Alaska is a vast wilderness that remains one of the few states not yet fully tamed, not yet fully explored, and not yet fully conquered by the modern world. This is why it is so unique and alluring to many travelers. As the largest state in the U.S., Alaska is a wonderland of natural beauty with some 3.5 million lakes, more than 3,000 rivers, 16,000 square miles of glaciers, and over 85 million acres of national parks and wildlife refuges. On top of that, the state is home to North America’s highest mountain peak – Mount McKinley – at 20,320 feet, not to mention 16 other mountains that rank in the top 20 of the highest peaks in the U.S.
All this breathtaking beauty set in a rugged and diverse landscape teeming with wildlife makes Alaska the perfect paradise for outdoor adventurers; whether you enjoy salmon and halibut fishing in the coastal waters, rock and ice climbing of dangerously high mountain peaks, white water rafting through the mighty Yukon River that slices through Alaska’s interior valleys, or dog sledding through endless miles of ice sheets, Alaska is the place to be – the epitome of the “Great Outdoors”. There is even something for the more modest outdoorsman as the state’s ecosystem supports a rich set of flora and fauna, perfect for those who like to admire from afar; you can go bird-watching and visit bald eagle preserves like the Alaska Chilkat or natural habitats like the Inside Passage of Southeast Alaska, the Kenai Peninsula, or Prince William Sound; or feast your eyes on artistic leaps made by the humpbacks and orcas on their annual return to Alaska in the summers. Whatever is your outdoor poison, Alaska avails itself.
The first inhabitants of Alaska were Asiatic groups who are believed to have crossed the Bering Strait land bridge around 12,000 BC. The first Europeans to explore Alaska were the Russians in 1741 who went on expeditions in search of otter fur pelts. They sailed from Siberia all the way to the Aleutian islands. Alaska, however, was not settled until 1784 and colonization efforts only picked up in the early to mid-19th century. But Alaska was never fully colonized nor profitable for the Russians, and so they decided to sell the territory to the U.S. in 1867 for $7.2 million.
In the 1890s, gold was discovered in Alaska and the Yukon Territory, resulting in a wave of miners, prospectors, and settlers migrating to the state. The increase in population led to the conferral of territorial status in 1912, and in 1959 Alaska became a state. During WWII, Alaska experienced the only successful foreign invasion of the U.S. since the 1812 war. The Japanese invaded and took control of three Aleutian islands, which they planned on using to lure American aircraft carriers where they would be vulnerable to heavy land-based bombers. National pride in the U.S. was hurt by this occupation and the U.S. sent more than 34,000 soldiers and sustained heavy losses just to reassume control of the area.
The latter half of the 20th century saw an oil boom when oil was discovered at Prudhoe Bay. Unfortunately, a disastrous oil spill occurred in 1989 resulting in damage to thousands of miles of coastline. Today, Alaska remains a boom and bust state heavily dependent on its resources. Concerns facing the state nowadays include overfishing, deforestation, and the debate over whether its Arctic National Wildlife Refuge should be drilled for oil.
Alaska’s regions are many. Its southeast region, which encompasses the Inside Passage, is one of the most heavily populated and consists of myriad islands whose bays are breached by whales and land forests are ancient, thick with moss, and roamed by bears. The Inside Passage is also home to the state’s capital, Juneau.
Alaska’s south-central is characterized by crenellated coastline in the northern Pacific and mountain country in the south. You’ll find the tallest peaks in North America here and hundreds of beautiful valleys as well as picturesque fjords on the Kenai Peninsula that make you think you’re in Norway. The coastal forests of this region are roamed by wolves and grizzlies and the rivers have some of the biggest salmon in the world. The heart of south-central is Anchorage, the largest city in Alaska, but you’ll also find delightful towns and the natural beauty and wonders of glaciers, fjords, and wildlife in the Kenai Peninsula, Prince William Sound, and Denali National Park and Preserve.
Alaska’s interior is the land of Eskimos and Inuits. It is also home of the tallest mountain in North America, Mount McKinley. Other highlights in this region include the central city of Fairbanks, the Denali National Park in the south, and the Chena Hot Springs in the east. The region also fosters the most diverse array of wildlife, featuring herds of caribou, Alaskan moose, wolves, grizzlies, and migratory waterfowl.
In the Artic region of Alaska, you’ll find treeless tundra and ice-filled seas. There are the occasional animals like black bears, moose, and caribou, but the region is sparsely populated and devoid of human civilizations, except several Eskimo villages, which you can visit and stay overnight.
Alaska’s southwest includes the Aleutian islands with its barren coasts and colonies of puffins, seals, and walruses. It is a sparsely populated region where you’ll find marshy tundra, more than 60 volcanoes, and national parks and preserves like the Katmai, Lake Clark, the Wood-Tikchik State Park, and the Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve. The region is best enjoyed for its sport fishing and big-game hunting, but also offers opportunities for river rafting, hiking, camping, and sea kayaking.