Have you ever dreamed of exploring the icy tundras of Alaska? With this Alaska travel guide, you will learn everything you need to know about travelling to the arctic state, such as when to go there, how to get there, how to get around, where to go and what to see.
Air Canada operates daily direct services from Sydney to Vancouver with connections to Anchorage. This route offers the fastest connection as only one stop is required. Qantas flies Australia – Los Angeles with connections on Alaskan Airlines via Seattle to Anchorage and Fairbanks. Within the state, Alaska Airlines serves many towns, while ‘bush planes’ can be chartered to the most remote areas.
With more than 917,326km of land to cover, there are infinite ways to explore Alaska. Renting a car or motor home is a great way to explore independently and discover less-visited communities, state parks and scenic viewpoints. The Alaska Railroad also offers several options for reaching destinations not accessible by road. See Alaska by a mix of land and sea by taking a ferry along the Alaska Marine Highway System, also dubbed a National Scenic Byway. If the more remote areas of Alaska are on the itinerary, hop aboard a “bush” plane to visit a remote Alaska native village, circle Mount McKinley or opt for a faster commute between major communities.
Alaska is big, and distances are farther than they might seem. One of the best ways to see the bulk of the state is to rent a car or motor home and travel Alaska’s scenic roadways, many of which have been recognized by state and federal programs for their unique scenic, cultural and historical qualities. Most of Alaska’s highways are paved and have plenty of amenities, but there are a few that are unpaved, so doing a bit of research in advance is highly recommended. The Milepost, regarded as the Bible of Alaska road information, is a good reference for planning routes of travel and knowing where to find amenities and campsites.
Each year, more than 500,000 people board the Alaska Railroad to travel within Southcentral and Interior Alaska and enjoy the phenomenal views of Alaska’s coasts, countryside and majestic mountains. The Alaska Railroad is a modern railroad offering service from Seward and Whittier, through Anchorage and Denali National Park to its terminus in Fairbanks. The rail offers access to some of the state’s most-visited destinations as well as the chance to visit destinations not accessible by road. Well known for its glass-domed rail cars providing panoramic views and excellent service, travellers can choose between Adventure Class for coach-style service and GoldStar Service for first-class service. Either way, riding the rail is not only a convenient, comfortable and carefree form of transportation, the journey is an adventure in and of itself.
With more coastline than the rest of the United States combined, the most popular way to see it all is by cruising through Alaska. These all-inclusive ships offer voyages beginning or ending in Whittier and Seward and as far south as Vancouver, B.C., Seattle or even San Francisco in the United States. While larger ships often have the most amenities, smaller ships can create a more personal cruise experience and, because of their size, can reach hard-to-access areas that larger ships cannot go. Travelling by ferry is also a quick and easy way to travel from location to location. Noted for its independent, hop-on/hop-off service, the ferry system also boasts an unusual camping experience, allowing travellers to pitch tents on the ship decks. The fleet of 11 deep-blue vessels — known as the “blue canoes” — serves 32 coastal communities and travels 5,632km of coastline along the Inside Passage, Kenai Peninsula, Prince William Sound and the Aleutian chain.
Parts of Alaska are just an hour and a half flight from Seattle, the closest major airport outside the state. Many Alaska cities have jet service, and more remote parts of Alaska can be accessed by bush plane. Travelling Alaska by air makes a lot of sense when embracing the vast size of the state. But the good news is finding a flight from here to there is easy. With more pilots per capita than any other state (about one in 66 residents is an active pilot), there’s never a shortage of opportunities to take a bird’s eye view of the great state of Alaska. Circle the majestic Mount McKinley with a flightseeing trip out of Anchorage or the Mat-Su Valley. Or from Kodiak or Homer, spot brown bears from the air above Katmai National Park and Preserve or land on a glacier and learn to dog sled from Girdwood, Seward, Juneau and more.
Soaking in all that Alaska has to offer is often the result of a well-thought-out plan; like a road map to the vacation of a lifetime! Luckily, the planning experts have divided the state into five distinct regions, so no matter what any must-see-and-do list includes, travellers know where to find it. While almost any place in Alaska offers the history, culture, landscapes, wildlife and adventure that brought visitors to the Last Frontier to begin with, each region has aspects that are unique to any other place — it’s like five vacations in one.
