Alaska See And Do
Tel: 800 321 6518
In July 1923, as one of his last acts as president, Warren G. Harding drove the golden spike to commemorate the Alaska Railroad's completion. Nearly a hundred years later, the train is still the best way to explore Alaska's endless interior. It's the last railroad in the United States to offer whistle stops—they'll stop even if you're standing in the middle of nowhere with a moose or caribou as baggage—and is also the most scenic route between Anchorage and Fairbanks. Dome cars offer views of the Alaska Range and deep forests, and it's not unusual for passengers to catch sight of bears, moose, and caribou from the train. The 240-mile trip takes approximately 12 hours; passengers can disembark and spend time in Denali National Park before continuing on the journey. For a day trip, travel between Anchorage and Whittier (glacial scenery; one seriously creepy tunnel; access to Prince William Sound, which is a favorite of kayakers) or Anchorage and Seward (access to Resurrection Bay and Kenai Fjords, one of the few places where you might spot humpbacks and orcas at the same time). Either of these runs can be combined with a Spencer Glacier whistlestop; special DMU (self-propelled) trains, run in cooperation with the Forest Service, offer access to remote camping areas and nature walks. Nearly all Alaska Railroad trains run daily in summer; winter schedules are a lot tighter.
Alaska's only other railway is the White Pass & Yukon Route, a narrow-gauge train that takes passengers on excursions between Skagway and Canada's Yukon Territory, along the same route hopeful prospectors used to access the gold fields during the great rush of the late 1890s. Trains run daily between early May and late September.—Edward Readicker-Henderson
Alaska has plenty of places to see bears, but the state's best-kept secret is Anan Wildlife Observatory, near Wrangell. Anan is a tiny creek that sees up to 250,000 salmon migrate through it each August. In other words, it's a bear smorgasbord. From the beach at the creek's mouth, a half-mile trail leads to a viewing platform over a small waterfall. The fish bunch up trying to leap the falls, which means all a bear needs to do is stick a paw in the water, and dinner is served. The bears regularly come up to the platform, close enough for you to realize that wet bears smell a lot like wet dogs. Up to 100 bears use Anan each year—the name comes from a Tlingit term for "place of meeting"—and it's one of the only spots in the world where you can see black and brown (grizzly) bears fishing from the same stream (although the smaller black bears tend to hide when the grizzlies show up). Permits are required in high season (check with your outfitter or the Forest Service), but unlike at Alaska's more famous bear-viewing spots—such as Pack Creek (grizzlies, on Admiralty Island) and Katmai (enormous grizzlies, on the Alaska Penninsula)—there's never a shortage of permits at Anan. You can see bears—huge bears—around the edges of Katmai without a permit, but access to the waterfall made famous in a million Alaska documentaries is highly restricted. If you have access to a boat, you can visit Anan Wildlife Observatory on your own; if not, you can organize a tour through Breakaway Adventures or Alaska Vistas.—Edward Readicker-Henderson
Alaska's most popular cruise destination is in Southeast, between the countless islands strung out along Canada's western coast. Stretching from Ketchikan to Glacier Bay, the Inside Passage is a landscape of still water and tree-covered mountains that slope to the water's edge, forming deep, narrow channels. Bays and inlets are so quiet that frequently the loudest sound is the exhale of a passing humpback whale. All the big-name cruise lines take this run. (For help choosing your cruise, see Cruises 101, our primer on the strengths, weaknesses, and audiences of 15 major cruise lines, most of which have Alaska sailings.) The standard one-week route is round-trip from Seattle or Vancouver with stops in Ketchikan, Juneau, and Skagway; longer cruises include Sitka. Most operators also have ten-day or two-week itineraries that continue across the Gulf of Alaska into Prince William Sound, usually stopping at Valdez and Seward. A few operators run trips into the far reaches of Alaska; Cruise West, for example, has trips into the Bering Sea.
When relatives visit Southeast, locals book them on a day cruise to Tracy Arm (we recommend Gold Belt Tours). It's not as famous as Glacier Bay, but Tracy Arm's glacier tends to calve more frequently than those in the Bay, and the landscape is more intimate. (Look for mountain goats and bears at the water's edge, and seals basking on ice floes near the glacier's face.) A couple of times a year, Gold Belt goes to Ford's Terror, a channel off Tracy Arm. Mostly inaccessible because of shallow water and fierce tides, the Terror looks like the set for the ultimate dinosaur movie. Steep mountains drop waterfalls the height of a 50-story building, and the ship winds through channels so narrow it feels like you can reach out and touch the trees where ravens gather to argue.
