What’s the best way to go about seeing Alaska? Before this question can be answered, you’ll have to decide just how much of Alaska you want to see and how much time you have to see it. One thing’s for certain: you’ll never see it all. Ever. Consider this: our state contains some 575,000 square miles of real estate, according to the Alaska Almanac. That is 365 million acres—one fifth the size of the Continental United States.
With the country’s sparsest population, Alaska has a land area that amounts to nearly one square mile per resident. The state’s monumental size necessitates some basic considerations when choosing a means of travel. If you want to go by car, bus or RV, be prepared to encounter considerable limitations. For all the state’s expanse, it has, according to the Almanac, only 13,628 miles of public road, and just 30 percent of that is paved. Roads serve only about one-third of the state, connecting the larger cities with each other and with large installations such as the Prudhoe Bay and Kuparuk oil fields. Some areas of the state have thus far proved impossible to connect with the rest of the state’s road system (such as southeast Alaska, where precipitous terrain and numerous islands make water travel the primary means of transportation).
Even less of the state is accessible by train. There are about 470 miles of Alaska Railroad track slicing through the land, connecting the ports of Seward and Whittier with Anchorage, Cook Inlet and the Interior, including Fairbanks.
The best way to get around Alaska, in terms of speed and efficiency at least, is by air. In fact, many areas of rural and bush Alaska are practically reachable only by airplane. Not surprisingly, Alaska has six times as many registered pilots (8,612) and 14 times as many aircraft (10,057) per capita as the rest of the country. Alaska’s airspace is woven together by some 640 public and private airports. The largest and busiest seaplane base is none other than Anchorage’s Lake Hood. During peak season, more than 1,000 daily arrivals and departures stir the waters of this urban lake.
Water travel opens up broad new venues of exploration. Water craft are commonly used across the state due to Alaska’s size, the concentration of its islands and the proliferation of lakes and other bodies of water. Most of Alaska’s supplies and many of its travelers are carried here by water. For many purposes, water is a great way to go. Alaska boasts hundreds of river and lake systems suitable for traversing by boat, raft, canoe or kayak. There are plenty of opportunities for coastal travel as well. The Almanac numbers our registered marine vessels at 56,911, along with 11,000 rental slips to accommodate them all.
If you’re thinking about touring by motorbike, ATV, bicycle or even on foot, you’ll never run out of trails. The best place to start browsing is the Alaska Trails System, established by the Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation, (www.dev.dnr.state.ak.us/park). This is a fully mapped, interconnected statewide system of 41 trails with recreational, scenic and historic significance. The system connects Alaska’s communities to its natural wonders and accommodates various modes of transportation: walking, hiking/backpacking, horseback riding, biking, skiing, snowmachining, dog sledding, and ATVs.
Most Alaska cities, towns and villages have air taxi services, and there are 212 Alaska air charter companies eager to whisk people about the state. Most, of course, are based in Anchorage, such as Rust’s Flying Service (907-243-1595, http://www.flyrusts.com), Alaska Air Taxi (907-243-3944, http://www.alaskaairtaxis.com), Regal Air (907-243-8535, http://www.alaska.net\̴ regalair), and Trail Ridge (907-248-0838, http://www.trailridgeair.com). Talkeetna Air Taxi (800-533-2219, http://www.talkeetnaair.com) offers Denali flights and is based in Talkeetna. Flying services offer such options as flightseeing, bear viewing, fishing and hunting. Most companies have flexible schedules, so custom-fit flights are easy to meld with set tour schedules. Two-hour flightseeing trips start at under $200, with the option of spending big on longer and more elaborate trips.
Rust’s makes regular flights to Knik Glacier, Prince William Sound, McKinley and Katmai National Park, where you can sit and watch brown bears snatch leaping salmon out of the air. Their pilots make even the longer flights interesting by describing scenery and history. Barb Henderson will tell you all about Rust’s unique headset feature, which cuts down on flight noise and permits two-way communication between passengers and pilots.
