Alaska is vast, yet few people ever see more than a few tiny sections of it. Most people stick to the well-worn tourist trails that center around the cruising industry; they see such a small part of Alaska and say that they’ve ‘been there’- but honestly they haven’t.
I set out to see and experience Alaska off the tourist trail by focusing on the remote corners of the vast state and its small communities for my trip. After all, I like to find out where people go, and then turn around and go the opposite way – that’s where the real fun in travel happens. I understand not everyone will have 3 weeks like I did to explore the state. In fact, most people will only have a few extra days to see more of Alaska before/after their cruise itinerary.
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Where to go in Alaska if you have limited time and a vast landscape?
It’s hard to choose where to go when Alaska has such a vast landscape. Sure – if you have a lot of money you can just get around by Alaska’s main form of transportation – the Bush Plane.
But most of us have to choose one region to stick to due to time and money. Of course, you will fly to either Anchorage or Fairbanks, but I suggest that you visit the small towns and communities in Alaska. Stay overnight there, explore, and really get to know the locals and a feel for the community.
I was lucky – on my first trip to Alaska, I had a whole month to explore the state and I went to every little corner of it! The good news is each little community I went to had a distinctly different personality, so why not choose where to go in Alaska based on your personality?
Go To Nome Alaska, Population 3,500
For people who like to buy lottery tickets and enjoy a bit of danger.
It’s simple, it’s gritty, and its backbone is gold.
Nome is the type of town where you can safely leave your keys in your ignition in the parking lot, but if you say the wrong thing in a saloon, you may get beat up. It’s a working town with people who do physical work for a living – much like the farming towns in the Midwest, but not as picturesque. Nome had a hard edge, and that holds some weird allure to me. It’s sort of like the seedy side of old Las Vegas that I love so much.
Every morning I went to the Polar Cub Café for breakfast and I was the only woman patron there. I sat at the table and eavesdropped on all of the conversations around me, and they were all about gold. This town was built on gold mining, and it’s still the focus today.
What To Do in Nome
There are plenty of things to do in Nome if you don’t mind driving. I spent my days driving around with Nome Discovery Tours out on one of the three roads that lead to nowhere. Really, they just stop; Nome is not connected to the rest of the state by road. You can only fly in, or in the winter of course you can travel by dog sled or snow mobile.
Richard, an old Broadway actor, is the most entertaining character in town (Update: since my visit, he became Mayor of Nome but has now sadly deceased). We drove the roads around the tundra viewing birds, muskoxen, abandoned railroads, hot springs, and roadhouse bars along the Iditarod. In the evening I went to the Board of Trade Saloon, once named one of the most dangerous bars in the world. Its motto is “Headquarters for the Sin City”. There you could do shots of whatever you wanted, play pool, throw a few games of corn hole, and watch the locals roll in…and sometimes crawl in. It was open until 2 or 3 AM…I honestly lost track and had one of the most fun bar nights of my life there.
Go To Talkeetna Alaska, Population 876
Talkeetna is for the outdoor adventure seeker and those who like heights.
This is a town of drinkers with a climbing problem. Talkeetna is where all the Mt. Denali summits/expeditions begin. Set at the foot of Denali National Park, Talkeetna isn’t exactly remote, but it is small.
Out of all of the small towns I visited in Alaska, it’s probably the most touristed thanks to its connection to the Alaska Railroad. You can train there or drive there, but no matter how you get there you’ll want to make sure you fly while you are in Talkeetna.
Discover all the things to do in Anchorage in Summer or Winter
What To Do in Talkeetna
If you aren’t one of those adventurous climbers, then you’ll want to get to the peaks by one of the many flightseeing options in Talkeetna. I flew from Talkeetna to Moraine Lake, located between Backside Glacier and the Ruth Glacier within the vast roadless area of Denali National Park. The area is only accessible by float-plane and is a super place to spend a few hours hiking. Plus, if the weather cooperates, you’ll get to see Mt. Denali up close and personal from the air.
After your flight or hike, go check out the town restaurants and nightlife, you’ll surely run into some characters. After all, the Mayor of Talkeetna is a cat (update – sadly Stubbs has passed now)…who never seemed to be in his office every time I stopped by. And yes, Mayor Stubbs has a Facebook page.
Finish the night with a drink at Fairview Inn Bar. I think I lost a few years of my life there – it’s sort of like an Alaskan frat house, but filled with all of the seasonal workers from the area and loads of fun.
Bonus: I was in Talkeetna in late August and we even saw the aurora!
Go to McCarthy Alaska, Population 28
McCarthy is for people who love the wild west and don’t really want to be found.
In 1900 copper was discovered in the area around McCarthy and soon a mining business was created by Kennecott Mining Company. Because alcoholic beverages and prostitution were forbidden in the mining ‘company’ town of Kennecott, the town of McCarthy grew a few miles away as an area to provide those in-demand services not available in the company town; namely drinking, gambling, and prostitution. McCarthy was modeled after the wild western towns and still has that same personality today.
The town’s ‘main street’ was gravel and riddled with potholes. The town housed a hotel (an old boarding house and brothel), a small grocery store, and a saloon. These establishments were surrounded by very basic cabins, two restaurants, plus a pizza truck across the river which seemed a bit odd – yet for McCarthy, it also seemed normal. A shuttle runs around the town taking you back and forth between abandoned Kennicott mines and McCarthy.
What To Do in McCarthy Alaska
It’s a simple town, but don’t think that means there’s nothing to do there. McCarthy Alaska has so much charm that’s reason enough to go there! However, it is also surrounded by the US’s largest national park, Wrangel St. Elias. There you have a wealth of hiking trails, peaks, river rafting, and glaciers at your disposal to play on. You can hire a St. Elias Alpine Guide and you’ll find all of the nooks and crannies of the park and the glaciers.
Neil, the owner of the saloon and Ma Johnson’s hotel actually refers to a ‘downtown’ when he talks about McCarthy. I look around at the dirt road and chuckle; I guess it’s all about perspective. He describes McCarthy as what Talkeetna used to be like before they built the road there. When I asked him about living in the town year-round he replied, “You have to love yourself if you are going to live alone in Alaska in the winter.”
Because it’s surrounded by a huge, remote national park, it’s not easy to get to McCarthy. You’ll have to fly in or take a long arduous drive on one of the two gravel roads in the park which are hardly maintained. I suggest the flight, it was the best flightseeing I’ve ever done!
Go To Coldfoot Alaska, Population 10
Coldfoot is for people who love big rigs, engineering, and hunting.
Coldfoot is simply a trucker ‘town’/stop on the Dalton Highway at mile marker 175, and it’s the only one you’ll find north of the Arctic Circle. You can get to Coldfoot by car, van, or flight. I actually took a van tour up to Coldfoot and then flew back to Fairbanks – only 260 miles to the South.
The Coldfoot camp lodging is basic, but the surrounding landscapes are spectacular around this town.
What to do in Coldfoot Alaska
Spend a day driving further up the Dalton Highway to the Atigun Pass and take a walk on the High Arctic Tundra. Then spend your evening at the 24-hour truck stop soaking up, its bottomless free coffee, and the unique atmosphere, strike up a conversation with a pipeline worker, and if you are really brave, check out the Trucker Corner.
Pick one, or all four of these small towns to visit in Alaska. If you get to any of these towns, don’t expect to see crowds of tourists or cruise ships. However, you should expect to really experience the people and landscapes of Alaska. These small towns were my favorite part of my trip and I’d love to go back and spend more time in all of them.
I was a guest of Alaska Tourism on this trip, however all opinions expressed here are my own.