This is not your parents' cruise vacation.

By Ashley Mateo
July 29, 2019

For some reason, Alaskan vacations have become synonymous with laidback cruises where you take in the sights from afar. But there's a reason the forty-ninth state was nicknamed the last frontier: It's the kind of place where you can push your physical boundaries for adrenaline-inducing thrills.

Not to mention, no one wants the predictable tourist experience anymore. Sixty-seven percent more travelers booked outdoor activities (things like glacier hiking, bungee jumping, scuba diving, and mountain biking) in 2018 than in 2017, according to recent data. Who wants to just sit on a boat when you could go heli-skiing, white water rafting, or rock climbing on glaciers? And Alaska is one of the most exotic places Americans can do those things—no passport required. Here's how to max out your time up north.

1. Heli-Skiing

You could ski Alyeska Resort's 1,610 skiable acres. Or you could take things up a notch at one of Alaska's heli-skiing lodges, like Winterlake Lodge or Tordrillo Mountain Lodge, which is co-owned by heli-ski pioneer Mike Overcast and Olympic gold medalist Tommy Moe. These spots tend to be pretty remote to start (Winterlake and TML are each about 45 minutes from Anchorage by floatplane), and they'll fly you to slopes in the Alaskan range that may have never felt another human's skis. Points North Heli-Adventures will take you to the remote southeastern side of the Chugach Mountains; Alaska Snowboard Guides will take you up to Thompson Pass, the snowiest place in Alaska; and Welcome to Alaska Heliskiing offers pay-per-run packages.

2. Glacier Trekking

Perched on a nunatak 6,000 feet above a 35-square-mile glacial amphitheater inside Denali National Park, Sheldon Chalet—which is only accessible by ski plane or helicopter—is one of the best places to base yourself for glacier trekking in Alaska. It's a half-mile trek from the chalet down to the glacial floor, where you'll strap your snowshoes on and rope up to a guide for safety (just in case a crevasse opens up). It's slow going to cover even a couple of miles on a snow-covered glacier, but you'll feel the altitude and the burn in your legs. The workout feels even more impressive, though, when you finally get a handle on just how far you've come—the vastness of the landscape and the immensity of the surrounding mountains really warps your perspective. (Related: Adventure-Travel Destinations Perfect for Your Next Girls' Trip)

3. Fat Tire Biking

There's no shortage of trails across Alaska for fat tire biking—in fact, you don't even need trails in most places. The tires are extra wide for better traction and have filled with less pressure so you can easily ride on top of snow or rocks. TML will fly you and the bikes to ride down Mt. Spurr volcano next to the Triumvirate Glacier, or into a dried-out glacial river valley to navigate the sand and huge chunks of blue ice. The Knik Glacier area in the Mat-Su Valley is one of the most popular spots for biking, as well as the Sheep Mountain area along the Glenn Highway National Scenic Byway, Hatcher Pass, and Denali State Park—there's not a bad view in the bunch. (Related: Breckenridge Is the Winter Sports Vacation Destination You Need to Know About)

4. Rafting

Even if you've rafted in the lower 48 before, nothing compares to Alaska's rivers—and that's thanks to all that glacier runoff. You can opt for a more intense white-water rafting adventure on Six Mile Creek, just 90 minutes from Anchorage on the Kenai Peninsula with Chugach Outdoor Center, or a tamer scenic run with just a taste of rapids on the Nenana River near the entrance of Denali National Park with Denali Raft. Or if you really prefer to chill, just paddle around the icebergs at Spencer Glacier with Alaska Rafting. For people who come seeking trout and salmon, Fish and Float Alaska offers the best of both worlds with multi-day rafting and fishing adventures.

5. Climbing

At 20,310 feet, Denali is the highest mountain peak in North America—which makes the area a mecca for climbing enthusiasts. But if you don't have summit fever (or aren't an experienced climber), there are tons of more accessible routes throughout the state. Tordrillo Mountain Lodge just unveiled the first via ferrata in Alaska, 1,200 feet of cable snaking 900 vertical feet up a granite crag overlooking the 28-mile-long Triumvirate Glacier, 80 miles from the nearest road. The best part: It's beginner-friendly, as long as you aren't scared of heights! There are climbs for every level in between, too, with guiding companies like Mountain Trip and the American Alpine Institute to help you navigate. (Related: 15 Active Volcanoes You Should Climb Before They Blow)

6. Hiking

The best way to get up close and personal with Alaska's incredible environment is on your own two feet. There's everything from Flattop Mountain, a popular three-mile trail within Anchorage city limits and with stunning views of the Chugach Mountains at the top; to Exit Glacier (where you can walk from the forest onto the glacier) and the Harding Ice Field Trail (for better views of the glacier), a 1.8-mile route and a 9.7-mile route you can do together or not depending on your comfort level; to Resurrection Pass, a 37-mile long (one way) trail through Chugach National Forest that's meant for multi-day hiking (don't worry, there are eight public-use cabins and 19 campsites along the way for sleeping).

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