Get off the beaten track and see the real Alaska

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.
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.Ron Niebrugge / Alamy / Alamy
/ Source: Forbes Traveler.com

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.

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.

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.