Alaska. The final frontier. At least for America. It’s hard to imagine it as merely a state because it looks so unlike any other part of the country it belongs to. Separated by Canada, Alaska lies on the Arctic Circle, across the Bering Strait from Russia, which means it’s about as close to China as it is to, say, North Carolina. The size of California, Texas and Montana combined yet home to a population that’s comparable to San Francisco’s; so much of Alaska is uninhabitable, and its diversity of landscapes unimaginable. The crush of glacial fjords inland and the curtain of lights overhead, the curious rock formations cast alight by alpenglow; much of the cities and communities of Alaska live under the shadows of some of the tallest peaks in the country. Want to go to Alaska? Get a really, really warm coat. That’s step one. Get used to all manners of travel, whether by boat, plane, helicopter or train, because all modes of transportation are exhausted trying to get from the different islands and through the vast stretches of centuries old impregnable ice. Lastly? Bring a camera. Just don’t expect any photo to look anywhere near as nice the real thing.
One of the most accessible regions in Alaska, Anchorage is special for a lot of reasons. Clocking in at a population of 298,610, it is the largest community in North America in the 60th parallel and contains more than 40% of the state’s total population, though most of the activity centers around of the northwestern tip of the municipality, rather than the overall 1900 square miles that it encompasses, most of it uninhabited. Though there is a downtown, most people don’t go to Anchorage to lounge in cafés, or hit trendy burger shops; not when there’s countless miles of natural terrain to roam and all of the unique wildlife therein. In the winter, Alyeska Resort, Chugach Powder Guides and Alpenglow at Arctic Valley offer gorgeous and diverse ski terrains; while in the summer, visitors like to get on a bike or don their hiking boots and trudge up Glen Alps for an exciting climb up to Powerline Pass, which presents limitless opportunities to spot moose and enjoy more than a few brilliant views of the city. After a hike, it is strongly suggested that visitors head back downtown and hit Humpy’s, a neighborhood watering hole for 20 years running, for a pint of a craft brew and some proper Alaskan salmon.
Getting there: The easiest way for travelers to reach Anchorage is to fly into its airport. Alaska Airlines offers great connections to the west coast via its hub in Seattle.
Located four hours north of Anchorage, the Denali National Park demands a visit from anyone who happens to find themselves in Alaska. The park encompasses staggering six million acres of rugged subarctic terrain (perspective: almost the size of Massachusetts), and the jewel on the crown is Mount McKinley, the tallest peak in North America. From the low-elevation taiga forest to the snowcapped, Alaskan tundra thousands of feet into the sky, Denali is home to a wide range of animal species, including 37 mammals and 130 birds (like the majestic golden eagle). Though hiking is certainly one of the more rewarding ways to traverse this diverse terrain, many bus companies offer rides to Mount McKinley on the one road that ribbons through the forests. A spectacular way to cut across quick is through the Denali Star Train, which passes through spruce forests and rushing rivers, passing communities of wildlife like beavers, grizzlies, salmon shoals, and caribou. As well, visitors can try their hand at dogsledding with Denali Kennels, which provides well-informed guides who explain the history of sled dogs in the development of the park.
Getting there: Perhaps the most interesting way to reach the Denali National Park is to take the scenic Denali Star train from Anchorage. The train runs from Anchorage to Fairbanks via the park. Travel time to Denali from Anchorage is eight hours.
The second largest island in the United States, Kodiak Island is a haven for fishers and seafood lovers. The island offers one of the most unique landscapes and histories in North America, encompassing Fort Abercrombie State Historical Park, a gorgeous ecological spread with both natural beauty as well as remnants of World War II observational and ammunition bunkers to defend against Japanese occupation. Once a large Russian fur trading center, Kodiak is also sprinkled with a number of ornate Russian monuments and Orthodox churches, a cultural touchpoint which was, for most of the area’s earlier history, a source of tension and tragedy for the Native tribes already present on Kodiak island. This rich and bloody history is worth digging up in the museums around the area, like the Baranov Museum as well as the Alutiiq Museum & Archaeological Repository. As well, visitors are encouraged to try sport fishing, as over 1000 fishing vessels currently float around the harbor, catching crab, salmon, dolly trouts, halibut, cod, and even greenling and black rockfish. However, for those more preoccupied with eating fish than catching it, the Old Powerhouse Restaurant is always waiting with a plate of ultra-fresh sashimi on hand.
Getting there: The easiest way to reach Kodiak is to fly from Anchorage. Two airlines make the journey, Alaska Airlines and Era Alaska, which takes about one hour. Travelers can expect to pay about $250 for a round-trip ticket.
The state’s capital, Juneau, is similar to Anchorage: a small, compact downtown area within thousands of miles of mountain ranges, ice fields and sprawling wilderness replete with brown bears, eagles, deer and more. Its location is unique, surrounded on two sides by the waters of Stephen’s Passage and Favorite Channel and hugging the border to British Columbia, allowing plenty of opportunities to a unique array of marine animals like orcas, humpbacks, and seals; and large black bears, particularly by the Admiralty Island National Monument. Visitors can make the most of their time in the glacial abyss by traversing by ski, dogsled or snowboard; while in the summer, it’s reasonably easy to get around via kayaking, hiking, rafting and more. Adventure outfitters are speckled all over the city, so even getting a plane and a helicopter for a lift is just another mode of transportation.