The Alaska Railroad (907-265-2487, http://www.alaskarailroad.com) is an excellent way to take in southcentral Alaska’s attractions at your leisure, viewing its prominent glaciers, landscape and wildlife at a stately pace. The railroad runs through the middle of the state, connecting Anchorage with Portage, Girdwood, Whittier and Seward and, to the north, Talkeetna, Fairbanks and Denali National Park. The Alaska Railroad has packages ranging from $81 to $222. Some of its most specialized packages depart from Portage. The Glacier Discovery Train takes the traveler past Trail, Deadman, Spencer and Bartlett Glaciers and into the Placer River Valley, a destination only accessible by train.
“The limited access means there aren’t many other people around, which makes it special,” says Susie Kiger of the Alaska Railroad. Other packages include rafting and short marine cruise trips through Prince William Sound.
Bus service in Alaska is limited by cold weather and the huge stretches of uninhabited space in the state. However, the more popular tourist attractions are served by bus, more frequently in summer. Buses are the ideal choice for relatively quick, low-impact transportation to feature sites such as Denali. Tour bus staff will inform sojourners about points of interest as they take in the unfurling scenery.
Among the choices for bus tours are Alaska Tour and Travel (907-245-0200, http://www.alaskatravel.com), Do Mat-Su (907-622-6111, http://www.domatsu.com), Magic Bus (907-268-6311, http://www.themagicbus.com) and Cruise West (888-851-8133, http://email@example.com). Jeff Ripley at Alaska Tour and Travel describes his company’s unique angle: “We offer daily round trips from Seward to Denali and back.” The company has packages running from $49 to $118 and links up with hotel and other tour accommodations.
An RV is a great touring option, allowing the vacationer to travel in luxurious comfort with the option of avoiding many of the inconveniences involved in other modes of transportation.
“You only have to unpack once,” says John Marquardt of ABC Motorhome Rentals.
Many of these rolling mansions sport every convenience, including all the latest home entertainment technology and enough storage space to permit the voyager to bring much of the vacation along for the ride. Imagine having a completely self-contained power source and always being a few steps away from the kitchen and even a comfortable bed, should fatigue strike suddenly.
Rented motorhomes will typically be fully stocked with cookware, dishes, bedding and everything else you don’t bring in your suitcase. RV rentals will range in price from approximately $150 to $250 per day. The best part about traveling in an RV is the opportunity to take advantage of Alaska’s liberal RV laws: it is legal to park an RV anywhere except on private property. There are plenty of rental companies as well, including Karen’s RV (907-336-2055, http://www.karensrv.com), which is the authorized service center in Anchorage for most makes, ABC Motorhome Rentals (907-279-2000, http://www.abcmotorhomes.com), and Clippership Motorhome Rentals (907-562-7051, http://www.clippershiprv.com).
There are RV parks statewide with services such as power hookups and dump sites starting at around $75 per month. You can find a statewide booking agency for RV parks at http://www.goingnorth.com and for statewide rental companies at http://www.goingnorthrv.com.
Some of the finest sightseeing you can experience in Alaska is available only on the water. You can cruise Prince William Sound, Resurrection Bay, Kenai Fjords, Glacier Bay, Misty Fjords and other destinations. These trips offer spectacular natural scenery, including such marine wildlife as sea lions, puffins, cormorants, sea otters, orcas and humpback whales. For attractions in southcentral Alaska, the Alaska Visitors’ Center (907-929-2822, http://www.alaskavisitorscenter.com) offers information and booking on various day tour packages. However, excellent tour opportunities are available through Kenai Fjords Tours (907-276-6249, http://www.ahtours.com), Phillips Cruises (907-276-8023, http://www.26glaciers.com), Renown (907-272-1961, http://www.renowncharters.com) and Cruise West (888-851-8833, http://firstname.lastname@example.org).
Elyssa Solis of Kenai Fjords Tours describes Prince William Sound as a “visual symphony” of waterfalls, whales and calving tidewater glaciers. The company offers tours of every major marine destination in southcentral Alaska, including the out-of-the-way Esther Passage.
