The Alaska Grand Tour: How to Sample the State in Two Weeks
Author’s Note: This article “Alaska Grand Tour” is from my earlier field reporting. I update it from time to time to check the data. However, the insights in the article are perennial.
by Lee Foster
Although Alaska is an immense area of real estate, it is possible to see a fair sample of the state in two weeks. All you need to do is plan carefully and use optimum air, sea, and land transportation. Because of the weather, most visitors come to Alaska during the summer months from June through August for an Alaska Grand Tour.
Alaska is unlike other travel destinations where you can casually search for transportation, accommodations, and entertainment. The state is vast with long distances between destinations.Thus it can be difficult to be spontaneous. Indeed Alaska is still quite remote. There are few signs of human habitation for the most part. However, the grandeur of pristine Alaska has no competition.
Prudent Alaska travel requires that you have confirmed lodging and transportation before your trip. During the tourist season, there just aren’t any extra rooms or tour bus seats for the drop-in visitor. Moreover, there are hundreds of miles of spruce forests between outposts of civilization.
Main Players in Alaska Grand Tour Travel
True, you can make all the arrangements yourself, traveling independently. Nevertheless the great spaces and limited accommodations have made Alaska best as a travel-agent-and-tour-operator-cruise pattern of travel. The cruise industry is a major player. Viking, Crystal Cruises, Silversea, Seabourn, Celebrity, Holland America, and Princess Cruises are among the more prominent.
To make a grand tour of Alaska in two weeks, consider flying to Anchorage to see this arctic metropolis. Then train north to Denali National Park and Preserve. Spend a day or two there viewing the wildlife from the National Park Service buses.
Following this, you can train or bus north to Fairbanks to see the Aleyeska Pipeline, the Alaska Museum of the North, Chena Hot Springs, and the Fairbanks Ice Museum.
Then jet south to Juneau, the state capital. Take a cruise ship south to Vancouver. Along the way visit Glacier Bay National Park and Sitka, the original Russian settlement. The itinerary could also be reversed. Cruises often start in Vancouver or in Seattle, with the cruise portion first, then the land experience.
Here is each stop in more detail.
Anchorage as Start of Alaska Grand Tour
Anchorage is the gateway to the main body of Alaska for most people on an Alaska Grand Tour. In Aleut, the word Alaska simply means “the great land.”
About half of the state’s total population lives in Anchorage. As you fly in, you’ll see the city framed by mountains. Anchorage sits on a plain a few feet above the ocean, perilously vulnerable to a tsunami. When you taxi down the runway, purple fireweed is the visually dominant wildflower, especially in late summer. Incidentally the forget-me-not is the state flower.
On your first night in Anchorage, you will notice the long summer daylight. At 11 p.m. the twilight persists. The flip side of summer light is winter darkness. During that season many Alaskans seek a winter home “outside,” meaning in the lower 48 states or Hawaii. Short rest-and-recuperation flights south, especially to the Aloha state, recharge the inner solar energy of those citizens who can afford to be mobile in winter.
Anchorage citizens love the summer light. The long days act as an antidote to seven months of winter and darkness. Local residents take much pride in their lawns. There is even a Lawn of the Year contest. Hanging baskets of flowers adorn almost every house. Greenhouses are also popular. These hothouses give ornamental flowers and vegetables an early start in spring and prolonged growth in autumn.
Summer Light in Anchorage
Ironically, the hours of summer light are so long that the total light falling on plants approximates that found in Illinois or other breadbasket states. However, all the growth must occur in a four-month period from June through September.
The city of Anchorage is spread out, 1,955 square miles. A visitor is advised so take a city tour to orient yourself. These tours are offered from all the hotels. The Hotel Captain Cook and Anchorage Hilton are among the main downtown lodgings.
At Resolution Park, you’ll find a statue to Captain James Cook. In 1778 Cook sailed his ships into the inlet near Anchorage that now bears his name. The British explorer was searching for a Northwest Passage trade route.
