Considered one of the world’s greatest paddling destinations, there’s no end to Alaska sea kayak adventures. It’s one of the few places in the world where you can paddle past towering icebergs, watch orcas and humpback whales at play and explore the glacial blue depths of ice caves—all in one day.
The northern state is perhaps best-known for its sea kayaking, although it offers whitewater of all classes for more experienced paddlers deep in its remote wilderness. Whatever route you choose to take—whether it’s the calm waters of a glacial lagoon or down fast-moving river rapids—you’ve come to the right place.
From afternoon excursions for beginners to multi-day expert adventures, here are the best places to kayak in Alaska.
Best places to kayak in Alaska
Alaska has a long and rich history of kayaking; qayats, made of animal skins sketched over wooden frames, have been used here by the Indigenous people to hunt marine animals for thousands of years.
It also has plenty of coastline to explore—54,563 km of it, to be precise. But if you’re trying to figure out exactly where to go kayaking in Alaska, it’s best to narrow your search to the southernmost part of the state in the Gulf of Alaska. This is where you’ll find some of the best places to kayak, including:
- Seward’s Resurrection Bay and the nearby Kenai Fjords National Park
- Prince William Sound, which can be accessed from Whittier or Valdez
- Spencer Glacier near Anchorage
- Kachemak Bay outside of Homer
- The Inside Passage, with day trips departing from Sitka and Ketchikan
Kayaking in Seward, Alaska
Located about 2.5 hours south of Anchorage, the city of Seward is tiny (pop. 2,700) but its kayak tours and adventures are a massive operation, extending into nearby Kenai Fjords National Park.
From the edges of Resurrection Bay—considered one of the most reliable places in the world to see marine wildlife—you’ll be well-placed to explore the fjords and valleys of the park, nearly 51% of which is covered with ice. This is where you’ll find tidewater glaciers, icebergs floating on glacial lagoons, towering waterfalls, and plenty of tour operators to take you there.
Best Seward kayak rentals and tours
- The only outdoor adventure company that’s open year-round in the region, Adventure Sixty North offers kayak, camping gear and fishing gear rentals, as well as guided tours to Bridal Veil Falls, Bear Glacier and Aialik Bay.
- A one-stop shop, Miller’s Landing is a secluded fishing camp and adventure outfitter just outside Seward. From accommodations and rentals, to lessons and tours, they’ve got you covered.
- A bit farther afield (one hour north of Seward) is Cooper Landing’s Kenai Kayak Company. A women-led and -owned outfitter, the company rents out kayaks for use on Kenai Lake as well as runs a three-hour tour of the lake, which is ideal for families or beginners.
Kayaking in Homer, Alaska
Homer’s claim to fame may be that it’s the “halibut fishing capital of the world,” but we promise it’s worth the trip for more than the fresh fish. The small city is located near the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge (translation: the waters are plentiful with more than just halibut), Kachemak Bay State Park and multiple fjords.
Some of the most popular trips include paddling around Yukon Island’s Elephant Rock, and kayaking among the icebergs of Glacier Lake. Then again, if you’re really keen on the fish thing, there’s also nearby Halibut Cove.
Best Homer kayak rentals and tours
- Whether you’re looking for remote lodging in Kachemak Bay, a Homer kayak rental or one of the best Homer kayak tours, you’ve come to the right place. Based on Yukon Island, True North Kayak Adventures are experts in the Kachemak Bay area, with itineraries that include Elephant Rock, Eagles Nest and Halibut Cove.
- With Three Moose Kayak Adventures’ full-day Glacier Lake tour, you’ll get close to the face of the 19,000-acre Grewingk Glacier. You can extend your stay at the operator’s lodge, which is located right on the edge of the lake.
Kayaking in Anchorage, Alaska
Anchorage is Alaska’s largest city—but this is a situation where biggest doesn’t necessarily mean best. Unfortunately, there are only a handful of Anchorage kayak tours departing directly from the city’s shores.
Instead, this is the place to get your feet (literally) wet before heading out on an adventure north of 60. One place to do this is on Cook Inlet, with its city skyline views and small population of beluga whales. Then there’s Eklutna Lake, which is about an hour northeast of the city limits. Finally, it’s also the best point from which to access the Spencer Glacier, which we mention in more detail below.