A popular destination for cruisers, Alaska’s Inside Passage is a one-stop-shop for Alaska’s diverse heritage, stunning glaciers and wildlife. The area’s native culture and Russian heritage is abundant and the wildlife-rich fjords that connect the coastal communities are easily navigated by cruise ship, ferry or floatplane. Island hopping is greatly encouraged to see all of the Inside Passage’s top attractions:
Southcentral Alaska is home to more than half of the state’s population and is one of the most accessible regions. Anchorage is Alaska’s largest city, a centre of commerce and a popular destination for dining, museums, shopping and more. However, the city and its surrounding area is more than just a bustling metropolis. Take off in any direction to find some of Alaska’s most popular spots. South is the Kenai Peninsula, Alaska’s premier fishing destination. Head north to the Mat-Su Valley — known for gigantic vegetables — or Talkeetna, the staging ground for climbers as they attempt to conquer Mount McKinley, North America’s tallest mountain. It’s just a day’s drive to McCarthy and the ghost town of Kennicott located within Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, the largest national park. The scenic and funky towns are a base camp for glacier explorations, rafting and to explore the history of the once-booming Kennecott copper mine.
For those seeking Alaska’s wild side, Southwest Alaska is the place to see it. Katmai National Park and Preserve is home to more than 2,000 brown bears and the famous Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. A major hub of the region, Kodiak Island is easily accessible by scheduled jet or via the Alaska Marine Highway System. Visitors can also view an array of birds, wildlife and marine life from towns along the chain of Aleutian Islands, which sweeps 1,609km toward Asia. Accessible via scheduled jet from Anchorage, or by ferry from Kodiak Island in summer, the town of Unalaska/Port of Dutch Harbor offers hiking, fishing, birding, climbing and sea kayaking. Dutch Harbor also holds the distinction of leading the nation in quantity and value of their landed catch.
Alaska’s Interior region is the ideal destination for the adventurer. The area boasts spectacular mountain views of the Alaska Range and Denali National Park and Preserve. Denali covers more than six million acres and is home to Mount McKinley, standing at 6,193 ms. Reach Denali via the Parks Highway from Anchorage or Fairbanks or aboard the Alaska Railroad. Further north, get a taste of Fairbanks’ rich gold rush history at Pioneer Park, pan for gold or cruise the Chena River aboard a sternwheeler or kayak. In the summer, Fairbanks enjoys 22 hours of daylight, leaving plenty of time to investigate the many attractions, such as the Museum of the North, and in winter, provides one of the best spots to view the northern lights.
As one of Alaska’s most diverse regions, the Far North is filled with opportunities to experience authentic Alaskan native culture. Barrow is the northernmost town in the United States, and one of the largest Eskimo communities. This far north, the sun doesn’t set for 82 days in the summer, so plan a trip between May and August to take a quick dip in the Arctic Ocean, go birding, join a photography tour and more. Nome has a rich gold rush history, and each March marks the finish of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, the longest dog sled race in the world. Even though it seems extreme, visitors can actually visit the Far North in just a day, through a land or flight tour out of Fairbanks to Coldfoot, one of the few communities north of the Arctic Circle accessible by road. Or they can fly into Bettles, a town catering to the independent hiker, angler or adventure traveller.
Even without a lot of experience, travellers can pick and choose an adventure to suit any variety of interests or intensity level.
What’s great about exploring Alaska’s backcountry is that it’s not just for the experienced outdoorsman anymore. Alaska’s wilderness offers something for visitors of all ages and ability levels. Those who want to spend several days and travel off the beaten path can fly into one of Alaska’s remote wilderness lodges, offering an approach to going off-road without sacrificing any modern comforts or luxury. Many properties specialize in fishing and wilderness activities, even yoga and cooking lessons are available, and guests are pampered with top-notch food and accommodations. The hardcore adventurer can easily seek out mountaineering expeditions on Mount McKinley, but for those who aren’t quite ready, gentle hikes are available throughout the state and are great for families.
Whether fishing is a traveller’s priority, or they want to test the waters for beginner’s luck, there will be no hardship finding fish to catch any time of year in any region of the state. Charters are available throughout Alaska, led by some of the most seasoned sportfishing experts around. Saltwater fishing in Prince William Sound, Kachemak Bay or the Inside Passage will land anglers halibut and rockfish of urban-legend proportions. Or to fight world-record king or other salmon, guides know all the hot spots along the Kenai River or near Glennallen. Of course, not every angler who visits Alaska will catch the big one, but derbies do take place throughout the summer for those who want to size up the competition. Information on fishing licenses and regulations is available on the Alaska Fish and Game website, in sporting goods stores or from just about any local Alaskan.
In Alaska, the chance of spotting wildlife is a high probability. From the eagles in the treetops, moose enjoying a bite along the trails or whales breaching in the Kenai Fjords National Park a traveller to Alaska has great opportunities to have a ‘wildlife’ experience. When visiting Denali National Park and Preserve, guided bus tours take visitors into the heart of the park to excellent wildlife country. Alaska’s shorelines are home to sea lions, walrus, whales, seals, sea otters and other incredible mammals. Day cruises can be arranged for half or full-day tours, or if hopping from destination to destination, visitors can also spot wildlife from the decks of the ferries along the Alaska Marine Highway system. A birder’s paradise, anyone with an eye to the sky and a pair of binoculars can capture a glimpse of Alaska’s winged icons, including the bald eagle. With a population of more than 30,000 in Alaska, most visitors will see a bald eagle before they leave the state. A visit to Alaska in springtime is also the perfect time to see shorebirds and celebrate their arrival with various shorebird festivals around the state.