Anchorage originated as a camp and transport site in 1914 for the developing Alaska Railroad, located at the edge of the Cook Inlet.
Within the city you’ll see salmon spawning in streams. Several kinds of salmon can be found entering Alaska streams. The fish return for their final and fatal mission to reproduce in the same waters where they were born. The main species is the king or Chinook. Gourmets prize its red and oily meat. There are other kinds of salmon. The chum or dog salmon was the main food for sled dogs. Others include the fall chum, the silver or coho salmon, plus the pink or red salmon.
Earthquake Park in Anchorage
Earthquake Park commemorates the Good Friday quake of 1964. Outsiders in the lower 48 states may have forgotten this Alaska earthquake, but Anchorage citizens remember it well. The quake first measured 8.6 on the Richter scale. The reading was later revised upwards to 9.2. That was greater than the San Francisco quake of 1906. Moreover, the duration was also impressive. The earth heaved for a full five minutes.
Anchorage, at the epicenter, was left in shambles. In places the soil level dropped 10 feet. One hundred people lost their lives; 4,000 were left homeless. Anchorage’s older citizens divide all events into those before and those after the 1964 disaster.
Earthquake Park attempts to portray the force of the quake. However, vegetation soon covers the displaced ground. The layman finds it is difficult to fully appreciate the tremendous impact. Nevertheless, the view of the downtown skyline from the park is well worth the trip out.
Anchorage citizens are shaken each summer by a few minor quakes. Consequently they remain ever fearful of the next major one.
Besides earthquakes, what concerns the average Anchorage citizen? One thing: Is all the money from oil being used wisely? Another: Who finally owns and will own this state in the future?
For tourism information on the state, one good source is Travel Alaska at https://www.travelalaska.com/.
Denali National Park on an Alaska Grand Tour
Denali National Park was once called McKinley National Park. Alaskans decided to rename it after an Athabascan Indian word. Denali means “the high one” or “the mountain.” The park now bears that name. Technically, the peak itself retains the name Mt. McKinley, after the American president, William McKinley.
Mt. McKinley, at 20,320 feet, is the tallest mountain in North America. Because of its height and northerly position, the peak is constantly covered in snow. And due to perpetual cloud cover, its crown is visible only a third of the summer. Denali is a high point in an Alaska Grand Tour.
To reach Denali you leave Anchorage and spend most of a day on a train ride. The distance on a map looks short. However only after the long ride does the size of Alaska begin to sink in.
Alaska is larger than all of California, Oregon, and Washington combined. Alaskans like to joke that if the state were cut in two, Texas would still be only the third largest state. In 1959 Alaska became the 49th state. That acquisition added a full fifth of new land to the size of the first 48. And to this day roads penetrate only a small portion of this huge area.
Wildlife Viewing at Denali
At Denali, the mountain is only the second major attraction of the park. Viewing wildlife in a preserved natural environment is the special experience the park offers. On a typical Park Service wildlife bus tour, visitors will see the Big Four–grizzly bears, moose, Dall sheep, and caribou. And, if you are fortunate, you may also see wolves.
Cars can’t be used to explore most of the park. The Park Service controls all transportation. This includes shuttle buses and wildlife tour vehicles. Various operators conduct wildlife viewing tours. Search the Internet for suggestions.
The wildlife tours amount to six hours on a bus with a competent naturalist-driver, who interprets the park and assists in wildlife sighting. When wildlife is sighted, you usually view it from the bus. Or, if you will not disturb the wildlife, from near the bus. The tour includes a box lunch.
Roads are bumpy, so come prepared for a rigorous trip. Tours leave early in the morning and in mid-afternoon to catch the best viewing time. For every traveler, this tour is highly recommended.
Free shuttle buses make the same trip in and out of the park. Shuttle buses allow you to get off at designated points for a hike. However, the shuttles move quickly and don’t stop to view the animals or offer naturalist interpretation.
Distances in the Park
Distances in the park can seem boundless and there is only one road in and out. It takes four hours to go from the park entrance to the final stop, at Wonder Lake, deep in the park.
