Alaska Part 1

When I tell people I'm from Alaska, the reaction is universally positive—either they've always dreamed of coming here or they fell in love with the place when they visited.

While my legal mailing address is no longer in the Great Land, I still spend as much time as I can up here (including right now—I'm here for a good chunk of the current summer). Having worked in the rental car industry both in Anchorage and and outside of Alaska for 15 years, I thought a quick post on Alaska rental car (and other travel) tips might be helpful.

When To Go To Alaska

Summer is where it's usually at. Everything is green, the weather is warm (or at least acceptable!), and all the tourist activities are open and running. (In Alaska, summer means June, July, and August.)

But here's my secret recommendation: skip summer and go in the shoulder. Unless you have unlimited money at your disposal, the last two weeks of May and the first two weeks of September are the sweet spot. The vast majority of the tourism infrastructure is open and operational in this part of the shoulder season, but the crowds aren't here, meaning prices for everything from hotels to day cruises to rental cars are anywhere from 20-50% cheaper (and there's virtually no risk of things selling out on you).

Late May has a better chance at seeing clearer skies, but early September comes with the chance to visit the Alaska State Fair in Palmer, home of world-record cabbages and fried fair foods with an Alaskan twist. Yes, you might have to bring a jacket, but I think it's worth it for the thinner crowds and cheaper prices.

Winter is a special time to visit Alaska, but the long nights and frigid temperatures aren't all that attractive to tourists, and so most things are shut down. While you can still have an amazing experience (especially if you're into winter activities), expect some challenges with getting around and getting into many sites. (For example, if you want to get into Denali National Park in the winter, you'll have to borrow snowshoes!)

The National Weather Service office for Anchorage is a great place to find both long-term climate data as well as short-term forecasts for the state. There's also a good Wikipedia article on the climate of Alaska.

What To See In Alaska

There's so much!

The state is massive. If you laid Alaska on top of the Lower 48, it would stretch from Florida to Minnesota and all the way out to California. On top of that, most of the state is not easy to get to—vast stretches of the state are many hundreds of miles from the road system and only accessible by plane or, in some cases, boat. With such a tremendous spread, the different regions of the state have an entirely different character.

Size comparison of Alaska and the Lower 48

Southeast Alaska

Southeast Alaska is home to the state's small capital city, Juneau. With famously rainy weather, mild temperatures, and a slightly hippie element, is is in some ways reminiscent of western Washington. Several popular destinations dot the region, including Ketchikan, Sitka, and the gold rush heritage city of Skagway. Most cruises to Alaska (and the state's ferry system) traverse this region's well-known Inside Passage.

Alaska Part 1 By NOAA Photo Library at Flickr [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Don't-miss items in Southeast Alaska

Southcentral Alaska

Southcentral is home to Alaska's largest city, Anchorage. Backing up to the rugged Chugach Mountains, countless outdoor activities are within easy reach of town. While the city itself shouldn't be the focus of your visit aside from a few interesting attractions like the Anchorage Museum and the very-well-done Alaska Native Heritage Center, it serves as a convenient entry and exit point for your visit, with the best airline connections and most affordable fares to the state.

Heading south from Anchorage will take you along beautiful Turnagain Arm past the ski resort town of Girdwood and site of the fast-retreating Portage Glacier to the Kenai Peninsula, home of world-class sport fishing on the Kenai River and the popular tourist destination towns of Seward and Homer. Seward is nestled in a spectacular fjord and is home to a quaint downtown and the highly-rated Alaska Sea Life Center. Several different operators offer various day cruises on Resurrection Bay—well worth doing for the amazing wildlife and glacier views. Homer is known as a bit of an artsy, funky town (as well as being a drinking town with a fishing problem) and is a popular place to take a halibut fishing charter, though both Seward and Homer are home to extensive commercial fishing operations for ocean-caught salmon, halibut, and many other prized fish. Back up towards Anchorage, just past Portage Glacier and through one of North America's longest tunnels, is the small (and slightly strange) hamlet of Whittier, home of several very popular glacier and wildlife cruises on Prince William Sound.

