Traveller's guide: Alaska

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

The sights of this wild frontier will stay with you long after you've left, writes Sara Benson

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.

Travel Essentials

Getting there

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.

More information

Discover America.com

Sport
sportSo, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
Arts and Entertainment
Dennis speaks to his French teacher
tvThe Boy in the Dress, TV review
News
One father who couldn't get One Direction tickets for his daughters phoned in a fake bomb threat and served eight months in a federal prison
people... (and one very unlucky giraffe)
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
The Plaza Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia was one of the 300 US cinemas screening
filmTim Walker settles down to watch the controversial gross-out satire
Arts and Entertainment
Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz in Tim Burton's Big Eyes
film reviewThis is Tim Burton’s most intimate and subtle film for a decade
Life and Style
Mark's crab tarts are just the right size
food + drinkMark Hix cooks up some snacks that pack a punch
Arts and Entertainment
Jack O'Connell stars as Louis Zamperini in Angelina Jolie's Unbroken
film review... even if Jack O'Connell is excellent
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Personal Trainer / PT - OTE £30,000 Uncapped

    £25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness cha...

    Investigo: Finance Analyst

    £240 - £275 per day: Investigo: Support the global business through in-depth a...

    Ashdown Group: Data Manager - £Market Rate

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Data Manager - MySQL, Shell Scripts, Java, VB Scrip...

    Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - Bedfordshire/Cambs border - £32k

    £27000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - near S...

    Day In a Page

    Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that? The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year

    Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that?

    The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year
    Hollande's vanity project is on a high-speed track to the middle of nowhere

    Vanity project on a high-speed track to nowhere

    France’s TGV network has become mired in controversy
    Sports Quiz of the Year

    Sports Quiz of the Year

    So, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
    Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry, his love of 'Bargain Hunt', and life as a llama farmer

    Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry and his love of 'Bargain Hunt'

    From Armstrong and Miller to Pointless
    Sanchez helps Gunners hold on after Giroud's moment of madness

    Sanchez helps Gunners hold on

    Olivier Giroud's moment of madness nearly costs them
    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect