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.
Alaska’s most famous hike, the 33-mile CHILKOOT TRAIL, is one huge wilderness museum following in the footsteps of the original Klondike prospectors. Starting in Dyea, nine miles from Skagway and ending in Bennett in Canada, the trail climbs through rainforest to tundra strewn with haunting reminders of the past, including ancient boilers that once drove aerial tramways and several collapsed huts. The three- to five-day hike is strenuous, especially the ascent from Sheep Camp (1000ft) to Chilkoot Pass (3550ft). You must carry food, fuel and a tent and be prepared for foul weather.
Built in the 1970s to service the trans-Alaska pipeline, the mostly gravel Dalton Highway, or Haul Road, runs from Fairbanks five hundred miles to the oil facility of Prudhoe Bay on Alaska’s north coast, some three hundred miles beyond the Arctic Circle. It is a long, bumpy and demanding drive, so take spare tyres, petrol, provisions and, ideally, a sturdy 4WD: most regular rentals aren’t permitted up here. Not far from Fairbanks you start to parallel the pipeline, snaking up hills and in and out of the ground. At 188 miles, a sign announces that you’ve just crossed the Arctic Circle.
The highway plugs on north through increasingly barren territory, finally dispensing with trees as you climb through the wilderness of the Brooks Range, a 9000ft chain mostly held within the Gates of the Arctic National Park. From Atigun Pass you descend through two hundred miles of grand glaciated valleys and blasted Arctic plains to the end of the road at dead-boring Deadhorse. You can’t stroll by the ocean or camp here, so your choices are confined to staying in one of the $190-per-night hotels and taking a $39 tour past the adjacent – and off-limits – Prudhoe Bay oil facility to dip a toe (or your full body) into the Arctic Ocean.
FAIRBANKS, 360 miles north of Anchorage and at the end of the Alaska Highway from Canada, is somewhat bland but makes a great base for exploring a hinterland of gold mines, hot springs and limitless wilderness, and for journeys along the Dalton Highway to the Arctic Ocean oilfield of Prudhoe Bay.
Fairbanks suffers remarkable extremes of climate, with winter temperatures dropping to -70ºF and summer highs topping 90ºF. Proximity to the Arctic Circle means more than 21 hours of sunlight in midsummer, when midnight baseball games take place under natural light, and 2am bar evacuees are confronted by bright sunshine.
Alaska’s second largest town was founded accidentally, in 1901, when a steamship carrying trader E.T. Barnette ran aground in the shallows of the Chena River, a tributary of the Yukon. Unable to move his supplies any further, he set up shop in the wilderness, catering to the few trappers and prospectors in the area. The following year gold was found, a tent city sprang up and Barnette made a mint. In 1908, at the height of the rush, Fairbanks had a population of 18,500, but by 1920 it had dwindled to just 1100. During World War II several huge military bases were built and the population rebounded, getting a further boost in the mid-1970s when it became the construction centre for the trans-Alaska pipeline.
The spectacular aurora borealis is a major winter attraction, as is the Ice Alaska Festival in mid-March, with its ice-sculpting competition and dogsled racing on frozen downtown streets. Summer visitors should try to catch the three-day World Eskimo-Indian Olympics (w weio.org) in mid-July when contestants from around the state compete in dance, art and sports competitions, as well as some unusual ones like ear-pulling, knuckle hop, high kick and the blanket toss.
The aurora borealis, or “Northern Lights”, an ethereal display of light in the uppermost atmosphere, give their brightest and most colourful displays in the sky above Fairbanks. For up to one hundred winter nights, the sky appears to shimmer with dancing curtains of colour ranging from luminescent greens to fantastic veils that run the full spectrum. Named after the Roman goddess of dawn, the aurora is caused by an interaction between the earth’s magnetic field and the solar wind, an invisible stream of charged electrons and protons continually blown out into space from the sun. The earth deflects the solar wind like a rock in a stream, with the energy released at the magnetic poles – much like a neon sign.
The Northern Lights are at their most dazzling from December to March, when nights are longest and the sky darkest, but late September can be good for summer visitors. They are visible pretty much everywhere, but the further north the better, especially around Fairbanks.
Tiny HAINES sits on a peninsula at the northern end of the longest and deepest fjord in the US, Lynn Canal. Somewhat overshadowed by its brasher neighbour, Skagway, it remains a slice of real Alaska with an interesting mix of locals and urban escapees. The Tlingit fished and traded here for years before 1881, when the first missionaries arrived. Today, the town survives on fishing and tourism, hosting in mid-August the cook-outs, crafts and log-rolling of the Southeast Alaska Fair.
South of Anchorage, the Seward Highway hugs the shore of Turnagain Arm past Girdwood and the Alyeska ski resort. Just beyond, a side road heads past the ever-popular Portage Glacier and through a tunnel to Whittier, little more than a ferry dock giving access to Prince William Sound. Beyond Portage, the Seward Highway enters the Kenai Peninsula, “Anchorage’s playground”, which at more than nine thousand square miles is larger than some states. It offers an endless diversity of activities and scenery, based around communities such as Seward, the base for cruises into the inspirational Kenai Fjords National Park and artsy Homer, where the waters and shorelines of the glorious Kachemak Bay State Park are the main destination. Most Alaskans come to the peninsula to fish: the Kenai, Russian and Kasilof rivers host “combat fishing”, thousands of anglers standing elbow to elbow using strength and know-how to pull in thirty-pound-plus king salmon. Campgrounds along the rivers fill up fast, especially in July and August.
