A Season of Discovery

Explore Alaska’s rich culture and history with these family-friendly ideas

By Kelsey Sinclair

Summer is the season to discover all the history and culture our great state has to offer. From forests with towering totems to an abandoned gold rush camp, exploring Alaska is a non-stop educational adventure for the whole family! Here are some family-friendly ideas.

Anchorage & Surrounding Areas

(Photos from left to right: Alaska Native Heritage Center; Anchorage Museum; Eklutna Historical Park)

Introducing kids to Alaska Native culture is a great way to share history and open their minds. At the Alaska Native Heritage Center, families will learn about Alaska Native people through guided tours and cultural performances. Listen to storytellers share stories passed down for generations, entertain the kids with craft projects, and watch performances with dancers of all ages wearing traditional regalia and dancing to the sound of drums. Make sure to see the whale bones at the outdoor Inupiaq village site alongside a beautiful pond, a favorite spot for picture-taking.

To learn more about the state’s interesting past, visit the Anchorage Museum. Families can view hundreds of intricate crafts including ceremonial masks, ivory carvings, animal hide clothing, and tools made from mastodon tusks.

Just outside of Anchorage, take a step back in time with a visit to the Eklutna Historical Park – a true Alaska Native and Russian Orthodox cultural experience, dating back to 1650. The guided tour goes through the site’s Saint Nicholas Church, the oldest standing building in the Anchorage area. Wander among ancient and newer houses, including the colorful Athabascan “spirit houses” built over the graves of the deceased. A visit here offers reverent, teachable moments for children of all ages.

Interior & Fairbanks Area

Hop aboard an authentic Alaskan sternwheeler, the Riverboat Discovery, and take a journey back in time down the Chena and Tanana Rivers. Along the way, families can explore an authentic Athabascan village to learn about early methods of arctic living, and stop at dog kennels once run by four-time Iditarod champion Susan Butcher to watch a team of sled dogs race through the forest.

Fairbanks is also home to world-class museums such as the Morris Thompson Cultural & Visitors Center, where visitors can experience Alaska’s rich culture and art. Located only a few minutes from the museum is the unique “Antler Arch,” made up of over 100 moose antlers collected from around the Interior of Alaska. Take a cool break from the summer heat at the Fairbanks Ice Museum and walk among captivating ice sculptures and watch ice carvers at work on their next chilly masterpiece.

Other must-see cultural museums include the University of Alaska Museum of the North in Fairbanks where a giant wooly mammoth skull and tusks steal the show, and the Fairbank’s Children Museum where children can learn about science, history and culture through interactive exhibits.

Let gold fever strike your family at the El Dorado Gold Mine, where you can learn how to pan for gold – and find some! Ride a narrow gauge train through a permafrost tunnel and learn how early mining took place in Alaska. Find more great treasures in the gift shop: free cookies and hot chocolate!

Kenai Peninsula

The beautiful Kenai Peninsula is not only an oasis for outdoor activities but also historical and cultural learning experiences. After burning some calories on the hiking trails, visit the breathtaking Holy Assumption of the Virgin Mary Church in Kenai. A relic of Alaska’s Russian settlers, the church was rebuilt in 1896 as a tribute to the previous perish, which served the community for nearly half a century. The exterior is an example of classic Russian architecture, while the interior is stuffed with religious and historical artifacts.

While exploring Homer and its ecologically rich environs, a stop at the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies will add to your family’s appreciation of the history and wildlife of the area. The Center offers a wildlife cruise to Peterson Bay on the far side of Kachemak Bay where you can spend the day with a naturalist, exploring and learning about marine life, geology, climate zones and prehistoric Natives. Poking around the tide pools is another fun activity for all ages.

In picturesque Seward, adventure seekers can take a Kenai Fjords Cruise around remote islands and glaciers before stopping at Fox Island for a meal of wild salmon and an informative talk by a National Park Service Ranger. After earning your sea legs, step back in time at the Seward Community Library and Museum. Although small, this museum is packed full of stories and artifacts about everything from the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race to the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Southeast Alaska

There’s gold in them thar mountains – the mountains around Skagway to be exact! Take a trip back in time to Alaska’s gold rush era and experience the miner lifestyle in Skagway by taking a tour on the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad. Tour guides narrate the stories of the hearty miners as the train winds through narrow tunnels and between towering mountains and crystal clear lakes. After the train ride, look around the Depot to see historic artifacts from the gold rush.

After departing Skagway, head south to the Sitka Totem Park to learn about local Alaska Native culture. Visitors can wander amid totems scattered through the forest with ravens yakking to each other in the canopy as tour guides explain the cultural and historical significance of the poles. The park itself is a piece of history, as it was the site of an early 19th century battle between Russian traders and the indigenous Kiks.ádi Tlingit. The park preserves both the history of Alaska Natives and of Russia’s past influence in Alaska.

Visit another totem park in Ketchikan to wander amid towering totem poles at the Totem Heritage Center, which houses a collection of original 19th century totems created by the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian people. The totem poles are in their original state and unrestored and are on average 150 to 175 years old.

At the nearby Totem Bight State Historical Park, visitors can see restored totems as well as new totems that are being created as the craft is passed down through the generations. Tour guides show visitors around the park and teach about the cultural importance of the towering totems.

Mat-Su Valley Area

Another relic of Alaska’s gold rush, the Independence Mine (at right) State Historical Park in Palmer gives visitors a glimpse of harsh life on the frontier. Located between mountains in Hatcher Pass, visitors can wander around the abandoned mining camp as well as the Visitor Center and museum. The state has worked to preserve the 22 buildings that remain, and offers daily guided tours of the mine site.

Nestled between nearby mountains, Wasilla is home to several museums and historical sites such as the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race Headquarters, Museum of Alaska Transportation and Industry, and the Dorothy G. Page Museum.

Talkeetna is not only a hotspot for mountain climbers (think Denali!) but also for those just stopping by. The Walter Harper Ranger Station is a must-visit attraction, full of historical climbing gear, a small film theater and enthusiastic rangers eager to share stories about the famous climbers who’ve scaled the nearby peaks. (The station is named for Walter Harper, an Alaskan Native who became the first person to summit the mountain in 1913.) Also check out the Talkeetna Historical Society Museum where you’ll find exhibits and stories of native peoples, gold seekers, trappers and more. Don’t miss the room-sized scale model of Denali!

In Talkeetna, with its beautiful backdrop of Denali, learn about the history of the mountain’s most famous climbers.