Traveller's guide: Alaska
The sights of this wild frontier will stay with you long after you've left, writes Sara Benson
Friday 02 November 2012
They call it the Last Frontier. Bordered by Canada, set apart from the "Lower 48" states, Alaska is a throwback in time. Homesteading is still a common way to live off the land here. On placid mountain lakes, bush pilots land float planes, delivering supplies to remote communities less than 60 miles from Russia. Even if you just spend a day in the city of Anchorage, soaking up the roughneck atmosphere at its raucous brewpubs, you may feel like you've arrived at the end of the world.
This northern land that takes a bite out of the Arctic is the traditional home of a rich diversity of indigenous peoples: coastal fishers including the Tlingit, inland hunters like the Athabascans and Arctic tribes such as the Inupiat and Aleut, who survive in the barest of conditions. After Russia and Spain attempted to colonise Alaska, US Secretary of State William H Seward purchased it in 1867. At first, Americans were so sceptical of its value they decried it as "Seward's Folly". Just a few years later, gold was discovered and the rush of miners seeking their fortunes steered Alaska toward US territory status and finally statehood in 1959.
Today, Alaska's wealth of natural resources is what makes it so prized. The state is also a land of natural superlatives. Mountain climbers know it for having North America's highest peak, Mt McKinley (Denali), rising over 20,320ft above sea level. Alaska is also more than twice the size of Texas, making it the biggest US state. It protects around half of the world's remaining glaciers, along with endangered wildlife species. Almost two-thirds of Alaska today is set aside as public land, including the world's largest wildlife refuge.
For adventurous travellers who make the trip to Alaska, the rewards include some of the USA's wildest scenery. Witness sky-scraping peaks, living glaciers calving into icy bays and the spectacular aurora borealis, or Northern Lights, which paint the night sky with eerie streaks of pinks, purples, greens and yellows. Wildlife spotting is also a huge draw, with the chance to spot fauna such as Kodiak bears catching salmon, mighty moose with their majestic crowns of velvety antlers and pods of migratory whales that come north during Alaska's short summer to feed. From fishing and hot springs, to summer hiking and winter skiing, Alaska is an outdoor playground ready to be explored.
Most visitors to Alaska arrive during summer, when the sun doesn't set for weeks at a time in northern areas, earning the state its nickname, the "Land of the Midnight Sun". The weather is warmest in July, which is the optimal month to go. Of course, summer is also when air fares, accommodation and car hire cost the most. For off-season deals, visit during the first half of September after the national Labor Day holiday – just cross your fingers and hope it doesn't snow early.
For more information, visit DiscoverAmerica.com
Cruising Alaska's Inside Passage
Taking the slow boat to Alaska lets you unwind as you cruise among the fjords, past glaciers and mountains, stopping off at sea-salted port towns and historical mining camps – exactly the kind of frontier experience most visitors seek. Princess Cruises (0845 075 0031; princess.com) organises trips with optional land excursions and shore leave to go sightseeing. A seven-day Voyage of the Glaciers cruise, departing Anchorage on 20 May costs from £609 per person, excluding flights.
If you don't mind roughing it a bit to save money, Alaska Marine Highway public ferries (001 907 465 3941; dot.state.ak.us/amhs) also travel the Inside Passage, connecting major port towns.
Fares from Bellingham in Washington State through to Skagway, Alaska start at $363 (£226) per person; private cabins cost from an extra $340 (£212) per double.
Riding the rails
If you'd rather let someone else drive you around Alaska, ride the historic Alaska Railroad (001 907 265 2494; alaskarailroad.com). Trains run from Anchorage to Denali National Park (one-way from $150/£94) and Fairbanks (from $216/£135) year-round, and south to Seward (from $79/£49) and Grandview (from $116/£72) between mid-May and mid-September.
Some trains have glass-domed observation cars. Organised sightseeing trips, including glacier walks, river rafting trips and sled-dog rides are available in combination with rail tickets.
Protected parks and wildlands
Superstar Denali National Park (001 907 683 9532; nps.gov/dena; one-week admission pass $10/£6) beckons up north with six million acres of wilderness, flowing from snow-covered mountains to river valleys and verdant forests where grizzly bears ramble.
Heading south of Anchorage via the breathtakingly scenic Seward highway, Kenai Fjords National Park (001 907 422 0500; nps.gov/kefj; free admission) offers hikes to the Harding Icefield and boat cruises to see glaciers dramatically calving icebergs.
Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve (001 907 697 2230; nps.gov/glba; free admission) is a premier stop on Alaska's Inside Pass–age that's only reachable by boat or aircaft.
Often easier to get to are Alaska State Parks (001 907 269 8400; dnr.alaska.gov/parks; admission from $5/£3), encompassing more than three million acres of wilderness. For example, Chugach State Park, a short drive from Anchorage, is laced with hiking trails running beside tumbling waterfalls and rivers primed for recreational fishing and rafting.
Cabins and lodges
Bed-and-breakfast inns make a cheery alternative in Alaska's cities and major tourist towns. Lake Hood Inn (001 907 258 9321; lakehoodinn.com) in Anchorage overlooks the waters where bush pilots thrillingly come in for a landing; cosy doubles cost from $109 (£68), including breakfast.
In winter, you can ski in Girdwood, just an hour's drive southeast of Anchorage, where doubles at the Hotel Alyeska (001 907 754 2111; alyeskaresort.com) cost from $169 (£106).
Woodsy cabins and luxury lodges abound near popular parks and outdoor destinations. Nearby Denali National Park, the Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge (001 907 733 9500; talkeetnalodge.com) is Alaska native-owned and has tidy double rooms from $189 (£118), some with distant views of Mt McKinley (Denali). Deep inside the national park, the Denali Backcountry Lodge (001 907 376 1992; denalilodge.com) offers cabins from $395 (£247) per double, including breakfast.
More remote lodges offer similarly unspoiled surroundings. At the boat-in Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge (001 907 783 2928; kenaifjordsglacierlodge.com), all-inclusive packages start at $695 (£434) per person.
Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport (ANC) is the main gateway. The usual route is via a hub in the continental US; Seattle is the most popular, but Chicago and Minneapolis also offer options. From May next year, a new "fast track" opens up from Glasgow, Manchester and London (Heathrow and Gatwick) when Icelandair begins services via its hub in Reykjavik. This cuts both the time and the fare to a very reasonable 12 hours/£800 return.
Alaska Airlines (00 800 2527 5200; alaskaair.com) has the most extensive network of routes around the state and from the continental USA.
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