Alaska

We have limited travel experience in Alaska – 8 days driving and a week-long cruise.  Hardly justifies a page dedicated to Alaska.  But we think you will find what we discuss to be useful – again to naturalists.  We won’t attempt to discuss places we didn’t visit, so there is lots of missing content you can find elsewhere.  But some of our travel strategies you will probably find useful. They are discussed, where appropriate, in the following text.

Basic Geography of Alaska

A basic map of Alaska is shown below to orient the reader not familiar with Alaska’s location and latitude. Since the rest of the US is not shown it is hard to judge its size. See here for a comparison of Alaska’s size with the contiguous (or conterminous) US.

In Alaska there are relatively few areas connected by a network of paved roads. Major towns and cities are connected by such roads, but most smaller towns or settlements are reached only by gravel roads or by flying. There are many small airports and far more lakes suitable for floatplane landings. In fact, something immediately apparent upon landing at the major civil airports of Anchorage, Fairbanks or Juneau are the float planes and their water “runways”. See the Anchorage floatplane “airport” adjacent to the main Anchorage airport here.

Alaska and its latitudinal range. This is approximately the same as that of Norway. Anchorage’s latitude (61.2˚N) is similar to Oslo (59.9˚N).

Climate

Alaska has a variety of climatic conditions. Many resources are available online and there are even popular books written about its climate. Here we greatly oversimplify the climate information and show climate diagrams for only four locations – three are major towns or cities and one, Prudhoe Bay, is on the Arctic Ocean coastal plain where only oil workers normally go. But they give an idea of the extreme conditions in far northern Alaska.

Daylight hours and average sunlight at Anchorage. Plot is from this site.

In a very broad brush coastal Alaska is relatively cool and moist while the interior of the state is much colder in winter and much warmer in summer than the coastal regions. Fairbanks gets much colder on average in winter than Anchorage and yet is warmer in the summer. The maritime towns like Juneau and Ketchikan are never really hot, but do not experience the extreme cold of the interior.

These maps show how the hours of daylight varies across Alaska on the longest day of the year (around June 21) and the combined hours of daylight and civil twilight for the longest day. Civil twilight is when the sun is 6 degrees or less below the horizon. This is enough light for “typical” activities. Although Anchorage only has 19.5 hours of daylight it has 24 hr of combined daylight and civil twilight. Thus you can do activities at any time. Source of maps (Brian Brettschneider is a researcher at the University of Alaska/Fairbanks)

One can find the sunrise and sunset times, plus the twilight times at many sites via the internet. One good one is here and another more complex one is here. This site is even better at visualizing the position and elevation of the sun throughout the day – if you take the time to learn it (about 5 minutes). The link takes you to the sun position at noon at Anchorage on July 3 2020 but you can change this to any date and location worldwide).

An important note to photographers – which is probably most of you reading this. The “Golden Hour” – when the sun is low to the horizon and a good time for different types of photography, is defined by some people as when the sun is within 6 degrees of the horizon. Of course the definition is arbitrary, for some photographers if the sun is within 15 degrees of the horizon that is acceptable for their photographic needs. But let’s say 6 degrees is our definition. How long is the Golden hour in Anchorage on July 10 2021? Using the last link above we can see (with some practice using the site that is is about 1 hr 20 minutes at dawn and dusk. Using 15 degrees for the sun’s elevation angle as a criterion for great photography gives us about 2 hr 40 minutes for this period – both in the morning and afternoon. At high latitudes the sun comes up or goes down at a strong slant to the horizon – not straight up or down. So you have much more time for low sun-angle photography at higher latitudes.

By comparison, the 6 degree “golden hour” length on July 10th is about 37 minutes in Los Angeles and about 29 minutes in Quito, Ecuador (on the Equator). These numbers are approximate, since it depends on when you call sunrise (it takes about 2 minutes for the sun to traverse its diameter in the sky).

Interestingly, during the longest summer days, if you go far enough north the golden hour decreases – as the sun doesn’t get within 6 degrees of the horizon anywhere. But this is mostly over the Arctic Ocean.

