What is it like to visit Alaska?

Someone asked: What is it like to visit Alaska? The short answer: Its mindblowing! While in The USA, Alaska is where one gets to cross the Arctic circle. Extreme has a new definition in this frigid polar zone. Read on for the long one by Abhijeet Deshpande. Find out the what, why, and how of an inland Alaska tour.

Alaska, Arctic

What is it Like to Visit Alaska?

Sunny Summer Nights

When we landed in Fairbanks (Interior Alaska) at 10:00 PM, it wasn’t difficult to realize why this northwestern frontier state is often called the Land of the Midnight Sun. The night was sunny, like a tropical afternoon, but cold, very cold, very very cold. Below freezing. Cars cruised along without glaring beams. The only thing that kind of gave away the late evening hour was my wrist watch. It was a typical Alaskan summer, a typical polar day – a natural phenomenon in a handful of places around the world.

Denali, The Tall One

The double-decker train from Fairbanks to Denali National Park is a ride to remember. The slow-moving glass-topped locomotive, with a well stocked onboard restaurant, gently cuts through a dense forest and turns the journey into a safari, offering glimpses of flora and fauna even before you reach the park station. The forest is home to large mammals such as caribou, dall sheep, grizzly bears, moose, and wolves. In addition to Denali’s big-five, as these are called, expect a few late night visitors to your guest house – furry foxes, looking for food in trash cans. Besides, you might spot smaller creatures like arctic squirrels and rabits.

Denali is like a page straight out of geography books. Taiga, Boreal and Tundra – remember these words? The relatively untouched terrain, home to North America’s tallest peak (Mt. Denali), transforms as you go deeper inside. Taiga or Boreal, sometimes referred to as the snow forest and characterized by coniferous leaves, is the northernmost region on our planet to support tree life. Tundra, stretching further north, is treeless but a colorful landscape. Brown, green, purple, red, or yellow, make it one of the most visually stunning biomes. Tundra owes its rich colors to dwarf shrubs, grass, and moss growth on a permanently frozen soil or permafrost. Beyond tundra, it is all white – the polar ice cap. After a few days in Interior Alaska, that is where we headed. Barrow beckoned.

Barrow, Arctic Alaska

Welcome to the Eskimo town! Eskimo? First things first. While in arctic regions of Canada or Greenland it may be a faux-pas to use the term ‘Eskimo’, in the US it is still in use (along with terms such as Alaskan Natives) to refer to local Iñupiat people. And no, Eskimos do not live in igloos; they have normal houses. Likewise, you can not flag down a dog sled taxi! If you are lucky, you might come across some adorable pet huskies.

Travelers arriving in Barrow receive a “Member of the Arctic Club” certificate – a no-benefit, bragging-rights souvenir, that did make us feel special on the day. The northern most town of USA, covered in snow and slush, and topped by a sky about to crumble on its own weight, Barrow had us dazed and confused. Luckily, there were few direction markers to put things in perspective, there were the proud indigenous people who showcased their talents and arts to warmly welcome travelers at the popular Iñupiat Heritage Center, and there was free coffee!

Barrow’s peculiarities stood out. It sported an arctic post-office without a postman (you need to pick up your mail), an arctic satellite station buried in heaps of snow, a frozen arctic ocean with its icy beaches, or even an arctic cemetery. Because of the permafrost soil, the buried dead do not decompose and, sometimes bodies are dug out for research. Most of the supplies here are flown in or, less often, brought in via shipping routes when the sea melts (for limited durations in the summer) and allows navigation.

Iñupiat, A Culture of Whaling

In Iñupiat (Eskimo) language, Barrow is referred to as Ukpiagvik – a place where they hunt white owls! Speaking of hunting, Barrow is one of the few places in the world where whaling is legally practiced – with a government-set quota. Traditionally, the weapon used for whaling was a sharp wooden harpoon. Nowadays though, they use spears tipped with nitrate bombs. In the absence of vegetation, cutting up a whale is termed ‘harvesting’. Whale meat gets stored in the permafrost soil underneath houses raised on stilts. Monuments made of whale remains were popular landmarks along the frozen Arctic shoreline; such as this whale arch or the Bowhead Whale skull.

