The North Stars
At twice the size of Texas, Alaska isn't easy to boil down into a "best of" list. The fact is, just about every cranny of this behemoth state can be labeled with a superlative: the wildest, the most vast, the most breathtaking. Even though any intrepid family can land in Anchorage, rent a car, start driving, and come upon wildlife and characters that guarantee
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The humpbacks and orcas may be the headliners, but boat tours around the Chiswell Islands in the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge have an enormous supporting cast: hundreds of Steller sea lions, the bulls protecting their harems, and thousands of oceanic gulls, including red-legged kittiwakes defending their cliffside nests against eagles. On a 110-mile day trip with Major Marine Tours from Seward, near Kenai Fjords National Park, you can watch glaciers crash into the sea while you eat Alaskan salmon for lunch. Some cruises include a junior ranger program in which kids join with Park Service rangers to spot wildlife and learn how the glacier got there in the first place.
DETAILS: A full-day cruise costs $109 per adult; kids under 12 cruise for $54. The lunch buffet costs $12. (Major Marine Tours, 800-764-7300, www.majormarine.com)
BEST TRAIN ROUTE
[Alaska Railroad, Anchorage-Denali National Park]
Traveling by rail is a hassle-free and photo-friendly way for families to negotiate the Alaskan interior. The legendary Alaska Railroad makes a seven-and-a-half-hour run from Anchorage to the eastern edge of Denali National Park, with photo ops of 20,320-foot Mount McKinley, the tallest mountain in North America, along the way. Take a three-day round-trip, riding the classic streamliner to the park on the first day (and availing yourself of the dining car, bar car, observation areas, and reclining seats in the passenger coaches) and overnighting at Grand Denali Lodge, perched on a rock outcropping with views of the Alaska Range. On the second day, spot moose, caribou, Dall sheep, and grizzlies on a park tour, then take in the Grand Denali Lodge vistas all over again. Ride back to Anchorage on day three.
DETAILS: Offered through the Alaska Railroad, the three-day tour includes train, wildlife tour, and two nights lodging, and costs $558 per adult, $183 per child age two to 11. A round-trip train ride costs $250 per adult; kids, half-price. (Alaska Railroad, 800-544-0552, www.akrr.com)
BEST REMOTE BEAR VIEWING
[Katmai National Park and Preserve]
Getting to Katmai National Park and Preserve, located on the Alaska Peninsula west of Kodiak Island, can be a schlep: Visitors have to get to the town of King Salmon at the northwest edge of the park, then hop a half-hour bush flight before settling in at Brooks Lodge (16 cabins) or Brooks Camp Campground (60-person capacity). Once there, you won’t be in a hurry to leave. Besides the spectacle of bears gorging on salmon, there’s fishing and a tour of the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, a moonscape created when the volcano Novarupta blew in 1912. Trek in the valley alongside bear tracks the size of manhole covers.
DETAILS: Park concessionaire Katmailand (800-544-0551, www.katmailand.com) offers a three-night air-and-lodging package that includes transportation from Anchorage, a cabin, and park fees for a family of four for $915 per person. The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes bus tour costs $89 per person. (Katmai National Park and Preserve, 907-246-3305, www.nps.gov/katm)
BEST HIGHWAY CRUISE
[Alaska’s Marine Highway (“The Ferry”)]
“Road trip” takes on a whole new meaning along Alaska’s Marine Highway, where instead of whizzing past billboards, you float past whales and glaciers. The best itinerary is a five-day trip starting in Bellingham, Washington, from which ferries depart on Tuesday and Friday evenings in summer. After two days of cruising the Pacific along the British Columbia coast—pass the time lounging in a deck chair, listening to a Forest Service naturalist wax on about wildlife, or watching movies in the ferry’s theater-lounge—disembark on the morning of the third day in Ketchikan, Alaska. Spend the day viewing massive totem poles made by the Tlingit and Haida people. On day four, catch another ferry to Wrangell, stopping for bear viewing and Stikine River sports. On the fifth day, head for Juneau, Alaska’s capital.
DETAILS: The journey from Bellingham to Ketchikan costs $193 per adult ($292 extra for a four-berth cabin with facilities); kids two to 11 travel for half-price, and children under two cruise for free. The Ketchikan-to-Wrangell leg costs $27 per adult ($64 more for a cabin); Wrangell to Juneau, $66 ($78 for a cabin). You can also camp out under the ferry’s solarium. (Alaska’s Marine Highway reservations, 800-642-0066, www.alaska.gov/ferry)
BEST HALIBUT FISHING
There’s prime halibut fishing from the deep salt water off Alaska’s panhandle in the east to Bristol Bay in the west, but the appeal of chartering a boat in Homer with Sea Flight Charters—besides an almost guaranteed catch that can be frozen and shipped home for you—is what you’ll see along the way. You may catch sight of humpback whales or orcas in Kachemak Bay, and you can stop in the historic fishing village of Seldovia. Kids can handle the “chickens” (halibut under 20 pounds), but even Dad will need help reeling in the lunkers, which can weigh up to 300 pounds.
