Most people visit Alaska to experience wilderness, so it's ironic that so many spend their time in crowded ships, buses, trains, and airplanes, the antithesis of a wilderness experience. You do need technology to get to the wilderness of Alaska, but unless you at least partly let loose of that umbilical cord, you'll never really arrive at your destination.
Every town in Alaska is a threshold to the wild. There's always a way to go hiking, biking, or sea kayaking, or to get on the bank of a stream or the deck of a boat to hook into a furiously fighting wild salmon -- and end up in the evening back in a comfortable hotel room. Or take it a step further: Plan to go out overnight, perhaps with a friendly local guide at first, and then go out on your own. We've included lots of details on how to do this throughout the book. Scary? If it weren't a little scary, it would be Disneyland, and that it definitely is not. It's real, and that's why it's worth doing.
Keeping the Wilderness Clean
Human use shows up quickly in wild places. Even small signs can diminish the wilderness experience -- trampled vegetation or charred wood from a campfire -- and it's disgusting and disheartening to find toilet paper or human waste. The idea of Leave No Trace Camping, encouraged by Alaska's public land managers, is simple: Use the outdoors in such a way that no one would ever know you had been there. It's as important for rural highway driving and for dayhikes as for backpacking trips. The key is to plan ahead. For example, bring some kind of digging tool to bury feces, and sealable plastic bags with which you can pack out toilet paper and any other trash. To learn more, see the website of the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, www.int.org.
Backpacking -- Alaska's best country for trail hikes is in Chugach State Park near Anchorage, on Chena River State Recreation Area near Fairbanks, and in the Chugach National Forest on the Kenai Peninsula. For hiking beyond trails, go to Denali National Park or the Denali Highway, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, or the Dalton Highway. Alaska trail hikes require the same skills as backpacking anywhere else, plus preparation for cold and damp. Hiking beyond the trails is a glorious experience, but you need to know how to cross rivers and find your way -- it's best if you have some outdoor experience. Or go with a guide.
Biking -- Most every town in Alaska has a bike-rental agency. There are excellent bike routes all over the state and few restrictions on where you can ride. A bike is a great way into Denali National Park, Anchorage has an extensive network of paved trails and many mountain-biking routes, and guided biking is available in Haines and Skagway. A couple that built an excellent reputation and a large business for more than a decade offering bicycle tours on Alaska's long, rural highways now operates Alaskabike (tel. 907/245-2175; www.alaskabike.com), on its own from a home office. These are terrific vacations for avid cyclists. The 8-day tour over the spectacular Richardson Highway costs $2,995, inclusive. The schedule includes bike and kayak tours, too.
Bird-Watching -- In Alaska, birders can encounter birds in greater variety and greater numbers than they have seen before and add many new species to their life lists. For marine birding, consider Sitka, Seward (Kenai Fjords National Park), Unalaska, and the Pribilof Islands. Migratory bird festivals happen in May in Wrangell, Homer, and Cordova; Wrangell has the coastal marshes of the Stikine River Delta, Homer has handy sea bird colonies, and Cordova has the wetlands of the Copper River Delta, an accessible bird paradise of immense proportions. Alaska's two largest cities have parks dedicated to inland birding and other bird resources as well. For Arctic birding, Nome is probably the best choice, thanks to the existence of roads that allow self-guided exploration. The very best bird and wildlife destination in Alaska, and surely among the best in the world, is the Pribilof Islands. You can sign up directly with the island's own Aleut residents for a tour there.
Serious birders with money to spend can dedicate an Alaska trip to some of the world's best and most famous remote bird-watching sites (those with milder or budding interest might better choose a less ambitious destination first, or make bird-watching only a part of an Alaska vacation). Learn about trips in birding magazines. Bird Watcher's Digest (www.birdwatchersdigest.com) offers good, detailed advice on its website. Group trips are advertised in Birders' World (www.birdersworld.com) and Birding (www.americanbirding.org). Among the largest and most reputable operators coming to Alaska is Arizona-based High Lonesome BirdTours (tel. 443/838-6589; www.highlonesometours.com, firstname.lastname@example.org), priding itself on relaxed trips for small groups. All-inclusive tours visit Kenai, Denali, Nome, Gambell, Barrow, Unalaska/Dutch Harbor, Adak, and the Pribilof Islands. Texas-based Victor Emanuel Nature Tours (tel. 800/328-8368; www.ventbird.com) counts well-known authors among its leaders.
