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Alaska is unlike any other state in the union. A trip there is an immersive experience for body and soul—the immense landscape is overwhelming and awe-inspiring, and the people’s determination to live free makes an impression that stays with you forever. Whether you’re able to set foot in Anchorage, Juneau, Sitka or elsewhere, a visit to the state will leave you changed and craving more.

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Anchorage skyline

Anchor down in Anchoage

Begin this trip of a lifetime in Anchorage, where you’re bound to check off several breathtaking bucket list items. Devote at least half a day to viewing one phenomenal archeological gem after another at Alaska’s largest museum, the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center. Here, the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center showcases a number of fascinating items as a part of its ongoing Living Our Cultures, Sharing Our Heritage: The First Peoples of Alaska exhibit, including a stunning Yupik ceremonial seal intestine parka that was found on St. Lawrence Island, Alaska in 1923. This archeological find, along with several displays, including 600 other objects, such as a 1893 Tlingit war helmet and a 1935 Inupiaq feast bowl are a must see.

Another must see is the Alaska Native Heritage Center, where traditional games and dances are performed, along with story telling by members of Alaska’s five major cultural groups. You can also visit traditional native dwellings where guides explain each lodge’s construction and other aspects such as the tall wooden and painted posts that represent different themes. Representatives also answer questions about traditional life of the Athabascan, Yup’ik/Cup’ik, Aleut, and other indigenous Alaskan peoples. Before leaving make sure to stop by and stand in awe of the immense whalebones at the Inupiaq site.

Afterward, head to the 49th State Brewery. If you’re lucky, haddock cheeks will be on special. In native Alaskan tradition, nothing goes to waste and the sweet delicacy of haddock cheeks are therefore only the first course, followed by a rich white bowl of Alaskan seafood chowder. Order one of the brewing company’s signature brews, like the honey infused Baked Blonde golden ale or the White Peach Wheat. Then, head to the outside patio to bask in the sunset unfolding over the snow-capped Alaska mountain range and Cook Inlet. The sky and the landscape are immense.

For a fantastic morning wake-up call, head to the Snow City Café for a steaming latte and one of their famous egg benedicts. The staff is warm and jovial, and happy to point out nearby adventures like biking, blading or running the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail. This multi-use trail offers unparalleled views of Knik Arm, Cook Inlet and six mountain ranges, including the serene “Sleeping Lady” or Mount Susitna, a nearly 4,400 foot tall mountain created from glacier flow over bedrock, and resembling a lovely, recumbent woman who, legend has it, is waiting for her lover to return from battle. The 11-mile trail runs from Second Avenue in downtown Anchorage and finishes in Kincaid Park. Watch for moose and wildflowers along the way at do the trail via bike rental from Lifetime Adventures at the Copper Whale Inn.


Alaska Railroad en route to Denali National Park & Reserve

Double down in Denali

Although there’s much to see in Anchorage, no trip to Alaska would be complete without a visit to the Denali region. This year, Denali National Park & Preserve celebrated 100 years with a year-long series of events highlighting not only the people who lived and live here, but also the stunning topography and history. One fabulous way to get there is to hop the rails.

Treat yourself to a Gold Star ticket by way of the Alaska Railroad. The panoramic view afforded by the glass-top-surround allows views of Dall sheep, trumpeter swans, and 400-pound moose. In July, moose can be seen with their offspring, often twins. As the train makes its way through Wasilla, black bear cubs roust about and hop like puppies in the tall meadow-grass.

Gold Star service also offers dining service depending on your departure time. Chef Alexa Stallone’s Arctic cod is a delicious, flaky, white fish baked with a house-made whole grain mustard crust, and served with rosemary roasted potatoes and broccolini. The trip includes two alcoholic beverages (try Denali Brewings’ Indian Pale Ale, brewed in Talkeetna), unlimited soft drinks and coffee.

On arrival to Denali, arrange to stay in one of the Grande Denali Lodge cabins. Each includes a deck with potted flowers and is surrounded by tall pines. At night, crack-open the window and let in the fresh mountain air filled with the aroma of white and black spruce. The sound of ravens calling to each other from across the valleys and trees permeates and sets the soul at ease.

