Why now is the best time to see Alaska, before all the crowds and cruises return

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Glacier trek on the Mendenhall Glacier, Southeast Alaska
Trekkers explore the Mendenhall Glacier in southeast Alaska. (David Swanson)

In a typical year, more than half of Alaska’s visitors arrive by cruise ship — 1.4 million in 2019. But not this year, and you can blame the pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control-ordered shutdown of the cruise industry, coupled with Canada’s port closures, means Alaska’s summer cruise season looks to be canceled for a second year.

But you don’t need a ship to cruise the 49th state. A cruise visits only a tiny portion of the state’s 6,640 miles of coastline and none of its vast interior. And cruise ships don’t sail near Denali, Alaska’s most magnificent sight; at 20,310 feet, it's the tallest peak in North America.

“Almost anywhere you go in Alaska, you can have an experience you’ll be talking about when you get home,” said Fran Golden, cruise writer and author of "100 Things to Do in Alaska Before You Die." “It might be as simple as going kayaking and having a baby seal come up or you might helicopter to the top of an ice field. You don’t have to be on a cruise ship to have these experiences.”

Here are five ways to discover Alaska this summer. Pick a base and branch out or mix and match, but don’t dawdle. Lodging availability is limited, and demand for domestic vacations this summer is high.

Make Anchorage your base

Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city with a population of about 290,000, sits on the Cook Inlet in the south-central part of the state. A 5½-hour flight from LAX, it offers visitors a variety of hotels, restaurants and museums. But it’s still wild enough that you might see a moose bolt across a city street, as I once did.

Anchorage sits at the geographic center of a range of adventure activities, with the glacier-clad Chugach Mountains rising to the east and volcanoes spiking the horizon across the inlet to the west.

Keep in mind one challenge travelers face everywhere this year: Car rentals are in short supply. Choose your hotel location carefully — bunking in downtown Anchorage means there are plenty of restaurants, breweries and cafés within walking distance.

Cyclists will find a network of paved and unpaved trails in and around the city. Road, mountain and e-bikes can be rented from Downtown Bicycle Rental.

The excellent Anchorage Museum features the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center, a collection of Indigenous Alaska artifacts, and through Nov. 28, an intriguing exhibit, "Black Lives in Alaska." “You can also visit the Alaska Native Heritage Center outside Anchorage,” said Golden. “It offers a fantastic introduction to native culture, with all the major tribes represented.”

Day trips are plentiful, and most won’t require a rental car, especially if you spring for the Alaska Railroad. You can ride the train to the tiny port town of Whittier to take Phillips Cruises’ 26-Glacier Cruise in College Fjord, priced at $159 plus taxes and fees. Or rail to the Spencer Glacier Whistle Stop, where you can take a gentle float trip with Chugach Adventures past icebergs and raft seven miles down the Placer River for $252 including train fare.

Girdwood, another town reached by rail from Anchorage, is home to Alyeska Resort, which offers hiking, mountain biking and a new Nordic spa. Nearby, the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center has a 1.5-mile loop through 200 acres of natural enclosures featuring Alaska’s best-known mammals — black and brown bears, moose, caribou, lynx, wood bison and more.

Flightseeing can be expensive, but it’s often the best way to see much of the state’s scenery, especially Alaska’s five national parks inaccessible by road.

From Anchorage, Rust’s Flying Service does bear-viewing tours by seaplane to Lake Clark or Katmai national parks. The tours last from six to 12 hours (including time on the ground) and are $795 to $995, including hotel transfer and lunch. Shorter flightseeing options also are available.

Do Denali

Snow-covered mountains with green slopes in the foreground
The Alaska Range as seen from Denali Park Road in Denali National Park. (David Swanson)

Denali National Park features more than a mountain; it’s America’s Serengeti. Instead of Africa’s "big five" animals, you’ll have a chance to see Alaska’s top critters: grizzly bears, moose, caribou, wolf and Dall sheep. “It’s not uncommon to see a mama grizzly and cub walking along the road,” said Golden. “And if you’re lucky, you’ll see Denali. On a clear day when it appears, there’s a deep sigh from everyone.”

Park rangers say Denali's summit is visible in summer about one out of every three days, so plan to stay at least a few days to increase your odds.

Campsites are available inside the park, but unless you’re packing your gear, you’ll probably stay at McKinley Village, the small settlement at the park entrance. McKinley Chalet Resort is the major operation this summer, with rates from $219 per night. The Denali Bluffs Hotel and Grande Denali Lodge also have rooms for $219 per night.

There are few lodging options inside the park. Camp Denali is sold out for 2021. Denali Backcountry Lodge, deep inside the park and not far from Denali views, offers cozy cabins from $575 per person, per night, including meals, guided activities and a bus transfer from McKinley Village. Nearby is Kantishna Roadhouse, which offers an unplugged experience from $460 per person.

A tour bus in Denali National Park.
A narrated wilderness bus tour is the No. 1 activity for many visitors to Denali National Park. (David Swanson)

It’s important to note: You can’t see the mountain from McKinley Village. The nearest viewpoint is nine miles in on Denali Park Road. At mile nine you’ll see only the top 8,000 feet of the peak, so the No.1 activity for most Denali visitors is the narrated tundra wilderness tour bus, which takes you to Stony Overlook, mile 62 on the 92-mile Denali Park Road (most of which is closed to private cars). McKinley Village also has zip lines, heli-hikes, whitewater rafting, kayaking and fly fishing.