Do people hunt polar bears, you ask? No. However, in winters when the distinction between a frozen arctic ocean and land vanishes (with snow everywhere) and bears sometimes stray inside the town looking for food, people have been forced to – ‘put them down’. Such confrontation is rare.

Point Barrow, Gateway to North Pole

Point Barrow, a point where land tapers to an end, is sandwiched between Beaufort sea (Canadian side) and Chukchi sea (connecting Russia). A vast expanse of white frozen ocean merged into the vast expanse of dull gray sky above. Unless you are drawn by sled dogs, a refurbished military-grade Hummer truck (with auto-deflate / inflate tires) is perhaps the best vehicle to cruise through all that snow and slush. Ours came with a Czechoslovakian driver cum guide.

Point Barrow is where you go for potential polar bears sightings. But, when we did, they remained still and very well camouflaged. In other words – we did not get to see any. From this point, you need a solid heart and a gun (to ward off bear attacks) to walk 900 miles on the frozen arctic ocean to the north pole.

Yield to Aircrafts, This is Anchorage

On our way out, the airline company gifted us a bonus destination. Thanks to a delayed flight, we stayed for 24 hours in Anchorage – Alaska’s largest and insanely beautiful city, often mistaken for its capital (Juneau is the state capital). Anchorage offered a few peculiar sights of its own – be it building architecture or transport options. Though it is the southern most city of Alaska, it still gets cold. Very cold. One house was constructed underground to keep its inmates warm. Air planes (amphibious or otherwise) remain a popular mode of transport – it is common to see a traffic sign “Yield to Aircrafts”! A hangar is akin to a multi-level car park elsewhere. And then this horse carriage!

Why You Should Visit Alaska, The Wonderland?

Alaska’s sheer beauty, extreme weather, and the courage of her people to sustain in such harsh conditions had left us spellbound. There is something about remoteness and people’s warmth – the more isolated a place, the friendlier its people are; Iñupiats or Eskimos are a fine example of this. We would continue to look for opportunities to experience the Arctic polar night in the winters to witness its majestic Aurora Borealis or the Northern Lights.

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Hot Tips for A Cold Polar: How to Plan an Inland Alaska Tour?

  • Weather: Most people prefer to visit between May and September, that is, during the polar days of summer. Between October to April, it is colder than cold and tourism activities are limited. However, a polar night is the only time to witness Aurora Borealis
  • Budgets: Alaska is not the cheapest destination to travel. However with proper planning, deal-hunting, and advance bookings, you could optimize costs. The things to do vary from Mt. Denali, fjords, glaciers, whale-watching, salmon fishing, panning for gold, polar bears sightings, to northern lights, and the list goes on. Research your options
  • Cruise Tours vs. Flights and Land Travel: This can be a tough choice to make. About 400,000 people visit Alaska each year. So you would have as many stories and opinions. We used flights and traveled on land to experience Arctic Alaska (Barrow), Interior Alaska (Denali), and Southcentral Alaska (Anchorage). Many prefer a cruise showcasing stunning locations in Southeastern Alaska (Glaciar Bay National Park, Juneau, Sitka, Ketchikan), Southcentral Alaska (Kenai Fjords National Park, Anchorage), and Southwestern Alaska (Kodiak island, Katmai National Park), with a few cruise-tours also offering stays in interior Alaska (Denali). Research your options
  • Clothing for Arctic: It is never enough to emphasize layers – an innermost layer (thermal for people sensitive to cold), a lightweight middle layer to trap body heat, and an outer waterproof and windproof jacket (or down-filled parkas) and pants. Pack fleece caps, gloves, scarves, and sturdy boots (to walk on snow) too. Also consider throwing in a few hot-patches to insert inside socks or gloves to keep the body warm. You may buy clothing from a numerous sources on the web. Research your options
  • Foodventure: While smoked salmon, cod, king crabs and desserts topped with fresh colorful berries remain popular, the adventurous might fancy trying wild meat delicacies such as Reindeer Dog (with reindeer sausages), moose meat, Agutuk (Eskimo ice cream made from animal fat, seal oil, and berries). Oh, we even found an Indian food shack on the arctic beach!
  • Pick up American English: As an Indian, the American English and way of speaking brought some newness – especially the numbers. If you are anything like me, it’d help to get the essentials right. Learn how to speak American.

