En español | A few years before the pandemic, some friends and I rented a house in Eagle River, Alaska, about 15 miles north of Anchorage. The three-bedroom home sat near quiet trails with bright wildflowers, lush valleys and silver streams. We road-tripped to Seward for a daylong boat tour and spent evenings in a hot tub, admiring the green Chugach Mountains. It was heaven, Alaskan-style. Yet when I share my Alaska travel tales, people inevitably ask, “Why didn't you go on a cruise?”
The state “strongly encourages” visitors to test for COVID-19 before or soon after they arrive, though tests are no longer mandatory. Nearly 40 percent of Alaskans had received their first vaccine by mid-April, and Gov. Mike Dunleavy has just announced that starting June 1, any tourist arriving at a major airport in the state will be able to receive a vaccination free of charge. For travel questions, check the state's website, email the Alaska Traveler Information Hotline (email@example.com), or call 907-258-4217, weekdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (AST).
Half of Alaska's 2.26 million visitors in 2019 arrived by cruise ship, but in 2021, land trips like mine will be far more common. On April 2, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new requirements for cruise lines, though it presented no timelines for restarting the industry. Alaska faces an additional problem: Canada has extended its cruise ship ban until February 2022, which prevents ships with 100 or more passengers from cruising to the state through Canadian waters (and all non-U.S.-registered vessels are required to stop in Canada, due to an old U.S. maritime law).
While the disruption of the 2020 and 2021 tourist seasons could mean a $3.3 billion loss for Alaska, according to Gov. Mike Dunleavy, demand for vacations in “The Last Frontier” remains high. Airlines are increasing the number of summer flights to the state's two largest airports — Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport and Fairbanks International Airport — and inbound seat capacity is projected to near 2019 levels. Delta is expanding summer service to Alaska, with daily flights from Salt Lake City to Anchorage, starting on May 5, and weekend service from Detroit, Los Angeles and New York/JFK. In June, Alaska Airlines will begin nonstop summer service between Anchorage and Minneapolis-St. Paul.
Even some cruise lines and tour operators are adapting to the ban. Holland America Line and Princess Cruises are offering guided land tours, which are a bit like shore excursions without a cruise. The tours are centered around Holland America's McKinley Chalet Resort, about two miles from Denali National Park — options include an eight-hour Tundra Wilderness Tour — and Princess’ Kenai Princess Wilderness Lodge. Above & Beyond Alaska's new three-day, Juneau-based Glacier, Bears, and Whales Adventure Package combines individual tours that cruise passengers might have previously booked as shore excursions.
The limits on cruise ships are troubling for towns that rely on them for tourist dollars, but for visitors, this is an opportunity to see the state in new ways, whether you're driving, hiking, flightseeing or traveling with a tour company. Possibilities include:
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Small ships and day cruises
Big ships may be kept at bay, but U.S. vessels with fewer than 100 passengers can still sail through Canadian waters. Among the upsides: Small, nimble ships can offer passengers up-close views of waterfalls and wildlife, or can explore narrow fjords and bays big vessels can't. Small-ship lines running cruises in 2021 include Alaskan Dream Cruises, American Cruise Lines, Lindblad Expeditions and UnCruise. John Hall's Alaska Cruises & Tours’ seven-day catamaran trip goes from Juneau to Sitka (the catamaran travels by day; guests overnight in lodges).
Because of COVID, some families and private groups are chartering small boats for private trips. Alaskan Dream Cruises, for example, charters its 10-passenger Misty Fjord and 12-passenger Kruzof Explorer for trips in Southeast Alaska with customized itineraries. Other companies chartering private yachts include Alaska Sea Adventures, Alaskan Luxury Cruises, Alaska Private Touring, and EYOS Expeditions.
Day cruises are another option, with departures from such cities as Juneau, Ketchikan, Sitka and Seward. Stan Stephens Glacier & Wildlife Cruises operates in Valdez and takes passengers into Prince William Sound; Phillips Cruises & Tours does so from Whittier. The water can get choppy, so pack some Dramamine. I took a day cruise from Seward, and roughly a quarter of the passengers were seasick, though the sights are worth a queasy stomach. We watched bald eagles soar, heard the crack of calving glaciers and spotted six humpback whales.
If you want to travel like a local, the Alaska Marine Highway System runs ferries connecting the state's coastal communities. The ferry route starts in Bellingham, Washington, covers 3,500 miles of coastline and accesses 35 communities before ending in Dutch Harbor, in the Aleutian Islands, on the state's far southwestern tip. Some ferries cover long distances — it's about a 38-hour trip from Bellingham to Ketchikan — while others are shuttles that link neighboring communities.
