Alaska’s size, location, geography, and sparse population (at barely one person/square mile, Alaska is the least densely populated state) present serious problems for the traveler. Meeting these challenges is part of the Alaskan Travel Experience, but, for many of us Lower-48 road trippers, they can become major hurdles if the traveler doesn’t think them through and respond appropriately.
Most RV campers simply drive to the nearest destination on their itinerary, find a campground, stay for a while, see the sites, and then move on to the next one. For a variety of reasons, that isn’t going to work in Alaska.
To start, it isn’t even clear that one should drive to get there. From our house to Anchorage, Google tells me that it is 3100 miles, one way. That is about the distance all the way across the continental US. At our normal driving range of 300 miles per day, that means it would take us a week and a half just to get to Alaska. And, round-trip, that is a lot of mileage on travelers and their vehicles. And don’t forget the gasoline, camping and eating expenses along the way.
But the real kicker is what travelers have to do once they arrive in Alaska. Look at a highway map of the state, and you will find that, in reality, one can only reach four out of the twelve bucket list parks from roadways! So, obviously, a vehicle is useless getting to the other eight and has to be stored while visiting those other parks. Maybe Alaska isn’t to be seen that way.
In fact, many Alaskans don’t travel by car or truck either. Alaska has the largest number of airplane pilots per capita of any place in the world – the bush plane is the major mode of transportation between villages and cities. And the Alaskan Maritime Highway – a ferry boat network along the Inside Passage and up and around the coast of the Gulf of Alaska – is another popular way to travel. In fact, Juneau, the capital of the state and third-largest city, is the only state capital that has no roads into (or out of) it! The only way to get to Juneau is by airplane or boat. So, anyone traveling in Alaska will be doing significant chunks of their visit without a car or truck!
Unless a traveler owns a boat or airplane then they will need to hire someone else to transport themselves and their stuff. And that means two important things: First, they will be shelling out some money. And second, they will be moving according to someone else’s schedule, not their own. I certainly understand now why people choose to see Alaska via cruise ships. But you can’t see all of the parks on the bucket list by boat either – eventually you will also have to fly, and a lot of those flights will be in small airplanes – not exactly for the faint-of-heart. (I write this a day after a report of a fatal, mid-air crash between two tourist planes outside of Ketchikan, Alaska!).
I cannot understate how much a trip to Alaska requires in carefully managing time and money. I tried, for a week, for example, to figure out how to get from Kenai Fjords National Park (out of Seward), to Brooks Lodge in Katmai National Park. There simply are no regularly scheduled flights and a charter flight, for two people, was going to end up costing thousands of dollars. Oh, and the charter could only get us part-way there because only float-planes can land at Brooks while the plane out of Seward only had wheels. (Yep, float planes only land on water and wheeled planes only land on airstrips, so travelers have to figure that into all plans as well.)
Transportation isn’t the only problem. Places in these parks have, historically, not had large numbers of visitors. Plus, their small size is part of the charm. Brooks Lodge – a classic spot in Katmai National Park where people watch bears catch salmon in the Brooks River – only has 11 cabins and prime summertime bear-watching season is only 60 days long. You can do the math yourself, but clearly, there isn’t a huge number of options for people, especially if, like us, travelers want to spend more than a single day at the park. The park’s solution to the limited resources, and I applaud this answer, is to hold a lottery. So 18 months before the summer you want to go see bears catch salmon in a river, you have to submit an application and wait for the drawing. If you win (and I do not know the odds of winning) then you get to start planning around the dates that the concessionaire gives you, a three- or four-night stay in the summer a year and a half in the future. Don’t expect to just fly to Alaska and book a stay on a whim – planning starts way in advance.
We did all that, of course, because of my insistence on seeing the most of every park on my bucket list. But there are many people for whom that kind of advance planning (and spending) are not possible. Just a warning, this is travel in Alaska.
Here is another wrinkle we have never faced before. I’ve mentioned that, in at least eight of these parks, there are no roads. So the legitimate question is ‘How do you see them?’ In the two Historical Parks, Sitka and Klondike Gold-Rush, you can walk them, or take a tourist train to another section, and then walk that part. But what do you do when the park is truly immense, – Wrangell – St. Elias, the largest park in the entire system, is twice the size of the state of Maryland – walking around that park is not a feasible option. And if there are no roads or highways, then you aren’t driving it either.
The answer in two of the parks (Glacier Bay and Kenai Fjords) is a day cruise on a boat. That will work just fine in these parks because the major attraction is actually the interface between the land and the sea – and the glaciers calving where land meets ocean.
But in four or five of the parks, there are no roads and no boats, and the distances are measured in tens or hundreds of miles, so hiking isn’t going to do it for you unless you can hike for weeks or months, in the wilderness, on your own. Some people can do that, but us old baby-boomers have much lower limits.
The option, which is new for us, is what is called a ‘flightsee’. It is, pretty much, what the name implies. A small number of people (in our case, probably just the two of us) dress up warmly, pack some snacks, and take our cameras into a small ‘bush plane’. The pilot, hopefully well seasoned, takes off and then guides us through a couple hours of sightseeing from the air. If the weather, timing, and personalities are all aligned, we might even get to land once or twice, take some pictures and maybe a short hike. Our view of the park is short, but, hopefully, intense.
These experiences are expensive and risky, but, in many cases, are the only way to see the park. Aniakchak National Monument, for example, is a spectacular park at the southern end of the Alaskan peninsula. It is accessible only by floatplane (landing on a lake in the middle of the park), or by foot-hiking through wilderness. In 2016 it hosted just 16 visitors all year, fewer than the number of people who climbed Mount Everest. We have chartered a ‘flightsee’ out of King Salmon, Alaska, for several hours at $550/hour to cover plane, fuel, and pilot expenses. Weather permitting, we will land in Surprise Lake, in the middle of a volcanic caldera with spectacular views in all directions. Will it be worth it? I don’t know, but am hoping it might be the highlight of the Odyssey.
We have also arranged a couple of additional flightsees. One is to view the three parks above the Arctic Circle – Cape Krusenstern, Kobuk Valley, and Gates of the Arctic – There is no other way to get to them. Another one is booked to see the mountains and glaciers of Wrangell-St. Elias, the nation’s largest National Park because, again, there is no other option to see what the park has to offer.
My major point in this essay is only that Alaska’s location, geography, and population present serious challenges in designing a rewarding travel experience, especially if you have a ‘National Parks Bucket List’. We won’t be seeing Alaska like we see the rest of the country.