Knowing Alaska’s Geography Helps When Planning a Family Vacation in the 49th State

See this map? It floated around social media outlets for quite a while, and always makes me laugh. Alaska is big, really, really big, and after decades of inadequacy, finally someone got it right.

As I’ve been making the rounds of local bookstores and community organizations these past few weeks, plugging sales for Alaska On the Go: Exploring the 49th state with children, many questions about planning, geography, and terminology have come my way.

Lots of people have tried to see the entire state of Alaska in a week, myself included. The first time I visited, well before the age of smartphone apps and a GPS, a friend and I decided to rent a camper van and “see Alaska.” We saw a lot, truly, but most of it was from one of two major highways, since we overestimated our time and underestimated Alaska’s sheer depth and breadth.

Alaska is unofficially divided up into geographical regions, each with unique characteristics and activities. Below are a few highlights with a snapshot of kid-friendly fun to to suit your own youngsters’ sense of adventure. It’s funny; when we first arrived in Alaska, I’d hear people talk about “Southeast” and Ssouthcentral” and was instantly confused. I had a lot to learn, and hopefully this informaton will help make plans easier for your family.

Stunning Valdez harbor, “Where the Mountains Meet the Sea.” Erin Kirkland/AKontheGO

Catch a big one in Valdez, home of the terminus for the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, and really cool salmon! Erin Kirkland/AKontheGO

Southcentral Alaska: Known as “Southcentral” to locals, this is an area stretching from the Canadian border to the east, from the Gulf of Alaska to Cook Inlet and west, past Lake Clark National Park and Preserve. This is also home to Alaska’s largest city, Anchorage, at the end of Cook Inlet, a shipping lane and access point for the Kenai Peninsula, our favorite playground. Also included in Southcentral is the Matanuska-Susitna Valley, a bedroom community of Anchorage and a rich agricultural land. Many people choose to start and/or end their Alaska vacation in Anchorage, where resources are many and transportation options plentiful.

Activities here include fishing, boating, excellent hiking, and access to a plethora of historical opportunities ranging from museums to Native Alaskan cultural centers. Families will enjoy a wealth of local trails, parks, and easily-found recreational sites, thanks to the Seward and Glenn Highways. Day cruises that explore Resurrection Bay or Prince William sound are popular in the towns of Seward and Whittier, on the Kenai Peninsula.

Alaska’s many Native groups are windows to the state’s cultural stories. Erin Kirkland/AKontheGO


AK Mom hides in the root system of an ancient spruce tree in Sitka National Historical Park, Southeast Alaska.

Southeast Alaska: Snuggled up tight against British Columbia and the Yukon Territory of Canada, this “Panhandle” of Alaska is where all northbound cruise ship visitors and ferry riders capture their first glimpse of the Last Frontier. Towering evergreen trees, abundant rain, and salt water are everywhere. Boating is a part of daily life here, and many communities are inaccessible by car, making the Alaska Marine Highway System (ferry) a vital link to larger cities like Juneau, Alaska’s state capital.

Activities in Southeast are rich in culture, especially that of the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian people. Take time to explore Native traditions of Southeast, it’s worth the time in destinations like Ketchikan, Wrangell, Juneau, Haines, and Sitka. Take a kayak trip out of Ketchikan or explore mighty Mendenhall Glacier near Juneau, and watch for black and brown bears fishing in rushing salmon streams. Savor the atmosphere, too; the rainforests of Southeast are like none other, so try ziplining above or hiking beneath these towering Sitka Spruce or Hemlock trees.


The Trans-Alaska pipeline is an engineering marvel, and a must-see when visiting Fairbanks. Erin Kirkland/AKontheGO

Driving to Fairbanks is a fun (albeit long) trip, but worth it for the roadside pullouts offering views of nearby valleys and mountains, like this one near Tanana Valley. Erin Kirkland/AKontheGO

Interior Alaska: The central region of the state is a majestic example of the Alaska people often picture in their minds. Towering mountains, vast rivers and valleys make up the Interior, especially Denali, North America’s highest peak (note: It’s just “Denali,” not Mount Denali or Mt. Denali). It’s cold in the winter and can be hot and dry in the summer, especially near Fairbanks, and visitors are treated to the aurora borealis and famous Midnight Sun. The Athabascan People have thrived on this land for centuries, and are proud of their heritage; operating fish camps and living a subsistence lifestyle in a somewhat nomadic structure.

Activities include alpine hiking near Denali National Park, wildlife viewing, kayaking, mountain biking, and camping within full view of mountain ranges and rolling tundra. Bugs can be nasty here, so come prepared, but the rewards far outweigh the itching, at least in our book. Check out the Denali Highway if you’re feeling particularly adventurous, but be aware it’s a dirt road and takes a long time to cross. We love camping in the Interior.


There’s no place like Nome, Alaska. And for such a remote town, plenty of activities exist to instill a sense of historical wonder in your kids. Erin Kirkland/AKontheGO

One of our favorite times to visit Nome is during the late summer/early fall (remember, that is early August and September for this area), for the deep reds and shades of gold. Erin Kirkland/AKontheGO

The Bush: Not really a place, per se, Bush Alaska is more of a state of being, with subsistence living being the norm for a mostly Alaska Native resident base. For many visitors, Bush Alaska is the one they’ve seen on National Geographic or Discovery Channel, not to mention the finish of the famous Iditarod Sled Dog race in Nome. It’s a place in stark contrast to other, more populated areas, but that’s what we like. Wild, beautiful, and off the road system (and sometimes off the grid), Bush Alaska is the place to go if you want to show kids what it means to truly live in the Last Frontier. Expensive, sometimes in a cost-prohibitive manner, Bush Alaska requires careful planning and a clear budget.

Activities in this area include the gold-rush community of Nome, where Norton Sound dredging keeps many miners in business, and where sled dogs crowd into the community each March. Our favorite activity in Nome is to enlist the guidance of Richard Benneville, owner of Nome Discovery Tours (find him at the Mayor’s office, because he’s that, too). A former Broadway actor and current Nome historian, Richard is the perfect accompaniment to Nome’s beautiful music. Birdwatching is fabulous in Nome, as is biking the dirt roadways around town. Musk Ox frequent the area, too. Heck, just getting to Nome is interesting via Alaska Airlines and a swing through the town of Kotzebue. The local museum is new and a great look at the community’s history. 

All in all, Alaska boasts a population of around 700,000 people, give or take several hundred. With about that much in square mileage, it’s no wonder that we have plenty of elbow room, and why many visitors become exhausted trying to “see it all.”

My suggestion? Start with one area and focus on the activities important to your family. Who knows? You might find yourselves returning before too long! AKontheGO is also very happy to assist families with their planning; you won’t find anyone more immersed than us! Shoot an email to and we’ll make it happen for you, or your group. 

A more detailed account of Alaska’s geography can be found in Chapter Seven of Alaska On the Go. 

Happy exploring!



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