Alaska Travel Guide: Overview
The 49th state in the Union is situated northwest of Canada’s Yukon Territory and is partially within the Arctic Circle, but it’s wholly within its own eccentric and epic universe. Only 740,000 people call Alaska home, and they’re dispersed across 591,000 square miles (twice the size of Texas). If Manhattan had the same population density, only 28 people would live there! Wildlife, including bears, salmon, caribou, wolves and moose, abound. “Nightlife” takes on a different meaning in towns like Barrow, where the sun doesn’t reach the sky for 67 days in winter. Mountain ranges stack against the horizon. Glaciers hulk over tumbling rivers. Northern lights dance above subzero tundra. More than just a state, the “Last Frontier” lives up to its reputation as one of the world’s last great wild places.
Between 10,000 and 40,000 years ago, the first humans arrived in present-day Alaska from Siberia—most likely by walking across the Bering Land Bridge from Asia. Native Americans can trace their lineage to these nomadic people. Those who stayed north went on to establish such tribes as the Aleuts, Inuit and Yupik. Harsh living conditions forced these cultures to develop extremely advanced hunting and fishing techniques.
Russians arrived in the 1740s, and as fur began to dominate trade in the region, they eventually settled in the area by 1784. When stocks declined, Russia sold its territories to the United States in 1867 for two cents an acre. It marked one of history’s great land acquisitions. The challenging habitat of Alaska’s wilderness, however, didn’t attract many US settlers until gold was discovered in the 1880s. The ensuing gold rush established permanent towns, such as Nome and Fairbanks, in Alaska’s interior for the first time.
As gold strikes waned, the population declined until World War II. Following a Japanese invasion of the Aleutian Islands, Alaska proved geographically significant, and the US federal government began to build highways, airfields, docks and railroads. By 1959, President Eisenhower signed the Alaska Statehood Act, officially making Alaska the Union’s 49th state.
On Good Friday morning in 1964, North America’s most powerful earthquake ever recorded—a 9.2 on the Richter scale—hit Southcentral Alaska. This significantly interrupted Alaska’s new era of growth. Over 100 people died, and damage was estimated at $500 million. Office buildings sank 10 feet into the ground in Anchorage; a tidal wave destroyed the harbor town of Valdez; 32 feet of coastline disappeared into the Gulf of Alaska in Kodiak and Seward; and the sea rose 16 feet and swallowed the port of Cordova.
The discovery of oil under Prudhoe Bay in the Arctic Ocean in 1968 helped the fledgling state get back on its economic feet, but not before intense controversy erupted between environmentalists, Native Alaskans and industry members. Eventually they came to an agreement that allowed construction of a 789-mile pipeline worth $8 billion (in 1977 dollars) to transport the oil to a warm-water port.
For a decade, oil was everything. At times, the industry generated as much as 90 percent of the state-government revenue. The Alaska Permanent Fund was created, which pays dividend checks to residents to this day.
In 1989, the Exxon Valdez, which was carrying almost 11 million gallons of crude oil, hit a reef and spilled its contents into Prince William Sound. The spill spread 600 miles and contaminated nearly 1,500 miles of shoreline. Approximately 100,000 to 250,000 birds and nearly 3,000 sea otters were killed, and fish populations are only recently recovering from the devastation.
Alaska faced another economic downturn in the early 1990s as oil production declined and the Cold War ended, slowing the influx of federal personnel and resources. Other traditional industries that relied on finite resources, such as logging, mining and commercial fishing, also began to slow.
Today, the resource that could end up being most important to Alaska’s future is the very thing that once made it so inhospitable to early arrivals: its expansive wilderness. Tourism now brings some two million visitors to the state per year, and more and more people are drawn to the abundant wildlife and endless scenic wonders that make Alaska such a unique destination in the modern world.
Alaska’s native cultures trace their roots back to the intrepid humans who first crossed from Asia to North America across the land bridge. For millennia, these people lived as nomadic hunter-gatherers, and over this time, they developed survival strategies in an unforgiving environment. Hunting, fishing, whaling and other subsistence living skills were honed, and many traditional villages still use some form of these techniques.
