Summer Hotspot: Anchorage, Alaska

Summer months in North America open up a whole realm of possibilities for travel into higher latitudes. As the deep frost starts to fade and the rivers pick up speed, Alaska turns into a beautiful respite from the sultry weather in the contiguous 48 states.

Pick any reason to make the journey. The Pacific Northwest air that blankets all of southern Alaska is crisp and clean, a noticeable contrast from the city air in New York and Chicago. The landscape is dramatic with mountains soaring out of the dark blue Pacific, snow capped peaks lining the horizons and dark green conifers rolling through the valleys. Wildlife is everywhere, from the ambling moose wandering the fertile plains to the bears and goats dotting the mountain trails. It’s far enough away to feel like a different country yet is filled with the same old fast food and Walmart standbys that you know and trust at home.

If Alaska enjoyed the same weather year-round as it did in July it would be the nation’s most populous state. Instead, visitors enjoy big open spaces, friendly, relaxed residents and over 650,000 square miles of rugged beautiful landscape free of the hustle and stress of the lower 48. In short, Alaska is a blessing.

Considering these virtues, one would expect that the cost of travel to Alaska would be sky high, but surprisingly, ticket prices don’t go up that much over the summer months. Airfare varies from $450-$750 for passage through the summer months with Anchorage hosting the majority of inexpensive flights (though Fairbanks and Juneau can always surprise you).

The dirty little secret about airfare to Alaska isn’t the cost of the ticket though; it’s the cost of the mileage award. Most airlines batch Alaska in with the rest of North America (as well they should) when they calculate the cost of mileage tickets. This means that an economy ticket between Miami or San Diego and Anchorage can only cost 25,000 miles round trip – the same cost as a flight between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Compare the distance between those two flights and it’s easy to see the value.

[image courtesy Erin Drewitz]

Alaska’s ports of entry undergo major facelifts

Visitors returning to Alaska will notice some major changes at several airports across the state. Terminals in Juneau, Anchorage and Fairbanks have undergone some dramatic changes recently that should make traveling through the major ports of entry go more smoothly.

The Juneau International Airport in the state capital has a newly renovated terminal with higher ceilings, more windows, better lights, a larger baggage terminal and more exit options. A light refracting awning was also installed to improve energy efficiency, and other weatherproofing measures such as new siding and the installation of heating coils in pedestrian walkways are now finished. The booth for the Juneau Convention and Visitors Bureau was also relocated to be more accessible to travelers.

In Anchorage, the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport finished up the final touches on more than a decade of work last month. Recent renovations include adding more space for dining options (including local restaurants) and some other aesthetic touches. The airport also just welcomed service between Long Beach and Anchorage on JetBlue, the first new domestic passenger carrier to Anchorage in six years.

The Fairbanks International Airport (pictured above) also recently opened a brand new terminal. Improvements include new boarding gates, higher ceilings, more windows, a larger baggage terminal and curbside improvements. The old terminal was demolished to make way for the new one, which follows modern security standards and has six jet-bridges (up from the former five).

If you could nominate any airport in the U.S. for an upgrade, which one would it be? My personal choice would be Newark Liberty International Aiport, but I’m sure there are some airports in need of attention that I haven’t touched down at yet.

[Photo courtesy the Fairbanks Convention & Visitors Bureau]

Adventure travel Alaska style: Glacier flying

If you’ve ever wanted to see Alaska’s beauty, but had no interest in hunting or fishing or if you think a cruise just isn’t thrilling enough, maybe you should consider a little glacier flying.

Having grown up in Alaska, I’ve always told my visiting friends that the airplane was the only way to unlock the most spectacular sights in the state. Sure, you can drive less than fifty miles from Anchorage to view the Portage glacier from a distance, but a helicopter or airplane tour is something you’ll never forget.

To get an idea what glacier flying is all about, just take a quick ride with Jerry Kallam, a pilot out of Palmer who’s about to take off from the Knik glacier. Strap into his Piper Super Cub by hitting play below. He’ll give you just enough time to fasten your seatbelt before starting the engine:

If simply landing on a glacier isn’t exciting enough, Matthew Keller of Blue Ice Aviation will fly you out for some glacier biking. Matthew claims it’s like mountain biking in Moab, Utah, even though the mountain you’re crossing is actually a glacier. He’ll provide the bikes and the experience includes much of the same views that Jerry captured above.

