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The Outer Edge Guide To Alaska

Welcome to a world where glaciers fill National Parks, where the winter skies light up in an abundance of colours, where sometimes “night” does not exist – and other times day does not exist. Welcome to a world where you will find the most amazing wildlife (including the occasional polar bear if you’re lucky!) and where the people are friendly and welcoming. Where eco tours and scenic trips mix comfortably with tours “off the beaten track” and where you are guaranteed to fill your camera with perfect shots. Welcome to a world of adventure! Welcome to Alaska.

Alaska is full of an eclectic range of inhabitants that set this region apart from any other and make it so unique. It is perfectly normal to see a commercial rail road train whistle stopped in the middle of nowhere; see a lone bushman disembark and trudge into the wilderness on an adventure and not resurface again for another month. It is the land that breeds a true adventurous spirit within its’ inhabitants – people who are not afraid to live and sustain themselves deep within an unforgiving nature and create their own misadventures.

Alaska is divided into 16 boroughs and 5 regions – Inside Passage, Southcentral, Interior, Far North and Southwest. Every step of the way is teaming with sightseeing and adventure opportunities, from whale watching and glacier tours, to historical towns, wilderness adventures and winter sports.  No matter where you travel, you will find the some of the best adventures and sights in the world. You can enjoy a variety of cultural experiences through visiting local centres or chatting with the locals at native villages (accessed by air); enjoy a range of accommodation options, eat like a local and get out there to explore a world of adventure like no other!

Before you go, there are a few things you should do and be aware of. Firstly, if you didn’t figure it out for yourself- Alaska can be cold. Very cold. But it can also be quite nice! It all depends on when you travel, and where. Most tourists visit between mid-May and mid-September which is when average temperatures can be anywhere from -10°C – 0°C degrees in the night, and between 10°C and 20°C degrees in the day. Summer is a great time for cruising, hiking and water sports! Winter, on the other hand, is for the brave as temperatures range anywhere from -45°C to 10°C (though the inside passage is much warmer!). But Winter is the best time to see the Northern Lights and experience the Nationally acclaimed Iditarod  and Yukon Quest sled dog races – a must see!

Travelling to Alaska is easy. You can fly in from the US to Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau (although some of the smaller communities also have airports); you can drive along the legendary Alaska Highway (best in summer) which begins in Dawson Creek, British Columbia; or you can join one of the many tourist ocean voyages and experience the journey via cruise ship or ferry. Cruising is always popular, particularly as travel is generally all inclusive, though you can take the Alaska Marine Highway – the ferry system, with flexibility to stop and explore along the way – and also the ability to take your own vehicle or RV. The ferry system travels from the Inside Passage across the Gulf of Alaska and all the way to the Aleutian Islands.

Once you’re there, you can travel in a number of styles also. Stay on the waters and enjoy the journey by boat, passing by glaciers and visiting port communities; by RV or car, allowing you the freedom to explore at your own pace; by charter bus for a packaged deal which is likely to take you off the beaten path for an exciting experience; by plane, available in a number of cities and often the ONLY way to travel to many of the remote towns. The Alaskan Rail Road offers a fantastic way to view the inland sights of the State. Journey through spectacular gorges, Denali National Park and get off and board at any place you like the look of – even if it’s in the middle of the forest! This is one of the most spectacular rail journeys in the world/

All you have to do now – is go!

traditional Inuit clothing, Nome Alaska

The South Central region is a land of mountain ranges, rugged coastlines, gleaming forests and rivers flowing from the glaciers. With more than half of the State’s population living in this region, you are guaranteed to find an abundance of activities, from fishing for rainbow trout and salmon, to hiking around the mountains, glaciers and lakes. Keep your eyes peeled for bears, bald eagles and whales – all of which are often sighted in the area.

