Alaska Travel, USA

A double rainbow in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Alaska, USA

A double rainbow in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Alaska. Photo by Eric Rolph.

Why Alaska Travel?

This is the biggest state in the USA by far and many Americans consider it to be practically a foreign country with so few roads but such enormous and little-explored wilderness areas, monumental peaks and glaciers, abundant wildlife and spooky northern lights.

If you enjoy the unspoilt outdoors and are looking for big, bleak mountains, crystal lakes, massed trees and more wild things than people, then Alaska travel offers the bear necessities, but don’t ignore winter time, when the pristine whiteness becomes a huge snowy playground with even fewer tourists, lower prices but lots of activities.

This is a place to discover raw and pristine nature, not museums or man-made sights; it’s also the only part of the USA within the Arctic Circle but is under threat from road building for mining and oil extraction so get there before the bulldozers do.

A McKinley hiker, Alaska, USA

Mt McKinley, a popular hiking region. Photo by Kent Miller.

Downsides

• It’s very cold and inhospitable for much of the year while the wilderness areas are massive so if things go wrong you’re a long way from help, so it’s serious self-sufficiency if you’re not travelling with a tour or package.
• mosquitoes thrive in the summer.
• Alaska is a long drive from the USA. Even Seattle to Anchorage is 2, 200 miles (3, 500kms) – though you could put the motor on a ferry from Bellingham to Haines – so a flight and vehicle hire may be required.
• Many consider an inclusive tour or cruise to be the best way to visit this monster destination.

Alaska best seasons

The weather in this part of the world is erratic to say the least but place your bets on the best months: mid-May to September (though there may still be mud or slush on some trails and Denali NP only opens late June). Early September provides best weather, best prices and least trouble booking stuff. July is good and warm but getting ‘crowded’ while August can be wet and will be busy (by Alaskan standards).
Worst: October, November, April due to constant freezing rain, mud and slush.
December-March is extremely cold but splendidly white as communities drag out their skis, snowshoes, sleds and fire up their dogs, while skies go psychedelic with Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis).
n. b. many tourist facilities don’t open till mid May and some not until June but winter sports are good value and hotels cheap.

Alaska Travel: Main attractions

Bearing in mind the staggering size of Alaska, it’s not advisable to try to do it all in two weeks, particularly since each of the two main tourist areas – Southeast and South central Alaska – offer the same basic attractions of huge mountains, spectacular views, glaciers, wildlife, attractive little towns and well-organised hiking trails.
Getting to these two tourist-friendly zones is relatively straightforward outside winter. Adventures further afield are more complicated, time consuming and expensive.

The White Pass and Yukon Route railroad train near Fraser, Alaska, USA

The White Pass and Yukon Route railroad train near Fraser. Photo by Nils Oberg.

• White Pass and Yukon Route railroad is a spectacular vintage tourist train ride that starts or finishes at Skagway. White Pass is a mountain pass on the route from Alaska into Canada’s British Columbia. The train may or may not use a vintage locomotive and runs either to White Horse, which is 107 miles away (172 kms) or to Carcross which is 68 miles away (108 kms).

• fantastic high and low views from the Seward Highway and Alaska Railroad as they struggle across the Chugach Mountains.

• taking eye-boggling hikes and bike rides among pristine white peaks as far as the eye can see.

• boat/ship cruises or kayaking through the fjords, near the awesome Grand Pacific Glacier, or any one of Alaska’s many glaciers.

• the swirling magic of Auroras (Northern Lights) colours (mainly in winter, Fairbanks Sept-April is good).

• watching bears fishing for salmon and humpback whales leaping. Humans fishers seem to be content too.

• see genuine native Ketchikan totem poles in the Tlingit homeland.

Southeast Alaska

Thousands of islands and a thin stretch of mainland running along the western edge of Canada make up a route known as the Inside Passage. This is the nearest part of Alaska to Washington State.

Many short vacation visitors will fly into Anchorage then make another short air hop over to one of the Southeast’s tourist centres, such as Sitka or Gustavus.

