19 July 2017 by Simon Langley
Millions of lakes, glaciers by the hundreds of thousands and a coastline longer than the rest of the states put together – Alaska by numbers alone is truly impressive. That’s not even mentioning that it’s all watched over by 17 of North America’s 20 highest peaks. But, there’s a story that the figures don’t tell. This is a true frontier land of wildlife and wilder landscapes, where humpback whales breach dramatic fjords and moose stand majestic on rocky bluffs.
Indeed, a palpable whiff of adventure has always hung over the state – a scent sniffed by gold rush pioneer and grizzly bears alike. But, for somewhere so wild and so remote, it may come as a surprise to learn how accessible it all is, with epic cruises and road trips the order of the day. This is where the national parks come in. There’s nowhere else on the entire continent that it’s easier to hike untramped mountains, paddle virgin rivers or clamber over pristine glaciers. To help guide you, here are our destination experts’ top picks.
On Alaska’s southern shores, the melt water from the Harding Icefield spills down, etching cragged bays, carving giant sounds and watering lush forests. It’s best taken in by boat, with cruises dipping in and out of sweeping inlets to spot everything from sea otters and seals to whales and dolphins. For the more adventurous, coastal kayak trips can bring you right up to floating icebergs. However, it’s often the glaciers that impress the most. These great white colossi cap giant peaks, making for spectacular views and crampon hikes.
Put simply, Denali is six million acres of wilderness. Contours seem redundant here, with the landscape jagging between low-elevation forests, alpine tundra and monolithic snow-capped mountains, including North America’s highest – Mt. McKinley. It’s all animated by the likes of grizzly bears, caribou and wolf packs, taken in on guided drives and hikes. You’ll even be able to engage with that famed Alaskan pastime – dogsledding.
Glacier Bay forms the imperious crown of the Inside Passage – a sheltered, island-studded route long favoured by northbound ships. Here, no fewer than eleven glaciers tumble down into the sea, creaking off house-sized bergs into seas plied by humpback whales. As with Kenai, it’s best appreciated from the water; exploratory cruises bring you right along the Inside Passage to dip in and out of forested islands and mountain-framed gold-rush towns.
In between its lush forests and cascading rivers, it’s easy to forget that much of Alaska’s geography owes its splendour to the region’s volcanic activity. This is perhaps best showcased in Katmai’s wonderfully named Valley of a Thousand Smokes. Here, a great wobbling rift remembers a series of devastating eruptions – a post-apocalyptic vision of smoking fumaroles. But, it’s the brown bears that are the real stars of the show. As the world’s best place to spot these magnificent creatures, you’ll watch on as they paw out salmon from rushing rivers with ursine ease. The only downside? Katmai can only be reached by internal flight.
Ok, this is Canada, but, brushing up against the Alaskan border, it’s hard not to include exciting Kluane on this list. From the country’s tallest peak down to the world’s largest non-polar icefield, this is a land of superlatives. It all makes for an outdoorsman’s paradise, with highlights including alpine-pass hikes, lake kayaking and glacier-side rafting. But, even the highway scenery and day walks impress with mountain vistas and the chance to spot everything from lynxes to Alaskan moose.