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All about Alaska

Alaska comes billed as "The Last Frontier", and it is no hollow claim. It is a wild and vast land where roads are so rare that in many places light planes are the normal mode of transport.

Anchorage has a quarter of a million people (almost half the state population), but less than a dozen communities have more than 10,000 inhabitants.

People often approach Alaska with unreasonable expectations. It certainly isn't winterbound all year. In summer, the only snow you'll see is on the tops of the mountains. In much of the state you can be wearing shorts and a T-shirt when the sun is shining - and with sunset around 11pm, that's most of the time. Igloos are never seen, and polar bears are only a threat in a handful of far north towns in winter.

But other expectations are more than satisfied. The landscape is truly magnificent: huge mountain ranges slice across the state containing 17 of the 20 highest peaks in the US; glaciers several miles wide force their way to tidewater and calve icebergs into the sea, enormous swathes of lake-pocked tundra stretch into the arctic distance, and dense spruce forests line the narrow fjords of the southeast.

 


An Alaskan vigilante

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Where to go in Alaska

Hidden gems in Alaska

What to do in Alaska

 




All this provides a wonderful playground for hiking, salmon fishing, sea kayaking, whale watching and, in winter, cross-country skiing and dog mushing. Wildlife is super-abundant, and the highlight of many people's visit is the opportunity to observe bears, moose, caribou and wolves in the wild.

Alaskans are deeply divided on how to make the best of their state. A large minority like the place the way it is and support efforts to preserve land and wildlife. But environmentalist is a dirty word among the majority who feel the land should be exploited. Passions run hot, particularly over oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Preserve. It is understandable when oil royalties and taxes provide 80% of the state revenue. This income helps support the Permanent Fund Dividend, an annual gift of US$1000-1500 paid to every Alaskan: an oddly socialist institution in this fundamentally conservative state.

We invite you to "visit" the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge using Google Earth. A powerful tool for exploring our planet, Google Earth gives users considerable versatility in how they view and digest geospatial data. Download Google Earth for free and start exploring!

Don't have Google Earth? You can enjoy a similar experience by checking out our Google Map of the Arctic. No download or reader is necessary; just click here and follow the story in the map information popups.

See the whole thing. This is the largest file on the page (222kb); it's a one-click download of all the smaller files offered below. You'll see the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge's boundaries, oil wells across Alaska, caribou information, and more. Go for the whole enchilada or, if you'd like to download smaller files, choose from those below.


Refuge boundaries. Here are the boundaries of the entire 19-million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The nation's largest wildlife refuge, it was first set aside in 1960 by President Eisenhower and later expanded to its current size in 1980 under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.
 

The "1002" Area. Pronounced "Ten-Oh-Two," this is the area under contention: a swath of coastal plain where drilling will take place if Congress approves the current budget reconciliation, which contains revenues from the sale of oil and gas leases. Congress is required to authorize drilling before development in the area can proceed. Having failed to get it approved as part of the energy bill, however, drilling proponents have made lease revenues part of the budget bill.

Native American villages and other towns in or near the Refuge. The two native groups with closest ties to the refuge are the Gwich'in and Inupiat.


Drilling across Alaska. So, you ask, where is drilling currently taking place in Alaska? This data shows active wells across the state. As you'll see, nearly the entire North Slope is currently exploited. We are merely trying to save the last five percent. Click the following links to see the National Petroleum Reserve, the current North Slope production area, and the Trans-Alaskan pipeline.

The Porcupine Herd and other wildlife. Named for the Porcupine River, this is the 130,000-head caribou herd that stands to suffer from the intrusive effects of drilling. While the caribous' range extends beyond the proposed drilling sites, the 1002 Area is nevertheless an important calving ground for the Porcupine herd. While the caribou has become the emblematic species of the Arctic, the biological diversity of the refuge includes 180 bird species and more than 40 species of fish, plus wolves, foxes, wolverine, polar bears, grizzly bears, and muskoxen.

Other Arctic Maps

Here are some non-Google Earth maps. Also, if you can't download Google Earth, you can click on the thumbnail images on this page to see static versions of the Google Earth maps; these will be updated periodically.

Caribou Migration Routes: From the Conservation GIS center, now part of the Alaska Center for the environment (see sources below).

Many other Arctic maps: Wildlife and oil production maps. See where oil can be drilled. Look at how small the 1002 area is in comparison!

Porcupine Herd Satellite Collar Project: Follow tagged caribou along their migration route.


Credits and data sources:
Special thanks to the GIS center of the Alaska Center for the Environment who have produced many excellent maps, and to our friends at Google, who provided us with software.

