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Alaska is the USA's Frontier State and is a world away from the mainland or tropical Hawaii. You can reach the state with dozens of flights, but to experience the remoteness it is much more enjoyable to drive your way through Canada in a few days.
Alaska is the largest state in the United States 1,518,800 km2, over twice the size of Texas, the next largest state. Only 18 countries are bigger than Alaska! Alaska has a longer coastline than all the other U.S. states combined. With its numerous islands, Alaska has nearly 55,000 km of tidal shoreline. The capital city, Juneau, is situated on the mainland of the North American continent, but is not connected by road to the rest of the North American highway system.
The state is bordered by the Yukon Territory and British Columbia in Canada, to the east, the Gulf of Alaska and the Pacific Ocean to the south, the Bering Sea, Bering Strait, and Chukchi Sea to the west and the Arctic Ocean to the north. Alaska's territorial waters touch Russia's territorial waters in the Bering Strait, as the Russian Big Diomede Island and Alaskan Little Diomede Island are only 3 miles (4.8 kilometres) apart. With the extension of the Aleutian Islands into the eastern hemisphere, it is technically both the westernmost and easternmost state in the United States, as well as also being the northernmost.
Alaska is home to 3.5 million lakes of 20 acres (8.1 ha) or larger. Marshlands and wetland permafrost cover 487,700 km2 (mostly in northern, western and southwest flatlands). Frozen water, in the form of glacier ice, covers some 41,000 km2 of land and 3,100 km2 of tidal zone. The Bering Glacier complex near the southeastern border with Yukon, Canada, covers 5,800 km2 alone.
The island chain extending west from the southern tip of the Alaska Peninsula is called the Aleutian Islands. Many active volcanoes are found in the Aleutians. The chain of volcanoes extends to Mount Spurr, west of Anchorage on the mainland.
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) is a massive National Wildlife Refuge on the Alaskan North Slope, which covers 19,043,236 acres (7,708,952 ha). The political moves to protect this area of Alaska started in the early 1950s but it wasn't until 1960 that it first became officially protected by the Federal Government under the administration of President Eisenhower. This was further expanded in 1980 when Congress passed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.
Originally eight million acres (32,375 km²) of the refuge was set aside as Wilderness Area, one of the highest level of protection for public land under USA law. In 1980 another 1.5 Million acres (6,070 km²) of coastal plain was added and 2,000 acres were designated for searching for natural resources primarily oil, which has been the source of much controversy in recent years. Many people believe that drilling for oil in this area would do untold damage to ANWR, while other believe that drilling technology has gotten safe enough that the impact would be minimal. The other 10.1 million acres (40,873 km²) of ANWR was designated for "Minimal Management."
Currently there are almost no roads within or going into ANWR. Interestingly though, there are few small villages within the refuge. On the northern edge there is the Inupiat village of Kaktovik and on the southern border is the Gwich'in village of Arctic Village. A popular hiking route is to walk the historic trail between the two villages that will allow trekkers to see all the different ecosystems of the refuge ranging from boreal, interior forest, to Arctic Ocean coast.
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Denali National Park and Preserve is a park located in the central part of Alaska. The park is named after the Denali mountain, the local name for Mount McKinley, the highest mountain in the United States and in fact of North America. The park and preserve together for almost 10,000 square miles of pure nature and wilderness, with loads of trekking opportunities and wildlife as well. Although the park is open year-round, most visitors come to Denali National Park from late May to mid-September. This is the time that all visitor services and activities are available. Mid-June to mid-August is the high season and this is also the time that almost all roads are open, buses operate and trekking is possible. In winter, dogsleds form the main mode of transport, but be prepared for extreme winter weather and most roads are not plowed and only driveable for a few miles into the park. Access into the park and services offered are limited between late September and late April, so be totally self-sufficient during those times.
Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve is a U.S. National Park in Alaska. It is the northernmost national park in the U.S. (the entirety of the park lies north of the Arctic Circle) and the second largest at 3,428,702 ha, slightly larger in area than Belgium. The park consists primarily of portions of the Brooks Range of mountains. It was first protected as a U.S. National Monument on December 1, 1978, before becoming a national park and preserve two years later in 1980 upon passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. A large part of the park is protected in the Gates of the Arctic Wilderness which covers 2,900,460 ha. The wilderness area adjoins the Noatak Wilderness Area and together they form the largest contiguous wilderness in the United States.
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Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve is a United States national park and preserve in the Alaska panhandle west of Juneau. President Calvin Coolidge proclaimed the area around Glacier Bay a national monument under the Antiquities Act on February 25, 1925. Subsequent to an expansion of the monument by President Jimmy Carter in 1978, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) enlarged the national monument by 2116.5 km2 on December 2, 1980 and in the process created Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, with 230.7 km2 of public land designated as national preserve to the immediate northwest of the park in order to protect a portion of the Alsek River and related fish and wildlife habitats while allowing sport hunting.
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Katmai National Park and Preserve is a United States National Park and Preserve in southern Alaska, notable for the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes and for its Alaskan brown bears. The park and preserve covers 16,564.09 km2, being roughly the size of Wales. Most of this is a designated wilderness area in the national park where all hunting is banned, including over 1,587,000 ha of land. The area was first designated a national monument in 1918 to protect the area around the major 1912 volcanic eruption of Novarupta. The park includes as many as 18 individual volcanoes, seven of which have been active since 1900. Bears are everywhere in Katmai. Few places on earth have as many bears as Katmai or offer comparable bear viewing opportunities.
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Kenai Fjords National Park is a United States National Park established in 1980 by the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. The park covers an area of 2,711km2 on the Kenai Peninsula in southcentral Alaska, near the town of Seward. The park contains the Harding Icefield, one of the largest ice fields in the United States. The park is named for the numerous fjords carved by glaciers moving down the mountains from the ice field. The field is the source of at least 38 glaciers, the largest of which is Bear Glacier. The park lies just to the west of Seward, a popular port for cruise ships. Exit Glacier is reachable by road and is a popular tour destination. The remainder of the park is primarily accessible by boat. The fjords are glacial valleys that have been submerged below sea level by a combination of rising sea levels and land subsidence.
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Lake Clark National Park and Preserve is a United States National Park in southwestern Alaska. It was first proclaimed a national monument in 1978, then established as a national park and preserve in 1980 by the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. The park includes many streams and lakes vital to the Bristol Bay salmon fishery, including its namesake Lake Clark.
Kobuk Valley National Park is in northwestern Alaska 40 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle. It was designated a United States National Park in 1980 by the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. It is noted for the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes and caribou migration routes. The park offers backcountry camping, hiking, backpacking, and dog sledding. There are no designated trails or roads in the park, which at 7,084.90 km2, is approximately the size of the state of Delaware. The park is entirely above the Arctic Circle.
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Mount McKinley is the highest mountain in North America and is situated in the central part of Alaska. It's the showpiece of the Denali National Park, one of the most popular national parks in this northern state. Although Mount Everest is the highest mountain above sea level, Mount McKinley has the highest rise from its base at about 5,500 metres up to the summit, compared to Mount Everest's rise of about 3,700 metres from its base which is already 5,200 metres above sea level. While Mount McKinley is not as high as the ones in the Himalaya or even Andes Mountains, it's a very tough climb. Only about half of the expeditions made it to the top and over 100 lives have been taken by it. It is a technical climb but the main drawbacks are the cold weather at the top and the lack of oxygen – so much lower compared to a mountain of similar height at the equator (almost 50% less!). Both the temperatures and lack of oxygen are a direct result of its latitude. For non-climbers, the view of the mountain when there is clear weather in Denali National Park is fantastic already, especially in late winter and early spring when most of the mountain is still covered in snow and conditions are good with blue skies and less rain (or snow).
