Only in Alaska: The tallest mountain in the world

Can you name the tallest mountain in the world? Did Mt. Everest just pop into your head? If so, you’re close – but not totally correct.

Mt. Everest, at 29,029ft, is the highest mountain in the world. But Everest’s base is way up on the Tibetan Plateau at 17,000 feet. So although this mountain reaches an elevation higher than any other on the planet, its base-to-summit height is actually closer to 12,000 feet.

If we measure from base to summit, Alaska’s Mt. McKinley (known locally by its native name Denali, or “the high one”), is the tallest mountain in the world. (Caveat: the folks in Hawaii might take issue with this, as Mauna Kea stretches over six miles, though only 13,796 feet of those are above water.)

But Denali’s base sits near 2,000 feet, giving this mountain a rise of 18,000 feet. In fact, Denali has an entire wall that stretches longer than many mountains at 13,652 feet. Wickersham Wall, as its called, is one continuous drop – and yes, people have skied it. Crazy people. Another fun fact about Denali is that it actually has two summits. The South Summit is the taller of the two, and naturally the one most climbed. The North Summit is no shorty at 19,470 feet, but is often ignored by those collecting peaks. When it comes to conquering mountains, elevation definitely matters.When it comes to seeing the tallest mountain in the world, North Americans are in luck. The peak can be viewed from afar in Anchorage, Alaska, the biggest city in the state. The best accessible views, however, are out of Talkeetna, a small town about a two-hour drive from Anchorage. This tiny town also serves as the base for the climbers who come to make summit attempts on Denali, so you can chat up those folks with crazy sunglasses tan lines about their experiences.

Coming up next: flight-seeing Mt. McKinley.

Only in Alaska: Celebrating solstice

Before I moved to Alaska, I assumed that solstice celebrations were for druids and/or hippies, and imagined long-haired folks with crowns of leaves preforming incantations and ceremonies on both the longest and shortest days of the year. While there are no doubt spiritual observances of the elliptical path of the sun going on in Alaska, up here you’re just as likely to have a grocery store clerk wish you a “happy solstice.” Daylight here is more than passive background lighting; it dictates our moods, energy, and productivity, to say the least. Even travelers here for less than a week find themselves affected, if only because they can’t sleep at night for all the sunshine.

With nearly 24 hours of daylight in the summer, and nearly 24 hours of darkness in the winter, many Alaskans intently observe solstices. In summer, the day is both a celebration of all that fabulous daylight (better than any serotonin-enhancing drug, I assure you) and a bit of mourning for the fact that the day also marks the beginning of the sun’s retreat. In winter, we wholeheartedly celebrate the days getting longer, even though we won’t see normal daylight hours for months after either holiday.

A common way to ring in the longest day of the year is to climb a mountain and watch the sun circle the horizon rather than dip below it. If you’re looking for something more formal, plenty of organized, non-Druid celebrations are held across the state for summer solstice; following are a few ways you can honor the longest day of the year.

Moose Pass Solstice Festival: Only 25 miles from my home, the Moose Pass festival is where I’ll be shaking my booty when the sun finally sets at 11:45 p.m. (and quite possibly when it rises again a few short hours later). A tiny little celebration, the Moose Pass festival showcases local artists, and rain or shine, there’s sure to be some local bluegrass band playing next to a small beer garden.

Seldovia Summer Solstice Music Festival: Also in my region of the state, the Seldovia festival is all about the music. Because the town is off the road system, visitors will be treated to a show on the “trusty Tusty” (the ferry Tustemena) the Thursday before the festival.

Fairbanks Midnight Sun Festival: An entire weekend lined with events, the Midnight Sun festival includes a midnight baseball game (with no artificial lighting, of course), a 10k fun run (it begins at 10 p.m., so you can still watch the sunset – even if you have to walk it), and a street fair.

21st Annual AWAIC Summer Solstice Festival: Held by the Abused Women’s Aid in Crisis, this weekend-long street fair in Anchorage is likely one of the biggest in the state. With a line-up of musicians from the Lower 48, Anchorage’s streets will certainly be packed with both locals and tourists.

If you’re in a place where there’s no celebration, worry not. My favorite way to observe the day/night is to simply slap on some mosquito repellent, take a short hike, and watch the sun set, keeping an eye on the glowing horizon, waiting for the sun to rise again in the middle of the night.

Only in Alaska: Driving the Alaska highway

Driving the Alaska Highway (casually called the “Alcan”) is the ultimate road trip: more than 1400 miles of road, filled with mountain ranges,spindly boreal forests, po-dunk diner-and-gas-station towns, bison herds, scenic detours and flying gravel. Constructed as a link between Alaska and the contiguous US, the highway was completed in 1943, though the regions harsh environment forces nearly-constant upkeep.

