In 1896, the discovery of gold in Alaska triggered the Klondike Gold Rush as more than 100,000 people migrated in search of treasure, wealth and adventure. While the legendary Gold Rush has long since passed into history, today Alaska entices the modern-day traveler with promises of treasured memories, a wealth of panoramic views, and unparalleled travel adventures to be found in The Last Frontier.
Since Alaska is separated from the continental U.S. (CONUS) by neighboring Canada, traveling to Alaska is an adventure in itself! To give some idea of the distances involved, a drive from Seattle, Washington (the closest major city in CONUS) to Anchorage (Alaska’s largest city) would be a trip of almost 2300 miles. From the heartland of the U.S., a drive from Kansas City to Anchorage is a daunting 3500 miles. Traveling from the East Coast, a drive from New York City to Anchorage is a formidable 4400 miles. And finally, to drive from Miami (the most distant major city in CONUS) to Anchorage would require a staggering 5000 miles on the road!
Certainly only the most adventurous of travelers and those with plenty of time to spend will choose to drive to Alaska, and doing so will require travel through Canada. As with any trip to or through a foreign country, it’s important for the traveler to comply with border regulations and the laws of the country being entered. Violation of U.S. and/or Canadian law when crossing the border could result in confiscation of restricted items, fines, and in extreme cases, the loss of your vehicle and/or imprisonment! Please ensure you are fully familiar and compliant with all laws and document requirements before attempting to cross into Canada. The U.S. Embassy website is a good source of information for the U.S. traveler planning to enter Canada.
Having successfully crossed the border, drivers will most likely find themselves on the famed Alaska Highway, which stretches about 1390 miles from Dawson Creek, British Columbia to its point of termination at Delta Junction, Alaska. Commonly referred to as the Alcan, this modern, well-maintained highway is dotted with gasoline stations, eating establishments and motels. In some places, however, the traveler may encounter significant distances between facilities, and cell phone service may be interrupted for long stretches. So the savvy traveler will be sure to plan ahead and stop often for gas, advice, and information. And don’t attempt this long trip in any vehicle that’s not in good mechanical condition. A lonely stretch of highway without cell phone service is the last place you want to break down or run out of gas!
As with any major roadway, you will likely run into highway repairs or maintenance along the way, and stretches of gravel road may be encountered. The risk, however, is not without its rewards. The Alcan is renowned for its breath-taking scenery and wild-life sightings that can include bear, bison, moose and caribou. There are also attractions along the way to tempt the curious sightseer including visitor centers at Sheep Mountain, Haines, and Beaver Creek. Stop at Muncho Lake Provincial Park for its spectacular views, camping and lake tours. After crossing into Alaska, be sure to visit the National Wildlife Refuge at Tetlin where more than 180 species of birds may be found at various times throughout the year.
For those who’d rather not drive to Alaska, flying is certainly an attractive option. While round trip flights from CONUS to Alaska can cost thousands, if you’re flexible with your travel dates you may find a money-saving fare to sweeten the deal. Of course, for the biggest savings, take advantage of Space-A flights to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson from military Space-A installations in California, Delaware, Florida, or CONUS locations. Or, if you prefer, you can fly Space-A into Eielson AFB, AK (about 25 miles from Fairbanks) from military terminals in California, Florida, Kansas or New Jersey (to name a few). Please note there are also frequent Space-A flights back and forth between Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage and Eilson AFB or Fort Wainwright in the Fairbanks vicinity.
A third option for getting to Alaska is to embark on a cruise ship from Seattle, Vancouver BC, San Francisco, Los Angeles, or even Miami. Cruise lengths can vary from a brief three nights to an extended 41 nights, depending on the departure port and the cruise selected. Tours are also available that combine the acclaimed luxury of cruise travel with exciting land-based tours in Alaska for the best of both worlds at one, combined price. Or the traveler may elect a hybrid approach by flying to Alaska and returning to CONUS aboard a cruise liner, or vice versa. Please see your favorite travel website or talk to your travel agent for more information on Alaskan cruises. Ultimately, whether you choose to drive, fly, or sail, an Alaskan vacation is sure to please!
Be prepared to pay a more than you’re used to for just about everything in Alaska. Almost all goods must be shipped in from long distances and that adds to their price, and inflates the general cost of living. As a result, virtually everything is more expensive including food, gasoline and hotel rooms. You may be able to save on the cost of a hotel by taking advantage of Temporary Military Lodging (TML) at such military installations as Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Fort Wainwright, or Eielson AFB. Of course, like Space-A travel, TML is offered on a space-available basis, so the prudent traveler might consider making other reservations in advance. Then, if TML should become available, you can cancel those other reservations and enjoy significant savings!