KETCHIKAN, almost seven hundred miles north of Seattle, is the first port of call for cruise ships and ferries and its historic downtown, wedged between water and forested mountains, becomes saturated in summer. Beyond the souvenir shops it’s delightful, built into steep hills and partly propped on wooden pilings, dotted with boardwalks, wooden staircases and totem poles.
By 1886, the town’s numerous canneries made it the “salmon capital of the world”, while forests of cedar, hemlock and spruce fed its sawmills. Ketchikan now looks to tourism as its saviour, with the nearby Misty Fiords National Monument as the prime draw. The state’s fourth largest city is a strong contender for the nation’s wettest; annual precipitation averages 165 inches, but the perennial drizzle and sporadic showers won’t spoil your visit.
Alaska is more expensive than most other states and major cities. There’s little budget accommodation and eating and drinking will set you back at least twenty percent more than in the Lower 48 (perhaps fifty percent in more remote regions). Still, experiencing Alaska on a low budget is possible, though it requires planning and off-peak travel. From June to August room prices are crazy; May and September, when tariffs are relaxed and the weather only slightly chillier, are equally good times to go, and in April or October you’ll have the place to yourself, albeit with a smaller range of places to stay and eat. Ground transport, despite the long distances, is reasonable, with backpacker shuttles between major centres, although it is often easier to combine a car rental with flights. Winter, when hotels drop their prices by as much as half, is becoming an increasingly popular time to visit, particularly for the dazzling aurora borealis.
While winter temperatures of -40˚F are commonplace in Fairbanks, the most touristed areas – the southeast and the Kenai Peninsula – enjoy a maritime climate (45–65˚F in summer) similar to that of the Pacific Northwest, meaning much more rain (in some towns 180-plus inches per year) than snow. Remarkably, the summer temperature in the Interior often reaches 80˚F.
Prince William Sound, a largely unspoiled wilderness of steep fjords and mountains, glaciers and rainforest, sits between the Kenai Peninsula to the west and the Chugach Mountains to the north and east. Teeming with marine mammals, the Sound has a relatively low-key tourist industry. The only significant settlements, spectacular Valdez, at the end of the trans-Alaska pipeline, and Cordova, a fishing community only accessible by sea or air, are the respective bases for visiting the Columbia and Childs glaciers.
The Chugach and Eyak people were displaced by Russian trappers in search of sea otter pelts, and then by American miners and fishers. The whole glorious show was very nearly spoiled forever on Good Friday 1989, when the Exxon Valdez spilled eleven million gallons of crude oil. Although 1400 miles of coast were befouled and some 250,000 birds died, and the long-term effects are still unclear, today no surface pollution is visible.
SKAGWAY, the northern terminal of the southeast ferry route, sprang up overnight in 1897 as a trading post serving Klondike Gold Rush pioneers setting off on the five-hundred-mile ordeal. Having grown from one cabin to a town of twenty thousand in three months, Skagway, rife with disease and desperado violence was reported to be “hell on earth”. It boasted more than seventy bars and hundreds of prostitutes and was controlled by criminals, including Jefferson “Soapy” Smith, notorious for cheating hapless prospectors out of their gold.
By 1899, the Gold Rush was over but the completion in 1900 of the White Pass and Yukon Route railway from Skagway to Whitehorse, the Yukon capital, ensured Skagway’s survival. Today the town’s eight hundred residents have gone to great lengths to maintain (or re-create) the original appearance of their home, much of which lies in the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park, and in summer as many as five cruise ships a day call in to appreciate the effort.
A hundred miles from Anchorage, the eclectic hamlet of TALKEETNA has a palpable small-town Alaska feel, but is lent an international flavour by the world’s mountaineers, who come here to scale the 20,320ft Mount McKinley, usually referred to in Alaska by its Athabascan name Denali, “the Great One”. Whatever you choose to call it, North America’s highest peak rises from 2000ft lowlands, making it the world’s tallest from base to peak (other major peaks such as Everest rise from high terrain). The mountain is best seen from the overlook just south of Talkeetna, which reveals the peak’s transcendent white glow, in sharp contrast to the warm colours all around.
From mid-April to mid-July, climbers mass in Talkeetna to be flown to the mountain: only half of the 1200 attempting the climb each year succeed, usually due to extreme weather.
As Denali becomes more crowded, people are increasingly making the trip to the more remote WRANGELL-ST ELIAS NATIONAL PARK in the extreme southeast corner of the Interior, where four of the continent’s great mountain ranges – the Wrangell, St Elias, Chugach and Alaska – cramp up against each other. Everything is writ large: glacier after enormous glacier, canyon after dizzying canyon, and nine of the sixteen highest peaks in the US, all laced together by braided rivers and idyllic lakes where mountain goats, Dall sheep, bears, moose and caribou roam.