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Dall Sheep at Denali National Park & Reserve

In the morning, arrange to take a shuttle to the Wilderness Access Center for an interior bus trip through the park. The Tundra Wilderness Tour heads 62 miles into Denali National Park to Stony Hill Overlook, which affords an exceptionally beautiful view of the valleys below. On a cloudless day you can see the base and summit of Denali or “the great one” which stands more than 23,000 feet tall. The tour is utterly breathtaking, and affords close-up views of grizzly bears, Dall sheep, moose, caribou, and willow ptarmigan, still brown, but beautiful (in winter they’ll turn nearly white, a necessary camouflage) hundreds of wildflowers, moss campion and Alaska poppies.

For a five star meal head to the lodge’s Alpenglow Restaurant, where Executive Chef Patrick Norris oversees a spectacular menu that includes salmon carpaccio (boiled quail egg, beet puree, dill oil, chive, caper and red onion) and bananas foster, a succulent rendition of the famous standard dessert.

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Mendenhall Glacier

I know, Juneau

Return to Anchorage by way of round trip ticket and board a plane for Juneau. The second largest city in the U.S. by area is home to almost 300 species of birds, five species of salmon, three species of whales and brown and black bears. The bald eagles are so dense, the count can be likened to numerous flocks of pigeons flying through the concrete canyons of Manhattan. Whale watching and salmon fishing are big pastimes that shouldn’t be missed. One must-do trip is the whale watching tour with Captain Shelby, the commander of the city’s only all-female boat.

Juneau Food Tours’ A Tour with Taste offers a fantastic food and spirits extravaganza complete with local lore. The walkabout takes you into the best restaurants and haunts in about three hours.

If you’re in the mood for more nature, head to the Jensen-Olson Arboretum which showcases the state’s famous blue poppy. A definite must-see is the Mendenhall Glacier, an awe-inspiring vista of blue-white ice rolling in from land. Near the glacier, orphan icebergs dot the lake. Take at least half a day to hike the caverns and trails for an up-front view of its many shades of blue.

Another must is a small boat cruise into a few of the many magnificent coves and passages of Southeast Alaska. In Juneau, board the Alaskan Dream’s Misty Fjords & Wilderness Explorer sightseeing cruise which, unlike the larger Holland America or Princess cruise lines, is able to thread its way among sky-blue icebergs and ice sheets. As a part of the trip you may see orca pods, brown bears, dolphin and salmon jumping in her wake. You’ll also visit the 37-mile long Taku Glacier just beyond the Pacific Northwest’s Coast Mountains. Enjoy exceptional meals cooked by Scott Johnson, including elk burgers and a king crab low-country boil.

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Alaska’s Capital Inn Bed & Breakfast

Have a restful stay at Alaska’s Capital Inn Bed & Breakfast. The owners, Linda (an avid reader and storyteller) and Mark (a retired commercial fisherman) know just when to make themselves available and offer up a side of wisdom with every home-cooked breakfast. It would be hard to find a nicer stay with people more in love with the land and its wildness.

Before departing Juneau, visit the Sealaska Heritage Center where Shaman relics and native regalia are on display. The center is actively engaged in preserving and protecting native languages and traditions and the collection is phenomenal.


Sitka, Alaska

Sit for a bit in Sitka

From Juneau, hop a small plane to Sitka, a beautiful seaside town where most everyone is on a first name basis. Important musts for any Sitka checklist include the stunning overview where the U.S. government purchased Alaska from Russia, the Sheldon Jackson Museum, which houses a collection representing the early 20th century and includes tools, equipment, clothing and ceremonial objects and the Sitka National Historic Park (Totem Park) where a beautiful rainforest hike leads to centuries-old master carvings by the Tlingit and Haida peoples that relay both cautionary and celebratory tales of their history.

A short trip to Alaska opens the heart to America’s unbelievably beautiful landscapes and Native Alaskans whose very identity was forged by their connection to it. Go, if you can, you’ll be left marveling at life and craving wide-open experiences.

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Tagged: Alaska, Destinations, National Parks

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Christine M. Gordon

Christine M. Gordon

Christine covers travel, food, indigenous languages and cultures and wildlife conservation.

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