For road warriors, if coastal Highways 1 and 101 from Mexico to Canada weren’t enough of an ultimate west coast road trip, then take the Alaskan Ferry from Bellingham, British Columbia to carry on up north.

The state ferry links the main islands of the Southeast to the start of the Alaskan Highway and interconnects with the South central and Southwest regions during the summer, so this is a fun and economical way to see some magnificent fjords, mountains and glaciers, stopping off from time to time for a walk or kayaking.

Sitka on Baranof Island (flight) is a charming, historic town with a Russian cathedral, castle and other relics left over from Russian colonial days.
Sitka National Historic Park combines native and Russian history with Tlingit Totem Poles and Russian artefacts while whale watching is possible from the city park, especially during the fall, or take a wildlife cruise for close-up action.

Other than whale-watching primary activities are sport fishing, culture tours, biking and hiking.

A glorious day from Sitka on an Alaska Marine Highway System ferry through the fjords gets you to Juneau, with nearby icefield, the Mendenhall Glacier and some superb hiking trails.

Juneau is Alaska’s beautifully located state capital, surrounded by peaks, glaciers, rainforest, fjords, cruise ships and with an interesting old town.
This is the perfect jumping-off point for warm cruises or icy walks around Glacier Bay or Mendenhall Glacier, bear-watching on Admiralty Island or nearby hikes and canoeing, fishing, rafting, biking just about everywhere. There are over 90 hiking trails around Juneau. Cruise ships frequently visit.
Get there via Alaska Air from Seattle or Anchorage, or via ferry from Haines, Sitka or Skagway, but not by road.

Admiralty Island National Monument is a superb, mountainous wildlife reserve, 96 miles long and the best places in the USA to see brown bears and bald eagles.
The island is a sacred area for Tlingit people who still live on the west coast of the island.
The 32-mile Cross Admiralty Canoe Route – an ancient tribal waterway – is a popular activity destination for canoes and kayaks, as it crosses the island via lakes and rivers with conveniently located shelters on the way.

Haines, tightly girdled by water, glaciers and mountains, makes an excellent hiking, biking, fishing, kayaking, climbing and wildlife-spotting base (especially Black and Brown bears in the Chilkoot area mid-June-September, whales, moose and eagles).
In addition Haines is the major hub to/from Alaska’s Yukon or Interior via the Alaska Highway and from Juneau and Sitka by ferry.

Skagway is a small waterside town with museums and buildings harking back to the 19th C when it was a gold rush town. It’s best offering is the White Pass and Yukon Route railway, a spectacular vintage tourist train ride. The best way to get there is by ferry.

Glacier Bay National Park

Another magnificent area, glaciers obviously but also speckled with islands, mountain peaks and humpback whales in the Icy Strait. Possible activities include camping, hiking, backpacking, kayaking, rafting, fishing, bird-watching, whale-watching, boating/cruising and mountaineering for the really hardy.
From Gustavus, the main town, there are some terrific walks, or head back to the Cove for boat rides to see glaciers and varied marine life or rent a sea kayak for a close look.
Get to Glacier Bay’s Bartlett Cove entry point via a 30 minute flight from Juneau – Gustavus or by boat. No roads.

Revillagigedo Island Saxman Totem Park and Totem Bight State Historical Park for the best in Totem Poles, natural beauty, wildlife and kayaking, Misty Fjords National Monument.

South central Alaska

Aurora borealis (Northern Lights) over Bear Lake, Alaska.

Aurora borealis (Northern Lights) over Bear Lake.

Denali National Park

The main attraction in the region is white-capped Mt Mckinley, the highest mountain on the continent, and the stunning wilderness surrounding it, penetrated by just one road, 91 miles long and used exclusively by public vehicles and shuttle buses, so there may be some queuing to be done.
Denali is terrific for hiking, mountain biking and wildlife watching, including grizzly bears, wolves, moose, marmots and caribou.
Get there via a five hour bus ride from Anchorage, a three hour bus from Fairbanks or the Alaska Railroad from either city.

