WHY VISIT ALASKA
Known, appropriately, as the Last Frontier, Alaska is a land of unfathomable natural beauty, a state so vast and wild that parts of it remain unmapped today.
Everything about Alaska nudges the extreme end of the scale. The largest state in the USA, it boasts some 3 million lakes, 3,000 rivers, 100,000 glaciers, and 17 of America’s 20 highest peaks.
These untamed landscapes harbor a diverse range of wildlife, including Kodiak bears, giant moose, and the iconic bald eagle, whose shrill call echoes the grandeur of this state.
For adrenaline junkies, Alaska offers a big hit. Mt McKinley, the highest point on the continent, rises 6,194m (20,320ft) in Denali National Park and tempts climbers from around the world to tackle its snowy peak.
Elsewhere, kayakers paddle beneath jumbo glaciers with humpback whales, while skiers and snowboarders whoosh up the Chugach Mountains by helicopter and glide back down on virgin powder.
Sailors favor the legendary Inside Passage, a scenic coastal route that is becoming increasingly popular with cruise passengers, who can moor up at aboriginal villages and dock at the former Russian city of Sitka. Further afield anglers hunker down in rustic fishing lodges, hooking Pacific halibut and king salmon for supper.
Whatever visitors come for, most kick off their trip in Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city, home to 40% of the state’s population. But it’s not long before they are lured away from the lights and into the vast wilderness, which brings out the trailblazer in even the most sedentary traveler.
WHAT TO SEE IN ALASKA
- Katmai National Park and Preserve: this preserve in southern Alaska was named after its centerpiece volcano and is best known for its brown bears and desolate landscape of the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. Covered in ash flow from Novarupta’s 1912 eruption, the valley is filled with many fissures on the ground that resulted from venting steam. While Katmai itself hasn’t erupted since 1927, there is still evidence of volcanic activity in the park. Brooks Camp is the main visitor base where favorite attractions include backpacking, camping, and fishing. However, the most popular pastime here is a brown bear sighting, either via the established bear viewing platforms or on a guided tour.
- Mt McKinley: part of Denali National Park and Preserve, the highest peak in North America rests in Interior Alaska. Mountaineers come from far and wide to climb the mountain, while winter activities such as dog-sledding, snowmobiling and cross-country skiing are popular with all visitors around its base. At 6,194 m high, Mt McKinley makes for a challenging ascent, with climbers on the West Buttress Route typically taking between two and four weeks to reach the summit.
- Mendenhall Glacier: best accessed from nearby Juneau, this 12-mile long glacier can be visited throughout the entire year. The informative Visitor Center receives around 500,000 visitors annually, many of which are cruise ship passengers. Marked trails take visitors around the glacier for wildlife and nature viewing,, but bear sightings are best in the summer months of June through August. Photo Point Trail is the easiest hike at just 0.3 miles long, while the West Glacier Trail takes walkers on a 6.8-mile track along the glacier’s west side. The visitor center can be accessed by car from Juneau in less than 30 minutes for any information or questions you may have.
- Prince William Sound: a popular day cruise spot, the inlet sits off of Alaska’s south coast to the east of the Kenai Peninsula. It offers amazing views of tidewater glaciers, the Chugach Mountains, wildlife such as sea otters, killer whales, and harbor seals, and the many barrier islands that form it. The protected, calm waters of the sound make for a smooth sailing experience amid breathtaking scenery. Most cruises operate from May through September and popular stops include the sea lion rookery at Port Wells, the narrow channel of Esther Passage, and glaciers such as Surprise Glacier.
- Anchorage: Alaska’s most populated city and main air gateway houses around half the state’s entire population. It is no surprise then that Anchorage is a hub of Alaskan culture, with around half a dozen interesting museums. The Alaska Native Heritage Center looks at the traditions and native dwellings of the state’s main cultural groups, while the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center houses objects and artworks related to Alaskan ethnology and history. Just beyond the city limits are populations of grizzly bears, black bears, and moose, making Anchorage a great jumping-off point for short jaunts into the wilderness.
- Kenai Peninsula: this peninsula which juts out from Alaska’s south coast is a prime spot for fishermen and wildlife viewing. Much of the southeast is covered by the Kenai Mountains, which are protected by Kenai Fjords National Park. Salmon fishing in the Kenai River is popular, as is glacier viewing to the south and east. The peninsula is one of the most populated areas of Alaska so visitors are sure to find many accommodation options in its nearby towns and villages.
- Fairbanks: Fairbanks is Alaska’s second-biggest city and one of the state’s few large settlements which are connected by highway and rail, making it a popular travel destination. Creamer’s Field is an excellent bird viewing spot while the University of Alaska Museum traces the history, culture, and nature of the state and includes an exhibit on the Northern Lights, which can be viewed just outside the city in winter. Pioneer Park takes visitors back to the gold rush days and is a must-see for families. Around 60 miles from the city center are the Chena Hot Springs where swimming and wildlife viewing is possible.
WHEN TO GO TO ALASKA
The best period to visit Alaska is from July to August.
Juneau experiences an oceanic climate, while areas in the north of the panhandle, where the state capital is situated, experience subarctic oceanic weather. This is one of the mildest parts of Alaska in the winter months, when temperatures hover above freezing and one of the wettest parts at all other times of the year.
Anchorage also experiences a relatively mild climate by Alaskan standards, partly due to its closeness to the coast. Cool, brief summers and snowy winters are the norm here. In contrast, Western Alaskan weather varies enormously, but on the whole is less cold than one might expect with this region being so far north.
