Bears larger than bison, national parks the size of nations, and glaciers bigger than other US states. The word ‘epic’ barely does Alaska justice.
Wondrous Wilderness & Outdoor Playground
Wilderness – land free of strip malls, traffic jams and McDonald’s restaurants – is the best attraction Alaska has to offer. Within Alaska is the largest national park in the country (Wrangell-St Elias), the largest national forest (Tongass), and the largest state park (Wood-Tikchik). This is where people play outdoors. During 20-hour days, they climb mountains, canoe wilderness rivers, strap on crampons and trek across glaciers. In July they watch giant brown bears snagging salmon; in November they head to Haines to see thousands of bald eagles gathered at the Chilkat River. They hoist a backpack and follow the same route that the Klondike stampeders did a century earlier or spend an afternoon in a kayak, bobbing in front of a 5-mile-wide glacier continually calving icebergs into the sea around them. In Alaska these are more than just outdoor adventures. They are natural experiences that can permanently change your way of thinking.
The Biggest State of Them All
Alaska is big and so is everything about it. There are mountains and glaciers in other parts of North America, but few on the same scale or as overpowering as those in Alaska. At 20,320ft, Mt McKinley is not only the highest peak in North America, it’s also a stunning sight when you catch its alpenglow in Wonder Lake. The Yukon is the third-longest river in the USA, Bering Glacier is larger than Switzerland, and Arctic winters are one long night while Arctic summers are one long day. The brown bears on Kodiak Island have been known to stand 14ft tall; the king salmon in the Kenai River often exceed 70lb; in Palmer they grow cabbages that tip the scales at 127lbs. A 50ft-long humpback whale breaching is not something easily missed, even from a half mile away.
Far, Far Away
The 49th state is the longest trip in the USA and probably the most expensive. From elsewhere in the country it takes a week on the road, two to three days on a ferry, or a $700 to $900 airline ticket to reach Alaska. Once there, many visitors are overwhelmed by the distances between cities, national parks and attractions. Alaskan prices are the stuff of legends. Still, the Final Frontier is on the bucket list of most adventurous travelers, particularly those enamored of the great outdoors. Those who find the time and money to visit the state rarely regret it.
Meet the People
Isolation fosters peculiarities. A trip into the Alaskan wilderness can be as much about the off-beat people as the off-the-beaten-track location. Take tiny Chitina with its handful of subsistence-hunting locals, or the crusty boom-and-bust town of Nome, or the jokey gold-mining punch line that is Chicken. Ever since the US bought Alaska for 2 cents an acre in 1867, the land that styles itself as America’s last frontier has attracted contrarians, rat-race escapees, wanderers, dreamers, back-to-the-landers and people imbued with the spirit of the Wild West. In a land of immense natural beauty, the Alaskan people are an oft-forgotten part of the brew.
The Call of the Wild
Pure, raw, unforgiving, and humongous in scale, Alaska is a place that arouses basic instincts and ignites what Jack London termed the 'call of the wild’. Yet, unlike London and his gutsy, gold-rush companions, visitors today will have a far easier time penetrating the region's vast, feral wilderness. Indeed, one of the beauties of the 49th state is its accessibility. Nowhere else in North America is it so easy to climb an unclimbed mountain, walk where – quite possibly – no human foot has trodden before, or sally forth into a national park that gets fewer annual visitors than the International Space Station.
People-watching takes second place to wildlife-spotting in a state where brown bears snatch leaping salmon out of angry waterfalls and curious moose pose majestically on national park roadsides. But the real thrill for wilderness purists is to go off in search of fauna in its natural habitat. Fly out into unguarded backcountry and you'll quickly get the sense of swapping your seat on a bush plane for one in the food chain. The landscapes of the far north might be the domain of musk oxen, gray wolves and bears, but, keep your wits about you, and they’ll quietly accept you as a guest.
Why I Love Alaska
By Brendan Sainsbury, Author
Like many travelers, I am drawn to roads less traveled, isolated frontier regions where spontaneity and excitement rule over certainty and home comforts. Alaska, for me, fits all of these requirements. Challenging, unpolished and, on occasions, a hard nut to crack, it is, in many ways, the antithesis of the country where I grew up (the UK). Like a stranger in a strange land, I never fail to be astonished by the state’s extremes and gaping lack of people. And though travel here isn’t always easy, it’s a constant education.
Just do it
Alaska is, without a doubt, America’s grittiest outdoor playground where skilled bush pilots land with pinpoint accuracy on crevasse-riddled glaciers, and backcountry guiding companies take bravehearts on bracing paddles down almost virgin rivers. With scant phone coverage and a dearth of hipster-friendly coffee bars to plug in your iPad, this is a region for 'doing' rather than observing. Whether you go it alone with bear-spray and a backpack, or place yourself in the hands of an experienced ’sourdough’ (Alaskan old-timer), the rewards are immeasurable.