It is here that you will find “Alaska’s Playground” – the Kenai Peninsula, accessible by land, air and sea; and you can view the amazing icebergs of Columbia Glacier, cruise to Meares Glacier or explore the calm waters of Prince William Sound. Visit the Matanuska-Susitna Valley or Alaska’s largest city, Anchorage, which is home to a rich Alaska Native culture, abundant wildlife, a thriving city centre and unrivalled wilderness experiences.

 

North America’s largest peak, Mount McKinley, towers over the Interior region of Alaska. It is in this region that vast forests of birch and spruce are warm in the summer, cold in the winter. The original home of Alaska’s Athabascan Indians, this is a great place to see the Northern Lights if you’re willing to brave the cold of winter. Fairbanks is the major city of the region and is known as the “Golden Heart City”. In Summer, the majority of visitors are cruise ship passengers “passing through”, while in Winter tourists generally arrive to experience the northern lights, ice carving and winter sports.

 

Small towns and Alaska Native villages are scattered through the Interior, particularly alongside the highway and river systems. Denali National Park and Preserve is six million acres of wild land, where you will find an abundance of wild animals large and small, and where you can experience a range of activities, including popular ATV tours, white water rafting and kayak tours.

For the adventure traveller, often there is no greater place to visit when touring than a National Park, and Alaska is no different. The landscape of this beautiful State is teaming with national and public parks offering a variety of adventures, stunning scenery and an abundance of wildlife!

Glacier Bay National Park is located in the Inside Passage and lies west of the capital Juneau, can only be reached by plane or boat, but it is well worth the effort! Glacier Bay has more active calving glaciers than anywhere else in the world and is part of a 25-million acre World Heritage Site – one of the world’s largest international protected areas. The park is also filled with snow-capped mountain ranges, ocean coastlines, deep fjords, and freshwater rivers and lakes.

The Glacier Bay National Park also has ranger activities, kayaking and wilderness adventures, such as hiking, camping and mountaineering. If you are looking for sea life, you will have an unforgettable experience. Search for humpback whales returning from their winter expedition to Hawaii, watch killer whales feeding, see Steller sea lions resting on rocky islands, and admire the harbour seals as they nurture their pups. There are more than 240 species of bird on the island, you might also see black bears, and if you’re looking to go fishing, you can go at the National Preserve, located just northwest of the park itself.

Denali National Park is called “The High One” by the Athabascan native people. The 6,000,000 acre park is located in Interior Alaska, centred on Denali (Mount McKinley) – the highest mountain in North America at 20,320 feet. The only higher peaks in the worlds are in the Himalayas and the Andes. The landscape in the National Park is a mix of forest, glaciers, rock and snow. The longest glacier is the Kahiltna Glacier, at 71 kilometres.

In warmer months, the park is particularly popular with mountain climbers and more than 1,000 climbers brave the elements for the chance to scale its majestic face each year. There are also plenty of scenic hiking trails and beautiful campgrounds.  And in winter, visitors love to try their hand at dog sledding, cross country skiing and snow machining. There is plenty of wildlife, including large mammals such as grizzly bears, wolves, Dall sheep, and moose, and plenty of photo opportunities.

For the adventure traveller, Alaska has something for everyone and summer is a fantastic time to get in and have a blast. From rafting to kayaking, hiking or mountain biking; to fishing charters and flightseeing tours – you will experience Alaska at its finest.

Alaska’s rugged back country provides the perfect setting for the hiking fanatic. Whether you are experienced or just in it for fun, there are day excursions, week-long journeys (or longer) and guided tours to suit. Packaged adventure tours are a fantastic way to explore the kinds of activities you may not have tried before, or you might prefer to create your own itinerary.

Some of our highest recommended hikes include:

The Russian Lakes Trail is around 33 kilometres long and begins at the Russian River Campground at Mile 52 Sterling Highway. The first 5 kilometres or so are a good trail for the whole family to enjoy and will take you to the Lower Russian Lake where you might see some of the thousands of salmon migrating up the stream. The trail continues to Upper Russian Lake and Cooper Lake where there is some great trout fishing – and you could even come face to face with a brown bear.