Southcentral Alaska's pride for cruisers is an excursion combining Resurrection Bay and Kenai Fjords. It's a short course on the best of Alaska: a place where you can pass 20 or 30 glaciers in a day, where orcas surface alongside rocks occupied by 1,000-pound sea lions, and puffins and bald eagles dot the sky. Native-owned Kenai Fjords Tours runs full- and half-day cruises from the town of Seward, about a two-hour drive south of Anchorage. Cruises can also be booked through the Alaska Railroad, along with your train from Anchorage.
And don't overlook the Alaska Marine Highway as a cruise alternative. For locals, this is the bus system; to the rest of the world, it's the longest ferry system anywhere. The AMH ships have two- and four-berth cabins, or you can sleep for free in the solarium (on a couple of the ships, you can even pitch a tent on deck). Fares are a fraction of what you'd pay on cruise ships, and you get the chance to mingle with locals headed home, instead of other tourists.—Edward Readicker-Henderson
Alaska's biggest draw is Denali National Park—at over six million acres of wilderness, it is home to Mount McKinley, the continent's highest peak (locals call it Denali, or just "the Mountain"), and glaciers so giant and so old that forests grow on them. Even by Alaska standards, Denali is extraordinary. In all that wild scenery, there is only a single road, and it's essentially closed to private traffic. The purest method of exploring Denali is to go to the ranger station at the park entrance, obtain an overnight permit, and start hiking. Permits are granted for a particular zone, but no matter which one you draw, you'll have the world to yourself—except, of course, for the bears, caribou, moose, and the occasional wolf. Day hikes aren't normally restricted, although park rangers may close an area so you don't, for example, cross paths with a pack of wolves protecting a kill. Otherwise, board one of the National Park–run school buses that go as far as Wonder Lake, 85 miles from the park entrance and close enough to Mount McKinley that the mountain looks like a wall. If 11 hours on a bus is more than you can take, even going out partway will reward you richly: Scenic highlights include Polychrome Pass, at mile 44, where the landscape is colored more shades of red, pink, and gold than any crayon box can hold, and the Eielson Visitor Center, at mile 66, which offers great mountain views…if you're lucky. Mount McKinley is so massive that it makes its own weather systems; since it's often shrouded in clouds, only about a third of park visitors get to see the peak. Anywhere in the park, keep your eyes peeled: The local subspecies of grizzly bears, Toklat grizzlies, are smaller than usual grizzlies, and cinnamon-colored; they blend into the tundra like ghosts. Even if you don't have time to venture far into the park, there's plenty to see and do, including dogsled demos at the main visitor center and whitewater rafting on the Class IV Nenana River. To get a good overview of Denali (literally), try a flightseeing tour.—Edward Readicker-Henderson
Fishing in Alaska is easy: Find water, throw some string at it, and you're bound to catch something. Even in Anchorage, Alaska's largest city, a salmon stream runs through the middle of town—between late May and August, locals take their lunch breaks at Ship Creek, hoping to catch dinner. For something a little less urban, the Russian River and the nearby Kenai River, about 100 miles west of Anchorage on the Sterling Highway, get some of the largest salmon runs in the state. Record catch for the Kenai is a 97-pound king salmon. Fishing in any of these rivers in summer, however, turns into a combat sport, with anglers lined up shoulder to shoulder.
Homer, at the end of the Kenai Peninsula, is Alaska's fishing paradise: Charter boats seek out all five species of salmon; it's also the likeliest spot in the state to reel in a "barn door" halibut. (Those giants can top 400 pounds, although they taste terrible; stick to 20 pounds or less for the best eats.) Boats can be booked through Central Charter Booking Agency.
Southeast Alaska is better for salmon fishing than for halibut: In Ketchikan, try Knudson Cove Marina, one of the state's most experienced operators; in Juneau, Juneau Sport Fishing works with a number of different boats and will help you find the experience you're after. If you plan to do nothing but fish, look to Waterfall, a remote lodge on Prince of Wales Island. It's like a fishing ashram—they put you up in converted cannery worker houses, take you to Southeast's best fishing grounds in a private boat, and help you catch truth bigger than the fish tales you were planning to tell.
