The sheer size of Alaska is hard to grasp. Superimposed onto the Lower 48 states, it would stretch from the Atlantic to the Pacific, while its coastline is longer than that of the rest of the mainland US combined. All but three of the nation’s twenty highest peaks are found here and one glacier alone is twice the size of Wales. In addition, not only does it contain America’s northernmost and westernmost points, but because the Aleutian Islands stretch across the 180th meridian, it contains the easternmost point as well. Wildlife may be under threat elsewhere, but here it is abundant, with bears standing 12ft tall, moose stopping traffic in downtown Anchorage, wolves prowling national parks, bald eagles circling over the trees and rivers solid with fifty-pound-plus salmon.
Travelling here demands a spirit of adventure and to make the most of the state you need to enjoy striking out on your own and roughing it a bit. Binoculars are an absolute must, as is bug spray; the mosquito is referred to as “Alaska’s state bird” and only industrial-strength repellent keeps it away. On top of that, there’s the climate – though Alaska is far from the giant icebox people imagine.
The state’s southernmost town, Ketchikan, rich in Native heritage, makes a pretty introduction, while Sitka retains a Russian influence. Further north are swanky Juneau, the capital; Haines, with its mix of old-timers and arty newcomers; Skagway, redolent of gold-rush days; and Glacier Bay National Park, an expensive side-trip from Juneau that penetrates one of Alaska’s most stunning regions.
To the west, Anchorage is the state’s main population centre and transport hub, while south of here are the stunning Kenai Peninsula and Prince William Sound. Interior and northern Alaska is the quintessential “great land” – a rolling plateau divided by the glacier-studded Alaska and Brooks ranges, crisscrossed by rivers and with views of imposing peaks, above all Mount McKinley, the nation’s highest – tiny Talkeetna offers great views. The mountain is at the heart of Denali National Park, while to the east is the untrammelled vastness of Wrangell-St Elias National Park. Fairbanks, Alaska’s diverting second city, serves as the hub of the North, with roads fanning out to hot springs and five hundred miles north to the Arctic Ocean at Prudhoe Bay.