Earth, water and sky: Exploring Alaska’s five regions

Perhaps no other state is as defined by terrain as Alaska. With 350 million acres of land and 6,640 miles of coastline making it the largest state in the USA, Alaska’s enormity also represents its significant history, myriad cultures, and abundant activities.

As such, understanding the unique features of the state is an important part of planning a trip to Alaska. From rainforests to glaciers, Alaska is distinctive, and adventures here are shaped through each of its different regions and the activities within them.

If you’re a hiker eager to lace up your boots, Alaska delivers – no matter your level of experience. Here, hikers explore the Mt. Dewey Trail, near Wrangell © Courtesy of Travel Alaska

Alaska by land

No matter your interest, it’s a good bet Alaska has a land-based opportunity to whet your appetite. Whether taking a few days or several weeks to explore Alaska’s trails or highways, it’s a good idea to understand your options before determining an itinerary.

If you’re a hiker eager to lace up your boots, Alaska delivers – no matter your level of experience. Looking for a casual stroll or shorter interpretive hike? Southeast Alaska has excellent options for day hikes where history, Alaska Native culture, and lush rainforests combine for a unique hiking experience within easy reach of a town.

If you’re looking for some serious elevation, state and federal lands near the Southcentral city of Anchorage provide stellar views from the heart of the Chugach mountains. Alternatively, drive toward the Interior and Denali National Park, where hiking on the tundra means sharing space with the animals and birds of this popular preserve.

When you’re ready to rough it in Alaska’s far north the Arctic region offers a sense of grandeur unmatched by other places © Courtesy of Travel Alaska

If you’re a backcountry explorer with experience navigating remote wilderness areas, head for Alaska’s less-traveled places on a multi-day backpacking trip. Guide outfitters provide everything from transportation to routes specially designed to maximize time, experience level, and interests. When you’re ready to rough it in Alaska’s far north – some of the most rugged, raw wilderness in the world – the Arctic region offers a sense of grandeur unmatched by other places, especially the Brooks Range, Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, and Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

When you think of Alaska, you might not immediately think of cycling, but Alaska’s biking scene has risen dramatically thanks to the vast availability of terrain. If you’re looking to take to the trails or paths on two wheels there are plenty of options – the ski trails for winter use become stellar mountain bike routes in the summer and fall months, with single tracks also prevalent in communities like Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Juneau.

More than five percent of Alaska is covered in year-round ice, making for unforgettable glacier experiences © Courtesy of Travel Alaska

If road biking is more your speed, you can rent bikes in Fairbanks or Anchorage for use on paved pathways popular with locals; a great way to see Alaska’s largest cities from the ground. To cover more miles and tackle steeper hills, consider an e-bike, now available for rent or on a tour in many Alaska cities. Have a family in tow? Ask about tagalong bikes and trailers for little ones. They’re perfect for spending a few hours riding to parks, playgrounds, and other points of interest for a unique sightseeing adventure. Even in snow, you don’t have to pass up a cycling adventure. Fat tire biking is available on trails throughout the state, including at the beautiful Knik Glacier, near Anchorage. Check local tour operators for details.

With more than five percent of Alaska covered in year-round ice, it’s a natural pastime to strap on crampons, grab an ice axe and crunch along the glacial surface among towering pillars of blueish ice. It’s possible to embark upon a glacier hike in Juneau, Southcentral Alaska’s Matanuska-Susitna Valley, and amidst the peaks of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. Some experiences are accessible by roadways, others require a helicopter or airplane ride, which only adds to the sense of adventure. Be cognizant of your ability, however, as ice trekking or climbing always requires sure footing and careful attention.

Brown bears are one of the major wildlife draws in Alaska, where they can be seen grabbing fish from the teeming rivers during the fall feeding season © Jim David / Shutterstock

With you on the land: Alaska’s land mammals range from tiny to enormous, and anyone visiting can be assured of sharing these wild spaces with the animals making the state famous. Vigilance and understanding of species’ behavior is key. The major draws are the “Big Five:” bears (including black bears, brown bears, and even polar bears in the Arctic region), caribou, moose, Dall sheep, and wolves.

The shorelines of Alaska are seemingly endless, and accommodate many kinds of boating adventures © Courtesy of Travel Alaska

Alaska by water

The shorelines of Alaska are seemingly endless, with the Pacific Ocean, coastal waterways, rivers, lakes, and streams available for nearly every sort of water-based recreation. If you’re a paddler, savor the quiet nooks and crannies of Southeast Alaska’s coves and bays aboard a SUP or kayak, or try a more adventurous trip along Southcentral’s Kenai Peninsula to explore areas near Seward or Homer.

