ALASKA TOURISM IS TIED to the cruise industry. In 2011, according to the AK Office of Tourism Development1, around a third of all visitors to the state were associated with cruises in some way.
This style of travel precipitates certain demographic trends: More than half of all 2011 visitors were 55 or older — 24% were over 65. Many are retirees, who now have the time and money to travel frequently, or for whom Alaska is the “dream trip” they’ve been saving for for decades.
The bottom line: A good chunk of Alaska’s tourist population has cash to spend, and local operators oblige by providing some pretty sweet opportunities to spend it.
But just because you’re splurging doesn’t mean you’ll be stuck with the cruiser herd. Here are a few recommendations of where/how to spend on activities and accommodations that cater to independent travelers.
1. Get on the water.
There’s a lot happening on the water in Alaska that has nothing to do with 3k-passenger cruise liners.
The state is full of whitewater, and Denali is one of the easiest places to access it. The north-flowing, glacier-fed Nenana parallels the Parks Highway by the national park entrance, and operators typically float two trips on it: the mellow, scenic McKinley Run, and the faster Canyon Run, which includes several class III and IV rapids.
I rafted the Canyon with Denali Raft Adventures ($89, 2hrs) and quickly learned to appreciate the supplied drysuit.
Fishing is another hugely popular on-the-water activity. There are salmon in the rivers, trout in the lakes, and monster halibut and cod out at sea.
A couple I met had gone deep-sea fishing in Cook Inlet and snagged a 160lb halibut. The captain had to shoot it in the head with a rifle before they hauled it aboard. They shipped 90lb of flash-frozen halibut meat home to Utah.
A bit more crowd-oriented is a wildife/glacier-viewing day cruise out of Seward. The Alaska Native-owned Kenai Fjords Tours offers a few different routes, from 3.5 to 9 hours and $64 to $214/person.
You’re likely to see sea otters, puffins, bald eagles, seals, sea lions, whales (we caught a breaching show put on by a particularly social humpback), and maybe even a bear, along with the calving glaciers, rookery islands, and shoreline peaks of Resurrection Bay.
2. Hike with a guide.
Alaska is a land of backcountry, settled by people who hiked out, found a piece of ground that looked good, and built a family cabin on it.
You can get a sense of the vastness of the land by going on your own backcountry trek. Denali is a good place for it — the national park covers 6 million acres and has relatively few established trails. There are endless opportunities for shorter hikes in southcentral and interior Alaska as well.
Regardless of how long you’re on the trail, I recommend going with a guide. With a company like Alaska Nature Guides, you’ll be led by a legit local, someone who blazed their own trail and made a home in the bush. Their insights about the land, its history, its flora and fauna, will add layers of meaning to a hike you won’t get otherwise.
ANG is one of few companies with Gold Level Certification in the Adventure Green Alaska program, which recognizes them as an industry leader in environmentally and culturally sustainable practices. They run guided hikes in Denali State Park (east of and adjacent to the national park), as well as around Talkeetna Lakes Park, just outside of town. These range from 2.5 hours to 7-day treks, with rates from $50 to $1,550. Custom trips are also available.
3. Fly to the mountains; climb if you can.
The Alaska Range defines the topography of the state, a crescent spine that curves from the southeastern border with Canada, up to just south of Fairbanks, and back down to the sea at the mouth of Cook Inlet.
The section most people know and visit, though, is the area surrounding Denali, North American’s tallest peak at 20,320ft, and its two sidekicks, Foraker (17,400ft) and Hunter (13,965ft).
Catching the view is nice; one of the best places to do so is from the back deck area of the Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge. But you get an entirely different perspective once you’re actually in the mountains, standing on a glacier, looking up and around at a jagged world of white. To do that, you need a plane.
A handful of companies run “flightseeing” tours out of Talkeetna, K2 Aviation being the biggest. It’s also possible to fly in from the Denali area. Whoever you fly with, sign up for a glacier landing for the full effect (with K2: $385/person, 2hrs).
This is also how climbers access the mountains. In fact, the flight I was on was charged with delivering a stack of hot pepperoni pizzas to Denali base camp, where a group of Korean mountaineers had just returned from the summit. They looked pretty beat, but seemed stoked to get the pies.
For information on climbing, check the national park’s mountaineering resource page.
4. Stay at a boat/plane-accessed lodge.
Fox Island is a stop on two Kenai Fjords day cruises (see above), but you can stay overnight at the Kenai Fjords Wilderness Lodge. The property comprises eight cabins (each with capacity for a family of four) lined up between the rocky beach and the back tidal lagoon. The communal lodge building is being completely rebuilt for the start of the 2013 season.
Package overnight stays that feature a day cruise on departure day start at around $350/person. Chef-prepared meals and a naturalist-led walk around the island are included in the rate. Kayaking and fishing trips are available at additional cost for overnighters; they’re part of the deal if you stay more than one night.
On the opposite side of the Kenai Peninsula, Tutka Bay Lodge has an even more remote feel to it, accessed by water taxi from the Homer Spit or sea plane. Tutka is one of the fjords cut into the southern side of the larger Kachemak Bay, and the entire area features snowy peaks and Sitka spruce-covered ridges that run right into the ocean.
The lodge is set back on a beach opposite a small headland — you can’t see it until you’re almost on top of it. But once you’re there it’s quite expansive, with a massive central deck (with hot tub and sauna), and pathways that connect the main lodge building and six luxury cabins of varying size. I stayed in the Eagle’s Nest Chalet (sleeps five), which probably has the best view.
The $975/person rate includes three chef-prepared meals a day, a one-hour massage, wine tastings, and pretty much any guided activity you can think of — kayaking, hiking to glaciers, mountain biking, local fishing and boat trips, nature walks, and cooking classes (deep-sea fishing and flightseeing are both available for $500 extra). [Note: My accommodations and activities on this trip were arranged and paid for by the State of Alaska Tourism Office.]