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WHERE TO GO
Traveling around the state demands a spirit of adventure, as well as patience. Unless you are flying, there are only two approaches: the Alaska Highway, which cuts across British Columbia and the Yukon on its way to the Alaskan Interior and the Arctic North; and the Marine Highway ferries, which slip through the elegiac fjords, glaciers, and mountains bordering the Pacific linking Washington State with Southeast Alaska, where a dozen small towns, including the capital Juneau, are starting points for salmon fishing, whale-watching trips, and glacier viewing.
Flights from out of state almost all land in Anchorage, the largest city, and just as much an Alaskan experience as the great outdoors. From here, it's easy to get to Southcentral Alaska, comprising the glacier-bound and wildlife rich waters of Prince William Sound, and the Kenai Peninsula, a kind of Alaska in miniature. Further west and connected only by ferry Southwest Alaska takes in Kodiak and a host of tiny communities en route to the Aleutian Islands. Also here is Katmai National Park, one of the best places to watch brown bears fishing for salmon.
North from Anchorage, the Interior is the most road accessible part of the state with highways reaching the WrangellSt Elias National Park and the enchanting twin settlements of McCarthy and Kennicott. Roads (and trains) also reach offbeat Talkeetna, and the Denali National Park, home to the nation¹s highest mountain, the 20,000-foot Denali (aka Mount McKinley). The train line ends at Fairbanks, Alaska¹s second-largest town and the gateway to the Arctic North, site of some unbelievably remote villages.
WHEN TO GO
Alaska has a very short tourist season. For guaranteed long daylight hours and the greatest likelihood of fairly warm weather you'll need to travel in the peak season from Memorial Day weekend (the last in May) until Labor Day weekend (the first in September). During this time, climates in Southeast Alaska, Anchorage, and the Kenai Peninsula are mild (4565°F) and much more rain (in some towns 180-plus inches per year) falls than snow. Remarkably, the Interior in summer often gets as hot as 80°F.
Everyone else has the same idea, so at this time hotel availability is at its tightest and prices go up accordingly. Being there with everyone else does have its advantages though, since some of the smaller adventure trips require a minimum number of customers before they go. If you want to avoid the crowds but still find most tourism businesses operating, try the last two weeks in May and first two in September Alaska's shoulder seasons. The weather at this time can be just as warm as midsummer, and you¹ve got the added bonus of watching trees transform themselves from bare to full foliage in a matter of days, or experience the boreal forest in its autumnal plumage.
There is some regional variation, but in general anyone here before mid-May or after mid-September will find their options limited: there will be few glacier and whale-watching cruises, kayaking operations will have locked away their paddles, Denali shuttle buses will have stopped running, flightseeing trips will be grounded, and even whole towns (admittedly tiny ones like Chicken and McCarthy) will have shut up shop for the winter.
The moderating effects of the ocean (and the more southerly latitude) mean that the season in Southeast Alaska is a little longer, with a few of the cruise-ship companies extending their seasons from early May to late September. In Anchorage, Southcentral Alaska, the Interior, and much of Southwest Alaska the mid-May to mid-September rule holds true, though in Anchorage, for example, the first serious snowfall probably won't come until mid-October, making this a good place to finish a late-season trip. In Fairbanks and the Arctic North your movements at the ends of the season may be more limited, particularly in the coastal towns of Nome, Kotzebue, and Barrow, where the sea ice may remain frozen until mid-June or later. It is often late May before the roads on the Seward Peninsula near Nome are plowed so if you are planning on exploring up here, go later. Hikers should avoid May and early June unless they like high-stepping through snow on the trail; late August and September are generally a much better bet.
Visitors traveling to Alaska in September, particularly around Fairbanks, have a good chance of seeing the aurora borealis, but keen watchers need to come in winter. Even the tourist promoters admit that for most visitors November, December, and January are just too cold and dark to enjoy. March and the first week in April are generally best for winter activities from aurora watching to dog mushing with a thick layer of snow on the ground, lengthening days, and temperatures that are just about bearable. The rest of April, early May and October are neither really winter nor summer and good for nothing: the snow isn't thick enough for winter pursuits, too thick for summer activities.
WHAT TO TAKE
It is important to be prepared for the physical demands of a trip to Alaska, and your level of comfort will largely be affected by what you wear. Dress in multiple thin layers rather than a couple of thick ones: it is warmer and gives you the freedom to strip a couple off when they're not needed. Visitors restricting themselves to the summer season (or even May and Sept in the southern parts of the state) and staying out of the mountains will get by quite happily with normal clothing plus perhaps a fleece jacket, a waterproof and windproof coat, warm hat, gloves, and a strong and comfortable pair of shoes. If you are heading to the north, especially before the end of May or after the end of August, you should consider thermal underwear and an extra warm layer. Winter visitors to Southeast Alaska need take no extra precautions, but if you're visiting the Interior or Arctic, then serious winter gear is prescribed including down jackets, insulating pants, and good, warm footwear. The most suitable gear is widely available in Alaska, so bring the warmest stuff you've got, and buy once you arrive. Special considerations for campers are discussed on p.55. Don't bother bringing anything particularly formal. Only in the very fanciest of Alaska's restaurants would a jacket and tie seem appropriate, and even there you'll manage without.
Besides clothing, you'll want to bring a camera and binoculars, and rather more mundanely, bug spray; the mosquito is referred to as the "Alaska State bird," and only a repellent with 100 percent DEET keeps them off.