Why now is the time for adventure
Alaska was once a fantasy, a distant idea for a crazy adventure that had little chance of coming to fruition. Not anymore. In the last ten years the number of people visiting this lush, vast state has increased from a few hundred thousand to approximately 2 million per year. Some of these visitors fly in, some arrive by cruise ship and some crazy fools (ourselves included) drive up through the Yukon. This year the accessibility is increasing as prices do the opposite, cruise ships have announced more capacity and greater variety in their excursions. Flight companies have opened new links to areas not accessed in the past. It begs the question then; why are you not booking a trip?
Alaska is like no other state, in fact its unlike any other place on earth. Two wonderful cities plus endless quaint towns, the USA’s biggest national park and tallest mountain all sit within driving distance of one another. On a trip your are very likely to see eagles, huge grizzly bears, elk, moose and if your lucky, wolves. Craft beer is going crazy here and there’s nothing quite like basking in the midnight sun. Let’s look at Alaska, and what exactly you should have on your bucket list.
Our Alaskan Trip (short):
Where to go
This ‘city’ is the only place in Alaska’s interior which has any kind of genuine population, but despite it’s city status it feels far more like a small town in reality. The population is made of a real mix of demographics; college students give the place a youthful hipster vibe, while sled dog breeders, enthusiastic environmentalists, military personnel, professors and bush pilots to name a few, give the place a strange and wonderful energy.
Stop in at the Georgeson Botanical Gardens at the north west end of town, with the midnight sun blazing non stop for months on end the plants here grow very…..very large. Springtime sees an array of wildflower growth and, although small,the grounds are lovely for a bimble on a pleasant day.
The University of Alaska Museum of the North is another must see, with its huge 9ft stuffed brown bear welcoming you into the igloo inspire building, it houses a fine collection of artifacts relating to the geology, history, culture of the USA’s finest state, plus plenty of fun trivia regarding Alaska’s distinct regions.
For your snack and coffee habit, head to Alaska Coffee Roasting Company just off Geist Road on the west side of town. You find baked goods galore and some of the best coffee in Alaska. Listen into to local conversations for a real insight into Alaskan life.
The World Eskimo-Indian Olympics is held on the second to last weekend in July at the Carlson Center. It peeked our interest when we stayed so we spent a day watching everything from rug throwing, to Alaskan high jumping (not what it sounds like) to a catwalk of handmade coats. In a quirky turn of events we watched female competitors tie fishing line around their ears and then pull their heads apart in a gruesome exercise meant to represent the pain of frostbite. It’s a chance for tribal communities from all over the north and west of the state to fly in and meet annually, a sight rare in itself, let alone to non-Alaskans.
Alaska has a few national parks; Wrangell is the USA’s largest (bigger than quite a few mainland states), Kobuck, little visited in the in the far north west, the touristy but unparalleled Glacier Bay and Kenai parks in the south and Gates to the Arctic (obviously in the far north!). However, the only one which is on the main road and possible to explore for anyone (though to greatly varying degrees) is Denali. This vast area of wilderness, 6 million acres (24,500 km2) in fact, is home to Mt Denali, which is the tallest mountain in North America. It also holds the record of largest mountain in the world, as its base to peak is much greater than everest, on account of it being situated on higher ground to start with.
The park is beautiful, and other than a backpacker bus which runs along a dirt road for eight hours, dropping off backcountry campers, there is no way around here other than on foot. Non-backcountry visitors may drive the first 30 miles in (barely penetrating the park), from there on you better have your gear, including bear spray, permit and detailed maps or its probably best you turn back. For more info on this park, see our separate article.
Just south of Denali, you’ll find a little town which is thoroughly charming and full of relaxing fun activities. Conscious Coffee and Denali Brewpub are both signs that no matter how remote you are in the state, craft beer and good coffee never seems far away! The riverfront park is insanely beautiful giving you amazing views of mount Denali from its south side (on clear days) and it has a campsite!
There is great food along the tiny village street and then of course, there is the train station to board the Hurricane Turn flag down train. This train ride will take you on an adventure around Alaskan mountains and over salmon filled rivers, with a spectacular window view and a tour guide providing fun facts. If you’ve been camping, hiking (or walking the towns) for days, this ride will rest you up whilst giving you incredible views. The last flag stop train in America stops in the middle of the wilderness to meet a locally famous lady who gave up city life to raise her family and live in the wild off the land.
Probably the most visited region of Alaska’s ever increasing tourist influx, the south coast is where the cruise ships dock up, where the glaciers are located and where you’ll find island after island to explore.
You could easily spend weeks here and forget about the rest of the state, many visitors do just that. Though I wouldn’t recommended following that mentality, some of the best things in Alaska are north, it’s certainly a region which feels oddly different to the rest of the Alaska. The climate here is unique, less tundra and more temperate rainforest, it’s lush down here, and warmer than anywhere else. The islands are each full of independent character, and we had some of our best moments just relaxing on the stunningly beautiful and very affordable island ferries.
Juneau is Alaska’s capital city, and (fun fact) is the only American capital to not be connected to the United States road system. Thats right, to get to see it, you either fly, ferry in or walk over the mountains. It recently had a vote on whether or not to build connecting roads and decided against it, Juneau’s folks like it quiet. Avoid the Glacier Bay crowds and catch a boat ride from here to see Tracy Arm glacier instead. You’ll glimpse humpback whales, seals, killer whales and hillside bears as well as the massive glacier itself. We arrived just as a hundred foot calving event took place, unforgettable.
Sitka is the main town on Baranof island and is my favorite for three reasons; it has a totem pole forest (kind of an outdoor museum to totem pole making and the ancient tribes that did so), it has the best coffee shop I saw in Alaska and the best Brewery– which to this day still serves the best beer we’ve ever had, Spruce Tip IPA… the only way to taste it again would be to go back….
Why go this coming year?
Some of the smaller cruise companies have announced more expeditions, with a new variety of options, such as the five-night “Alaska’s Spring Wilderness & Wildlife Safari” by Alaskan Dream Cruises.
Airlines are now flying regularly to Fairbanks, Anchorage and Juneau, but also smaller locations (with connections), and with car rental being relatively cheap and the roads well kept, you can hit all the places we’ve listed with ease.
It has never been this easy to see the last American frontier as it is right now, and we can assure you personally, you will never regret it.
Rich & Steph