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The perfect two-week holiday in Alaska

by Staff

“I felt Alaska might be close to the wilderness perfection I continuously sought,” wrote landscape photographer Ansel Adams, who famously captured the wild, unfettered spirit of America’s 49th state in the 1940s.

A mind-stretching mass of ancient forests, sprawling tundra and heaven-poking peaks, it certainly deserves the title. More than 100,000 glaciers forge a frozen landscape, coastal mountain ranges rise from the Pacific Ocean to heights unseen elsewhere on the planet, and only 20 per cent of the state is accessible by road.

A separate entity to “the lower 48”, Alaska feels like a different country. Covering a fifth of continental America’s combined land mass, much of it remains tantalisingly unexplored and untouched. Endless horizons present limitless possibilities summed up by the pioneering spirit of the early 19th century gold rush, while an abundance of wildlife species continue to thrive.




Alaska is home to an abundance of wildlife, including brown and black bears


Credit: Alistair Tutton

The great unknown has inspired numerous sci-fi stories, soul-searching novels and murder mysteries, most recently providing the fictional backdrop for Jodie Foster’s television drama True Detective. But the true size and scale of the place is impossible to comprehend on even the biggest screens and can only be truly appreciated first-hand.

Our two-week itinerary balances exploration with local immersion, including hikes across glaciers, bear encounters on beaches and cruises into ice-studded fjords teeming with whales. Fairbanks and Anchorage both have international airports, making them useful entry and exit points for a holiday promising to exceed expectations of being perfectly wild.



Fairbanks


Discover the riverfront former mining town of Fairbanks


Credit: Jacob Cohen

Arctic wonders

Ease into the wilderness at this former frontier mining town below the Arctic Circle. Fly from London via Seattle (British Airways, Virgin) with a journey time of 16-18 hours. Get a feel for the past on a stroll through Pioneer Park, an easy-going mock historical village with an excellent selection of fish dishes served at the Salmon Bake. Although an hour’s drive out of town on a shuttle bus, Chena Hot Springs is the spot to ease jet-lagged muscles. Favoured by achy-limbed miners, the healing waters are now part of a resort with a year-round aurora ice museum. Sleep back in town at family-run homestead Pike’s Waterfront Lodge overlooking the Chena River.



Palermo in Buenos Aires


Mock historical village Pioneer Park gives you a feel for the past


Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

Mining marvels

Preserved in the permafrost, recovered tusks and skulls of woolly mammoths prove life has long existed in these inhospitable grasslands. Found by gold panners, these ancient fossils are on display at the Museum of the North at the University of Alaska. Dig deeper into Alaska’s golden heart at Gold Dredge 8, a 25-minute drive from town, on a guided tour through an original floating workhorse responsible for extracting gold from 1928-1959, and try panning by hand. For dinner in a Victorian saloon-style setting, head to The Pump House for generous portions and flights of craft beer.





Take in Denali’s dramatic scenery from above on flight excursions over the Alaska Range



Credit
:
Travel Alaska


Trains and tundra

Now it’s time to start heading south. Spanning 470 miles, the Alaska Railroad has been carrying freight and passengers for 100 years. Take the Denali Star service, departing at 8.20am for the four-hour journey to Denali National Park. Book the Goldstar service for seats in a glass-domed panoramic observation car to marvel at tundra, rivers and mountain views while listening to a narration of stories about the route. The train snakes along the canyon walls of Nenana River Gorge before arriving at the historic Denali Depot. Avoid the strip of busy hotels and souvenir stores known as Glitter Gulch and head deep into the 6.1 million-acre national park to the rustic cabins and spa at Backcountry Lodge. Due to a landslip and access restrictions in the park until 2026, the only way to arrive is on a 35-minute scenic flight – making it feel even more remote.



Gaucho riders


The Alaska railroad’s Denali service has glass domed observation cars


Credit: Michelle Park

Pioneers and hardy creatures

Boreal forests bloom with wildflowers against a backdrop of snowy mountain peaks and glaciers deep inside the Alaskan interior. Take a guided hike to learn about the park’s animal residents including berry-munching grizzly bears and Arctic squirrels capable of dropping their body temperatures below freezing. In former mining camp Kantishna, visit the restored cabin of early pioneer and hardy woman Fannie Quigley, an accomplished hunter and trapper who once gutted a moose and climbed inside to sleep – inspiring the stomach-turning scene in Leonardo di Caprio’s movie The Revenant.



