The elongated Alaska Peninsula marks the extreme western extension of the North American continent. Tapering out into the Bering Sea like a curled crocodile’s tail, it's a jumble of treeless emerald hills, precipitous cliffs and conical snow-capped peaks heavy with reminders of an erstwhile Russian culture and a still surviving Aleut one.
In the east sit Kodiak Island and Katmai National Park where you can indulge in what are, arguably, the best salmon fishing and brown-bear viewing opportunities on the planet.
Equally special are the surreal landscapes of the lower peninsula and the nebulous Aleutian Islands beyond. The Alaska Marine Highway System runs an economical ferry route, weaving its way twice monthly between Kodiak and Dutch Harbor, stopping at half a dozen pin-prick-sized, off-the-grid communities along the way. Replete with breaching whales, smoking volcanoes and poignant WWII sites, this could well be the best water-based excursion in the state.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Southwest Alaska.
This military fort, 4.5 miles northeast of Kodiak, off Monashka Bay Rd, was built by the US Army during WWII to defend against a Japanese invasion that never came. In the end, Kodiak’s lousy weather kept the Japanese bombers away from the island. The fort is now a 186-acre state historical park, sitting majestically on the cliffs above scenic Monashka Bay.
Sure, Katmai National Park & Preserve encompasses four million acres of rippling coastline, volcanic landscapes and mountain-fringed lakes, but the brown bears are the real draw. A population of around 2200 brown bears (that's more than the human population of the entire Alaska Peninsula) live out their days in the park largely undisturbed. Popular spots like Brooks Falls are the surest place to spot them, but the backcountry is prime territory for wild encounters.
The Alutiiqs (not to be confused with the Aleuts) are the subject of this brilliant Alaska Native museum. They were the original inhabitants of the Kodiak archipelago and many of them remain members of the Russian Orthodox Church. Like many native groups, their population was decimated during the 19th century, and the museum protects some precious native heritage.
This small but impressive museum is one of the best native cultural centers in Alaska. It relives the Aleutian story from prehistory through the Russian America period to WWII and the present. Exhibits are broken into sections on Russian colonization, the WWII evacuation of the Aleuts, the modern fishing industry and – most interesting – displays of the tools, boats and grass baskets that allowed these clever and creative people to live in such a harsh environment.
Every year, hundreds of brown bears emerge from hibernation and make their way to Brooks Falls, a small but important waterfall in Katmai National Park. Around the same time, salmon begin their journey up Brooks River to spawn in Brooks Lake upstream. At this crossroads, salmon can be seen leaping into waiting bears' jaws. Brown bear concentrations are at their highest in July, when dozens can often be spotted at or around the falls.
This excellent visitor center focuses on the Kodiak brown bear, the most famous resident of the refuge, with an exhibit room that’s especially well suited to children, a short film on the bears and a bookstore. A variety of kids’ programs are offered, with the schedule posted on the front door. Interested in seeing a big bruin? Stop here first.
In 1996 Congress created this 134-acre national historic area to commemorate the bloody events of WWII that took place on the Aleutian Islands. Most of the park preserves Fort Schwatka, on Mt Ballyhoo, the highest coastal battery ever constructed in the US. Looming 1000ft above the storm-tossed waters of the Bering Sea, the Army fort encompassed more than 100 concrete observation posts, command stations and other structures built to withstand earthquakes and 100mph winds.
Unalaska is dominated by the Cathedral of the Holy Ascension, the oldest Russian-built church still standing in Alaska. It was built in 1825 and then enlarged in 1894, when its floor plan was changed to a pekov (the shape of a crucifix). Overlooking the bay, the church and its onion domes are Unalaska's most iconic symbol. The church contains almost 700 pieces of art, ranging from Russian Orthodox icons and books to the largest collection of 19th-century paintings in Alaska.
A scar in the earth left behind by the massive 1912 Novarupta volcanic eruption, the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes is a stark landscape of deep gorges, volcanic ash and lava flows. In 1916 Robert Griggs led an expedition into the region to examine the eruption's aftermath. He found a valley of thousands of fumaroles (steam and gas vents) emitting clouds of vapor into the sky, hence the valley's name.