Welcome to the last post in our Alaska Adventure series we started earlier this summer. I know a lot of you had to reschedule your Alaskan vacation this summer – we sure missed you! But…we wanted to share with you a little bit of an “inside scoop” to get you excited for (hopefully) next summer. (Check out our other parts: Alaskan Bucket List, Restaurant Guide, and Hiking Guide)
In this blog post, we wanted to share with you some hidden gems that Alaska has to offer. Arguably, everywhere in Alaska is “off the beaten path” with many towns not even accessible by road, but there are a handful of places that get a little less traffic than others. Sure, everyone knows about Denali and Juneau and Anchorage…but we’ve got a few other places that might not be on your radar.
A note about Forest Service Public Use Cabins: these are a great option to hike/fly/boat into (and sometimes – drive!) and are a great way to discover new places at a reasonable rate. Check out the Alaska Department of Natural Resources page here. Cabins are rustic and basic but are charmingly beautiful and a welcome respite in the Alaskan wilderness. Most have bunks and a wood stove and a nearby latrine, but you should really bring everything you’ll need. If you’re looking for something a little more “off the beaten path” these are a great place to start.
Alaska is filled with charming, little towns that are completely off of the road system, meaning they’re only accessible by boat or plane. Cordova is a small town of about 2,000 year-round residents in Southeast Alaska, located in between the Copper River Delta and Prince William Sound. Though a little trickier to get to, Cordova offers some amazing wilderness, world-class fishing and stunning views which make it totally worth it. There is a road running through the middle of town, but it ends at the washed-out Million Dollar Bridge 33 miles outside of town. Taking a trip out this one road through Alaskan terrain (going “Out the Road” as locals say) is beautiful, but top it with the plethora of hikes which you can do along the way – it’s a special place to be sure.
My favorite hike is a 2-3 day adventure which takes you past a Crater Lake, along a ridgeline with views of Prince William Sound, and to a Public Use Cabin called Power Creek. Or if you’re looking for a one-day adventure, check out Sheridan Mountain hike, which offers stunning views of Sheridan Glacier and lake below once you get to the top. Be prepared for a little rain – Cordova is classified as a temperate rainforest and the frequent precipitation is what makes the area so green and lush. But I promise – it’s still beautiful in the rain, and it makes the sun oh so special. If you have questions about more things to do in Cordova…I’d be happy to chat with you and share some suggestions!
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park
America’s largest national park is one frequently missed by tourists – and they’re missing out! It’s the size of Yellowstone, Yosemite and Switzerland combined and has some of the most stunning views Alaska has to offer. The park rises from sea level to 18,000 feet. It has some of the largest volcanoes and the highest concentration of glaciers in North America. There are endless opportunities here, but most require a little extra planning. Trails and roads are limited in this pristine wilderness, so you’ll want to do some research ahead of time. Their website is a great place to start. There are many private companies that offer tours and guided hikes through the expanse, or you can hire a plane to drop you and your topographic map off in the wilderness. One trip on my bucket list is the Goat Trail which promises some breathtaking views along with pristine wilderness but is not for the faint of heart.
McCarthy and Kennicott Mine
The town of McCarthy is actually located within Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. While it is on the road system with a 30 mile stretch of pothole laden dirt road, it is definitely a less-visited place and offers some remote, small-town charm – there are only a few dozen people who live there year-round. Five miles down the road is Kennicott mine, which is an excellent historic place to hike around and explore. There is a shuttle van that will take you back and forth to the mine, where several hiking trails offer views of the nearby mountain ranges and of Root Glacier. Be sure to bring your camera – the mine buildings from the old copper mine, the dramatic peaks and the sparkling glacier are a photographer’s dream.
Kobuk Valley National Park
This little-known national park (It’s the least visited national park in the USA!) sits way up north near the small town of Kotzebue. The lack of visitors speaks more to accessibility and location than it does to the park’s offerings, though. It features the Kobuk river, rolling sand dunes, and endless tundra. Wildlife abounds, and the annual caribou migration is a stunning sight. The park is only accessible by plane, and you should bring everything you need. There are no tour operators or rental stores. In the summer, you’ll have 24 hours of daylight to explore, watch wildlife, fish, hike, raft, camp and backpack. Permits are not needed for individuals. Flightseeing tours are available from out-of-town operators and offer stunning vistas.
McNeill River State Game Sanctuary
Looking to see some up-close and personal wildlife while you’re in Alaska? There are many bear sight-seeing tours, but my favorite is the McNeill River State Game Sanctuary. You get the stunning views and safe bear encounters that you do at Brooks Falls but with way fewer people. Located about 250 air miles southwest of Anchorage, this 200 square mile sanctuary is completely inaccessible by road and is free of human development. You’ll need to obtain a permit ahead of time from the Department of Fish and Game, which helps keep the number of people down and protects the bears. If you have the time to spend and do manage to get a permit, it’s well worth it.
Paying a visit to the Arctic Circle is on many bucket lists, and we are lucky to be able to visit right here in Alaska! Many tour operators based in Fairbanks offer flights/tours to take you up north, though there are certainly some based in Anchorage as well. Normally, they include some sort of ceremonial crossing of the circle, a chance to dip your toe in the Arctic Ocean, and sometimes a visit to the Gates of the Arctic National Park for some majestic wildlife viewing on endless expanses of tundra. It’s also possible to drive up yourself and see the sights – the sun won’t set in the summer and offers endless opportunities for pretty views.
Prince William Sound
Located southeast of Anchorage between Whittier and Cordova, Prince William Sound offers opportunities for endless exploration. Glaciers, seals, sea lions, salmon, mountains, meadows, bears and bald eagles are of plenty. There are some remote Public Use cabins which you can fly/boat into. If you have some time and a little knowledge, a kayaking trip is highly recommended to visit some of the many islands and remote land. Whittier, about 1 hour south of Anchorage, is a great starting point for your adventure.
Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes
Part of Katmai National Park, this valley was home to the largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century. On June 6th, 1912, a new volcano formed and sent ash 20 miles into the sky as it erupted for 60 straight hours. Lava flows traveled at over 100 mph. The rivers and other bodies of water that were instantly buried started to boil and made steam vents, giving the valley its name. It’s an excellent place to explore, to learn about volcanoes, and to get off the beaten path. The landscape is like no other and is an excellent place for hiking. Because of the remoteness, it’s definitely suggested to arrange a tour through Katmai National park or a private tour company. If going on your own, be sure to bring everything you need and know how to read a topographic map.
Have you been off the beaten path in Alaska? What was your favorite secret gem?