With 14,336 miles of roads, Alaska is well suited for car trips. If you're based in Anchorage, drive 125 miles south on the coastal Seward Highway to Seward and watch for beluga whales, eagles and waterfalls (Kenai Fjords National Park is about 30 miles southeast). From Fairbanks, the nearly 1,400-mile Alaska Highway — built largely by the U.S. Army as a supply route in World War II — will take you through the Yukon Territory into British Columbia. For now, you can only drive roughly 300 miles to the Canadian border, which remains closed until at least May 21 because of COVID-19. Bring food and fill up the gas tank: You might go hours without seeing anything but mountains and evergreen trees (and no, you won't have cell service).
The 360-mile drive connecting Fairbanks and Anchorage — Alaska's two largest cities — on Highway 3 takes you past tundra to Denali National Park, Talkeetna and Ekltuna (don't miss Eklutna Lake State Recreation Area for its seven-mile-long lake, mountain views and 25 miles of trails).
The coastal town of Valdez is connected to Anchorage and Fairbanks via the beautiful Glenn and Richardson highways. The Richardson Highway, which winds through Thompson Pass, is one of America's most scenic roads, offering views of glaciers, lakes and waterfalls. Hiking and fishing are popular pastimes, but Colleen Stephens, president of Stan Stephens Cruises, also recommends a visit to Solomon Gulch Salmon Hatchery, about 10 minutes from town. You can enjoy vistas of Port Valdez while learning about the lifecycle of salmon. If you're visiting when the salmon return at the end of June or beginning of July, you may spot sea otters, seals, sea lions or bears enjoying a fishy meal.
Alaska.org maintains a list of 20 of the state's top scenic drives.
The Alaska Railroad runs 470 miles between Fairbanks and Seward along the Gulf of Alaska. Top trips include the 114-mile Coastal Classic, which connects Anchorage and Seward and rolls alongside the Chugach Mountains and the Turnagain Arm waterway. After a stop in Girdwood, the train chugs past glaciers and waterfalls in the wild Kenai Peninsula backcountry. In Seward, a seven-hour layover allows guests to pursue options such as a visit to Exit Glacier.
The Glacier Discovery train follows a similar route, but after Girdwood, its four stops include Portage (home to bears, moose and other animals at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center) and Whittier (a small port town where you can take a glacier and wildlife cruise in Prince William Sound). The train then passes through alpine meadows and the Placer River Valley on its way to the turnaround point in Grandview.
The Denali Star makes a 356-mile journey from Anchorage to Fairbanks, and a sister train makes the same route heading south. The Star stops in Wasilla, Talkeetna and Denali National Park, and provides views of Denali, North America's highest peak. The trains run from late May to early September.
Camping and home rentals
You can camp or stay in cabins at many of Alaska's 156 state parks, eight national parks and 16 national wildlife refuges, and glamping is available throughout the state. Alpenglow Luxury Camping in Glacier View, about an hour north of Palmer, offers comfy 12-by-14-foot tents, complimentary breakfast and proximity to the Matanuska Glacier.
Or rent a vacation home, which can make a relaxing base for local hikes and road trips. It's also a way to experience Alaska on a micro level — hanging out in coffee joints, say, or admiring purple harebells (a lovely alpine plant) — while setting your own slow-travel schedule.
These are a few towns to consider making your base for adventure.
- Homer An artsy Kenai Peninsula community about five hours south of Anchorage, Homer sits perched in a gorgeous area by the bay. Nature lovers can hike in Kachemak Bay State Park (with access to the Grewingk Glacier) or take a roughly one-hour flight to Lake Clark or Katmai national parks. The small town is home to only about 5,000 residents, though many Alaskans come here for summer getaways.
- Girdwood About a 40-minute drive south of Anchorage, Girdwood is known for the Alyeska Resort, which welcomes hikers and bikers in summer and skiers in winter, with great spots for eating and drinking (including Girdwood Brewing, which has locally crafted beers and rotating food trucks). If you want to bike, hike or walk, Ari Stiassny, owner of Chugach Adventures, recommends the Winner Creek Trail, the Iditarod Historic Trail, the Beaver Pond Trail and the Crow Pass Trail, all accessible from town.
- Talkeetna About 2.5 hours south of Denali National Park, funky Talkeetna is considered the inspiration for the TV show Northern Exposure. A highlight is Talkeetna Lakes Park, not just for the scenery but to meet friendly locals who'll give advice about what to see and where to go. (For guided hikes at the park, Trisha Costello, owner of the Talkeetna Roadhouse, suggests Alaska Nature Guides.)
- Kodiak This town on Alaska's largest island (3,670 square miles) is easily accessible via a one-hour flight from Anchorage or Homer. The island is among the top fishing ports in the United States, but most visitors come for the coastal scenery and the 1.9 million-acre Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge, known for its 3,500 brown bears (a subspecies of bears on the mainland), spruce forests, mountains and alpine meadows.