North of Anchorage is the rich agricultural farming region of the Mat-Su (Matanuska-Susitna) Valley. Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin's hometown of Wasilla is little more than a 5-mile-long strip mall, but the region holds much more. The quaint and historic town of Palmer is home to the Alaska State Fair (August-September), and further up the Glenn Highway are beautiful views through the Chugach Mountains.

Heading east from Palmer will take you past a grand view of Matanuska Glacier and to the junction town of Glennallen. From there, a turn south will take you past the turnoff to Chitina and the McCarthy Road, site of the now-defunct (but still well preserved) Kennecott Copper Mine, though no rental company will allow you on that road (and if you do find a way to go, be sure you have two full-size spare tires!), and over the spectacular Thompson Pass, which descends into the port town of Valdez (best known for the oil tankers that carry crude south to the West Coast). Some of Alaska's best sea life and glaciers are a short distance from Valdez, and the intrepid tourist who chooses to make his or her way to Valdez and do a day cruise will be well rewarded.

Not accessible by road but a short flight or scenic ferry ride into Prince William Sound from the rest of Southcentral Alaska is the fishing town of Cordova, near the mouth of the famed Copper River. With tons of outdoor recreation activities, tranquil waters, and grand glaciers (Child's Glacier is one of the most active in the state), Cordova makes for an excellent weekend trip that's a bit off the tourist radar but still close and easily accessible.

Heading north from Wasilla along the Parks Highway will take you near the hippie town of Talkeetna (which served as inspiration for the TV show Northern Exposure) and eventually up to Alaska's crown jewel, Denali National Park, part of Alaska's Interior region.

A view of downtown Anchorage over Knik Arm from Earthquake Park "Cook Inlet, City of Anchorage, and the Chugach Mountains" flickr photo by Mark VanDyke Photography shared under a Creative Commons (BY-ND) license

Don't-miss items in Southcentral Alaska

Interior Alaska

Lying on the border between Alaska's Southcentral and Interior regions, Denali towers over the terrain and is visible from both Anchorage and Fairbanks. While great views of the mountain are prevalent (weather permitting) from the Parks Highway on the way up from Wasilla, to truly experience the wonders of the park, you'll want to head to the park entrance just south of Healy and embark on an adventure into the national park from there. Plan on at least one full day there and preferably two: the road into the park is closed to private vehicles and can only be traveled by park-operated shuttle buses, which leave throughout the day from just inside the park entrance, and it's a full day to ride in and back out. You'll want to grab one of the early morning regular shuttles (the tan, modified school buses, not the more expensive green tour buses or the privately-operated motorcoaches that only go a few miles inside the park) for the best chances of seeing wildlife (moose, caribou, bear, fox, and more) and, of course, the mountain itself. You'll want to make sure you plan to reach at least the Eielson Visitor's Center (mountain views are limited before that), and if the weather's good, you'll want to continue on to Wonder Lake for some of the best views you can get of Denali in all her splendor. Even if the mountain isn't out, the park is filled with spectacular vistas, and you're virtually guaranteed a close-up encounter with nature (a grizzly once walked right up to my bus and practically posed for a picture). You may want to repeat the trip on day #2 for even better chances of seeing wildlife and the mountain; if you'd rather not endure the long ride again, there's a ton of activities near the park entrance. One of my favorite times to visit is in the early fall (in Alaska, that means late August or early September), when the tundra turns a deep ochre color—a color palette you don't often see in nature.

Heading north from Denali will take you into Alaska's Interior region, home of Alaska's second largest city, Fairbanks. The Golden Heart City has many attractions of interest. One of Alaska's newest museums is the Fountainhead Antique Automotive Museum, well worth a visit for a unique collection of interesting and innovative (and still running!) cars from the 1890s through the 1930s—fascinating even for a non-car-buff. Downtown very much retains a pioneer/frontier-type feel (Fairbanks was a center of the Alaska gold rush), and the state-operated visitor's center along the Chena River has a fantastic exhibit on area's history and life in the remote villages of the Interior along with a series of films (the one on the aurora is quite fascinating).

