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How to See the Hidden Sides of Alaska

There's way more to the state than Juneau.

Alaska gets millions of visitors every year, but most of them stick within a well-defined radius set by cruise itineraries. While cruising is great way to see Alaska’s beauty, cruises don’t give you much chance to interact with the local culture. To experience the Alaska that few travelers ever see, you’ll want to journey to the far west, east, and north of the state to seek out remote communities, local experiences, and people living in extremes that most of us can’t even fathom.

Go East: McCarthy
Population: 40
A main street made of dirt, a saloon, and an old brothel turned hotel make McCarthy feel like a cold and snowy Wild West. The town was once  a “playground” for miners in nearby Kennicott—somewhere they could find restaurants, saloons, and even a red-light district. Modern-day McCarthy has gone through a lot of changes in recent decades and is now a launching pad for America’s largest national park, Wrangell–St. Elias National Park and Preserve.

Things to Do
McCarthy’s main draw is its access to Wrangell–St. Elias. To get the most out of the park, you can hire a St. Elias alpine guide to explore the park trails, hike a full day on Root Glacier, go white-water rafting, or do flightseeing (sightseeing from a small plane) with Wrangell Mountain Air and soar above glaciers and 18,000-foot peaks. To learn more about the area’s history, explore the nearby abandoned copper mine in Kennicott or check out the McCarthy/Kennicott Museum. While you’re there, make sure to stay at the former brothel, Ma Johnson’s Hotel, and don’t miss open mic night every Thursday at the hotel’s Golden Saloon, where you’re sure to get to know the local characters over a beer and a song.

Go West: Nome
Population: 3,500
Nome is located on the Seward Peninsula, along the shores of the Bering Sea, and is essentially disconnected from the rest of Alaska. It has three roads, which all lead to even more remote communities. Nome was built on gold mining, and the town is still filled with miners who dredge in the Bering Sea, looking for underwater gold deposits and giving the whole place a gritty, hard-living feel.

Things to Do
There’s plenty to do in Nome if you don’t mind driving: Nome Discovery Tours will take you to explore the Last Train to Nowhere (three stranded, rusty locomotives from the 1880s), guide you on tundra hikes, and lead you to the Safety Roadhouse (the last stop on the Iditarod) and  Pilgrim Hot Springs. Keep your eyes open for wildlife as you drive around, and you may just see a musk ox. In the town of Nome itself, visit the cemetery, where you’ll find a hidden cookie recipe on one of the headstones. And make sure to check out the abandoned White Alice communication site, a defunct U.S. Airforce installation of 80 radio stations that has the town’s best view of the Bering Sea. When you’re done, warm up with a chicken-fried steak at the Polar Café.

Go North: Coldfoot
Population: 10
Located above the Arctic Circle, Coldfoot is more of a truck stop than a town, but it does have a few full-time residents, a visitor’s center, an airport, and a post office. You’ll find Coldfoot on the famous Dalton Highway at mile marker 175. It’s so off the grid that the tiny population communicates via notes taped to a wooden message pole in the town’s restaurant, so you’ll see things like “Brian—call Jim”—basically, old-fashioned text messages.

Things to Do
Spend a day with a guide from Coldfoot Camp driving further up the Dalton Highway to the Atigun Pass. There, take a walk on the spongy high arctic tundra and visit the disappearing community of Wiseman (a tiny town of log cabins with a population of just over a dozen people), or try Coldfoot adventure activities like hiking, river rafting, and flightseeing. If you go in the winter, you’ll be able to see the northern lights and go dogsledding. Get in touch with the small-town vibe at the 24-hour truck stop, where you can spend your evening soaking up bottomless free coffee, striking up a conversation with a pipeline worker, or snooping on the truckers-only table.

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