Things to do in the Last Frontier

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Article by V.L. Hendrickson

Glaciers, fjords, North America’s highest peak: Alaska has some of the world’s most impressive natural landscapes, plus a rich cultural history and packs of adorable huskies. Purchased from the Russians on March 30, 1867, for about two cents an acre, it is currently celebrating its 150th anniversary of joining the U.S., however the land didn’t become the 49th American state until 1959. There are plenty of transportation options as well, allowing sightseers to travel over land, in the air or through the water to the 49th state’s most breathtaking attractions.

1. Go for a paddle

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Traveling through Southeast Alaska via kayak is a great way to get up close to sea otters, sea lions, whales and other wildlife from a peaceful spot in the middle of the sea. Glacier Bay National Park, more than 3 million acres of rainforests, mountains, glaciers and fjords, is perfect for a kayak trip, whether just for a day or for a longer adventure. Glacier Bay Sea Kayaks offers both.

2. See Alaska from the air

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A float plane is another way to see Alaska’s Inside Passage—a coastal route through the islands of the southeast. See the area’s tiny islands, untrammeled forests, glaciers and bears from on high. Tours leave daily, but weather delays are common; planes are often grounded for high winds and visibility concerns.

3. Tlingit totems

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The totem poles at Potlatch Park in Ketchikan were made by members of the Tlingit tribe, which is indigenous to the area. Ketchikan has 80 totems on display throughout the town and at the Southeast Alaska Discovery Center ($5 for adults, free for kids under 15).

4. Meet up with mushers

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One of the state’s most famous events, the annual Iditarod Great Sled Race runs about 1,150 miles, from Anchorage to Nome. The event takes place in March, but visitors can meet the famous huskies (and their trainers) at locations around the state, including Fairbanks, Denali and Anchorage.

5. catch a northbound train

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From Anchorage, visitors can ride the rails to Denali National Park via the Alaska Railroad. The Denali Star makes a daily 12-hour passage to Fairbanks, complete with stunning views and stops in Wasilla, Talkeetna and at the park. Adventure class fares start at $167 for adults, $84 for children.

6. Mountain outpost

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Talkeetna is one of the last outposts on the way to Denali National Park, a tiny town with gift shops, watering holes and restaurants, including the Roadhouse. The eatery offers “breakfast,” think fresh baked goods and sourdough hotcakes, and “not breakfast,” with items like reindeer chili and wild salmon pasties. In case that induces a food coma, lodging is also available at the Roadhouse.

7. the road to denali

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Bus travel is mandatory at Denali National Park, which only has one road and allows private cars to travel just the first 15 miles in the summer months. Bus tours are led by knowledgeable guides/drivers, who definitely break for wildlife of all types. Visitors aren’t allowed off the bus along the road, but there are several scheduled stops.

8. keep your hands inside the bus

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This mother grizzly and her cubs illustrate why tour guides require visitors to stay on the bus during the ride along Denali's 92-mile-long Park Road.

9. wonder lake

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Wild flowers surround Wonder Lake, with a view of Mt. Denali, North America’s highest peak at just over 20,000 feet, in the background. Wonder Lake is at the final stop of the Denali bus tour. 

10. the northern lights

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The famed Aurora Borealis appear near Ester Dome mountain about 10 miles west of Fairbanks, north of Denali. It is considered one of the best places to see the Northern Lights, which are typically seen in the winter months.