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You can’t see the entirety of the largest state in the Union from the deck of a massive ship. But when many people plan a trip to the 49th state, it typically involves taking a cruise! Alaskan tourism changed forever one Saturday night in September 1979, when ABC’s hit show, “Love Boat,” ventured north to the Last Frontier. The popular program had already changed the cruise industry from being reserved for the wealthy to a vacation that was suddenly more accessible. Now, in its third season, “Love Boat” steered off its usual course for adventure to Mexico and instead sailed along the Inside Passage. In addition to the usual weekly romance and drama, millions of television viewers admired the picturesque panoramas of Alaska on their small screens and immediately began to plan future cruise vacations north.
In the ensuing decades, the tourism industry boomed along Alaska’s coastline, transforming tiny fishing towns into vacation destinations with restaurants, hotels, and gift shops. Interior Alaska, however, receives fewer tourists, and those that do venture inland typically take part in short, cruise-organized trip extensions to other parts of the state’s 663,300 square miles, usually in large groups on buses.
Though signing up for a cruise may ultimately be more affordable, travelers who opt for freedom of movement usually find the additional costs well worth going it alone. You can even see orcas, glaciers, and fjords from the water without enduring the glitzy floor shows and sundae bars of a massive ocean liner. Here’s how to see the state without stepping foot on a cruise ship.
Alaska’s coastline stretches an impressive 34,000 miles, which is longer than the combined length of the shorelines of the lower 48 states! Since 1957, Alaskans, along with their groceries and construction supplies, their trucks and cars, and some adventurous tourists have traveled the 3,500 miles of southern coastline along what is charmingly named the Alaska Marine Highway, a ferry system that slips in and out of ports at 35 communities, big and small. These ferries provide a lifeline for communities that cannot be reached by roads.
The ferry boats, nicknamed the “Blue Canoes,” come in several sizes — there are bigger mainline ships that move cargo and passengers longer distances between the main cities of Juneau, Ketchikan, Whittier, and Homer, in addition to smaller shuttle ferries that dock at far-flung destinations.
The ferries offer both private staterooms (usually with ensuite bathrooms) and anchor hooks on the open deck for securing tents in the wind. A heated solarium, open to the stern of the ship, is lined with plastic loungers so travelers can recline and watch the scenery or hunker down in sleeping bags for overnight journeys. Inside, you’ll find self-serve dining, observation lounges with comfortable seating, a movie room, and communal showers and lockers for longer hauls. This is state-run public transportation, so it’s not luxurious, but it is an authentic Alaska experience.
Some of the most popular routes include a twice weekly dayboat loop between Juneau and Gustavus at the mouth of Glacier Bay. This 4.5-hour trip along the Inside Passage and Icy Strait is visually jaw-dropping, and from Gustavus, you can take a tour boat or a flightseeing trip deeper into Glacier Bay. The fast ferry between neighboring Haines and Skagway offers a spectacular 90-minute journey along the Lynn Canal (the longest and deepest fjord in North America) past glaciers, waterfalls, and bald eagles sitting atop Sitka spruce trees. If you’re game for a long ferry ride, the almost 40-hour journey from Bellingham, Washington, is also recommended for the beautiful wilderness and wildlife that can be seen in the protected waters along British Columbia and southeastern Alaska.
Riding in an airplane, for many Alaskans, is as normal as taking an Uber. Many Alaskan communities cannot be reached by road, so small bush planes bring them everything they can’t make themselves, from a bag of oranges to, quite literally, the kitchen sink. In bigger towns, airstrips bristle with tiny aircraft, air taxis to shuttle locals between neighboring communities or take them to the larger airports in cities, and other planes that have flown in for the day to pick up mail.
Some commercial bush planes also provide visitors to Alaska with a sublime way to get to places they could hardly visit otherwise, like a flightseeing tour that circles Denali’s peak and then lands on one of its glaciers to allow passengers to hike. Some of the most exclusive wilderness lodges in the state can only be reached by plane and if there isn’t anywhere to clear a landing strip, floatplanes to your luxury vacation stay can set down on a river.
Helicopters can also transport skiers to backcountry slopes or anglers to wilderness lakes, or even swoop tourists over forests, waterfalls, and braided rivers on flightseeing excursions. Flightseeing is not a cheap option, but getting up in the air can offer those with means a way to fully understand the vastness and variety of the state — and get a thrilling experience!
If “flightseeing” or taking a “flight safari” sounds too frivolous for you, small planes are also a reasonable form of transportation between regions of the state you want to visit. And, who knows? That very practical flight path may happen to cross over some glaciers, ice falls, mountain ranges, or piney islands with grizzly bears running along the beach.
In the rest of the country, an official scenic byway designation means that a road is usually worth driving — even if it means going a bit slower than you could on the interstate that runs parallel. Outside major cities in Alaska, roads are so few and far between that the scenic byway is more likely the only way. Many of the main highways in Alaska — the Richardson Highway, the Parks Highway, the Seward Highway, the Dalton Highway, the Glenn Highway, and the Alaska Highway — are mostly two-lane roads that pass through tundra, forests, remote villages, mountain ranges and run alongside icy rivers and coastline. Be forewarned before you opt to drive, though: distances between destinations can feel longer than they look on a map and may add days to your vacation.
You can reserve and pick up a rental car from all of the big-name companies at the major airports. Along with cars, campervans, RVs, and motor homes should be booked well ahead of time for travel in the popular summer months.
One popular several-day itinerary consists of departing from Anchorage, heading up the Parks Highway, stopping at Denali National Park and the city of Fairbanks, before looping back down the Richardson Highway to Valdez and taking a ferry ride inside your vehicle back to Anchorage. Bring your passport if you decide to drive the Golden Circle, another scenic drive that roughly follows the route taken by miners heading to Yukon during the Klondike Gold Rush. The road begins in Skagway, crosses White Pass into Canada, and loops 350 miles through the cities of Carcross, Whitehorse, and Haines, before returning to Skagway by ferry.
A car isn’t your only option for earthbound travel. Two train companies, the Alaska Railroad and the White Pass and Yukon Route, run primarily for tourists, but that doesn’t mean that both don’t offer spectacular Alaska sightseeing.
The Alaska Railroad’s most popular route is a ride on a glass-domed observation train between Anchorage and Denali, with a tantalizing glimpse of Denali’s truly impressive double peak on clear days. From the station at Denali, you transfer to a bus into the national park to see the wildlife and some of the most extraordinary landscapes on the entire continent. The Alaska Railroad tracks also extend as far south as Seward and as far north as Fairbanks, so if train travel is your passion, a pretty great rail tour of Alaska is within reach. The train operates by whistlestop, so the occasional local or intrepid adventurer is able to flag it down for a ride or stop to get off.
The White Pass and Yukon company offers several route options to riders on vintage trains that run up and over the White Pass between the Inside Passage and Yukon Territory. Most of the trips offered are round-trip excursions of several hours, but the line also has one-way trips to drop hikers at summit trailheads or campgrounds.
Whether you choose one mode of transportation or cherry-pick a few for your Alaskan adventure, chances are pretty good you’ll be plotting a return visit before you even leave the state. So don’t fret about fitting everything in the first time around; with any luck you’ll be back soon for more moose viewing, glacier hiking, and midnight sunbathing!