The most northern state of our southern neighbor has more coastline than the entire rest of the U.S., shares a border with only Canada and has glaciers, active volcanoes, wetlands, permafrost and acres of tidal zone. The climate ranges from Arctic to relatively mild and is far enough north to experience dramatic seasonal light changes and offer good shows of the Northern Lights. Any visit to the largest of the United States will be filled with amazing sights wherever you go, but several are standouts even for Alaska.
Denali National Park
One of the largest parks in the U.S. and the location of the highest mountain in North America, this region in the northern part of the Alaska Range takes its name from Mount McKinley that is traditionally known as Denali. The six million acres are filled with valleys, tundra, alpine ranges and spectacular glacier-capped mountains. The park can be entered via a single road and travel is limited beyond the Savage River.
While there is plenty to enjoy just from the road, the park offers bus tours that have a high chance of seeing some of the moose, caribou, grizzly bears and wolves that inhabit the region. Hiking and biking are also popular activities as long as participants are aware of the weather and dress appropriately. It’s also often possible to schedule a visit to the Sled Dog Kennels to get a glimpse of how the huskies are trained to pull, plus you get to see scores of happy, healthy dogs.
Tracy Arm Fjord
A bit south of Juneau, Tracy Arm is a frozen wonderland dotted with icebergs that have calved from the glaciers that line the fjord. It’s part of the Tracy Arm-Ford Terror Wilderness and one of two fjords that are surrounded by ice. At the end of Tracy Arm, the Sawyer Glaciers are home to a variety of wildlife and even the elevation-loving mountain goats can sometimes be seen here.
The best way to see the fjord is by water and a number of cruises are offered. Visitors can usually choose between large or small vessels and although both are safe, a larger vessel feels more substantial when nearing a large iceberg. Another option for seeing the fjord is by float plane, available from either Juneau or nearby Petersburg.
Also known as the Alaska-Canadian Highway or simply ALCAN, the road was rapidly built during World War II to connect Alaska to the rest of the United States. Once considered a difficult journey, the road has been straightened and paved over the years to create a comfortable ride with fairly regular fuel stops available. The mileposts are irregular and curious, retaining their numbering system despite changes to the lengths of sections of highway. As an acknowledgment of this, they are referred to as Historic Mile markers and should be used to locate specific areas, not as a measure of mileage.
The entry to Alaska is at Historic Mile 1221 – Haines Junction, and the highway continues north to Historic Mile 1422 – Delta Junction. The road continues as Richardson Highway to Fairbanks. The drive is beautiful in any season and an easy trip for most people.
The route starts in Washington State and continues along the coast of British Columbia before entering the collection of islands on the coast of Alaska. The passage weaves through islands and peninsulas, allowing vessels to avoid much of the bad weather associated with the northern Pacific Ocean. It also allows visitors views of spectacular changing scenery and the chance to visit some unique, isolated villages.
The Alaska portion of the route covers 800 km and wanders through more than 1000 islands and 24,000 km of shoreline. Extreme tides can affect passages and those using private boats will need to have adequate depth-sounding capabilities to avoid underwater obstructions. It’s also a very popular destination for kayakers from all over the world who come to enjoy the scenery and slow pace of life.
The glacier extends for 19 km, essentially filling the valley before dipping into a small lake. The entire region is a protected recreation area and is a unit of the Tongass National Forest. Constant monitoring has shown that the glacier is slowly retreating and it’s this melting that has created the lake at the base of the ice. The remnants of an ancient forest have also appeared from beneath the ice and are actively studied by scientists of several fields.
Several easy trails originate at the Visitor Center and take hikers to viewpoints over a creek that is frequented by bears. More difficult trails have stairs that take hikers to the face of the glacier, or down to the base of the glacier to see ice caves.