(In “Finding Alaska” I told you how and when to go; “Alaska Meandering” covered transportation within the 49th State. Today I offer cover places to visit and things to do during your Alaska vacation).
Alaska’s a big, big place. Deciding which locations to visit is like shopping in a candy store: Too many “sweet” spots to choose from, but too little time to completely satisfy your “travel sweet tooth.”
My advice: Pick one or two regions of the state to visit during a one to two-week trip, then come back another year to explore areas that you didn’t see the last time around.
Mapping It Out
The regional map of the state from the Alaska Travel Industry Association will help you orient yourself when planning a trip. (The map is included in a free vacation planning guide which you can request on-line).
This map breaks the state down into five sections (in parenthesis I’ve shown a just a few of the many places in each):
- Far North (Barrow, Prudhoe Bay, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge)
- Interior (Fairbanks, Denali National Park)
- Southcentral (Anchorage, Kenai Fjords & Peninsula, Valdez, Cordova, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park)
- Southwest (Kodiak Island, Lake Clark National Park)
- Inside Passage or “Southeast” (Glacier Bay, Skagway, Juneau, Sitka, Petersburg, Wrangell, Ketchikan)
Where To Go, What To See, What To Do
Now comes the hard part: Unless you plan an extend stay (several weeks, months, years) in Alaska how should you spend your vacation time? I’m going to split my suggestions between these three travel corridors:
- Southeast (where the Inside Passage runs)
- From Anchorage North (to Denali, Fairbanks, and beyond)
- From Anchorage Southwest (more or less)
Alaska “Panhandling” (Southeast)
Think tree-lined islands, snow-covered mountains, bits of ice-blue glaciers cascading into the sea, isolated communities miles apart from each other, rainfall measured in feet instead of inches, eagles as common as crows, whales, bears, and mountain goats, and you’re thinking of the Inside Passage and Alaska’s Panhandle, known to its residents as “Southeast.” Here are some of the things you’ll find at stops you can make in this region:
- Juneau: Ride the tram to the top of Mt. Roberts; land and take a “walk about” in the Juneau Icefield; get a close-up look at the Mendenhall Glacier from the U.S. Forest Service Visitor Center. (Juneau Convention & Visitors Bureau).
- Skagway: Miners off on the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898 passed through here. Ride the White Pass & Yukon Route Railway; visit the Klondike Gold Rush Historical Park. (Skagway Convention & Visitors Bureau).
- Haines: This small town is for the birds (the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve is just up the road), but also about history and native crafts. Glacier Bay is 15 minutes away by air and you can hop a boat to and from Skagway, or take the ferry or fly in from Juneau.
- Glacier Bay (Gustavus): Take an all-day wildlife and glacier touring cruise up Glacier Bay; fish for halibut; go whale-watching. (Gustavus.com and Gustavus Visitors Association).
- Icy Strait Point: If you cruise ship stops at Icy Strait Point near Hoonah you can ride the world’s highest and longest zip-line, search for bears, or learn how to filet salmon and halibut.
- Sitka: Catch the world-renown Summer Music Festival in June; learn about Russian occupation and later sale of Alaska to the U.S. at the Sitka National Historical Park; take wildlife cruises; go fishing; visit the Alaska Raptor Center. (Sitka Convention & Visitors Bureau).
- Petersburg: Fish for salmon; shop for work by Alaskan artists; take a cruise to the Le Conte Glacier; check out the local hardware store in small-town Alaska where the big cruise ships don’t call. (Petersburg Chamber of Commerce).
- Wrangell: Watch Alaska Brown Bears and their little black bear cousins feast on salmon at the Anan Wildlife Observatory; come to the Stikine River Shorebird Festival in late April or the Bear Fest in July. There are lots of birds and beasts to see in this less-visited corner of Southeast Alaska. (Wrangell Visitor Services)
- Ketchikan: Shops and galleries attract cruise-ship visitors and the rain attracts banana slugs in this sometimes very wet southern end of the Panhandle. Take a guided wildlife cruise, or a flight-seeing trip aboard a floatplane into Misty Fjords National Monument; learn about Native Alaskan culture; visit the Discovery Center. (Ketchikan Visitors Bureau).