Most of the data comes from the Fish and Wildlife service. Other sources include:
USGS Data related to Alaska
USGS Data related to the Refuge
Alaskan DNR Data on oil

Sitka 

Sitka wears its Russian roots with pride

For almost a hundred years, Sitka was the capital of Alaska, initially under the Russians and later as part of the US after they bought the land for 2 cents an acre in 1867.

The two nations have jointly created one of Alaska's most beautiful towns, picturesquely set on the island-studded Sitka Sound with views out to the perfect volcanic cone of Mount Edgecumbe.

Sitka exploits its heritage mercilessly. Gift shops are stacked to the rafters with matryoshka nesting dolls, but the Russian past is also manifest in the lovely wooden Bishop's House. It was built in 1843 and one of only four buildings left in Alaska from the Russian era. Sadly the nearby onion-domed Russian Orthodox church is a modern replica built after the original burned down in 1966. In 1802, the Russians fought for control of Sitka with the native Kiks.adi Tlinget people. The battlesite has now been turned into the Totem Park, the waterfront lined with beautifully robust totem poles, mostly carved over the last 50 years based on 19th-century originals. When you tire of the town, rent a kayak and paddle around the islands keeping your eyes skinned for whales that inhabit the Sound.

Denali National Park


An unamused moose gives tourists an eyeful

Alaska's defining feature is the sheer magnitude of the wild areas, and by their very nature they are difficult to visit. Denali National Park comes into its own with a 90-mile road running right through the heart of its six million acres. Everyone hopes to catch a glimpse of North America's loftiest peak, Mount McKinley. Known to locals simply as Denali, its 20,320-foot summit lords it over the low-lying tundra presenting a stunningly impressive 18,000-foot face. The dream view is from the campsite at Wonder Lake at dusk (around midnight in midsummer) when alpenglow shrouding the snowy peak is reflected in the lake's still waters. Riding the park bus out to Wonder Lake everyone is eager to catch sight of the "Big Five". Moose are often seen chest deep in ponds browsing on lake weed; caribou may be glimpsed in small groups crossing one of the broad braided rivers which wind out of the mountains; Dall sheep stand out white on the craggy hilltops; grizzly bears amble slowly through the brush grazing on whatever berries are in season; and if you're lucky a wolf might trot along the roadside using it for quick access to new hunting grounds. With 40 pairs of eager eyes trained on the tundra there's every chance of bagging the full set.

Homer


A floatplane moored in Homer

Somehow everyone loves Homer. The setting is gorgeous with views across the water to the glaciers and mountains of Kachemak Bay State Park. It is a relaxed place too, with a well-developed arts community and something of a cafe society. Then there's the allure of The Spit, a four-mile-long gravel bank that juts out into the bay. This is where everyone comes to sign up for halibut fishing trips, rent kayaks or to catch the cute little ferry out to Halibut Cove, a tiny village almost entirely built on boardwalks over the water. The Spit is also home to Spit Rats, college students and dropouts who come up to Homer for seasonal work and spend the summer camped out on the beach. They've got the right idea - it is hard to beat spending long sunny evenings lounging outside your tent, occasionally nipping across the street for a beer at the wonderfully characterful Salty Dawg.

Katmai National Park, Alaska

Dinner time in Katmai National Park

With some of the world’s best bear-viewing, salmon fishing, canoeing and hiking, Katmai National Park should be more well-known than it is. Most visitors come in June when brown bears congregate at Brooks Falls to catch red salmon trying to get up the river to spawn. Standing on the viewing platform less than 10 metres from a dozen bears is an amazing experience – like living inside a wildlife documentary. A couple of days watching bears easily justifies the relatively high cost of flying in here (over US$500 from Anchorage), but once here is would be a shame not to enjoy a bit more of the wonderful country hereabouts. A daily bus runs to the Valley of 10,000 Smokes, a vast and barren volcanic landscape created in 1912 by the largest eruption of the 20th century. A couple of days camped out here can be wonderfully rejuvenating. Then there’s the Savonoski Loop, a six-day canoeing trip through bear country linking a couple of large lakes and a gentle section of river. Chances are you’ll see no-one on the whole trip.

Nome, Alaska

A bleached moose skull in Nome, Alaska

Nome, almost on the Arctic Circle, burst into life in 1898 when gold was found on the beach and thousands came to pan for their fortunes. You'll still find recreational goldminers at work sifting the sands, and away from the waterfront, the region is scattered with the rusted-out hulks of enormous gold dredges marooned like beached galleons amid acres of tailings.

The only way to reach Nome is to fly, but once there you're free to explore the longest road system in 'Bush Alaska', all 300 miles of it. The highlight of the Council Road is the 'Last Train to Nowhere', a picturesquely decaying steam locomotive that was abandoned in grasslands after a failed attempt to build a railway to one of the mining camps.

