Five Epic Reasons to Visit Mainland Alaska

Mike Gurrey

30 Oct 2017

If you’ve yet to visit the USA’s biggest state, this blog will put it at the top of your bucket list!

When it comes to breathtaking vistas and impromptu encounters with an impressive array of wildlife, there is no other U.S. state quite like Alaska. Renowned as “The Last Frontier”, Alaska may have been admitted into the Union as the 49th state, but it certainly jumps right to the very top in terms of awe-inspiring natural landscapes. If you have yet to visit Alaska, I hope to give you enough inspiration to start planning your own safari in the near future. Having recently returned from the state, I can attest that this is one of the world’s most stunning places, and I can’t wait to visit again in the future.

Introduction

While some may envision nothing more than igloos and nomadic indigenous tribes, Alaska is actually one of the foremost destinations in which to embark upon a safari, whether by land or sea. I have spent time in Alaska doing a self-drive itinerary whilst my colleague Lorna has spent time travelling through the southern coastline’s Inside Passage while working on ships. It is one of the most pristine and beautiful places I have ever visited. America’s 49th state offers plenty of opportunity for adventure, wildlife, history, and unforgettable scenery.

landscape

Many visitors venture to Alaska to see the jaw-dropping scenery and unspoiled nature of its National Parks, taking in majestic mountains, glaciers, fjords, waterfalls and crystal-clear lakes. Cruising along the Inside Passage and seeing the remote villages with their picturesque backdrops was one of the highlights of mine and Lorna’s trips. Some cities, like Sitka, are only accessible by water or air.

Alaska has some of the world’s most scenic roads, like the Seward Highway and Denali Park Road which make for an unforgettable road trip. The trains also offer memorable journeys through the stunning landscapes. Check out the Denali Star or Coastal Classic routes. If you’re on a shore excursion in Skagway, myself and Lorna can highly recommend the White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad.

Wildlife

Alaska is one of the best places for wildlife-spotting in the world. It was incredible to see many magnificent bald eagles flying overhead. Cruising on a small ship in Alaska’s bays and fjords will give you many opportunities to see orcas, grey whales, humpback whales, seals and sea lions gliding through the water.

On land the wildlife is plentiful, including hundreds of salmon swimming and jumping in the waters surrounding Ketchikan, said to be the “salmon capital of the world”. When travelling through Alaska, consider taking the Denali Park Road to see the US version of the “big five”: grizzly bears, moose, wolves, caribou and Dall sheep. The biggest draw for Alaskan wildlife has to be Katmai National Park, which is home to the largest bear of them – the Kodiak bear. These imposing animals can be seen on a small ship safari or by staying in a remote lodge within the park. This once-in-a-lifetime experience gets booked more than a year in advance, so be quick!

Culture and History

Alaska has a rich and varied history, from its indigenous peoples who inhabited the land before its discovery by Europeans to the later influx of goldminers and Russian fur traders. Don’t miss visiting the unique museums and cultural heritage centres throughout Alaska. I loved learning about the state’s history and culture through the collection of interesting paintings, displays and artefacts.

Ketchikan is home to the world’s largest totem pole collection, spread across several parks in and around the city. These hand-carved works of art – some measuring as tall as 55ft - tell the stories, legends and heritage of Alaska’s indigenous peoples. Sitka, a city to the northwest of Ketchikan, operated as Russia’s major Pacific port for over 60 years, and was the site of the 1867 Alaska Purchase where the U.S. acquired the territory from the Russians. There are still Russian cultural influences and historic buildings to be found here.

Glaciers

The Alaska Almanac estimates that the state has around 100,000 glaciers. Glaciers are defined as a “body of snow and ice that moves”. They form when snow, ice, and rock debris descend from higher elevations, eventually creating layers of packed snow.

On a small ship cruise you can sail into Glacier Bay National Park to see these glaciers at a close but safe distance. One of our most memorable travel moments was watching the glaciers calve and hearing the thundering sound accompanying the glacial ice pieces breaking off. It truly was an unbelievable sight.

Unique Adventures

Alaska’s landscape offers some unique adventures on many travellers’ wish lists, no matter what time of year you visit. This is a paradise for those who love the outdoors, especially during the summer, with kayaking, river rafting, hiking, sport fishing and scenic flightseeing all viable options for seeing the surrounding landscape.

Glacier hiking and ice climbing are also available. The midnight sun ensures you have plenty of time for these adventures. Winter is the prime time for dog sledding in Denali National Park, with plenty of other activities available including ice fishing, heli-skiing, taking a dip in the local hot springs and viewing the Northern Lights (which definitely tops my list).

Conclusion

Alaska has jumped right to the very top of my country list, and for good reason! I have spent an amazing three weeks exploring this beautiful state and yet I still feel like there is so much more to see. I spent four days in Denali National Park, one day exploring in and around Anchorage and an awesome drive from Anchorage to Seward before heading out on a cruise through Kenai Fjords National Park, to name just a few amazing experiences.

For the wildlife-lovers out there, spending time in Katmai and Denali National Parks is something you cannot afford to miss. Alaska’s “big five” are all waiting to be discovered and I felt incredibly fortunate to experience all of these and much more.

For me the highlight has to be seeing grizzly bears at home in Katmai National Park, a truly unforgettable experience that will stay with me for a long time to come.

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