Another popular bear country trail is Resurrection Pass, just over 55 kilometres long, from Resurrection Creek Road to the Kenai River Bridge. There are good fishing spots along the way and cabins. The Granite Tors Trail is a 25 kilometre moderate loop trail that features beautiful wild flowers, streams, ridgelines with beautiful panoramic views, and the giant granite rocks known as “Tors”. The West Mendenhall Glacier Trail is a moderate trail, about 12 kilometres return, which will take you across a glacier. The view at the top has incredible views of Mendenhall Glacier.

If you’re looking for a shorter hike, there are an abundance of options available as well. The Byron Glacier Trail is a well maintained walk that is suitable for the whole family; the Lost Lake Trail will take you through spectacular alpine country views (and gives you the option to extend the trip); the Coastal Trail resides in the Caines Head State Recreation Area of Resurrection Bay and follows the shoreline (so you need to base your trip around tide times); while the popular Harding Icefield Trail will take you through Kenai Fjords National Park. The trail is tough, with a steep ascent, but when you get to the top you will be rewarded with spectacular views of Exit Glacier, the glacier valley and the edge of the Harding Icefield.

Although a relatively new and upcoming sport in Alaska; Mountain Biking is not to be discounted. Resort towns such as Girdwood and Alyeska Resort are making monumental strides forward into bringing them into the downhill limelight. With over 60 trails dedicated downhill trails, 3 chair lifts, nearly a kilometre of vertical and a fulltime crew working to build new trails everyday – you’re sure to be entertained and find your niche!

Another great way to see the spectacular landscape of Alaska and launch your very own adventure is to do so by the Alaskan Rail Road. The Rail Road launches from Anchorage and heads straight thru the heart of Alaska to Fairbanks. Now imagine the freedom to start your adventure in the Alaskan wilds at any point you choose in those 750km of rail road and all you have to do is pull the whistle stop? That is adventure – this is Alaska!

The Alaskan Rail Road runs through some of the most beautiful scenery in the country and right through the heart of Denali National Park – home to Americas’ highest mountain.

Into the water and Alaska’s many rivers, lakes and protected coastal waters offer the chance to experience fishing, rafting, kayaking and even jet boat rides.

Alaska is every anglers dream and offers some of the world’s most amazing opportunities when it comes to ice fishing, fly fishing, saltwater and freshwater fishing! Alaska’s 65,000 kilometres of coastline provides endless recreational fishing opportunities and with more than 3 millions lakes and 3,000 rivers, you can drive along, stop by the road and throw a line in, take a boat out on the waters, float a plane, or find a tour that will take you to waters that are teaming with more than 600 species of fish with a trusted and knowledgeable guide.

If you love to feel the water beneath you as you float or paddle in a kayak, there are plenty of opportunities available which will see you exploring glaciers and the coastline. Kayaking is a great way to experience the Alaska that is hard to access by foot or transport. You might kayak along the rocky, forested coast of Prince William Sound, on the east side of the Kenai Peninsula; spot whales, sea lions and seals from the waters at Point Adolphus off Glacier Bay; or visit another popular spot called Orcas Cove, which is actually at the mouth of the Blank Inlet, off the northern end of the Nichols Channel. There are a variety of kayak tours available, ranging from a few hours or a full day, up to a week (even longer).

If you prefer a little more action, rafting is another option. The spectacular Alsek and Tatshenshini Rivers are popular and will take you past vast sprawling glaciers while you are on the lookout for the local grizzly bears and bald eagles. Keystone Canyon is a great spot for white-water rafting with the trip ranging from class 1 or 2, up to class 3, as well as Talkeetna River, Sixmile Creek and the Nenana River. Experiences vary from mild to wild, but regardless of which option you choose – the views are second to none. You can even choose multi-day options for rafting, camping out overnight and rafting and exploring by day.

