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Planning a Trip to Alaska

Purchased from Russia in 1867 for two cents an acre ($7.2 million), Alaska has produced untold wealth for the traveler — in the form of grizzly bear sightings, Eskimo ice cream, tall tales of gold rush men and legendary bush pilots, and endless, pristine wilderness.

But unless you’re John McPhee, blessed with organic sensibility and years to explore, Alaska may seem inscrutable. Figures offer some insight for the would-be adventurer. At 586,412 square miles it’s by far the largest U.S. state (twice the size of Texas), and it would rank 20th on a list of countries, just behind vast, steppe-laden Mongolia. Snow-covered Mt. McKinley rises up to 20,320 feet, making it the highest peak in North America; the enormous (and melting) Bering Glacier is the largest glacier in continental North America. The many native cultures that survive here include the Eskimo, Aleut and Tlingit.

With all its grandeur, visual and numerical, it’s no surprise that 1.5 million visitors come each year to revel in Alaska’s rich history, frontier flavor, delicious seafood, unique wildlife and spectacular scenery. But planning a trip to Alaska may prove as challenging as landing a plane on skis — especially for the first-timer or independent traveler. And its massive size, its endless options and the difficulty of reaching the more remote (but incredibly rewarding) regions mean that careful planning is essential. We’ve outlined some basics on when to go, where to stay, how to get around and what Alaska’s five major regions have to offer.

When to Go to Alaska

Most tourists visit Alaska between mid-May and mid-September, when average temperatures range from the 50’s to the 70’s (or above) and the sun stays out in places above the Arctic Circle for a full 24 hours. If you’re planning to hike a lot, shoot for later in the season (August), when the ground is dryer and the bugs aren’t at their worst (they’re awful early in the season). The popular cruise season, during which the majority of visitors call in Alaska, runs from the end of April through September.

While winter weather is certainly brutal, don’t discount the colder months entirely — it’s the best time to see the Northern Lights or experience one of Alaska’s famous winter festivals, like the Yukon Quest sled dog race. The Alaska Marine Highway ferry system, which connects about 30 odd ports along the southern coast of the state, operates year-round.

Choose Your Destination: Where to Go in Alaska

The state is typically broken down into five regions: the Inside Passage (or Southeast Alaska), a collection of islands and fjords that semi-connect the lower 48 to the Alaskan mainland; Southcentral, the state’s most populous region, and home to Alaska’s largest city, Anchorage; Southwest Alaska, where the Aleutians stretch west like a string of jagged pearls toward Asia; the Interior, with Fairbanks as the gateway to all points Arctic; and the Far North, which extends up to the Arctic. Most tourists stick to one or two regions, and visit via a cruise or packaged tour.

Getting to the Inside Passage (via cruise ship or ferry) and Southcentral (most flights to Alaska come into Anchorage) is a relatively easy, affordable prospect, but accessing points further north and west — especially if you’re after a true wilderness adventure — can involve costly flights to remote locations.

The Inside Passage: Forged millions of years ago by powerful glaciers, Alaska’s Inside Passage is a corridor of loosely connected islands and deep fjords that link the lower 48 (from Puget Sound, Washington) to the Alaska mainland. To the east is Canada; to the west is the Pacific Ocean. The relatively mild climate is ideally suited for bald eagles, humpback whales and sea lions, so wildlife viewing is a major attraction — and with an endless number of sheltered bays and placid stretches of water, touring by kayak is ideal. One of the region’s major attractions is Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, a jagged marine wilderness comprising 16 tidewater glaciers that flow from the surrounding snow-capped mountains. The park, which can only be reached by sea or air, even has snorkeling excursions (with wet suits).

There’s a lengthy list of fascinating coastal towns, like Sitka and Skagway, rich with gold rush history and symbols of Russian heritage, especially in the form of onion-domed churches. Ketchikan is a center for native Tlingit culture, with totem pole parks showcasing the indigenous heritage. The region includes Alaska’s capital city of Juneau, an “urban” center (seriously, the population is around 31,000) with its nearby icy blue Mendenhall Glacier. Juneau is accessible by plane from Seattle, but most travelers visiting the Inside Passage do so via cruise ship.

Southcentral Alaska: Half of Alaska’s population lives in Southcentral Alaska, home to the state’s best road system and the most amenity-laden tourist infrastructure. Anchorage is Alaska’s largest city (population: 293,000+) and cultural hub, and most flights into Alaska land here. The city is connected to the lower 48 by the well-maintained Alaska Highway, which cuts through Canada to get around the islands of the Inside Passage. For many travelers, Anchorage serves as a comfortable base camp for further wilderness exploration. During the snowier months, travelers have easy access to top-notch skiing (alpine and cross-country), snowboarding, dog sledding and ice fishing.

