It is truly rare to come across a place so remarkable that we struggle to find the superlatives to describe it. If adventure is calling your name, the answer is Alaska.
With wilderness comes wildlife and Alaska is Mother Nature’s zoo. Her seas are home to an abundance of whales, 98% of America’s entire brown bear population roam her woodlands and the skies are filled with 246 native bird species. Rivers are teeming with enormous salmon, each of them fair game for the bald eagles that circle above (in fact half of the world’s bald eagle population live in Alaska).
Eight whale species call Alaskan waters home, including beluga whales, humpback whales and the largest animal on earth, the blue whale. Winters are spent in warmer climes, as they should be in our opinion, before the whales and their offspring migrate to Alaskan waters to feed. As is so often the case when it comes to wildlife viewings, whales are often happened upon by accident. Frequently cruisers to this area are delighted to spot humpback whales breach alongside their ship as it negotiates the waters of the Inside Passage, whilst the 6ft fins of orcas are regularly spotted from the waterfront promenades of Ketchikan. Aside from spontaneous sightings, there are endless opportunities to whale watch; many boat tours are offered with such confidence, they come with a money back guarantee.
Of course, Alaska has much more to offer besides its sea life. Bald eagles are to Alaska what pigeons are to London, with many of the state’s 30,000-strong population found on the islands just off the southeast coast. The horned puffin is another native of southern Alaska, where almost a million of these distinctive yellow and orange billed birds make their home in colonies along the coastline.
The state didn’t get its ‘bear country’ moniker without good reason and with over 30,000 grizzly bears, 100,000 black bears and many polar and glacier bears, you’re never far away from one of these natural born predators. Grizzlies, or brown bears as they’re also known, are found almost everywhere in Alaska, black bears tend to inhabit the forest regions and polar bears trundle along the sea ice of the Bering, Chukchi and Beaufort Seas. We recommend you travel from Skagway, down the glacial fjord to Haines and then onto the Chilkoot River, where you will encounter wildlife in its droves; brown bears and bald eagles are often spotted here, snatching their prey from the river’s chilly waters.
Alaska compensates for its lack of humans with a profusion of wildlife, with mountain goats, moose, caribou and the ferocious looking muskoxen also inhabiting this subarctic expanse.
Up In Lights
Alaska’s wilderness is illuminated in the most magical way come night time, when the skies above are aglow with the reds, greens and purples of the northern lights. The aurora borealis, as the northern lights are officially known, can be seen across the whole of Alaska; though they occur most often and at their brightest in the region of Fairbanks, the lights have been known to glow as far south as the capital, Juneau.
The best times to see this incredible natural phenomenon are when the skies are dark and clear, generally from the end of September to the middle of April. Thanks to its position within an area known as the ‘aurora oval’, the region around the city of Fairbanks promises the best chance of sightings; to maximise your chances we suggest you venture out of the city and away from the glow of its streetlights. Alternatively, take a trip to Denali National Park. Spanning six million acres, this subarctic wilderness experiences long hours of darkness, meaning that even if those legendary lights don’t make an appearance, the stargazing will more than make up for it.
Wild, raw, epic, extreme; there aren’t nearly enough superlatives to even begin to describe the landscape of Alaska.
At 663,268 square miles Alaska is America’s largest yet least populated state, but what it lacks in population it makes up for in scenery. Alaska is home to seventeen of America’s twenty highest peaks and as many as 100,000 glaciers cover its expansive terrain, many of them unexplored and unnamed. As many as 3 million lakes are scattered across the state, with 3,000 rivers snaking between fifteen national parks and 3.2 million acres of State Park Land. This isn’t just the great outdoors, it’s the greatest outdoors.
Alaska accommodates 15 National Parks, Preserves and Monuments within its state lines, with Denali National Park, Glacier Bay National Park and Misty Fjords National Monument amongst those most often explored.
