Majestic natural beauty, incredible wildlife, outdoor adventures—Alaska has so much to offer. That said, if you don’t pick the right destination, you could just end up in no man’s land, fodder for a nature documentary with a tragic ending. We kid. But beyond the untamed wilderness of "The Last Frontier" to explore, there's also quite a few civilized gems you shouldn't miss. Presenting a roundup of charming small towns in Alaska that promise visitors the very best of what the state has to offer, whether it’s whale watching, fishing, hiking or resort-style pampering with scenic views that you seek.
15 Charming Small Towns in Alaska
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- Why We Recommend It: Natural beauty, wildlife viewing, marine life viewing, amazing seafood
- Where to Stay: R&B’s Pad, Kodiak Compass Suites
Kodiak—the largest town on the namesake and second largest island in the United States—is a coastal gem known for its lush landscape. (Hint: That’s why it’s also called ‘the Emerald Isle.’) Nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts will delight in the surrounding wilderness, which boasts unspoiled beaches, secluded campgrounds, prime fishing spots, and countless hiking trails. Head to the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge where you can explore over 2,800 square miles of natural beauty and perhaps even catch a glimpse of the famous Kodiak bear. Incredible whale watching and marine wildlife viewing experiences are to be had at Fort Abercrombie State Park—a perfect prelude to a meal at one of the many local eateries, where you’ll find the freshest, tastiest seafood imaginable.
- Why We Recommend It: Marine life viewing, historic and cultural attractions, outdoor activities
- Where to Stay: Sitka Lighthouse, Harbor Heights Penthouse
An Inside Passage community that fronts the Pacific Ocean and a popular cruise ship destination, Sitka is the place to go for all manner of marine life viewing and plenty more. Soak up some culture on a stroll through the charming downtown, which is peppered with historic sites and architectural landmarks (including the Russian Bishop’s House and Baranof Castle State Historic site) that reflect the region’s Russian Orthodox and native Tlingit roots. History buffs curious to know more about Sitka’s unique heritage can spend a full day browsing the town’s museums, cultural centers and art galleries, and outdoorsy types can while away the hours in the nearby Tongass National Forest, where hiking trails of varying difficulty weave through breathtaking rainforest and alpine landscapes. In other words, Sitka has a little bit of something for everyone.
- Why We Recommend It: Water activities, marine life viewing
- Where to Stay: Totem Hotel and Suites, Majesty of Valdez
Located in Prince WIlliam Sound, this Alaskan town serves up a boatload of water activities in a beautiful alpine setting. Visitors can book a day cruise or rent a kayak to get an up-close look at the area’s towering glaciers (including the massive 300-foot Columbia Glacier) and abundant marine life. Thrill-seekers can go white water rafting on the Lowe River and fishing enthusiasts can spend a day reeling in halibut and silver salmon on a charter fishing trip. Folks who prefer to stay on dry land will be pleased to know that Valdez also has numerous hiking trails of varying difficulty—some accessible right from downtown—that feature stunning views of waterfalls, mountains and glaciers alike. In town, you’ll find a wide range of accommodations, including numerous restaurants and bars, and even two local breweries where you can kick back with a cold one.
- Why We Recommend It: Lively downtown scene, outdoor activities, scenic
- Where to Stay: Downtown Ketchikan/Million Dollar View, Inn at Creek Street
Called the “first city” for its location at the very Southern tip of the Inside Passage, Ketchikan is a popular cruise ship destination with a bustling commercial district and plenty of natural beauty, to boot. When it comes to outdoors activities, some key attractions include thrilling zipline tours that run through rainforests and mountains, prime kayaking opportunities on the Inside Passage, and finally, the Misty Fjords National Monument—a 3,570-square-mile expanse of wilderness with stunning geological features and wildlife viewing opportunities galore. Visitors can also get a dose of history and Alaska Native culture at the Tongass Historical Museum and Southeast Alaska Discovery Center. Finish up with a leisurely stroll down Creek Street—a scenic strip of boardwalk that’s lined with restaurants, art galleries, boutiques and more—and your Ketchikan vacay will be a success.
