2021 Alaska Visitors Guide
No other region in North America possesses the mythical aura of ALASKA; even the name – a derivation of Alyeska, an Athabascan word meaning “the great land of the west” – fires the imagination. Few who see this land of gargantuan ice fields, sweeping tundra, glacially excavated valleys, lush rainforests, deep fjords and occasionally smoking volcanoes leave unimpressed. Wildlife may be under threat elsewhere, but here it is abundant, with Kodiak bears standing twelve feet tall, moose stopping traffic in downtown Anchorage, wolves prowling through national parks, bald eagles circling over the trees, and rivers solid with fifty-plus-pound salmon.
Alaska’s sheer size is hard to comprehend: more than twice the size of Texas, it contains America’s northernmost, westernmost and, because the Aleutian Islands stretch across the 180th meridian, its easternmost point. If superimposed onto the Lower 48 (the rest of the continental United States) it would stretch from the Atlantic to the Pacific and its coastline is longer than the rest of the US combined. All but three of the nation’s twenty highest peaks are found within its boundaries and one glacier alone is twice the size of Wales.
A mere 600,000 people live in this huge state – over forty percent of them in Anchorage – of whom only one-fifth were born here: as a rule of thumb, the more winters you have endured, the more Alaskan you are. Often referred to as the ” Last Frontier,” Alaska in many ways mirrors the American West of the nineteenth century: an endless, undeveloped space in which to stake one’s claim and set up life without interference. Or at least that’s how Alaskans would like it to be. Throughout this century tens of thousands have been lured by the promise of wealth, first by gold and then by fishing, logging and, most recently, oil. However, Alaska’s 86,000 Native peoples, who don’t have the option of returning to the Lower 48 if things don’t work out, have been greatly marginalized, though Native corporations set up as a result of pre-oil boom land deals have increasing economic clout.
Traveling around Alaska still demands a spirit of adventure, and to make the most of the state you need to have an enthusiasm for 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 the “Alaska state bird” and it takes industrial-strength repellent to keep it away. On top of that, there’s the climate, though Alaska is far from the popular misconception of being one big icebox. 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.
Alaska is far more expensive than most other states: apart from two dozen hostels 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 just as 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 transportation, despite the long distances, is reasonable, with backpacker shuttles ferrying budget travelers between major centers. 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.
History of Alaska
Alaska has been inhabited for longer than anywhere else in the Americas; it was here, across the broad plains of the “land bridge” that is now submerged below the Bering Sea, that humans first reached the “New World,” most likely around 14,000 years ago. These first settlers can be classified into four groups, which lived within well-defined regions until whites arrived. The Aleut, in the inhospitable Aleutian Islands, built underground homes and hunted sea mammals such as walrus for food and clothing, while the nomadic Athabascan herded caribou in the Interior. The warrior Tlingit lived in the warmer coastal regions of the southeast, where food was plentiful, in contrast to the Eskimos (or, more correctly, Yupik and Inupiat), who inhabited the northwestern coast, living off fish and larger marine life. Descendants of all these groups remain in Alaska today; a few live in much the same way as their ancestors, though most have been integrated into the modern American way through conquest, rape, marriage, and religion.
In 1741, Danish explorer Vitus Bering, working for the Tsar of Russia, became the first Caucasian to set foot on Alaskan soil and found huge numbers of fur seals and sea otters – whose treasured pelts were made into hats. Russians and later Britons and Spaniards joined in the ensuing slaughter, both of the otters and the Aleut, who were enslaved and forced to hunt on behalf of the fur traders. By 1799 the Russians had established their Alaskan capital at present-day Sitka, pushed down the coast as far as northern California and, in the process, decimated the sea otter colonies.
During the 1860s, limited returns and domestic economic problems forced Russia to sell its lands to America. On October 18, 1867, Secretary of State William Seward purchased what was disparagingly known as ” Seward’s Folly ” or “Seward’s Icebox” for $7.2 million – less than 2¢ per acre. Alaska soon turned out to be a literal gold mine with major discoveries at Juneau (1880), Nome (1898), and Fairbanks (1902). With logging companies and commercial fishing operations also descending upon Alaska, the government began to take a more active interest in its affairs and in 1959 Alaska became the 49th state.
