The US state of Alaska is situated on the northwest extremity of the North American continent and is s one of only two non-contiguous states – the other being Hawaii. Alaska is most famous for being the largest state by area, but it also is the third-least populous with a population of 736,081 as of 2020.
Of Alaska’s sparse population, about 50% of the residents live within the Anchorage metropolitan area, which is in the state’s South Central region. The low number of residents living throughout is part of the allure. With thousands of miles of vast wilderness, tourists can head off to explore massive glaciers, diverse wildlife, and untouched landscapes.
Nicknamed “The Last Frontier”, the majority of tourist activities are nature and outdoor-based. The most popular attraction is Denali National Park. In addition to Denali, there are seven more national parks in the state, as well as dozens of other protected habitats.
Within these natural areas, visitors will have the chance to see amazing wildlife like grizzly bears, black bears, wolves, moose, caribou, whales, and orcas. The best time to visit is during the summer when the weather is warmer and the days are long this far north.
Livin’ La Vida Alaska
Visit Alaska’s Top Towns and Cities
History of “The Last Frontier”
Thousands of years before colonization, Alaska has been a home for indigenous people that crossed into North America using the Bering land bridge. Natives include people like the Yup’ik, Aleut, and Inuit.
Known for surviving in the harsh and inhospitable Alaskan wildernesses, the indigenous people have survived for many millennia by practicing a hunter-and-gatherer lifestyle. Relying on the local wildlife and plants, many tribes continue to practice and have modernized their ancestors’ ancient traditions.
During the late 18th century, Russian expeditions and exploration marked the beginning of colonization. Russians built a permanent settlement in Three Saints Bay and they controlled the sea otter fur trade.
Following Russia, both Spain and Britain also made claims to the land. This includes Captain James Cook, the British explorer who traveled throughout the Pacific Ocean.
By the 19th century, Russia had reclaimed the land as Russian America. However, trade profits were low, there were relatively few Russians living in Alaska to defend it, and further financial difficulties in Russia led the country to sell Alaska to the United States for $7.2 million US dollars in 1867.
After the purchase, the territory became the Department of Alaska before being changed to the District of Alaska in 1884.
In 1896, the Klondike Gold Rush occurred in the neighboring Yukon Territory in Canada. Alaska was used as a shipment route from the goldfields, which led to a wave of new settlers in the area. Just a few years later in 1899, gold was found in the state outside of Nome.
The discovery of gold fueled the economy. In 1912, Alaska became a US territory. Along with Hawaii, Alaska was one of the last states (49th) to join the Union in January 1959.
Capital City of Juneau
Supporting a population of 32,255 as of 2020, Juneau is the capital and second-largest city in Alaska. Named after Joe Juneau, a French Canadian gold prospector from the 1800s, the city sits on the Gastineau Channel in the Alaskan panhandle.
Most of the landscape around Juneau is extremely rugged and even though the city has its own road network, it’s not connected to any other parts of the state. All goods are transported in and out by boat or plane. It’s one of the top coastal destinations in Alaska.
During the summer months (May to September), Juneau is a popular destination for cruise ships with up to 6,000 people traveling to the city each day. The city’s waterfront can get very busy as a mix of cruise ships, fishing boats, and even seaplanes can be seen on the water.
Coinciding with Juneau’s peak summer months is dolphin and whale watching. From April to September, tourists on a cruise or in Juneau can head out on a boat for the chance to see migrating humpback whales, orcas, and Pacific white-sided dolphins.
Other nature-based activities in and around Juneau include Nugget Falls, the Mendenhall Glacier, Eagle Beach, Tracey Arm Fjord, and Admiralty Island. In the city, the main attractions are the Alaska State Museum, Alaskan Brewery and Bottling Company, Glacier Gardens Rainforest Adventure, Last Chance Mining Museum, and the Mount Roberts Tramway.
Anchorage, the Largest City by Population
The largest city in the state is Anchorage with a population of 291,247 as of 2020. Located within 10 hours by air to about 90% of the industrial world, Anchorage is a major business, transportation, and tourist hub. The city sits at the end of the Cook Inlet and is sometimes referred to as the “Anchorage Bowl”.
For travelers who want to get a taste of Alaska’s wild side without having to be too remote, Anchorage is the perfect destination. Offering big city amenities, there are still plenty of nature areas with easy access. Many visitors will also use Anchorage as a jumping-off point to explore more of the state’s cities, towns, and landscapes.
In the city, tourists can visit the Alaska Zoo, Alaska Native Heritage Center, or the Anchorage Museum. Trolley tours are a great way to explore the city too. Outdoor recreational areas include the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, Chugach State Park, Alyeska Resort, Kincaid Park, and the Potter Marsh Bird Sanctuary.
Fairbanks, “The Golden Heart of Alaska”
Further inland from the coast and home to a population of 32,515 as of 2020, Fairbanks is the largest city in the state’s Interior region. With long winters and short summers, the city is a mere 196 miles from the Arctic Circle. The location has made “the Golden Heart of Alaska” a major tourist destination because the Northern Lights are often visible throughout the winter.