For the ultimate action adventure, why not try your hand at heli surfing? Yes you read correctly. Be flown by helicopter out to a remote a remarkable surfing paradise, take in the amazing glaciers along the way and then duck into the summer waters to catch some spectacular tubes.

Brown bears (grizzlies) Katmai National Park. Alaska

Winter in Alaska is an experience you will never forget and unlike the local bears, Alaskans LOVE winter activities, so there are plenty of adventure options available for the tourist. You need to be prepared with the right clothes – so be sure to pack plenty of layers, and have everything you need to suit the activities you are wanting to experience.

While December thru March are the main winter months in Alaska, you can see snow falling from around September – often right up until April and May when the snow melts. Winter brings anywhere from 6 to 13 hours of sunlight, so plan your tours or adventures around daylight hours if need be. Regardless of when you visit though, you will find plenty of activities to choose from. And you will find prices are much lower than they would be in summer.

Alaska’s most popular and most iconic winter activity would have to be dog mushing, also known as dog sledding. Dog mushing was listed as the official state sport of Alaska in 1972 and in April 2010, Alaska actually recognised the Alaskan malamute as the official state dog! In the north of Alaska, people have used dogs to pull sleds for hundreds of years and it was once a primary form of transportation in many parts of the State. Dog teams are still used by rural residents who rely on teams to hunt and travel. This tradition was what created the birth of sled dog racing and this is not only a sport for professional competition, but it’s also a fantastic activity for you to do when visiting. The one place you absolutely have to experience this is in Denali National Park. Denali Dog Sled Expeditions are the ONLY company that provide tours inside the Park. Head off with John and his team of pups for hours, days or weeks and explore one of the most beautiful places on the planet.

There is no point in spending winter in Alaska if you don’t take the time to see the infamous Northern Lights. While it’s possible to see the lights towards the end of summer, the peak season is in the dead of winter, in the middle of the night. One of the best viewing spots is at Fairbanks which is located under the “aurora oval”. At Fairbanks, the nights are longer than they are towards the south and the light show is much brighter and reliable. Certainly worth rugging up for on a cold winters night!

Adventure sports are plenty in winter – from snowboarding and skiing, to snowshoeing and snowmobiling. You just have to choose the one, or few, that are right for you. A great place to experience alpine skiing and snowboarding is Girdwood’s Alyeska Resort. Snow falls of up to 25 metres per season here are not uncommon – that’s over 10 times what our Australian ski fields receive. There are also plenty of exciting trails for snowmobiles and if you’re REALLY looking for action, heli-skiing will provide an experience like no other.

Snow machining or snow mobiling is also a popular way to get fast and have some fun in the snow. There are tours all over the state but if you want to see something spectacular, be sure to check in at Glacier City Snowmobile Tours in Girdwood where you can literally ride through ice tunnels and over glaciers.

Winter is cold, so why not get your blood pumping with some ice climbing! You can take a trip around Worthington Glacier on Thompson Pass; or head to the Delta River and try the Triangle Peak, Gunnysack Creek or Darling Creek ice climbs. In North Alaska you will find some of the most remote country in the State, and you can climb in areas around the foothills of the Brooks Range, while the Kenai Peninsula has incredible ice climbing. Some climbs drop straight into the Cook Inlet while others have some amazing ice formations that will truly test your skills.

If you’re a keen angler, there are plenty of options in the winter as well as summer, but if you’re visiting in colder months, you really have to try your hand at ice fishing! Ice fishing is pretty simple – you drill a hole in the ice with an auger, bait your hook, drop your line in the hole and wait for a bite. There are plenty of tour options available so you are with people who are experienced and who know the best places to go and if you’re lucky you might catch yourself some king salmon, silver salmon, rainbow trout, Dolly Varden or Arctic Char. The end of the winter season, in March and April, offers some of the best conditions for ice fishing, with longer days and warmer temperatures.

From Issue 40 Outer Edge Magazine.

 

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