By Ann Yungmeyer | Photography courtey of Ann Yungmeyer and Susan Warner
Spectacular scenery, wildlife and adventure are at the heart of “the last frontier” state.A land of massive mountains, glaciers and wilderness, Alaska is attracting record-breaking numbers of visitors. Nature lovers and adventure seekers, alike, come to experience authentic Alaska and delve into its rich heritage.
Travel companies creatively deliver, offering a variety of tours, cruises and themed itineraries – from bear watching expeditions to discovering the national parks and gold-mining history. Tours are generally led by seasoned professionals and may include opportunities to engage with locals, such as visiting the sled dog kennels of a champion musher. Cruise companies arrange for national park rangers and onboard experts to enhance glacier and wildlife viewing.
Traveling solo, I chose a small group, “grand slam” tour with the family-run company, John Hall’s Alaska. The seven-day itinerary combines travel by motor coach on Alaska Scenic Byways, Alaska Rail, and day cruises. Beginning in Anchorage, the tour loops southeast and then north, with overnights at iconic attractions including Prince William Sound, Fairbanks and Denali National Park.
In addition to experiencing the natural environment, the tour affords opportunities to learn about the pioneering spirit of Alaska’s early settlers, with visits to Anchorage Museum’s Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center and the Native Heritage Center. Veteran tour-guide John Gailey shares stories of the hard-working nature of Alaskans, from the early days of gold mining and sled dog mushing to construction of the 800-mile-long manmade wonder – the trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline, completed in 1988.
A favorite overnight stop is the remote Denali Backcountry Lodge, offering a mix of nature and nurture. Lodge activities include yoga, gold panning, mountain biking, hiking, and fishing at nearby Wonder Lake.
Combo Cruise and Land tour
Deb and Paul Reynolds from Kingsport, Tennessee, chose an 11-day land/cruise package with Princess Cruises for the ease and variety of travel. From Anchorage, they toured by motor coach and train and enjoyed flightseeing and rafting excursions from the Princess Wilderness Lodge. Aboard the Star Princess, their Gulf of Alaska cruise included stops in the gold rush-era town of Skagway, Alaska’s capital city of Juneau, and Ketchikan (self-proclaimed “salmon capital of the world”), ending in Vancouver, British Columbia.
“The ship stays fairly close to shore to be able to cruise the inlets,” explains Deb. “The calving glaciers in Glacier Bay are magnificent, and the ship maneuvers nicely so every vantage point has good views. Daily excursions are offered for a fee, so we took small boat outings to see dolphins, sea lions, and other marine wildlife.
“Best thing about the cruise is no packing and unpacking, and wonderful amenities – excellent service, dining choices and entertainment.
“The land and cruise weeks were like two separate vacations,” she adds. “Some of the port cities seem a bit touristy, geared for summer cruise season, but our land tour allowed us to see more of the real Alaska.”
Opting to explore on their own, Susan and Wendell Warner, from Marion, Arkansas, rented a car for a nine-day trip last September, when rates were generally lower and crowds were fewer.
“It was a longtime bucket-list trip for my husband; he watches all the Alaska television shows,” Susan says, jokingly. “We like to have flexibility that you wouldn’t find on a tour, and the area tourism offices helped me plan the whole trip.”
The Warners first drove south from Anchorage for a few nights on the Kenai Peninsula.
“We had beautiful driving days and stayed in a wonderful cabin in Homer, facing Augustine volcano,” recalls Susan. “One of our favorite outings was a six-hour cruise and glacier tour from Seward that included a fresh salmon dinner.”
After heading north toward Denali, they found another favorite spot – the quaint town of Talkeetna.
“The general store, Nagley’s, is like something out of The Waltons,” she says. “And Twister Creek, home of Denali Brewing, is the best restaurant; their reindeer chili is to die for.”
Like many Alaska travelers, the Warners say their first visit whet their appetite for more. They’re already planning a return trip – this time for a fishing expedition and exploring farther north, to Fairbanks and the town of North Pole.
Top Alaska Attractions
With such vast territory, Alaska boasts untold “must-see” attractions, but most tours beginning in Anchorage will include some of the following favorite destinations:
Denali National Park and Preserve
Formerly called Mt. McKinley, Denali is one of Alaska’s true gems, but only an estimated 30 percent of Alaska visitors see the peak, which is often enshrouded in clouds. Meaning “the great one,” Denali is the name given by the native Athabascan Indians to North America’s highest peak, at 20,310 ft. The surrounding parkland was established for the conservation of wildlife in 1917, and was later renamed Denali National Park and Preserve. Access is by park bus, a bumpy ride along the 92-mile-long dirt road. Lodging is available at the end of the road in the historic mining district of Kantishna.
Fairbanks – A Glimpse into
Once the hunting and fishing grounds of the Athabascans, Fairbanks was established in 1901 with the discovery of gold. The area history is presented on a captivating tour aboard Binkley’s Discovery Boat on the Chena River. The boat stops at a living history fur-trapping village and the famous Trailbreaker Kennels – home of sled-dog mushers David Monson and his late wife, Susan Butcher, four-time Iditarod champion.
Glacier Bay National Park
With epic ice giants included as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Glacier Bay is a favorite cruise ship stop, and for those arriving by plane or boat, the timbered Glacier Bay Lodge offers an immersive experience with catamaran tours, hiking and sea kayaking. The park’s pristine natural environment is prime for spotting wildlife – including humpback whales, otters, porpoises, seals, bears, mountain goats, eagles and various seabirds.
Kenai Peninsula and Prince
Kenai Fjords National Park and Prince William Sound are both idyllic destinations for glacier and wildlife viewing, kayaking and boat tours. From the port of Whittier, Stan Stephens Glacier and Wildlife Cruise offers a narrated day trip aboard the Valdez Spirit, with an up-close look at the blue ice glaciers, commercial salmon fishing boats, and marine wildlife.
Talkeetna by Train
Alaska Rail offers a wonderful option for relaxing journeys with numerous themed excursions. The “rail belt” is known for outstanding scenery, and the stretch from Denali Visitor Center to Talkeetna in the double decker, glass-domed Denali Star offers some of the best. Talkeetna hails back to its frontier spirit with a historic depot and century-old log cabins, a roadhouse and mining-era structures.
Wrangell St. Elias National Park
America’s largest national park (13.2 million acres) deserves a few days to explore. The Wrangell St. Elias National Park, often called the “crown of the continent,” is home to gigantic icefields, as well as the historic Kennecott Copper Mine (tours available) and the quaint town of McCarthy, once holding the richest copper ore concentration in the world. An impressive new visitor center offers walking trails for short outings and viewpoints along the scenic Cliff Trail.