Limits on how many fish you can take vary by season and location (see the Alaska Department of Fish & Game Web site for more information). Nearly every coastal town has at least one business that specializes in packing and shipping; remote lodges also pack and ship. If you're flying out within a day or so, any grocery store can sell you a box and chemical ice so you can pack the fish as luggage (Alaska Airlines is used to handling fish boxes).—Edward Readicker-Henderson
Unless you're an expert mountaineer who's capable of scaling Mount McKinley's 20,320-foot peak, the only way to get an up-close view of the highest point in North America is to get slightly higher, and flightsee Denali National Park. K2 Aviation is a reputable tour operator that flies four- to ten-passenger planes into the park from Talkeetna (the inspiration for Northern Exposure, located 150 miles south of the Denali park entrance). All tours take you up the course of Ruth Glacier, but it's worth spending the money ($295) to do the peak run, which banks into the Great Gorge, shoots between high spires of rock, and—as long as the weather cooperates—spirals up the mountain until the summit comes into view. If you get hooked on flightseeing, there are plenty of other options throughout the state.
Sunrise Aviation leads flightseeing excursions of the Stikine River, near Wrangell, where you can fly above the wide, muddy banks of the river, past the Great Glacier and the Stikine Icefield, and over the surrealistic volcanic landscape of British Columbia's Mount Edziza Provincial Park.
Wrangell Mountain Air flies over Wrangell–St. Elias National Park, an area so big, so remote—the largest roadless wilderness left in the hemisphere—that there are 14,000-foot mountains nobody has ever bothered to name.—Edward Readicker-Henderson
Glacier Bay is, rightly, one of the most famous, most visited spots in Alaska. It's also one of the youngest landscapes in the state; not much more than a century ago, most of the bay was still under ice. The glaciers are receding at a rapid pace, which makes traveling into the bay like traveling back in time—the world gets newer and newer as you move closer to the ice. The bay is a favorite feeding ground for humpback whales, orcas, sea lions, seals, sea otters, puffins, and bald eagles. Many of the big cruise lines extend their trips into the bay, but the best way to see it is aboard Glacier Bay Lodge's Spirit of Adventure, a high-speed catamaran that takes you up the west arm to some of the most active glaciers. Park Service naturalists on board make sure you don't miss anything (866-761-6634).—Edward Readicker-Henderson
Juneau Convention & Visitors Bureau
101 Egan Drive
Juneau , Alaska
Tel: 888 581 2201
Juneau is the only U.S. state capital where you can't directly drive to another city but you can drive to a glacier. On the edge of the Gastineau Channel in Southeast, with the expansive Juneau Icefields behind and the Mendenhall Glacier flowing right into a suburb, it's easy to figure Juneau became the state's seat of government because it's just too beautiful to pass by. Whales swim right past town, and day-tripping families head to Tracy Arm, a more intimate version of Glacier Bay. Thanks to its size (largest town in Southeast) and the government offices, Juneau has swanker hotels and restaurants than other towns in the region, as well as regional favorites like Silverbow (best place in Alaska for breakfast) and the Capital Inn. Juneau also has the area's only ski resort, Eaglecrest.—Edward Readicker-Henderson
Alaska has more coastline than the rest of the country combined, so there's no shortage of places to kayak, but there are some highlights. Southeast's calm, protected waters are perfect for beginners. In Ketchikan, Southeast Sea Kayaks leads waterborne tours for every ability level, from easy local paddles, many of which head up Creek Street past former brothels, to multiday trips in Misty Fjords. Or set off near the entrance to Glacier Bay, and you stand a good chance of spotting whales and seals. In Southcentral, you can join St. Augustine's Kayak and Tours on a paddle around nearby Yukon Island; the route is excellent for beginners, with plenty of seal and sea otter sightings, plus great beaches where you can come ashore for lunch.
