Image: Forest Service cabin
Ron Niebrugge  /  Alamy
To really experience a night in Alaska, you need to do it on your own, in the middle of nowhere. Forest Service Cabins dot the entire state, most of them accessible only by charter boat or plane.
updated 10/20/2008 10:46:42 AM ET 2008-10-20T14:46:42

Alaska’s scale dwarfs. Once you get up here, you discover just how much blank space there is between points. The truth is, with twice the area of Texas and more coastline than the rest of the United States combined, Alaska is a world of its own, and a trip to the Final Frontier is more like visiting a foreign country than just another state.

Most people congregate in the same towns in Southeast Alaska, which can have upwards of 8,000 cruise ship passengers walking the streets in a single day. But getting off the beaten track and into the real deal — local Alaska, instead of tourist Alaska — is one of the easiest things in the world to do: just turn left when everybody else is turning right.

More than 700,000 people a year take a cruise to Southeast Alaska to take in a landscape full of mist and trees, and the sight of whales' tails in the glacial waters. It’s easy to see why Alaska’s state capital is in Juneau, the heart of Southeast, since the region is the state’s greatest hits collection.

But just ten minutes from the state capital building, you can be all alone, watching water fall more than two thousand feet down a mountain, and maybe even spotting a wolf or two. To try and make the wildlife sighting a sure thing, head to Southeast’s Anan Bear Observatory, one of the few places where black and brown grizzly bears fish the same stream. Or take a ship past a few whales and enter Tracy Arm, a lesser-known cousin to Glacier Bay where the face of the ice fills the entire channel, seals bask on floes, and the sound of the glacier breaking up can be heard for miles.

Southeast is also a fisherman’s paradise — all those bears, seals and whales are eating something, right? The wise angler heads to wilderness camps like Favorite Bay Lodge, which combines the peak of rustic comfort with a chance to catch a halibut the size of a coffee table.

Southcentral revolves around Anchorage and its suburbs, and while half the state’s population lives here, there are still “Watch for Moose” signs on its main roads. It's where the wild and the mild meet, where five-star hotels have views of forests that only see a few non-Sasquatch footprints a year.

A short tram ride up Alyeska, to the Seven Glaciers Restaurant, a half-hour south of Anchorage, showcases the best of both worlds: views that stretch across Cook Inlet and take in the eponymous seven glaciers, and a restaurant that serves up local ingredients in a AAA four-star kitchen. And when the dining is done, Southcentral is also home to the state’s biggest party — the Fur Rendezvous, which only ends when the Iditarod dog-sled race begins.

Image: Float plane to Zachar Bay Lodge
Zachar Bay Lodge
Take the one-stop pure Alaska experience at Zachar Bay Lodge on Kodiak Island. With enough shades of green to make an Irishman cry, Kodiak is also home to the world's largest bears.

Head north into the interior to Alaska’s second city of Fairbanks, the best place to sit in  natural hot springs and watch the northern lights. The interior is also home to Denali, or Mt. McKinley, as people from Down South call the highest mountain in North America. The mountain is visible from the campus of the University of Alaska, and the jawdroppping view can make studying nearly impossible.

Fairbanks also is home to the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics, held twice a year, during the Fourth of July and over the Christmas holidays. Forget that every-four-years stuff, these athletes never get a break from training for such events as the ear pull (like tug-of-war, but the string goes around the opponents’ ears) or the knuckle hop, where no portion of the body but knuckles and toes are allowed to touch the ground as the athlete crosses the arena.

Image: Seven Glaciers Restaurant
Alyeska Resort
The Chugach Mountains look like a barrier separating Anchorage from the rest of the state. To get a peek over the top, head to Seven Glaciers Restaurant on a tram from Alyeska Ski Resort.
In the end, towns in Alaska are just kind of an excuse, a place to spend a little time before heading into the wilderness. Isn’t that why people come to begin with? For those endless expanses of mountains or tundra or glaciers or ocean? From almost any point in the state, in under an hour you can be all by yourself; if you want to intensify that feeling, try flying into a remote lodge, like Favorite Bay or Zachar Bay; or simply book U.S. Government accommodation at its best, one of the rustic Forest Service Cabins that dot the landscape like exclamation marks. Wake up and see what the world looked like before glass-box architecture came into fashion.

Alaska might have a reputation for the rough and rugged, and to an extent, that’s true. Gum boots are okay for most formal occasions, and Gore-tex is always appropriate. But the fact that the state takes a little getting used to means that the people who live here genuinely want to be here. And that makes all the difference in the state’s attitude, resulting in a destination like no other. Alaskans know they live in the best spot on earth, but are they really happy to share it? You betcha.

