Alaska Outdoor Adventures
People come from all over the world to bike down the Alcan Highway, but it’s not the only route to bicycle in Alaska. Short- and long-distance cycling are possible all over the state. As with any adventure to be had in Alaska, what you wear can define the quality of your experience. Always bring along rain gear appropriate for bicycling and wear clothing that wicks.
There are countless trails for road and mountain bikes all over the state. The paved-road system is straightforward, and traffic is usually light. However, road shoulders can be narrow, and people drive fast in rural areas. Unpaved highways are bikeable but tougher going.
Because winter can be a little rough on the roads and trails, tires have a tendency to go flat. Always carry a kit in case you should need to fix your flats a few times along the way—and be sure to learn how to use it before you head out. Wildlife can be a threat to bicyclists. Be sure to watch for moose on the roadways, and avoid cycling next to streams and rivers where bear are feasting on spawning salmon. Bear encounters with bicyclists can be deadly.
Anchorage. Anchorage has an excellent bike-trail system. Biking the 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. There are four paved greenbelt trails; the 11-mile Tony Knowles Coastal Trail is the most popular. Downtown Bicycle Rental (www.alaska-bike-rentals.com) in downtown Anchorage also offers shuttle rides to Flattop, a great place to hike and bike.
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, making it a peaceful and joyful ride.
The Interior. Fairbanks has miles of scenic bike paths along the Chena River. Most roads have wide shoulders and incredible Alaska views. Trails used in winter by mushers, snowmachiners, and cross-country skiers are taken over by bikers when the snow melts.
Kluane Chilkat International Bike Relay (KCIBR). For more than 20 years, in the month of June, bicyclists from all over have come to relay the 150-mile-long route from Haines Junction in the Yukon Territory to Haines, Alaska. This stretch of highway is breathtaking, sometimes literally. You can do all eight legs of the trip yourself, hook up with a team, or create your own. Many teams get dressed up for the event in wacky attire, while others take the race quite seriously. To find a team, register to ride, or find a place to rent a bike, check the KCIBR website (www.kcibr.org).
Seward Highway. Riding from Indian (10 miles south of Anchorage) to Girdwood is a stunning way to experience what is considered one of the most beautiful routes in the country. This 14-mile paved bike path follows the highway, occasionally cutting into the woods and along the backs of creeks and lakes.
Southeast Alaska and the Ferry System. You can bring your bike on Alaska's ferry system for an extra charge. Use it to explore Southeast's charming communities and surrounding forests. If you don’t have a bike to tote along, you’ll find most towns offer bike rentals as well as guided rides down scenic highways and over hardy trails.
Whether you're an avid expert or amateur hiker, you’ll find amazing hikes in Alaska that vary from rolling woodland strolls to serious overnight adventures. There is no place in Alaska where you won’t find someplace to hike—even the big city of Anchorage has greenbelts laden with trails, and sits at the doorstep of the Chugach Mountain Range. Regardless of what type of hike you take, urban or remote, always be bear and moose savvy. Keep your eyes and ears alert.
There are several hazards to hiking, but a little preparedness goes a long way. Know your limits, and make sure the terrain you are about to embark on does not exceed your abilities. Check the elevation change on a trail before you set out—a 1-mile trail might be more difficult than you expect. Always pack extra water, and make sure someone knows where you're going and when to expect your return. Employ the buddy system if you can. If you must hike alone, make sure there are other hikers on the trail the day you go, and leave a note on the dashboard of your car to let authorities and park rangers know your route and the day you left.
What to Wear
For most day hikes, you'll need good hiking shoes, gators, a rain jacket (and possibly rain pants), wool socks, and a shirt that wicks. You'll also want to take along: mosquito repellent, hiking poles, layered clothes and fleece that wicks, a water bottle or hydration packs, extra food (it's best to store food in your day pack and not on your body), and bear mace.
Chilkoot Trail, Skagway. Beginning in Dyea, just outside Skagway, this 33-mile trail traverses the historic gold-rush route of the 1890s, and ends in British Columbia. In its entirety, this trail is a moderate-to-difficult hike, and takes two to three days one-way; you can catch the train back. If you want a less difficult daylong jaunt and a raft trip back, outfitters in Skagway can set you up.