To the south of Anchorage, travelers will find the stunning Kenai Peninsula, location of Homer, the so-called halibut fishing capital of the world, and Seward, gateway to Kenai Fjords National Park — which looks like a postcard from the ice age with its glaciers, mountains and barren rock formations. Prince William Sound, situated on the eastern side of the Kenai Peninsula, offers world-class whale watching for those seeking a peek at humpback, orca and gray whales.

Southwest Alaska: Getting more rugged, Alaska’s less accessible Southwest boasts thousands of miles of Pacific coastline, incredible opportunities to spot bears and birds, and still-active volcanoes. Much of the Southwest can be reached only by plane or boat. The region is also home to numerous native populations, and so offers enriching travel opportunities to learn about indigenous cultures. The inland community of Bethel, located some 40 miles from the Bering Sea, is the administrative hub for more than 50 smaller Native Alaskan villages, and features a yearly traditional native dance festival.

Further south are the Aleutians, an island chain that stretches 1,200 miles west toward Asia, home to numerous charming native fishing villages. Aleuts are believed to have crossed the Bering land bridge between Asia and North America some time during the second ice age (12,000 to 15,000 years ago).

While the fishing enthusiast will find no shortage of world-class angling throughout Alaska, Kodiak Island, located on the eastern side of Southwest Alaska, is one of Alaska’s most important fishing ports. The harbors are filled with hundreds of commercial fishing vessels, and opportunities for deep-sea fishing abound. Kodiak hosts a crab festival over Memorial Day Weekend, complete with fishing-related competitions, art, music and, of course, food.

Interior Alaska: Alaska’s massive central Interior region is home to North America’s tallest peak, the 20,320-foot Mt. McKinley, and the small city of Fairbanks, the gateway city for exploring Alaska’s most unforgiving terrain. Travelers visiting in June can marvel over the 24 hours of light here (a combination of sunlight and twilight). During winter months, Fairbanks’ skies are the stage for the stunning aurora borealis. There are also a handful of developed hot springs near Fairbanks (60 to 170 miles away, that is).

A two-hour drive south from Fairbanks is the much-heralded Denali National Park and Preserve, a wildlife-rich, tundra-covered expanse dotted with mountain lakes — with towering Mt. McKinley and its sister peaks as the backdrop. The Interior is also known for its gold rush history, and more than 100 years after gold was first “discovered,” there are still working gold mines in the region.

Far North: North of Fairbanks, travelers find the mostly untamed Arctic Alaska, which extends 500 miles all the way to the Arctic Ocean. We say “mostly untamed” because stretching north/south along the unimaginably desolate Dalton Highway is the 800-mile-long Trans-Alaska Pipeline, which brings barrel upon barrel of oil south from Prudhoe Bay.

Around the summer solstice, the sun never sets in this part of the world (it never rises during the winter solstice) and no one but the hardiest of folks — including the Inupiat and Yup’ik people — call the region home. The limited number of travelers who do make it here, the vast majority of whom visit during the summer months, get a nearly unadulterated look at undisturbed Alaska. Wildlife abounds, with brown bears, moose, musk ox, wolves and even polar bears traversing the lands. Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve is situated here — a huge expanse four times the size of Yellowstone, studded by two massive ice-covered peaks. Another spectacular Far North destination is the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR or Arctic Refuge), a key calving area for more than 150,000 porcupine caribou as well as the center for a hot-button “to drill or not to drill” debate.

Most attractions in the Far North are only reachable by air. Travelers who are going to spend any amount of time trekking through the untamed Far North bush must bring everything they need to survive — or make the smart choice and book a trip with a full-service adventure tour provider.

Slightly more tourist friendly is Nome, a town rich with gold rush history, and the famous ending point for the yearly Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race (held in March). Another “popular” destination is the 3,500-resident Inupiat Eskimo village of Kotzebue, which features a museum of native history and serves as a taking off point for rafting and float trips. Both towns are accessible only by plane.

Getting Around Alaska

With so much of Alaska undeveloped and inaccessible by road (or at least difficult to navigate), traveling in the 49th state poses a unique set of problems. The necessity of taking float-planes to some remote destinations can make for a costly adventure. While taking the train is an incredibly scenic option, it’s also limited in scope. There are only two rail lines in Alaska, and one is a 67.5-mile tourist line. Bus travel isn’t very flexible and typically only takes place between May and September. While the road system is decent, especially around Anchorage and on the Alaska Highway system, it can only take you so far.

Cruise: The single most popular way to visit Alaska is by cruise ship. Sailing from late April to September, Alaska cruises predominantly focus on the Inside Passage, with the most common stops being Ketchikan, Skagway, Juneau and Glacier Bay. Some ships reach Kodiak Island in the Southwest and some even call in the Aleutians en route across the Pacific to Asia. Most Alaska cruises either sail roundtrip from Vancouver or Seattle, or travel one way between Seward and Vancouver.