Have you been to Alaska? How was your experience? We would love to hear from you (please scroll below to leave a comment).

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Credits: This piece is edited from its original version, written in response to a question, on Quora.

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60 thoughts on “What is it like to visit Alaska?

  1. Hi, I am planning to visit Alaska in June. Can you please share your contact details so that I can take some tips and advice.

    1. Hi Mudit! Thanks for your comment! Perhaps we could inbox on Facebook at www.facebook.com/backpackingseries
      Cheers

  2. I loved the aerial view of the Denali Mountains, looks so stunning! Thanks for sharing such beautiful locations from the Arctic, they are magical place to visit.

  3. That is awesome!!! I want to go to Alaska for such a long time. But always anything else came between me and this journey. I will go there, for sure, hopefully soon. Your post just proofs me right to hold on to my plan visiting Alaska. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thank you Pia. Yes, we would second your thoughts to plan a trip to Alaska soon. Recommend the trip by land as we thoroughly enjoyed that.

  4. Wow what an informative and detailed post. Thank you for that! It’s very useful. Alaska is one of my biggest dreams, I can imagine that this is magic place to visit!

  5. beautiful pics and amazing post. ever since i watched “into the wild”, I always wanted to visit Alaska. Will definitely come to Alaska soon now. Thanks for sharing your beautiful experience.

    1. Yes, we have seen the movie to. And there is so much more to Alaska travels. We are glad you enjoyed reading our experiences.

  6. Alaska has always been in my bucket list and finally, we’re visiting next month. Your post just made me excited for the upcoming trip. Can’t wait to be there.

    1. WOW! We are happy you will be going to Alaska next month. Have an amazing trip and bring back lots of beautiful memories. Happy Travels Clarice.

    1. Yes, the train ride is really unique in Alaska. Moves very slow and you literally get 360 degree views. And if you are really lucky, spot some wildlife too. Thanks for stopping by.

  7. Wow I am soo jealous you were able to explore this amazing place! It seems so offroad and far away from modern society up there in the cold. I am sure it was quite an adventure.

    1. Thanks Zehra. It was exactly the way you described being in Point Barrow. We feel blessed too for having made that trip to Alaska. We were the youngest couple among everyone.

  8. As beautiful as Alaska looks, I’m not big on cold so I’m not sure it’s makes my bucket list of places to visit. Lots of history and beautiful land that’s for sure

    1. It was super cold yes but in Barrow even though summers were just starting. Fairbanks and Anchorage were pretty manageable. Denali National Park was also good as you are in a covered comfortable van.

  9. Ah! I have never ever been to Alaska. I would LOVE to visit and see the Northern Lights especially. AND backpacking would be so fun.

    1. Northern lights is on our list too Jennifer. For that we will have to go back Into the Arctic in winters.

    1. You are welcome. We are delighted you found it inspiring to visit Alaska after reading this post! Plan soon.

  10. 10pm and still sunny? Whoa! That would take a lot of adjustment for us who are from Asia. But it’s soooo nice! Hopefully, when the girls have become teens, we can visit. That way, they are already older and can pretty much take care of themselves for this difficult trip.

    1. It was quite an adjustment for us too. We still remember being up all night in Barrow because how could we sleep till its not dark. Haha. Actually the trip was not that difficult. Things are pretty organised there just in case you would like to plan sooner.