Wrangell St. Elias National Park

A day’s drive east of Anchorage, this spectacular park encompasses the usual mountains, glaciers, rivers, an endless variety of flora and fauna and abundant wildlife. Covering over 13 million acres, Wrangell – St. Elias is the largest park in the U. S. A.

Katmai National Park

South-west of Anchorage Katmai hosts around 2, 000 brown bears. More

Kenai Peninsula

Mother bear with salmon and cubs in Kenai Wildlife Refuge, Alaska, USA

Mother bear with salmon and cubs in Kenai Wildlife Refuge.

The southern edge of the Kenai Peninsula holds the Kenai Fjords National Park encompassing the Harding Icefield and stunning Exit Glacier with great hikes, kayaking and boat trips.

Seward town, just south of the Cook Inlet and 130 miles south of Anchorage, is a good route to the park and loaded with activity information and has the excellent Alaskan Sealife Center.
Buses from Anchorage take a couple of hours or the glamorous train takes 4. 5 hours.

Kodiak Islandthis is worth a special trip for wildlife enthusiasts to see the massive Kodiak Brown Bears.

Prince William Sound the first ferry stops in the region are Valdez, Cordova and Whittier, on the coast of the Sound. There are several islands, plenty of marine wildlife and no shortage of mountains, with kayaking or boat cruises as the primary entertainment hereabouts.
Pass through the oil pipeline terminus town of Valdez to reach the mountain wilderness of Wrangell St Elias Park.
Whittier has a train to Anchorage, and Cordova has skiing in splendid surroundings.

Homer

**Homer is another gorgeously situated little town right at the end of the USA’s hard-top road system, on Kachemak Bay and embedded among a cluster of snowy peaks. Homer, however, offers more than just the usual run of magnificent outdoor activities – their special niche is art, artists and new age hippies, styling themselves as the ‘Cosmic Hamlet by the Sea‘.
Get there by air, a 5 hour bus ride from Anchorage or drive yourself wild.

Interior

This huge plateau running north from the Alaska Range to just below the Arctic Circle is crossed by a multitude of rivers and lakes through the endless tundra and forests.
Rafting and canoeing are popular in the rivers especially in the Yukon and wildlife watching opportunities are good, particularly for wetland birds.

Far North

North of the Yukon river valley most of the region is within the Arctic Circle and pristine wilderness.

Wilderness around the Brooks Mountain Range you will find the Cape Krusenstern National Monument, Noatak National Preserve, Kobuk Valley National Park and Gates of the Arctic National Park.
There is a gravel road which runs all the way to the coast and meets the Arctic Ocean at Prudoe Bay, but to explore the Arctic National Park you will need to fly to Bettle, and for the Bering Strait, Nome would be your home.

Alaska Activities

Summer

• Hiking: with too many amazing trails to list, Alaska travel is really a hiker’s heaven, well, apart from those little devil mosquitoes and some quite steep sections!

• Biking: there’s a huge number of bike and more especially mountain bike tracks in Alaska, with varied tours available locally, some guided, some self-guided cycle tours and some mixed with a bit of trekking or kayaking or both. Many cycle routes start in Anchorage – because it’s Alaska’s tourist gateway – while some favoured areas are Haines, Skagway and Seward. If in doubt or can’t make up your mind where to go biking do your face-to-face research in Anchorage.

• Sea Kayaking: mainly around the rugged coastline of islands and fjords in the southern regions, there’s plenty of availability since most towns are on the water’s edge.

• Whitewater Rafting and Canoeing: the Nenana River, Kenai River and Matanuska River are where the main action happens.

• Fishing: lodges and incredible salmon fishing at Kenai River (including King Salmon); Bristol Bay; Copper River Delta (Cordova) for trout, salmon and few other anglers; Kodiak Island, some of the best salmon fishing in the USA; Halibut from Homer (huge fish, huge charter fleet)

• Cruising: this is a very easy option, all the comforts of a hotel yet surrounded by magnificent views and generally with shore excursions, walks and knowledgeable guides.

