Arriving in Alaska, you can actually feel the air around you being refreshed by photosynthesis. Surrounded by majestic snow-capped mountains blanketed with lush green vegetation, the feeling is unavoidable. With every breath that you feel fill your lungs, you sense an equal and opposite breath filling the cells of the flora that proliferates around you.
Located northwest of Canada, Alaska is the largest and most sparsely populated U.S. state. Instead of people, the state is covered in wildlife and natural wonders including volcanoes, glaciers and some seriously picturesque lakes! In other words, if cruising through fjords, watching glaciers calve and/or spotting unique wildlife is your cup of tea, this is where you want to be. So, prepare your best box of chocolates and bunch of flowers, because you are about to fall head over heels in love with Alaska.
1. 50% of the world’s glaciers are located in Alaska!
When I first read this statistic, I couldn’t believe it. Surely, Antarctica or Greenland must have more glaciers than Alaska, right? Wrong. In fact, it is currently estimated that Alaska is home to a whopping 100,000 of the world’s total 198,000 glaciers. Together, these 100,000 glaciers cover over almost 75,000 square kilometres. What’s more is that many of Alaska’s glaciers are easily accessible by cruise ship meaning that you can witness the sound and fury, the icy colours and the massive icebergs they shed up close and personal.
2. Alaska is one of the best places in the world to witness the Northern Lights
Each winter, travellers come to Alaska from all across the world to see the natural spectacle of the Northern Lights. For those unfamiliar with the natural phenomenon, it’s pretty much like a (silent) rock show orchestrated by the sun and our Earth’s atmosphere. The lights occur when charged particles emitted from the Sun during a solar flare penetrate the Earth’s magnetic shield and collide with the atoms and molecules in our atmosphere. These collisions result in a series of little bursts of light called photons that we see appear as the Northern Lights.
While the Northern Lights occur year round, they are more clearly seen on cloud-free, dark nights from late autumn to early spring. Summer’s near-constant daylight makes seeing them near impossible. The Interior (especially Fairbanks where they can be seen 243 days of the year!) and Far North regions are the best places in Alaska to witness the Northern Lights. That said, the lights can be spotted from anywhere in Alaska.
3. Alaska may be the largest U.S. state but it’s FULL of small town charm.
Did you know that the population density in Alaska is one person per square mile? To put this in perspective, if Manhattan had this population density there would only be 22 people living there! While Alaska’s ‘big’ cities of Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau may offer the widest range of tourist activities, accommodations and transport options, the heart of Alaska lies in the quirky small towns that are scattered across the state.
4. You can SUP and kayak around icebergs
Experiences don’t get cooler (pun 100% intended) than paddling through the iceberg-laden waters at the base of one of Alaska’s active glaciers. Watch seals skim past or puffins soar overhead as you drift quietly through the humbling wilderness of Alaska. The experience will take your soul and stir it into a cup of positive feelings. When you’re out on the water don’t forget the valuable lesson that we all learnt watching James Cameron’s ‘Titanic’. No, I don’t mean the lesson that soul mates do exist in the form of Jack and Rose and that the universe is cruel for letting Jack die. The lesson that I am referring to is of course that almost 90% of an iceberg is underwater, so even if the captain (guide) says that your ship is unsinkable you must take extra care not to hit the icebergs. You can organize your experience of a lifetime departing from Seward (just south of Anchorage) with Liquid Adventures.
5. Alaska’s famous Independence Day celebration is a marathon race up a mountain called Mount Marathon!
Held every July 4th in the town of Seward, the Mount Marathon Race is undoubtedly the most unique celebration of the country’s independence. The race is more of a high-speed scrabble as participants spend 75% of the 6 kilometres (3.5 miles) race crawling through mud and shale up a 900-metre near-vertical cliff, and then back down again. As the trail is so close to the town, spectators can watch every torturous step of the race from the finish line. Standing at this finishing line, listening to the community cheer for every participant as they make their final steps you can really get a sense of the spirit of America.
6. Unique wildlife is eeeeeeeverywhere
Puffins and otters and bears – oh my! Within the largely untouched lands of the state of Alaska lies the homes of some of the North America’s most iconic wildlife. Unsurprisingly, one of the most popular activities in Alaska is wildlife viewing. Alaska even has its own “Big Five” that rival Africa’s famous quintuplet. Instead of lions, elephants, cape buffalo, rhino and leopards, Alaska’s “Big Five” refers to grizzly bears, moose, caribou, wolf and Dall Sheep.
Breathtakingly beautiful albeit devastatingly fatal, we humans have a natural fascination with volcanoes. With more than 100 volcanoes and volcanic fields, Alaska boasts 80 percent of all the active volcanoes in the United States and 10 percent of those found worldwide. 50 of these volcanoes are considered to be active; having erupted since the 1700s. Most of these active volcanoes are located near each other along the Cook Inlet and down through the Aleutian Islands. However, inactive volcanoes can be found in every region of the state. In recent years, Alaska has averaged at least one volcanic eruption per year. So be sure to download Jimmy Buffet’s ‘Volcano’ to your music player before you arrive!
8. The endless scenic drives will put your daily commute to shame
Confucius once said that ‘Roads were made for journeys, not destinations’. Nowhere is this statement truer than in Alaska. Wherever you drive, you are surrounded by the humbling wilderness: mountains tower over the road, animals stroll beside the road and small charming towns appear at the end of the road.
One of the most scenic drives in Alaska is the Seward Highway. Beginning in Anchorage, the drive meanders 204 kilometres (127 miles) between cliffs and ocean to the harbour town of Seward. To your left, sits the 3000-foot mountains of the Chugach State Park. To your right, sits the dramatic shorelines of the silty Turnagain Arm. The Seward Highway has actually been named an All-American Road by the U.S. government, suggesting that the road is a destination worth visiting in itself.
9. Alaska has more lakes than people to swim in them!
Here’s a fun fact to store away for your next trivia night – there are more than 3 million lakes across Alaska. This means that if you visited one lake in Alaska every day of your life, it would take you over 82 years! Much like the rest of Alaska’s natural features, these lakes are incredibly scenic and provide endless opportunities for outdoor fun (even in the wintertime!). What’s more is that Alaska’s largest lake, Lake Iliamna is almost the same size as the entire state of Connecticut.
10. Alaska is home to the highest mountain in North America – Denali
Located in south-central Alaska, Denali sits at 6190 meters (20,310 feet) earning it the title of the Everest of North America. Accordingly, Denali is recognised as the third highest of the Seven Summits — the highest mountains on each of the seven continents — following behind Everest in Nepal and Aconcagua in Argentina. Don’t be surprised if you don’t get to see the mountain when you visit Denali National Park, however, as it plays by Mother Natures schedule hiding behind cloud cover two-thirds of the time. The reason for its shyness is that it is the meeting point for cold, dry air travelling down from the north and warm, moist air travelling north from the open ocean. As the air masses collide, they produce lots of clouds hiding the mountain.
Elle is a world-wanderer, star-gazer, dog-lover and meteorologist in the making. When she’s not busy studying the Earth’s climate, she’s off experiencing it first hand all around the world. Over the past 3 years, Elle has traveled to 31 countries across Europe, Asia, Oceania and the United States and has no plans of stopping anytime soon. You can follow her colorful adventures on her Instagram and Facebook.