The state's main university, the University of Alaska Fairbanks, has extensive and well-known research programs. Several of the university-affiliated institutions offer visits or tours—well worth doing. The Large Animal Research Station has a neat tour where you can get up close to musk oxen and reindeer. The Geophysical Institute's tour provides a look at the university's cutting-edge research on everything from earthquakes to the aurora borealis. You can even tour the world's only university-owned rocket launch range! And of course, the university's Museum of the North remains one of the top-rated things to do in Fairbanks, and it is very much worth a visit.

Winter in Fairbanks can be bitterly cold but comes with its own set of activities. At the top of anyone's bucket list should be seeing the Northern Lights—Fairbanks with its calm, clear weather, dark winter skies, and location close to the center of the auroral oval make it one of the world's premier places to reliably see the aurora—if it's dark, of course. (Common local wisdom is that the chances of seeing them on any given winter night are around 50%.) My personal favorite place to see them is up at Chena Hot Springs, a little more than an hour outside of the city—the warm water is super comfortable on a cold winter night, and it's far enough away from Fairbanks city lights to offer ultra-clear viewing. They'll also wake you up if the lights come out in the middle of the night, and they offer aurora viewing trips up on the ridgeline for the ultimate auroral viewing experience.

And of course, Fairbanks is the gateway to the remote northern reaches of Alaska. While the major rental car companies won't let you drive off of the paved highways, true adventure awaits for those who can make arrangements to brave some of the most remote stretches of road you'll ever drive or the small air taxis that head to villages more rural than some stretches of the deep Amazon.

Visitors enjoying a view of Denali "Visitors Enjoying the Mountain" flickr photo by DenaliNPS shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

Don't-miss items in Interior Alaska

Bush Alaska

There's a vast stretch of Alaska—by far the majority of land in the state—that isn't accessible by road. Travel in the Bush is not for the casual tourist. Infrastructure is limited: don't expect a Hilton or a Hertz. The larger cities are lucky to have a couple of lodges bookable online and maybe a few B&Bs to call for availability. The smaller villages might—and I stress the word might— have village corporation-owned housing or, barring that, land you might be able to get permission to camp on. Flights in and out can sometimes be delayed for days. Costs are high, to say the least. That said, some of Alaska's greatest treasures await for those who are comfortable going off the grid, and the rewards of getting to know the real Alaska are well worth the effort.

Bush plane landing on a beach Bush plane landing on a beach. NPS photo (public domain)

Highlights of Rural Alaska

  • Take your picture under the famous whalebone arch, stay up to watch the midnight sun circle the horizon, and get to know the fascinating whaling culture of the Iñupiat (Barrow, recently returned to its original name of Utqiaġvik)
  • See a real-life gold rush in action and maybe, just maybe, peer over the horizon and catch a glimpse of Russia (Nome)
  • Strand yourself for three days on the windswept furthest Aleutian island accessible by jet and root around the preserved abandoned ruins of a World War II naval air station (Adak)
  • Catch a glimpse of a celebrity captain on the real-life set of Discovery Channel's Deadliest Catch and stuff yourself at the all-you-can-eat seafood buffet every Wednesday (Dutch Harbor/Unalaska)
  • Visit Alaska's aptly-named Emerald Isle and fish for salmon, halibut and more (Kodiak)
  • Watch fish leap into the mouths of bears at one of Alaska's most iconic (and most photographed) sites (Brooks Falls, Katmai National Park)

A personal appeal to cruise passengers

Wherever you go, do me one massive favor, though: don't just come in on a cruise ship and take the cruise bus or train straight from the dock to the airport and fly out. While cruises are a relaxing and efficient way to travel around the southeastern part of the state, Alaska has so, so much more to offer than a few tourist-oriented activities at a few heavily-trafficked ports. Even better if you can book your own, independent activities in port and before/after your cruise—you'll skip the crowds of clueless tourists, and more of your money will stay in the state and make its way to local families rather than to the cruise lines' shareholders. My former colleagues in the Alaska tourism industry thank you for your consideration and think you'll have a much richer experience.

That's all for Part 1 today. Be sure to check out Part 2 of our guide tomorrow, all about getting your rental car and driving around Alaska!

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