  11. My friend just got back from Alaska and she can’t stop talking about it, that makes me want to visit it so much 😉

  12. You are right. It seems very surreal to hear words like Taiga, Boreal and Tundra. Great that you actually got to visit them. The pictures are pure bliss!

  13. I’m glad to see Alaska can be done by land. One of the main reasons we haven’t done it (it’s our last state!) is because we don’t want to do a cruise. Looks like you had a wonderful trip. I would love to see the midnight sun!

    1. Yes Maggie and based on our experiences, we would certainly recommend that Alaska be visited by land. There is so much more that can be explored and we loved our explorations! Midnight sun was surreal and we loved it too!

  14. I visited Alaska some years ago and absolutely loved it. The beauty of nature there is just stunning and in a class of its own. I really enjoyed this post and would love to visit Denali National Park and venture up to Barrow – two places I didn’t visit last time. Summertime would definitely be the time to go for accessibility.

  15. Alaska is high on the bucket list and I would aboslutely love to go. Hilarious about Eskimo’s do not live in igloos and you can’t hail a dog sled taxi…. Its like people think kangaroos jump out outside my house in Australia!

    And yes have heard that its expensive. In fact I think the 2nd or 3rd most expensive state in the US? but I’ll have to do it someday. Maybe a cruise?

    1. Could not stop laughing about your kangaroos comment 🙂 Yes.. its a great idea to visit Alaska. We would suggest consider an inland tour as well to explore more!

  16. Alaska is indeed a place that is straight out of geography books. It is the place that must have fueled many a school kid’s imagination with its white wonderland. One of the most intriguing facts for me has always been the polar nights, where you have the sun up in the dead of night. Anchorage is another quaint and iconic place, and what a bonus you got by getting to stay here.

  17. A destination high on my list and one I am looking to visit soon. The post gives a lot of details and makes me want to book my trip sooner. An amazing destination with the sun shining late into the night in the summer. Amazed to know you can get there by land. I woukd live to visit anchorage as well. Thanks for sharing this astonishing destination

  18. Visiting Alaska is my longtime childhood dream. Wow, it must be so interesting to see sunny midnights as it is on polar regions. Very unique for us. You are very lucky that your flight delayed and got a stay in the beautiful city – Anchorage. Thanks for useful tips about food and clothing, and loved to know there is an Indian shack too. Also as it is an expensive destination, I would watch out for deals and discounts on this.

    1. Thank Yukti! Alaska is a unique experience. We hope you get to plan your trip soon making your childhood dream come true 🙂

  19. I’ve never been to Alaska, but am so intrigued by it! I really enjoyed reading this, as I don’t know if I’ll visit Barrow or Anchorage! Saying that, I like that you went to such a remote and less touristy trip, and could tell us about it. It’s good to know the best times to visit, and that it’s pretty expensive too!

    1. Lisa… There are many options to chose from when you visit Alaska. Depending on your interest, you can pick. We loved being at both the places – Barrow and Anchorage and enjoyed our inland trip.

  20. Alaska is one of those places i have always wanted to visit and after reading your blog , it made me plan a trip right now. Thanks for the information and tips you shared. It is really helpful

  21. I have done most of the things in Finland. But Denali intrigues me. I would love to visit Alaska for the sole reason that’s Denali.

  22. I so much wanted to see Alaska when I was in the US but never managed to get there. You have painted such a pretty picture of the American state here that suddenly I want to go there now. Hopefully someday!

    1. Thank you Soumya. Getting to Alaska was super exciting and we loved it even more as it was a trip on land. We also hope you plan a trip here soon! 🙂

  23. What an amazing post about Alaska! I visited the US on a couple of occasions but never ventured into Alaska. Your post absolutely woke up my wanderlust for this part of the world and your pictures are absolutely amazing!

    1. Alaska was truly special for us and getting all the way to point Barrow was a great accomplishment! Thank you for your kind words 🙂

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