Alaska’s next boom followed the discovery of oil at Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic Ocean, and fortune-seekers headed to Alaska in the mid-1970s to build the trans-Alaska pipeline . Today, Alaska still derives about eighty percent of its wealth from oil and gas; indeed, each resident receives an annual dividend check of almost $2000. But the state is still in economic transition and continues to be prone to extreme boom-and-bust cycles. Once lucrative fishing and lumber industries are fast giving way to tourism as a source of income, and the ethical question of how best to use Alaskan lands in the future has led to bitter controversy, not least over the oil reserves under the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Best Attractions in Alaska
Winter visitors to Alaska see the skies ablaze with the shimmering veils of the Northern Lights.
Russian influence blended with Native heritage and fabulous coastal scenery makes this one of Alaska’s most diverting towns.
The Chilkoot Trail
Follow in the (frozen) footsteps of the Klondike prospectors on this demanding 33-mile trail near Skagway.
Every Alaska visitor’s favorite small town is the base for superb flightseeing trips around Mount McKinley.
Denali National Park
Alaska’s finest park offers superb mountain scenery and incomparable wildlife spotting around the highest peak in North America.
Anchorage is an exceptionally atmospheric place to drink: while the city itself is relatively cosmopolitan, many of its bars, such as sawdust-on-the-floor Chilkoot Charlie’s, are characterized by a wild-frontier-saloon feel.
This lonely and grueling 500-mile road leads north from Fairbanks to the Arctic Ocean.
Join the anglers who line up elbow-to-elbow in the salmon-bearing rivers of the Kenai Peninsula, “Anchorage’s Playground,” where the savory species can weigh as much as 30 pounds or more.
Wrangell-St Elias National Park
Solitude-seekers should head for the pristine glaciers and fjords of remote Wrangell-St Elias National Park to watch bears, caribou, and other wildlife.
Wedged between the two arms of Cook Inlet and the imposing Chugach Mountains, ANCHORAGE is home to over forty percent of Alaska’s population and serves as the transportation center for the whole state. This sprawling city on the edge of one of the world’s great wildernesses often gets a bad press from those who live elsewhere in Alaska – derided as being “just half an hour from Alaska” – but it has its attractions, and with its beautiful setting can make a pleasant one- or two-day stopover.
By the time Captain James Cook came up what is now Cook Inlet in 1778, in search of a Northwest Passage to the Atlantic, Russian fur trappers had already started to settle the area, trading copper and iron for fish and furs with the Native Americans. Though Cook was sure that the inlet was not the Passage, he sent boats out in a southeasterly direction to investigate. When they were forced to turn back by the severe tides, Cook named this gloriously scenic stretch Turnagain Arm .
Anchorage itself began life in 1915 as a tent city for construction workers on the Alaska Railroad. During the 1930s, hopefuls fleeing the Depression came pouring in from the Lower 48, and World War II – and the construction of the Alaska Highway – further boosted the city’s size and importance. The opening of the airport established Anchorage – equidistant between New York and Tokyo – as the “Crossroads of the World,” and statehood in 1959 brought in yet more optimistic adventurers.
Born as a roughneck mining town in 1880, Juneau is surprisingly urbane. The city is also close to breathtaking glacier vistas and choice whale-watching spots.
Kenai Peninsula and Kodiak Island
South of Anchorage, the Seward Highway hugs the shore of Turnagain Arm past the ski resort of Alyeska to Girdwood. Just beyond, a side road cuts to the ever-popular Portage Glacier and continues through a new tunnel to Whittier, little more than a ferry dock for accessing Prince William Sound.
Beyond Portage, the Seward Highway enters the Kenai Peninsula, “Anchorage’s playground,” which at over nine thousand square miles is larger than some states. The peninsula offers up an endless diversity of activities and scenery, mostly concentrated around major 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 destinations.
Most Alaskans come to the Kenai Peninsula to fish: the Kenai, Russian and Kasilof rivers host “combat fishing,” with 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.
