Alaska, the 49th State of the Union, Land of the Midnight Sun and the Last Frontier is calling adventurous souls like a siren, beckoning them to discover it’s beauty – from the rugged snow-capped mountain peaks to the miles of ocean shoreline to the small towns and villages that far outnumber populated metropolises.
Alaska Facts and History
Purchased from the Russian Empire in 1867, the transaction quickly became known as “Seward’s Folly” after US Secretary of State William Seward due to a belief that Alaska was an inhospitable and frozen land. The acquisition added 586,412 square miles to the United States, but the Territory remained largely uninhabited until the discovery of gold in 1896 when fortune seekers rushed to the frozen north with dreams of finding golden veins in the ground.
Many were unprepared for the brutal and unforgiving environment of Alaska with its nearly 100,000 glaciers, three million lakes, and 34,000 miles of tidal shoreline. Others, full of grit and determination, carved out a meagre existence developing deep ties, purpose, and respect of their new home bursting with vibrant beauty.
- There are more than 300 small volcanic islands which stretch over 1,200 miles making up the Aleutian Islands
- two of Alaska’s islands, Attu and Kiska, were occupied by Japanese forces during World War II
- Alaska has 20 indigenous languages
Fast forward to present day, Alaska is the largest state in the Union encompassing over 663 thousand square miles – twice the size of the next largest state, Texas which has just over 268 thousand square miles, but still the least populated. Even though much of the state is only accessible by small planes, riverboats, ATV’s, or snowmachine in the winter months there is still so much to see and diversity for travelers to experience.
Since Alaska is on so many people’s bucket list of places to see and because of Alaska’s immense size and diverse landscapes in each region of the state, I would recommend both land and sea excursions.
There are so many places and activities to put on your list when you visit that it can be hard to narrow them down. I have done my best to whittle the list to what I think are the top stops but, these are most definitely not the only stops.
Alaska’s largest city is Anchorage with more than half of the population of the state residing in or on the outskirts of it. It is a bustling hub of activity with museums, nightlife, shopping, summertime open-air markets, and numerous day-trip excursions.
Located on a spit of land that divides the Cook Inlet into two bodies of water – Turnagain Arm and Knik Arm, Anchorage is surrounded by majestic and striking views of mountains and valley’s packed with ancient glaciers. Moose, the largest member of the deer family, are a common sighting in Anchorage. You can encounter them strolling across streets stopping traffic or mamas will hangout in yards eating carefully planted pansies with new babies.
I would highly recommend renting a car during your visit. Anchorage, and Alaska in general (wherever there are maintained roads that is), is easily accessible and having a car would allow you to explore and experience more of Alaska. Drive time by locals is calculated by time rather than miles like other states motorists. Alaska facts about highways, they are called by their name, not highway number. For example, the Parks Highway which runs from Anchorage to Denali National Park is listed as Highway 3 on maps but if you ask for directions to Highway 3, not many people will know which highway you are talking about. Stick with the name, not the number. Another fun fact about Alaska’s roads – most of them only have one name whereas in other states one stretch of road can have as many as 3 – 4.
- Alaska boasts the northernmost (Point Barrow), the easternmost (Pochnoi Point on Semisopochnoi Island in the Aleutians), and the westernmost (Amatignak Island in the Aleutians) points in the United States.
- Of the 20 highest peaks in the United States, 17 are in Alaska. Denali, the highest peak in North America, is 20,320 ft. above sea level.
There are many options for exploring within or near Anchorage. Anchorage is home to several museums and cultural centers, the top ones being the Alaska Native Heritage Center which offers an engaging educational experience of Alaska’s eleven major cultural groups and their rich history; the Alaska Aviation Museum located on Lake Hood (the largest floatplane base in the world) has dozens of historic aircraft displayed and flight simulators; Anchorage Museum – Alaska’s largest museum, has the most encompassing view of Alaska’s history, the diversity of her Native cultures and their art, in addition to a hands-on science center. The Anchorage City Trolley is a quick way to get a snapshot view of Anchorage and its history.
When people tell me they are going to Alaska and want to know if they should check out the land or the sea, I tell them – yes. Meaning, to understand and see the enormity of Alaska you need to do both. The Alaska Railroad has been in operation for over 90 years connecting communities from Seward to Denali National Park. It is a relaxing way to see much of the interior of Alaska riding the rails in train cars with bubble tops and outdoor viewing platforms. To experience a glacier close to Anchorage and a chance to see it ‘calving’ I would recommend the Portage Glacier Cruise. The cruises are about an hour leaving you with plenty of time to explore the Portage area gift shops.
Originally a stopover for gold miners and trappers but it is best known for being the town at the end of the road, last stop for climbers waiting to ascend Denali. Once quiet and sleepy, Talkeetna has morphed into a bohemian sanctuary for artistic souls seeking adventure.