- Why We Recommend It: Scenic,artsy vibes, amenities, mild climate
- Where to Stay: Bluff Cabin, Homer Inn and Spa
Situated on bluffs overlooking the Kachemak Bay and accessible only by the Sterling Highway, this remote town is a destination for foodies and creative folk of all stripes. Despite its small size of only 5.700 residents, this charming town boasts an impressive number of museums, art galleries, craft stores and gourmet eateries, plus a live theater and multiple music venues. One of the town’s biggest attractions is the Homer Spit, a thin strip of land that juts out into the bay and provides opportunities for fishing, beach camping, and wildlife viewing, as well as top-notch shopping and dining. Homer is also known for its relatively mild climate, making it an ideal spot for less rugged types to enjoy the natural splendor and cultural richness of Alaska.
- Why We Recommend It: Natural beauty, outdoor activities, artsy vibes
- Where to Stay: Glacier Bay’s Bear Track Inn, Salmon Riverbend Lodge FIsherman Cabin
Located a mere stone’s throw away from the famously beautiful Glacier Bay National State Park, Gustavus treats visitors to a wide range of outdoor activities, including beachcombing, biking, hiking and, most notably, some of the best kayaking, fishing and marine life viewing that the Inside Passage has to offer. Needless to say, Glacier Bay National State Park is the biggest attraction here. That said, Gustavus has beautiful gardens, quaint shops, and a friendly local community of artists and creative types, so you’d be hard pressed to find a more charming homebase for your outdoor adventures.
- Why We Recommend It: Outdoor activities, hiking, natural beauty, calm and sleepy vibes
- Where to Stay: Bear Country Lodge #1, The Lost Coast Lake House
This tiny fishing community on the east coast of the Prince William Sound has only 2,800 residents, so if you plan a visit, you can expect a true small town experience. That said, Cordova provides easy access to a wide range of outdoor activities, like birding, fishing, kayaking, rafting and even skiing. There are also numerous hiking trails, including the Sheridan Glacier and Mountain Trails, as well as others that start in town and weave through the lush foliage and mountains of Chugach National Forest. The town itself is sleepy and serene, so don’t expect much in the way of gallery hopping or shopping here, but the surroundings are gorgeous and the seafood is always fresh.
- Why We Recommend It: Marine life viewing, outdoor activities, natural beauty, amenities
- Where to Stay: Blueberry Haven, Seward 360 Hotel
Seward serves as the gateway to Kenai Fjords National—a 587,000-acre expanse known for its stunning tidewater glaciers, coastal fjords, and prime marine life viewing and whale watching opportunities. Kayaking, flightseeing, charter fishing, glacier cruises, and dog sled tours are among the many ways to explore the breathtaking landscape. Plus, when the sightseeing is complete, visitors can avail themselves of the considerable amenities that Seward has to offer, including boutique hotels, well-equipped, in-town camping spots and a fine selection of stores and restaurants.
- Why We Recommend It: Northern Lights viewing, winter activities, natural attractions, urban amenities
- Where to Stay: The Farmhouse
If viewing the Northern Lights is on your bucket list, Fairbanks is the place to go. Perched at the top of the world, this Arctic gem is known for its auroral activity, which can be experienced any time from August 21 to April 21. Midnight Sun season spans the rest of the year, bringing endless daylight, warm weather and the opportunity for 24-hour adventure. We strongly suggest exploring Denali State Park on foot and the Arctic Circle by plane—and if you plan your trip during the winter months, skiing, tubing and ice fishing should all be on the itinerary. Aside from being the ideal homebase for a diverse range of outdoor experiences, Fairbanks is also the second largest city in Alaska, so there are plenty of creature comforts (think: shopping and fine dining) and cultural attractions to be found year-round.