The subarctic Interior sees some of the state’s lowest and highest mercury readings, with temperatures typically ranging from the mid-30’s (°C) to -50°C and little rain. The Arctic climate of the far north means this frigid region experiences lengthy, bitterly cold winters and cool, brief summers with temperatures which are often just a few degrees above freezing and little precipitation.
WHAT TO DO IN ALASKA
Take a small-ship cruise through glaciers
Alaska has the kind of scenery that makes you rethink your relationship with planet Earth. While seeing it all from the bow of a cruise ship is never disappointing, smaller boats can get into bays and up close to glaciers in ways the big ones can’t. Each day on the small ships is unpredictable. You may find yourself bushwhacking your way up to a glacier in the morning, then taking a skiff past a pod of orcas in the afternoon. Still, it’s the safest way to immerse yourself in the untamed wilderness of the Last Frontier, and far more meaningful. Companies like UnCruise run these kinds of expedition voyages.
Following is a list of typical festivals and celebrations of Alaska.
- Tesoro Iron Dog Snowmobile Race: mid-February sees two-man teams depart on two separate snowmobiles from near Anchorage for Nome and then Fairbanks, on a journey of about 2,000 miles in a race that is among the hardest and longest on the planet. The event, which has been running since 1984, follows Alaska’s Iditarod Trail for the first leg to Nome. Participants face challenging winter conditions as they traverse rugged, isolated areas of wilderness.
- Iditarod Trail Invitational: this challenging wilderness race starts in mid-February and sees contestants travel more than 1,000 miles on skis, snowshoes, foot, and bicycles in bitterly cold winter conditions. Few participants successfully complete the route, with often just half of all who enter completing the first leg from Knik to McGrath and often only a handful making it to the finish line. Applicants must complete a winter training camp program in Alaska before entry to the competition.
- Tour of Anchorage Nordic: this popular cross-country ski race crosses the city of Anchorage on a journey of 50 km each March. Anyone can participate, from child to old age, with up to 2,000 contestants typically taking part and huge crowds cheering them on. The route takes contestants past University Lake, Westchester Lagoon, and Point Woronzof before finishing at Kincaid Park.
- BP World Ice Art Championships: hosted in Fairbanks in March, this Alaskan event has been running for more than 20 years and now hosts over 70 teams each year. The month-long event held at Ice Park draws more than 45,000 visitors per annum. Aside from the sculpture competitions, there are many attractions to hold the attention of kids, including slides and a kids’ park.
- Arctic Man Ski & Sno-Go Classic: this extreme winter sports event held near Summit Lake in early April sees teams of skiers and snowmobile drivers competing against one another. The skier descends a 1,700-foot slope before grabbing a rope tied to the snowmobile of his partner which then pulls them up another slope of 1,200 feet, at the base of which is the finish line. A beer tent, live music, and food complement the five-day event.
- Sitka WhaleFest: held in early November in Sitka, WhaleFest is an annual celebration of marine life. Researchers and guest speakers come together for seminars, concerts, and whale-watching, among other activities aimed at protecting Alaska’s marine life.
HOW TO REACH AND TRAVEL THROUGH ALASKA
Getting to Alaska is typically done by air via Anchorage or by cruise via Inside Passage ports, but it is also possible to arrive by car via the Alaska Highway, which enters the state through Canada. With limited road coverage in the state, accessing many points of interest is only possible by air or boat. The Alaska Marine Highway System connects most major ports while inter-state air service, monopolized by Alaska Airlines, is comprehensive yet expensive.
Many locals rely on the Alaska Marine Highway System to get between Southeast, Southwest, and Southcentral communities, with most ferries able to carry vehicles. Additionally, just about all docks where tourists will find themselves will have boats for charter, as well as local ferry services. Traveling by boat is often the best and sometimes the only way to access Alaskan coastal areas.
Inner-city buses in the likes of Anchorage are a great way to save money, with fares very reasonable. The city’s PeopleMover bus system offers one or two buses an hour on most routes. Fairbanks and Juneau also have cheap bus services.
Inter-city bus services like Denali Motorcoach and Alaska Bus Guy are competitively priced. They offer a comfortable means of traveling between key locations on the state’s road network, such as Denali, Anchorage, and Fairbanks. The Denali Motorcoach offers an express coach service between Denali National Park and Anchorage daily, while Alaska Bus Guy connects the same two destinations. Other bus services operate on the state’s limited road network, but many works on a package tour basis and can’t be hired for private trips.
The Alaska Railroad, which links Seward with the North Pole, is a great way to reach Anchorage, Denali, Fairbanks, Whittier, or Palmer, with its summer passenger services popular among visitors for the breathtaking views.
Main airports are:
GENERAL INFORMATION ON ALASKA
health tips & vaccination: none
local currency: US Dollar
local time zone: GMT-8,-9 (-9,-10)
electricity: type A and type B (120V – 60 Hz)
WHAT TO DO IN ALASKA
Typical food in Alaska
- Smoked salmon
- Caribou stew
- Moose steaks
- Akutaq: Eskimo ice cream
- Sourdough bread
Souvenirs from Alaska
- gold nugget jewelry
- items carved from jade
- handmade clothing and toys
- woven baskets of beach grass, bark, and baleen
- Native sea-oil candles
- beaded mittens and miniature
- hand-carved totem poles