Are you looking for a transformative travel experience? Do you want a break from the ordinary? Or perhaps a dramatic change of scene? An Alaskan vacation can be all that and more. Here’s why.
Simply put, you’ve never seen anything like it. Almost two and a half times the size of Texas and home to just over 800,000 inhabitants, Alaska offers a vast, varied, and sparsely populated landscape of unparalleled beauty. Let’s start with Denali (formerly Mt. McKinley). At 20,310 feet, it is the highest mountain in North America and the third highest mountain in the world, towering over its neighbors in the Alaska Range in the heart of Denali National Park. Your first view of this mountain will make you understand the adjective “breathtaking” in a new way.
Denali National Park park covers over 6 million acres, encompassing a range of ecosystems, each with its unique flora and fauna—the lowland zone of boreal forest underlain by permafrost, wetlands, and open meadows; the subalpine zone of scrub vegetation, open woodland and, toward tree line, tundra plants; and the unvegetated high alpine region of glaciated mountains and bare rock outcroppings. A 92-mile road bisects the park and parallels the Alaska Range. This is the sole road in the park, and in summer private cars can only travel the first 15 miles of the road, after which all travel is by bus. As daunting as it sounds, this trip through Denail National Park is a must for your Alaskan vacation. You can choose from a variety of excellent narrated bus tours that stop at strategic locations for viewing both scenery and wildlife; these buses also provide the only transportation to park lodging. Flight-seeing opportunities provide close-up views of Denali and its glaciers and other peaks of the Alaska Range. One word to the wise: Denali is so huge that it creates its own weather, and it is often fogged in. If you have your heart set on seeing the mountain, plan to stay in the area for several days to better your odds.
In southeastern Alaska, a cruise through the Inside Passage and Glacier Bay provides an equally spectacular but more tranquil and contemplative experience. Surrounded by the Tongass National Forest, America’s largest national forest, this is a landscape of lush temperate rainforest, tidewater glaciers, coastal mountains, fjords, and more waterfalls than you can imagine. Shrouded in morning mist, this landscape has a haunting beauty you won’t soon forget. Another word to the wise: book your Alaskan vacation on a small ship that has access to the fjords of the Inside Passage and to Glacier Bay, where cruise ship access is strictly limited, rather than the large cruise ships that sail the Gulf of Alaska.
In the space of 8 hours on a bus ride through Denali I saw Dahl sheep, mountain goats, caribou, moose, brown bears, a wolf pack, and the proverbial lone wolf. There are more than 500 documented species of birds in Alaska, as well as the marine mammals–whales, dolphins, and porpoises; seals, sea lions, and walrus; otters and polar bears.
The Inside Passage, Prince William Sound, and the Kenai Peninsula offer particularly good marine mammal viewing. On one trip through the Inside Passage, pods of orcas (killer whales) frequently accompanied our ship at sunset, and we had many opportunities to observe the phenomenon of humpback whales bubble feeding. On my most recent trip, the sea otters in Kachemak Bay on the Kenai Peninsula were the stars of the show, their playful behavior and adorable faces making them irresistibly photogenic.
For most of us from the lower 48, glimpsing a bald eagle is a rare treat. In Alaska, especially in the coastal areas, bald eagles are a fixture of the landscape, too numerous to count, but seeing them never gets old. While bald eagles can’t compare with sea otters in cuddliness, they are impressive creatures, and it’s a special privilege to watch their behaviors. Whether raiding a kittiwake nest in search of lunch, snatching a huge salmon out of the water and carrying it back to the shore to share with a mate, or tending to a chick in the nest, they’ll grab your attention.
Of course an Alaskan vacation wouldn’t be complete without southern Alaska’s biggest attractions – brown bears. Brooks Camp in Katmai National Park is a popular destination because of the excellent opportunities to view brown bears as they fish for salmon. For a less crowded bear-viewing experience, consider a visit to Lake Clark National Park just across Cook Inlet from the Kenai Peninsula.
Options include day trips by boat or plane, but a longer stay at one of the lodges situated on inholdings within the park will maximize your opportunities to watch the bears and to experience the vastness and tranquility of this extraordinary place. And if you’re really adventurous, consider a stay at the Priest Rock public use cabin in the park’s backcountry, recently featured in an article in the New York Times. More words to the wise: like much of Alaska, Lake Clark National Park is only accessible by boat or small plane, and there are no roads in the park.
Located on Kachemak Bay on the Kenai Peninsula, Homer bills itself as the halibut fishing capital of the world, and it supplies both halibut and salmon to Alaska’s cities as well as to the lower 48. Many visitors take an Alaskan vacation for the fishing, but I just go for the fish. I recently had the single best halibut dish I’ve ever tasted at Crush, a bistro and wine shop in Anchorage, just 200 miles north of Homer, and I also had outstanding halibut dishes at unpretentious local restaurants in Homer. By all means take advantage of the availability of the day’s catch when dining in Alaska. I can’t leave the topic of food without mentioning that blueberries are abundant in Alaska in the summer, and find their way into some especially delicious blueberry pancakes at Fresh Sourdough Express Bakery and Cafe in Homer.
I’ve been fortunate to visit Alaska 3 times so far. Each time I visit Alaska, I’ve experienced the natural world version of “Stendhal syndrome,” sensory overload from more natural beauty than I could absorb at one time. Each time I’ve come away with a heightened awareness of the fragile beauty of this amazing landscape, much of it at risk as a result of climate change. Each time I’ve left with the feeling that I could spend a lot more time in Alaska. A trip to visit Alaska has changed my life; an Alaskan vacation could change yours as well.