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Tips for Alaska Travel Planning – Part 1

It can be overwhelming to plan a trip to Alaska. What are the best spots to see bears or moose or beautiful sunsets? Do you want to spend a lot of time in one area exploring the wilderness and mountains or make those side excursions while visiting Alaska’s diverse cities? Because Alaska is so big, it’s divided into 5 regions—starts your planning by learning about these different locations.

trip-to-alaska

Alaska is a bucket list destination for many travelers, so there are some important details to know before you start booking your trip.

The Best Months to Visit Alaska

Though most people don’t, you can visit Alaska year-round. Yes, it’s colder and darker in the winter, but there are benefits to visiting during these months:

  • Fewer crowds
  • Lower costs
  • Possibility of seeing the Northern Lights
  • Seasonal events like Fur Rendezvous and the Iditarod

Similar reasons make visiting in the shoulder season (spring and autumn) appealing. If you’re on the fence, I put together a list of reasons to visit Alaska in the spring (these apply to autumn too).

alaska-division

If you’re looking for the best weather, it’s undeniable that the best months to visit Alaska are June through August. These are the months with the best weather – most sun and least rain – and warmest temperatures. Unfortunately, this short peak season means you’ll be visiting at the same time as every other traveler, so consider whether shoulder or off-season travel might be a better option for you.

Almost all of the activities I recommend in this post are only available in the summer months. If you’re planning a trip in the spring, autumn, or winter, be sure to check available dates before you book.

   TRAVEL TIPS BY REGION:

Part One (THE ARCTIC, INTERIOR and SOUTHCENTRAL)

THE ARCTIC

SUMMER ACTIVITIES

  • Visit the Gates of the Arctic National Park
  • Dip your toes into the Arctic Ocean on the coast of Utqiagvik (Barrow)
  • Watch herds of caribou migrate north of the Brooks Range
  • Take a walking tour to Cape Smythe Whaling and Trading Station in Utqiagvik (Barrow), the oldest frame building in the Arctic
  • Drive the Dalton Highway, following the Trans-Alaska Pipeline
  • Look for polar bears on the ice floes around Barrow
  • Visit North Tent City in Kotzebue, an active traditional fish camp that is set up each year to dry and smoke the season’s catch
  • Drive from Nome to the Eskimo village of Teller, where guests can see the many remnants of Nome’s gold rush past 

NATIVE ALASKAN ARTWORK

Wherever you go the Great Land, you’ll find unique, authentic Alaskan products and crafts.

 

These can include:

  • Gold nugget jewelry and items carved from ivory and jade
  • Handmade clothing and toys
  • Collectors’ items made from animal skins, fur or bone
  • Woven baskets of beach grass, bark or baleen
  • Alaskan delicacies – canned and smoked salmon, wild berry products and reindeer sausage
  • Native seal oil candles, beaded mittens, fur mukluks and miniature hand-carved totem poles
  • Be sure to look for the “Made in Alaska” logo, which indicates an item genuinely manufactured in Alaska. If you find a silver hand logo, it identifies the item as a Native Alaskan handicraft.
  • Handcrafted items made of walrus ivory and other by-products of subsistence hunting provide an income source for Native Alaskan artisans and a valuable investment for the buyer. Be careful though – some wildlife products cannot be transported through customs without special permits. Visitors are advised to mail these souvenirs home to avoid confusion at the border.

wildlife

WILDLIFE

Thousands of caribou migrate through the Brooks Range area each year. They travel through millions of acres of wilderness park lands in the Cape Krusenstern National Monument, Kobuk Valley National Park, Noatak National Preserve, Selawik National Wildlife Refuge, Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Surrounded by Tundra, Nome provides access to nearly 300 miles of surrounding roads, which visitors can use to explore the countryside and discover pristine, untouched wilderness. While exploring the Seward Peninsula in the summer’s extended daylight hours, you’ll have the opportunity to discover wildflowers, moose, reindeer, caribou, birds and seals. The area also offers excellent fishing for salmon, arctic char and grayling.

Another great Alaskan experience is to drive the gravel Dalton Highway (North Slope Haul Road) to Deadhorse. This 414-mile road parallels the northern most portion of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. Few services are available, but wildlife is abundant and fishing for arctic grayling is superb.

Utqiagvik (Barrow) offers the best opportunities to view polar bears in spring and fall during whaling seasons when whale carcasses attract the bears.

TEMPERATURES

Arctic Average high/low (F) temperatures

Jan: 7/-19
Feb: -11/-23
Mar: -9/-21
Apr: 4/-9
May: 24/14
Jun: 38/29

Jul: 45/33
Aug: 42/33
Sep: 33/27
Oct: 18/9
Nov: 3/-7
Dec: -5/-17

WEATHER AND CLOTHING

Summertime: comfort requires a windproof jacket with a warm shirt or sweater for the 40-degree days. Warm and windproof clothing is advised. Layers keep in the most warmth, while allowing a way to respond to changes in the temperature. Rubber-soled, waterproof footwear is essential.

