Top Experiences in Alaska
Drive the Alcan
When driving the Alaska Highway, or Alcan, you quickly realize that "rural" means something entirely different in Alaska. (While we're on the subject, so does "remote"; here the word refers to areas with no road access.) You will drive through regions, villages, and towns that are nearly 1,000 mi from the nearest city. Inhabitants have never seen anything that even slightly resembles a shopping mall or fast-food stand. Gas stations can be 75 to 150 mi apart, and mechanics rarer than a wolverine sighting. The Alcan is the true Alaskan experience. Driving 1,000 mi on a long, potholed stretch of highway can put things into perspective. It is also a great way to be guaranteed wildlife sightings.
Sleep on a Deserted Island
Gustavus is the gateway to Glacier Bay, the place that the father of the national parks system, John Muir, called "unspeakably pure and sublime" in 1879. It is considered by many to be 70 mi of the finest sea kayaking in the world. The first 24 square mi comprise the Beardslee Islands, a complex system for kayakers who glide atop flat water between tides, enveloped in silence except for the sound of water slapping paddles, the soft spray from a nearby porpoise, and the howl of a wolf in the distance. And you'll likely be enjoying these sights with no other travelers nearby. Still, kayaking in this region presents challenges. There is a lively population of moose and bears on the islands, so it is imperative to choose wisely when setting up camp. Most visitors kayak only to the top of the Beardslees, which can take three to five days round-trip.
Safari through the Last Great Wilderness
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) is 19.2 million acres of untamed land in the northeastern corner of Alaska. This is where there is still a sense of the unknown, where mountain peaks are unnamed and valleys are yet to be explored. There are no shops and no roads. The only way to get to ANWR is by small bush plane. You can be dropped off by air taxi, or you can arrange a guided group tour. The refuge is a great place to hunt, hike, camp, paddle, or climb in solitude. Fewer than 1,000 people visit this region every year, but tours must be booked months if not a year in advance. Even Alaskans dream of getting to this place someday.
Bed, Breakfast, and Snowmachine
Everywhere there is snow there seems to be a bitter rivalry between snowmachiners (aka snowmobilers) and skiers. If you're looking to have the perfect snowmachine experience without enmity or opposition, the best way to do it is to find one of the many rural wilderness lodges around Alaska that offer snowmachine rentals and tours. Yentna Station Roadhouse and Alaska Snow Safaris are just two of the many stellar rural establishments that are a day's drive or a short bush flight away. It's a great adrenaline rush to speed over frozen lakes and untouched powder with a motorized sled beneath you and wind in your face.
Ski under the Stars
There is something about the incongruous number of hours of sunlight and darkness Alaska gets that makes Alaskans yearn to break the rules of time. When you arrive in Alaska you may feel inclined to do the same. In many parts of the state bars still stay open all night long, fishermen can be sitting on the ice all hours of the night, and some people ski best when the witching hour strikes. At Alyeska Ski Resort in Girdwood, skiers can take the lift and bite the powder under the stars. On weekends this popular ski resort offers night skiing, and afterward, in the bar, rewards its visitors with live, high-energy, danceable music. This provides a good look at local Alaskan culture, as it caters to tourists and residents alike.
The Longest Museum in the World
In the 1890s, during the gold rush, more than 20,000 stampeders disembarked from their steamships in Skagway, Alaska, and hiked the 35 mi of the Chilkoot Trail, just to get back into a boat and travel the remaining 600 mi to Dawson City (where the gold was). It took approximately three months to hike the trail back then. Their packs were heavy, their shoes were hard, and they had to hike the trail several times in order to get all of their possessions over the pass. These days, hiking history buffs can retrace the stampeders' steps in three to five days, with the help of lighter gear and equipment.
Drink Like an Alaskan
Every state in the nation has a list of attributed symbols: the state bird, flag, flower, song—and in Alaska there is the state drink. It's called the Duck Fart. It is quintessentially Alaskan, as it manages to weed out the meek and shy just by its name alone. It is comprised of Kahlúa, Bailey's Irish Cream, and Crown Royal. No need to be timid when it comes to ordering this drink; locals drink it, too. Once you've had a Duck Fart, you can honestly say you've experienced Alaska like an Alaskan.
Ski Like It's Halloween
Many Alaskans like to embrace their eccentricities, and a popular way to do it is to get dressed up in costume and ski. One such event is called the Ski Train. Every year in March, since 1972, approximately 1,000 people from all over the country come to Anchorage to get on a train. They come dressed up in a mad array of homemade costumes and bring libations, food, and skis. It's a hilarious event that entails a long, scenic train ride that eventually dumps you off in the middle of nowhere to cross-country ski for an afternoon. After a couple of hours, it's back on board to dance in the back cabin where a live polka band plays in rhythm with the sway of the train.
Sometimes the best thing to do is nothing at all. Halibut Cove is a gorgeous little piece of euphoria-inducing land tucked into a corner of Kachemak Bay State Park, Alaska's first state park. It is a town of only 22 year-round residents, but there are two fantastic lodges and several across the bay that offer the same thing: a peaceful look at the gorgeous scenery. Halibut Cove has no stores, but does offer a handful of art galleries, a post office (only open on mail-boat days), a high-end restaurant, and a floating espresso bar. There are plenty of outdoor activities, but there's not much else to do there, which is a good thing.
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