can also customize guided trips or help you plan your own independent tour.
Andrew Collins covers gay travel for the New York Times-owned website GayTravel.About.com and is the author of Fodor's Gay Guide to the USA.