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Wrangell–St. Elias National Park and Preserve is a United States national park and national preserve managed by the National Park Service in south central Alaska. The park and preserve was established in 1980 by the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. This protected area is included in an International Biosphere Reserve and is part of the Kluane/Wrangell-St. Elias/Glacier Bay/Tatshenshini-Alsek UNESCO World Heritage Site. The park and preserve form the largest area managed by the National Park Service in the United States by area with a total of 53,320.57 km2. The park includes a large portion of the Saint Elias Mountains, which include most of the highest peaks in the United States and Canada. Wrangell-St. Elias borders on Canada's Kluane National Park and Reserve to the east and approaches the U.S. Glacier Bay National Park to the south. The chief distinction between park and preserve lands is that sport hunting is prohibited in the park and permitted in the preserve. In addition, 3,674,009 ha of the park are designated as the largest single wilderness in the United States.
Alaska is the coldest state of the US and a visit from October to April is not really recommended because of the cold and miserable conditions. It is possible though, but you have to come prepared. Winter temperatures can drop to below -50 °C, even in bigger towns like Fairbanks. Average daytime temperatures from December to February are between -10 °C and -20 °C and nights between -20 °C and -30 °C.
Summers are short but surprisingly warm with average temperatures in the interior around 20 °C or slightly more. Nights are still cool though, so bring warm clothes even in summer. To the north, even summers are cool to cold, with temperatures in the extreme north averaging below 10 °C during the warmest months. In the south, for example in Anchorage, winters tend to be less cold and summers a bit cooler compared to places more inland.
Precipitation is highest in late summer and early autumn when it falls in the form of rain. During winter and early spring most of it comes down as snow, though much of the time it is dry while it is simply to cold to get any precipitation at all.
Anchorage is the main gateway to Alaska, but Fairbanks has quite a few flights as well.
You can drive through Canada/Skagway to get to Alaska.
Alaska Airlines offers most flights, between places like Anchorage, Fairbanks, Barrow, Prudhoe Bay, Nome, Kodiak Island and Dutch Harbour on the Aleutian Islands. There are many smaller airlines that offer numerous flights to tiny settlements, including those in the high arctic and islands to the west and south of Alaska. Some of them are with waterplanes.
Princess Tours offers trains between Anchorage and Fairbanks in season, stopping Denali National Park as well. Trains continue south to Whittier and Seward.
Many international rental companies have a wide selection of rental cars and these include Hertz, Avis, Dollar, Thrifty, Enterprise, Budget and Alamo/National. Most companies will require you are at least 25 years of age, although younger people might be able to rent cars at slightly higher rates and with some insurance differences as well. A national driver's license is usually enough, but an additional international one is recommended. Also note that it usually costs more to include lots of other extra things. For example extra drivers, GPS, the first full tank, SLI (Supplemental Liability Insurance), PAI (Personal Accident Insurance, usually covered already at home), road assistance/service plan, and drop-off costs for one-way rentals.
If you want to book a car, it is recommended that you book your car before arriving in the USA. This is almost always (much) cheaper compared to just showing up. Also, try and book with a so-called 'broker', which usually works together with a few or many car rental companies and can offer the best deal. Some examples include Holidayautos, Holidaycars and Sunny Cars. Some of the cheapest deals to book from Europe, includes Drive-USA, which also has a German version.
For more information and tips about renting cars and campers, additional costs, insurance, traffic rules, scenic routes and getting maps and fuel it is advised to check the USA Getting Around section.
Alaska has a number of National Scenic Byways which offer a great way to explore the state crossing beautiful landscapes. Mostly, there are lots of national parks, state parks or monuments along the way and it's generally a better alternative than the faster but boring Interstate Highways. The George Parks Highway links Fairbanks to Anchorage.
Cruises around Alaska: Amongst the top spots in Alaska, the Inside Passage, the Glaciers and the Bering Sea are the ones which contain hidden treasures such as massive glaciers, waterways, Native settlements near the Gulf of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands respectively. On board activities to warm people up are always available in the cruises.
There are dozens of hotel and motel chains, ranging from budget to top end. Allthough they are not the most charming accommodations, they usually have a very decent midrange service with good rooms and are generally good value. At least you know what to expect and in some cases they are either the only or the best option in the area. Some of them include:
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