Alaska Discovery Guide

When Large Spaces Matter

Would you be surprised if we told you that Alaska is about 375 million acres in size but less than 1% of that is inhabited by humans?  It’s actually double the size of Texas.  Alaska lies at the northern tip of North America and separated from the rest of the US by Canada.  Is that why Canada is so cold, or is it the other way around?

What images do you have of Alaska?  If you said icebergs and snow-capped mountains, we’ll agree with you.  If you said bears, we’d get all excited.  We actually “trekked” to Alaska to get a good look at bears feasting on salmon, and for some odd reason the people we were traveling with chose Hyder, Alaska.  Hyder is the twin sister city of Stewart, British Columbia.  That’s how we crossed into Alaska.  We landed at Calgary airport, drove all the way to British Columbia, and then bunked in at a bed and breakfast in Stewart.  We were told by our host that the best time to go and watch the bears was around 7 pm.  She said all we had to do was cross a dirt road and in less than a minute we’d be in Alaskan territory.  That was neat, we thought.  No more driving.  We could visit two countries simply walking through a dirt road.

Hyder, Alaska is small so there’s not much happening.  Its redeeming factor, however, is the reserve where the bears can be photographed chasing after salmon.  There were hundreds of people already waiting in line, setting up their photographic equipment.  Some even came with tents in case no bear would show up until 11 pm.  But they were punctual alright and they put on a good show to the delight of weary travelers who came from afar.

But Hyder won’t tell you much about Alaska.  It’s but a microcosm of this humongous state…

Alaskan Geography

Three distinct regions make up the entire state of Alaska:

  • Inside Passage – this is southeastern Alaska.  Miles and miles of islands and channels are situated in between the Pacific Ocean and Canada’s Coast Mountains.  This is where the capital, Juneau, is and this part of Alaska has been labelled “picturesque” by frequent visitors.

  • Northwest Alaska – it is closer to Russia than the lower 48 states and this region allows you access to the Kenai Peninsula and Denali National Park.  From here you can get into Kodiak Island and the Alaska Peninsula, if you’ve got the intestinal fortitude and a strong sense of adventure.  Anchorage, the state's largest city, is in this region.

  • Aleutian Islands – they are a volcanic archipelago and they extend 1,200 miles into the Bering Sea.


Alaska:  Present Tense

The population is tiny – approximately 650,000 people live here.  Of that number, 16% are of Native descent. 

The economy of Alaska depends on oil, mostly from the North Slope, although tourism, government and seafood processing bring in revenues for the state as well.  Anchorage, for instance, is a busy shipping cargo center.

Much of Alaska is natural wilderness and the government has taken steps to protect its natural beauty – the national parks attest to this rare beauty. 

Given that Alaska is the largest American state, visitors will spend a lot of their time travelling within the sites.  Major cities have good transportation systems and road travel is excellent.  However, a substantial part of southeast Alaska is not accessible by road.  Visitors who have taken the ferries will be familiar with the Alaska Marine Highway where you get breathtaking views of fjords, glaciers and natural forests.  The vessels that cross are often well-equipped with cabins and dining areas.  If you like, you can even set up your tent on the outer deck.

Points of Interest - Tourist hot spots and attractions

Ketchikan – this is your first stop as you make it to the Inside Passage.  Ask where the former redlight district is – it’s now Creek Street precinct.  From here you will see wooden houses standing over the water and linked together by a boardwalk.

Southeast Alaska Discovery Center – travelers strongly recommend you visit this center.  If you are often intrigued by totem poles, you’ll find at least 30 here, and most of them are over 100 years old. 

St. Michael’s Cathedral – everything about this cathedral is Russian.  It is known as a Russian Orthodox cathedral and visitors will see the Sitka Madonna, supposedly possessing healing powers.

Juneau – considered remote but nevertheless fascinating.  It’s the busiest area of the Inside Passage and boasts of tall, modern buildings.  The Red Dog Saloon is a must, and so is the Alaskan Hotel.  Travel brochures suggest taking the tramway all the way up to Mount Roberts.  If you feel like seeing a real glacier up front, travel to the northern end of the city where the Mendenhall Glacier sits.  From here, you can start a hiking trail or go rafting.

Glacier Bay National Park – more glaciers!  One way of getting here is via a cruise ship, or via the hamlet of Gustavus from Juneau.  Watch out for the tidewater glaciers – they are the top attractions of this national park.

Fairbanks – this is the second largest city of Alaska.  It lies just 150 miles south of the Arctic Circle (brrrr), but its long winter nights are not that dreadful since winter nights are the best time to view the aurora borealis and the northern lights (produced by clasing protons and electrons).  Fairbanks can get extremely hot (90 degrees F) in the summer and extremely cold (minus 60 degrees F) in the winter.

Denali National Park – Alaska’s top attraction.  You want grizzly bears, you’ll see them here.  Dall sheep anyone?  Go to Denali.  Wolves?  Indeed.  Many visitors with sophisticated camera equipment come to Denali National Park to get a slice of the phenomenal wildlife activity!

So whether you’re into grizzly bears, glaciers or fly fishing, come visit Alaska.  It will certainly be different from the west coast or the midwest and you can fill your scrapbook with pictures that are out of the ordinary!

For history buffs, Alaska became the 49th US state in 1959.

Top cities and areas to discover in the state of Alaska

Anchorage
Fairbanks
Juneau

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