DETAILS: An all-day halibut charter costs $185 per person and includes bait, tackle, and filleting. (Sea Flight Charters, 907-235-7572, www.seaflightsportfishing.com)
BEST RAFTING TRIP
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, in Alaska’s far northeastern corner, is a place so quiet that your thoughts feel like shouts. Tune in to them on Arctic Treks’ 12-day raft trip along the Class II-III Canning River—one of eight runnable rivers in the refuge. For 80 miles, rafters negotiate the braided channels of the Canning, surrounded by the Brooks Range, in arguably the most remote area in the United States. You’ll sleep in tents for 12 days under a blanket of rain or mosquitoes and come to terms with the fact that there is no “inside.” The payoff? The bounty of wildflowers, musk oxen, caribou, wolves, foxes, and the wide-open space of the tundra.
DETAILS: Trips, recom-mended for kids nine and older, depart from Fairbanks and cost $3,350 per person (5 percent discount for families of three or more), including a flight to the refuge. (Arctic Treks, 907-455-6502, www.arctictreksadventures.com)
BEST PLACE TO GET OVERWHELMED BY BALD EAGLES
[Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve]
The swirling confluence of three rivers—the Tsirku, Chilkat, and Klehini—near Haines causes an upwelling of warmer water from 1,500 feet underground, preventing a two-mile stretch of the Tsirku River from freezing. The phenomenon encourages a late run of silver and chum salmon, an all-you-can-eat sushi buffet for thousands of eagles in the Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve. Eagles seem to hang off every cottonwood limb, and you can watch them catching fish and fighting over the scraps.
DETAILS: A full-day guided tour in the preserve plus bed-and-breakfast lodging costs $165 per person. (Alaska Nature Tours, 907-766-2876, www.alaskanaturetours.net)
BEST GLACIER HIKE
It would take an ice cube more than 200 years to make the 13-mile journey from Juneau Icefield to Mendenhall Lake riding the Mendenhall Glacier, but it will take you only about 25 minutes to drive from Juneau to see it. This glacier is Alaska’s best for family visits because of its accessibility: Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center, in Tongass National Forest, is 12 miles from Juneau. Stop in for a quick lesson about glaciers and geologic time. Then lose the crowds by hiking 3.5 miles on the East Glacier Trail loop past 180-foot Nugget Falls for bird’s-eye views of the glacier. Strap on your crampons— experienced trekkers can make footprints atop the giant slab of blue via an unmarked trail. Ask the ranger at the visitor center for details.
DETAILS: Hiking and general information are available at the visitor center (Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center, 907-789-0097, www.fs.fed.us/r10/tongass/districts/mendenhall)
BEST KAYAKING ROUTE
The paddling is easy and the humpback whales are plentiful on Alaska Discovery Wilderness Adventures’ Point Adolphus trip. The three-day, two-night sea-kayaking excursion begins and ends in Gustavus; a charter boat takes you through Icy Strait, and then you’ll paddle along Point Adolphus, a feeding ground for humpbacks as well as orcas, sea lions, and bald eagles. Time onshore includes hiking the old-growth rainforest of Sitka spruce and western hemlocks on Chichagof Island and camping in Tongass National Forest.
DETAILS: The trip costs $799 per person and is recommended for children at least 12. (Alaska Discovery Wilderness Adventures, 800-586-1911, www.akdiscovery.com/adolphus.htm)
BEST SCENIC DRIVE
[Anchorage to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park]
Your eyes will be glued to the road—and the scenery—on the eight-hour trip to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. Two hours outside Anchorage on Glenn Highway (Alaska Highway 1), you’ll see Matanuska Glacier unfolding on the right. Next you’ll catch incredible views of the Wrangell Mountains, including some of North America’s tallest peaks; moose and bears are common throughout the route, and caribou are sometimes glimpsed before Glennallen, where you turn south onto Richardson Highway. At Chitina, five hours from Anchorage, you’ll begin the last—unpaved—leg of the drive. For the final 60 miles you’re traveling over a former rail route that until the late 1930s carried copper from the Kennecott Mine. Your final destination is Wrangell-St. Elias, at 13.2 million acres the country’s largest national park.
DETAILS: Drive cautiously—railroad spikes are still under the road in the unpaved section, occasionally puncturing tires or even gas tanks. Allow three hours to drive this stretch, and carry a spare. (Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, 907-822-7440, www.nps.gov/wrst)