Photo Courtesy of Gary Benson
No one can appreciate the beauty of the north until they visit: It's hard to imagine what it's like to cruise into Seward by boat, to hike through Denali National Park, to stay up long past midnight watching the sun set, or never seeing the sun rise. Because Alaska is America's largest state--and a …huge swath of it is off the road system--you can't see everything in just a few weeks. Start in Anchorage and explore the newly-renovated and ever-changing Anchorage Museum, then head to the secluded Kenai Fjords or magnificent Chugach National Forest, or down to Homer for one of the state's best local food scenes. If there's time, fly to Juneau or drive north to Fairbanks to hike atop a glacier, canoe along a misty river, or find a lodge and just relax.
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Your Alaskan experience will depend hugely on the time of year you visit. Summer sees cyclists touring the Kenai Peninsula as bald eagles fly overhead, and, when necessary, stopping for moose; hikers trekking Juneau's luminous, baby-blue Mendenhall Glacier; cruise ships exploring the awe-inspiring Tracy Arm Fjord; and kayakers pushing between unspoiled mountains surrounding Prince William Sound. But Alaska in winter is a whole other story. Then, you can fly down Alyeska's gargantuan ski slopes, cozy up in a secluded lodge, watching the heavenly northern lights flicker outside your window, or adventure into the backcountry by helicopter or skis. Whether you rough it by the campfire or book a few nights in a comfortable, warm lodge, there are accommodations for every type of traveler.
Alaska has long been known for its seafood but the state's food reputation is growing. But the tourism-season traditional hearty Alaskan meals are still here too: with giant pancakes and cinammon rolls the size of your head. Plenty of coffee too. At breakfast, try the state's famous gourmet reindeer sausages seasoned with white pepper and coriander, or crab cakes doused in creamy Benedict sauce. Get every sandwich on sourdough bread, a historic staple. For dinner, indulge in fresh Pacific fish, such as pan-seared cod, smoked salmon, or fresh halibut cheeks sprinkled with lemon and cilantro.
Any thought of Alaska should start with the Native groups that were here long before America was even an idea. To truly understand Alaska, immerse yourself in Native culture at every turn. From touring what's on view of the the massive art collection at the Anchorage Museum or the University of Fairbanks Museum of the North to watching traditional dances at the Alaska Native Heritage Center, or shopping for crafts made by the modern-day artists keeping Native arts alive, you can see how hard people are working to not only keep their cultures alive but help them thrive. Then take a dive into ways the cultures have changed with the arrival of Russians, Americans, and other groups. But there's also just plenty of small town America culture here, always with a distinctly Alaskan twist.
Alaska almost seems like two different states, split between summer and winter. Anchorage in July sees sunrise near 4:30 a.m. and sunset just before midnight, while winter daylight peeks out midday for a few hours. Up north in Fairbanks and beyond, those hours stretch with summer sun and winter dark sticking around seemingly nonstop. Winter temperatures hover around 5 degrees in Southcentral, though the inside passage around Juneau is significantly warmer at 20 degrees. Summer is warmer than most visitors believe, often in the mid-60s and quite green. Fairbanks? Even hotter. Most flights arrive at Ted Stevens International Airport in Anchorage, while cruises tend to dock in Seward on the Kenai peninsula. The best option to get around Southcentral Alaska or the sections of Interior Alaska that are on the road system is to rent a car or RV. If you plan on camping outdoors alone, basic survival skills and bear spray and canisters are crucial. If Southeast Alaska is your area of choice, travel by ferry or, as most visitors to the state do, cruise ship.
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An Anchorage-based New Yorker, Jenna Schnuer travels to find culture, science, and business stories, people to profile, and traditional travel and adventure ideas. A fan of road trips, Jenna has driven solo across the U.S. three times. She moved to AK by Kia Soul in 2013. Jenna has contributed stories to the New York Times, National Geographic Traveler, Smithsonian, Every Day with Rachael Ray, BonAppetit.com, Rolling Stone, and others.