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Alaska
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Alaska

Alaskan Glacier © Guy Cazelet
The Alaskan interior has over 50,000 glaciers, 3,000 rivers and three million lakes.

The Last Frontier

Alaska, with its immense tracts of pristine wilderness, is quite possibly the most beautiful state in the USA. The name itself is based on the Eskimo word meaning "great lands," which only begins to describe its near limitless coasts, countless inland waterways and great snow-capped mountain ranges.

Alaska has diverse features and extreme climates

The most impressive aspect of Alaska is its size. It covers nearly 600,000 square miles (1,500,000 sq. km.) with over 33,000 miles (55,000 km) of shoreline and 1,800 islands. The interior has over 50,000 glaciers, 3,000 rivers and three million lakes. It contains 17 of the 20 highest mountain peaks in the USA including the 20,320 feet (6,194 meter) Denali.

Alaska's two "panhandles" reach southward to embrace the warm Pacific Ocean currents which bless them with surprisingly moderate climates for such northern lands. On the western handle, the volcanically active Aleutian Islands extend over 1,000 miles into the northwestern Pacific where they enjoy cool summers and only moderately cold winters. The eastern handle extending down along the coast of northern Canada enjoys cool summers, mild winters and the most rainfall in North America.

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The Interior plateau of Alaska suffers an extreme continental climate with surprisingly warm summers and fiercely cold winters. Temperatures can reach 100 F (+38 C) in the summer and drop below -55 F (-48 C) in the winter. The North Slope along the Arctic Coast is classic arctic tundra, a treeless semi-desert climate with extremely cold winters.

Summer days and winter nights become very long at these high latitudes. As you travel further north in Alaska, the summer days can stretch up to 22 hours. Alaskan natives call this "the land of the midnight sun." Equally long winter nights often bring spectacular displays of dancing celestial lights known as the Aurora Borealis.

Alaska has lots of attractions and few people

Alaska is very thinly populated with less than one person per square mile. Most of the population is concentrated in a few cities and towns along the coast. The native population includes the Inuit living primarily along the coast of the arctic Bering Sea, the Aleuts living on the islands of the western panhandle, and Native Americans (Indians) living mostly along the eastern panhandle. The current population also includes many migrants from the "lower 48" states plus European and Asian immigrants.

The scenic attractions of Alaska can be divided into several distinct areas with the city of Anchorage roughly at the center. Copper Valley, Mat-Su Valley, the Kenai Peninsula and Chena River State Recreation Area are all located near Anchorage, and are readily accessible by car or ferryboat. Many excursion cruises and charter boats depart from Anchorage, Seward or the nearby port of Homer to visit the beautiful Kenai fjords, Kodiak Island with its large population of wildlife, and Prince William Sound. It is also possible to visit the Aleutian Islands of the southwest panhandle from there, but that requires a much longer boat ride or a commuter flight.

You need a floatplane or boat to see most of this state

Denali National Park and Fairbanks lie north of Anchorage and can be reached from the city on Route 3 or from the Canadian border via the Alaska Highway. It is possible to reach the vast majority of the interior only by charter floatplane or by boats along the inland waterways. Fortunately, Alaska has a huge number of "bush pilots" with small aircraft willing to taxi you almost anywhere for a fee.

The islands and towns of the southeastern panhandle are most easily reached by commuter plane. You can drive only to Skagway or to Haines via the Alaska Highway. Alaska Marine Highway ferries travel from Bellingham, Washington, or Prince Rupert, Canada, to Sitka, Juneau and Haines with numerous stops at many of the shoreline communities. They can be a very convenient means of transportation between the seaside towns along the panhandle.

There are four ways to get to Alaska from the continental United States: air, boat, train or car. Although Juneau is the state capitol, most flights go in and out of Fairbanks or Anchorage, since they are larger and provide easy access to more of the state. There are daily direct flights from most major cities in the "lower 48" states. Within the state, there are frequent commuter flights between cities plus charter helicopters and small planes providing transportation to the more remote locations.

You can travel by luxurious cruise line or inexpensive ferry

Dawson City, Yukon Territory, Canada © Guy Cazelet
Dawson City, Yukon Territory, Canada

Several commercial cruise lines offer wonderful 4 to 7-day excursions departing from Seattle or Vancouver, Canada. They usually follow the coastline up to Prince William Sound and back with glacier viewing, whale watching and stopovers in Sitka and Skagway. A combined land-sea excursion often includes a visit to Denali and other interior attractions. Cruises can be expensive, but they are a very comfortable way to see Alaska.

As a less expensive alternative, try the ferries of the Inland Marine Highway. They depart weekly from Bellingham, 70 miles north of Seattle, to Sitka, Juneau, Skagway and Haines, with stops at many coastal villages on the way. For about $250, you can purchase a ticket that allows you to hop on and off the boats at any of the stops. Cabins cost extra, but you are welcome to spread your sleeping bag on one of the many chaise longues in the solarium or even to pitch your tent on the open deck. The trip takes about 3 days.

The Alaska Highway is a long scenic way to travel

There is no direct railroad connection between the "lower 48" states and Alaska. Once inside the state, 470 miles of railroad extend from Seward, through Denali to Fairbanks. The trains are very comfortable with large windows and domed observation cars for scenic viewing. Despite the harsh winters, this railroad runs all year round.

Finally, the brave and hearty spirited folks can drive the infamous Alaska Highway. It starts at Dawson Creek in British Columbia and ends 1,422 miles north in Delta Junction Alaska. The road was first built during World War II and was unpaved for much of its bumpy potholed length. Now, it is in good condition and used by many thousands of brave travelers every year. From Seattle to Fairbanks is a drive of over 2,300 miles. It usually requires about four or five days of driving to navigate the full length of the Alaska Highway.

Safety Tips

Whether you are a hunter, angler, photographer, naturalist, snow lover or just someone who appreciates unspoiled wilderness, you will fall in love with this great state. But, whenever you go to Alaska, winter or summer, you should always remember that it is still a wild land. You should always take safety precautions, like letting someone know your itinerary. The winters can be harsh and overwhelming, so be sure to pack plenty of cold weather gear. During the summer the greatest threat comes from bears. When hiking, you should always make plenty of noise to avoid startling any bear. Some people even recommend attaching small bells to your pack and carrying pepper spray for defense.

Written by: Carla Lee Suson
Top Photo Credit: © Guy Cazelet
Photo Description: Crystal Cruise Lines Harmony at Hubbard Glacier Alaska