Sybarites will prefer the Kougarok Road, which leads 60 miles to Pilgrim Hot Springs, just a simple wooden tub surrounded by wetlands and cottonwoods. Except at weekends you'll most likely have the place to yourself.

Prince of Wales Island, Alaska

In the far southeastern corner of Alaska, Prince of Wales Island doesn't see many visitors, but with the advent of two ferry services it can now form part of an extended loop though the region.

In a state with very few roads, Prince of Wales is over-supplied. Old logging roads make excellent mountain biking territory, but also allow car and RV drivers access to wonderful coves, remote beaches and El Capitan, Alaska's deepest cave system.

Native culture is also strong with several clusters of totem poles. Perhaps the best is at Kasaan, where a handful of poles and a clanhouse sit slowly rotting away in the damp spruce forest. Though they were only built in the 1930, it has a fabulously authentic feel devoid of the commercial trappings found at more well known totem parks around the state.

What to do in Alaska

The celestial displays of the Aurora Borealis

Watch the Aurora borealis from a natural hot pool

Somehow it never occurs to some visitors that if you come to Alaska in summer you won’t experience the northern lights. They’re there alright, but since it never gets truly dark you’ve no chance of seeing them. Stick around until late September, or make a special trip in winter and it is a different matter. Fairbanks is on the perfect latitude for spotting the aurora borealis, and once the nights draw in there’s a decent chance of a display pretty much every night. These celestial displays of soft greens, blues and reds rippling, waving and curling in on themselves can mesmerise for hours, so you don’t want to be standing watching in a cold field. Ideally you’ll be in a natural hot pool at somewhere like Chena Hot Springs, a few miles outside Fairbanks, where you can lie back and gaze skywards until you turn into a prune.

Hike the Chilkoot Trail

Alaska's finest multi-day hike follows the Chilkoot Trail, a 33-mile route from the lowland forests around the gold-rush town of Skagway over the snow-bound coastal mountains to Lake Bennett, one of the sources of the Yukon River over the border in Canadian British Columbia. This was the route used by thousands of Klondike-bound argonauts during the winter of 1897-98. With the promise of untold riches (which very few of them ever found) the hopeful arrived in Skagway to discover that the Mounties insisted everyone entering Canada had a ton of goods. Many spent months ferrying their goods over the pass, while the enterprising set up steam-driven ropeways and charged the stampeders exorbitant sums to haul their goods for them. Once spring arrived and the Yukon thawed, everyone left. Hiking the route is now like walking though an outdoor museum for three days. When you can tear your eyes from the stunning mountain scenery and rushing rivers you'll find rusty old boilers, piles of century-old beer bottles, twisted bits of metal and even a hoard of canvas boats which one ambitious gent hoped to use to float down the Yukon to the golfdfields.

Kayak Prince William Sound

Get up close and personal with College Fjord in Prince William Sound

It is hard to beat the thrill of spending a week kayaking around Prince William Sound. Days are spent paddling along fjords to reach tidewater glaciers where you bob around in the ice-filled waters waiting for some action. With luck a huge wall of ice will peel away with a thunderous roar. It is a thrilling experience tempered only by the fear that the ensuing wave might be bigger than expected. Prudent paddlers will stay at least 500m back from the face, though the glaciers are so huge you feel much closer. While you wait, seals might provide entertainment hopping up onto little icebergs to sun themselves for a while then slither back into the frigid water to cool off. The chill wind coming off the glacier will eventually drive you back to your beachside camp where gathered driftwood can be summoned into a warming fire as you break out the red wine and marshmallows.

   

Survival guide

Almost all tourists visit Alaska in June, July and August, though May and September offer comfortable temperatures, smaller crowds and lower prices. For optimal aurora viewing, cross-country skiing, and dog sledding visit in February and March.

Getting to and around Alaska is one of the big pleasures of a trip north. Driving the Alaska highway 2000 miles through Canada is fabulous, though it is hard to compete with the state-run ferry system. This can be treated as a budget cruise with whale watching opportunities from the deck as you chug through the pine-fringed waterways.

Journeys along the single rail line are wonderfully relaxing as superb scenery drifts by the huge windows, and nothing can compare with small plane flights across the forests, lakes and tundra - often the only way to reach remote communities.

Costs are relatively high. In the cities prices aren't much higher then the rest of the US, but transport around the state is expensive, and once out in remote towns prices skyrocket. Then again, on hiking trips into national parks you'll spend nothing at all.

Ideally you'll spent at least some nights in Alaska camped in the wilderness, but there's also a range of accommodation from motels and hotels to welcoming B&Bs and even a few basic hostels.

There is no distinctive Alaskan cuisine, but menus are characterised by an abundance of seafood, especially succulent salmon fillets, slabs of flaky halibut and enormous king crab legs. Catch it yourself on one of the many fishing trips available and it is doubly delicious.

Destinations in the United States