Creative Commons photo by Mark Byzewski is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Alaska’s majestic glaciers, grizzlies, bald eagles and whales, plus the spectacle of the aurora borealis and more, make it one of the West’s most breathtaking destinations. Here’s how to get there and what to do.
May 6, 2009
| Updated January 8, 2019
When you add 586,412 square miles to a country, it’s a big deal. That’s why Alaskans are celebrating.
In 1959, their mini-nation of glaciers and mountains and wildlife became the United State’s 49th state. And nothing―not even presidential elections―has been the same since.
Alaska’s birthday makes 2009 a terrific time to make your first visit. What’s here? North America’s tallest mountain. One of the biggest concentration of glaciers in the world. Grizzlies, bald eagles and whales. Vibrant Native cultures and incredible native art, from totem poles to jewelry. Outdoor adventures, from kayaking to dog-sledding. The world’s best salmon and the spectacle of the aurora borealis turning the night sky into a poem of light.
How to plan a trip
Given Alaska’s supersized nature, most first-time visitors concentrate on seeing one or two regions per visit:
South Central: Whales, kayaking, city life. Anchorage, Prince William Sound, Kenai Peninsula and Homer.
Interior: Grizzlies, caribou, Mt McKinley and Denali National Park, the Northern Lights, Fairbanks
Southwest: Wilderness, the world’s best bird-watching, great fishing. Kodiak Island, the Alaska Peninsula, the Aleutian Islands
Far North. Extreme Alaska, above the Arctic Circle: tundra, Eskimo culture, Gates of the Arctic National Park.
How you get to Alaska also shapes your visit. There are three main choices:
A big percentage of visitors first experience Alaska on a cruise ship. The most common routes are up the Inside Passage, starting in L.A. or San Francisco or Vancouver with stops at Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway and other southeast towns.
Other ships go farther north, stopping in Whittier, not far from Anchorage, where passengers can connect to rail tours of Denali National Park and Fairbanks.
Alaska’s unique ferry system―officially, the Alaska Marine Highway System (http://www.dot.state.ak.us/amhs/pubs/landing.shtml)―lets you create your own cruise itinerary, stopping in a town for a day or two then moving on. Pluses: greater flexibility and less cost, and reasonable comfort, including private cabins. Minuses: none of the luxuries (gourmet dining, casinos) of the big cruise lines. Ferries run from Bellingham, Washington up the coast of British Columbia to Inside Passage―Juneau, Ketchikan, Sitka, Skagway―and then on to Whittier and Homer and Kodiak. Or you can fly into Juneau and begin your ferry trip there.
If you want to take your own car tour of Alaska, Anchorage or Fairbanks are the logical places to fly into and rent a car in. If you want to catch the Alaska ferry, Juneau makes more sense.