Getting there: Juneau is one of those rare American cities that can't be reached by road - though technically drivers can use a car ferry to reach Juneau. Most, however, will reach Juneau by air via Seattle on either Delta or Alaskan Airlines for around $250 round trip.
Miles off the coast of Juneau, and thus even more remote, Sitka is situated on a series of islands in the Pacific and only accessible via ferry, cruise ship or plane. However, while on this unique glacial island, there’s tons to do and many furry friends to be met, from the inhabitants at the Alaska Raptor Center (a famous bald eagle hospital), to dropping in at the Fortress of the Bear brown bear rescue center. Visitors can also wander around the Sitka National Historic Park, the site of a battle between Russian fur traders and the Kiks.àdi Tlingit people and currently famous for its abundance of historic totem poles. Sitka has museums that further educate people on the history of this coveted land and the traditions within, tons of natural terrain to hike and fish, like the Harbor Mountain Trail, which rises to 1000’ elevation and opens up to terrific views of the Pacific and surrounding islands. As well, adventure outfitter companies around town offers sport fishing charters for visitors interested in dipping their line into some of Alaska’s best saltwater to try to pull out a king salmon or halibut.
Getting there: There are two ways to reach Sitka: by ferry or with Alaskan Airlines. Flights on Alaskan to Sitka aren't cheap, but there are several things travelers can do to get a good deal, like booking on the right day and departing on certain days of the week.
Accessible via a quick plane or boat ride west of Juneau, the Glacier Bay National Park encompasses the world’s largest protected marine sanctuary and the fastest moving glaciers in the world. The wildlife here are ones found nowhere else in the world, in varieties of seabirds, birds, sea lions and whales; all circling and ambling up deep pockets of millennia-old ice, or splashing about deep, placid blue waters. The Glacier Bay National Park occupies over 5,000 square miles, with a wide range of landscapes, scenery, vegetation and wildlife, but it is the over 50 glaciers sitting peacefully in Glacier Bay that make it a truly special place to visit. For the majority of our human history and beyond, the fjord of Glacier Bay was actually a large single glacier, but has since the 18 century retreated and left 20 tributary glaciers – ice configured like crystals and shards, sharp layers and debris embedded in the densely compacted ice. By far one of the most astonishing sights in Alaska, Glacier Bay just demands to be visited.
The largest city in Interior Alaska, Fairbanks is popular destination for Alaskan cruise passengers and has an extremely tourist-friendly culture, with plenty of shops selling native arts and gourmet restaurants. However, beyond the regular trappings of a cruise stop town, the scope to the sky between August and April looks mightily different – where else can you stand directly under the Aurora Oval and see brilliant curtains of green, red, and purple lights emanating from the heavens through crystal clear skies? There are several ways to see the Aurora Borealis, including from a heated cabin, on an overnight sled dog expedition, by snow cat, in a horse drawn sleigh to a vast plain, or on a flight above the Arctic circle, but perhaps the most simple way to capture the lights is just by looking up.
Getting there: Both Era Alaska and Alaskan Airlines make the round-trip journey from Anchorage to Fairbanks for about $200 round trip. Alternatively, the Denali Star train makes the trip in 12 hours via the Denali National Park on a very scenic route.
Photo by Travis S./Flickr.
For most anglers, there is no better place to visit than Soldotna, the King Salmon Capital of the World and home of the world-record holder for the largest king salmon (weighing in at 97 lb 4 oz), but those who enjoy the simple and inherently exhilarating pleasures of roaming the wilds of Kenai Peninsula also have a scenic and convenient home base in this small and central city.
A picturesque little port town at the tip of the Kenai Peninsula, Seward is unique in Alaska for its accessibility – a regular stop-off point for Alaskan cruise companies, the town is also accessible via the Alaska Railroad, as well as the Seward Highway from Anchorage. It is also considered Mile 0 on the world famous Iditarod Trail. While there, visitors have a variety of outdoorsy activities to choose from in any city, from going on boat tours around the Kenai Fjords, or mountain biking around the Chugach National Forest. There’s fishing by charter or over the pier, kayaking Exit Glacier, heli-kayak tours, heli-kayak-dog mushing tours, heli hiking Bear Glacier, and a whole biosphere of wildlife that includes orcas, puffins, otters, eagles, bears and many more animals specific to Alaska.
South of the Alaska Range, roughly 35 miles from Anchorage, the Matanuska-Susitna Valley offers, like the rest of Alaska, plenty of wilderness exploration opportunities which include fishing, hiking, glacier-hunting, and more; while in the rapidly developing towns, visitors can take a real dive into the agricultural heartland and learn about the Matanuska Colony farmers, Alaska native culture and arts, and the heritage of early pioneers in the area’s many museums. The Eklutna Native Historical Park is a particularly unique cultural experience, featuring an old log Russian orthodox Church and a graveyard of Athabaskan Native peoples which are marked by colorful spirit houses.