The biggest names in cruising — Princess, Carnival, Celebrity, Holland America, Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean — all offer voyages to the region on amenity-laden ships (hot tubs, multiple dining options, Vegas-style entertainment) carrying between 1,000 and 3,000 passengers.

But if you cringe at the thought of a big-ship cruise, there are numerous small-ship options. Lindblad Expeditions emphasizes education on its 62-passenger ships in the region, each with a staff of onboard naturalists as well as an undersea specialist and a photography instructor. Another small-ship option is American Safari Cruises, which offers Inside Passage eco-cruises on its three 12- to 86-passenger mega-yachts. The appeal of small ships is that they can visit ports the mega-ships simply can’t. The scenic fishing village of Petersburg, with its combination of Norwegian and Tlingit cultures, is only accessible by small ship, and provides a welcome break from the high-season crowds of Alaska’s more popular cruise ports.

Charter Boat: If you can pull together 3 – 20 like-minded friends (the more you gather, the more you can divide the costs), charter a boat. There are various choices, from two- or three-nighters to a week or more; all come with cook and captain. Small-boat chartering in Alaska means itinerary flexibility and the most intimate cruise option possible. Sail from Seattle to Sitka or work with the captain to design a more specialized route (say, exploring the inlets around Juneau or sailing from Sitka to Ketchikan). Meals and snacks are included in the costs, and often feature “catch of the day”-type fare, as well as crab and shrimp bakes. Excursions may include beach and rain forest hiking, fishing, kayaking (most charters are equipped with kayaks and smaller skiffs), wet-suit diving, whale watching, and visits to hot springs and waterfalls — all there to be enjoyed whenever the opportunity presents itself.

Just about everything you would need for the voyage is included onboard (foul weather gear, fishing equipment, etc.). Bringing your own beer/snacks is perfectly acceptable.

This can be a pricey proposition depending on when you go — off-season and shoulder season sailings can offer decent savings. Pay a visit to the AlaskaCharterBoat.com to scout out deals.

Ferry: A third by-sea option is the Alaska Marine Highway ferry system, known affectionately as Blue Canoes. The year-round service relies on 11 ships (174 – 600 passengers) to connect some 35 communities — from Bellingham in Washington State all the way up to Skagway and the Aleutians — over thousands of nautical miles. Established more than 40 years ago, the Blue Canoes are a no-frills option for scenic cruise travel and transportation between Alaskan port communities. Buy a ticket between two ports, get off and stay for a few days, then hop back on the next ferry that glides through.

In standard ferry mode, you can bring your kayak, your bicycle, your vehicle — car, truck, RV or motorcycle — or even your pet along with you. Campers and trekkers will find this mode of travel ideal for penetrating some of the less accessible portions of Alaska’s coastline, with stunning views along the way. You can either book a cabin with in-suite facilities, or rough it in your sleeping bag in the heated solariums and out on deck. Hot meals are available “cafeteria style” on most ferries, and two of the larger vessels have full-service dining rooms. You can also bring food and beverages onboard. There are no refrigerators available onboard (but there are microwaves and ice machines).

Plane: To reach many of Alaska’s most sought-after destinations, taking to the air may be your only option. Alaska Airlines is the state’s main airline, offering service to some 20 destinations throughout the state, including flights to the Aleutians, Nome, Sitka and the Far North oil company town of Prudhoe Bay.

For accessing even more remote areas that require a lake or ice landing (on floats or skis!), chartering a small float-plane may be the only way to go. Charters work on an hourly rate for the whole plane (that’s to drop you off and for the pilot to take the plane back to his or her next destination). For instance, Alaska Air Taxi offers a Cessna 206 with tundra tires and five insured seats for $500 per hour for the plane.

On the tourist front, an endless array of flightseeing excursions (by plane or helicopter) are available. For instance, tour companies will take you over glaciers (Wrangell Mountain Air offers a 35-minute tour over Kennicott Glacier) or up to Mt. McKinley (K2 Aviation runs an hour-long experience).

Train: While somewhat limited in scope, traveling by Alaska’s rail system is one of the most stunning ways to see the state. With onboard guides included in the fare, it’s a great opportunity to spot wildlife as you take in the passing lakes, rivers and mountains. Special dome cars on the Denali Star train, which runs the Fairbanks to Anchorage route, offer incredible panoramic views. Some of the trains even feature dining cars.