Although further inland from the coast and somewhat remote, Fairbanks still has a thriving downtown area. Some of the best things to do include visiting the Museum of the North, Fountainhead Auto Museum, Aurora Ice Museum, Pioneer Park, the Morris Thompson Cultural & Visitors Center, and the Georgeson Botanical Garden.
Sitting at the doorstep of Alaska’s arctic landscapes, many travelers also head to Fairbanks to participate in dog sledding, Northern Lights tours, reindeer farm excursions, and trips to the North Pole for all-year-round Christmas cheer.
Sitka, “Paris of the Pacific”
In the Alaskan panhandle, Sitka is a small city that is renowned for its commercial and recreational fishing. Located on the coast, many travelers there to enjoy the outdoors, especially its marine landscapes — though there are stunning mountain peaks too.
Supporting 8,458 people as of 2020, this island city has a compact downtown area that is easily walkable. Unlike some of Alaska’s coastal cities, Sitka is typically not crowded and it has more of a small-town feel. Historically tied to Russia, the city still has Russian architecture including a church and castle.
Top tourist attractions are the Fortress of the Bear Sanctuary, Alaska Raptor Center, Sheldon Jackson Museum, and the Sitka National Historical Park, which is famous for its Totem Pole Trail. Like many parts of Alaska, the city is also visited by humpback whales from July to December. Without many cruise ships docking, tourists will have a better chance of seeing the whales up close.
Ketchikan, “Rain Capital of Alaska”
Ketchikan is a popular destination for cruise ships in Alaska. A small city, there were 8,192 residents as of 2020. Most famous for its lively downtown area, Ketchikan is also an important historic and cultural city for Native Alaskans.
Filled with seasonal storefronts, Downtown Ketchikan comes to life every summer as more than a million visitors travel to the city to see its natural beauty. Aside from the colorful buildings, major attractions include the Tongass National Forest and the Misty Fjords National Monument.
Alaska’s National Parks
There are eight national parks in Alaska and combined they protect 41,460,625 acres of land. By far, the most famous of the group is Denali National Park and Preserve.
Formerly called the Mount McKinley National Park it was renamed to Denali in 2015 after a decades-long naming dispute. The national park is most famous for Denali, which is the highest mountain in the North American continent.
Although Denali towers above the landscape, the rest of the park has a relatively low elevation that features taiga and tundra forests. With plenty of recreational activities, visitors will be swept away by magnificent vistas.
Just 130 miles outside of Anchorage in the South Central region is Kenai Fjords National Park. Home to the Harding Icefield, the park is famous for its beautiful glacier-carved fjords, glaciers, and jagged coastline. Popular for cruise ships, many parts can only be accessed by boat, plane, or hiking. Although, there are a few sections, including the Exit Glacier, that are accessible by road.
Another stop for cruise ships is Glacier Bay National Park where it’s estimated that 80% of the yearly visitors arrive by large ships or small boats. Many of the park’s features, including numerous glaciers, are on the water and by staying on the boat, visitors can safely view the local wildlife. Animals include both brown and black bears. On land, park activities include mountaineering, camping, hiking, and bird-watching.
Gates of the Arctic National Park is the northernmost national park in the US and is situated entirely within the Arctic Circle. It’s also one of the most remote parks with no roads or official trails. Very few people visit.
Currently, it is the least-visited national park in the US with just 10,047 visitors in 2016. For those that like to go where few others roam, Gates of the Arctic is certainly a unique destination.
Glaciers in Alaska
Alaska is famous for its glaciers. Matanuska is easily accessible by a 20-minute hike but requires that you book a tour. The Mendenhall Glacier can be accessed without a tour, although many choose to book group excursions.
Perhaps the most accessible of all glaciers is Exit, which can be seen from the road outside of Seward. A part of the Harding Icefield, the Exit Glacier is very popular because of its accessibility.
The largest glacier is Bering, which can be accessed by private tours. Tour operations offer a variety of packages with most trips planned for better weather in the summer months.
The Alaska Highway
Although most people visiting Alaska will travel by boat or plane, there is an option to take an epic road trip from the contiguous United States to Delta Junction, a city just south of Fairbanks. Technically beginning in Canada, the highway stretches for an epic 1,387-mile-long journey.
Along the way, tourists can stop in popular cities and towns like Whitehorse in Yukon. You can also see some of Canada and Alaska’s stunning landscapes and wildlife.
The Iditarod National Historic Trail
Another famous path through Alaska is the Iditarod National Historic Trail, which stretches for more than 1,000 miles between Nome and Seward. The trail is most famous for its dog sled race, which is held annually. Although there are two routes that race officials choose from each year, participants still travel nearly 1,000 miles with their dog sled teams.
Most people won’t participate in the Iditarod race, but will instead visit sections of the trail. Open year-round, visitors can hike portions of the trail during summer or head out during the winter on dog sleds and snowmobiles. Some of the most visited areas on the trail are outside of Anchorage.
“North to the Future”
Tourism in Alaska is growing as each year, more people are drawn to the state’s pure, wild, and untouched landscapes. Mostly remote, this state is the place to go if you want to get out and view the nation’s largest national parks and forests.
Filled with interesting history and native culture, there is also plenty to learn about this extreme northwestern state. Whether you’re looking for a leisurely cruise or a grand adventure, your time in Alaska is guaranteed to leave a remarkable impression.
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