But unless you're John McPhee, blessed with organic sensibility and years to explore, Alaska may seem inscrutable. Figures offer some insight for the would-be adventurer. At 586,412 square miles it's by far the largest U.S. state (twice the size of Texas), and it would rank 20th on a list of countries, just behind vast, steppe-laden Mongolia. Snow-covered Mt. McKinley rises up to 20,320 feet, making it the highest peak in North America; the enormous (and melting) Bering Glacier is the largest glacier in continental North America. The many native cultures that survive here include the Eskimo, Aleut and Tlingit.
With all its grandeur, visual and numerical, it's no surprise that 1.5 million visitors come each year to revel in Alaska's rich history, frontier flavor, delicious seafood, unique wildlife and spectacular scenery. But planning a trip to Alaska may prove as challenging as landing a plane on skis -- especially for the first-timer or independent traveler. And its massive size, its endless options and the difficulty of reaching the more remote (but incredibly rewarding) regions mean that careful planning is essential. We've outlined some basics on when to go, where to stay, how to get around and what Alaska's five major regions have to offer.
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When to Go
Most tourists visit Alaska between mid-May and mid-September, when average temperatures range from the 50's to the 70's (or above) and the sun stays out in places above the Arctic Circle for a full 24 hours. If you're planning to hike a lot, shoot for later in the season (August), when the ground is dryer and the bugs aren't at their worst (they're awful early in the season). The popular cruise season, during which the majority of visitors call in Alaska, runs from the end of April through September.
While winter weather is certainly brutal, don't discount the colder months entirely -- it's the best time to see the Northern Lights or experience one of Alaska's famous winter festivals, like the Yukon Quest sled dog race. The Alaska Marine Highway ferry system, which connects about 30 odd ports along the southern coast of the state, operates year-round.
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Choose Your Destination: Where to Go in Alaska
The state is typically broken down into five regions: the Inside Passage (or Southeast Alaska), a collection of islands and fjords that semi-connect the lower 48 to the Alaskan mainland; Southcentral, the state's most populous region, and home to Alaska's largest city, Anchorage; Southwest Alaska, where the Aleutians stretch west like a string of jagged pearls toward Asia; the Interior, with Fairbanks as the gateway to all points Arctic; and the Far North, which extends up to the Arctic. Most tourists stick to one or two regions, and visit via a cruise or packaged tour.
Getting to the Inside Passage (via cruise ship or ferry) and Southcentral (most flights to Alaska come into Anchorage) is a relatively easy, affordable prospect, but accessing points further north and west -- especially if you're after a true wilderness adventure -- can involve costly flights to remote locations.
The Inside Passage: Forged millions of years ago by powerful glaciers, Alaska's Inside Passage is a corridor of loosely connected islands and deep fjords that link the lower 48 (from Puget Sound, Washington) to the Alaska mainland. To the east is Canada; to the west is the Pacific Ocean. The relatively mild climate is ideally suited for bald eagles, humpback whales and sea lions, so wildlife viewing is a major attraction -- and with an endless number of sheltered bays and placid stretches of water, touring by kayak is ideal. One of the region's major attractions is Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, a jagged marine wilderness comprising 16 tidewater glaciers that flow from the surrounding snow-capped mountains. The park, which can only be reached by sea or air, even has snorkeling excursions (with wet suits).
There's a lengthy list of fascinating coastal towns, like Sitka and Skagway, rich with gold rush history and symbols of Russian heritage, especially in the form of onion-domed churches. Ketchikan is a center for native Tlingit culture, with totem pole parks showcasing the indigenous heritage. The region includes Alaska's capital city of Juneau, an "urban" center (seriously, the population is around 31,000) with its nearby icy blue Mendenhall Glacier. Juneau is accessible by plane from Seattle, but most travelers visiting the Inside Passage do so via cruise ship.
Alaska Travel Guide
Southcentral Alaska: Half of Alaska's population lives in Southcentral Alaska, home to the state's best road system and the most amenity-laden tourist infrastructure. Anchorage is Alaska's largest city (population: 293,000+) and cultural hub, and most flights into Alaska land here. The city is connected to the lower 48 by the well-maintained Alaska Highway, which cuts through Canada to get around the islands of the Inside Passage. For many travelers, Anchorage serves as a comfortable base camp for further wilderness exploration. During the snowier months, travelers have easy access to top-notch skiing (alpine and cross-country), snowboarding, dog sledding and ice fishing.