Talkeetna is as eclectic as the people who call it home. Here you can zipline across a canyon, challenge yourself to finish Seward’s Folly – a hamburger at the West Rib Pub that the tv show, Man vs. Food tried to conquer. I ordered it, and let me tell you… it is amazing. I shared it with 4 adults and 3 hungry teenagers – we still didn’t finish.
Denali National Park
Denali National Park located in the central interior of Alaska is a massive preserve encompassing six million acres. The Park, which remains largely unspoiled and wild is easily accessible by vehicle via the Parks Highway or the Alaska Railroad from either Anchorage or Fairbanks – Alaska’s two largest cities.
There are several visitor centers within the park as well as a number of lodging choices ranging from RV camping spaces to “resort villages”. The Park is host to numerous tours operators specializing in showcasing the diversity of preserve from whitewater rafting to hiking to ATV excursions.
Homer is a sea-side fishing hamlet at the end of the Sterling Highway which blends art, culture, and the great outdoors into a diverse conglomerate of unique activities with each feature paying homage to the others. Surrounded by salt marshes of Kachemak Bay, Homer is an exceptionally nutrient-rich intertidal region with the largest estuary research reserve in America. Homer is one of the few places in the world where you can view both glaciers and active volcanoes at the same time.
A distinctive feature of Homer is the 5-mile long “Spit”, a geological phenomenon formed initially by terminal glacial moraine. The Spit is the second-longest in the world and is the summer home of numerous gift shops, restaurants, and camping locations. The Homer Harbor on the Spit is also home to many sailboats and sea vessels including the “Time Bandit” from the tv show Deadliest Catch.
The scenic late 1800s gold rush town of Hope is overlooked by many visitors. It is set 16-miles off the Seward Highway on a narrow picturesque windy road. The historic district of this tiny town still has some of the original buildings from its founding such as the general store, a hundred-year-old bar, and cabins that chronicle the life of the early settlers. Botanist enthusiasts should keep their eyes open for the Alaskan Chocolate Lilly. Little known Alaska Facts – Hope is one of the few places I have seen it in the Alaska Wilds.
One of the best whitewater rafting rivers, Sixmile Creek, runs near Hope. The creek is exceptionally technical and it is highly advised that you are an experienced rafter or to go with a tour guide. Many visitors have misjudged the creek which can look like a lazy-river in some areas but has a drop of 50 feet per mile causing it to be deceptively easy for the inexperienced.
Another sea-side hamlet is Seward. It is bustling with artists, outdoor activities like hiking and fishing, and eclectic eateries. Seward is also the initial starting location of the historic race to supply diphtheria vaccine to the village of Nome in 1925 and the annual 4th of July Mount Marathon Race where runners sprint up the side of the mountain to a stone marker and back down. The race is one of the oldest mountain races in North America draws attendees from around the world.
The Kenai Fjords National Park with Harding Icefield and nearly 40 glaciers are located in Seward’s boundaries. Many of the glaciers can only be seen from the ocean making Seward an ideal location to view glaciers “calving”. Exit Glacier in Seward is one of the few glaciers in Alaska that you can walk on with a self-guided tour. Another self-guided glacier walking tour is Matanuska Glacier a short drive from Anchorage.
- Anderson Memorial Tunnel is the longest combination road and rail tunnel in North America connecting the isolated community of Whittier to the Seward Highway and the rest of Alaska
- Alaska has very few roads connecting communities. The intrastate highway is 1082 miles long and located in the lower area of the state.
The micro-community of Whittier on the Kenai Peninsula is the gateway to the Prince William Sound. The Sound is a destination of immense natural and pristine beauty surrounded by the Chugach National Forest and three of North America’s major ice fields. Established during World War II as a ‘secret port’ by the U.S. Army the town itself is a historical landmark. Two of Whittier’s largest buildings – Begich Towers and The Buckner Building, were built by the Army after the war. Today Begich Towers houses most of Whittier’s population as well as the post office, city hall, and medical center. The Buckner Building, which was built in 1950, was the largest building in Alaska at the time – but is now abandoned.
Prince William Sound is home to an abundance of sea life that makes every visit an adventure both for viewing and fishing. Depending on the time of year, if you have a keen eye can see eagles, whales, sea otters, porpoise. May through September is the best time to fish for halibut, red snapper, sea bass, and salmon. Let me tell you, even non-fish lovers enjoy a meal of Alaskan fish that they caught fresh from the ocean.
This Sea-side hamlet offers a surprising variety of restaurants, cafés, and gift shops featuring local artists. One of my favorite places to eat is Varly’s Swiftwater Seafood Cafe. It doesn’t look like much from the outside, but they offer a variety of fresh caught-practically-out-the-window-you-are-looking-through seafood, homemade chowder, and over 30 ciders, ales, and craft brew to go with your meal.
Alaska – the Great One, the Last Frontier, Land of the Midnight Sun, home of the Last Great Race – challenges you to visit, discover, and explore without falling in love.
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