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Travel Guide North America USA Western United States Alaska

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Introduction

sunrise on the ferry

sunrise on the ferry

© All Rights Reserved Rhombus

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.

The United States purchased Alaska from the Russian Empire on March 30, 1867, for 7.2 million U.S. dollars at approximately two cents per acre ($4.74/km2). The actual transfer of sovereignty took place on the 6th October 1867 (Julian calendar), which was equivalent to the 18th October in the Gregorian one. To complicate matters further, the time zone changed from 14 hours ahead of Greenwich to 10 hours behind, which meant that Alaska had two Fridays in succession, the only place to have ever done so. The area went through several administrative changes before becoming organized as a territory on May 11, 1912. It was admitted as the 49th state of the U.S. on January 3, 1959.

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Geography

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.

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Cities

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Sights and Activities

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

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.

Denali National Park

Mt. McKinley (Denali)

Mt. McKinley (Denali)

© All Rights Reserved Pamrides

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

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.

Glacier Bay National Park

Glacier Bay National Park

Glacier Bay National Park

© All Rights Reserved Pamrides

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.

Katmai National Park

Brooks Camp Katmai NP

Brooks Camp Katmai NP

© All Rights Reserved UKexplorer

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.

Kenai Fjords National Park

Kenai Fjords National Park

Kenai Fjords National Park

© All Rights Reserved Melissa919

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.

Lake Clark National Park

Bears at Lake Clark Wilderness

Bears at Lake Clark Wilderness

© All Rights Reserved sdonnelly519

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

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.

Mount McKinley

Mt. McKinley (Denali)

Mt. McKinley (Denali)

© All Rights Reserved Pamrides

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).

Wrangell-St. Elias National Park

St. Elias

St. Elias

© All Rights Reserved Miss Chris

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.

Other Sights and Activities

  • For unique hiking in Alaska, visit the McCarthy Kennicott area. Experience the thrill of Alaska wilderness whitewater rafting on the glacier-fed Kennicott River in the largest national park in the United States. The Kennicott and McCarthy Alaska area is great for mountain biking as well. There are plenty of old mining roads to explore, with little or no traffic.

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Weather

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.

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Getting There

By Plane

Anchorage is the main gateway to Alaska, but Fairbanks has quite a few flights as well.

By Car

Alaska is connected to the contiguous U.S. (known in Alaska as the "Lower 48") through Canada via the Alaska Highway. The highway is paved and maintained year-round.

By Bus

Greyhound Canada provides service to Whitehorse YT from points in Canada, especially Edmonton and Vancouver. The Alaska Yukon Trails provides onwards service from Whitehorse to Anchorage via Tok and Dawson City. From the lower 48 Seattle is the closest city to Alaska with frequent bus services to Vancouver on multiple bus lines where passengers transfer to Greyhound Canada to get to Whitehorse. To get to the the southeastern panhandle of Alaska one would be to take Greyhound to Prince Rupert BC and continue north by ferry. Given the distances involved and the fare required to travel those distances, the cost of taking a bus from the lower 48 to Alaska vs. flying is about the same.

By Boat

The Alaska Marine Highway System operates a ferry service from Bellingham, Washington up the beautiful Inside Passage to Haines. Plan your travel early as this service tends to fill up fast. A connecting ferry can take you to Whittier (although this service is much less frequent) from which the Alaska Railroad connects to Anchorage. The Marine Highway also operates along the coast of South central Alaska, the Aleutian Islands, and Prince William Sound. Some private companies operate shuttle vans between Whittier and Anchorage as well, and the combination rail/highway tunnel allows road traffic in alternating directions every half hour. There is only one rental company in Whittier, Avis, which operates seasonally and with a limited number of cars. If you're arriving by ship without a car and want to drive to Anchorage, make reservations well in advance for one-way rentals and be prepared to pay an extremely high rate and a substantial one-way drop fee. Unless you've got five people and tons of luggage, it's usually better to make alternate arrangements (train or bus) to Anchorage and rent a vehicle there.

As mentioned above, Avis also offers one-way rentals from Skagway to the rest of Alaska (note that the only road from Skagway to the rest of Alaska travels through Canada).

Various cruise lines sail up the Inside Passage as well, typically ending in Seward or Whittier (these cruise lines usually provide transportation to Anchorage and may even include package tours or your return air travel out of the state). Cruises depart from cities such as Seattle, Vancouver, and even San Francisco.

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Getting Around

By Plane

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.

