With mountains to climb, rivers to raft, glaciers to coo over and a bevy of bears to photograph, Alaska is the ultimate wilderness – and this year is the perfect time to go, as the state celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2017. From the moment you arrive, the raw, unspoiled beauty of the USA's 49th state is almost overwhelming. So where should you start? Try one of these 15 idyllic spots:
Encompassing six million acres of pure Alaskan interior wilderness topped by North America’s highest peak (Denali, 20,310ft), this national park is Alaska’s ultimate showstopper. Bisected by one solitary ribbon of road, this pristine ecosystem plays home to a menagerie of wildlife – from wolves to bears, caribou to Dall sheep – which is often easily spotted on a bus ride through the park, or on a ranger-led programme.
Alaska is famed for its Inside Passage cruises, and for many visitors passing through this UNESCO-listed national park en route is the highlight of their trip. Here, you can watch in awe from a boat (or kayak) as the majestic Margerie Glacier calves 100-tonne icebergs into the tidewater while orcas, sea lions, seals and other marine animals frolic in the crystal-clear waters surrounding it. Bring your binoculars to spot bears on the shore, and mountain goats on the cliffs above.
Stretching 1387 miles from Delta Junction, southeast of Fairbanks, all the way to Dawson Creek in British Colombia, Canada, the Alaska Highway (also known as the ALCAN) is considered one of the world’s top scenic drives. Constructed during World War II, this well-maintained road winds through some truly spectacular terrain, offering excellent wildlife viewing and countless other photo opportunities along the way.
If you’ve seen one of those photographs of a brown (grizzly) bear perched on the edge of a waterfall snagging salmon in mid-air, there’s a good chance it was taken in Katmai National Park. Brooks Falls, to be exact – Alaska’s most famous bear-viewing area. Unconnected to any town by road, the park – also famed for its fishing, hiking, rafting and kayaking possibilities – is most commonly accessed by floatplane. This grizzly has caught a starry flounder.
Alaska is known as the Last Frontier, and nowhere does this seem more fitting than on its Arctic Coast. Here, along this starkly beautiful stretch of rugged tundra, Alaska Native communities live side by side with one of the world’s greatest predators: the polar bear. The Inupiaq village of Kaktovik, located on Barter Island just off the mainland, is one of the best places to spot these vulnerable mammals, which congregate here in large numbers in the summer while they wait for the Beaufort Sea to freeze.
It’s known as the salmon capital of the world, but Alaska’s southernmost city is also an attraction in itself. Backed by the lush, forested slopes of Deer Mountain and facing the buzzing Tongass Narrows waterway, picturesque Ketchikan hugs the shoreline of Revillagigedo Island for 30 miles, with many businesses located in pastel-hued overwater bungalows accessed via suspended walkways. Native Haida, Tlingit and Tsimshian arts are visible everywhere throughout the city – from museums to totem parks – adding to its cultural appeal.
Its lush, green hills and mountaintop vistas that give Kodiak its ‘Emerald Isle’ nickname are pretty enough, but the island’s key draw is a brown bear subspecies that lives nowhere else. Spanning parts of Kodiak, Uganik, Ban and Afognak islands, the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge offers unparalleled wildlife-watching opportunities (from Kodiak brown bears to puffins, red foxes to sea lions) on top of some of the best salmon fishing in the state.
The idyllic Kenai Peninsula is considered ‘Alaska’s Playground’ and its main attraction – Kenai Fjords National Park – is a glacial wonderland popular with hikers, kayakers and wildlife watchers. The magnificent Exit Glacier, just a 10-minute drive north from Seward, is the park’s most popular and accessible highlight. From the visitors centre, keen hikers can tackle the Harding Icefield Trail for breathtaking views of the largest ice field contained within the USA.
While the town of Coldfoot itself is little more than a Dalton Highway truck stop – the world’s northernmost, in fact – its strategic position under the Aurora belt in Alaska’s ruggedly beautiful Arctic Circle makes it one of the best places on Earth to view the northern lights. Rather than drive around looking for the lights as is typical of many Aurora-viewing destinations, Coldfoot Camp runs a brilliant night tour to an original miner’s hut in nearby Wiseman where you can view the spectacle at its finest.
Punctuated by wild, icy rivers and glacier-carved valleys, this remote Arctic Circle national park offers a raw, untouched wilderness area the size of Switzerland. A sanctuary for many animals, including 145 bird species, the park was named for the two dramatic mountains that frame the Koyukuk River, forming something of a gateway for visitors to enter. With no road access, services or campgrounds (visitors fly in on air taxis, or hike in from the Dalton Highway with all their supplies), it’s an adventure just to get here.
Wrangell-St Elias is big. Not only is it the largest national park in the USA, but it’s one of the largest protected areas of wilderness in the world. Hugging the Canadian border, the park contains nine of the tallest 16 mountains on the continent (including Mount Wrangell, a 14,163ft stratovolcano) and some of its glaciers are larger than half a dozen South Pacific island nations combined. Whichever way you visit it (a scenic flight is a great option), the awe factor is guaranteed to be high.
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Sweeping west of the Alaska Peninsula like a jagged line of braille towards Russia, the barren, windswept Aleutian Islands – home to 27 of the 46 most active volcanoes in America – are as dramatic as they are remote. The jewel of the archipelago is its East Borough, where intrepid travellers will be rewarded with miles of raw, untamed landscape, smoking volcanic craters, ancient Aleut village sites, and an array of birds and marine life.
Rising up on the eastern fringes of Anchorage, the stunning Chugach Mountains don’t just provide a beautiful backdrop to the city, but also act as Alaska’s most accessible wilderness area. There are plenty of walking and biking trails within the State Park and National Forest boundaries that preserve this mountain range; take the 1.5-mile hiking trail to the football field-sized summit of Flattop Mountain for views from Denali to the Aleutian Islands.
A major transportation route during the Klondike Gold Rush, this 33-mile hiking trail connects the village of Dyea, near the pretty southeastern cruise port of Skagway, with Bennet in British Colombia, Canada. But the Chilkoot Trail isn’t just famous for its historical relics (look out for the tramway boiler); the scenery, from coastal rainforest to alpine views, glaciers to suspended river crossings – is just superb.
One of the most scenic – and sunniest – villages in Alaska’s Inside Passage, this quaint, artsy town isn’t just popular with humans. Each autumn, thousands of bald eagles congregate to Haines to feast on a late run of salmon. So many of them in fact, that they inspired the Alaska Bald Eagle Festival held here each November. The salmon also lure other fisher folk, including brown bears, which can be viewed in large numbers on the Chilkoot River. Come winter, heli-skiers arrive in search of the lightest powder on Earth.