Natural attractions in easily accessible land areas of Alaska

Many tourists to Alaska add a land-based tour to their Alaskan cruise. There are real advantages to doing this. Cost is not necessarily one of them, since Alaskan travel costs during the summer are quite a bit higher than what many tourists are accustomed to. But many attractions cannot be seen from only a cruise, nor is there time flexibility during cruises to explore many things. Remember that daylight is very long in Alaska during summer and cruise itineraries, usually 8 or 10 hours in port, cut short much of the potential available daylight for land exploration.

While the tourist with unlimited time and funds can visit really remote parts of Alaska by small charter float plane flights, here we cover what can be seen more easily by nearly any tourist with a rental vehicle and driving on major roads.

Our one (1) Alaskan land trip consisted of flying to Anchorage, renting a standard vehicle, and spending 8 days traveling around the area. Our entire route is shown on the map below, so anywhere outside this route we can say nothing authoritative. (One of us did spend about a month in Anchorage in March 1987, but that involved mostly going between a hotel and the airport, as I (MD) was flying on research aircraft missions out of Anchorage into winter storms. Great for seeing the coastal mountains and glaciers from above but not much else.)

A kmz file for Google Earth display shows some of the Alaskan natural history attractions we found interesting. (Download and open in Google Earth.)

As far as close to Anchorage, Potter Marsh (also here) is just on the southern edge of the city and has excellent boardwalks to look for birds. The advantage of this location is that if you have a late flight you can prepare your luggage here in the parking lot. You can also use the last available time before a flight (or a train ride to your cruise ship departing from Seward) enjoying the marsh. During summer there is light until near midnight, so you will probably be alone here.

South of Anchorage

South of Anchorage there is excellent scenery on the drive along the Turnagain Arm towards Whittier. There are scenic stops along the way. The Arm itself is very shallow except where there are deeper tidal channels, and the Arm has a large tidal range (and tidal bores – see youtube videos here or here. Or Google “Turnagain Arm video tidal bore” or something like that.

At the south end of the Arm, where multiple glacier-fed rivers enter the ocean, is the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. This is a “zoo” for some of the larger mammals that you might not see during your Alaskan travels. These include Musk Ox and Grizzly Bears. Although we thought the price was steep for entrance, the exhibits were very good, the area expansive for the animals, and the photo opportunities excellent. Our close-up encounter with a large Grizzly was impressive. The idea of having the main mammals on display in natural habitats is actually good, because you will not likely have comparably close encounters with these animals during your Alaskan trip.

After the Conservation Center, the Portage Glacier Visitor Center is a must. Although you cannot get very close to the glacier here, the exhibits and scenery are spectacular.

If you are heading to Whittier you go through a train/car tunnel that is about 2 miles long. Though it is a bit unnerving to drive through a tunnel used by trains, the procedures are well organized and there is no danger. In fact, the tunnel is narrow and traffic only flows in one direction at a time. Whittier is a relict of Second World War requirements; there is a small vessel marina here and the main touristic activities are glacier tours operated by small charter boat companies. These go into a nearby fiord where there are active glaciers calving. This is probably your best opportunity to see glaciers close-up, so pay the price for a tour and go (provided weather is OK).

Special day cruises for naturalists

Day cruises to see glaciers in the Kenai Fiords National Park or birding and wildlife tours are really essential add-ons to a maturalist’s Alaskan vacation. They are relatively expensive, at least compared with the daily cost of standard cruises (take a total cruise cost and divide by the total days), but their access to spectacular scenery and close-up views of wildlife cannot be obtained any other way.

There are two main ports for scenic cruises in the area close to Anchorage (others are in the Alaskan panhandle area). The main port for glacier viewing is Whittier. For wildlife boat tours the main port is Seward.

Glacier boat tours

We took a larger boat to see the glaciers because they 1) were less expensive and slightly more comfortable and 2) would be easier to photograph some subjects, being higher off the water. We did not expect to see much wildlife, thought we did see some interesting Kittiwakes on the cliffs on return to Whittier.

An example of a longer cruise on a large boat can be seen here. We don’t recommend any particular company – do a careful internet search before deciding on a cruise, though we suspect most will be competitive. There are many charter boat companies for fishing, wildlife viewing tours etc.

