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More than twice the size of Texas, Alaska is the largest state in the USA, known as a land of vast natural splendour, abundant wildlife and few people. It offers unique experiences such as walking in unspoilt wilderness, spectacular cruising through the fjords of the Inside Passage, and frontier towns rich in gold rush history. Alaska's sense of undiscovered wilderness and promise of adventure is as prominent now as it was when it attracted thousands of pioneers in search of gold, fur, fishing, logging and oil. Today, this 'Last Frontier' lures travellers in search of unspoilt beauty and close encounters with nature. In fact, Alaska's three largest cities - Fairbanks, Juneau, and Anchorage - are home to fewer than 370,000 people between them.
The southeast epitomises classic Alaskan scenery, with its fjords, mountains, forests and glaciers. Alaska is one of the top cruise destinations in the world, and the main drawcard for visitors to this region is the wondrous scenery along the waters of the Inside Passage; a major marine highway ideal for ship travel. The number one attraction in the interior heartland is Denali National Park, an area of untamed magnificence that also encompasses North America's highest mountain, the snow-covered Mount McKinley. Arctic Alaska in the frozen north is less well-travelled, and few venture as far as Barrow and Nome.
Due to its northern location, Alaska is the land of the 'midnight sun', and visitors can experience the odd phenomenon of having over 21 hours of sunlight each day in the summer. Despite a reputation for high prices and inhospitable weather, millions of people have found Alaska to be a unique piece of the US that is worth every dollar.
Alaska contains some of the world's most intriguing wilderness areas and attracts nature lovers and adventurers keen for a taste of its yet untamed landscapes, huge glaciers and magnificent national parks. Outdoor activities and attractions dominate Alaskan itineraries, with all-time favourite destinations including the national parks of Glacier Bay, Denali, Kenai Fjords and Wrangell St Elias. A visit to Alaska is certainly not complete without seeing a glacier, and the Hubbard Glacier and Mendenhall Glacier are two of the best to seek out.
Aside from the wildlife and natural beauty, the history linked to Alaska's indigenous cultures prompts many travellers to visit Ketchikan, where the largest collection of totem poles in the world can be found in the Ketchikan Totem Bight State Historical Park and a number of other cultural sites. Anchorage also has some worthwhile cultural attractions, including the Alaska Native Heritage Center, the Anchorage Museum of History and Art, and some good markets selling art, local crafts, food and gifts. Although not prominent tourist hubs, Alaska's cities are gorgeously situated and provide access to the astounding natural bounty of the surrounding areas. Apart from Anchorage and Ketchikan, popular cities include the capital, Juneau, Skagway and Sitka, all common ports of call on the cruises that traverse the Inside Passage of Alaska.
Famous for its spectacular mountain vistas, abundant wildlife, glaciers, vast expanses of sub-arctic tundra, and North America's highest mountain, Mount McKinley, Denali National Park and Preserve is a real wilderness area that attracts millions of visitors each year. More than six million acres are home to grizzly bears, caribou, moose, Dall sheep, wolves and numerous species of birds. The main attraction is the snow-covered massif of Mount McKinley, towering 20,320ft (6,096m) above the peaks of the Alaska Range, the definitive symbol of untamed Alaska. On a clear day its twin peaks can be seen from Anchorage, 149 miles (240km) away.
The Alaska Range divides the park into north and south sides, with the majority of visitors accessing the north where the main visitors centre is located. Mountaineers seeking out the challenges of Mount McKinley need to access the park from the south side. Other peaks offer excellent climbing opportunities for those not wishing to risk the mountain that has earned its reputation as one of the world's most difficult climbs. The park region also offers a wide variety of other activities including day hikes or backcountry hiking, camping, mountain biking, whitewater rafting and ice climbing. Early June or late September is the best time to avoid the crowds.
When the early explorers and pioneers of the 18th century sailed this way, Glacier Bay was hidden under a huge sheet of solid ice, more than 4,000ft (1,219m) thick and up to 20 miles (32km) wide. Today the branching 65-mile (105km) long fjord is the work of the fastest-receding glacier on earth; the melting ice of the Grand Pacific Glacier opening up a spectacular carved terrain of steep rock walls lining deep-water fjords. Sliding out of the mountains are 16 active glaciers that fill the sea with different shaped icebergs, creating the icy blue landscape that is world-renowned.
At the head of the fjord is the massive ice wall of the Grand Pacific Glacier, slowly melting and sculpting the still-unfinished land as it backs away from the sea, a natural work of art in progress. An added attraction is the variety of aquatic life including humpback whales, sea otters, seals and porpoises, while bears, moose, mountain goats and many species of birds inhabit the land. This rugged landscape can only be accessed by boat or small plane as most of the park is made up of water. As opportunities to see this huge wilderness are limited, facilities can be crowded, especially on the tour boats. Activities are somewhat expensive, and wildlife sightings cannot be guaranteed. Gustavus is the small settlement that services the park, but the park headquarters is at Bartlett Cove from where boats can be arranged or alternate means provided to enjoy the park experience. Kayaking or camping in the backcountry, ranger-led programmes or walks, hiking and fishing are all available.
The world-class Museum of History and Art is the largest museum in Alaska and is one of the most visited attractions in Anchorage. The exhibits cover the history and cultures of Alaska - from Native American beginnings to American colonisation - and explore the natural resources and landscapes of the country. Part of exploring the cultures of the country is exhibiting Alaskan art, and the museum has a good permanent collection and hosts multiple temporary art exhibitions. Art, history and the natural sciences are combined to great effect in this wonderful museum. Visitors of all ages should find something to interest them. Check the official website listed below for details.
