8 Stunning Alaskan Adventures
Take a breath of fresh air, and explore the vast wilderness that Alaska has to offer. Rife with a variety of species of wild animals, fresh water and diverse scenery, an Alaskan vacation is a nature lover’s paradise.
1. Glacier Bay
Eleven glaciers feed into park marine waters, and there are daily boat trips to several glacier “snouts,” precipitous ice cliffs that “calve” 200-foot-high bergs into the tidal inlets.
To explain how glaciers form and how they advance and retreat, park naturalists show films and give guided walks at Bartlett Cove. In this area most of the ice is now retreating (200 years ago it was up to 4,000 feet thick and the bay was entirely buried), and in its wake have come many marine and terrestrial species such as whale, porpoise, sea lion, sea otter, salmon, brown and black bear, moose, wolf, mountain goat and over 200 species of birds. Whales, sea lions, seabirds and bears are most readily observed on the daily boat cruise from the lodge. Local air-taxi operators offer “flightseeing” trips over the park. Also near the lodge are short trails leading through the moss-draped rain forest down to rocky beaches; be sure to bring waterproof footwear and rain gear. Wildlife that favors the forest include grouse, thrush, ruby and golden-crowned kinglet, black bear and porcupine.
Bartlett Cove tides range up to 25 feet, and when the tide is out, the shorelines reveal a fascinating variety of starfish, sea urchins, shellfish and other tide-pool creatures.
(Photo courtesy of kimberlykv/Flickr Creative Commons)
2. Pribilof Islands
More than a million fur seals on the beaches and 2.5 million seabirds on easy-to-observe nesting cliffs comprise one of the most wondrous wildlife spectacles in North America. Two of the volcanic Pribilof Islands, St. Paul and St. George, which are situated 270 miles out in the Bering Sea, are inhabited by Aleuts, whose ancestors were brought here by Russians to kill seals for their pelts.
Today the Aleuts provide food and lodging for tourists, who fly in on days when the fog is not too thick for landings. Blinds are available from which to watch the bull, cow and pup seals interact, all barking and roaring loudly.
The cliffs also provide an awesome playground. Bird-watchers have close-up views of undaunted black-legged kittiwakes, tufted and horned puffins, red-faced cormorants, common and thick-billed murres and three species of auklet. The red-legged kittiwakes, which also nest on the cliffs, are rarely seen away from the Pribilofs.
(Photo courtesy of NOAA Photo Library/Flickr Creative Commons)
3. Juneau Bay
Juneau, whose history goes back long before Joe Juneau struck gold in 1880, offers a unique mix of cultural and wilderness attractions.
The Alaska State Museum reflects the area’s diversity with displays on wildlife, the region’s Indian and Russian heritage, and the gold rush of the 1880s and 1890s. At the octagonal St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, built in 1894, you can see handsome icons and other church relics. The U.S. Forest Service desk at Centennial Hall gives information about hiking, camping and other outdoor recreational opportunities and has logging, fishing and mining displays.
Tour buses run to Mendenhall Glacier, making it one of the continent’s most accessible ice fields. Its cold blue face rises some 100 feet above the waters of Mendenhall Lake. Telescopes at the nearby visitors center enable you to get a detailed look at the glacier. Hiking trails lead back into the woods. Arctic terns perform aerial acrobatics during the spring nesting period, and in autumn bald eagles fish for salmon in nearby Steep Creek.
(Photo courtesy of dalem/Flickr Creative Commons)
4. Sheep Mountain
Dall sheep, cousins of the Rocky Mountain bighorn, are easy to spot here, for in spring and summer their white coats stand out sharply against the green vegetation or rust and yellow rocks of this highly mineralized mountain.
The sheep are most numerous in early and late summer. Early summer is also the best time to see migrating birds, such as raptors. If you don’t have good binoculars, use the viewing telescope at Sheep Mountain Lodge.