Remember that you’ll be traveling around Southeast Alaska by air or on ferries operated by the Alaska Marine Highway System since there are no highways connecting the cities and towns in this part of the state.
Looking Into The Interior, Then Toward The Pacific (From Anchorage North)
“All Roads Lead To Rome” as the saying goes, and along the line northward from Anchorage all roads, whether made of asphalt, concrete, or steel, will eventually reach Fairbanks. The only question is which route will you take. You can reach Fairbanks by air, highway, and the Alaska Railroad’s Denali Star .
Fairbanks And Beyond
- Fairbanks: Learn about the history and culture of Native Alaskans; see the Northern Lights; go dog mushing. (Fairbanks Convention & Visitors Bureau). Visit the Alaska Bird Observatory and the Wedgewood Wildlife Sanctuary, then learn about Alaska motoring history at the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum. (Wedgewood Resort)
- North of Fairbanks: Leave Fairbanks behind on a one-day trip across the Arctic Circle and back, opt for an overnight or multi-day trip as far as the Arctic Ocean, or fly to remote settlements like Barrow or Nome. (Northern Alaska Tour Company)
Alaska’s Big Rock Candy Mountain
Denali (also known as Mount McKinley) is the highest mountain peak in North America. At over 20,000 feet above sea level, its summit towers over the heights of puny Mount Rainer (14,000+ feet) in Washington State and slightly higher Mount Whitney in California. Here are three ways that you can visit the Denali area:
- Drive or take a bus (240 miles from Anchorage, 120 from Fairbanks) or ride the Alaska Railroad to the entrance to Denali National Park, stay in lodges near or a few miles from the park entrance, do some day-hiking in that area, take a bus tour into the park, and go the park’s visitor center near the entrance or the one much farther into the park. This is a good choice if you want standard hotel rooms, have only a day or so to spend in the park, and are looking for a lower cost park experience.
- Book a stay at Camp Denali or North Face Lodge near Wonder Lake at the end of the 95-mile Denali Park road and go on daily naturalist led outings during your stay (3 nights beginning on Fridays or 4 nights starting on Mondays). This option will suit active travelers who want more “creature comforts” than tent camping offers and have more time to spend in the park. (The lodge operator will transport you to and from the park entrance; if you take the train you can be picked up the same day traveling south from Fairbanks, but you’ll have to overnight at the entrance coming from Anchorage).
- Fly in and out of Anchorage or Talkeetna with Rust’s Flying Service or K2 Aviation and either do a day hike or camp for 4 days and 3 nights in Denali National Park.
It’s not just the bears that catch and eat Alaska salmon. So do tourists, and many head to back-country inns like Riversong Lodge (70 air miles northwest of Anchorage) to fish for salmon or angle for other finned creatures. And even if you come back at the end of the day without catching a single minnow you sure to be well-fed at dinner.
Life In And Around The Big City
Anchorage is Alaska’s biggest city (population a bit under 300,000) and the transportation hub for travel in Alaska north of the Southeast’s Panhandle. Since you’ll be flying, driving, or taking the train from there, here are some things you might want to do in the city and nearby:
- Anchorage Museum: The museum completed a $106 million expansion in 2010 which includes the hands-on Imaginarium Discovery Center and exhibits of 600 Alaska Native artifacts on long-term loan from the Smithsonian Institution.
- Learn about Native Alaskan culture; check out vintage aircraft; see wildlife; take in the nightlife. (Anchorage Convention & Visitors Bureau).
- Going or coming to Anchorage, head out into the Mat-Su Valley for outdoor adventures, or visit farmer’s markets (they sell giant cabbages) and drive through Alaska’s agricultural heartland. (Mat-Su Convention & Visitors Bureau).
Down To The Sea In Cars, Boats And Trains (From Anchorage Southwest)
The Kenai Peninsula lies southwest from Anchorage. Here are some options for touring that area:
- Drive, take the bus, or ride the Alaska Railroad to Seward and springboard from there to Kenai Fjords National Park. Stay either in Seward at the Windsong Lodge, on Fox Island at the Kenai Fjords Wilderness Lodge, or in the park at the Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge. Then explore the area on foot, tour boat, or flight-seeing aircraft.