Canoeing -- Paddling a canoe on a remote Alaska lake or river is the best way to get into the wilderness without a backpack, a guide, or a great deal of expense. For beginners, it's easy to rent a canoe in Fairbanks for a day trip. If you're ready to go overnight, the choices of routes are extraordinary, including the rivers of the Interior, the bird-watching country of the Copper River Delta near Cordova, or the supreme lake canoe routes of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.
Car or RV Camping -- Campgrounds are almost everywhere in Alaska, many in extraordinarily beautiful natural places. Public campgrounds outnumber commercial ones. They're usually located where they are because there's something special about the place: a great view or beach, an exceptional fishing stream or trail head. Rarely will you find running water or flush toilets; most are seasonal, with hand pumps for water. (Alaska's public campgrounds fill up only in certain times and places, including weekend nights near Anchorage, fishing season on the Kenai River, and anytime in the summer at Denali National Park. Most other places, with little fear of finding a campground full, campers can be spontaneous, with flexibility other travelers can't share, able to stop when and where they like.
Even if you don't usually consider camping, think about renting a comfortable RV for a tour. One company offers these rentals as add-ons with cruise vacations, taking care of all the details for clients.
If you fly to Alaska, car camping can be a bit complicated. Carrying a camp stove on an airplane is forbidden unless there is no attached fuel canister. Renting sleeping bags and other equipment in Alaska may be cheaper than bringing your own with airline baggage fees, though there is no charge on Alaska Air for up to three bags traveling in state. Rental agencies are listed with large towns in this book. You can also use the mail, sending packages to yourself care of general delivery at any post office.
We've mentioned some great campgrounds throughout the book, but there are many more than there is space to cover. A free map that lists all the public campgrounds along Alaska's highways is available from the Alaska Public Lands Information Center in Anchorage. If you are planning to camp the whole way, get a copy of Traveler's Guide to Alaskan Camping, by Mike and Terri Church (Rolling Homes Press), which contains detailed reviews of virtually every public and commercial campground in the state.
Fishing -- Fishing in Alaska may spoil you for fishing anywhere else. The world's largest salmon and halibut were caught here in recent decades, and Pacific salmon are so plentiful that catching and processing them still provides one of the state's largest sources of employment. Fly-fishermen also come for thriving wild stocks of steelhead, cutthroat, and rainbow trout; Dolly Varden and Arctic char; and Arctic grayling.
There's no room here to tell you how to fish in Alaska -- the best way is to pick it up from other anglers, most conveniently by going with a guide on your first outing. If you can afford it, a day of guided fly-in fishing to a remote stream is the ultimate. You can also study with a book; several are available, the best of which focus on individual areas of the state or particular fishing techniques rather than trying to cover everything.
The best all-around source of information is the Alaska Department of Fish and Game Sport Fish Division (www.sf.adfg.state.ak.us). Browse the website for run timing information and hot spots updated weekly, to learn generally about fishing in Alaska, and to obtain particulars about where to wet a line in different parts of the state (click "Publications" and then the region you are visiting). You can even buy a fishing license online. If you lack Internet access, the agency also produces printed guides and fields questions from the public, and they record the weekly local updates on telephone hot lines. Contact the office nearest where you will fish.
If fishing is the primary goal of your trip, think about booking time at a fishing lodge. The remote rivers of the Bristol Bay region have Alaska's most prolific salmon fishing, and the only way out there is to take a floatplane to a remote site. I recommend booking through Sport Fishing Alaska. AskMatt Alaskan Adventures & Tours also specializes in booking trips to fishing lodges.
Flightseeing -- No one should come to Alaska without seeing the scenery at least once from a small plane. The most spectacular rides of all are the Mount McKinley flights from Talkeetna and the Glacier Bay National Park flights from Gustavus, Haines, or other surrounding communities. But just about anywhere you go is worth seeing from the air; only then can you grasp how huge and complex the land is and how little changed it is by mankind. Fixed-wing flights give you the most time aloft for your money, with seats starting at around $100 for a brief flight.
Rafting -- Letting an Alaskan river pull you through untouched wild country in a raft provides a unique perspective without the sweat and toil of backpacking. Alaska has many great rivers, virtually all undeveloped and, with few exceptions, never crowded. White-water guides operate on rivers all over the state, offering day trips in many towns. Outfitters also lead trips deep into Alaska, using the rivers to visit extraordinary places that can be reached no other way. Many companies offer floats.
Sea Kayaking -- Just about every coastal town -- from Kodiak east through Kachemak Bay, Prince William Sound, and the Southeast Panhandle -- has at least one kayak outfitter taking visitors on day trips or expeditions. It is your best chance to get close enough to really know the wilderness and see whales, sea otters, seabirds, and marine life in an intimate way.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.