Alaska celebrates its 50th anniversary of statehood during 2009. Most RVers will eventually
drive through the Last Frontier’s stunning vistas, spend evenings in campgrounds under the
midnight sun, ply the state’s waterways for its numerous species of fish, interact with its people and experience Alaska’s historic and cultural attractions. The following 50 reasons to celebrate the 49th state’s 50th anniversary, however, are designed to facilitate northward travel sooner rather than later.
1. Alaska Marine Highway Ferry: Whether RVers usher their rigs through the Inside Passage on one of these crafts, shuttle across Prince William Sound or simply skim from Haines to Skagway aboard an Alaska Marine Highway Ferry, they will likely appreciate the convenience this system affords. And the scenery isn’t bad, either.
2. Alaska Outdoor Rentals and Guides: Novice kayakers can safely and easily introduce themselves to this sport by paddling the calm, flat waters of the lower Chena River right through downtown Fairbanks.
3. Alaska Railway: Many visitors to the Last Frontier insist that the best way to take in the oodles of scenery, freed of the stresses of driving, is to ride through those gorgeous vistas on a train. In order to prove or disprove this theory, travelers will have to book a trip on an Alaska Railway train.
4. Alyeska Resort: Located at Milepost 90 on Seward Highway south of Anchorage, this is Alaska’s premier year-round destination, delivering unmatched amounts of snow in winter and stunning year-round views of the Chugach Mountains via the Alyeska Tramway.
5. Anchorage Markets & Festival: Every weekend between May 13 and September 10, the parking lot on 3rd Avenue between C and E streets blooms with more than 300 booths that sell Alaska-made and Alaska-grown products. It is likely the best farmers’ market anyone will ever attend.
6. Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel: At 13,200 feet in length, this tunnel that leads to the small town of Whittier is the longest in North America. Vehicles abiding by the 25-mph speed limit take 61?2 minutes to pass through this one-lane tunnel.
7. Aurora Express Bed & Breakfast: Fans of trains, whimsy and inventive décor should make their way to this train-based establishment. The decision to head back to one’s RV, instead of spending a night in one of these novel rooms, will not be easy.
8. Bald Eagles: These feathered symbols of America exist here in such numbers that a bald eagle sighting is almost inevitable. It is possible, in fact, to see a dozen or more of these regal birds in one tree.
9. Bear Paw Camper Park: As conveniently located as any RV park could be to its nearby attractions, Bear Paw sits on Valdez’s main drag, just steps from the shops, restaurants and boat harbor. The facilities are clean and the staff is friendly.
10. Best of Alaska Travel: Granting visitors the ability to customize their trips – land-and-sea packages, for example, are popular options – this well-run company should be considered by first-timers to Alaska before plans are finalized. Best of Alaska Travel is the company for RVers who would rather rent a rig than schlep theirs all the way north.
11. Black Spruces: Majestic and arrow-straight, these trees are not. They bend and shrivel their way upwards through the harsh climate and terrain that conspire against them. They display the Alaskan can-do spirit anyway, with millions of these hardy trees spread throughout the Last Frontier.
12. Bush Pilots: Alaskans often tell strangers that more state residents have pilot’s licenses than driver’s licenses. True or not, this tale speaks to the prevalence of bush pilots. No trip to Alaska is complete without flying with one.
13. Chena Hot Springs Resort: The soothing, naturally heated pool that bathers luxuriate in would be enough reason to visit, except that this vacation spot about an hour from Fairbanks also provides biking, canoeing and other more extreme adventure opportunities. A simple campground encourages longer stays, and the restaurant serves the best hamburgers for hundreds of miles.
14. Chena Lakes Recreation Area: About 17 miles southeast of Fairbanks along the Richardson Highway, RVers can spend their nights in one of two tree-lined campgrounds, then ply the 260 acres of fish-stocked waters, so long as they do it from shore or from a non-motorized craft. Boat rentals are available.
15. Chicken: The story goes that this town was so dubbed when the residents weren’t sure how to spell willow ptarmigan, the state bird of Alaska. A town that would let that story get out – or make it up – is worth visiting.
16. Days of 98 Show with Soapy Smith: This long-running vaudeville-style show in Skagway is not for everyone, since bawdiness prevails. But travelers who don’t mind ribaldry and appreciate talented performers enjoying themselves should indulge in a night of Alaskan theater.
17. Denali Grizzly Bear Cabins & Campground: Located not far south of Alaska’s most-famous national park, this heavily forested campground provides clean, comfortable sites within easy reach of Denali National Park and Preserve, but without the overwhelmed feelings the park can generate.
18. Denali National Park and Preserve: The large national park between Anchorage and Fairbanks on the George Parks Highway needs little promotion, since nearly all visitors to Alaska’s interior find their way to this bastion of beauty. Of course, those abundant travelers arrive at Denali for plenty of good reasons.
