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Alaska by Boat, Plane and Train

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Mendenhall Glacier, Juneau
Mendenhall Glacier is one of the top attractions in Juneau. Courtesy Travel Alaska

I had just put my head down on the pillow. The day had been a fun – but it was also long and taxing, and a good night’s sleep was in order. Suddenly, the blaring sound of a bulldozer burst into the room. I bolted out of bed.  I looked at my watch – it was 1 a.m. I charged over to the hotel window and pulled open the curtain. Across a small creek, there was a man outside who really was operating a bulldozer. His family must love this, I thought. Upon closer inspection, I could see he was surrounded by his wife and young children. They almost looked as if they were going to a picnic later after the chore. I forgot to mention that the time and place was the month of June in Fairbanks, Alaska. The midnight sun was so blinding that I had to squint my eyes to see. I began to understand the real meaning of insomnia, and was ready to experience more of Alaska’s unique surprises.

Denali (Mt. McKinley)
At 20,320 feet, Denali (Mt. McKinley) is the highest mountain in North America. Courtesy Chris Arend. Photography/Denali Park Resorts

Alyeska – The Great Land

A colleague in the cruise industry once said to me, ‘First you do all the other cruises, and then you do an Alaska Inside Passage cruise.’ She was right. With its pristine fjords, sweeping glaciers and endless snowcapped mountains, the Inside Passage is a tough act to follow.

So what to do after having done that cruise – particularly when the cruise experience only wets your appetite for more Alaskan wonders? Well, an exploration of the state’s interior is the next logical step. With over 3,000 rivers and more than 5,000 glaciers, the state is one-fifth the size of the continental United States and two-and-one-half times the size of Texas. Vast expanses of wilderness encompass Alaska, with millions of acres of national parkland and wildlife refuges, much of which are accessible only by boat, train or plane.

the spire of St. Michael's Cathedral with Sitka Sound in the background
St. Michael’s Cathedral, the earliest Orthodox cathedral in the New World, has long been the iconic symbol of Sitka. Courtesy Sitka Tourism

Fortunately, many cruise companies now offer extended land packages that are fully escorted, offering a comprehensive overview of many of Alaska’s amazing sights. I opted for Royal Caribbean International‘s four-day land package from Fairbanks to Anchorage. Covering over 400 miles through stunning mountains and untouched wilderness — this would prove to be the ideal way to explore more of what the Aleut Tribal Nation call ALYESKA – THE GREAT LAND.

Alaska Native Heritage Center
The Alaska Native Heritage Center, a renowned cultural center and museum in Anchorage, is an exciting place where all people can come to expand their understanding of Alaska’s Indigenous people. Courtesy: Anchorage Alaska Native Heritage Center.

Anchorage is Alaska’s largest city and the state’s main transportation hub. In a sense all roads lead or end in Anchorage. The city boasts all the urban pleasures of fine dining, shopping, nightlife, world-class museums along with an endless array of tours and sports packages. My pick: The twenty-six acre Alaska Native Heritage Center, which provides a fascinating insight into the arts, customs and lifestyles of the indigenous peoples of Alaska, which include Iñupiat, Yupik, Aleut, Eyak, Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, and a number of Northern Athabaskan cultures.

two views of Denali National Park
LEFT: Denali from the sky. Courtesy Deb Roskamp; RIGHT: A seven-hour coach tour of the six million acre Denali National Park. Courtesy Chris Arend Photography/Denali Park Resort

Denali National Park is spread out over six million acres in size. Larger than the state of Massachusetts, it is one of the world’s last great frontiers for wilderness adventure. Established as a national park in 1917, it remains largely wild and unspoiled, just as the native people knew it. At 20,320 feet, Mount McKinley is the highest mountain in North America and the centerpiece of the park. Named for President William McKinley, it is still called Denali by the Athabasca Tribal Nation. My pick: A seven-hour bus ride on the Tundra Wilderness Tour for undisturbed wildlife viewings.

Trans Alaska Pipeline and Riverboat Discovery Sternwheeler on Tanana River
LEFT: The mammoth Trans-Alaska Pipeline, just outside of Fairbanks, is a true marvel of ingenuity. Courtesy Fairbanks CVB. RIGHT: Riverboat Discovery Sternwheeler on Tanana River, the largest glacier-fed river in the world. Courtesy Deb Roskamp.

Located 120 miles south of the Arctic Circle, Fairbanks was established in 1902 as a gold rush town. Today it is the bustling capital of the north and has the distinction of having the widest temperature swings in the U.S. Temperatures may fall to 65 degrees below zero in winter, and regularly hit 80 degrees above in summer. My pick: An excursion on the Riverboat Discovery Sternwheeler, with a stop at an Athabasca village where you’ll see traditional fishing, hide tanning, dog sledding demonstrations, and how the canine is trained to become a human’s best friend in the stark winter months.

downtown Juneau and a view of the Gastineau Channel from Mount Roberts
LEFT: As the state capitol, downtown Juneau offers endless urban pleasures. Courtesy Deb Roskamp; RIGHT: View of Juneau’s Gastineau Channel from Mount Roberts. Courtesy Deb Roskamp

Juneau: Nestled along the glistening Gastineau Channel, Juneau is the only U.S. capitol city inaccessible by road. It’s a pulsating city, buzzing with government workers on its streets. A trip to Mendenhall Glacier is the most popular excursion, but my pick is the 1800 foot tramway ride to the top of Mount Roberts for wildlife viewing platforms, the Juneau Raptor Center and breathtaking views of the channel.