One of the special Park Service interpretive efforts is sled dog demonstrations, which takes place near the park entrance.
The geological story of Denali is a compelling part of your experience. Glacier-fed rivers pour forth and twist across sediment beds in a braided pattern through the valleys. In summer, the rivers turn gray because of the ground rock, called “rock flour,” crushed by the weight of the creeping glaciers.
Among the few lodgings at Denali, the rustic but comfortable McKinley Chalet Resort or Denali Princess Lodge are good choices.
For further information on Denali, see the Park Service website at https://www.nps.gov/dena/index.htm.
The human record in Alaska goes back some 30,000 years. It was first peopled by small groups of Athabascan Indians, Aleuts, and Eskimos. Their ancestors most likely followed the caribou herds across the Bering Sea, when it was frozen. Or they may have crossed from Russia in small boats.
Fairbanks is in the interior of Alaska, a landscape far more severe than the temperate coastal areas of Anchorage or Juneau-Skagway-Sitka.
At Fairbanks, where winters are cold and dark, temperatures commonly drop to Farenheit 45 below, without considering the wind chill factor. Such conditions can provoke introspective self-knowledge or cabin fever approaching madness, depending on your temperament. A sobering detail at the University of Alaska campus is that all the parking lot spaces have electric sockets where you plug in the heater cables on your engine to keep the motor from freezing up while you attend classes. The electrical cost to keep a car plugged in overnight, producing enough heat to save the engine, is high. In Fairbanks, you need to be tough to survive.
One consolation in winter is the passionate sport of dog mushing, the official state sport. Dog mushing becomes an international competition in February. Mushers come from across Alaska, Canada, and from the U.S. as well. The popularity of this sport is broad and the practical use of dogs in Alaska is considerable. If you forget to plug in your car or snowmobile during a Fairbanks cold spell, the engine will freeze up and be useless. Dogs don’t exhibit such behavior. Dogs, however, require about a salmon a day or the equivalent in commercial dog food to survive. The Musher’s Museum in Fairbanks celebrates the dog cult, which peaks in two grueling winter races, the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest.
Summer in Fairbanks During an Alaska Grand Tour
Summer in Fairbanks, when most visitors come, offers a more hospitable environment. It is light so long during the day that a famous midnight baseball game played on June 21 requires no electric lights. Parents allow their children to play outside long after the usual bedtime, well aware of the need for humans, as well as plants, to absorb as much sunlight as possible in the luxurious but brief summer sun time.
Fairbanks considers itself the Golden Heart of Alaska because of the substantial gold discoveries here, in the middle of the state, in September 1900. Typically for Alaska, Fairbanks has been a boom and bust town. The booms occurred when gold was discovered in 1900, when attention focused on Alaska as a defense post in World War II, and when pipeline employees were cashing their $30/hour paychecks during the building of the 800-mile oil pipeline 1973-1977.
Orient yourself by stopping in at the downtown Log Cabin Information Center. Next to the log cabin you’ll find a swiveling signpost marker indicating the distances to various places in the U.S. and around the globe. At Pioneer Park, also next to the log house, you can see a bronze statue of the early pioneers, plus markers with the names of the early families. Fairbanks is as far north as most Alaska travelers go, except for those dedicated few who take charter flights beyond the Arctic Circle.
Cheena River Walk
A downtown walk can take you from the Visitor Center to the Cheena River bank. There you’ll see remnants of homes from the era when trader E. T. Barnette, gold discoverer Felix Pedro, and legal arranger Judge James J. Wickersham founded the town. Wickersham asked Barnette to name the town, when the post office was established, after Wickersham’s friend, Senator Charles Fairbanks from Indiana.
Alaska Museum in Fairbanks
Away from downtown, be sure to see the Alaska Museum at the University of Alaska. The museum divides the state into sections, each represented by the genius of its lifestyle or crafts. A huge Kodiak brown bear greets you in the foyer. One of the unusual exhibits is an ox-like animal that was attacked and killed by lions, then frozen in the tundra some 60,000 years ago, preserving its carcass as if in a supermarket freezer. Now the carcass is restored to its moment of death.