Denali


Denali is the highest peak in North America


Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

Perfect peaks

Undoubtedly the park’s star attraction is Denali, the highest peak in North America soaring over 20,000 feet high. Borrow a bike from the lodge and cycle to Reflection Pond, one of the most iconic photo stops. Close by is Wonder Lake, famously depicted by Ansel Adams in 1947. He waited hours for the clouds to shift, a common problem today. But clear views are guaranteed on a scenic flight hugging the Alaska Range. Denali Air offers a one-hour trip (£356); Fly Denali has a longer and more expensive excursion including a stop at Ruth Glacier (£554).



49th State Brewing


Sample a local craft beer at 49th State Brewing


Credit: Jack Bonney

Railroad scenery

After an easy morning relaxing by the riverside, get back onboard the Denali Star for the 12.30pm departure to Anchorage. Taking seven and a half hours, the journey passes through roaring rivers and creeks – the highest point on the railroad. Shortly after passing through quirky film-set-worthy community Talkeetna, step onto the outdoor viewing platform for the best views of Mount Denali. After arriving at the state’s largest city, Anchorage, head to the central Hotel Captain Cook with bedroom views of Cook Inlet or the Chugach Mountains. It’s a five-minute walk to 49th State Brewing, serving craft beers brewed with glacial water.



Gaucho riders


The Tony Knowles Coastal Trail follows the waterfront


Credit: Jody Overstreet

Coast and culture

After a light breakfast, hire two wheels from Pablo’s Bikes and cycle along the paved Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, following marshes and forested hills as bald eagles glide overhead and the occasional moose passes by. Alaska Trail Guides also operate guided tours. The 22-mile round-trip deserves a decent brunch at Snow City Café, serving excellent coffee and plates piled as high as an Alaskan peak. The city’s indigenous Athabascan community belongs to some of the world’s oldest human populations. Learn about their culture – along with Alaska’s other native groups – at the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center in the Anchorage Museum.



Katmai National Park


Katmai National Park is famous for its landscapes and resident bears


Credit: Roy Wood

Bears and beaches

This morning, fly to King Salmon – the gateway to Katmai National Park, a four-million-acre sprawl of forests, tundra, lakes and ancient volcanic landscapes on the Alaska Peninsula. From here, take a 25-minute float plane to Brooks Lodge, one of the best places to encounter the region’s 2,200 bears. A viewing platform overlooks Brooks River, where grizzlies gather in large numbers to fish for salmon. During peak season (July and August), a 30-minute time limit is enforced with queues of up to two hours. But be prepared to bump into bears anywhere: strolling along trails, crossing bridges or along the shoreline of Naknek Lake. Rustic cabins sleeping four cost £891 per night and meals can be ordered in a buffet restaurant. There’s also a cheaper option to camp (from £8 per person per night) in an area protected by a bear-proof fence.



Katmai bears


View bears in their natural habitats at the Brooks River


Credit: Getty Images

Volcanoes and eery valleys

At 9am, a guided tour departs the lodge and heads inland to the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes for a day-long tour. In 1912, the Novarupta and Mount Katmai volcanoes exploded and covered the area in ash – one of the most violent eruptions in modern history. Decades later, it cooled to create a valley of steaming fumaroles. Explore the moonscape and have lunch at a visitor centre.



The Kenai Fjords National Park


Kenai Fjords National Park boasts nearly untouched wilderness


Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

Belugas and bore tides

Wave goodbye to the bears and return to Anchorage. Pick up a hire car for a two-hour drive south to Seward along one of the state’s most scenic roads slicing between the Turnagain Arm waterway and Chugach Mountains. Beluga Point and Windy Corner are ideal turn-offs to look for beluga whales and dall sheep. If tide times are favourable, stop at Bird Point to witness the bore tide – a rushing wave of water reaching 20mph and rising for nearly two metres due to the area’s huge tidal range. Ride the Alyeska Aerial Tram to the Seven Glaciers restaurant for a fine dining tasting menu at eye-level with the peaks. Continue to Seward and check into the wooden cabins of Seward Windsong Lodge.