Although the larger boats do not get as close to the calving glaciers as do some other boats (we could see small boats closer to the glaciers but do not know if these were private boats or actual tour boats). I am not sure I would want to be too close to such glaciers in a small boat…

Wildlife boat tours

Although the exact itineraries of the wildlife cruises vary, we can provide some general guidance of what to expect and what to bring. Basic for wildlife watchers are binoculars and a camera. But a camera with a substantial telephoto lens is needed to really see details. You won’t be that close to most wildlife for adequate cell phone photos. Cell phones are useful to document your trip, show the boat, and provide the GPS position of where you went.

Of course, your boat will rock, so taking photos is a challenge. A tripod is useless, but some stabilization might be useful (possibly a monopod). Just be sure to not get in anyone else’s way.

As to the boats, there are small boats and larger boats. Larger boats are more stable (for those who might get seasick) but cannot get quite as close to the cliffs where many of the birds and mammals are residing. Larger boats are also less expensive. Small boats are for the photographers and specialist wildlife watchers who know this may be a once-in-a-lifetime chance and are willing to pay extra for it.

Keep in mind the weather. If you reserve a spot a day ahead and the weather is rainy the boat will likely still go out… Pay attention to the weather forecasts and buy your ticket no longer than a day ahead – if you have the flexibility. Most tourists don’t.

Needless to say (but I will say it anyway) is that you should bring warm weather gear and some kind of raincoat. And a small backpack to protect whatever you bring.

The commute to the interesting locations takes a couple of hours, but there is always the chance of seeing otters, orcas, or whales along the route, so it isn’t boring. But in the wind it can be cold, so many people stay in protected areas of the boats.

The Seward-based wildlife tours to the Kenai Fjords National Park are usually longer than the glacier tours out of Whittier since they must traverse the entire length of Resurrection Bay to get to the most interesting areas. Out tour totaled about 10 hours.

If you are traveling south from the Portage Glacier you will head towards Seward, a port for most cruise ships. Seward has some attractions, especially the Alaska Sea Life Center (funded by the Exxon Valdez disaster reparation fund – see history here). This is very worthwhile and has excellent displays of Alaskan sea birds that you can see close-up (unlike in the wild). All of the animals on display are rescued and the center is the only marine animal recovery center in Alaska. Do not miss the center.

There are accommodations in Seward a couple of miles down the sound at Lowell Point. These can be affordable and are in a nice setting. The road down to the point is also interesting in that whales and otters can be see from the road at times.

Our small cabin on Lowell Point. It loos small (at it is) but it had everything required and was well-appointed.

Seward is where the best day-long wildlife boat tours depart from (and return to). There are quite a few tour boats, ranging from small ones carrying only 15 or 20 people to those that carry more than 100. We would recommend the smaller ones since they can get closer to the rocky shores where the wildlife is than the larger boats. They are also less crowded. Not surprisingly, they are also more expensive. Our tour stayed out 10 hours, so they provide a good (salmon) lunch.

The destination for most of Seward’s wildlife cruises is the Kenai Fjords National Park. This park protects the main coastal glaciers and shorelines west of Seward. The park is almost inaccessible for most tourists except for boat access since much of the park is covered by glaciers.

Many cruise ship tourists miss the opportunity to take wildlife day cruises out of Seward. They also miss seeing the Alaska Sea Life Center. Why? Because the trains and buses that takes cruise ship passengers from Anchorage to Seward are timed so that passengers don’t have to wait long before boarding their ships. This means they also don’t have time to visit the Sea Life Center or take a wildlife cruise. We were able to do both by spending two nights at a cabin on Lowell Point. We also took an early morning (rather than afternoon) train from Anchorage to Seward and had many hours to explore Seward prior to boarding our ship. But this required the inconvenience of spending a few hours at the airport after returning our rental car near midnight – waiting for the early morning train to Seward (about a 3 hr ride). Not ideal, but we weren’t willing to spend more than $200 for a Motel 6 hotel room for less than 5 hours sleep!