Be sure to see the defining symbol of modern life in Alaska, the 800-mile pipeline that brings oil from Prudoe Bay in the Arctic down to Valdez, the ice-free port east of Anchorage. Seeing the pipeline is a little like seeing grizzly bears or glacial ice up close. These are monumental Alaskan experiences. At one spot on the pipeline tour, you can stick your hand through a hole in the outer pipe, past the fiberglass insulation, to feel the 140 degree warmth of the interior pipe and flowing oil. The oil is kept warm because of the friction created by pumping it at high speed through the pipe.
To keep the permafrost from becoming damaged by the warmth, the pipe is elevated wherever permafrost occurs, which is along half of the total distance. The warmth of the oil is crucial for the oil to flow rather than congeal at times of extreme cold. Today the pipeline transmits about 600,000 barrels of oil a day, 365 days a year.
Riverboat Trip in Fairbanks
Another interesting experience available in Fairbanks acquaints you with both the Indians and the riverboat world of the Gold Rush traders, a kind of Mark Twain world of the north. The outing takes place on a sternwheeler named Discovery III. The tour is run by the Binkley family, which has been operating riverboats here since 1898. Only in recent decades have these trade and postal boats become tourism boats.
The trip takes you down the spring-fed Cheena River and up the glacial Tanana River. Rivers were the roads of commerce during the great gold rushes of Alaska. Near Fairbanks, the Cripple Creek strike was worth $100 million in gold, which would be the equivalent of $1 billion today.
You disembark at a simulated Athabascan Indian village, where you see how king and chum salmon were caught in fish wheels and dried or smoked. The salmon fed not only the Athabascans, but their sled dogs, on which they relied for winter transportation. You see how food was stored in high caches, which stood on poles out of the reach of bears. Several young Athabascan women give talks and demonstrations during the trip.
The hard life of the Athabascans becomes apparent as you visit the area. The lushness of summer growth is deceptive because it is so brief. Life was a continual struggle for the Athabascans, who spent almost all of their time searching for food. Moose, especially, was a great prize because it might yield 1,300 pounds of meat.
The Alaskaland Salmon Barbecue
In the evening in Fairbanks, be sure to enjoy Alaskaland’s outdoor salmon barbecue. Follow this with the Eskimo-Indian Olympics show, which exhibits feats of skill needed to survive in the wilds of Alaska. Of particular note is the degree of cooperation, rather than competition, needed in the society for well-being. The Palace Theater and Saloon Show presents a musical revue of Alaskan life from the Russian era to the recent oil-boom,
The Westmark is a dependable lodgings. For a classy restaurant, try the Bear ‘n Seal at the Westmark.
For Fairbanks information, see https://www.explorefairbanks.com/.
Juneau, Skagway, and Sitka
Juneau, Skagway, and Sitka are cities in the southeast panhandle of Alaska, a critical part of an Alaska Grand Tour. They differ sharply from the more northerly areas of the state. Precipitation here is high, comparable to Washington state, so the trees, such as Sitka spruce, grow to great heights and can be harvested for lumber or pulp.
The area is the most historic in Alaska. Sitka was the major Russian colony during the fur-gathering era. At Juneau, prospectors made major Alaska gold discoveries. From Skagway, some 20,000 hardy miners, plus many women and children, climbed over the Chilkoot Pass to the Yukon Gold Rush of 1898.
A special Marine Highway ferry system ties the region together, operating between Seattle and Skagway. Waterways, shoreline, and boating become defining aspects of life here. Southeast Alaska has 33,000 miles of coastline, fully 68 percent of the Alaska coast. One out of five people owns a boat. Air and sea transport offer the only access to the region.
