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Be prepared for a big state – Alaska is huge. Or, as residents love to point out: if Alaska was divided in half it would become the largest two states in the country, dropping Texas to third. At latitudes spanning the Arctic Circle, the main body of Alaska is about 800 sq miles, with the arc of the Aleutian Islands chain stretching some 1600 miles south and west, and a ‘panhandle’ strip running 600 miles southeast down the North American coast.

The coastal regions, such as Southeast and Prince William Sound, have lush coniferous forests, while the Interior is dominated by boreal forest of white spruce, cottonwood and birch. Further north is a taiga zone – a moist, subarctic forest characterized by muskeg, willow thickets and stunted spruce – then the treeless Arctic tundra, with grass, mosses and a variety of tiny flowers thriving briefly in summer.

Alaska’s size is the reason for its extremely variable climate. The Interior can top 90°F (32°C) during the summer, while the Southeast and Southcentral maritime regions will average 55°F (13°C) to 70°F (21°C). In the Southeast it rains almost daily from late September through October, while even a week of good weather in the summer will include a day or two when you need to pull out your rain gear. In winter, residents experience long nights, -50°F (-55°C) temperatures and the mesmerizing northern lights.

The peak tourist season is early July to mid-August, when the best-known parks are packed and it’s essential to make reservations for ferries and accommodations. May and September still have mild weather, it’s less crowded and prices are lower.