Western Region: Alaska: USA
Alaska is the largest state in the United States. However, fewer people live in Alaska than in any other state. More bald eagles, the official bird of the United States of America, gather in Alaska than anywhere else in the country. Each year more than 4,000 of the birds flock to the Chilkat River to feast on the salmon that swim there.
Families from Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin, who had lost their farms in the the Great Depression came to this fertile valley to build new lives–some of their ancestors still remain. Nineteen hours of summer sun and loamy soil promised rich harvests when the federal government established the Matanuska Valley Colony in 1935.
In May of that year, some 200 families who had lost their farms in the economic turmoil of the Great Depression were selected to go north to build new lives. Most of them came from Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin, where farming in very cold climates was common. Even so, only some of the colonists were successful.
Many of their offspring still live in the Matanuska Valley, and a few are still on their original farms. Some of the original structures including a church and a barn, have been moved to Colony Village on the Alaska State Fairgrounds at Palmer. More significant as a memorial are the lush crops flanking the country roads backed by rugged mountains.
If you attend the state fair in August, you’ll see Matanuska Valley cabbages weighing in at 75 pounds or more. The Matanuska Glacier, one of Alaska’s largest, can be viewed from Mile 103 on the Glenn Hwy., 58 miles east of Palmer. –Accessible by road year-round. www.palmerchamber.org (907) 745-2880
See native Inupiat Eskimos nurture and raise wildlife in their natural habitat. This city, 33 miles north of the Arctic Circle on Alaska’s Western coast, has been home to the Inupiat Eskimos for more than 600 years. Today the population remains over 70 percent Alaska Native. Kotzebue boasts a colorful waterfront and is surrounded by flowery tundra.
It is a natural haven for wildlife, including caribou, oxen, and bears. Birders travel here with binoculars in hand to observe the migratory waterfowl. The native Inupiat Eskimos observe the wildlife here in a traditional way—with a blanket toss. In this tradition a group uses a blanket to toss an observer high into the air to look for walrus, whales, or other game. The federal lands that surround the Kotzebue Sound protect both wildlife and archaeological sites.
These remote wildernesses can be reached by aircraft from Kotzebue. The Kobuk Valley National Park, for example, has archaeological sites that provide evidence of human habitation from over 9,000 years ago, indicating the arrival of humans over the Bering Land Bridge. The nearby Noatak National Preserve has been declared a UNESCO International Biosphere Reserve.
At Cape Krusenstern National Monument there are 114 beach ridges laid down successively over the past 5,000 years, each one a repository of artifacts that together form a chronology of Eskimo culture in Arctic prehistory. Kotzebue has long winters and cool summers, with ice in the sound from early October through early July. The average ranges from -12°F in January to about 58°F in July. www.nps.gov/state/ak (907) 442-3760
Did You Know: Throughout history Kotzebue has been a trading and gathering hot spot. Due to the three rivers that drain into the Kotzebue Sound, people from interior villages and even Russia traveled here to trade furs, seal-oil, rifles, ammunition, and animal skins, as well as other goods and materials.
Denali National Park and Preserve
View wildlife in one of the nation’s most magnificant national parks. Alaska’s best-known attraction, this park was created as Mount McKinley National Park in 1917, primarily to protect the Dall sheep and other wild animals.
Mount McKinley, the highest peak in North America (20,320 feet), is usually wreathed in clouds, but this remains one of the nation’s most magnificent parks. Wildlife can be seen almost anywhere along the road, but there are no guarantees.
To avoid undue disturbance of the animals, private vehicle access is limited. The best way to see the park is via an inexpensive shuttle bus from the park entrance. Visitors are encouraged to stop first at the visitors center.
Along the 90-mile park road, which traverses a glorious natural tapestry of stunningly colorful tundra wildflowers and offers marvelous scenery, visitors may spot Dall sheep on Igloo Mountain, grizzlies (brown bears) at Sable Pass and many other sites, moose along the eastern section of the road, and caribou.