By Train

Princess Tours offers trains between Anchorage and Fairbanks in season, stopping Denali National Park as well. Trains continue south to Whittier and Seward.

By Car

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.

By Bus

For those traveling independently without a car there are several companies that connect the Kenai Peninsula, Anchorage, Denali National Park and/or Fairbanks in the Interior and South Central parts of the state on a regularly scheduled basis, where it's most accessible by road. There are also limited service up to Purdhoe Bay on the Arctic coast from Fairbanks by the Dalton Highway Express and over to Whitehorse YT by Alaska Yukon Trails for onward connections on Greyhound Canada.

By Boat

Alaska's Marine Highway System (tel: +1-800-526-6731) consists of over 8,000 miles of coastal ocean routes connecting 31 port communities throughout Southeast, Southcentral and Southwest Alaska. Two additional ports are located outside of Alaska - one in British Columbia and the other in the state of Washington. It forms an essential method of transportation for many local residents in towns to which there is no road access. The Marine Highway system also allows walk-on travelers, bicycles and commercial vehicles. You can arrange your own cabin on the ferry, pitch a tent, or roll out a sleeping bag on the upper decks. Naturalists sometimes on board to give commentary on sights and wildlife.

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.

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Eat

Alaskans love their food, fresh or otherwise you need good feed to keep up with daily life here. The portions in this state are huge. Almost every little town will have a local diner where one can get a filling breakfast and lots of hot coffee. Try the reindeer sausage with your eggs and hash in the morning and you'll feel like a true Alaskan.

Some foods indigenous to this area are fireweed honey (distinctive and quite uniquely delicious), and spruce tip syrup made from the Sitka spruce which grows very commonly throughout Alaska; and of course there is perhaps the most well known of all Alaskan produce: seafood. Alaska's fishing grounds are among some of the richest in the world and feature among other delicacies King and Snow crab which are exported the world over. Many local restaurants close to the shore serve fresh halibut and salmon daily, right off the boats. Fried halibut less than 24 hours out of the water is an experience like no other. The fish doesn't even need to be chewed it is so tender. Fresh salmon is usually best grilled or roasted . Crab is almost always pre-boiled at sea to preserve it freshness. Most coastal towns also have at least one place serving sushi made with local fish. Restaurant prices, like most other things in Alaska do tend to be rather high but the experience of eating truly fresh seafood is worth it.

Most things in Alaska are going to feel like they are overpriced, but they are expensive because it is so expensive to transport goods and food to Alaska. If you are out to eat, don't rob yourself by ordering pasta or spaghetti, get some type of seafood or meat. Do not expect to find moose, bear, or other truly wild game on the menu at restaurants, as it is illegal to sell game meat. Reindeer can commonly be found, and elk or yak will show up on occasion; in these cases, the animals have been raised domestically. A lot of restaurants in Alaska serve "catch of the day" and other seafoods, especially along the coast. Chefs will almost always have a new spin on your favorite seafood that you'll never have the opportunity of trying again. Alaska is famous for their Alaskan King Crab legs. Many people think that they've had them before, but oftentimes they are sold as Alaskan king crab legs in the lower 48 states and they aren't technically Alaskan king crabs, and if they are, they aren't even close to as fresh as they are in Alaska. Many restaurants will cook them in lemon juice, butter, and Old Bay seasoning. You will know when you've had an Alaskan king crab leg because the legs are about the same thickness of a woman's wrist.

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Drink

Beer is a big deal in Alaska with 7 breweries in Anchorage alone. Alaskan Brewing Company in Juneau is the best known brewery in the state and its Alaskan Amber leads beer sales. Other towns with local breweries include Homer, Haines, Kodiak, Fox (near Fairbanks), and Wasilla. In January there is the Great Alaska Beer and Barleywine event. It is the third largest in the United States and may be the largest event highlighting barleywine in the US.

Homer, in addition to its brewery, contains a winery and products from both are available at local bars, restaurants, and liquor stores. Homer Brewery is fiercely (some might say stubbornly) local and their fresh ales are only available in the Homer area. The Bear Creek Winery creates wonderful vintages using imported grapes (as they cannot be grown easily in Alaska) and a variety of Alaskan berries. Varietals range from Chardonnay to Port, and flavors abound. The Winery offers free tastings daily, and also has a very small number of luxury rooms to rent for those who really want to soak in the experience. Homer has a thriving night life, especially in the summer, so if you want to mix and mingle with "real" Alaskans this is a good place to do it.

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Sleep

Hotel and Motel Chains

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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Alaska Travel Helpers

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