No journey stays with you, mind and soul, like an expedition through Alaska. From the blue ice of massive glacial fields to the stunning grandeur of the scenery and wildlife, everything in Alaska is big, bold and absolutely breathtaking. Including the adventures.
The Aleut people called it Alyeska, the great land. Alaska is one of the world's special places, full of exotic wildlife, magnificent mountains, glacier-carved valleys and steep, rocky coastlines.
Alaska is bigger than life, its sheer mass hard to comprehend. The distance from Barrow, on the northern coast, to Ketchikan, at the southern edge, is more than 1,350 mi/2,174 km—about the same as New York City to Miami. Alaska has six distinct climatic regions, the tallest mountains, the biggest glaciers, the most plentiful fishing and the wildest nature preserves on the North American continent.
Visitors go to Alaska for the fishing, hiking, hunting or camping—Denali National Park is a big attraction. Some go for the northern lights, or to whale-watch while cruising the Inside Passage. Some even go to Alaska for the Iditarod dogsled race.
Even as Alaska vacations become more accessible, distance creates costs. Per-day expenses in remote parts of the state are comparable with those in major urban centers. The abundance of spectacular scenery and wildlife, however, should more than compensate.
Alaska borders the northwest edge of Canada and is actually closer to Russia (just 39 mi/62 km by air across the Bering Strait) than it is to the rest of the U.S. The landscape is dramatic and, because it covers such a huge territory, quite varied. In the south is temperate rain forest (Tongass), and in the north is Arctic desert.
The state is traversed by nine major mountain ranges, encompassing 17 of the highest peaks in the U.S., including North America's highest mountain, Mount McKinley, as well as most of the country's active volcanoes. It has more coastline than all of the other states combined. The geography ranges from endless miles/kilometers of tundra to sheer mountain walls, from the densely forested temperate coasts of the Inside Passage to the permafrost of the treeless Arctic Circle.
The first settlers in Alaska arrived at least 20,000 years ago, when hunters from Asia followed large game over the Bering Strait land bridge into North America. By the time the first Europeans arrived in the mid-1700s, they found several diverse cultures living in Alaska: Whale- and seal-hunting Inupiat and Yupik peoples inhabited the treeless tundra along the Arctic Ocean, Chukchi and Bering sea coasts, and nomadic Athabascan caribou hunters roamed the forested interior along the Yukon River. Alaska's panhandle was home to members of the Tlingit, Tsimshian and Haida groups, who lived in a lush coastal environment.
Even though Russian explorers had seen the Alaskan coast as early as 1741, Europeans didn't venture into the territory's immense interior until well into the 1800s. Even after the U.S. purchased the area in 1867 for cents an acre/hectare, the region remained largely unexplored.
As was often the case elsewhere in the opening of the American frontier, it took the discovery of gold in Juneau in 1880 to get folks headed for Alaska. During the famous Klondike Gold Rush of 1898-99, thousands of rowdy, ambitious and gutsy prospectors and speculators flooded into Dawson, Skagway, Valdez and other towns.
Alaska was made a U.S. territory in 1912, but statehood wasn't granted until 1959. Then the discovery of oil at Prudhoe Bay in 1968 sparked a new rush to Alaska. The construction of the Alaska Pipeline from the Beaufort Sea to the Gulf of Alaska in the 1970s brought new wealth, new jobs and new environmental concerns.
Even now, the debate continues as to how much of Alaska's pristine wilderness should be developed. Most recently, the focus has been on oil development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, declining populations of marine mammals in the Bering Sea, and the impact from cruise-ship travel and other tourist activity, especially in southeastern Alaska.
Alaska's main attractions include spectacular scenery, wildlife viewing, camping, skiing, the northern lights, volcanoes, Inside Passage cruises, hiking, riverboat rides, fishing, canoeing, river and sea kayaking, friendly people, Alaska Native and Russian cultures, totem poles, glaciers and dogsled rides.
Most people will like Alaska, but the state has special appeal for nature lovers and the adventurous. Those on a strict budget may opt to tour the coasts via Alaska's Marine Highway ferries rather than by cruise ships. Motor homes, recreational vehicles and camper vans are available to rent for those who want to explore the state's interior highways or drive the Alaska Highway through Canada.
Alaska is from an Aleut word meaning "great country" or "what the sea breaks against."
The state of Alaska has 33,904 mi/54,585 km of coastline, more than the rest of the U.S. combined.
All Alaskans (who apply and qualify for it) receive an annual Permanent Fund Dividend check that averages around US$850 per person (including children). The dividend is funded by North Slope oil taxes and profits from investments.
In the unique history of Alaska, the male-to-female ratio across the state has often been quite imbalanced. As a result, a saying began among Alaskan women that in Alaska "the odds are good, but the goods are odd." This joke has failed to wither with time or the balancing of the odds.
Juneau is the only U.S. state capital that cannot be reached by highway. It is located 573 mi/916 km by air from Anchorage, the state's largest city and populated area. With as many roads as a New England state but a landmass triple the size of Texas (only 12 major highways are open year-round), Alaska is a place where flight is commonplace and pilots are many.
Geologically, Alaska is an amazingly active location. Small earthquakes are common in many parts of Alaska, and midsized ones frequently shake the thinly populated Aleutian Islands. The devastating 1964 Good Friday Earthquake registered 9.2 on the Richter scale, making it the most powerful temblor ever recorded in North America. In addition, 80% of the active volcanoes in the U.S. are in Alaska, and major eruptions in the Aleutian Islands occur almost every year.
Dog mushing is the official state sport of Alaska.
Former Secretary of State William H. Seward bought Alaska from Russia for US$7.2 million in 1867. At approximately US$0.02 per acre/half-hectare, it was a bargain that some called Seward's Folly.
There's nothing quite like experiencing the Last Frontier from a cruise ship: Icebergs and rugged islands glide by, porpoises play in the ship's wake, and whales breach off the side. In Alaskan towns along the way, you can shake a gold pan in a rushing stream and watch native carvers at work on a new totem pole. You can raft down whitewater streams and fly to (and land on) glaciers.
The state is so big, its extremes of climate and geology so great, and its wildlife and history so fascinating that Alaska delights (and uses up film and camera capacity) like few other places on Earth. In fact, with so much to choose from there, it's easy to become overwhelmed. A cruise simplifies some of the decision-making.
Ship lines offer a wide variety of Alaska cruises, so there's an itinerary to satisfy almost everyone. You can ride on a megaship with more than 2,000 passengers and all the comforts of home, and then some, as you visit the state's main ports. Or you can cruise aboard an exploration ship (with 100 other people) that can slip into the narrowest of fjords and get close enough to watch a brown bear snatch a salmon out of the water.
The big cruise lines usually offer a choice of two routes, both of which take you through the Inside Passage, the protected waterway between the mainland and the coastal islands. The emphasis is different, however. The trips known as Inside Passage cruises usually begin in Vancouver, British Columbia, include stops at such southeast Alaska ports as Ketchikan and Juneau, turn around in Glacier Bay and return to Vancouver. Gulf of Alaska cruises (sometimes called Glacier Route cruises) usually run between Vancouver and Seward, with connections through Anchorage so you can add excursions into the interior of the state.
Both routes often include stops at Ketchikan, Juneau and Skagway—one of the most visited ports along the Inside Passage and the main jumping-off point for tours into the Yukon Gold Rush area. Small ships combine the best of both routes, offering stops in smaller ports, visits to hard-to-reach landmarks and more personal attention. Of course, their prices are usually higher, too.