More experienced paddlers, comfortable with self-rescue and variable conditions, should try Glacier Bay. Glacier Bay Sea Kayaks rents equipment, and the Park Service's Glacier Bay excursion boat will put you ashore and pick you up at a number of points. The setup enables you to explore the bay on your own and provides access to the East Arm, where big ships rarely travel. Another option is to explore Prince William Sound. It does still have some oil from the Exxon Valdez spill, but it remains a serene landscape of islands rising from mist, where the loudest sound might be the exhale of passing whales. Alaska Sea Kayakers rents equipment; Honey Charters offers drop-off service throughout the sound. Or just head out from Whittier: The multiday paddle toward Blackstone Bay and Harrison Fjord just might be the best paddling in the state, with plenty of glaciers and wildlife but no one else around.—Edward Readicker-Henderson
Ketchikan Visitors Bureau
131 Front Street
Ketchikan , Alaska
Tel: 800 770 3300
Ketchikan, located on the edge of Revillagigedo Island, is the southernmost town in Southeast. Even by Southeast Alaska standards, it's a wet, wet place: The town gets more than 150 inches of rain a year (the locals appropriately chose the rainbird as their mascot). All that water nurtures the surrounding forests, and has made Ketchikan the totem pole center of Alaska. The totem poles of the Totem Heritage Center (best for antique poles and totem history), Saxman Village (the single largest collection of poles in Alaska), and Totem Bight State Park (best place to see what a Native village in Southeast would have looked like) make up the world's largest collection, and new carvers are always at work. The town's other attractions include Creek Street (the former red-light district) and trips into Misty Fjords, a watery, mountainous landscape that looks as if the world had hatched anew.—Edward Readicker-Henderson
Sitka Convention & Visitors Bureau
Sitka , Alaska
Tel: 907 747 5940
When Sitka was the Russian capital of Alaska in the 19th century, it was known as "the Paris of the Pacific"—a reputation the town still deserves. A world-class chamber music festival and a writer's festival are among Sitka's cultural draws. And it's ridiculously scenic, even by Alaska standards: The town's main street splits around an onion-domed Russian Orthodox church; the jagged peak of Verstovia rises in the background; and the volcanic cone of Mount Edgecumbe caps views of Sitka Sound. Don't be surprised if your neck gets sore from trying to gawk at everything at once.—Edward Readicker-Henderson
Skagway Convention & Visitors Bureau
Skagway , Alaska
Tel: 888 762 1898
Skagway was born when the cry of "Gold!" went up in the Klondike in 1898. This spot at the head of the Lynn Canal was as close as you could get by ship, so for a couple of years, the entire world turned its attention to Skagway. Today, Skagway is tiny—4 blocks wide, about 25 blocks long—but huge on history: Downtown is restored to its turn-of-the-century glory, and the White Pass & Yukon Route railway still heads north daily between early May and late September, climbing out of the narrow box canyon that holds the city, into the Canadian wilds beyond.—Edward Readicker-Henderson
Alaska has a lot of mountains and a lot of snow. Oddly, that doesn't add up to a whole lot of places to ski. Alaska does, however, have the greatest heli-skiing in the world. If you have the skills, head for the Chugach Range, outside of Valdez. There are more than 2,500 square miles of untouched powder that, thanks to the proximity of the ocean, holds together better than inland powder, making it a lot safer. Some of the heli-ski operators, such as Valdez Heli-Ski Guides, take on runs of more than 5,000 vertical feet…no wonder that the world extreme ski championships have been held here.
Up to 1,000 inches of snow fall each season at Alyeska Resort, located about 40 miles south of Anchorage. You can ski the bowl, test your knee strength on the mogul fields, or take the easier runs through the trees. And don't stop when the sun goes down: More than 2,000 of Mount Alyeska's 2,500 vertical feet are lit.
Eaglecrest, on Douglas Island, across the Gastineau Channel from Juneau, has 31 runs, 1,400 vertical feet, and an average snowfall of around 200 inches. For cross-country enthusiasts, both Eaglecrest and Alyeska have groomed trails. Anchorage also has miles and miles of groomed trails. Fairbanks has more than a dozen groomed trails, plus endless opportunities in the wild beyond. On any cross-country ski trip in Alaska, stay out of the way of moose, and know and use all safety precautions.—Edward Readicker-Henderson
The best museum in Alaska is the University of Alaska's Museum of the North, located at the center of the university's Fairbanks campus. Huge mammoth tusks, a 36,000-year-old mummified steppe bison, and a stuffed grizzly bear nearly nine feet tall welcome visitors to the world's most extensive collection of Alaskan Native artifacts, including clothes and boats from every corner of the state. An ongoing display of photographs by Michio Hoshino—perhaps the greatest wildlife photographer ever to live—leads to a sound-and-light exhibit that translates Alaska's geography into music, reflecting minute-by-minute changes in northern lights, seismic activity, and weather patterns. In summer, the Northern Inua Games held outside the museum give you a taste of the events at the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics, such as the high kick, knuckle hop, and ear pull. Check with the museum for the schedule.
