Everything you’ve heard about Alaska is true. It’s a big land of big bears, big whales, big mountains, people, rivers, glaciers, lifestyles, dreams, salmon, landscapes and more. It’s got an outsize global reputation—say “Alaska” almost anywhere on Earth and people can conjure an image of this mythical place. One can easily visit the Great Land (my favorite nickname for it) and experience everything that’s in the guidebooks and postcards.
But as you’d expect in a place this large, there is much more to the state than its innumerable icons. For every humpback whale breasting the water, there is a chirruping chickadee in a January birch forest, thriving at -40 below. For every glacier that flings shards of ice into a wilderness bay, there is a placid pond with lilies at bloom and dragonflies buzzing. Every delectable salmon filet may be followed with a spruce tip sorbet or a reindeer steak. You can join hundreds of visitors gawking at bears from a crowded boardwalk—or catch a glimpse of a lynx by yourself on a wilderness trail.
What is inexorably true, from either the popular or the metaphysical perspective, is Alaska’s size. At 663,267 square miles, it could be a minor continent. Its biggest mountain, Denali, is not only North America’s tallest at 20,320 feet, it is the world’s biggest single massif; with its base at 2,000 feet, the resulting 18,000-foot+ of mountain exceeds Everest. It has the world’s largest caribou herd; the world’s biggest land carnivore, the Kodiak bear; the largest ungulate, the moose; the largest single salmon fishery, Bristol Bay’s 50 million fish a year.
The latter also exemplifies the more scratchy side of the state. The proposed Pebble Mine, which would be the world’s largest gold mine, is in the Bristol Bay headwaters and would almost certainly damage the salmon fishery—that is, the sockeye, silvers and pinks that help comprise the marine cuisine visitors associate with the state.
Moose are abundant, and visitors marvel at the sight of these majestic animals that reach 2 tons and 7 feet at the shoulder. But one reason for their abundance is the state’s long campaign of predator eradication that has included machine-gunning wolves and killing mother bears with their cubs in winter dens. Then again, one reason the moose-clad landscape is so picturesque is the longstanding ban on billboards, a progressive law that puts Alaska in the same company as Vermont.
So a thoughtful visitor to Alaska will find and enjoy all the marvels—easily, in fact—and take the time to learn about and ponder humanity’s uneasy handshake with this natural splendor. Alaska is unsurpassed, but the traveler should not bypass real understanding while gawking at its incredible character.
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Alaska’s beauty and summer daylight from mid-May to mid-September make it different to the lower latitudes. Many tours operate mid-May to mid-September, with the exception of those into Denali (mid-June to the end of August). Check individual areas for visiting at other times.