If You Like
Mountains and Glaciers
Alaska has roughly 100,000 glaciers and ice fields covering more than 29,000 square mi, and 17 of the 20 highest mountains in the United States. Most of these awe-inspiring sights are in remote and inaccessible regions. However, with time, effort and, on occasion, a few bucks, these scenic wonders can be yours.
Mendenhall Glacier, Juneau. This drive-up glacier comes complete with visitor center, educational exhibits, nature trails, and, when the cruise ships are in town, lots of bused-in tourists. Don't let the crush of visitors dissuade you from stopping by, though—it's a great resource for learning about glacier dynamics and the natural forces that have shaped Alaska.
Mt. Roberts, Juneau. The tram takes you up the mountain and, if the weather cooperates, offers great views of the area. It's another cruise-ship favorite, but at least you can have a quick beer as you soak in the scenery.
Glacier Bay National Park, Gustavus. Whether you view this natural wonder by air, boat, or on foot, Glacier Bay is well worth the effort and expense it takes to get there.
Portage Glacier, Anchorage. This glacier has been receding rapidly, but you can ride the tour boat Ptarmigan across the lake to view its face. Keep an eye out for office building-size chunks of ice falling into the water.
Exit Glacier, Seward. You can take a short, easy walk to view this glacier, or if you're in the mood for a challenge, hike the steep trail onto the enormous Harding Icefield. Scan the nearby cliffs for mountain goats and watch for bears.
Flattop Mountain, Anchorage. Drive to the Glen Alps parking lot in Chugach State Park, pay the $5 parking fee, and take the short walk west to a scenic overlook—on a clear day the view sweeps from Denali south along the Alaska Range past several active volcanoes on the other side of Cook Inlet. Or follow the hikers to the top of the mountain for even more stunning scenery.
Mt. McKinley, Talkeetna. For the ultimate mountain sightseeing adventure, take a flight from Talkeetna and land on a glacier—if you're early enough in the summer, you can fly onto the Kahiltna Glacier, where teams attempting to summit the mountain gather.
The paved-road system is straightforward, and traffic is usually light. However, the road shoulders can be narrow, and people drive fast in rural areas. Unpaved highways are bikeable but tougher going.
Anchorage. Anchorage has an excellent bike-trail system. Biking this city is a good way to appreciate its setting as a metropolis perched on the edge of vast wilderness—but beware the occasional furry creature sharing the bike trail with you!
Denali National Park and Preserve. Take your mountain bike on the Alaska Railroad and bike Denali. Although the park road is largely unpaved, it has a good dirt surface and only light traffic.
The Interior. Fairbanks has miles of scenic bike paths along the Chena River. Most roads have wide shoulders and those incredible Alaska views. Trails used in winter by mushers, snowmachiners, and cross-country skiers are taken over by bikers when the snow melts.
Southeast Alaska and the Ferry System. You can bring your bike on Alaska's ferry system at an extra charge. Use it to explore Southeast's charming communities and surrounding forests, but come prepared for heavy rain.
Alaska isn't only tundra hiking, grizzly-bear watching, and salmon fishing. It's possible to spend your vacation pampering yourself, enjoying a nice glass of wine and excellent food, and still experience outdoor adventures.
Lodging properties can be divided into those on the road system and those that require a boat or air journey. In Southeast Alaska many lodges can be reached by boat from a nearby town or village, while properties elsewhere in the state usually require a flight in a small plane.
Small Town Life
Alaska's entire population is barely more than 700,000 people, and almost half of that population calls Anchorage home. Scrolling down the list of Alaska cities, by the time you get to Sitka, the third largest town, you're looking at a population of fewer than 9,000 souls. Nearly 60 percent of Alaskans reside in small towns.
There's a considerable variety of small town experiences available in Alaska, such as Kotzebue, the regional hub for Northwest Alaska and Alaska's largest Eskimo community. Perched on the shore of Kotzebue Sound, the town strikes a fine mix of Native and contemporary American cultures. Be forewarned: landing at the one-runway airport is … interesting.
At the towns of Kenai and Soldotna, about 150 mi southwest of Anchorage, commercial fishing boats fill the harbor at the mouth of the Kenai River and Kenai's onion-dome Russian Orthodox Church accent's the old town's skyline. During the salmon dip-netting season in July, you can watch Alaskans stocking up for the coming winter.
The towns of Haines and Skagway in Southeast Alaska present an interesting set of contrasts when looking at attitudes about the effects of tourism on small town life. Both of these coastal communities are connected to the road system; although they're a mere 17 mi apart as the eagle flies, they're light years apart in their ambience. Haines has chosen to limit cruise-ship visitation to a mere fraction of what Skagway sees. The result is a laidback, small-town feeling in Haines, where you can enjoy fantastic views of Portage Cove, fishing, and a yearly migration of eagles visiting the late run of succulent chum salmon. Just miles away is another reality: Skagway has embraced its Gold-Rush history, with plenty of restored false-front stores and historic memorabilia; most of its downtown district makes up part of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park.
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