To the south of Anchorage, travelers will find the stunning Kenai Peninsula, location of Homer, the so-called halibut fishing capital of the world, and Seward, gateway to Kenai Fjords National Park -- which looks like a postcard from the ice age with its glaciers, mountains and barren rock formations. Prince William Sound, situated on the eastern side of the Kenai Peninsula, offers world-class whale watching for those seeking a peek at humpback, orca and gray whales.
Southwest Alaska: Getting more rugged, Alaska's less accessible Southwest boasts thousands of miles of Pacific coastline, incredible opportunities to spot bears and birds, and still-active volcanoes. Much of the Southwest can be reached only by plane or boat. The region is also home to numerous native populations, and so offers enriching travel opportunities to learn about indigenous cultures. The inland community of Bethel, located some 40 miles from the Bering Sea, is the administrative hub for more than 50 smaller Native Alaskan villages, and features a yearly traditional native dance festival.
Further south are the Aleutians, an island chain that stretches 1,200 miles west toward Asia, home to numerous charming native fishing villages. Aleuts are believed to have crossed the Bering land bridge between Asia and North America some time during the second ice age (12,000 to 15,000 years ago).
While the fishing enthusiast will find no shortage of world-class angling throughout Alaska, Kodiak Island, located on the eastern side of Southwest Alaska, is one of Alaska's most important fishing ports. The harbors are filled with hundreds of commercial fishing vessels, and opportunities for deep-sea fishing abound. Kodiak hosts a crab festival over Memorial Day Weekend, complete with fishing-related competitions, art, music and, of course, food.
Three Must-Pack Items for a Trip to Alaska
Interior Alaska: Alaska's massive central Interior region is home to North America's tallest peak, the 20,320-foot Mt. McKinley, and the small city of Fairbanks, the gateway city for exploring Alaska's most unforgiving terrain. Travelers visiting in June can marvel over the 24 hours of light here (a combination of sunlight and twilight). During winter months, Fairbanks' skies are the stage for the stunning aurora borealis. There are also a handful of developed hot springs near Fairbanks (60 to 170 miles away, that is).
A two-hour drive south from Fairbanks is the much-heralded Denali National Park and Preserve, a wildlife-rich, tundra-covered expanse dotted with mountain lakes -- with towering Mt. McKinley and its sister peaks as the backdrop. The Interior is also known for its gold rush history, and more than 100 years after gold was first "discovered," there are still working gold mines in the region.
Far North: North of Fairbanks, travelers find the mostly untamed Arctic Alaska, which extends 500 miles all the way to the Arctic Ocean. We say "mostly untamed" because stretching north/south along the unimaginably desolate Dalton Highway is the 800-mile-long Trans-Alaska Pipeline, which brings barrel upon barrel of oil south from Prudhoe Bay.
Around the summer solstice, the sun never sets in this part of the world (it never rises during the winter solstice) and no one but the hardiest of folks -- including the Inupiat and Yup'ik people -- call the region home. The limited number of travelers who do make it here, the vast majority of whom visit during the summer months, get a nearly unadulterated look at undisturbed Alaska. Wildlife abounds, with brown bears, moose, musk ox, wolves and even polar bears traversing the lands. Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve is situated here -- a huge expanse four times the size of Yellowstone, studded by two massive ice-covered peaks. Another spectacular Far North destination is the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR or Arctic Refuge), a key calving area for more than 150,000 porcupine caribou as well as the center for a hot-button "to drill or not to drill" debate.
Most attractions in the Far North are only reachable by air. Travelers who are going to spend any amount of time trekking through the untamed Far North bush must bring everything they need to survive -- or make the smart choice and book a trip with a full-service adventure tour provider.
Slightly more tourist friendly is Nome, a town rich with gold rush history, and the famous ending point for the yearly Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race (held in March). Another "popular" destination is the 3,500-resident Inupiat Eskimo village of Kotzebue, which features a museum of native history and serves as a taking off point for rafting and float trips. Both towns are accessible only by plane.