Sportfishing and Riverboat Charters
If you’re into whitewater and pulling in salmon and trout, check out some river tour packages. Denali Raft Adventures (888-683-2234, http://www.denaliraft.com), Alaska Salmon Safaris (907-688-2365) and Mahay’s (800-736-2210, http://www.mahaysriverboat.com) can take you there for $45 to $125. Aaron Dunn describes the Talkeetna Canyon Tour as an encounter with “sheer rock walls, cool breezes and pristine surroundings.” Mahay’s offers trips on the Talkeetna, Chulitna and Susitna Rivers.
Kayaking and Canoeing
For a non-motorized experience on the water, go canoeing or kayaking on Prince William Sound. Alaska Sea Kayakers’ Hans Klodt says this is one of the best ways to see the state, mainly because there are no roads. Klodt’s company offers tours of the Sound ranging from $150 to $300. You can see the Harriman Fjords or the Blackstone hanging ice fields, the company’s signature trip. With an experienced guide and nothing but the sound of your oars hitting the water, this is Alaska au naturale. Check out Alaska Sea Kayakers (907-276-2628, http://www.akadventures.com), Anadyr Adventures (907-835-2814, http://www.anadyradventures.com) or Lazy Otter Charters (800-587-6887, http://www.lazyotter.com).
An unexpectedly different way to see the sights is on an ATV. This mode of travel is to land what kayaking and canoeing are to water: up close and personal. An ATV is a bouncy, invigorating way to wind through Alaska’s back yard, with packages offered by outfits such as Alaska All-Terrain Tours and Rentals (907-783-7669) or Alaska Backcountry ATV Tours (907-745-2505, http://www.youralaskavacation.com). The latter company runs various Knik River Valley tours revolving around the stunning Knik Glacier. You can get all-day and overnight trips ranging from $145 to $775 and can expect to see plenty of wildlife, according to Craig Saunders.
Check out Alaska on a motorbike if you want a laid-back, freewheeling experience. There are a number of riding tours available from outfits like Alaska Motorcycle Adventures (907-376-4514, http://www.rentalaska.com) and Alaska Rider Tours (907-272-2777, http://www.akrider.com). The latter offers trips that go anywhere the road goes, according to owner Philip Freeman. Most tours range from $150 to $250 per day. This includes bike rental, guide, vehicular support, lodging, food, etc. The company regularly goes to Valdez, McCarthy, Homer, Circle Hot Springs and even clear up to Prudhoe Bay.
A bike is one great way to see the land if you like a good workout and want to take your time getting where you’re going. Says Tony Berberich, “We just went out with some people who couldn’t believe that we traveled 20 miles without seeing a single power line or patch of pavement.” His company, Alaska Backcountry Bike Tours (907-746-5018, http://www.mountainbikealaska.com) does nothing but bicycle tours ranging from one to seven days, $95 to $1,195. They take people around southcentral Alaska, the Kenai Peninsula and Denali National Park as well as on custom trips. Backcountry provides brand-new bikes and all the necessary equipment: helmets, water bottles, clothing and gear of all types. Also check out Lifetime Adventures (907-746-4644, http://www.lifetimeadventures.net).
If you want to watch the beauty of Alaska unfold gently, and you have all the time in the world to smell the flowers and hear the birdsong, this is the way to do it. Hiking tours can range from relatively low- to high-impact in terms of exertion and gets you as intimate with your surroundings as any mode of travel can. Xtremely Alaska (907-868-4098, http://www.xtremelyalaska.com) offers a large variety of tours of southcentral Alaska, ranging from one-day trips starting at $340 to two-week sojourns for $2,990 featuring every provision: food, equipment, lodging in cabins, etc. These tours combine hiking with other forms of transportation including rafting, kayaking, mountain biking, ice climbing and even cruises on Resurrection Bay. The deluxe package will let you do it all, with majestic views, wildlife, flowers, views of Mount McKinley, history of the area and all the trimmings!
So here’s to exploration and discovery and every imaginable way to do it. The individuals and groups featured here are the real deal, people who were trekking through the state before they ever got paid for it! Alaska is a country within a state, encompassing regions and terrains that make use of every known aspect of travel that has yet been invented. It’s all out there waiting for you, so put your finger on a map, pick up the phone and head out for the wild blue yonder.