There are two railroad options. The Alaska Railroad connects Seward to Anchorage (4.5 hours); Anchorage to Denali National Park (the foot of Mt. McKinley, 8 hours); and Anchorage to Fairbanks (12 hours). The train runs on a daily basis from mid-May to mid-September. Winter service (operating the rest of the year) is offered only on weekends. A second system, the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad, offers a variety of day trips, including the 40-mile roundtrip White Pass Summit Excursion.

Car: Driving in Alaska provides the most flexible travel option — but it’s also an incredibly time-consuming proposition that could cover hundreds or thousands of miles. Anchorage and Fairbanks have the best road systems, and the whole state can be covered (during the summer months at least) from north to south via the Alaska Highway, which connects the lower 48 all the way up to Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic. Distances between destinations can be pretty vast, so fuel costs can rack up quickly — and it’s a good idea to have some basic repair items on hand such as a spare tire, and various wrenches and fluids.

Car and RV rentals are available; keep in mind that one-way rentals are significantly more expensive. Before your trip, it’s a good idea to check road conditions on the Web site of the Alaska Department of Transportation (http://www.dot.state.ak.us).

Bus: For bus travelers, there are several small companies serving Alaska’s main routes, from Seward and Whitter, where cruise ships embark, up to Fairbanks, either by way of Denali National Park (directly north of Anchorage) or Tok (you swing northeast to Tok, then northwest to Fairbanks). Naturally, bus travel offers less flexibility and more planning than car travel, and you should be prepared for a long ride. While buses run year-round in the state’s population centers, frequency of routes may vary depending on season, and depending on the route, you may find yourself in a big motorcoach with panoramic windows or a more modest 15-passenger van — both typically have a driver/guide.

A few companies that serve various Alaskan destinations include Alaska Park Connection, Homer Stage Line, Seward Bus Line and Interior Alaska Bus Line. Gray Line of Alaska offers day trips and multi-day tourist packages.

Alaska Lodging

Lodging in Alaska runs the gamut from off-road camping (pull the car over and set up shop — it’s legal unless designated otherwise) to luxury wilderness lodges with all the amenities.

On the bottom end of the spectrum is camping, the traveler’s best friend when it comes to visiting Alaska on the cheap. There are campsites throughout the state, ranging from the free and bare-bones to the fully-hooked-up RV sites with shower facilities, toilets and a snack bar or restaurant. Alaska’s Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation has a solid list of the public options, including info on fees and facilities. Finding an aggregate of commercial campgrounds is more difficult, but an Internet search should yield results.

For the budget-conscious traveler who needs a break from camping, there are a few dozen affordable hostels spread out through the state. There are also some 200 rentable cabins (first come, first served) located on public lands spread throughout the state. These often isolated accommodations may be located on lakes, along shorelines, in alpine areas or by trails. They typically have a heating stove, sleeping bunks, tables and chairs, and an outhouse. Renters are responsible for bringing their own supplies, including food, bedding and cooking supplies. To find these, the Web site for Alaska’s Public Lands Information Centers will get you headed in the right direction.

Bed and breakfasts are available throughout the state and have the added incentive of provided a hearty meal to get travelers started before a day of hiking or kayaking. Accommodations range from the very basic — a spare room in someone’s home during the tourist season — to full-fledged log cabins for rent, which are available year-round.

On the upscale side are amenity-laden luxury wilderness lodges, which include gourmet meals, beer and wine, daily guide service, private cabins, fishing and kayaking excursions, and even morning yoga classes. Luxe examples include Kachemak Bay Wilderness Lodge near Homer and Winterlake Lodge, located about 200 miles north of Anchorage along the Iditarod trail.

Packing Essentials and Staying Safe

When it comes to packing, a good pair of warm, waterproof hiking boots and solid waterproof rain protection are key (especially in places like rainy Ketchikan, when the downpours can come fast and furious). Layering clothing is also essential, as weather swings can be dramatic at night or during the day when a dense cloud covers the sun. But the most important item, in our opinion, is bug spray. Mosquitos are often referred to as the state bird, and you’ll need to bring the most potent bug spray you can buy to repel these monsters.

With certain regions getting so much summer sun, sunscreen becomes another must-pack item. Binoculars and extra memory cards/batteries for your camera (you’ll never see a photo that you don’t want to take) round out our list. If you’re looking for a more intense experience, trekking and/or camping equipment naturally becomes important. See 3 Must-Pack Items for a Trip to Alaska and our Interactive Packing List for more suggestions.

On the safety front, many travelers’ greatest concern is of a bear attack. The good news is that attacks are incredibly rare — the vast majority of the time, the bear wants nothing to do with you and will have heard you coming long before you hear or see it. Some experts recommend making loud noise (or using a “bear bell”) as you hike, just to be sure that any nearby creature gets the message that you’re coming through. For greater safety, hike with a group and carry bear repellent spray (similar to pepper spray, but formulated slightly differently).

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