Best Anchorage kayak rentals and tours
- Alaska Outdoor Gear is an outfitter in the truest sense of the word. Regardless of whether you’re looking for an Alaska-grade parka to wear, a sleeping bag for subzero temperatures or an Anchorage kayak rental, this is the place.
- At Eklutna Lake, you can rent a kayak from Lifetime Adventure. Paddle the length of the lake (13 km) and when you reach the other end, switch it up by riding a rental bike back.
- Located outside Anchorage in Chugiak, the family-owned AK Paddlesports hires out kayaks and offers relaxed and family-friendly two-hour guided tours of Beach Lake.
More can’t-miss kayaking tours in Alaska
Best glacier kayaking in Alaska
With an estimated 100,000 glaciers covering a mind-boggling 75,109 km sq, it’s not hard to cool down in America’s 49th state. But finding accessible and safe spots to launch and kayak around icebergs as they calf off glaciers is another matter altogether.
If you’re looking for the best glacier kayaking in Alaska, we recommend visiting Prince William Sound or Seward.
Prince William Sound
On the east side of the Kenai Peninsula is Prince William Sound, a body of water surrounded by the glaciated Chugach Mountains and the United States’ second-largest national forest. The area is renowned for having over 100 named glaciers and flatwater paddling conditions.
The two main departure points from which to explore the Sound and its glaciers are Whittier—about 1.5 hours southeast of Anchorage on the Sound’s western shores—and Valdez, in the Sound’s northeast.
Seward: Aialik Bay & Bear Glacier
Located on the Kenai Peninsula, the city of Seward is the main access point to Kenai Fjords National Park, where the ice-capped mountains rise 2,100 m above the sea. The area is home to the Sargent and Harding icefields; this is where you’ll find tidewater glaciers, which actively calf off icebergs that eventually make their way out to sea.
Two of the most popular spots to paddle are Aialik Bay and Bear Glacier, the latter of which is a remote lagoon that can only be accessed by helicopter or jetboat.
Choosing between the two is a tough decision, but we’ll try to break it down. Aialik has more wildlife viewing opportunities (you’ll spend more time on the water), including bears, orcas, humpbacks and eagles. Bear Glacier, however, has calmer conditions, larger-than-life icebergs and the largest glacier in the national park area. The only real solution? Do both.
Kayak with glaciers tours
- Based out of Whittier, the family-owned Lazy Otter Charters has year-round tours and kayak rentals. Their full-day guided kayaking expedition takes paddlers through the iceberg-strewn Blackstone Bay and around Blackstone Glacier.
- Alaska Sea Kayakers is also based out of Whittier. Their best-selling backcountry destination is Blackstone Bay, where you paddle through ice floe surrounded by seals, otters and eagles.
- If you’d prefer to paddle Prince William Sound from Valdez, contact Pangaea Adventures. They offer beginner-level day trips to both the Columbia Glacier—the largest tidewater glacier in Prince William Sound—and the beautiful Shoup Glacier.
- Working on a limited budget and can’t afford the helicopter ride to Bear Glacier? Seward’s family-owned Liquid Adventures has the perfect solution—it delivers kayakers up the glacial river to the lagoon by a high-speed jetboat.
Where to kayak in ice caves in Alaska
There’s a reason people get so excited when they talk about the surreal blue interior of Alaska’s ice caves. It’s an ethereal experience that will leave you with chills, of both the literal and figurative variety.
Found beneath or beside glaciers, these caverns are usually formed when flowing water creates a channel or pathway and then refreezes. That’s also why seeing them isn’t a guaranteed experience—glaciers are dynamic and continually moving. With that in mind, here are some of the best opportunities to see them:
Mendenhall Ice Caves
One of the most famed places to walk inside these cerulean blue caves is just outside Juneau, the state’s capital, at the Mendenhall Ice Caves. The kicker is that the best way to get to them is by kayaking—and we don’t say that by way of a complaint. (Just to be clear though, you’re not paddling into the caves; you’re kayaking to a point near the glacier and then continuing your journey on foot.)
Located about 100 km from Anchorage in Chugach National Forest, the Spencer Glacier is only accessible by taking a train ride and then kayaking to the glacier’s crevasses and ice caves.