Eagle River Valley Trails, Eagle River Nature Center. Hiking in the Eagle River Valley is a gorgeous experience, and even more convenient due to the variety of short loops available in the same vicinity. Crow Pass in particular affords great views, wonderful scenery, and a high chance of spotting local wildlife. You can hike just a portion of Crow Pass, or you can hike all the way to Raven Glacier, and on into Girdwood. But be prepared: it’s a two- to three-day trip.
Harding Icefield Trail, Kenai Fjords National Park, Seward. This trail, located near Seward's Exit Glacier (a 120-mile drive from Anchorage), is about 8.2 miles round-trip with a 3,000-foot change in elevation, and affords one of the best glacier-overlook views in the state. It's a strenuous hike, slightly more challenging in areas where the snow hasn't melted off the upper reaches (even as late as July), but doable by most—and immensely rewarding. The ice field is tough to photograph, but your mind's eye will carry a fantastic panorama for years to come.
Kayaks have the great advantage of portability. More stable than canoes, they also give you a feel for the water and a view from water level. Oceangoing kayakers will find plenty of offshore Alaska adventures, especially in the protected waters of Southeast, Prince William Sound, and Kenai Fjords National Park. The variety of Alaska marine life that you can view from a sea kayak is astonishing: whales, seals, sea lions, porpoises, and sea otters, as well as bird species too numerous to list. Although caution is required when dealing with large stretches of open water, the truly Alaskan experience of self-propelled boating in a pristine ocean environment can be a life-changing thrill.
The best part about kayaking is that it puts you in touch with the biggest domain around: Alaska's fresh- and saltwater scenery. It's also relatively easy to pick up, but Alaska’s waters should not be taken for granted.
Very seldom is Alaska’s kayaking water warm; most of it has been frozen for six or more months of the year. A person without a wet suit can be in Alaska’s saltwater for approximately 15 minutes before hypothermia sets in. Always wear a personal flotation device and know your weather and tides before setting out. Go with a guide or take a survival class so you know how to pull yourself out of the icy waters should your kayak tip over.
When to Go
The best time to kayak in Alaska is at the peak of summer, June through August. During these months there's a higher likelihood of sunshine, and it's also the best time for aquatic-wildlife viewing.
Best Places to Paddle
Anchorage. For those wanting a leisure aquatic experience, rent from Alaska Raft & Kayak and get a taste of urban kayaking. The city has a number of lakes and lagoons, most of which are filled with fish and water foul. Westchester Lagoon, Goose Lake, and Jewel Lake are excellent places to dip in.
Glacier Bay National Park. This park, 60 miles northwest of Juneau, is 70 miles long and surrounded by mountains—spectacularly glaciated mountains, no less. It's a wild, undeveloped country with an air of mystery. The best way to experience Glacier Bay is by boat, and a kayak is one of the best boats to captain in the narrow, remote passageways of the park.
Kenai Peninsula. Seward is the unofficial capital of kayaking in Alaska. The home of an annual kayaking symposium that draws novices and pros from all over Alaska, it's also the gateway to some of the most incredible ocean kayaking in the world, with the Kenai Fjords, Aialik Bay, and Resurrection Bay. Because the Kenai Peninsula is so renowned for its kayaking, just about every street corner has a reliable kayaking outfitter on it.
Lake Bernard. The best way to access this lake is with one of the outfitters in Skagway. They’ll take you by bus or train up to the border, where you can dip your kayak into the water and propel yourself through the truly unique terrain known as Tormented Valley. This waterway was part of the stampeders' journey to Dawson City during the 1890s.
Prince William Sound. In just an afternoon kayaking here, you can find fabulous hidden coves, calving glaciers, and spectacular views of flora and fauna. The sound has truly magical destinations only accessible by kayak.
Mountains and Glaciers
Alaska has roughly 100,000 glaciers and ice fields covering more than 29,000 square miles, and 17 of the 20 highest mountains in the United States. Most of these awe-inspiring sights are in remote and inaccessible regions. However, some are accessible by road, or by hiking or kayaking out to them. Flight companies all over the state offer aerial views—and some will even land to allow you to hike or dogsled.