Alaska may be one of the youngest states in the union, but its history and culture have far deeper roots. Alaska’s native culture is evident throughout the state. See the totem carvings in the Inside Passage region, native dance performances at Anchorage’s Alaska Native Heritage Centre, take in the blanket toss in Barrow and the traditional music at the Fairbanks’ Athabascan Fiddle Festival. Although Alaska was purchased from Russia in 1867, the Russian influence is still evident today in the communities of Sitka, Kodiak, Unalaska and on the Kenai Peninsula, where onion-domed Russian Orthodox churches remain and the Russian spirit is still kept alive with folk dance performances. But the culture of Alaska doesn’t stop there, its towns & cities have booming traditions all of their own celebrated through festivals, dance, music, arts and their food.
When the winter’s first dusting of snow can be seen on the mountains, it’s a sure sign that the winter activities are just around the corner. And when the weather turns cold and glistening snow blankets the state, Alaskans and travellers alike are giddy with the anticipation of winter.
Whether a snowboarder or skier, travellers will feel right at home in Anchorage with over 128km of spectacular maintained Nordic trails and three downhill options within 45 mins of downtown. Downhill buffs will covet the nearby small town of Girdwood, dominated by Alyeska Resort. The luxury resort and spa gets an annual snowfall of 16 ms and boasts 2,500 vertical ms of diverse terrain and short lift lines. Even though Eaglecrest gets a little later start, this ski area in Alaska’s capital city of Juneau, offers 31 Alpine runs, two Nordic trails systems, a terrain park and a sledding hill. For cross-country adventures under the glow of the aurora, Fairbanks offers over 29km of beautifully groomed ski trails at Birch Hill Recreation Area and a downhill slope for all abilities at Moose Mountain. Travellers who are up for a bigger adventure can take a helicopter ride to the backcountry for big mountain skiing or snowboarding.
Dancing in curtains of colour from green to red to purple, the aurora borealis, known locally as the northern lights, take place as low as 64km above the earth. Clear skies and darkness are essential to see the aurora, and this polar light show is only available to the lucky residents of the northern hemisphere. Hotels and tour companies don’t want visitors to leave Alaska without experiencing this magical sight. Many hotels offer “aurora wake-up calls” to visitors who wish to be woken up if the curtain goes up in the sky. Visitors in Fairbanks can see the northern lights from a heated “aurorium” cabin, on a late-night dog sled trip, by snow-cat tour, on a horse-drawn sleigh, a flight above the Arctic Circle or while soaking at Chena Hot Springs Resort. For a night show of another kind, each winter beginning in February, Fairbanks and Ice Alaska host one of the largest annual ice art competitions and exhibitions in the world. The month-long event features more than 70 artist teams from all over the world creating intricate and impressive sculptures. Not all of the ice art at the event is just for admiring. The Kids Ice Park contains an ice arena, mazes and tunnels, ice slides, twirling ice bowels and more.
Dog sledding is a thrilling experience, whether you’re five or 55. Travellers who prefer to sit back and enjoy the ride can opt for a seat in the cozy sled basket. More adventurous travellers can take it up a notch by getting behind the wheel. Tours are offered throughout the state in Anchorage and the Mat-Su Valley, Fairbanks, Juneau and more. Travellers can check with the local visitor’s bureau to find a nearby operator. To see how the pros do it, travel in March for the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race from Anchorage to Nome. Teams of 12 to 16 dogs and a musher cover over 1,850km in 10 to 17 days through some of the most remote and pristine landscape available.
Temperatures in Alaska during the summer months range from 15 – 27 degrees Celsius. Nighttime and early mornings are cooler, from 5 – 11 degrees Celsius. Late August and September departures could encounter cooler temperatures and slightly fewer hours of sunlight, as autumn arrives early at these latitudes. No matter when or where you travel in Alaska, clothing is always a primary consideration. The first thing most people notice is that the dress in Alaska is casual, and should be based on what will provide the most comfort and agility for each type of adventure. Layering is an extremely effective technique, allowing for adding or subtracting layers as necessary. Good walking shoes and a set of lightweight raingear are essential.
Languages: English and 20 Native languages
Local Time: Alaska Time Zone UTC – 9
Currency: United States Dollar
Exchange Rate: $AUD1: 0.90 USD (varies daily)
Electricity: 120 Volts at 60 Hz