Alaska is renowned for the many outdoor adventures it offers. Vacationers can enjoy unsurpassed hunting, fishing, camping, skiing, hiking and wildlife-viewing on a grand scale unique to this frontier state. Visit Denali National Park, home to Denali (Formerly Mount McKinley), which stands more than 23 thousand feet above Sea Level! A prime location to get away from the hustle and bustle of modern life, Denali National Park occupies more than six million acres, while motorized accessibility is limited to a single, 92-mile long highway running through it. However, to protect this pristine wilderness, at mile 15 of the Denali Park Road travel becomes restricted to bicycle, foot, shuttle bus or a variety of available bus tours. Weather permitting, visitors may enjoy views of Denali towering above the park, and may catch glimpses of the abundant wildlife native to the region. For more information on Denali National Park, available bus tours, and other available park attractions, please visit their website.
Stop in Fairbanks to ride the impressive Riverboat Discovery! Modeled after the paddle-wheeled boats of old, the Discovery offers a three-hour cruise up the delightful Chena River. See the lovely homesteads located along the river and view the landing and take-off of a bush-piloted, small aircraft from the river itself. See fish being smoked and dried by Alaskan natives and view the fascinating Iditarod Dog Kennel, home of the late Iditarod champion Susan Butcher. And the highlight of the river tour is a memorable visit to a historical Athabascan village where you will see examples of beautiful, hand-tanned hides and furs as well as impressive beadwork clothing. Examine examples of genuine, native, hand-made shelters and enjoy a presentation offered by members of the Athabascan Tribe. Before and after the tour, shop at the River Boat Discovery Landing for a wide selection of keepsakes and souvenirs, or enjoy a drink, snack, or full meal at your leisure.
While in Fairbanks, be sure to take in the many sights at the University of Alaska Museum of the North, the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum, and the Morris Thompson Cultural & Visitors Center. The kids will love North Pole, Alaska (just outside Fairbanks) and its famed Santa Claus House. And, my personal recommendation: don’t miss the chance to stop at one of the local restaurants to taste the freshest, best-tasting, and most satisfying salmon you’ll find anywhere!
Visitors should not miss the opportunity to travel via the Alaska Railroad which offers stunning views in a relaxed and comfortable setting. The Denali Star runs every day between Anchorage, Fairbanks, Denali, and Talkeetna, while the Coastal Classic carries passengers every day between Anchorage and Seward. The railroad also offers service to/from Whittier and Anchorage for the benefit of cruise passengers. Depending on your taste for luxury and the size of your budget, you will want to take advantage of any of three levels of service at varying price points: the standard Adventure Class, the GoldStar Dome Service and the Wilderness Express Dome cars. What a great way to travel Alaska while sitting back and enjoying the unparalleled views of the magnificent Alaskan landscape! For more information, please visit this website: http://www.alaskatravel.com/alaska-railroad/.
Rental cars are readily available in all major cities in Alaska. If you’re driving, the trip from Fairbanks to Valdez (the site of the infamous oil spill of 1989) is a full-day trip on the Richardson Highway. Along the way you’ll view dazzling vistas of mountains, rivers, glaciers and vast valleys. With a little luck, you will also thrill to views of caribou, moose and perhaps even bear. The scenery alone is worth the trip but there’s plenty to do in Valdez as well! You can catch a boat tour of Prince William Sound to view glaciers, sea otters, sea lions and even whales! Visit the Worthington or Columbia glaciers, the Valdez Museum and Historical Archive. Helicopter tours, kayaking/canoeing and sightseeing tours are also offered and camping is available nearby.
There are so many more things to do and see in Alaska – to list them all is just beyond the scope of this article! To plan your trip, I strongly recommend you visit the Alaska’s Official Vacation Information Guide at www.travelalaska.com. This informative website offers a comprehensive view of the options available for vacationing in Alaska, travel maps, a free travel guide, things to do, planning help, an extensive collection of photos and more.
For more information on Temporary Military Lodging, Tickets and Tours, and Space-A terminals in Alaska, please refer to the following points of contact:
1. Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson: North Star Inn – C-907-384-5660. Tickets and Tours – C-907-753-2378. Space-A Terminal – C-907-552-3781/4616/8588.
2. Eielson AFB: Gold Rush Inn – C-1-888-AFLODGE, C-907-377-7885. Tickets and Tours – C-907-377-2722. Space-A Terminal – C-907-377-1854/1250.
3. Seward Resort: C-1-800-770-1858, C-907-224-2654/2659.
May you and your loved ones enjoy unrivaled adventure and happy travels in the amazing state of Alaska!
Author: Bob Biel, SMSgt Ret. USAF, Staff Editor
Reprint from May–June 2016 • Volume 46, No. 3