Ah, Alaska! The Last Frontier. Is there a more beautiful state in the country—one that offers the diversity in landscape and terrain that Alaska does? Fewer than 750,000 people make their homes here, but that doesn’t mean that the state is lacking in visitors—not by a long shot.
With more than 600,000 square miles of mountains, valleys, glaciers, fjords, lakes and rivers, 29 volcanoes and 33,000 miles of coastline, it would be quite the feat to see even a majority of Alaska over a lifetime! So if you’re headed to the land of the midnight sun this year, be sure at least a few of these things are on your bucket list when you visit.
Visit Kenai Fjords National Park
Kenai Fjords National Park is located in south-central Alaska near the city of Seward, just 126 miles south of Anchorage. Visitors to the park step back in time to the Ice Age as it still leaves its mark along the edge of the Kenai Peninsula. The Harding Icefield is one of the park’s icons. The icefield and the 40 glaciers that flow from it encompass some 900 square miles of the park. One of the most strenuous trails in the park—the Harding Icefield Trail—isn’t for the faint of heart. A round trip along the trail will yield you 8.2 miles on your pedometer, and the views are absolutely worth the effort.
The ice, snow and colder temperatures in the park don’t keep wildlife from thriving here. On the contrary, members of the animal kingdom flourish in the lush forests and the icy waters that make up a large part of the park.
There is never an entrance fee charged for access to the park. The best time to visit Kenai Fjords National Park is in June, July, and August. Visitors to the park enjoy boat tours, biking, hiking, ranger-led walks, and fishing. Another popular activity is “flight-seeing,” in which visitors book tours through private operators with planes that depart nearby Seward, Alaska, and fly over the park, giving visitors an aerial view of the wildlife, glaciers, and fjords in the area. Overflights give visitors a true sense of the sheer enormity of the Harding Icefield. For more information about this park that almost seems frozen in time, visit www.nps.gov/kefj.
Experience Denali National Park and Preserve
This expansive national park is centered around Mt. Denali. At 20,310 feet above sea level, Denali is the highest mountain in North America. The park was established in 1917 and along with the surrounding preserve, it encompasses over 6 million acres of forests, taiga, tundra, glaciers, snow, and bare rocks. Nearly 600,000 people visit Denali National Park each year. They enjoy winter activities like dog sledding, cross-country skiing, snowmobiling and mountaineering to the top of Mt. Denali.
There are also six campgrounds in the park. The overnight camping fees range from $15 to $46, depending on the campground you choose and how many people are camping. There is no fee for winter camping. To reserve a campsite, visit www.reservedenali.com. The entrance fee, which grants the visitor a 7-day entrance permit, is $10 per person for visitors ages 16 and older. Youth ages 15 and younger pay no entrance fee. For more information on this beautiful national park, visit www.nps.gov/dena.
Cruise the Inside Passage
Alaska’s Inside Passage is a coastal route traveled by ships and boats along a series of waterways that weaves through islands along the Pacific northwest coast of North America. It’s hidden in the southeastern “tail” of Alaska. It is heavily traveled by freighters, ferries, tug boats, and fishing boats. But visitors can book boat tours of the Inside Passage, during which they can take in the sights of the islands along the passage and even enjoy whale-watching. The passage is popular among cruise lines that serve the area as well.
The Inside Passage is full of a wide range of wildlife, and it’s rich in history as well. Six coastal communities line the passage, including Ketchikan, Juneau, Wrangell, Skagway, Haines, and Sitka. The communities host events and celebrations throughout the year, and visitors are welcome to participate and enjoy the festivities. For information about the Inside Passage, visit www.alaskainsidepassage.com, and to book a boat tour of the passage, visit www.alaskatours.com.
Tour Prince William Sound
Prince William Sound is an inlet body of water in the Gulf of Alaska on the south coast of the state. It is located on the eastern side of the Kenai peninsula. You may remember Prince William Sound from the massive Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, during which 11 million gallons poured into the sound from the huge tanker. The spill resulted in environmental damage and the need for a massive clean-up.
Today, several charters and operators offer boat tours of the sound, during which visitors can see whales with their calves, glaciers, the steep fjords in the area, tidewater glaciers and rolling icebergs. From the boats, visitors can look straight up at mountains standing 2,000 to 9,000 feet in elevation, just at the water’s edge. Short tours last between four and five hours, and longer tours run eight to nine hours in duration. Some tours cost less than $140 per person. One of the more popular tours is the Phillips 26 Glacier Cruise. The operator has a “no seasickness or your money back” policy and affords guests the view of more glaciers than any other operator. To book this tour, visit www.26glaciers.com.
See the Aurora Borealis while ice fishing
The Aurora Borealis—also called the Northern Lights—is caused by collisions between electrically-charged particles from the sun and the earth’s atmosphere. As the particles enter the atmosphere, a showcase of ribbons of brilliant colors illuminate the night sky. Greenish-yellow auroras are the result of collisions with oxygen molecules found lower in the atmosphere. Auroras that are blue/purplish-red in color form from collisions with nitrogen molecules. The rarest of all the auroras—those ribbons of light that are red—result from collisions with oxygen molecules found higher up in the atmosphere.
This awe-inspiring natural phenomenon is one that draws visitors in droves to stay up late at night, just for the chance to see Mother Nature’s light show. The best time to see the Northern Lights is in the dead of winter when it’s the coldest and the darkest. There are several ways to chase the opportunity to see the lights. The Northern Alaska Tour Company (www.northernalaska.com) offers fly-and-drive tours of the Arctic Circle that include experiencing the Aurora Borealis. Aurora Pointe Activity Center in Fairbanks, Alaska (www.aurorapointe.net) offers tourists a warm place to relax and enjoy coffee and cocoa while they wait for the lights to become visible, at which time, they are encouraged to step outside and enjoy the amazing phenomenon.
But if you’re really looking for a once-in-a-lifetime experience, you’ll want to book an excursion through Rod’s Alaskan Guide Service. While you wait for the Northern Lights to appear, you can enjoy ice fishing inside a heated deluxe cabin that accommodates 12. The cabin is movable so that visitors always have access to the best fishing spots. Guests may catch King Salmon, Arctic Grayling or Rainbow Trout. The excursions are available at 10:00 p.m. nightly from November through April. A five-hour excursion with ice fishing and aurora viewing runs $199 for adults and $175 for kids. To book your excursion, visit www.rodsalaskanguideservice.com or call (907) 378-1851.