Adrenaline junkie? Drop into one of the Class II or IV rivers prevalent in the Southcentral and Interior regions on a rafting trip, taking one day or several to test your mettle against the cold water and swift currents. For a new way to see Alaska’s wilderness, take a raft trip down more placid waters on the Kenai Peninsula in Southcentral Alaska or in the Southeast region of the state from Skagway, Haines, or Juneau.

From quiet nooks and crannies of Southeast Alaska’s coves and bays, to the more adventurous Kenai Peninsula, Alaska is a paddler’s paradise © Courtesy of Travel Alaska

Cruising Alaska’s Inside Passage is one of the most popular ways to get a comprehensive view of the panhandle area. Larger ships set sail from Seattle or Vancouver, or you can choose to embark on a smaller, more intimate vessel from Sitka, Juneau, or Ketchikan and slip away from heavier-traveled routes and into an environment of unspoiled rainforests, wildlife, and Alaska Native communities.

The Alaska Marine Highway System ferries are the locals’ preferred way to get from one coastal community to the other, enjoying the scenery and laid-back atmosphere. Some journeys, like most in Southeast Alaska, are only a few hours; others, like the Southwest route along the rugged Aleutian Islands, take a few days. Book early and be flexible if possible.

In Alaska, you’re certain to be sharing the water with humpback whales, orcas, sea otters, sea lions, and seals © Manamana / Shutterstock

With you in the water: The marine life of Alaska’s fresh and saltwater mammals and fish are famous in their diversity, so the opportunity to view mammals like humpback whales, orcas, sea otters, sea lions, or seals up close is not to be missed. Communities in both Southeast and Southcentral Alaska offer excellent access to day tours for viewing marine wildlife. Sportfishers have a host of options in both salt and freshwater areas, with numerous guiding companies taking anglers to the most productive locations to catch species like halibut, salmon, rainbow trout, or Arctic grayling.

To truly witness the grandeur of Alaska, there’s nothing quite like flightseeing for an iconic view of the glaciers and mountains – like Mount Denali © Nina B / Shutterstock

Alaska by air

Aircraft have shaped Alaska transportation for decades, and the state’s reliance upon air travel is evident in nearly every community. An abundance of airborne options to explore Alaska are available, be it for transport to a remote lodge, spotting wildlife, or ogling Alaska’s expansive terrain from above.

To truly witness the grandeur of Alaska’s glaciers, there’s nothing quite like flightseeing for viewing these massive rivers of ice. Southeast, Southcentral, and Interior Alaska are perfect sites for both helicopter and fixed wing aircraft tours of glaciers and rugged mountains.

You’ll also need to travel by small planes or helicopters to access lesser-traveled sections of Alaska for hiking, biking, fishing, and dog mushing. In Southeast and Southcentral Alaska, helicopters can whisk visitors to secluded icefields for the chance to ride a dog sled, and the Southcentral region is perfect for spending a day trekking alpine meadows reachable only by air. During the winter months, small planes provide a faster route to Alaska’s northern latitudes for the chance to view stunning aurora borealis displays in areas above the Arctic Circle.

Keep an eye tuned toward the treetops and skies overhead for the majestic bald eagle, prevalent anywhere fish, especially salmon, are found © Manamana / Shutterstock

With you in the air: Alaska is a birdwatcher’s paradise no matter the region. Arctic terns migrate 25,000 miles to reach their summer nesting grounds in the far north, traveling up to 1,000 miles a day. Up to 50 percent of the nation’s shorebirds spend time in Alaska as well, so look for oystercatchers, sandpipers, plovers, and other species skittering along beaches near the tideline. Huge sandhill cranes breed and nest in Alaska, flying in groups of thousands during migration periods. Finally, when you’re in Southeast, Southcentral, or Southwest areas of Alaska, keep an eye tuned toward the treetops and skies overhead for the majestic bald eagle, prevalent anywhere fish, especially salmon, are found.

Alaska is a destination of superlatives, where you could spend years exploring the unique regions, activities, and wildlife that encourage more than two million visitors each year. Dream it up, and it’s possible in the Great Land, no matter how or where you travel.

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