Today, Alaska Natives make up 16 percent of the state’s resident population. That’s the highest percentage of any US state. While many traditions have been altered or lost since the arrival of European colonists, over 20 different languages are still used in 11 distinct cultural regions. This includes the Athabaskan, Tlingit-Haida, Tsimishian, Eskimo and Aleut peoples. Remnants of ancient eras can be seen in the art, dances, clothing, cuisine, spiritual practices and family dynamics of today’s Native Alaskans.
Since the arrival of Europeans, Alaska’s culture has expanded to include other traditions, such as the iconic Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, multiple music festivals (notable contemporary Alaskan musicians include Jewel and Portugal. The Man), the World Ice Art Championships in Fairbanks, the Blueberry Festival in Ketchikan and the Sitka Whale Fest in Wrangell.
Good to Know
When traveling in Alaska, keep some of the following in mind:
As a US state, Alaska uses the US dollar. ATMs are available in larger towns but might not be present in smaller communities. Credit cards are accepted in bigger cities but might not be at some more rural establishments or in communities off the beaten tourist path. Due to its remote nature and the fact many parts of Alaska are only accessible by air or water, prices for most goods are typically higher than in the lower 48.
Tipping in Alaska follows standard US guidelines. Anywhere from 15 to 20 percent for waitstaff and other service industry personnel is sufficient. Drivers, fishing guides and sight-seeing pilots typically receive around 5 to 10 percent for excellent service on tours.
Alaska is a quirky and casual place. Dressing up usually means putting on jeans. Occasionally, a high-end lodge might have an established dress code, but this typically involves just a jacket for men.
Wine, Beer and Spirits
Most Alaskan towns have liquor stores where alcohol can be purchased, but some small bush communities—where alcoholism is, unfortunately, a common problem—are either “dry” (no alcohol allowed) or “damp” (no alcohol can be sold).
Anchorage draws its water from the snowy Chugach Mountains and, therefore, has delicious, safe tap water. Much of rural Alaska, however, isn’t as lucky and lacks the infrastructure needed to ensure safe tap water. If you’re arriving in a new area and are unsure about the water’s quality, ask the staff at your hotel or a local guide.
The Midnight Sun
Because of its northern geography, Alaska experiences exceedingly long hours of daylight in the summer and exceedingly long hours of darkness in the winter. Alaskans embrace the long hours of sunlight in the summer, and they don’t let the darkness slow them down in the winter—and neither should you!
When To Visit Alaska
Deciding when to travel to Alaska depends a lot on what you want to see and do during your visit. Most tourists arrive between mid-May through mid-September to enjoy long, warm days filled with blooming summer flora. Denali has a slightly shorter summer peak season, from mid-June to the end of August, due to its higher altitude and significant winter snows.
Temperatures during summer peak range from 60 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit. On June 21st, the longest day of the year, visitors in Anchorage will experience 19 hours of sunlight (or 22 in Fairbanks!). Rain is common during the summer months, especially by August when there is typically a 50% chance of precipitation every day, and nighttime temps can dip towards 40 degrees Fahrenheit. In general, preparing to experience all seasons and conditions no matter when you visit Alaska is a good rule of thumb – good gear and lots of layers help manage the sometimes fickle weather.
Winter turns Alaska into a cold, dark other-worldly and still uniquely beautiful place. From mid-September through late April, the aurora borealis, or northern lights, often make it worth braving the bitter temps to witness.
Other special events may draw visitors during specific times of the year, such as the Iditarod sled dog race which always begins the first Saturday in March.
A state as big as Alaska has a lot to discover. Did you know…
- Of the twenty highest mountains in the United States, seventeen are in Alaska.
- There is a law against giving a moose a beer in the state legislature.
- Because days last so long during the summer months, Alaskans can grow some seriously over-sized produce. Examples include a 35-pound broccoli, a 65-pound cantaloupe and a 138-pound cabbage.
