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Best of Alaska Guide

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8 January 2015 by Heather Harris

With majestic mountains, mist-topped fjords, acres of pristine calving glaciers, and forests filled with wondrous wildlife, Alaska's landscape is undoubtedly awe-inspiring. It's an unparalleled place defined by superlatives: biggest, highest, most beautiful and remotest.

Perhaps its main attraction is its awe-inspiring scale, located on the northwest top of the North American continent, it's the USA's largest state at twice the size of Texas. It also boasts 100,000 glaciers, 17 of the 20 highest peaks in the USA, an average of 18 hours of daylight hours in the peak summer months, and 586,000 square miles of land.

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The best time to visit Alaska is between mid-May - mid-September, as the weather's perfect for kayaking, hiking, dogsledding, and other outdoor pursuits. It's also culturally rich: experience Alaska's Orthodox Russian churches in Kenai, Iñupiat tribes in the far north, totem poles in Ketchikan's Totem Bight State Historic Park and learn more at the Alaska Native Heritage Centre.

Taking a cruise is undoubtedly one of the best ways to visit Alaska because of its monumental 10,686km coastline - larger than that of all the other US states combined. But to stay on a cruise for your whole visit would be a missed opportunity as mainland Alaska has so much to offer. Take a custom made land-tour and explore Alaska's eight beautiful national parks; observe Mount McKinley's awesome size; and travel north to see the stunning Northern Lights.

Denali National Park

A grizzly bear in Denali National Park, Alaska

This spectacular - and enormous - national park really encapsulates the spirit of Alaska. Located in Interior Alaska, it is six million acres of wild - with deciduous taiga and tundra forest, glacier, rock and snow. Covered by magnificent alpine forests, it's also full of wildlife that's free to roam the expansive landscape - including black and grizzly bears.

At its centre is the 20,320 ft. Mount McKinley - North America's tallest peak. Top activities include hiking, skiing, viewing the wildlife, climbing mountains, fishing, and backpacking. There are also numerous outdoors activities to enjoy, including river rafting, fly-fishing, jeep tours or a dog-sled trail. Browse the Denali Visitor Centre to learn about the fascinating history and wildlife in the park.

Anchorage

Anchorage, Alaska

Anchorage is Alaska's largest city with a population of 300,950 and 40 per cent of its entire population. Located on the southeast coast, the bustling town offers theatres, museums and restaurants.

It's perfectly placed for excursions - top trips being to the neighboring glaciers in the Kenai Fjords National Park - that can be reached by foot, plane or boat. The surrounding area is also teaming with wildlife - catch a glimpse of moose, bald eagles, dall sheep, bears, beluga whales, beavers and hundreds of other bird species. Spot birds in the massive Chugach State Park or belugas in the Cook Inlet.

For keen climbers there are four main mountain ranges that surround the city - the Chugach Mountains stretch to the city from the east, and Mount McKinley summons in the north. Scale Mount Alyeska or Flattop Mountain in the day to enjoy a spectacular view.

Inside Passage

Inside Passage, Alaska

The Inside Passage - along the lower-south coast of Alaska - is a stunning coastline of imposing glaciers. The Alaskan portion extends 500 miles from north to south, and 100 miles from east to west. The area also encompasses 1,000 islands and 15,000 miles of shoreline with thousands of coves and bays.

With mist-covered fjords, tidewater glaciers, and islands teaming with wildlife, there are fantastic opportunities to kayak around dramatic icebergs and see orcas and humpback whales among the islands.

Explore the awe-inspiring Alexander Archipelago on an Inside Passage Cruise, and stop-off at Alaska's capital Juneau that's part of the Tongass National Forest where you can enjoy bear watching, fishing and hikes. Ketchikan offers an array of totem poles; Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve is fantastic for wildlife watching, and Haines is a hotspot for eagle watching.

Katmai National Park and Preserve

The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, Alaska

Katmai National Park and Preserve in southern Alaska has an abundance of volcanoes, bears and wilderness to discover: it's one of the richest ecosystems on earth and covers an expanse roughly the size of Wales. The landscape is dramatic and imposing, with jagged peaks, rounded hills and deep blue lakes caused by tectonic shifts.

Take a canoe trip along the 80-mile Savonoski Loop: with 50 miles on lakes and 30 on rivers. The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes is not to be missed. It was forged in 1912 when a new volcano that's now called Novarupta erupted in the region. If you're looking for boating or fishing visit Naknek Lake, which is the largest lake entirely contained in any American national park.

Kenai Peninsula

A glacier in the Kenai Peninsula, Alaska

The Kenai Peninsula on the southeast coast of Alaska is a huge area that holds national parks, active volcanoes, glaciers and mist-covered fjords. The peninsula extends approximately 150 miles southwest from the Chugach Mountains, south of Anchorage and is separated from the mainland on the west by Cook Inlet and on the east by Prince William Sound.

Wild and exciting, the 15,000 square mile area is known as 'Alaska's Playground' - and it won't fail to live up to its namesake. It supports bountiful wildlife and also offers prime viewing for marine wildlife - particularly in Kachemack Bay.

Other highlights include stunning rivers and lakes, four active volcanoes, the Kenai Mountains, Harding Icefields and Kenai Fjords National Park - which comprises of 607,000 acres of land and offers majestic scenery and a Maritime National Wildlife Refuge.

The Far North, Fairbanks and the Northern Lights

The Northern Lights in Fairbanks, Alaska

A visit to the Far North of Alaska takes you to the Arctic Circle. When there, visit Barrow (the most northern place in the USA) where you can witness native Iñupiat tribes whaling. Take a trip to the accessible Kobuk Valley National Park.

Peak viewing time for the Northern Lights in Alaska is during the winter months, however there are opportunities to see them during early spring and autumn when less daylight leads to darker night skies. The Interior (especially Fairbanks) and Far North regions are considered the best in Alaska for northern lights viewing. From Fairbanks, travel on to Chena Hot Springs Resort, famous for its refreshing mineral waters and dark clear nights.

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