Kayak in ice cave tours
- Whether Chugach Adventures uses kayaks or rafts to access Spencer Glacier depends on the seasonal access point—but either way, you’re in for an epic adventure with its small group glacier trek tours.
- Ascending Path works in partnership with the Alaska railroad to operate a half-day kayak tour of Spencer Lake, where you’ll touch icebergs and hike to the face of Spencer Glacier.
- Above and Beyond Alaska is perhaps best known for its canoe trips to the Mendenhall Ice Caves, where after paddling across the water you’re guided into the deep, blue wells of moulins and ice caves. However, if a kayak is your watercraft of choice, you can arrange an exclusive tour into the blue.
Kayak with whales in Alaska
During the summer, Alaskan waters and marine parks are a fertile feeding ground for a population of thousands of humpback whales that breed in Hawaii during the winter months—and there’s no better way to see them than from the water. And that’s not even making mention of the orcas, fin whales, grey whales, sea lions, puffins and otters that also make the Alaskan coastline their home.
According to Alaska.org, this commercial fishing town on an island south of Cook Inlet “may be the state’s best kept whale-watching secret.” Yes, it has the brown bears and salmon you’ve come to expect from Kodiak, but it also has grey, humpback and fin whales.
Considered one of the most reliable spots for whale-watching, including for spotting orcas, Seward’s Resurrection Bay is protected, making for a rich marine ecosystem. If fins aren’t your thing, it’s also home to otters, sea lions and puffins.
Kayak with whales tours
- Kodiaks Wild Side offers some of the Kodiak area’s best whale-watching. Long-time local and wildlife photographer Wendy Eskew is renowned for delivering marine mammals to her guests, including orcas, fin whales, humpback whales, bears, mountain goats, puffins, seals, otters and more.
- Winner of the 2020 TripAdvisor Travelers’ Choice Awards, Kayak Adventures Worldwide is committed to sustainability and ethical wildlife interactions. It has several Seward kayak tours, but its most popular day trip combines a wildlife-watching tour by boat with seeing a glacier up close by kayak.
Bucket list trips for sea kayakers in Alaska
Kayaking the Kenai Peninsula
If you have one takeaway after reading this article, it’s likely that the Kenai Peninsula—with its massive tidewater glaciers, 2,100-m mountain peaks and rushing rivers—is where you’ll get your fix of both wildlife and icebergs.
If you’re having difficulty narrowing it down to one tour, though, we don’t blame you. That’s where Expedition Engineering’s Kenai Peninsula Kayak Expedition comes in. This greatest hits tour packs paddling past feeding bears, touring ice caves and arches, and exploring remote wilderness locations all in 16 days.
Kayaking the Inside Passage
Kayaking the Inside Passage—the 1,600-km route between Skagway, Alaska and Puget Sound, Washington—is a bucket list trip for many paddlers. Couple its calm waters with thousands of islands, coves and bays to explore, and you have the trip of a lifetime. Unfortunately, it’s only for those with experience under their belt and time to spare—the whole journey typically takes somewhere between 60 and 80 days to complete.
If you don’t have months to spare but want a taste of what the Passage has to offer, Sitka Sound Ocean Adventures operates custom multi-day expeditions, half-day and full-day tours in the area.
When to kayak in Alaska
High season in Alaska—when campsites book out and it’s harder to experience true wilderness on the busy waterways—falls during the summer school holiday months of July and August.
Mid-May until mid-June is the best time to avoid the crowds—and the mosquitoes. Late August or September is another good option, but keep in mind that weather conditions grow more unpredictable as autumn approaches. Heading out later in the season requires keeping a close eye on the weather forecast.
What to wear kayaking in Alaska
Even in the summer months, the temperature can range from an average low of 3º Celsius (37º F) to an average high of 22º C (71º F). You’ll want to exercise all the basic principles of dressing for the elements (we outline these more fully in our article What To Wear Kayaking).
Layers—including a high-quality top waterproof layer—are key, and as you likely already know, “cotton kills.” Instead, choose fabrics with natural water-repelling qualities such as wool. Dress for the temperature of the water (about 10º C) not the air. Finally, don’t let the cool climate fool you—sun protection is a must even in the Arctic. After all, the sun stays up a lot longer in the northern latitudes.
Kayaking in Alaska provides experiences that few other places on Earth offer. | Photo: State of Alaska // Brian Adams