It is difficult to put into words just how big Alaska is.
It is so big that if you took the other three largest US states – Texas, California and Montana – all three could fit snugly within Alaska’s borders. It is so big that it has 14 distinct mountain ranges, eight national parks, more than three million lakes, 22 million acres of national forest, and more coastline than the rest of the US combined.
Alaska’s immensity is matched only by its wildness, and even in the age of Google Maps, huge chunks of terrain remain virtually unexplored. The saloon bars of the American wild west have long since disappeared; the same cannot be said of the American wild.
Here are just a few of the reasons to visit America’s ‘last frontier’.
The roof of the entire North American continent, this geological giant is the third-highest of the coveted ‘Seven Summits’, after Everest and Aconcagua. While actually scaling it requires years of experience and months of planning, the surrounding national park is Alaska’s answer to Yellowstone: plunging valleys cut between jagged rock faces, glistening glaciers and clear blue lakes. With barely a building for miles, Denali supplies only the freshest, most bracing mountain air.
In the words of legendary photographer Ansel Adams: “No matter how sophisticated you may be, a large granite mountain cannot be denied.” Unfortunately, if you want to be sure of seeing the peak, you’ll need to allow a few days. Denali is so tall it has its own weather system and spends half the time shrouded in cloud.
2. The wildlife
Alaskan fauna may be a little on the rugged side (most native creatures are some shade of brown), but there are few places on Earth where you can see wildlife so embedded in its natural habitat.
There are vast expanses of nothingness, where giants reign supreme. Huge bull moose and caribou patrol the Alaskan hills, packs of grey wolves hunt deer, elk and bison, and three species of bear – brown, black and polar – roam the tundra in search of food.
3. The oceans
Like their terrestrial cousins, Alaska’s sea creatures are tough, wild, and unquestionably grand. Humpback whales breach and fluke in the waves of Glacier Bay, Belugas flock to feed in the Turnagain Arm near Anchorage, and orca glide up and down the south-eastern shoreline. The glacial valleys of the Kenai Fjords host sea otters – two or three times the size of their freshwater cousins. Throw in a few walruses and some seals, and Alaska’s seas serve up as seductive a selection of wildlife as anywhere in the sub-Arctic.
Seward and state capital Juneau are your coastal cornerstones, and both run boat tours several times a day.
4. The Northern Lights
The Northern Lights have long been a staple of bucket lists the world over. Like an expressionist painting splayed across the sky, their iconic blend of luminescence can only be seen at night, so visit in the depths of winter to stack the odds in your favour.
The city of Fairbanks lies just beneath an ‘aurora oval’ – a hotspot of solar activity – marking one of the world’s prime aurora-spotting locations.
5. The White Pass and Yukon Railroad
As with most good American wildernesses, Alaska was built on the railroad, and this Gold Rush-era heritage train tracks the journey of prospectors hoping to find fortune in the gold fields of Klondike.
As the train ascends, the pine forests become thicker, the peaks snowier, and the window seat ever more coveted. Canny travellers will wrap up warm and grab a spot on the rear carriage balcony – to enjoy the uninterrupted vistas with the wind rushing through your hair.
6. The Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve
If Denali is Yellowstone, then Wrangell-St. Elias is Yosemite. This sprawling hinterland has all the charms of Denali with a tiny fraction of the crowds. A chocolate box of Alaskan scenery, the park boasts 60 per cent of America’s glacial ice, the US’ second highest peak in Mount St. Elias, and a National Historic Landmark in the abandoned Kennecott Copper Mines.
Local operators offer rafting tours lasting an afternoon to a week, kayaking, bushcraft, and an endless supply of picturesque hikes.
7. The shopping
Okay, you’ll have to bear with us on this one. Out of all the consumerist havens in the United States, it might seem strange to trek all the way to the last frontier to do your shopping closer to Siberia than Silicon Valley.
The reason is simple: tax. The fur traders have stopped trading, the gold miners have stopped mining, but the state has such massive oil revenues that the taxman never started taxing. Residents pay no income tax and shops pay no sales tax – in fact just for living there you receive a cheque (the Alaska Permanent Fund).
No complimentary cash for visitors, unfortunately, but you can still enjoy bargain hunting tax free.
8. Because it’s just so … different
Picture the scene: you’re perched on a hillside surrounded by Alaskan tundra, it’s three o’clock in the morning but the sun is high in the sky, and you know that there probably isn’t another living soul for 15 kilometres.
We wouldn’t advise spending every night like this, but it’s the fact you could that makes Alaska so remarkable. The harsh, rugged beauty, the liberating solitude, the seasonal merger of night and day: Alaska has that strange ability to balance adrenaline with tranquillity.
Have you ever visited Alaska? Is there anything else you would recommend?
– With PA
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