While in the Seward area you should visit the Exit Glacier. This small glacier can be approached on foot via a trail. There are summer nature walks by National Park rangers here (this is just inside the Kenai Fjords National Park). The ranger-led walk we took was very informative and we recommend it if you can. Otherwise the trails here are in excellent condition and accessing the glacier is straightforward. The glacier has been receding over the past few centuries and there are markers indicating where the glacier’s terminus was located in past years. The forest recovery is interesting. You cannot walk on the glacier, as it is dangerous to do so here.

Denali National Park

North of Anchorage there is the main attraction of Denali National Park. It contains the highest mountain in North America, Denali at 20,310 ft (6190 m) and extensive taiga and tundra habitat. Denali has become more popular in recent decades because many cruise lines are including this destination as part of their Alaskan cruise packages.

Most visitors may not be aware that only about the first 15 miles of road into the park can be driven by private vehicles. This allows access to the main visitor center and some trails and scenic stretches of road. Thereafter, you must travel on a park-concessionaire operated bus for the rest of the 60 mile trip (each way) to the main visitor center near the end of the road. There are many different bus tours, but only one road. The main destination for most tourists is the Eielson Visitor Center at mile 66 along the gravel road. Here you can walk some trails to see up-close the tundra vegetation and with suitable weather get good views of Denali, the highest mountain in North America. There is some interesting history about the name for this highest mountain.

We took a bus trip to the Eielson Visitor Center. Along the road we saw distant views of Grizzly Bears, and stopped at an intermediate seasonal visitor center. The main attractions from our perspective were the tundra wildflowers we saw at the end of the road. They were spectacular in early July.

Fairbanks

Beyond Denali is Fairbanks. We drove from our Motel room near Denali to Fairbanks and back in one long day. The drive itself is not that long (120 miles / 2 hrs) from Denali NP entrance to Fairbanks), and the daylight can be almost 24 hrs in summer, so there is plenty of time to do this.

In Fairbanks there are two valuable places for naturalists. You can do both in one day.

The Museum of the North is on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus. You can get a flavor for what is in the museum here. We found the museum very interesting and gives essential background on the cultures, history, and nature of Alaska.

Creamers Field Migratory Waterfowl Refuge is on the north side of Fairbanks and is an old dairy farm that attracted many migratory birds. It became a state sponsored refuge in 1966 and is now managed by a non-profit organization. There are very nice nature trails here and one through a boreal forest environment has many informative plaques. It is online here.

Finally, though hardly a natural attraction, there is a viewpoint to see the Alaska oil pipeline just north of Fairbanks. The plaque there makes interesting reading.

At the end of our land travels via rental car we took a train from Anchorage to Seward to meet our cruise ship. This train has several options and we chose a more expensive one that allowed for access to an outside car (no windows for better photography). We found this somewhat useful, though we spent most time inside due to the cold morning conditions outside. You of course can travel to Seward via bus for a lower cost. The trip took about 3 hours via train.

Cruise-based natural attractions

The second part of our Alaskan trip involved taking a cruise from Seward to Vancouver. This trip took 7 days, with 3 port stops (Haines, Juneau and Ketchikan). There are many, many cruise ship companies plying the Alaskan panhandle and many trip options with a few other ports as well.

Based on our personal experience, we highly recommend an Alaskan cruise – ideally on a smaller ship if possible. Here smaller ship means something like 1400 passengers (some of the smaller Holland America ships). Larger ships may have 4000 passengers! While the smaller ships will usually visit the same ports as larger ships, the opportunities for verandah viewing may be limited on large ships and you will be higher off the water. See the page on Cruising for Naturalists for more information about optimizing cruising for natural history observation.

We took a Holland America cruise from Seward to Vancouver on the Maasdam, one the smaller Holland America ships (about 1200 passengers). The approximate route (I used Google Earth to trace the route) is shown here. Future cruises may be different. This cruise stopped at most of the standard ports for such cruises such as Haines, Juneau and Ketchikan. A non-port cruising day was in Glacier Bay. The key natural history aspects of each port are described below.