Winter

Dog sledding in Alaska, USA

Denali winter dog sledding. Photo by Jacob W.

• Dog Sledding: otherwise known as mushing, four or six dogpower is a fascinating but strenuous way to travel. Rent your own pooches but no cuddling. March’s Iditarod  race, Anchorage to Nome is the ultimate test.

• Skating, Downhill and Cross Country Skiing, Snow Shoe Shuffling and Snowmobiling: all are widely available and good value as winter is the low season for obvious reasons, cold and dark, but lively.

Alaska Travel: Winter Destinations

Anchorage is easy to fly into and has a lively winter culture program including mad competitions in February/March, such as the Fur Rendezvous and Iditarod dog-sled racing, as well as good access to lake skating, dog sledding tours and training, downhill skiing and cross-country skiing. Not to mention eco-nasty snowmobiles.

• Girdwood’s Alyeska Resort, Alaska’s best ski resort, in a gorgeous setting.

• Chena Hot Springs (90 mins from Fairbanks) for winter activities, hot springs and Northern Lights.

Sitka for culture, whales in early winter and the white stuff.

Wildlife

Whale Watching (along with orcas, otters, seals): Humpback whales and other marine animals constantly frolic around Alaska’s coastline but especially June-Sept, and particularly near Sitka’s city park (Whale Festival in early November), Petersburg (Frederick Sound), Gustavus (Icy Strait, Glacier Bay NP (Bartlett Cove), Seward (Kenai Fjords NP) and Valdez/ Whittier/ Cordova (Prince William Sound). For Belugas try the Cook Inlet.

Bears enjoying the best of the summer vegetation in Denali National Park, Alaska, USA

Bears foraging in a Denali springtime. Photo by Jacob W. Frank

Bear Watching: Brown, black and grizzly bears are the main sightseeing targets and there are plenty around, particularly during the July-September salmon running seasons.
There are particularly good viewing points at: Denali NP; Brooks Camp, Katmai NP; Pack Creek (Admiralty Island); Wrangell (Anan Wildlife Observatory); Kodiak Island (difficult to reach).

Alaska Festivals and Events

February, Fur Rendezvous, Anchorage.
March, Iditarod Dog Sled Race, Anchorage to Nome.
March, World Ice Carving Championships, Fairbanks.
mid-March, Bering Sea Ice Golf Classic in Nome, green greens but everything else is distinctly white and slippery.
late March, Pillar Mountain Golf Classic in Kodiak. An even odder game than the Ice Golf, with 1 hole, par 70, 500m (1500ft) up a mountainside. Both games would be dinner party conversation winners.
June 21, Midnight Sun Baseball in Fairbanks, with no lights.
late June, Polar Bear Swim in Nome, so long as the ice has opened up. There’s no place like Nome.

Native Culture

• Ketchikan, totem poles in the Tlingit homeland. . . more
• Sitka, excellent Tlingit totem poles and native art
• Anchorage’s Alaska Native Heritage Center, a museum celebrating native culture with exhibits as well as live shows, dance, music and meetings.
• Inupiat Heritage Center in Barrow, another lively native display and meeting place.

Alaska Travel: Safety

Women
Generally Alaska travel is pretty cool but large towns and cities have a bad reputation for sexual assaults, probably due to the disproportionate number of wild males on the prowl, so women should take care walking alone in the evenings, even if it’s a late-sunset summer day.

Bears and Moose
Not normally a danger but take the usual precautions. Keep food in sealed containers away from camp sites, make plenty of noise when hiking in dense vegetation in order not to surprise them, never go near young animals or try to edge past a bear or moose, both are capable of sudden and damaging attacks if they feel threatened.
If you come across a bear unexpectedly make a lot of noise, wave your arms and slowly back away. Do not run.
If the bear attacks, fall and play dead, curl up, face down with your hands protecting your neck. It should go away. If, very unusually, it does not, you’ll be in for a fight.
Bear pepper repellent sprays are on sale in Alaskan Outdoor Stores.