From Caribou Creek (Milepost 107) a hiking trail winds up the 6,300-foot mountain, and you can look down on the valley from the sheep’s perspective.
(Photo courtesy of Jesse Millan/Flickr Creative Commons)
5. Misty Fiords National Monument
Nearly 156 inches of precipitation drench Misty Fiords annually, adding to the abundant water provided by melting glaciers and ice fields. The fiords are narrow ocean inlets carved by glaciers from the Ice Age. The nearly vertical granite cliffs lining their shores tower to a height of 3,000 feet. Cloud-wreathed waterfalls spangle amid the soaring precipices.
All but the steepest slopes are covered by an evergreen rain forest composed of Sitka spruce, firs, cedar and western hemlock, broken only by glacially excavated lakes and muskegs. Even above the tree line, the land is covered with shrubs and grasses that provide summer pasture for Sitka black-tailed deer. Other wildlife that may be seen includes bears, bald eagles and mountain goats; the waters abound with sea lions, salmon, porpoises and whales.
Most visitors arrive by boat or floatplane from Ketchikan, about 30 air miles away. There are no roads, but seven short hiking trails penetrate the rugged terrain of this 2.3-million-acre wilderness.
(Photo courtesy of Arabani/Flickr Creative Commons)
6. Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge
This bird-watching area within Alaska’s largest city is host to trumpeter swans, bald eagles, Canada geese, ducks, gulls, terns and shorebirds, as well as mink, bear, moose, beaver, muskrats and salmon. Migrating birds make spring the best time to visit, but wildlife enthusiasts with cameras and binoculars will likely be rewarded at any time of the year.
The refuge attracts its 130 species of birds primarily because there are four distinct habitats within the 32,000 acres. Geese are drawn to the salt marsh along Turnagain Arm (an inlet of spectacular beauty). Ducks and other water birds flock to Potter Marsh, a freshwater marsh created in 1917, when the Alaska Railroad was constructed and its roadbed became a dike. Muskegs, in the transition area between marsh and dryland, house snipe, grouse and sandpipers. Such deciduous trees as birch, alder, willow, and cottonwood support warblers, thrushes and other songbirds in the wooded areas. And of course these habitats each support a distinctive community of plants.
(Photo courtesy of yskin/Flickr Creative Commons)
7. Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve
This is America’s largest national park, overwhelming in its size (its 13.2 million acres stretch north for 170 miles from the Gulf of Alaska) and in the wild, astonishing grandeur of its scenery.
Wrangell-St. Elias, Kluane National Park in Canada, Glacier Bay National Park, and Tatshenshini-Alsek Park in British Columbia are together a United Nations World Heritage area. Among them they include 10 of the continent’s highest peaks and the greatest wealth of mountains, canyons, and glaciers in North America. The park’s highest peak is the towering 18,008-foot Mount St. Elias, the second highest peak in the United States.
(Photo courtesy of pug freak/Flickr Creative Commons)
8. Kenai National Wildlife Refuge
This refuge used to be called Kenai National Moose Range. Although the name has changed, there are still thousands of these fascinating animals (the largest of which can weigh 1,400 pounds) roaming the area.
Thousands of lakes spangle amid this wilderness of nearly 2 million acres. Many, such as Bottenintnin Lake, reflect the Kenai Mountains, glacier-accented peaks on the refuge’s boundary with Kenai Fjords National Park. Graceful trumpeter swans glide across the lakes, and the haunting call of the loon can be heard.
It is common to see Dall sheep and mountain goats above a marked observation point near Kenai Lake, on the Sterling Highway east of the refuge boundary. Beluga whales are often spotted from Fort Kenay Overlook, above the mouth of the Kenai River in the town of Kenai. Berry picking is popular in late summer and fall. Canoe routes can be found in the Swan Lake and Swanson River canoe systems, and chartered floatplanes provide access to some of the lovely remote lakes.
(Photo courtesy of The Good Reverend/Flickr Creative Commons)