Flight From Fairbanks
The flight to this area from Fairbanks on a clear day is one of the most spectacular views on the planet. As you leave Fairbanks, you see the spine of the Alaska Range of mountains and the vast stretches of uninhabited and rugged land between cities. The snowy peak of Mt. McKinley stands out majestically. And finally, as the flight progresses, you see sweeping aerial views of the glaciers of southeastern Alaska, including Glacier Bay National Park. From the air you get a clear sense of the glaciers as rivers of ice.
Joe Juneau’s Town as Part of Alaska Grand Tour
Juneau began when Joe Juneau and Richard Harris discovered gold there. It is said that Joe Juneau wept because he had made more money than he could ever spend in a lifetime. There were three major mines and a stamp mill. Juneau was selected as the state capital, historically, though it has been overshadowed by Anchorage as a developed area and a population base. There are about 300,000 Alaskans in metro Anchorage and only about 31,000 in Juneau, out of a total population in the state of only about 723,000. Most of the people in Juneau work for the state or federal government.
Once in Juneau, visit the Mendenhall Glacier, where you can touch and walk on glacial ice. Mendenhall is one of 16 glaciers in the 1,500 square miles of ice fields around Juneau. See also the Alaska State Museum, with its elaborate collection of artifacts. This museum and the museum in Fairbanks at the University are excellent introductions to the state.
Stop for a drink at the lively Red Dog Saloon, walk past the State Capital Building, and visit the historic Baranof Hotel.
From there, it is only a short walk to the Mount Roberts tram, which can take you to the top of the mountain for a spectacular view of the waterways, city, and other mountains.
Marine Ferry to Skagway
Leaving Juneau, a marine ferry can take you up the Lynn Canal to Skagway, a town that boomed when miners seeking passage to the Yukon needed a staging area. Looking at the map, it was determined that traversing the Chilkoot Pass and then taking rivers downstream was the best way. Canadian authorities required that miners assemble a year’s supply of provisions before proceeding.
Skagway’s main attraction is a walk around the historic area, with a stop at the Park Service headquarters for a brochure on the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park. At the headquarters you’ll see photos of canvas fold-up boats that hopeful miners used on the Yukon River to get their supplies downriver. The walls of the Park Service headquarters celebrate quotes from Robert Service’s poetry, with a constant theme: human perseverance in the face of crushing adversity.
Be sure to see the Skagway presentation of the Soapy Smith Show to get a sense of the Gold Rush of 1898 and this consummate local con man.
Sitka lies south of Juneau and is accessible only by cruise ship, ferry boat, or aircraft.
Sitka’s Tlingits and Russians
Sitka was populated by Tlingit Indians for thousands of years. Russia watched the area with interest after Vitus Bering sighted the Alaskan coast in 1741. In 1799, Russian Alexander Baranov began construction of fortifications at Sitka. Baranov intended to colonize Alaska for Russia and to develop the fur trade.
The local Tlingit natives resented Russian infringement, burning their fort and killing most of the people in 1802. Baranov returned in 1804 with the warship Neva and 1,000 men. He fought a decisive battle against 700 armed Tlingit, after which the Tlingit retreated and the Russians formally established their colony of New Archangel.
Be sure to see St. Michael’s Russian Orthodox cathedral and its historic icons, some from the 14th century. The cathedral was built between 1844 and 1848, burned in 1966, then was reconstructed as an exact replica.
Because of the declining fur supply, the Crimean War, and Russia’s inability to defend Alaska, Russia eventually decided to sell Sitka and all of Alaska to the U.S., in 1867, for $7,200,000, or about 2 cents per acre. The revived interest in the Russian heritage here includes the New Archangel Dancers, who entertain visitors with Russian folk dancing.
Sitka’s National Historic Park
A half-mile from St. Michael’s Cathedral is the National Historic Park, where you can see Tlingit Indians practice wood carving, sewing, and jewelry making. At the historic park you can walk along a path to the site where the great battle of 1804 pitted the Russians against the fortified Tlingits, who eventually met defeat because of Russian firepower.
