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3 ways to explore amazing Alaska

Whether you travel by car, rail, or ship, the 49th state's beauty and adventure will captivate you

I didn’t travel to Alaska to lick a slug. I licked a slug because I traveled to Alaska. It’s just one of many exotic adventures to be had in the Great Land.

Whether you hit the road, ride the rails, or sail the waters, the state will captivate you with its mountains, glaciers, waters, forests, bears, whales, moose, salmon, blueberries, sourdough, and rich culture. As a journalist and author of the Michelin MustSees Alaska guide, I’ve traveled here more than 40 times since my first odyssey up the Alaska Highway 25 years ago. I still revel in the 49th state’s landscape, people, wildlife, and history. Here’s why you need to visit Alaska now.

1. By car

Trans Alaska Pipeline

The Trans Alaska Pipeline. | Photo by Eric Lucas

At 570,641 square miles, Alaska is by far the largest state, but it has only 4,857 miles of paved road. (By comparison, Texas, with 261,914 square miles, has about 80,000 miles of highway.) I’ve traveled all but a few hundred miles of Alaska’s paved or gravel roads, and I can testify that though they don’t cover a lot of ground, they are dense in interest-per-mile, and you’ll have one-of-a-kind experiences.

For example, on a road trip, I was driving from Anchorage on the Seward Highway and spied something in the surging tides of Turnagain Arm. I pulled over to a roadside viewpoint. There in the water were the ghostly ivory forms of belugas, breasting the current to find migrating salmon. This inlet is the only place in the U.S. you can drive to see these amazing creatures.

On another drive along the Richardson Highway—a 368-mile route from Fairbanks to Valdez—I marveled at the snowcapped mountains, brawling rivers, and azure lakes, and then I pulled off the road about 30 miles south of Glenallen. I stood beneath an overhead stretch of the Trans Alaska Pipeline and heard the oil 8 feet above me, sluicing its way southward. There are several dozen points at which you can get close to the famous line—and that can be accomplished only by car.

Alaska travel tip: You'll see plenty along the main roads between Seward and Fairbanks, but take as many side roads as you can find time for, because there you'll find many of the state’s most interesting attractions. For example, the towns of Valdez, Kennecott, Homer, and Delta Junction (home of the yak burger) are worth a stop. You don’t need an SUV (except in winter), but monitor the gas gauge when heading far from a town. Gas stations can be more than 50 miles apart.

2. By train

The gorgeous Alaskan wilderness as seen from the last car of this train, on the way to Denali National Park.

On the way to Denali National Park. | Photo by Sherry Epley / Alamy Stock Photo

Alaska Railroad’s 356-mile route between Fairbanks and Anchorage is one of the world’s great rail journeys, a scenic and cultural adventure with facets available nowhere else in North America. Because the railroad predates most of Alaska’s highways and traverses many miles of wilderness, the train is a great wildlife-viewing platform, and you might spot eagles, wolves, caribou, bears, and moose, as well as jaw-dropping scenery.

Once, while I was aboard a train steaming along a ridge beside the Chulitna River Valley, it creaked to a halt on a trestle crossing a deep gully. “Well, folks, I don’t know why we’ve stopped here,” the conductor announced over the PA, feigning concern. “Hope there’s nothing wrong—it’s a long way down!” A few passengers tittered nervously. “Should I explain why this is called Hurricane Gulch?” the conductor continued. The Hurricane Gulch trestle is 918 feet long and rises 296 feet above the gulch floor. The train stops here to allow passengers the chance to peer into the depths—and provide the conductor-narrator the chance for a few jests. 

The route’s most famous spot is mile 224, where three major rivers meet and the resulting broad plain provides an unencumbered view, if weather permits, of 20,310-foot Denali, the tallest mountain in North America. The train slows around the curve here, as passengers crowd the windows and doors for snapshots.

Comfortable excursion cars with broad windows (and some dome cars) afford expansive views of the landscape. Though the railway has no sleeping facilities, its dining rooms offer excellent Alaskan cuisine ranging from fresh sockeye salmon to reindeer sausage.

Alaska travel tip: Late winter is the best time to ride the train in Alaska. The snow-covered landscape is breathtaking, the passengers often include residents happy to discuss their homeland, and March typically offers good chances to see Denali. Trains operate twice a week between Anchorage and Fairbanks. alaskarailroad.com.

3. By ship

A ship in front of the Hubbard Glacier

A ship anchors in front of the Hubbard Glacier. | Photo by Eric Lucas

With more than 6,640 miles of coastline (almost 34,000 miles when you count all the islands) and numerous cities and towns reached by no road—including the capital, Juneau—Alaska is one of the most popular cruise destinations in the world. More than 1 million visitors reach Alaska by sea. Hundreds of ships—large ones carrying 4,000 passengers and small ones holding a dozen to 140 people—sail these waters each summer, with Seattle, Vancouver, Juneau, and Seward serving as the major ports. The vessels travel remote waters, pass towering peaks, and provide unparalleled wildlife viewing in places that can be reached no other way.

Ships on southeastern Alaska waters offer passengers the chance to see whales (humpbacks, grays, orcas, and others) and glaciers (such as the Margerie and Johns Hopkins in Glacier Bay, the two Sawyer Glaciers in Tracy Arm, and the massive Hubbard Glacier near Yakutat). At 6 miles wide and 400 feet high, the Hubbard can make a 12-deck, 1,000-foot-long cruise ship seem insignificant.

Smaller vessels offer more intimate experiences because they can sail into inlets and other waterways that big ships can’t navigate and can stop at less-visited ports that offer a glimpse of Alaska Native culture. 

For example, our 50-passenger vessel pulled into Thorne Bay and stopped in Kasaan, a village on Prince of Wales Island northwest of Ketchikan, where we learned about the revival of Haida culture. With pride, village carvers showed us their newly restored 1880 longhouse and the carving shed where a new totem was under way.

“Ah, I can see you want to try your hand at it,” carver Harley Bell-Holter observed, handing me a small adze. Like so many artisan endeavors, the task was far more difficult than it looked. I made a jagged gash. “Let me try sanding,” I suggested. He grinned and handed me a small block wrapped with garnet-colored paper.

A banana slug. | Photo by Eric Lucas

A banana slug. | Photo by Eric Lucas

On another small-ship voyage, I learned that slug-licking is a wacky, kid-friendly introduction to the banana slug, whose slime has a mild numbing effect and was used by the indigenous Tlingit when they had toothaches. All four children on our nature walk through maritime rainforest on a wilderness island tried this, but only one adult. Yes, me.

Alaska travel tip: Virtually all Alaska ports of call are small cities with eminently walkable centers, and you can easily discover lots to see and do. 

Eric Lucas has written for AAA's Westways magazine and Alaska Airlines’ Alaska Beyond magazine. 

AAA Travel Alert: Many travel destinations have implemented COVID-19–related restrictions. Before making travel plans, check to see if hotels, attractions, cruise lines, tour operators, restaurants, and local authorities have issued health and safety-related restrictions or entry requirements. The local tourism board is a good resource for updated information.

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