Avalanches
Do not go into back country snow without a guide or experience of avalanche avoidance/survival.

Getting Lost
Ensure that you go hiking with an experienced navigator, carry emergency kit (space blanket etc), inform someone of where you’re going and when you expect to be back, possibly with a written itinerary. Mobile (cell) phones will probably not work unless they are costly GPS satellite jobs. These are rentable in many Alaska trekking locations.

Mosquitoes
Attacks by mozzie squadrons are a pain but deliver neither malaria nor other diseases in Alaska (so far. . . ). Some hikers wear heavy clothing and even netting hoods in buzzy places/seasons. And don’t forget the DEET heavy repellent, 25 – 50% for skin, up to 100% for clothing.

Water
avoid drinking untreated river or lake water which may be home to the Giardia bug courtesy of ducks. Either boil, filter or add iodine (yuk) to drinking water. Done that, been orange.

Money:
Just like the rest of the USA credit cards are accepted just about everywhere and ATMs are found in every town.
Costs of Alaska travel are fairly high but if that’s an issue hiking (also hitch-hiking? ) and camping is the simple way to keep costs down.

Internet:
Wifi for laptops is available from many hotels and large cafés but comparatively costly. However, web usage is heavy throughout Alaska and even small communities have some kind of public web access so doing without your own computer may be the way to go.

Getting there

Alaska is a long drive from the USA; even Seattle to Anchorage is over 2, 200 miles (3, 500kms), though you could put the car on a ferry from Bellingham to Haines. Or a flight and vehicle hire may be required.

Alaska Travel:  most scenic drives

The Seward Highway, Alaska, USA

The Seward Highway. Photo by Meghas2.

• The Seward Highway through the Chugach Mountains, south of Anchorage.

• Denali Highway, superb landscapes and no shortage of wildlife.

• Richardson Highway, north from Valdez. More staggering views, many from high altitude.

• The Dalton Highway, built to supply the Prudhoe Bay oilfields, runs parallel to the Alaska oil pipeline from Fairbanks 414 miles (667 kms) north across the Yukon River to Coldfoot, across the Arctic Circle to Wiseman and finally Deadhorse near the Arctic Ocean, but sadly not by the ocean as that area is restricted to company vehicles only. Still if you fancy a hair-raising drive alongside massive, speeding 18-wheel juggernauts with occasional whiteouts and are not bothered about your destination then Dalton will deliver.
The views en route are spectacular as are some of the slopes such as The Roller Coaster and the bends such as Oh Shit Corner. 4WD is vital as the road is mostly 2-lane gravel and CB radio is advisable to check what’s coming round the mountain in the other direction. Spares and winter survival gear also recommended.

Getting around

Flying in and renting a car is by far the most popular option; Anchorage is the main entry point forAlaska Travel.
Ensure you have full insurance, know the special engine heating systems if driving in winter and have emergency equipment. In summer beware rocks being spun off truck wheels; stop or pull off the road if a big vehicle is coming the other way at speed.
As in USA, RV’s (motor homes) – owned or rented – are common, giving great freedom to stay/move anywhere, anytime in comfort though you still have to visit an RV park regularly to fill up and unfill. One-way rentals are an easy way to tour but inevitably pricey. Anchorage and Skagway offer RV rentals.

Another possibility is to use the Alaska Marine Highway System, large public ferries that runs Bellingham – Washington – Prince Rupert, BC – various towns of Southeast Alaska.
Internal flights will save a lot of time and private Bush Pilot planes are the most precise but, of course, pricey.

The final solution is taking a land tour or ship cruise which will be easy, efficient, economical, ensure you have a room to sleep in at the end of a busy day and see all the best sights at the best time although the downside is that you could be sharing all the awesome grandeur with not your type of people. . . or with a with a crowd of interesting, like-minded people. . .