Fall/Winter/Spring: long underwear, warm slacks and shirt, wool sweater, and a thick down jacket are necessary. A warm, windproof covering for head and hands is essential.

culture

CULTURE

The Arctic region of Alaska encompasses the communities of Nome, Kotzebue and Utqiagvik (Barrow). North of the Arctic Circle, these towns offer cultural attractions that are closely tied to the rich Native heritage of the area.

Nome has a special combination of traditional Eskimo culture and a gold rush past. Travelers may want to rent a car and tour the 300-plus miles of road system surrounding Nome. Nome also marks the finish of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, the longest dog sled race in the world. The town of 4,000 swells to many times that size every March with the arrival of the much-anticipated race finish.

Located on a three-mile spit of land on the Chuckchi Sea, Kotzebue has much to offer cultural travelers. Among its attractions is the NANA Museum of the Arctic, local history and cultural films at the park service and the Senior Center Cultural Center.

Utqiagvik (Barrow) is located at the tip of the Arctic region, situated on the coast of the Arctic Ocean. A walking tour of the town includes a visit to the Cape Smyth Whaling and Trading Station, built in 1893. This is the oldest frame building in the Arctic. Also, visitors can see the Birnirk archaeological site, a group of 16 dwelling mounds representing the Birnirk culture (500-900 A.D.). Guests can witness the unique whaling culture of the Eskimos every spring when the annual bowhead whale hunt and festival gets underway.

DAYLIGHT

Daylight varies depending on your location in the Arctic. For instance during summer months in Nome the sun rises at approximately 4:20 am and sets at 1:40 am though, given the long twilight that occurs it doesn’t get completely dark. In contrast, the city of Utqiagvik (Barrow) has a sunrise approximately May 10 that doesn’t set until August 2, totaling 82 days of sunlight. During winter months Nome’s shortest day of daylight is just under four hours. Meanwhile, in Utqiagvik (Barrow), the sun does not rise for 51 days, ranging from November to January.

Visit the Sunrise/Sunset website for a detailed calendar for any city at www.sunrisesunset.com.


INTERIOR

SUMMER ACTIVITIES

  • Visit Creamer’s Field in Fairbanks for spectacular bird watching opportunities
  • Bone up on Alaska’s natural history at the University of Alaska Museum in Fairbanks
  • Raft the Nenana River near Denali National Park & Preserve Soak in the naturally heated geothermal pools at Chena Hot Springs 
  • Take the tour bus into Denali National Park for views of North America’s highest peak and abundant wildlife
  • Get an up close view of Denali on a fixed-wing or helicopter flightseeing tour
  • Travel the Tanana River on the sternwheeler Riverboat Discovery in Fairbanks
  • Drive the Steese Highway to Circle for a rejuvenating dip in Circle Hot Springs
  • Canoe the legendary Yukon River in Eagle Drive to Delta Junction to begin a driving adventure south on the Alaska Highway

TEMPERATURES

Interior Average high/low (F) temperatures

Jan: 2/-13
Feb: 10/-10
Mar: 26/1
Apr: 44/19
May: 61/35
Jun: 71/47

Jul: 73/50
Aug: 67/45
Sep: 55/34
Oct: 32/16
Nov: 12/-2
Dec: 5/-9

OUTDOOR GEAR

The specialized gear you will need to bring will be minimal.

As a general rule, you need to dress in layers when you come to Alaska.

And don’t forget your sunglasses! Even in wintertime, Interior Alaska can have bright sunlight. Compounded with the snow it can be almost blinding.

Any specialized gear needed for a tour will most likely be provided by the tour company.

Other items to be sure to bring along are a camera and binoculars.

WILD BERRIES CAUTION

Until you can identify them yourself or you are with a botanical expert, you probably shouldn’t eat any of them. Alaska’s trails systems are full of many different kinds of berries. Some are edible, some are poisonous. Don’t eat any of them unless you are absolutely positive they are edible. There are many books you can buy for identifying berries and other types of flora.

WILDLIFE VIEWING SAFETY

The first thing to remember is that the “wild” in wildlife isn’t an arbitrary distinction. These animals are not tame and are not in a zoo. They roam free in their natural habitat and sometimes they roam free in yours. It isn’t uncommon for a moose to be strolling down a residential street looking for a tree to prune.

Wild animals in Alaska can be dangerous if they are provoked. They are also extremely protective of their young, so animals who have calves, cubs or some other kind of young, should be viewed at a good distance and with extreme caution. Visit the Alaska Department of Fish and Game site for more details about wildlife viewing at www.adfg.alaska.gov.

WEATHER AND CLOTHING

Interior Alaska ranges from the 70s (F) in June and July down to sub-zero lows December through February. Dress for warm sunny days in summer. Winds are light, but be prepared for that occasional thunderstorm.

Winter requires cold-weather gear from head to toe. Don’t let that keep you away, Interior Alaska is one of the best places in the world to see the northern lights in winter.

See Interior Climate & Weather for a complete clothing guide.