There is surely no more spectacular experience on the planet than to witness the calving of a titanic glacier. A stopover to watch nature's incredible marvel, the Hubbard Glacier, in action as the high wall of ice thickens and advances towards the Gulf of Alaska is one of the unforgettable moments that makes thousands of holidaymakers opt for an Alaskan cruise every year. The Hubbard Glacier is the largest tidewater glacier in North America, beginning its 75-mile (121km) journey to the sea on the tallest mountain in Canada, Mount Logan, and finally shedding tons of its bulk in awesome ice falls across the six-mile (10km) wide head of Yakutat Bay.
Every day cruise liners pull in, their passengers bundled up in their warmest clothing and festooned with cameras and binoculars, as they hang over the deck rails to witness the stunning sight of the luminous blue-green ice wall as it creeps inexorably forward. Those who visit at the right time could be fortunate enough to see one of nature's most awesome events, when a chunk of ice cracks and falls thunderously from the wall into the ocean as the mighty glacier calves, startling the seals basking on ice floes. In contrast to what one would expect with many glaciers shrinking due to global warming, the Hubbard is growing and advancing, controlled apparently more by mechanics than climate. It is predicted that if the Hubbard Glacier continues to advance it will close the entrance of Russell Fjord and create the largest glacier lake in North America. Many cruise ships snare a chunk of ice so that their passengers can end the memorable day by getting up close and personal with the Hubbard Glacier, and enjoy a chunk of this special ice in their evening cocktail.
The Alaska Native Heritage Center is a wonderful place for visitors to learn about the culture and heritage of the native Alaskan people while in Anchorage. Indigenous traditions, customs and lifestyles are showcased in the centre's exhibits, which include artefacts such as tools, watercraft, clothing, pieces of art and musical instruments. The centre also hosts local storytelling, dancing and craft events which help to bring the traditions to life for visitors. The Alaska Native Heritage Center is closed in winter, but hosts monthly cultural events. Check the official website listed below to see what's on offer during your visit.
Large cruise ships regularly travel to major ports in Alaska but a better idea for those who prefer a more intimate option is the Alaskan Ferry. Departing from Bellingham, Washington, these large ferries bounce through the major coastal towns of Canada and The Gulf of Alaska before stretching to the Alaskan Peninsula. The landscapes are staggering, revealing hundreds of craggy forest-dense islands and coastlines. Eagles, killer whales, bears and other hardy wildlife are all part of the view. The months of operation are May to September, when the weather is bearable and sunshine illuminates most of the evening hours. Costs vary greatly depending on the length of the voyage and style of accommodation. Most ferries rent out cabins but those in tune with Alaska's pioneer spirit can pitch a tent on deck or just use a blanket.
The 'salmon capital of the world' started as a summer fish camp on the shores of Ketchikan Creek used by the Tlingit natives, and became a major salmon canning centre. Native Inuit heritage plays a large role in the touristic appeal of Ketchikan, which boasts the largest collection of totem poles in the world in the Ketchikan Totem Bight State Historical Park, Saxman Native Village and the Totem Heritage Center Museum. Rustic Creek Street, with its picturesque wooden boardwalks and stilts, was once the town's red light district, and today the houses have been converted into restaurants, shops and galleries.
Ketchikan is located on Revillagigedo Island, 235 miles (378km) south of Juneau. The town is a popular cruise destination and is the starting point for most Inside Passage tours. Excursions into the surrounding wilderness include air or boat trips to nearby Misty Fjords, an area of pristine, spectacular scenery with soaring cliffs, waterfalls, lakes and glaciers.
The most popular attraction in Juneau is the Mendenhall Glacier, located just 12 miles (19km) from the downtown area. Originally known as Sitaantaagu ('the Glacier Behind the Town') by the Tlingits, it was renamed in honour of Thomas Corwin Mendenhall, an American physicist, in 1891. The Mendenhall Glacier is 1.5 miles (3km) wide, and calves into its own lake. Visitors have several options for seeing the Mendenhall Glacier. It can be viewed from the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center, which includes a recreation area good for viewing black bears; or you can hike to the glacier via the Mendenhall Glacier West Glacier Trail, which takes roughly five hours both ways. It is a good idea to hike with a guide, and bring crampons if you want to hike on the glacier itself. As an added option, several businesses in Juneau offer helicopter rides to the glacier itself, although these are fairly expensive.
Although the assumption is that Alaska is a land of snow and sub-zero temperatures, the climate in Alaska is actually extremely varied, caused by the state's six different topographic regions. The far north is extremely dry and very cold, with Arctic conditions and temperatures averaging about -20°F (-29°C), and the ground at Point Barrow remains permanently frozen to a depth of 1,330 ft (405m). However, summer temperatures in most of Alaska are surprisingly high, averaging in the 60s Fahrenheit (about 16°C), and they have been known to reach 90°F (32°C) and up. The southeast tends to be fairly moderate, with damp, rainy and sometimes mild conditions, with temperatures in July averaging 56°F (13°C) and temperatures in January averaging 30°F (-1°C). The south and central areas tend to be similar, with slightly colder winter temperatures. Western Alaska tends to be rainy, while the Aleutian Islands in winter are damp and rainy, with fog. Heavy snows are common in the north and central regions of the state. The best time to visit Alaska is in the summer months, when days are long and the weather is perfect for outdoor adventures.
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