A visitor may also spy Alaska’s state bird, the willow ptarmigan, or a golden eagle. It is a rare privilege to see wolves, but other canines—the park’s sled dogs, used for winter patrols—demonstrate their work three times daily from Memorial Day to Labor Day. –Open year-round. Park road passable only mid-May – mid-Sept. www.nps.gov/dena (907) 683-2294
Chugach State Park
Hike along trails even ones used by dogsled teams. This awesome wilderness, accessible from Anchorage in the Chugach Mountains, has almost half a million acres of jagged peaks, alpine meadows, lakes, glaciers, and marshy tidal flats and shelters an abundant variety of wildlife.
More than 20 outstanding trails found in this park include part of the Old Iditarod Trail, used by dogsled teams to speed diphtheria serum to Nome in 1925. The segment of the trail outside the park is part of the course for the grueling Iditarod Dogsled Race, which is held annually in commemoration. Although the trails are easily accessible from heavily populated Anchorage, they are sufficiently numerous to remain peaceful even in summer.
Wildlife here includes beluga whales seeking fish in Turnagain Arm and mountain goats scaling the nearby precipices. Telescopes at the Eagle River Nature Center (reached from Glenn Hwy.) focus on surrounding steep slopes where Dall sheep and black bears are normal sightings. Moose are plentiful, and there is a salmon-viewing deck a short way down a fine nature trail that begins at the attractive log visitors center.
The altitude in the park ranges from sea level to 8,000 feet, and the annual rainfall is from 70 inches in the east to 15 inches in the west. The resulting climatic zones nurture an astonishing and beautiful variety of trees, shrubs, wildflowers, lichens, and mosses. –Open year-round. www.dnr.state.ak.us (907) 345-5014
Kenai Fjords National Park
Discover the waters of Kenai Fjords National Park, including its glaciers, ice fields and fjords. The gateway to the almost 670,000 acres of glaciers, mountains, ice fields, and some of the world’s most spectacular coastline is the town of Seward.
The park offers easy access to the groaning spires and ice-blue tongues of Exit Glacier, as well as to Bear Glacier, the largest of the more than 36 named glaciers flowing from the broad Harding Ice Field, and a popular destination for kayakers.
But the main attractions here are the deep, narrow fjords, which can be viewed on boat trips from Seward. From scenic Resurrection Bay the boats pass tide-carved Three Hole Arch and enter Aialik Bay, where bald eagles dive for fish.
At Chiswell Islands, in the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, as many as 50,000 seabirds may nest, including black-legged kittiwakes, tufted and horned puffins, and black oystercatchers with carrotlike bills.
Sea mammals often seen in the fjords include harbor seals and Steller’s sea lions, killer and humpback whales, porpoises, and sea otters. –Park open year-round. Boats run mid-May–mid-Sept.; fare charged. www.nps.gov/kefj (907) 224-7500
Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park
When gold fever struck in 1897–98, some 20,000 to 30,000 adventurers came through Skagway to brave the Chilkoot and White Pass trails on their way to the Klondike gold fields. They suffered immense hardship, many died, and only a very few got rich.
But Skagway prospered, as did nearby Dyea at the head of the trail that crosses the Chilkoot Pass into Canada. The park commemorating the gold rush includes the Skagway Historic District, Dyea (now in ruins), and the American portion of the Chilkoot Trail, as well as Pioneer Square in Seattle, where so many dreamers made plans for the trip north.
For many the dreams ended here in Skagway, where some 80 saloons and gambling halls and the notorious “Soapy” Smith and his cronies were all willing and able to relieve the unwary of their grubstakes.
The aura of those days pervades the Skagway Historic District, with its boardwalks and old false-fronted buildings. A walking tour includes the restored railroad depot (home of the park visitors center), the Mascot Saloon, Goldberg’s Cigar Store, and the Arctic Brotherhood Hall, whose Victorian façade is uniquely embellished with thousands of bits of driftwood.
The Skagway Museum in city hall houses relics of pioneer days and the gold stampede. The native cultures in Alaska are represented by the arts and crafts of the Eskimos, Aleuts, Athapaskans, and the coastal Tlingit and Haida Indians.
The Chilkoot Trail, open when weather permits, is an extremely strenuous 33-mile hike that takes from three to five days and is recommended only for the most experienced backpackers. There are, however, several other hiking trails into the hills outside of Skagway. –Historic district open year-round. www.nps.gov/klgo (907) 983-2921