- Alaska has more coastline that the other 49 states combined.
- Barrow doesn’t see the sun for 67 days in winter – but also doesn’t see the sun set for 82 days during summer!
- The lowest temperature ever recorded in the United States was negative eighty degrees Fahrenheit in Alaska’s Endicott Mountains.
- The famous Big Dipper / North Star design on the state flag was created by a 13-year-old student in the mid-1920s.
Regions and Cities
Alaskan towns tend to be spread apart and are sparsely populated, and much of the state is all but inaccessible by road. It’s worth the effort, however, to make it to just a few of these unique spots for the outdoor and cultural adventures they offer:
Welcome to Alaska’s least populated region—bordered by Canada to the east, the Chukchi Sea to the west, the Brooks Range to the south and the Arctic Ocean to the north. It’s a place where caribou outnumber residents, trees cannot grow on the inhospitable permafrost tundra, and on November 18, the sun sets and doesn’t rise again until January 24. (Conversely, when the sun rises on May 10, it doesn’t set again until August 2.)
Sitting 330 miles above the Arctic Circle, Barrow is the northernmost town in the United States. Home to Alaska’s largest Inupiat community, who call the town “Utqiagvik,” this rugged, isolated and perpetually winterized community offers a glimpse into what life looks like at the edge of the world.
Extending south of the Brooks Range all the way down to the Alaska Range, this huge region encompasses nearly two-thirds of the state. The Arctic Circle cuts through the northern part of this region, which is filled with an astonishing mix of mountains, rivers, tundra and forests of birch, aspen, alder and spruce.
As the only major town for hundreds of miles and the only city in Alaska’s interior, Fairbanks tends to be a popular spot to find travelers connecting north to the Artic, east to Canada or south to Denali.
Few roads enter this region, which extends from the Arctic Circle south to Bristol Bay and west to the Bering Sea. To get here, you’ll need to hop on a boat or a plane—or a dog sled if you arrive during the frozen winter months.
Nome is a ramshackle town braced against the winds and storms of the Bering Strait, and the frontier mentality still dominates here. Most visitors come in March to watch the final lap of the Iditarod.
Fierce storms batter this wildlife-rich region, which sits atop the Ring of Fire in a 1,500-mile arc separating the Bering Sea from the Northern Pacific. It also includes the Alaska Peninsula and the Aleutian Islands. Commercial fishers, such as those featured in the popular show Deadliest Catch, work the rough seas, while many tourists head out on lakes or rivers in the hope of landing a trophy salmon or trout.
The Kodiak Archipelago, a large island group in Southwest Alaska, is a continuation of the Kenai Mountain Range, which begins 90 miles north. Kodiak Island, the largest island in the archipelago and the second-largest island anywhere in the United States, is perhaps best known as the home of the Kodiak bear, a unique subspecies of brown bear (comparable in size to polar bears) that migrated from the mainland at the end of the last ice age. Kodiak, the main town on the island, began as the capital of “Russian America.” Onion dome architecture and other vestiges of this heritage are still visible today, but Kodiak is now more known for being a major fishing port.
More than two-thirds of the entire Alaskan population live in this region. Natural borders include the Gulf of Alaska to the south, the Chugach Mountains to the east, the Aleutian Range to the west and the Alaska Range to the north. Visitors have their pick of outdoor endeavors in this region, including everything from climbing mountains and hiking valleys to kayaking Prince William Sound and fishing in mighty rivers. A strong native population, including Athabaskans, Yupik Eskimos and Aleuts, also call this region home.
As Alaska’s largest city, Anchorage is a mix of parks, restaurants, museums and suburbs. Nearly half of Alaskans lives here, and almost every visitor to the state passes through the city, either via its international airport or the two roads that head from town into the heart of spectacular wilderness.