If you decide you need a vehicle in Alaska, which is wise for extended stays considering the lack of decent transportation and the vast expanse of the state, you’ll need to get it up here. You’ve got three options: put your car on a barge and fly up, drive your car onto the ferry and ride up, or drive the Alaska highway.

The last option is likely the least expensive, and gives you a sense of just how remote Alaska is. Though the Alaska highway officially starts in Dawson Creek, Canada, and ends in Delta Junction, Alaska, your drive will be much longer. With gravel sections, frost heaves, inclement weather, and long stretches between towns, it’s important that you’re fully prepared for the unique conditions of driving to Alaska.

  • First, when planning your road trip make sure you give yourself enough time. You’ll likely be averaging less than 60 miles per hour on the trip – count on 40mph when you calculate your driving time. I’ve driven the Anchorage-Seattle route five times, and each trip has taken me at least three days; it’s around 52 hours of driving. On these drives I’ve encountered snow, road construction that held me up for at least an hour, full hotels, and a dead iPod battery that left me in radio silence for hours.
  • Even if you’re planning on staying in roadside motels — and have booked rooms in advance — bring a warm sleeping bag in case you break down. My first two trips I got rooms at the last minute, but now I usually set my tent up on the side of the road, out of view, somewhere. It’s much cheaper and I’m less tempted to sleep in and get the day’s driving started later.

Ditto for food; consider making up a batch of sandwiches before you leave so you’ll have something besides Doritos to dip into while driving.

  • Make the usual preparations such as checking your oil, filling your tires, making sure your spare tire is full and that your car is in good shape.
  • Have a detailed map so that you can gauge your next gas stop. Remember that from September to May, many small gas stations and motels close for the season. Your best bet is to fill up whenever you come across a gas station.


No trip up the Alcan is complete without a soak at Liard Hot Springs. An almost ethereal environment, with turquoise soaking pools, gentle waterfalls, and steam blurring the leafy green trees above, Liard feels worlds away from the endless highway.

A long, scenic side trip is up the Stewart-Cassiar Highway, which winds 450 miles east of the Alcan. The Cassiar is narrower and than the Alaska highway, twistier and with fewer services. However, a cool detour (from the detour) is the border downs of Stewart and Hyder. These little towns sit next each other from across the Canadian-American border, and the only access to the American Hyder is either threw Stewart or up the narrow, 70-mile Portland Canal.

You can also visit Skagway or Haines via the South Klondike Highway or the Haines Highway, respectively. Both towns connect to the Alaska Marine Highway, another type of road trip in itself.

For more dispatches from the 49th state, click here!

Only in Alaska: Combat fishing and the rules of engagement

Combat fishing: if these two words bring to mind images of men dressed in camouflage, battling for giant fish, then you’re not too far off from reality. Though Alaska might seem like the sort of land where scenes from A River Runs Through It play out in real life, you’re actually more likely to see roadside rivers crammed with anglers tossing hooks and sinkers into the water in the hopes of snagging one of the many salmon working their way to a spawning site.

Up here, salmon swim up streams that pass through major cities. In downtown Anchorage, salmon-rich Ship Creek is a 100-meter sprint from the high-rise hotels and office buildings of the business center, and in the middle of the rail yard and port. Mid-summer, you can spot anglers shoulder to shoulder in the creek as you wander through the Saturday Market.

The salmon are so plentiful, in fact, that as they are finishing their life spans you can actually reach into the water and pluck one out with your hands (it’s illegal to do that, though). In the fall, after the fish are all spawned out and dead, the smell of rotting salmon permeates any land within 100 feet of a stream – just driving over a bridge in your car is enough to catch a whiff of decaying fish.

But when salmon are still full of vigor, filling clear streams with their red and silver bodies as they struggle upstream to spawn, their rich meat is sought-after by sport and subsistence fisherfolk alike.With much of Alaska remote and rugged, the intersections of salmon streams and highways, or salmon streams and cities, become hotspots of fishing mayhem, where fishermen stand shoulder to shoulder as they pull their limits in. It’s an odd sight, as you’re driving through miles of mountains, to suddenly come upon hundreds of people sardined together in a single line along the banks of a pristine river.

If you decide you want to join in the intensities, there are a few rules of engagement you should follow. I snagged these from the Peninsula Clarion:

  • Don’t take someone else’s spot
  • When you hook a salmon, yell “fish on!” If someone near you yells this, take your line out of the water.
  • If someone else has a fish and your lines become tangled, cut your line.
  • Wear protective glasses to protect your eyes from flying hooks and sinkers.

In general, be respectful and safe. And once you snag that giant salmon, don’t forget to take the usual bear precautions. Though the hundreds of people lined along the banks of the river may appear to be playing some adult version of “Red Rover,” you’re actually in the middle of some very wild country.