By Air, Road, and Rail
It is difficult to even begin to comprehend a place like Alaska. Vast, in a way that’s almost indescribable. Arctic tundra and temperate rain forest. The tallest mountain on the continent, so high that its summit is coated with mighty glaciers and, most of the time, shrouded by cloud. Untamed rivers flowing into frigid seas. Wilderness that is—with no exaggeration—big enough to swallow you whole.
The stats on the 49th state, famously known as America’s last frontier, are rather breathtaking. Alaska is home to more than half of the world’s glaciers, and fully 5 percent of its territory is covered by them (a total of 29,000 square miles). Of the top 20 highest mountains in the United States, 16 are here.
It is the only state to face two oceans, and it has more lakes than any other state. In some places, the sun doesn’t set for a whole three months. And with 6,640 miles of coastline, its coast is actually longer than all the other states—combined. Alaska has almost 365 million acres of pristine wilderness—enough to tour through 1 million for every day of the year.
The biggest challenge here is how to explore a place so wild, and so huge, that it can feel impenetrable and unknowable. Fortunately, you’ll find plenty of ways to spirit you through this mostly untouched land. And on several visits to the state, I’ve experienced most of them. All provide spectacular views, and so many stories.
The most obvious, with everything so spread out: air. And indeed, Anchorage, the state’s biggest city, is home to the largest, busiest seaplane base in the nation, at Lake Hood. Residents here fly—a lot—getting behind the controls themselves to hop from place to place. They are licensed at a rate six times the national average. Lake Hood feels like a bustling regional airport. It houses some 1,100 planes, about 1,000 of them privately owned.
On a recent visit, I climbed aboard one of these remarkable machines. Skimming along to takeoff, I soared from the middle of Anchorage. It took mere minutes from lifting off from the lake’s surface to be buzzing over jagged ridgelines. Seconds later, a land of ice unfolded below, snow-capped mountains just behind. The Knik Glacier spread out below, 25 miles long and 5 miles across.
A living, breathing thing, always on the move. Crevasses big enough to swallow an entire vehicle. A snowy superhighway, stretching to the horizon. After flying over, we skimmed to a stop on a nearby wilderness lake before heading back to the city.
And while planes (and helicopters) provide unforgettable experiences, the two best ways to delve deep into the heart of the state, to really feel it beat, remain road and rail. And water-craft, too. I sailed up Alaska’s panhandle on the Royal Princess cruise ship, calling at Skagway and Ketchikan—walking wooden walkways and learning gold rush history—as well as at Juneau, the only state capital in the Union not accessible by road.
After a spin through Glacier Bay, we disembarked at the small port of Whittier, boarding a coach headed north. The mass of Maynard Mountain cuts the small town off from the rest of the state. The solution: a 2.5-mile tunnel. Access to engineering marvel Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel is tightly controlled, just one lane shared by cars, trains, trucks, and buses.
Soon enough, I was rolling on a rail car into the wilderness north of Anchorage. A state as big as this one can be deceiving. Looking at the map, it appears that it might just take a few hours to travel as far as Fairbanks, the second-largest city, which sits right in the middle of Alaska. Instead, riding straight through, the Denali Star train takes a whole 12 hours to reach its destination, and that’s just a portion of the total 470 miles of line run by the Alaska Railroad.
Luckily, the journey is absolutely breathtaking, and I had several stops to make along the way. I was riding in a special domed carriage reserved for Princess Cruise Line guests, with a guide right there to point out the highlights. And there are many.
“This ride, it really shows the vastness. You’ll really experience the size and the scale of Alaska,” the guide, Dillon, explained. “We go where the roads don’t.” While he’s traveled this route many times, he shared that it is constantly changing, always new. Especially the wildlife—he told me you just never know what you’ll spot. Thousands of spawning salmon, leaping out of a rushing river, one day. A grizzly bear, with one of the fish between his flashing teeth, on another. A big bull moose, galloping down the track, just outpacing the locomotive.
My seat was on the top of a double-decker car, but I made frequent trips down the stairs to an open-air carriage to take photos. The train clickety-clacked, the landscape and flora seeming to change at every turn. The carriages proceeded over the bridge at Hurricane Gulch, the longest and tallest on the entire line. A single steel span, it stretches 918 feet, with Hurricane Creek a dizzying 300 feet below.
We reached the high point of the line at Summit Lake, cresting above the tree line at the low point of the Alaska Range (which stretches 600 miles and includes two of the three tallest peaks in the nation). Dillon explained that this was also a watershed, water on one side rolling to the Bering Sea, the other to the Pacific. “They make me say it, folks,” he said, shaking his head. “It’s all downhill from here.”
I spent time amidst the myriad wonders of Denali National Park. On a tundra tour aboard a converted school bus, I was thrilled to spot grizzlies, doll sheep, Arctic ground squirrels, and big caribou, most of them close-up to the side of the vehicle. On a flight-seeing excursion, we zoomed so close to the summit of that namesake mountain. The snowy peak, at 20,310 feet, felt like it existed in a whole different, frozen universe.
And soon enough, I arrived in Fairbanks, the end of my journey. I climbed up to the fourth deck of the Riverboat Discovery, a classic stern-wheeler. I relaxed as it rolled through the town, down two different rivers, the Chena and the Tanana, and out into the woods.
The afternoon voyage included an impressive kayak demonstration by an indigenous paddler, as well as a show flight by a sea plane. A guide on board chatted with the pilot, broadcasting the conversation for all of us to hear. Then he did the same with a fisher, who explained how she smokes and dries salmon, a true Alaskan treat. Finally, we disembarked at an Athabaskan village.
I strolled through, finding a fenced off area with sled dogs. The adorable Alaskan huskies strode along the perimeter, hopping up, tails wagging, to greet those who came to see them. Chatting with their handler, I learned about the young woman’s passion for the canines, and for racing. She gave up everything to do this, to live here, amidst all this beauty, with the goal of competing in some of the state’s most iconic contests, including the Iditarod.
Sailing back to town on the Discovery, that huge wheel on the stern churning away, it’s a reality that just starts to sink in. This state, the Last Frontier—it isn’t just the massive size. It’s also the depth. A place so stunning, it gets into your bones, and it stays with you afterward. Drawing you back, always with more to explore.
This article was originally published in American Essence magazine.