At 6,190m above sea level, the recently renamed Denali Mountain is the highest peak in North America. Its snow-covered peaks are often shrouded in clouds, adding extra dramatic effect to a view best witnessed from the National Park that surrounds it. Encompassing an incredible six million acres, yet with just a single road running through it, Denali National Park is a subarctic wilderness of great proportions. Its wild landscape is home to 1,500 plant species, 39 mammal species, 169 species of bird and just one solitary amphibian species. Come night time, the inky skies benefitting from an absolute lack of artificial light turn into an awe-inspiring dome of stars, with appearances from the aurora borealis a bonus to those who visit at exactly the right time.
Look at many an Alaskan cruise itinerary and scenic cruising through the Glacier Bay National Park will often play a part. With 3.3 million acres of mountains, glaciers, deep fjords and emerald forests, the park is a highlight of Alaska’s Inside Passage. This is a place as far removed from modern day life as one could imagine. There’s a feeling of resilience and solitude to the wilderness here, where little has changed since the last Ice Age. You’ll not quickly forget hearing the guttural roar of one of the twelve glaciers currently calving icebergs into the sea if you are lucky enough to be there at the right time. As well as being one of the world’s snowiest places, with 100ft of snowfall year-round, Glacier Bay National Park is also an important Biosphere Reserve and is recognised in areas as part of a larger UNESCO World Heritage Site.
When it comes to the Misty Fjords National Monument, there are two ways to best appreciate its magnificence; either soaring above its deep crevices aboard a floatplane for a bird’s eye view or cruising between the steeply sloping rock walls by boat or kayak. Extending over 2 million acres across the Tongass National Forest, Misty Fjords is a natural theatre, with performances from an abundance of Alaska’s native wildlife; grizzly and black bears, wolves, moose, sea lions, orcas, porpoises and harbour seals all call this vast wilderness home.
Cool City Lights
Thanks to its position at the southern tip of the Inside Passage, Ketchikan is known as Alaska’s ‘First City’, since it is generally the first destination encountered when cruising north through Alaska. Ketchikan provides a wet but warm welcome to her visitors; it rains so often here that the locals no longer concern themselves with umbrellas, instead preferring to soak up what they call ‘liquid sunshine’.
It is important however, that you don’t let a little precipitation put you off Ketchikan, for it is so much more than its weather.
Colourful buildings brighten the city, having perhaps been painted so to compensate for the seemingly endless rainfall. The skies above hum with the sound of floatplanes and you will find Ketchikan Creek is scattered with yellow kayaks, all means of transport united in their search of scenic surroundings. Search isn’t perhaps the correct word here however, as the stunning scenery that surrounds Ketchikan takes little looking for.
A walk along the iconic Creek Street waterfront promenade cements every notion of the stereotypical Alaskan town, largely thanks to the businesses that ply their trade from vibrant buildings elevated on pilings over the creek. You won’t find superyachts in this marina, though there are fishing boats aplenty. With the meandering river below and the epic alpine vista of Deer Mountain above, Ketchikan’s scenery certainly stirs the senses.
Like Ketchikan, Juneau isn’t your average city. You won’t find a high street rammed with shoppers and there are no neon-lit billboards to light the night. Black cabs and tube systems are replaced with biking, hiking and kayaking, and you’ll be looking a long time before you come across a hip wine bar serving cocktails in milk bottles. That’s not to say that Alaska is all icebergs; venture into downtown Juneau and you’ll find remnants of the Klondike gold-rush era are still obvious. Ornate saloons line South Franklin Street, some of them now housing art galleries and boutiques, others retaining the Wild West style of a traditional Juneau watering hole, albeit with far more beers on tap and far fewer gun-toting cowboys.
Juneau’s position on the migratory path of many whale species makes it a popular starting point for whale watching tours galore. Boats depart from the pretty Auke Bay, destined for Tracy Arm and often guarantee sightings of humpbacks and orcas along the way.
Juneau is also just 12 miles from one of Alaska’s star attractions, the Mendenhall Glacier. The most easily accessible of all Alaska’s glaciers, this 13 mile long river of ice terminates in Mendenhall Lake, where huge blue icebergs calved from the glacier crash into the waters. Global warming and human interruption has seen the Mendenhall Glacier recede by 12 miles since 1958, putting its constantly evolving landscape on a list of natural wonders that must be appreciated before they eventually disappear.