Approximate route of our Holland America cruise from Seward to Vancouver. Although much of the route traverses protected waters without much in the way of high waves or large swells, there is a more than one-day crossing of the upper Gulf of Alaska that can be rough. Also, traveling from Juneau to Ketchikan requires exposure to the open ocean for a handful of hours. Small boats can avoid most of this latter stretch.

Glacier Bay: This is a lengthy cruise in Glacier Bay National Park and the highlight here are the mountains and glaciers reaching to the sea. While the large cruise ships cannot get as close to the glaciers and shoreline as can the smaller expedition ships the scenery is similar. Although there is a park naturalist on the cruise ship providing narration, it might not cover all of the interesting glacier aspects you are likely to see. Read up on glaciers and glacial landscapes before traveling to Alaska.

Haines: Cruise ships either go to Skagway or Haines. Larger ships cannot dock at Haines’s small wharf where we docked. Most cruise tourists prefer to stop at Skagway because they don’t then have to take a fast ferry to Skagway. In Skagway cruise tourists can take a train ride to Canada for the day or opt for other excursions. We opted to stay in Haines precisely because it we expected it to be much less crowded than Skagway.

The port of Haines. A ship similar to ours is in this Google Earth image. There is room for only one such ship in this port.

In Haines we walked to the public library to check the internet, then returned to the ship. The shoreline at the ship’s dock was a natural cobblestone beach with many interesting rock pebbles and with interesting marine algae. Then there were the birds. Our best views of Pigeon Guillemots were from the dock, while ravens walked the beach. Bald Eagles where in the trees nearby and a short walk (less than a half mile) down the “Beach road” was a lookout among the natural forest. Bald Eagles, common in Alaskan ports, were here. All in all, we had a relaxed day, without the trouble of a round-trip fast ferry and train ride that most tourists opted for. We had Haines almost to ourselves.

Juneau: Juneau is the largest town in the Alaskan panhandle and has the most to see. Unfortunately, cruise ships tend not to have enough time in port (usually about 8-10 hours total). Though this seems like enough it isn’t – when there is 16 hours of daylight! Our suggestions are to visit the following two locations and walk the trails.

The port of Juneau. Note the three four cruise ships in port in this image.

Mt Roberts Tramway

This tramway starts very close to the cruise ship port. The tram ascends to a small museum and shop with an excellent view of Juneau and the surroundings. There are hiking trails that start at the tram top and these are worthwhile – we saw a number of birds we’d not seen anywhere else. We visited in early July and there was still snow patches in places, so it probably is best when most snow has melted.

Mendenhall Glacier

All cruise ships offer tours to the Mendenhall Glacier. It is a very popular attraction. But the tours are too short (our perspective) and too costly for the time required. Reading up before our cruise we discovered that a regular (non-tourist) bus travels the route on the hour from Juneau. It cost something like $10 for a round trip – a steal by Alaskan prices. (The National Forest visitor center at the glacier is 12.6 miles from the cruise ship berth, so don’t try walking!) It turned out that many crew members were also doing this because the bus stopped at the Juneau WalMart. This is a convenient and non-complicated way to get to the glacier. The only thing is that you must make sure of is to not miss the ship’s departure! So play it safe and leave plenty of time to get back, as with any outing from a cruise ship.

Note that you cannot easily access the glacier itself – you see it from across a lake. There are trails that get closer to it, but these take more time than cruise ship passengers have time for.

There is one very interesting trail, one that very few visitors take, in the forest that is reestablishing itself as the glacier recedes. The moss-laden trees are impressive and here we saw a porcupine – with the help of a ranger stationed on the trail.

Because we visited the Mendenhall Glacier after the Mt. Roberts Tramway we had less time than we wished for the glacier’s trails. We could have spent an entire day there.

Ketchikan: We visited the Totem Bight State Historical Park that featured many traditional Totems from the region amongst a natural forest setting. The park is small but worthwhile. We spent more time in downtown Ketchikan than in the other towns; it has a popular touristy section known as Creek Street. The river here has salmon and Bald Eagles are residents – looking for meals. We noticed many Bald Eagles here. With a car more natural areas could have been reached.

Cruising between ports

We have not yet mentioned what can be seen between the main ports.