Alaska is the largest state in the U.S. You may be familiar with Juneau, the capital, or Anchorage, the Last Frontier's biggest city by population. Fairbanks, too, is well-known for seeing the northern lights.
But what about Alaska's smaller towns?
There are dozens with a rich history and hard-to-beat natural settings amid glaciers and mountains. They're relatively pristine, home to friendly residents, and the ideal destinations for backcountry hikes or unplugging with a hot cup of cocoa.
The 2009 romcom The Proposal is a classic. Although Massachusetts stands in for Alaska, the movie is set in Sitka, a pedestrian-friendly place you can only get to by ferry or plane.
Alaska's first capital, Sitka, was a Russian settlement formed in 1799, and there's Tlingit history here on Baranof Island, too. The Sitka Summer Music Festival adds verve during Sitka's warmer months, and you'll find lots of artisanal goods to take home.
Be sure to visit Harry's Soda Fountain for nostalgic desserts.
Seward, two hours south of Anchorage, is known for the Kenai Fjords National Park and its stunning glaciers and Harding Icefield, but there's more to this town than these frozen masses.
There's live music, a rehabilitation aquarium, and excellent hiking for all skill levels, and the views are some of the most rewarding in the country.
The Lost Lake trail, with its canyon, wild blueberries, and picnic by the lake, is a neat day hike, and the Mount Marathon Jeep trail offers fabulous Resurrection Bay photo ops. Black and brown bear encounters are possible at Bear Lake trail, so be prepared with your spray and make noise while walking. Tonsina Creek trail is another goodie.
Fans of the series Twilight will know all about Denali, AKA Mt. Mckinley, the highest mountain in North America, since the region provided plenty of food for Edward's allies and fellow veggie vampires.
Wildlife aside, Denali is stunning, and a stay in the pioneering town of Talkeetna will give you a peek of the peak or a chance to summit if you feel so inclined.
Alaska is so vast that many experts recommend flightseeing tours, and this is a great place to book a 90-minute foray. You should also go on a river tour to see the standout natural attractions.
In the Alaskan panhandle, Skagway is a blast from the past.
The period-style architecture and the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park are reminders of the era when gold fields attracted droves of fortune-seekers. You might even hear ragtime music emanating from bar windows. Skagway is also famous for the White Pass and Yukon Railroad.
You can experience an almost endless summer here where the warm weather nights last only six hours long. If you love nature walks, the 33-mile Chilkoot trail with the tramway boiler and exceptional scenery is worth the trip, and events like the Buckwheat Ski Classic, Independence Day, and the Klondike Road Relay are further incentives to visit. Skagway is accessible via road and ferry.
Ketchikan is Alaska's "first city" where the traditional Haida, Tlingit, and Tsimshian cultures still have clan houses, 19th-century totem poles, and reconstructions. A town on Revillagigedo Island near British Columbia, Ketchikan is often a stopping point on cruise ship itineraries, and you can reach it from the Alaska Marine Highway System.
You'll marvel at the colorful wooden stores and homes built on stilts on Creek Street and Tongass Avenue. Hikers have many trails to choose from through the seemingly endless Tongass National Forest, and cabins near the lakes go for affordable rates.
If you're looking for postcard perfection and melt-in-the-mouth seafood, you couldn't do much better than the world's salmon capital.
UNESCO-listed Glacier Bay is an Alaskan gem with iceberg-producing glaciers that defy logic. You can spot wildlife, including orcas, porpoises, seals, sea otters, wolves, and mountain goats.
Most visitors see Glacier Bay via an Inside Passage cruise ship they rarely disembark, but the quaint mountain town of Gustavus is a mere five miles away. It's popular during summer when the 450-strong permanent population welcomes thousands of visitors to the national park.
Gustavus has fantastic kayaking and fishing opportunities, campgrounds, art galleries, and an accommodating climate for all the exploring you're bound to do. The city of Juneau is reachable via a four-hour ferry ride, but it feels like it could be on another planet.
On the tip of the Kenai Peninsula, you'll find Homer and, perhaps, your own odyssey.
It's easy to spend at least two nights in this town; there's much halibut fishing to do if that floats your boat, but if you're not an angler, you can still savor the quietude of a place dubbed "the end of the road" and enjoy life's simple pleasures.
Go sailing, clamming, birding, or frolicking near wildflower meadows. The air is clean and a delight to suck into your lungs. Take a 45-minute ferry to the other side of Kachemak Bay to sample more of the Alaskan way of life.
Girdwood is a ski resort town 30 miles from Anchorage that's considered a winter destination with dog sledding and ATVs in the mix too, but the spring carnival is also exciting. In summer, you can give white water rafting a bash to get the adrenaline flowing.
Don't leave without checking out the rare bore tide and hopping on the Alyeska Aerial Tram for gorgeous vistas.
Another southern Alaska highlight, Valdez, is a remote town on Prince William Sound. The landscape is so pretty; you'll have many reasons to pull your camera out, including getting unique pics with fewer tourists around.
Does Exxon Valdez ring a bell? The 1989 oil spill took a toll on the local wildlife, but the plants and creatures have mostly bounced back, thankfully.
We have one word for you—bears.
If you love 'em, Kodiak is where you'll find huge brown bears. Timothy Treadwell, the protagonist in Werner Herzog's documentary Grizzly Man, certainly did.
Even better, cruise ships don't come here, so this is as authentic a slice of Alaska as you're likely to see. There's crab fishing, a beautiful Russian church, and WWII relics.