“Alaska’s Panhandle” runs 500 miles along the northern part of Alaska’s Inside Passage. The Coastal Mountains, which mark the border between Alaska and Canada, catch warm, wet air from the Pacific. This cools as it hits the higher elevations and forms heavy clouds that dump over 200 inches of rain into the region each year. The temperate rain forests in present-day Tongass National Forest developed here over thousands of years because of this rain shadow effect. Native Tlingit, Haida and Tsihshian tribes live here and take advantage of its deer- and salmon-rich ecosystem.
An oddball state capital, Juneau isn’t connected by road to any place of note, and many Alaskans have long talked about moving their government hub elsewhere. For outdoor adventurers, however, Juneau offers incredible options for hiking and for viewing bears, glaciers and whales.
Worth a Visit
The Inside Passage
Many tourists experience this ecologically diverse waterway from the deck of a giant cruise ship; hop on the smaller ferries, water taxis or seaplanes for a much more up-close-and-personal view of the region’s rain forests, glaciers, fjords, islands, mountains and coastal towns.
The Aleutian Islands
Active volcanos, ancient Aleut villages, agate beaches, wave-sculpted coastlines and an impressive array of wildlife define the remote Aleutian Islands. There’s no denying it’s a tough destination to get to, but once there, you’ll have your pick of everything from outdoor adventures to historical tours. The Aleutians played an important role in WWII, and Quonset huts, barracks and bunkers still remain in many sites, particularly in the Dutch Harbor area.
Alaskan National Parks: A Few of Our Favorites
Perhaps the most famous of Alaska’s national parks, Denali takes its name from the majestic peak that stands proudly in the heart of the park and is visible on a clear day all the way from Anchorage, which is 130 miles away. Named for the Athabascan word meaning “the high one,” 20,320-foot Denali is North America’s highest peak. Moose, grizzly bears, caribou and wolves call this 6 million-acre park home, and despite being bigger than Massachusetts, only one road cuts across it, making travel here a truly wild experience.
Mountains. Fjords. Glaciers. Rain forest. This 3.3 million-acre park has it all. As part of a larger 25 million-acre World Heritage site, it encapsulates the best there is to see and to do in Alaska’s Inside Passage.
Wrangell–St. Elias National Park covers 13.2 million acres, making it bigger than Yellowstone and Yosemite National Parks combined! Although it’s the largest national park in America, it’s one of the least visited, due in part to its location far from any larger city, town or access point. Wrangell–St. Elias is about as wild an area as one can find. Containing endless wildlife, glaciers and rugged scenery, Wrangell–St. Elias spans from the ocean to its highest point at over 18,000 feet. For many visitors, it represents quintessential Alaska.
Almost 40 glaciers sweep down from Harding Icefield, the crowning feature of Kenai Fjords National Park, which is located on the famous Kenai Peninsula in Southcentral Alaska. Nearly 600,000 acres of this expansive and beautiful park are largely inaccessible by car and are best visited by boat and on foot along the glacier-sculpted coastline.
Things to See and to Do
Full Article Coming Soon!
How to Get to Alaska
A US citizen doesn’t need a passport to enter Alaska, but it can be a good idea to bring one as many ship, rail and bus routes cross the US-Canadian border.
Most commercial flights arriving in Alaska land at the Ted Stevens International Airport in Anchorage. Fairbanks, Juneau, Ketchikan and a handful of other airports also service commercial flights. Alaskan Airlines (with subsidiary Horizon Air) is the predominant carrier, and many flights from the lower 48 will, therefore, connect either in Portland, Oregon, or Seattle, Washington.
Ferries are a common mode of transportation for locals and a more up-close-and-personal mode for travelers heading to the Last Frontier. The Alaska Marine Highway System offers long-haul routes through gorgeous waters to most southeast coastal regions in the state. Reservations ensure you snag a cabin with a private bath. Otherwise, you might have to settle for a reclining seat in the main lounge. You can, however, also expect to see some travelers setting up tents on the boat deck! Most ferries have cafeterias, but you’re also welcome to bring your own food.