Photos: Amazing Alaska

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  1. Mendenhall Glacier

    Located in Mendenhall Valley, the Mendenhall Glacier is a massive glacial system that stretches 120 miles. It is approximately 12 miles long, and 1.5 miles in width at the face. It is located 12 miles from downtown Juneau. (Danny Lehman / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Bald beauty

    A bald eagle dives for dinner in one of the many remote lakes within the Tongass National Forest. With almost 17 million acres, the Tongass is the nation's largest national forest covering most of Southeast Alaska, surrounding the famous Inside Passage. (Ron Sanford / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Scenic adventure

    Experience the panorama of Juneau and the Inside Passage from 1,800 feet above the city on the Mount Roberts Tramway, one of the most visited attractions in Southeast Alaska. (Stuart Westmorland / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Bright nights

    A cruise ship floats on Auke Bay near Juneau, Alaska. The summer sky is still bright at 11:00 p.m. (Bob Rowan / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Flying high

    Take a scenic flight over the 1,500 square mile Juneau Icecap. Flight-seeing tours are the only way to see the glaciers and fields that make up the fifth-largest ice field in the Western Hemisphere. (Lee Cohen / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Awe inspiring

    A humpback whale shows its fluke during a dive while a fishing boat cruises by. Humpbacks may be seen at any time of year in Alaska, but during spring, the animals migrate back to Alaska where food is abundant. Whales seen in Alaska during the summer months are from Hawaii. (Buddy Mays / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Kobuk Valley National Park, Alaska

    Less than 2,000 visitors last year, but almost 500,000 caribou each spring and fall. In other words, the only crowds you’ll experience at Kobuk will likely have antlers and four legs apiece. In fact, this roadless expanse, just north of the Arctic Circle, is so remote that the U.S. Geologic Survey still hasn’t named some of its river drainages. But for those who are prepared for a true wilderness experience, rafting the Kobuk River, hiking the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes or climbing among the Baird and Waring ranges that ring the park can be the adventure of a lifetime. (Tom Walker / Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Cool city

    A winter view of the Anchorage skyline with the Chugach Range in the background. The Chugach Range forms a 300-mile crescent outside the town of Valdez, Alaska, east of Anchorage. (Robert Olsen / ACVB) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Majestic mountain

    Denali, North America's tallest mountain at 20,320 feet, is visible from Anchorage even though it's 140 miles to the north. (John Brecher) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Reindeer games

    Mel Leskinen, left, talks as Albert Whitehead walks his pet reindeer Star along 4th Avenue in downtown Anchorage, Alaska, Feb. 2, 2005. Half of the nation's population thinks most of Alaska is covered in ice and snow year-round. One out of every eight believe that the 49th state is either a separate country, a U.S. territory, a commonwealth or just aren't sure. Thanks to a poll commissioned by Gov. Frank Murkowski, Alaskans know a bit better the misperceptions Americans have of their neighbors to the north. (Al Grillo / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Lighten up, moose

    A bull moose with Christmas lights tangled in its antlers rests in a field in Anchorage, Alaska, on Dec. 25, 2005. The lights, which did not seem to bother the moose, could pull off as the he wonders through Anchorage neighborhoods. (Al Grillo / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Wow, that's a snowman!

    A young boy poses in front of a 16-foot tall snowman in a residential neighborhood of Anchorage, Dec. 24, 2005. Thousands of people trekked to the house to see the creation. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. A refreshing ride

    A windsurfer rides the wind as he jumps across waves in the Turnagain Arm south of Anchorage, Alaska on May 18, 2006. (Al Grillo / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. The Iditarod

    Mitch Seavey mushes past a patch of open water on the Yukon River after leaving Ruby, Alaska on Friday, March 12, 2010 during the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. (Bob Hallinen / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Glacial beauty

    An iceberg from the Portage Glacier is locked in the frozen Portage Lake south of Anchorage, Alaska in this Jan. 6, 2004 photo. The glacier, which is a major Alaska tourist destination near Anchorage's southern edge, has retreated so far it no longer can be seen from a multimillion-dollar visitors center built in 1986. (Al Grillo / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Artistic awe

    Alaska's favorable climate makes ice carving a popular activity and spectacle for visitors. (Anchorage CVB) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Flight of freedom

    Tom Melius, with the Fish and Wildlife Service, left, Lisa Pajot, second left, and Gary Bullock, second from right, with the Bird and Treatment and Learning Center, and Pat Lampi, with the Alaska Zoo release a bald eagle in Anchorage Alaska Sept. 25, 2006. The eagle was cared for by the Bird and Treatment and Learning Center after it lost its tail feathers and was released after the feathers grew back. (John Gomes / AP file) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Snow-plowed

    Two snowmobiles collide, knocking one rider off, as they race around the track during the Fur Rendezvous Sno-X races in Anchorage, Feb. 26, 2005. The 17-day winter festival includes the World Championship Sled Dog races, dog weight pull, snow sculptures and other events to break up the long Alaska winter. (Al Grillo / AP file) Back to slideshow navigation
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