19. Fish Alaska Magazine: Conceived of more than six years ago in an Anchorage coffeehouse, this locally owned, independent publication now has a circulation of more than 35,000 and reaches readers in more than a dozen countries and in all 50 states. RVers should absorb the fishing insights of this publication before targeting the state’s fish species.
20. Gold Dredge No. 8: Having extracted millions of ounces of gold in its heyday, this giant contraption has been described as both a mechanical gold pan and a floating workhorse. Situated not far from Fairbanks, Gold Dredge No. 8 provides guided tours that grant glimpses into the area’s mining past, then allows visitors to pan for gold and keep the spoils.
21. Grizzly Bears: Hikers should never traipse through the bush alone, and no one should ever approach one of these large residents of Alaska. But few thrills are as exciting as watching – from a distance – a grizzly sow and her cubs forage for grubs or a boar pounce on a river-running salmon.
22. Haines: A postcard manufacturer seems to have conceived of this picturesque town, snuggled as it is among soaring peaks and lapped at by the aqua-blue, glacier-fed water of Chilkat Inlet. Visitors may soon find themselves scanning real-estate listings.
23. Haines Hitch-up RV Park: This spotless park is not only convenient to Haines’ various attractions, but it is also likely to be the best Alaskan park RVers will stay in.
24. Halibut: Often touted as denizens of the deep, these flatfish can grow so large that they are often called “barn-door halibut.” Hyperbole aside, anglers who see the giant slabs of color at the end of their lines spinning upward from out of the ocean depths will be hard-pressed to keep their pulse rates low.
25. Hammer Museum: Never has a title of an establishment more thoroughly conveyed what is housed inside than this one does. Located in Haines, this small, unique museum was created by friendly and inspired owner Dave Pahl, and travelers who peruse the enormous variety of pounding devices within its walls will almost certainly be amused.
26. Henry’s Coffeehouse and EarthSong Lodge: Only a few miles north of Denali and perfectly defining “off the beaten path,” these adjacent establishments deliver views untrammeled by hordes of frantic tourists disgorged from tour buses. To sip a cup of coffee in the sweet morning silence here is to appreciate the possibilities of Alaska.
27. Homer: Promoted as the “Halibut Capital of the World,” this town located on the southwestern part of the Kenai Peninsula holds an annual halibut derby second to none. For example, in 2007, the 358.4-pound flatfish that won the derby earned the very tired angler more than $37,000.
28. Kenai Peninsula: Located south of Anchorage, the combination of lakes, rivers, streams and mountains that decorate the Kenai attracts plenty of locals from the state’s largest city, as well as people from outside who can see no reason to visit anywhere but the peninsula. The Kasilof, Russian and Kenai Rivers gave birth to the term “combat fishing,” but the world-class catches create plenty of scaly reasons to stand shoulder to shoulder.
29. Kennicott-McCarthy: Whether visitors take a short-hop Wrangell Mountain Air flight or brave the 60 miles of rough McCarthy Road, they will find their efforts worthwhile as they explore these small former mining towns. Funky, historic, character-filled and not all that convenient – kind of like the state itself.
30. King Salmon: Also known as Chinook salmon, this largest of the five Pacific salmon species is so highly prized by anglers and so salivated over at tables throughout the state that even the appellation “king” seems understated. As a 30-pounder bolts downstream and runs deep into a fly-fisherman’s backing, the angler may be tempted to christen the fleeing beast a “Yikes salmon.
31. Lingcod: Not likely to win any beauty contests, these rock-dwellers may be the best-tasting fish that reside in Alaska’s depths. Sure, culinary references vary, but an angler who lands a monster ling, removes its cheeks, then savors every bite of these delicacies may soon believe himself to be as skilled in the kitchen as Emeril Lagasse.
32. The Milepost: To visit Alaska without purchasing, consulting, studying, dog-earing and possibly worshipping this doorstop-thick annual publication is not to visit Alaska, since no travelers on their own can even begin to comprehend the attractions the state has to offer without the help of this essential “bible of North Country travel.”
33. Moose: Enough said.
34. Patrick Olson: At the fish-cleaning station in Valdez, Patrick Olson displays a pervasive joy as he fillets salmon, turns halibuts into steaks and cleans rockfish. He wields his knife with such skill and employs such speed that anglers stand back to watch. Those who have had Patrick clean their fish consider the big man among their friends, so RVers who stop by may find themselves exchanging e-mail addresses.
35. Paxson Lake: The morning light tickles this expanse of water along Route 4 in a manner that causes anglers to ache to be upon it, to explore its depths for giant lake trout. An overnight stay in the adjacent, rustic BLM campground allows RVers who brought boats with them to do just that.
