My recent trip to Alaska had a lot going on. I worked as a digital nomad for three weeks and took three weeks off, established a new mountaineering route, hiked, kayaked, climbed and played around with drone videography. More than any of that I started getting a good taste of Alaska and understanding how to travel around it and what each region has to offer.
The thing about Alaska is to do a lot of cool stuff you have to have a car and renting a car can be very expensive at $800-1200 /week. Alternatively driving to Anchorage, Alaska from the SF Bay Area is about 3000 miles or 48 driving hours. These are some other comparable trips:
The first thing to notice about Alaska is that there are either not a lot of people or a ton of people. I’ve been told that Denali is like Yosemite in the summer and THE stop for all the main-level tourism. However, once you get in the backcountry, you quickly find yourself alone.
The photo above is the image I had of Alaska, but I found this was not really the case. Each region has its own terrain and feel. It is not all glaciated mountains and not all glaciated mountains are rocky peaks. I’ll go into some detail below to help orient since it is only possible to visit 1-2 areas in 4-6 weeks including travel.
If planing on visiting the SE ‘by car’ you’ll go through some really cool country. The best place we stopped for native history and art was at K’san village. Also, there is a ton of great climbing outside of Terrace. It may have had the worst bugs of the trip, but its was a sweet place.
The SE is a distinct sea-island ecosystem with tons of otters, the most bald eagles you’ll ever see, endless salmon- and blue- berries, and is more in-tune with its Russian and Native history. It is constantly foggy, cloudy or smokey among more rounded but heavily forested mountains. Glacier access is great.
The only way to see this area is by the Alaskan Marine Highway System. You can bring your car on it, sleep under the heat lamps on the deck (or duct tape your tent down on the deck for a little more privacy) and eat reasonably priced food while watching forested islands scroll by in mysterious white fog. The ferry takes about as much time as driving (in the Yukon), but is a totally cool experience… and you aren’t driving.
Juneau was by far the most touristy place we visited with 2-4 cruise ships always in dock. Helicopters are constantly flying around on tours and we counted 20 distinct helicopters at the Juneau airport. There are some really cool, deep alpine climbs back here, good hiking to glaciers and kayaking/fishing like all over the SE.
Sitka is a really cool place that was the old Russia-America capital. It has unique Russian history, a totem park and is smaller and more low-key than Juneau since cruise ships have to dock 5 miles out of town. Its a must see, except the access is difficult since the $40 daily ferry between Juneau and Sitka is no longer running as of 2019… There is hope it will start up again, but until lit does you can fly there for $250pp or stay there seven days between the main ferry visits. Here we kayaked the sound, stayed in a plush forest shelter, hiked an island volcano and watched rescued bears.
*Note: housing is very expensive in Sitka. The cheapest room was $170/night in July*
My Adventure: Kayak-Backpack up Mt. Edgecombe
Finally, at the end of your journey you’ll probably want to depart in Haines if you want to continue driving North into Alaska. This town doesn’t have much, not even great cellular reception, but its the biggest one for a while until you reach Tok or Glennallen. Skagway is a little more colorful final stop but requires a little more driving to get out of it than Haines.
Coming into the eastern part of Alaska the bald eagles that were as common as seagulls in the SE disappear. The land creates that flat, swampy environment moose love. You begin seeing mesmerizing fish-wheels on the brown, silty, wide glacial rivers.
The East is home to the enormous Wrangell-St Elias National Park which has certain towns that specialize in accessing N, W or S regions of the park. There are some day hikes, but little infrastructure so backpacking will often be off trail, insertions by bush planes and can involve crossing glaciers. This park is one of the more mountainous areas of Alaska, containing seldom climbed peaks up to 16,000 ft and 60% of Alaska’s glacial ice. It is an adventure climbing, alpine mountaineering, backpacking wilderness, pack rafting paradise.
My Adventure: Established Hole in the Wall Glacier
McCarthy is a small, interesting, up and coming place with very well restored mining history and enormous glaciers at the Southern foot of the Wrangells. It has the best restored and naturally decaying mine infrastructure I’ve seen outside of Death Valley. Kennecott Mine is like a Yosemite-level living history museum popped in the middle of nowhere with a couple of great strenuous, historic mine hikes.
The areas of Cordova and Valdez along the Copper River are known for fishing with the Salmon runs starting in July. This is one of the places to go for some good Sockeye.
The Brooks Range is one of the other major mountain ranges in Alaska. It has higher quality rock than the limestone sandwich of the Wrangells and amazing wilderness / alpine climbing. If you want a chance to run into millions of caribou on permafrost, this is the place for you. The Gates of the Arctic always will require a bush plane to even get into the park and is pristine, unmanaged wilderness. I cannot wait to get up here on a future trip up in the Arrigetch Peaks.
As said above, Denali is a tourist trap like Yosemite in the Summer. However, when Sadie did her solo backpacking trip out here she was quickly on her own in the trail-free backcountry. Climbing North America’s highest peak (Denali) is a 4-6 week commitment. There is a glass top train here from Anchorage that is pretty fun and in the winter, this top allows you to see the Northern Lights.
Anchorage is the most populous city and has its own coastal culture. Its the hub for much of Alaska, including tourism. There are some cool treks in this region around Hatcher Pass like the Bomber Traverse. The Palmer-Wasilla area is a great mountain wilderness area without the business of tourism. At Girdwood you can find a hippy-ski town where you can surf the bore tide or hike the Iditarod via Crows Pass.
The Kenai Peninsula (Homer and Seward) is a great place to go for salmon and deep sea fishing.
Technically the Alaskan Marine Highway goes all the way out here. This is where Kodiak Island is and some very intimate bear-viewing walking among hulking grizzly bears in the wild. It also is the ring of fire and contains the site of the largest eruption of the 20th century in the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. It is very remote.
Whew! I hope that gives a good idea of Alaska, how to navigate it and what to do. Alaska is twice the size Texas so its not reasonable to visit every place given how one region is 12-15 hrs from the next. Shoot me a message if you have questions or I can help in any way.
Like this summary? I wrote a similar one on Patagonia and Peru .