The other option might be a bit more tame and family friendly. Take the Alaska Railroad up to Talkeetna, where you’ll have an assortment of air taxis willing to land you and a few friends on a glacier, with some even offering a dog sled trip.

My wife and I did this years ago with Era Helicopters, and they even provided a crab lunch right next to the glacier. Think of it as adventure travel without the ice picks and crampons.

For those of you committed to a cruise up the inside passage, you can still get a bit of fresh air as well. Era and Temsco Helicopters both fly glacier tours out of Juneau and Skagway that are often offered through the cruise lines.

Afterward, you can rest assured that you’ve gone above and beyond what the average Alaska tourist or resident has experienced. To really see 99% of Alaska, you’ll absolutely need to leave the roads behind.

Kent Wien writes The Cockpit Chronicles for Gadling. If flying between glaciers isn’t for you, then come along with Kent as he takes you behind the scenes of airline travel, as seen from the pointy-end.

Global warming has a reverse effect on Alaska’s state capital

You’re likely used to hearing about the possibility of cities flooding as sea levels rise, a result of climate change. But in Alaska, that quirky, individualistic state, the reverse is happening – at least in one area.

In an article today from the New York Times, Cornelia Dean reports that Juneau, the only US capital not accessible by road, is actually gaining land as a result of glacial melt. Though it seems counterintuitive, the logistics work a bit like this: glaciers weigh a lot, and as they recede, their pressure eases. The land sort of bounces back, or rises – faster than the rising seas can keep up with it.

Furthermore, glacier runoff deposits sediments into the water, and the Gastineau Channel in front of downtown Juneau is so silty that at low tide it’s more of a mudflat than a channel. Where boats regularly sailed, runners now cross in the annual Mendenhall Mud Run. It’s a fun spin on the rising land, no doubt, but it belies the seriousness of the changes.

Read more about Juneau’s rising land problems here.

Only in Alaska: Welcome to the 49th state

Alaska is one of those places where your expectations are met and often exceeded: the mountains are gargantuan and they’re everywhere, there are moose wandering the cities, and folks still run trap lines and live in log cabins. Yes, people still mush dogs (an Iditarod champion even lives in my small town), and many Alaska Natives still practice subsistence living.

Though the stereotypical Alaska is alive and kicking, there’s a whole lot more to the state. Environmental issues such as climate change and Pebble Mine, the political scene in 2008 (remember Sarah Palin? We’ve still got her), and an 800-mile pipeline that supplies a sizable sip of oil to the rest of the country all make Alaska more than simply a vast and beautiful place where hairy hippies live in off-the-grid harmony.

I hope to highlight some of the quirky qualities of living in or visiting Alaska – and there are plenty. Here are some stats, just to get you started:

  • Alaska is the largest state in the US. It’s more than twice the size of Texas, which means that if you cut Alaska in half, Texas would be the third largest state. In general, it’s about the one-third of the size of the continental contiguous US.
  • Though it’s not the least populated state (that would be Wyoming), it’s the least densely populated. There’s just under one square mile per person.
  • The population is approaching 600,000. Around half that number lives in Anchorage (279,000), and another 35,000 are in Fairbanks. The state capital, Juneau, has 31,000 residents, while Ketchikan, Sitka, Homer, Soldotna, Wasilla, and Seward collectively add roughly another 40,000. That leaves only 215,000 residents scattered across a massive sweep of land. It can be pretty quiet up here.
  • It’s the only state with a capital that’s not accessible by road.
  • Alaska has the US’s largest national park (Wrangell-St. Elias, 13 million acres), national forest (Tongass, 17 million acres), second-largest national forest (Chugach, 5.5 million acres), and the highest mountain (Mt. McKinley [locals call it 'Denali'], 20,320 ft).
  • Though English is the official language, it is still possible to hear Yupik and Iñupiaq spoken. It’s not common in the cities, but in rural villages many residents still use their native languages.

With the widest spaces, the highest peaks, a somewhat surprising political influence, and a romantic place in Americans’ imaginations, it’s no wonder that Alaska receives $1.6 billion in tourist dollars. But if you can’t afford the trip this summer, I hope to provide a virtual tour of some of unique aspects of the state. Stay tuned!