A hundred miles beyond Homer in the Gulf of Alaska, the “Emerald Isle” of Kodiak Island offers some of Alaska’s most uncommon and pleasing landscapes and is home to the Kodiak bear, an overgrown subspecies of the grizzly.
Interior and Northern Alaska
Interior and northern Alaska cannot fail to live up to expectations of the “great land.” For the most part, it’s a rolling plateau divided by the Alaska and Brooks ranges, crisscrossed by river valleys, punctuated by glaciers and with views of imposing peaks, including ever-present Mount McKinley, the nation’s highest. Even in high summer, when RVs clog the George Parks Highway, people are still hugely outnumbered by game: moose, Dall sheep, grizzly bears and herds of caribou sweep over seemingly endless swathes of taiga (birch woodland) and tundra. Heading north from Anchorage the first essential stop is the tiny town of Talkeetna, which has great views of Mount McKinley and the opportunity to fly around it. The mountain is at the heart of Denali National Park , the jewel of the Interior. If you prefer your wilderness with fewer people and regulations, head east for the vast and untrammeled world of Wrangell-St Elias National Park .
Fairbanks, Alaska’s second city, is diverting in its own right and serves as the hub of the North, with roads fanning out to hot springs and the Dalton Highway , threading five hundred miles to the Arctic Ocean at Prudhoe Bay.
Weather in the region can vary enormously from day to day, with even greater seasonal variations: in winter temperatures can drop to -50°F for days at a time, while summer days reach a sweltering 90°F. However, the major problem during the warmer months is huge mosquitoes; don’t forget to bring insect repellent.
Prince William Sound
Prince William Sound, a largely unspoiled wilderness of steep fjords and mountains, glaciers and rainforest, rests calmly at the head of the Gulf of Alaska. Sheltered by the Chugach Mountains in the north and east, and the Kenai Peninsula in the west, and with its sparkling blue waters full of whales, porpoise, sea otters and seals, the Sound has a relatively low-key tourist industry. The only significant settlements, spectacular Valdez, at the end of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline, and to a lesser extent Cordova, a fishing community only accessible by sea or air, are the respective bases from which to see the Columbia and Childs glaciers. The region’s first settlers, the Chugach Eskimos, were edged out by the more aggressive Tlingit, who in turn were displaced first by Russian trappers in search of sea otter pelts, and then by American gold prospectors and fishers. The whole glorious show was very nearly spoiled forever on Good Friday 1989 when the Exxon Valdez spilled its cargo of 11 million gallons of crude oil. Although the long-term effects have yet to be fully determined, the spill, fortunately, affected just a fifth of the Sound and today no surface pollution is visible.
Southeast Alaska – also known as the panhandle – is archetypal Alaska; an awesome six-hundred-mile-long tableau of fjords, mountains, glaciers, a thousand islands, and thick conifer forests lining the Inside Passage. All of its communities have their economic base in lumber, fishing and tourism and are set amid magnificent scenery. The state’s southernmost town, Ketchikan, rich in native heritage, makes a pretty introduction, tiny Wrangell emits a pioneer air, while Sitka retains a Russian influence. Further north is swanky Juneau , the capital; Haines , with its mix of old-timers and arty newcomers; and Skagway, thoroughly redolent of the old gold-mining days. You could spend months exploring here, but most are content to focus on the highlights, particularly the towns of Sitka and Skagway, and Glacier Bay National Park , an expensive side trip from Juneau that penetrates one of Alaska’s most stunning regions.The region’s first settlers, the Tlingit ( Hlin-git ), were joined somewhat violently by Russian expansionists at the end of the eighteenth century. A steady stream of freelance profiteers, keen on tapping the region’s gold, fur, fish and lumber, soon followed, and today its small communities resound with tales of endurance, folly, and cruelty.
With no roads connecting towns, by far the best way to travel is by ferry, though at some stage make sure you take a floatplane ride. For a true outdoor adventure, you can rent a cabin in the huge Tongass National Forest – which encompasses most of southeast Alaska – for around $35 per night; details from the visitor centers in Juneau and Ketchikan, or through the NRRS reservation service ( ).