Various Travel Authors
By Jim Farber
“OK, guys,” said our straight-arrow tour guide, David, over the PA system of our massive motor coach. “In a couple of minutes we’ll be pulling into Tok (pronounced Toke), Alaska. Remember, your yellow chits are for dinner at the motel. The pink chit is for breakfast.
Ordinarily I’d avoid this type of total-control touring like the plague. But for many people making their first trip to Alaska, this type of itinerary-driven, yellow-chit, red-chit tour offers the best way to cover a large amount of territory in a limited amount of time. It may not answer the call of the wild, but it is comfortable and secure. And that has its appeal for anyone out to explore a land as vast as Alaska and the Yukon Territory.
First-time visitors to Alaska can be justifiably intimidated by its size. The largest state in the union, it spreads out over 663,268 square miles, but its resident population is fewer than 1 million, which ranks 47th in the United States. It is home to America’s tallest mountain, Mount McKinley (20,320 feet), and the 800-mile-long Alaska Pipeline. It is a land of big mountains, big tourism, big bears and big oil. The residents pride themselves on their rugged lifestyle: Hunting and fishing are the state’s favorite sports, and most homes have an industrial-size freezer.
In Alaska wildlife and people live in close proximity, and it’s not uncommon to see a moose grazing by a freeway off-ramp or a black bear rummaging through the garbage. It’s a state with comparatively few roads, where as many people have pilot’s licenses as driver’s licenses.
It’s also a state with a fantastic history, and one of the best reasons for signing up for an extended land tour is to experience the rich legacy of the Alaska-Yukon gold rush. Rough-and-ready towns like Skagway were the jumping-off points for the gold fields. By beginning a tour in this historic town, it’s possible to retrace the gold trail by riding the narrow gauge White Pass and Yukon Railroad to Lake Bennett, where thousands of gold seekers wintered and built boats in anticipation of the spring melt. The railroad ends in the town of Carcross. From there visitors travel by road to Whitehorse (capital of the Yukon Territory) and follow the Yukon River to the rustic town of Dawson, where at the peak of the gold rush the streets teemed with 30,000 avid gold-seekers (both men and women), including a young lad from Oakland, Calif., named Jack London.
Another major attraction of Alaska is the state’s vast system of national parks. Of these, Denali National Park is the prime destination because it is home to Mount McKinley. The easiest way to get there is by the scenic Alaska Railroad, which winds its way north from Anchorage and terminates in Fairbanks.
In summer the bustling town of Denali offers a wide assortment of accommodations, from rustic cabins and campgrounds to expansive resorts. Several tour companies offer guided trips into the interior of the park, but based on our experience — a man-your-cameras free-for-all whenever anyone spotted a bear, a caribou or a dall sheep — I would recommend using the park service’s friendly green buses, which allow visitors to get on and off as they tour the park.
On our excursion my girlfriend and I felt so deluged by the constant chatter of the bus driver and the battle for window space that we got off. When the bus pulled away, we walked the next three miles to the Eielson Visitors Center accompanied only by the sound of the wind and a view of the snowcapped twin summits of McKinley in the distance. Only then did the true splendor of Denali reveal itself.
Another spectacular way to discover Denali is by air. Several flight-seeing companies offer bird’s-eye views of the park. We flew with a company called Fly Denali, and our pilot was Trent Griffin, who told us that only a third of visitors ever actually see the summit because of its natural cloud cover. These visitors are called the 30 Percent Club.
Some travelers are intimidated by Alaska’s size or assume they have to see it all in one visit. There are lots of alternatives, including traveling on a massive ship and taking a programmed tour with a sock monkey.
WHEN YOU GO
Start your trip by going to the state’s official website, wwwtravelalaska.com. There you can request a free official state of Alaska vacation planner that includes maps, places to go, where to stay and how to get around.
For organized cruise/tour packages: www.hollandamerica.com/find-cruise-vacation/special offers.
Denali National Park: www.denali.nationall-park.com.
Flight-seeing: Fly Denali, www.mckinleyflighttours.com
White Pass and Yukon Railroad, Skagway, offers several different trips including one by steam locomotive. For reservations: 800-343-7373 or wpyr.com.