Where to Go: Alaska and the Arctic

Alaskan wilderness
dweekly-Flickr
From the ancient old-growth spruce in the Tongass National Forest to the Arctic Coastal Plain, Alaska is one of the world’s greatest wild places to visit.

Some people spend their lives dreaming of a trip to Alaska. The remoteness of the Arctic or the forested islands of the Tongass challenge travelers to plan and budget carefully, but they are accessible.

The first thing to understand is the scale of Alaska. By far the largest state, it requires most travelers to choose one or two regions to visit on a single trip. Fortunately, each region offers abundant beauty and wild landscapes. The key places to consider are:

  • Southeast Alaska: The panhandle that contains the Tongass National Forest and Glacier Bay National Park.
  • Southcentral: The population hub and main access point for most visitors arriving by air.
  • Interior: Home of Denali National Park and the stunning Alaska Range.
  • The Arctic: Difficult to reach, but as pristine and wild as any place in the world.

All these regions contain amazing landscapes, a multitude of options for outdoor activities and big wildlife. Depending on where you go, you’re likely to see creatures such as bears, moose, Dall sheep and caribou, and maybe even wolves, lynx and marine mammals.

Southcentral Alaska

This is the starting point for most travelers in Alaska, because the state’s largest city, Anchorage, has daily flights from the Lower 48 and many foreign countries.

But don’t overlook Southcentral because it’s a population center. Plenty of great destinations can be found nearby. For hiking, skiing, kayaking and wildlife viewing, consider the following areas that are easily accessible from Anchorage:

Great options in these areas include hiking, skiing, kayaking, rafting, sightseeing, camping wildlife viewing, canoeing and fishing, just to name a few. Check out these sites for more information.

Helpful links

  • Alaska Tourism Industry Association:

www.travelalaska.com

The Arctic

Reaching the Arctic Refuge or the Western Arctic Reserve, officially known as the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, generally involves chartering a small plane to reach the wilderness. To research details, use a good guidebook and information from the state or federal agency that manages the public land you plan to visit.

And consider using a good guide service. The professionals can get you in and out of remote areas safely and efficiently and spare you a lot of homework and logistical arrangements.

Whether you plan to hike, fish, float a river or simply camp and enjoy the solitude, keep your schedule flexible to deal with travel delays. If you’re traveling on your own, always take extra food in case weather keeps your pilot from picking you up on time. Be equipped for the possibility of cold, wet weather and always take bear-safety precautions seriously. Be careful and self-sufficient.

Whether you travel independently or use a guide, a successful trip to the Arctic requires thoughtful planning. These sites will help you get started.

Helpful links

  • Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: Plan Your Visit:

www.fws.gov/refuge/arctic/plan_your_visit.html

  • Alaska Travel Industry Association:

www.travelalaska.com

Interior

When Alaskans mention “the Interior,” they’re talking about the central core of the state’s main land mass, the region that begins when you reach the mountains of the Alaska Range.

This area’s most popular attraction is the stunning Denali National Park. Private vehicles are allowed on only the first 18 miles of the park’s only road. The rest of this amazing wilderness is accessible by tour or shuttle bus, bicycle or on foot.

Perhaps nowhere else can you step off a bus and be in a wild landscape with only a few steps. And the scenery is unbeatable, especially on a clear day when the 20,320-foot mountain known as Denali – or Mount McKinley -- is visible.

Spend a day riding in and out of the park on a bus or make arrangements to do some backpacking or camping for a few nights and then catch a bus back to the park entrance. You’ll likely see:

  • Grizzly bears
  • Moose
  • Dall sheep
  • Caribou
  • Eagles
  • Wolves or a lynx, if you’re lucky

You might want to travel a bit farther north to visit Fairbanks. And a lesser-known option is to drive the mostly gravel Denali Highway, the original route to what is now Denali National Park. This road runs through a spectacular wild landscape between the communities of Paxson and Cantwell.

The Denali Highway is about 130 miles long and has few services along the way. You should start with a full tank of gas and at least one spare tire (two is recommended), food and water. If driving a rental car, check your contract. Many companies do not allow their vehicles on this route.

The fishing and camping here are great and the wildlife viewing can be excellent if the animals cooperate.

Helpful links

  • Denali National Park:

www.nps.gov/dena/index.htm

  • The Denali Highway:

www.blm.gov/ak/st/en/prog/recreation/denali_highway.html

  • Fairbanks:

www.explorefairbanks.com

  • Alaska Tourism Industry Association:

www.travelalaska.com

Southeast Alaska

This panhandle nestled against the border of Canada is seen by millions who travel by cruise ship and state ferries. The trip up the inside passage is unforgettable for its scenery and wildlife, including whales, bears and eagles.

Southeast Alaska is very accessible by boat or via daily flights from Seattle. It is loved by anglers who enjoy the region’s many fishing lodges and salmon-rich streams. Trout and steelhead are popular, as are halibut and rockfish for saltwater anglers.

Cruising is only one way to see this part of the state, which is known for the Tongass National Forest and Glacier Bay National Park. To get an in-depth look at these attractions, not to mention many colorful commercial-fishing communities, consider traveling on the Alaska Marine Highway and its state-owned-and-operated ferries.

The ferry schedule can be a bit complicated at first, but with a little work you can arrange to visit numerous areas of Southeast Alaska for as long as you wish. Simply get off the ferry at one destination, then board another ship to a different destination a day or two later.

Best of all, the ferries offer you the option of renting a stateroom, sleeping in your chair or even setting up your tent and camping on deck. You can even take your car, truck or bicycle aboard.

The southeast is sprinkled with colorful towns in beautiful surroundings, and the towns visited by cruise ships offer a multitude of things to do, including fishing, shopping, sightseeing, wildlife viewing, glacier flights and zip lines.

Consider visiting Prince of Wales Island, Juneau, Sitka, Ketchikan and Haines.  Or maybe even lesser-known towns like Petersburg and Wrangell.

Helpful links

  • Alaska Marine Highway System:

www.dot.state.ak.us/amhs

  • Juneau:

www.explorefairbanks.com

  • Alaska Tourism Industry Association:

www.travelalaska.com