- Take the Alaska Railroad to Spencer Glacier and float on a raft among icebergs.
- Learn to cook and eat well at The Cooking School at Tutka Bay near Homer operated by the Within The Wild Adventure Company which runs two other lodges, Winterlake (on the Iditarod Trail) and Redoubt Bay (near Lake Clark National Park) elsewhere in Alaska.
Kodiak Island is even farther south and west of Anchorage, but visited by fewer tourists than many other places in Alaska. You can reach it by Alaska Marine Highway ferry (about 9 hours from Homer, sometimes overnight) or by air (about an hour from Anchorage, less from Homer). Here are a few of the 75 things the Kodiak Island Convention & Visitors Bureau says you can do here to keep yourself amused during a long or short visit:
- Visit the Russian Cemetery
- Get a book, go tide pooling and identify creatures
- Play golf, go fishing, kayaking, bear viewing, bird watching or ice skating
- Watch the float planes take off and land
- See the Buffalo herd on the way to Pasagshak
- Drive to the end of various roads
Valdez and Prince William Sound is another destination you could head for southbound out of Anchorage. Here’s three ways to get to there:
- Take the Alaska Railroad from Anchorage to Whittier and then hop aboard an Alaska Marine Highway ferry to Valdez.
- Drive from Anchorage to Whittier and then load your rental car on the ferry to Valdez.
- Fly from Anchorage to Valdez on Era Alaska.
So what is there to do in Valdez? Here are some ideas:
- Be festive: Come to the May Day Fly-In & Air Show, The Last Frontier Theater Conference in June, or Gold Rush Days in August. (Valdez Convention & Visitors Bureau)
- Explore five glaciers.
- See a ton of birds.
- Visit the Valdez Museum.
- Take a hike.
- Catch a fish.
Wild Drive Around Alaska
Here’s a “I’ll Bet Not Many Tourists Ever Think of This Driving Trip” idea that I came up with after talking to the folks from Valdez and the U.S. National Park Service:
- Start or end your driving trip in either Anchorage (which I’ll use as an example) or Fairbanks.
- You can drive the route either clockwise (the direction I’ll lay out next) or counterclockwise.
- Drive from Anchorage to Denali, visit the park, then go on to Fairbanks.
- After leaving Fairbanks, either head up the Dalton Highway (not for timid drivers, I think) or take a tour northward with the Northern Alaska Tour Company.
- After returning to Fairbanks, drive south on Highway 2 and stop at “North Pole” to see if Santa is around (odds are he’ll be in Hawaii in the summer).
- Drive to Delta Junction and then turn onto Highway 4 (the Richardson Highway).
- Only two rental car companies let you drive the road to the Kennicott Glacier Lodge in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, so you’ll probably park your car at Murray or Chitina and catch a flight or ride a van to the lodge.
- Drive from Murray or Chitina to Valdez; tour the Valdez area.
- Take the ferry from Valdez to Whittier; stop at the Alyeska Resort in Girdwood (especially if it’s a Friday and the head chef is doing a cooking “demo” class for cruise ship passengers).
- Continue on to Anchorage to end the trip.
(As they say, “The Devil’s In The Details” and I have not as yet figured out the days, distance, and dollars needed to do this trip).
What’s Your Dream Destination In Alaska?
So now I’ve told you how to get to Alaska, how to travel within the state and about a few of the places in that huge hunk of America that might be worth your while to visit. If you’re going north to Alaska in 2011, look for me on a plane, a boat, a train, or a trail. Maybe both of us will be sharing the same dream destination in the Land Of The Midnight Sun.
(Thanks to the Alaska Travel Industry Association for hosting my visit to this year’s Alaska Media Road Show at The Biltmore Hotel in Montecito, California. Ideas for this three-part story on Alaska vacation travel came from my meetings at the Road Show with representatives of travel and tour companies, visitor and convention bureaus, and the U.S. Park Service and Forest Service, as well as my two-week, self-funded trip through Southeast Alaska in 2008).