The Alaskan Highway (the “Alcan” to locals) stretches 1,382 miles from Dawson Creek, British Columbia, to Delta Junction, Alaska, and it crosses through Canada’s Yukon Territory. It’s paved the entire length, with services every 50 to 100 miles or so. It helps to have AAA if you plan to drive in Alaska. Distances are large, and towing services are infrequent and expensive.
Bush Plane Travel
Travel by bush plane within Alaska can be a spectacular way to see the scenic state’s wild country from above. It’s also the only way to access many farther-flung places. It’s an expensive option, however, and small planes have their downsides: cargo space is limited, and bad weather will ground flights. Pack light, and be prepared for indefinite delays if the skies darken.
While more expensive than bus, rail travel is a great way to see some of Alaska’s incredible scenery. The Alaskan Railroad connects Seward, Anchorage, Talkeetna, Denali National Park and Fairbanks, and it offers connections from Anchorage to Whittier, Portage Glacier and Spencer Glacier. Reservations are highly encouraged for peak season travel.
Greyhound, Interior Alaska Bus Line, Alaska/Yukon Trails, State Line, Denali Overland Transportation and the Alaska Park Connection offer a variety of bus routes through the state. Check schedules, and confirm itineraries often.
Any Alaskan travel guide will likely note that driving in Alaska is still an adventure, and roads (paved or otherwise) are still rare outside the southcentral and interior regions around Anchorage, Fairbanks and the Canadian border. Be prepared for rough stretches or “bear jams,” where wildlife might slow traffic or even block roadways. Expect the unexpected while driving in Alaska.
While English is Alaska’s most common language, in 2014, 20 Native languages were also declared official state languages. Most belong to one of two significant language families: Eskimo-Aleut and Athabaskan-Eyak-Tlingit.
Food and Drink
Did someone say fresh seafood? If you love salmon, halibut, crab and shrimp, you’ve come to the right place. Nearly every Alaskan town has these items (and more) on their restaurant menus. Anchorage has more culinary options than any other town, offering everything from brewpubs to sushi to a growing segment of ethnic establishments.
Breweries and brewpubs are quickly gaining popularity and numbers throughout Alaska, including Midnight Sun, Glacier BrewHouse, Denali Brewing, Silver Gulch Brewing, Gold Rush, Kodiak Island Brewery, Homer Brewery, Kassik’s Kenai, St. Elias, Skagway Brewing, Moose Tooth Brewing and, of course, Alaskan Brewing Company (which produces the well-known Alaskan Amber).
Food in Alaska: What to Know and to Eat—Full Article Coming Soon!
Alaska is still a little rough around the edges—especially in more rural areas—but it isn’t unsafe for travelers. Women, in particular, should simply use common sense when undertaking solo Alaska travel.
More importantly, all travelers should take extra care when traveling within the great expanses of Alaska’s wild spaces. Weather can change drastically in moments, and wildlife is definitely still wild. Hikers should carry bear spray and should know how to use it if needed. Campers should use bear boxes or other bear-proof containers to store food, garbage and toiletries. It’s good practice to make noise while hiking, to travel in groups on trails and to give bears—and other wildlife—the right of way. (This goes double for any female with her young.) If you notice an animal in the wild, don’t get any closer, and don’t make sudden movements that could surprise or threaten the animal. Back away if it seems safe, and don’t proceed farther into the animal’s territory.
Alaska’s fierce mosquitos, often jokingly referred to as the “state bird,” are infamous for descending in clouds upon unwitting travelers. Come prepared with full-strength insect repellent containing DEET if you want to fend off these biting bugs. If you’ll be outdoors for extended periods of time, head nets can prove useful, if goofy, tools.
WHAT IS BACKROADS
Established in 1979, Backroads is a pioneer in active, immersive and off-the-beaten-path travel. Now operating adventure tours in over 50 countries, our passion for discovery and our desire to experience the world in original ways continue to inspire our pursuit of new adventures. We hope this guide will be enlightening to you as you plan your next great Alaska adventure!