At the university's Large Animal Research Station, about five miles north of the main campus, walking tours introduce visitors to the inhabitants—musk ox, reindeer, and caribou—and explain how these animals survive in the Arctic. Musk ox may have a tough exterior (they can weigh up to 800 pounds and are known for their defensive formation, shoulder to shoulder against threats), but their shaggy underwool, called qiviut, is 30 times stronger than sheep's wool, 8 times warmer, and soft enough to make cashmere feel like a scrubbing pad.—Edward Readicker-Henderson
Museum of the North open daily 9 am to 9 pm, mid-May through mid-September; Mondays through Saturdays 9 am to 5 pm, mid-September through mid-May. Closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas Day.
Large Animal Research Station open daily for tours at 10 am, 11 am, noon, and 1, 2, 3, and 4 pm, Memorial Day through Labor Day.
Ask people what animal they most want to see in Alaska, and the two most common answers are bald eagles and whales. Bald eagles are hard to miss—see that white spot in the treetops? There's one. Whales are a little trickier.
To whale watch for free, head to Beluga Point, located just south of Anchorage. While the number of belugas (a relatively small species, under 15 feet long) has declined in recent years, you still stand a good chance of spotting one during high tide in summer. In Southeast Alaska, drive to the Shrine of St. Therese, 23 miles north of downtown Juneau; the shoreline plunges here, which causes an upwelling that draws humpback whales. The quintessential Alaska whale, humpbacks are about 40 feet long and known for their complicated songs and tail markings, which are as distinctive as fingerprints. With a few exceptions (usually males not quite of mating age), the humpbacks who summer in Alaska migrate to Hawaii for the winter. In other words, they've figured out the perfect lifestyle.
To increase your chances of seeing a whale, you need to board a boat. The best option is Juneau's Orca Expeditions, which ferries passengers to another upwelling that the humpbacks really like, about 20 minutes by boat from downtown. How close you get is up to the whales—state law says boats can only get within 100 yards, but the curious mammals frequently swim a lot closer. Around Juneau, you'll likely see a couple of whales at a time, while on a good day in Icy Strait, near Glacier Bay, there might be 30 or 40 humpbacks. For the best trip into the strait, travel to Hoonah by ferry or plane and take an excursion boat from Icy Strait Point. Most Alaska Marine Highway ferry rides turn up a whale sighting or two (usually humpbacks, occasionally a minke); on the Aleutians run, impossibly huge fin whales sometimes swim near the ships—it's like watching a train pass by. If it's orcas you're after, Kenai Fjords Cruises in Southcentral's Resurrection Bay is your best bet.
Across Alaska, nearly all the whales migrate south between September and May, but some nonmating males do frequently stick around Silver Bay, in Sitka, year-round. Drive about four miles south of town on Sawmill Creek Road, and hang out at one of the overlooks. Maybe you'll get lucky.—Edward Readicker-Henderson
Tel: 800 367 9745
Wrangell is a small, friendly town located near the mouth of the Stikine River, the largest undammed river in North America. (John Muir, the 19th-century naturalist who founded the Sierra Club, made Wrangell his home base during his travels through Alaska.) Quintessentially Alaskan, it's the kind of place where the hardware stores keep better hours than the restaurants, and since the channel is hard to navigate, it isn't as overrun with cruise ship passengers as some of Southeast's other towns. The town has a museum of local history, and Shakes Island, in the middle of the small boat harbor, is a good place to see totem poles and a lodge house. Wrangell also has Southeast's only major gemstone deposit, a garnet mine—kids sell the dark purple stones at the ferry terminal and around town. Anan Wildlife Observatory and the rarely visited LeConte Glacier, one of the most actively calving glaciers in Alaska, are nearby.—Edward Readicker-Henderson