Glaciers, although seemingly still, are constantly in motion, whereas ice fields are constrained by mountain peaks and plateaus. Both comprise thousands of feet of compacted snow and ice. They are cold and very slick, and their deep crevasses can be deadly. Be glacier wise: use crampons for walking, and dress for below-freezing temperatures.
Best Mountains and Glaciers
Denali, Talkeetna. For the ultimate mountain sightseeing adventure, take a flight from Talkeetna and land on a glacier on Denali. If you arrive in early summer, you can fly onto the Kahiltna Glacier, where teams attempting to summit the mountain gather.
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.A short walk to the scenic overlook reveals a great view that sweeps from Denali south along the Alaska Range past several active volcanoes on the other side of Cook Inlet. Follow the hikers to the top of the mountain for even more stunning scenery, or take the Powerline Trail for a day hike up to the pass for a great vista view.
Glacier Bay National Park, Gustavus. Glacier Bay is well worth the effort and expense it takes to get there. If you opt to go by boat, you have a strong chance of witnessing calving glaciers and humpback whales.
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 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 a great place to have a quick beer as you soak in the scenery.
Portage Glacier, Anchorage. This glacier has been receding rapidly, but you can ride the tour boat Ptarmigan across the lake to glimpse its face. Keep an eye out for office building–size chunks of ice floating in the water.
Spencer Glacier, Grandview. The glacier is visible from the tracks, but it's also a whistle-stop on the Alaska Railroad. In this spot only accessible by train, you can hike, camp, or take a rafting or afternoon kayaking trip around immense icebergs, right up to the face of the glacier.
Childs Glacier, Cordova. Considered the most active calving glacier in the world, in the summer months Childs releases an iceberg into the river approximately every 15 minutes. Now only accessible by boat (the bridge was wiped out in 2011), it’s a fantastic sight to behold and an impressive experience for the ears as well.
Whether you're looking for ice worms, songbirds, or giant moose or caribou, Alaska's wilderness is vast, and viewing wildlife requires knowledge, planning, and preparation. Alaska has several state-run viewing programs at wildlife preserves and in other tourist areas that enable visitors to see the state's creatures in their natural world. Depending on your preference, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (adfg.alaska.gov) offers a comprehensive "Watchable Wildlife Program" that provides information on viewing locations across the state based on species, location, and best areas for viewing.
When to Go
In the spring, birds and waterfowl emerge and migration north intensifies—bears emerge from dens; caribou, Dall sheep, and mountain goats return to more observable locations. Spring is also the best time to view marine mammals such as walrus, seals, and bowhead whales. In the summer months, bears and other wildlife concentrate on streams where salmon spawn, providing a prime time for easy viewing along riverbanks, lakefronts, and even from the side of the road. Summer is the best time to visit seabird colonies. Moose can be seen year-round but stay far away from the cows in the spring, when they are giving birth and toting around their young. Mating season is in the fall, and that’s when it’s best to give the bulls a lot of space: they get a tad aggressive.
Best Wildlife-viewing Areas
Anchorage. From mid-July through August visitors can view beluga whales south of Anchorage along the Turnagain Arm—look for the white finless backs breaking the surface of the water below. Also along the highway, Windy Point is a great place to pull over and see the Dall sheep hoofing it over the rugged mountainside.
Denali National Park. Seeing wildlife in Alaska is never a given. Often it takes patience and luck combined. Denali National Park covers diverse terrain that lends itself to a wide array of wildlife, from grizzly bears to moose.
Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. For land-based wildlife, the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge is a great, central, and easily accessible choice. The refuge was established in 1907 to protect moose populations, Dall sheep, mountain goats, wolves, bald eagles, and both brown and black bears. At nearly 2 million acres, the refuge is comprised of diverse habitats that contain the above species as well as many others (coyotes, shrews, voles, muskrats, caribou, marmots, lynx, wolverines, martens, and more).
Kodiak Island. There are more than 3,000 brown bears on the Kodiak archipelago, so the folks living out that way have got viewing the bears down to a very organized science. There are an impressive number of high-quality lodges, guides, and outfitters that can get you out to see the bears. The best months for bear viewing are July, August, and September.
Southeast or Southcentral Alaska. Humpback whales can be viewed in the summer months between Homer and Kodiak. Find a whale-watching tour and enjoy with your fellow boaters seeing the whales fluke and glide.
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