36. Richardson Highway: Alaska’s oldest road was originally known as the Valdez to Eagle Trail, a route that developed as prospectors participated in the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897-98. Today, the 366-mile route that runs from Valdez in the south to Fairbanks in the north delivers scenery worth shooting pictures of around nearly every bend.
37. Riverboat Discovery: Simply put, visitors to Fairbanks should not skip this 31?2 hour overview of life in Alaska. Providing visits to an Athabascan Fish Camp, demonstrations by an Alaskan bush pilot, explorations of a Chena Indian Village, a visit to the sled-dog kennel of the late four-time Iditarod winner Susan Butcher, among other interesting regional attractions, Riverboat Discovery is Fairbanks’ No. 1 attraction for many good reasons.
38. Salmon Sharks: Little is known about these first cousins to mako sharks and second cousins to great whites, but anglers willing to tussle with toothy creatures that can reach 1,000 pounds can boat up to two salmon sharks a year. The muscles worn to a frazzle in reeling arms will likely indicate that one salmon shark is plenty.
39. Silver Salmon: Considered by most veteran Alaska fisherman to deliver the most fight per weight of any of the five Pacific salmon species, silvers (also known as cohos) generally make their runs in August, delivering a bittersweet ending to the Alaskan summer.
40. Stan Stephens Glacier & Wildlife Cruises: Giant cruise ships offer bingo and abundant desserts, but when it comes to glacier viewing they generally leave cruisers feeling cheated. Not so with this fabulous operation out of Valdez. The 82-foot Valdez Spirit, for example, has a reinforced hull that allows the catamaran to stop amazingly close to the Meares Glacier. Day-trippers will certainly see some combination of harbor seals, sea lions, bald eagles, Dall porpoises and humpback whales along the way.
41. Talkeetna: Combining an old-time Alaska feel with the hubbub of a tourist destination, this town resonates with energy. Expeditions of Mt. McKinley generally start here, so the town is filled with healthy rugged types and those who arrive on the endless stream of tour buses. Outfitters can launch tourists on numerous adventures here, but travelers merely wishing to browse through the town said to be the inspiration for the show “Northern Exposure” can pleasantly peruse.
42. Tanana River: Mostly wide and powerful, often muddy and occasionally braided, the Tanana River is the kind of waterway visitors to Alaska expect to see, and they will see it along Route 2.
43. Thompson Pass: Anyone who’s driven this stretch of road north of Valdez certainly appreciates the unparalleled beauty of the soaring, snow-capped peaks and oh-so-deep valleys; anyone who hasn’t driven it … should.
44. Trans-Alaska Pipeline: While heading south from Delta Junction along Route 4, travelers will spy this engineering feat along the roadside, seeming to ride shotgun, disappearing, then insinuating itself in the periphery. Outside of Fairbanks, visitors can study the pipeline and corresponding exhibits up close.
45. Ulu Knives: Sure, no one really needs one of these traditional knives – perfect for filleting salmon and chopping just about anything – but that doesn’t mean these semi-circular cutting implements don’t jump off the shelves.
46. University of Alaska Museum of the North: The architecture that cleverly combines various geometric shapes grabs the attention first, but the exhibits inside this museum on the Fairbanks campus are why visitors should seek out this attraction. From the five major geographic regions of the state featured in the Gallery of Alaska to the 2,000 years of art on display in the Rose Berry Alaska Art Gallery, this museum delivers something for everyone – in a beautiful, memorable setting.
47. White Pass & Yukon Route: Climbing out of Skagway nearly 3,000 feet in 20 miles, this miracle of engineering is a train-lover’s delight, delivering tunnels, bridges and trestles along the way. The views are unmatched, and it’s almost a certainty that fans of locomotives will consider this journey among the highlights of their trips to Alaska.
48. Wilderness Enterprises: A float down the Chena River in pursuit of Arctic grayling with Joe Letarte at the oars captures the essence of Alaska perfectly – wilderness, scenery, sport, camaraderie and professionalism combining to create a wonderful day. Joe will put even first-time fly fishers onto 14- to 16-inch fish.
49. Worthington Glacier: Sure, it’s in retreat, as most of Alaska’s glaciers are, but this roadside wonder delivers icy thrills to anyone willing to hike the short distance to its flanks. Adventurers wanting to climb on Worthington’s ice, and even down into it, should look up Pangaea Adventures in nearby Valdez.
50. Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve: Six times larger than Yellowstone National Park and significantly larger than Switzerland, this is the largest national park in the country, delivering 13.2 million acres to explore. Since doing so will take a few lifetimes, interested parties should start early.
Travel Industry Association, (800) 862-5275, www.travelalaska.com.