DAYLIGHT

“Land of the Midnight Sun” isn’t just a clever term. Summers in the Interior can have up to 24 hours of daylight. Sometimes visitors can have a problem adjusting to the extended hours of daylight. Remember that even though it’s bright outside, it can still be 11 p.m. – so don’t forget to sleep. And if you have problems sleeping when it’s light outside, you’ll want to bring along a sleeping mask.

Visit the Sunrise/Sunset website for a detailed calendar for any city at www.sunrisesunset.com.

CULTURE

Heading north from South-central Alaska is the Interior, a region rich with culture.

Fairbanks is the hub of Interior Alaska and home to the University of Alaska Museum of the North. The museum is the state’s primary repository of natural and cultural history and is internationally recognized for its comprehensive northern collections.


SOUTHCENTRAL

SUMMER ACTIVITIES

  • Hike in Chugach State Park, a parcel of land that runs along Anchorage’s eastern border
  • Fish for all five species of salmon on the Kenai Peninsula
  • Take a water taxi from Homer to the seaside communities of Seldovia and Halibut Cove
  • Ride the Alaska Railroad along Turnagain Arm from Anchorage to Seward or from Anchorage to Fairbanks via Denali National Park & Preserve
  • Raft the Kenai, Matanuska or Sixmile River
  • Kayak the waters of Prince William Sound from Whittier
  • Shop for Alaska Native art at the Alaska Native Medical Center gift shop
  • Cruise among the icebergs of Portage Lake Drive the Seward Highway from Anchorage to Seward, one of only a handful of designated All American Roads
  • See the terminus of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline in Valdez
  • Watch giant cabbages of up to 90 pounds be weighed in at the Alaska State Fair in Palmer
  • Cruise the College Fjords glaciers of Prince William Sound
  • Visit the Alaska Zoo in Anchorage Kiss a moose at Big Game Alaska Wildlife Center in Portage?
  • Visit Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race headquarters in Wasilla
  • Hike Hatcher’s Pass in the Mat-Su Valley
  • Visit the abandoned Kennecott Copper Mine at McCarthy

OUTDOOR GEAR

The specialized gear you will need to bring will be minimal.

As a general rule, you need to dress in layers when you come to Alaska.

And don’t forget your sunglasses! Even in wintertime, South-central Alaska can have bright sunlight. Compounded with the snow it can be almost blinding.

Any specialized gear needed for a tour will most likely be provided by the tour company.

Other items to be sure to bring along are a camera and binoculars.

TEMPERATURES

While South-central winters tend to be on the chilly side, the summers are warm and sunny. Temperatures can climb to the 70s (F), so don’t forget to bring a T-shirt and a pair of shorts.

Average high/low (F)

Jan: 22/9
Feb: 26/12
Mar: 34/18
Apr: 44/29
May: 55/39
Jun: 62/47

Jul: 65/52
Aug: 63/49
Sep: 55/41
Oct: 40/28
Nov: 28/16
Dec: 24/11

WEATHER AND CLOTHING

South-central Alaska enjoys warm, sunny summer days. But as with any place in Alaska, the weather can be unpredictable.

As a rule it is best to have layers available for the chance of a foggy morning or summer shower. Avoid any heavy winter gear, unless of course, you visit South-central Alaska in the winter. A light wind and water repellent coat is also good to have on hand.

See South-central Climate & Weather for a complete clothing guide.

CULTURE

Alaska’s South-central region, encompassing Anchorage, the Kenai Peninsula and the Matanuska-Susitna Valley, features some of the best the state has to offer for cultural travelers.



Anchorage is home to the impressive Alaska Native Heritage Center, a unique cultural site dedicated to educating visitors about Alaska Native groups. The Center presents programs in academic and informal settings, including workshops, demonstrations and guided tours of indoor exhibits and outdoor village sites.

After visiting Anchorage, cultural travelers may want to rent a car and drive south on the Seward Highway to the Kenai Peninsula. The Seward Highway was recently named an All-American Road and boasts some of the country’s most spectacular scenery. A stop in hip and funky Girdwood is a must on this road trip. Located at the base of Mount Alyeska, the ski town is home to a group of artists who like the small-town feel of the place. Visitors can visit any number of small, unique galleries year-round or time their visit to coincide with the Girdwood Forest Fair, a midsummer arts and crafts event.

Continuing down the Seward Highway, visitors will eventually find themselves on the Kenai Peninsula. The Kenai area’s growing reputation as a place of creative expression is well deserved as it develops visitor-friendly cultural sites and centers. The Kenai Fine Arts Center, located in Old Town Kenai, provides studio space for members of the Peninsula Art Guild and the Kenai Potters Guild. The guilds host monthly art exhibitions, maintain an artist sales gallery, and offer a variety of art workshops for adults and children. The region is also rich in Gold Rush history. Visitors can raft down Six Mile Creek and see evidence of mining operations from days past.

Upon reaching the end of the road in Homer, visitors will arrive in a cultural mecca of sorts. The tight-knit, artsy community of Homer prides itself on its beatnik image. Galleries and small artisan shops can be found everywhere in this oceanfront community.

We will talk about southwest and inside passage region in our next post and also will introduce some important cities in different regions of Alaska so ensure to follow us.

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