Alaska is both the largest state in the United States and the least densely populated. It has more miles of coastline than all of the other states combined. Most Alaskans reside in and around the city of Anchorage, though there are many smaller cities, remote rural communities, and fishing towns scattered across the state.
Bordered by Canada to the east, the Pacific Ocean to the west and south, and the Arctic Ocean to the north, Alaska is an amazing place to visit with a full range of extremes.
There are 11 native groups in Alaska, covering all areas of the state from the southernmost territories to the far eastern reaches of the Aleutian archipelago to the extreme climates of northern Alaska and St. Lawrence Island. Visitors who seek it out can discover the rich heritage of these native groups who have inhabited Alaska for thousands of years and whose traditions are inextricably linked with nature and the seasons.
Alaska’s main appeal is its enormous area of pristine wilderness which includes innumerable glacial rivers and streams, dense forests, beautiful coastline, active volcanoes, frozen tundra, and the tallest peak in North America. The territory has a wealth of wildlife both terrestrial and marine including brown bears, polar bears, black bears, caribou, elk, moose, wolves, bison, seals and sea lions, orcas, otters, humpback whales, and many types of birds and fish.
Alaska is sparsely populated. The majority of Alaskans reside in Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city, or the surrounding area. There are several other large cities in addition to Anchorage, and many small towns and communities scattered across the state.
The Native communities of Alaska were once the most populous, though today they represent approximately 20% of the population. The Native Alaskan population can be divided into about five main groups, based on geographic location and similarities in culture.
These are the Athabascan (central and inland), Unangax and Alutiiq (southern Alaska and the Aleutian islands), Yup’ik and Cup’ik (south and west Alaska – coast), Yupik and Inupiaq (Northern Alaska and St. Lawrence Island), and the Eyak, Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian (southernmost Alaska, Pacific coast).
Within these categorizations there are many small communities and some official sub-groupings with unique customs, beliefs, traditions, living arrangements, and social structures. There are 11 distinct Native groups in Alaska, with the same number of languages and a total of 22 different dialects spoken.
Over the years migration and outside influences have in some cases shaped these native cultures, though tradition remains strong in many communities. There are a number of organizations in Alaska dedicated to preserving Native Alaskan cultural heritage.
In inland areas hunting and foraging have traditionally been a means of subsistence, while on the coast and near rivers or streams, fishing also plays a major role. Tools, canoes, homes, clothing, and crafts are often made of natural materials, and respect for nature and animals is an important theme in native culture.
Alaska’s wild terrain is abundant with rivers, streams, and dense forests. Hence its cuisine is based largely around what can be gathered from these natural areas. Alaska is famous for its cold water fish, especially salmon.
In many native communities meat and fish were traditionally smoked or dried in order to ensure a source of protein for months at a time. Cured and smoked fish is still a popular way of preparing fish and seafood. Alaska is best known for its Wild Alaskan salmon, halibut, and King Crab.
There are also many native berries and fruits such as wild blueberries, lingonberries, wild cranberries, and some special rarities such as crowberries and salmonberries.
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When To Go
The summer months of June, July and August are the most popular times to visit Alaska. This is a great time to visit, though mosquitoes are a particular bother during the summer. Daylight hours are long (up to 20 hours of daylight at the summer solstice in late June), and the weather is generally warmest during these summer months.
Alaska has a large and varied terrain, meaning some areas are perpetually cold or covered in snow. Climate and seasonal activities vary depending on where you are.
If traveling in the winter you can partake in a wealth of winter activities such as snowmobiling, dog-sledding, skiing, ice fishing, and more. This is also the time when the northern lights (aurora borealis) are most visible. For winter activities February through March is a good time to visit.
Alaska experiences a lot of rain, particularly from the months of October through April, though the weather can be somewhat unpredictable any time of year.
Rates in May and September (respectively the ‘off seasons’ between summer and winter), can be somewhat less expensive and this is usually still a pleasant time to visit, weather permitting.
Alaska’s main airport is located in Anchorage, and this is where most people arrive. Flights are most frequent during the summer which is when Alaska receives the most visitors.
Though the most cost effective way to travel to Alaska is usually by plane, it is also possible to reach Alaska by cruise ship, by ferry, and by car.
Within Alaska, a great way to reach far off the path destinations such as a native village, a remote town, an ideal fishing spot or for special wilderness sightings is to take a small chartered plane or air taxi. This can be a truly memorable experience, and worth the cost as you’ll likely have a customized experience and get a sense for the vastness and the incredible wild beauty of the state.
Cruise passages are very popular, as Alaska’s coast is both vast and breathtakingly beautiful. Alaska also offers some beautiful scenic drives.
Many people visit Alaska for its vast wilderness and beautiful expanses of untouched nature. Travelers who are embarking on intrepid excursions into the wilderness will need to be aware of certain risks such as getting lost, contracting hypothermia, avalanches, and wild animals. Many of these risks can be mitigated by taking proper precautions and planning ahead.
Water safety should be practiced, as many rivers and streams can be very fast moving with very cold glacial waters and the coastal seas can be unpredictable.
Anyone hiking without a guide should be experienced in wilderness trekking and should take precautions such as letting someone know their route and planned length of trip in case a rescue is necessary. Cell phones may not work in remote areas.
To avoid hypothermia stay dry or change into dry clothes immediately if you become wet during a storm or in frigid waters.
If traveling in areas where avalanche risk is high it is best to travel with an experienced guide. Many areas of Alaska are very remote. Hikers and adventuresome travelers should be aware of the risks involved in traveling to remote, sometimes inaccessible locations.
Wild animals such as bears populate Alaska’s wilderness. Campers should maintain a clean camp area and should keep food away from the campsite by storing it in a bear resistant container. Avoid having any strong smelling odors (especially fish) near the campsite, and if cleaning fish or preparing a meal, best to do it away from the campsite to avoid unwanted visitors during the night.
There are many bugs and mosquitoes in Alaska, so it is wise to bring some bug repellent and wear protective clothing and sturdy boots when hiking or cycling.
Some crime exists in the main cities of Alaska, as well as in remote areas. It is wise to travel with a partner if possible, and to avoid wandering alone at night.
Most citizens of the UK, Canada, Australia, and many European countries can visit the US without a visa if staying for no more than 90 days and if visiting as a tourist. Entry regulations can change without notice, so it is best to check up to date policies before your trip. All visitors are required to present a valid passport.
Top 5 Sites
Top 5 sites:
1. Denali National Park
2. Mt. McKinley (North America’s highest peak)
3. Anchorage Museum (Anchorage)
4. Sitka, Alaska – notable for its Russian heritage, museums, native culture, museums, and interesting history
5. Totem Heritage Center (Ketchikan)
Top 5 Things To Do
1. Witness the ceremonial start to the world famous Iditarod Sled Dog Race (Anchorage), or await the mushers at the finish line 1,000 miles away in Nome on the Bering Coast – every year in March
2. Visit Southwest Alaska’s Aleutian Islands – a 1,000 mile long archipelago with Aleut villages, active volcanoes, beautiful coastline, and abundant wildlife including a high population of brown bears as well as seals, sea lions, otters, walrus, salmon, and more. Fishing and wildlife viewing in this area are excellent.
3. Kayak amidst massive tidewater glaciers in Prince William Sound (or take a day cruise)
4. Visit Denali National Park – the park is enormous, featuring pristine wilderness, North America’s tallest peak, and ample opportunities for activities in both summer and winter
5. Witness the spectacular Northern Lights (best viewing is September – April)
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