Adjacent to the path you’ll see Tlingit and Haida totem poles. Today about a third of Sitka’s 9,000 people are Tlingit. Nearby, visit the Sheldon Jackson Museum, a missionary’s collection of artifacts gathered from the various native groups in Alaska. The museum is on a college campus of the same name, where 200 students attend. You’ll see salmon-skin garments and a host of other artifacts of the Indian culture, including the ceremonial eating bowls of the Tlingit.
Seeing Sitka via a cruise ship port stop is the main mode of access to the area.
For Juneau information, see the Juneau Convention and Visitors Bureau’s website at https://www.traveljuneau.com/.
Glacier Bay National Park on an Alaska Grand Tour
Glacier Bay National Park, west of Juneau, is the glacial prima donna among our national parks. Bluish rivers of ice slowly push their way to the water’s edge. As you watch, amidst the silence, massive chunks of ice fall and crash into the water, making a sudden thunderous boom. For these special sights, about 400,000 visitors each year come to Glacier Bay National Park. About 90 percent of these visitors see Glacier Bay from the comforts of a cruise ship.
Within the park you are likely to see eagles and bears along the water’s edge. Humpback whales, orcas or killer whales, minke whales, seals, and dolphins disport themselves in the chilly waters.
The major geological phenomenon of interest here is the rapid retreat of glaciers. Park Service maps record the advance or retreat of specific glaciers. Two hundred years ago the entire region showed glaciers. When Captain George Vancouver explored the area in 1794, his log book recorded that he met an impenetrable mass of glaciers covering Glacier Bay. He found the ice mass 4,000 feet thick, 20 miles wide, and 100 miles long. By 1879, observer John Muir found that the ice had retreated 48 miles up the bay.
Glaciers in Retreat
Glacier Bay is a premier example of retreating glaciers, as well as specialized forms of glaciers, including hanging glaciers (glaciers that hang on mountainsides) and tidewater glaciers (glaciers that come to the water’s edge). The area serves as a laboratory for the study of how plants successively colonize land newly opened up by retreating glaciers.
The study of retreating glaciers by modern scientists attempts to define their interaction with and effect upon the weather. The study is important because, around the world, glaciers and polar ice store more fresh water than all our lakes and rivers, groundwater, and the atmosphere combined. Glaciers form when snow fall exceeds snow melt.
Cruise ships or park service concession boats take you north along the Johns Hopkins Inlet and the Tarr Inlet to see the glaciers. Onboard Park Rangers present a running commentary on glacial realities.
Reid and Other Glaciers
Reid, a tidewater glacier, is the first major glacier that comes into view. There are 12 tidewater glaciers in the park. They are much rarer than land-bound glaciers. The intense blue of the glacier occurs because water crystals, formed under pressure, align to reflect blue light. As icebergs float away from the glacier after breaking off, they endanger navigation because their underwater size is uncertain. Rock and sediment in the ice may weigh down all but the tip of the iceberg.
Lampugh Glacier has a massive stream of melting glacial water pouring from its base.
At John Hopkins Glacier the cruise ships pause and drift. You can hear the roaring sound of ice crashing into water as the glacier slowly breaks apart. Tlingit Indians called this sound “white thunder.” In the John Hopkins area, substantial flows of glacial ice pass the boat. The major phenomenon of retreating glaciers becomes evident at John Hopkins when you look at Park Service maps. The known forward face of the John Hopkins Glacier in 1907 was about 15 miles further into the sea than its present position.
Moving up the Tarr Inlet, you see retreating Margerie Glacier.
For information on Glacier Bay National Park, see the Park Service website at https://www.nps.gov/glba/index.htm.
If you make an Alaska Grand Tour, as suggested here, you will sample a satisfying selection of the largest U.S. state.
Alaska Grand Tour: If You Go
For overall tourism information on Alaska, contact the Travel Alaska at https://www.travelalaska.com/.
Other helpful websites appear throughout this article as the subject unfolds.
Many aspects of this article are also individual articles about Alaska on my website, offering more depth. See www.fostertravel.com and use the Search hourglass upper right to Search for subjects, such as Denali.