Beluga whales


Look for beluga whales, even near the coast


Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

Fjords and glaciers

Sitting at the head of Resurrection Bay, Seward is only 12 miles from Kenai Fjords National Park by boat. Wander along the busy harbour watching sea otters clutching clam shells backpaddle between moorings. The only access to the park’s sparkling fjords and calving glaciers is by boat. Major Marine Tours operate an extensive 8.5-hour Northwestern Fjord Cruise on a small expedition-style vessel carrying up to 60 passengers (£229). Use complimentary binoculars to spot humpbacks fluking against an icy backdrop as bald eagles swoop across stony shores. Further into the journey and areas not visited by other cruise tours, there’s a good chance of seeing orcas. Expert guides provide a special focus for birders. Back in town, dine on fresh oysters, shrimps and foraged finds at The Cookery.

Fuel up on energy for the day with a coffee and pastry at 13 Ravens, a café and second-hand bookstore in a converted rail car along the marina. You’ll need the calories for a half-day off-grid kayak tour to Bear Glacier with Adventure Sixty North (£576). Save time (and muscle power) with a helicopter ride to the base camp, passing above temperate, boreal and alpine forests until you reach the ice shelf and a glacier lagoon. Weave through a sculpture garden of icebergs below the shadow of the park’s largest glacier looking out for seals basking on floes. Take it easy in the afternoon and walk back into town through the Waterfront Park.



Iguazu Falls


A fjord cruise can offer the chance to spot humpback whales


Credit: Credit: alexmgn / Alamy Stock Photo/alexmgn / Alamy Stock Photo

Ice hikes

Before heading home, there’s time to squeeze in one last activity. A 10-minute drive from Seward, Exit Glacier is easily accessible from the roadside. Several flat, easy trails lead to a visitor centre at the toe of the tumbling blue mass and can be hiked alone. The Alaska App features a self-guided audio tour explaining the glacier’s recession and return of different flora to the formerly frozen area. Get closer to the snap, crackle and pop of the shifting mass on an eight-hour ice hike with Exit Glacier Guides (£141), safely exploring moulins, crevasses, icefalls, waterfalls and caves. Drive back to Anchorage the following day for your international flight. 



Awasi hotel


Enjoy good weather in the summer, as well as spring and summer shoulder seasons


Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

When to go

Clear skies, warmer weather and midnight sun make the summer months between June and August the best time to visit. But prices are higher and hotels – especially wilderness lodges – can be fully booked more than a year in advance. Consider May or late September when a lot of activities will still be operating. Bears emerge from hibernation in April and return to their dens in October. The peak salmon run season is in July and August. Or, travel to Fairbanks in winter for a chance to see northern lights.



sea plane


See Alaska by air on a sea plane excursion


Credit: Juno Kim

What to book

Blow the budget

Audley can organise a 15-day Alaska By Train & Self-drive holiday, including visits to Denali and Kenai Fjords national parks. Costing from £13,995pp, the holiday includes train travel, car hire, international flights and stays in properties like Alaska Bear Camp and Exit Glacier Lodge.

Discover The World offers a 14-day Alaska’s Natural Wonders tour including a trip to the state’s largest protected wilderness area Wrangell-St Elias National Park. The trip costs from £4,207pp, including car hire and stays in a mixture of mid-range hotels and wilderness lodges. International flights are extra.

Layers are essential as Alaska’s weather is predictably fickle, ranging from 8 to 22C in summer. Designed to regulate body temperature, merino wool tops are a space-saving, all-weather compromise. At higher latitudes, hats and UV-protective shirts protect against intense sunshine, while wind and rain-proof jackets are essential for cruising through glacial fjords. Wear waterproof boots for hiking on the tundra and carry bug repellent. 

Inspired by a Russian fairy tale, The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey captures the bleak beauty of Alaska’s wilderness and its ability to spark imagination. Exploring the seductive but dangerous lure of the great outdoors, Into The Wild by John Krakauer retraces the real life story of a young graduate who disappeared into the mountains.



museum


Several Alaskan museums have extensive collections of Indigenous art and historical artifacts


Credit: Jacob Cohen

Expert tips

  • If you’ve left it too late to book a bear-viewing wilderness lodge, opt for a day trip. Departing from Anchorage or Homer, float planes head to Lake Clark, Brooks Falls and the Katmai coast. 
  • Go beyond reconstructed historic villages at the annual World Eskimo-Indian Olympics in Fairbanks. Honouring essential survival skills, disciplines include ear pull, seal hop and blanket toss – where an athlete is propelled into the air mimicking a practice for spotting whales from flat, treeless land.
  • A short peak season combined with the import logistics means prices in Alaska are inevitably high. Keep costs low by travelling in spring and autumn and swapping flightseeing trips for roadside attractions – such as Exit Glacier – which are more accessible.

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