Alaska's untamed adventures
When it comes to finding wild adventures in the USA, look north to Alaska. With more than 570,000 square miles and an entire population of nearly 742,000 people, Alaska is the largest state in America, yet ranks 47th in regards to people, which means there are plenty of open, unpopulated spaces ripe for discovery, exploration and adventures. To experience the different sides of The Last Frontier, my dad and I recently joined the John Hall’s Alaska team for a father-daughter untamed inland and coastal adventure through the south-central part of the state. Afterwards, we developed our own highlights (in no particular order!) to inspire you to take on untamed Alaska for yourself.
Untamed Roadways: After riding the Alaska Railroad from Anchorage to the small town of Talkeetna, we departed for the backcountry of Denali National Park. Our final destination? Denali Backcountry Lodge at the very end of the (unpaved) Denali Park Road, the only road in the park – 92.5 miles long and the closest point to Mount Denali, about 25 miles from the end of the road.
What’s special about going to the end of the road is that just the first 15 miles into the park can be driven by private vehicle; otherwise, park shuttle and tour buses, as well as park-approved lodge buses, are the only way to get to mile marker 92.5.
When we arrived at the lodge, my dad remarked that he couldn’t recall the last time he had been on a 90-plus-mile stretch of roadway without seeing any signs or billboards. That was until we drove the (mostly un-paved)135-mile Denali Highway two days later, from the park en route to Valdez. Again, nothing but captivating landscapes, soaring mountains and golden meadows to catch our eyes.
Untamed Wildlife: One of the main draws of visiting Alaska is spotting all of the wildlife that makes itself right at home on land and in its waters. During our visit, we spotted 13 grizzly bears, more than a dozen caribou, numerous Dall’s sheep, bald eagles, willow ptarmigan (the Alaskan state bird) and even a beaver dragging a tree across a pond to add to his lodge – and that was just on the ride to the end of the road in Denali National Park.
Cruising Prince William Sound from Valdez was when Alaskan marine life came into the spotlight – humpback and orca whales, spinner dolphins, sea otters, Stellar sea lions, two types of puffins and more bald eagles all made appearances. Stopping at several streams, and even in the sound, we witnessed salmon swimming upstream to their spawning grounds. The one animal that eluded us during our week-plus in Alaska was a moose, but that just means we'll have to make a return visit to check that one off of our wildlife viewing lists.
Untamed Adventures: Adventure has a different meaning to everyone – some may consider wildlife viewing as adventurous, while others who are more adrenaline-seeking may try ice climbing in the Alaskan winter. On our trip, my dad and I went on a few adventures, including hiking in Denali National Park’s backcountry, keeping an eye out for wildlife (only a caribou was spotted); cruising within feet of icebergs and yards from massive glaciers in Prince William Sound; and kayaking with icebergs outside of the small fishing town of Cordova.
Untamed Towns: Nearly 300,000 people live in Anchorage, and nearly 33,000 in the state capital of Juneau. That leaves the rest of the state’s population living in myriad towns and villages dotted along the Alaskan coastlines and throughout the inland. At the end of the Seward Highway, a scenic and stop-inspiring All-American Road from Anchorage, the highway’s namesake, Seward, is a charming small town and also one of the state’s oldest communities, as well as the southern terminus of the Alaska Railroad.
Another stop on the railway is Talkeetna, near Denali, and known as the inspiration of the TV show, Northern Exposure. Wander the riverside town as commuters arrive and depart via planes that land and take off on a grassy airstrip.
The harbor town of Valdez is surrounded by Prince William Sound and some of the world’s tallest coastal mountains. On a clear day, the views are simply stunning. It’s here you can get out on the sound for a tour of its gorgeous landscapes and nearby glaciers.
Another Prince William Sound fishing community is Cordova, known for its access to outdoor adventures, including birding, hiking and the aforementioned kayaking with icebergs.
Untamed Parks: Though its most popular national park is undoubtedly Denali National Park and Preserve, with 587,412 visitors in 2016, you may be surprised that Alaska is home to another seven national parks and preserves, including the largest and least-visited: Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, the least-visited National Park with 10,047 visitors in 2016; Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve; Katmai National Park and Preserve; Kenai Fjords National Park; Kobuk Valley National Park; Lake Clark National Park and Preserve; and Wrangell-St Elias National Park and Preserve, the largest National Park in the USA at 13.2 million acres.
Of these, just Denali, Kenai Fjords and Wrangell-St Elias are accessible by car; the others are accessible by plane and/or boat. And then there are the 119 sate parks that cover another 3.3 million acres. Needless to say, there’s plenty of untamed parkland in Alaska ripe for exploration and discovery.
Denali National Park: Tour the park in photos