Ketchikan’s historic Front Street and the the Totem Heritage Center
TOP: Ketchikan’s historic Front Street. Courtesy Deb Roskamp; BOTTOM: Totem Heritage Center was established in 1976 to preserve endangered 19th century totem poles retrieved from uninhabited Tlingit and Haida village sites near Ketchikan. Courtesy The Totem Heritage Center

Ketchikan is billed as the Salmon Capital of the World. If it’s a fishing excursion that you want, this is the place for it. My own pick, though, is a tour of the Totem Heritage Center, which features a collection of carved totem poles and carving demonstrations.

Kodiak Bears
The Kodiak Bear, also known as the Kodiak Brown Bear, live exclusively on the islands in the Kodiak Archipelago and have been isolated from other bears for about 12,000 years.. They are the largest recognized subspecies of Brown Bear, and one of the two largest bears alive today, the other being the Polar Bear. Courtesy Kodiak CVB

Kodiak is one of seven communities and the main city on Kodiak Island. All transportation between the entire island and the outside world goes through this city either via ferryboat or airline. Kodiak is known for its own species of Brown Bear – the Kodiak Bear.  CVB pick: A flight-seeing tour to see Kodiak Bears at the Wildlife Refuge.  Alaska Fish and Game built a fish ladder where you’ll witness sows (momma bears) teaching their cubs how to fish.  There are no fences or no viewing platforms protected by glass.  You literally walk to the side of a river and watch bears fish in the wild.

welcome sign to the historical buildings in Nome
A self-guided tour of the historical buildings in Nome that survived the numerous fires & floods is laid out in the “Historical Walking Tour.” Courtesy Nome CVB

Nome:  The city of Nome is located on the south coast of the Seward Peninsula facing Norton Sound, part of the Bering Sea. The city is the site for the finish of the 1049-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race from Anchorage, the longest sled dog race in the world. Summer temperatures combined with the non-stop midnight sun warms the Bering Sea to a tropical 40° to 50°F. Some Nome youngsters consider this warm enough for swimming and on rare occasions, adults can be seen kayaking and windsurfing. For those visitors who like a challenge, an invigorating swim in the Bering Sea might be something to write home about. My pick: Exploring the City of Nome’s 100 years of Gold Rush history.

a glacier at the Kenai Fjords National Park
Getting up close with glaciers is among the many highlights of a Kenai Fjords Tours Cruise. Courtesy The Travel Times

Seward: Sandwiched between the Kenai mountains and the waters of Kenai Fjords National Park, Seward is one of Alaska’s oldest and most scenic communities with Mt. Marathon rising steeply behind the town. A spectacular 2.5 hour drive south from Anchorage brings you to this seaside village, which offers a bustling harbor, quaint shops and galleries, and many different ways to tour Kenai Fjords National Park. CVB pick: The six hour National Park Tour is a must see for visitors.  Seeing the glaciers and diverse marine life, particularly the humpback whales and orcas, is an experience of a lifetime.

the Sitka Sound and Sitka National Historical Park
LEFT: The Sitka Sound in all its glory. Despite its relative isolation, Sitka is one of the most culturally advanced places I have ever visited. Courtesy Sandy Lorrigan. RIGHT: Sitka Spruce and Western Hemlock forests in tthe 113-acre coastal Sitka National Historical Park, Alaska’s oldest federally designated park. Courtesy Ringo Boitano

Sitka is nestled on Baranof Island and offers an amazing mix of Tlingit, Russian and U.S. history and culture.  The attractions are endless. My pick: The Sitka National Historical Park. The 113-acre coastal park features the Southeast Alaska Indian Cultural Center, plus beaches, hiking trails and scores of totem poles.

the White Pass & Yukon Route railway and trekkers on the Dead Horse Trail
LEFT: As a heritage railway, tourists can now go back in time and experience the Klondike Gold Rush aboard the White Pass & Yukon Route railway. Sadly, it was finally completed after the gold rush ended, but tourism has kept it alive. Today it is Alaska’s most popular shore excursion, and an International Historic Civil Engineering Landmark, a designation shared with the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty and Panama Canal. Courtesy Deb Roskamp; RIGHT: Visitors experience Dead Horse Trail, a treacherous overland trek to the Klondike gold fields. Only 30,000 completed the trip; 4,000 or so found gold, and only a few hundred struck it rich. Over 3,000 horses died along the way. Courtesy Skagway CVB.

Skagway: Located on the northern tip of the Lynn Canal, Skagway was born as the land entryway for thousands of gold-crazed miners to the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898. The town is well-preserved and rich in gold rush history. My pick: A trip aboard the vintage White Pass & Yukon Route railway for a train journey back into the days of the Klondike Gold Rush.

For further information, contact Travel Alaska

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