- Why We Recommend It: Historic, hiking, backpacking
- Where to Stay: The Cable House, Chilkoot Trail Outpost
The Klondike Gold Rush of 1897 completely transformed Skagway—a history that has been preserved in the town’s Old West Style architecture, as well as with the numerous attractions that can be found in the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park. While most tourist activity centers around Skagway’s Gold Rush past, there are outdoor activities to be enjoyed, too. In fact, Skagway is home to an extensive trail system that begins just blocks from the town center and includes day hikes that tour the region’s alpine lakes and waterfalls, as well as the Chilkoot Trail—a four day hike that attracts backpackers from far and wide.
- Why We Recommend It: Historic architecture, quaint downtown, outdoor activities
- Where to Stay: Talkeetna Wood Cabin, Talkeetna Cabins
Here, another jumping off point for folks interested in exploring Denali State Park (and perhaps even conquering America’s tallest peak, if you’re really ambitious). Unlike Fairbanks, though, Talkeetna has a decidedly small town feel that’s equal parts artsy and outdoorsy, and full of charm. In fact, if you’re looking for a more leisurely and less rugged activity, a casual stroll down Main Street—featuring historic buildings, restaurants, shops, art galleries, a brewery and a picturesque riverfront park with views of Denali—might be just what the doctor ordered.
- Why We Recommend It: Resort experience, skiing, hiking, scenic
- Where to Stay: Kelly’s Chalet, Alyeska Resort
Looking for a resort-style getaway and loads of R&R, Girdwood has got you covered. Located just 45 minutes south of Anchorage, this Alaskan town is home to the oh-so luxurious Alyeska Resort, where pampering is always on the menu. There are also plenty of opportunities for light outdoor recreation, such as year round hiking along alpine trails, dog sledding on nearby glaciers and prime downhill skiing (at the aforementioned resort) during the winter months. File this spot under ‘swanky and scenic.’
- Why We Recommend It: Historic architecture, Norwegian culture, whale watching, scenic
- Where to Stay: Wrangell Narrows Seaside Getaway
Petersburg is a bustling waterfront town that boasts a rich Norwegian heritage and breathtaking views of the alpine peaks across the Frederick Sound. Norwegian dancers perform and Norwegian treats are sold all along Sing Lee Alley, a vibrant main drag dotted with historic architecture. Whale watching is one of Petersburg’s top activities, and opportunities for fishing and kayaking abound, too—provided you can tear yourself away from the unique cultural charm of the town center, that is.
- Why We Recommend It: Native culture, wildlife viewing, golfing
- Where to Stay: Fort Wrangell, Scandia House
Situated at the mouth of the Stikine River at the northwest tip of Wrangell Island, this town is renowned for its vibrant Tlingit culture, a taste of which can be enjoyed with a walk through town, where a collection of totems decorate the streets and public spaces. Chief Shakes Island—a grassy oasis that features totems, tribal houses, and a multitude of native cultural artifacts—is particularly noteworthy (and conveniently accessible by foot). There are also many memorable wildlife viewing experiences to be had at the Anon Wildlife Observatory, where visitors can spy everything from eagles and bears, to seals and salmon runs. Avid golfers can also enjoy a unique recreational experience at Musket Meadows, a USGA-certified course where swoon-worthy scenery (think: mountain, ocean and forest views) is guaranteed and wildlife visitors (i.e., bears and ravens) regularly play interference.
- Why We Recommend It: Fishing, birding, scenic
- Where to Stay: Furnished Studio Apartment, Royal Dutch Inn
Unalaska is an Aleutian Island gem and, being surrounded by the Pacific Ocean and Bering Sea, a trophy fisher’s paradise, too. Indeed, Unalaska is a major commercial fishing location and fishing charters take visitors out on the daily to score some seriously record-breaking catches. (300-pound halibut, anyone?) Dry land activities include touring the town’s numerous WW2 historical sites and museums, birding—the avian life on the island is diverse and rare—and hiking the region’s rolling green hills and wildflower fields. Sounds pretty dreamy, right?