McKinley Village is 230 miles north of Anchorage by car or by spectacular 7½-hour rail journey. Although it’s not possible to see the national park on a day trip from Anchorage, on Sundays you can make a round trip to Talkeetna by using the Alaska Railroad.

The quirky frontier town — think of the '90s TV show "Northern Exposure" — sits outside the park, but views of the mountain are possible on clear days, especially from the Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge. The train trip takes 2 hours, 45 minutes each way (113 miles by road), and the Sunday schedule allows six hours in Talkeetna before heading back to Anchorage.

Bunk at a wilderness lodge

Fancy emerging from the shutdowns alongside a glacier lake? Or within a short hike or boat ride to bear-viewing sites? Many of Alaska’s lodges are deep in the bush and are not accessible by road. These remote lodges can be expensive, but they often yield a wilderness experience woven with deluxe creature comforts and memories for a lifetime.

Indulge your inner National Geographic photographer at Brooks Falls, where you can safely observe bears lining up to catch salmon springing through the air. Brooks Lodge is accessible only by floatplane; other activities include fly fishing and visiting Katmai National Park, home of the Valley of the Ten Thousand Smokes. $850 per night per room (for up to four people)

Or spring for Ultima Thule Lodge, deep inside Wrangell-St. Elias, America’s largest national park. The 14-guest lodge alongside the Chitina River specializes in scenic flights by bush plane. So vast is the park, at 13.2 million acres, you won’t have to head far to find someplace that has never had a human footprint. The four-night package starts at $8,550 per person, including meals and activities.

Staying at a lodge accessible by road may not be as remote an experience, but prices are generally lower, said Richenda Sandlin-Tymitz of Alaska Tour & Travel. She recommends the 22-cabin Knik River Lodge, 50 miles northeast of Anchorage. Helicopter flights to nearby glaciers, sled dog tours and farm-to-table cuisine top the list of activities. Rates start at $169 per cabin, not including meals; transfers from Anchorage are available for $60 per person.

Or you can package a group of lodges. Gray Line Tours works with Princess and Holland America Line — both of which operate lodges in Alaska — to provide tours from one to seven nights that combine lodging, sightseeing and transfers by coach or train. Packages can be booked as escorted tours or independent travel and include the McKinley Chalet Resort, Kenai Princess Wilderness Lodge and the Westmark Fairbanks Hotel.

Make Juneau your base

If you have your heart set on exploring Alaska’s southeast and the Inside Passage, set your sights on Juneau, population 32,000. No roads connect Alaska's capital to the rest of the state (let alone the Lower 48), so don’t plan on driving to it, but the city is easily reached by frequent 2½-hour flights from Seattle. Once there, you’ll find a compact, walkable downtown with ample lodging, restaurants and shopping.

One way to familiarize yourself is to book a walking tour with Juneau Food Tours , which includes eight tastes and locally brewed beer for $129 per person. Owner and guide Midgi Moore provides context for the history and culture of this outpost, bordered on one side by the Inside Passage and on the other by an icefield 1½ times the size of Rhode Island.

In Juneau, you’ll find most of the excursions offered on a typical Alaska cruise — whale-watching, fishing trips, glacier trekking and flightseeing by helicopter or floatplane.

A person climbs on a glacier
An ice climber scales the Mendenhall Glacier, a popular destination for day trips from Juneau. (David Swanson)

You’ll also encounter plenty of hiking trails, and bike rentals and guided tours are available from Cycle Alaska. M&M Tours will shuttle you to the visitor center for the Mendenhall Glacier for $37per person round trip, departing hourly starting at 10 a.m.

On cruise ships en route to Juneau, a popular side trip visits Tracy Arm, a narrow, mile-high gorge that ends at a tidewater glacier. Adventure Bound does full-day Tracy Arm cruises from Juneau for $165 per person.

Adventure seekers will find plenty of stimulation in Juneau. This year, Above and Beyond Alaska combines three of its most popular activities into a Weekend Adventure Package: Hike or canoe to the toe of the Mendenhall Glacier the first day; then take a floatplane to Admiralty Island to kayak amid the world’s largest concentration of brown bears; and on the third day travel in a six-passenger motorboat for whale watching and other wildlife. The three-day package is priced from $1,207 (not including accommodations).

Canoers paddling to the foot of Mendenhall Glacier.
Canoers paddle to the foot of Mendenhall Glacier. (David Swanson)

Juneau is also the jumping-off point for Glacier Bay National Park. Take the daily, late-afternoon Alaska Airlines flight to Gustavus, the tiny settlement near the mouth of the bay, where hiking, biking and kayak tours are available, or spring for the 70-minute flightseeing tour around the park offered by Alaska Seaplane Adventures for $499 per person.

Plan on spending at least one night in Gustavus at one of the B&Bs or just inside the park at 56-room Glacier Bay Lodge, which offers eight-hour cruises through the bay, narrated by a park ranger. Doubles at the lodge start at $250; the cruise costs $227 per person. For those who don’t want to overnight in Gustavus, Allen Marine Tours for the first time will offer 12-hour day cruises to the park from Juneau, priced at $299.

But you can take a cruise this summer

A small ship cruises in Glacier Bay National Park.
Small-ship cruise lines say they will sail this summer out of Juneau, Sitka, Ketchikan and Seattle. (David Swanson)

Although big ships may not sail the Inside Passage until 2022, small-ship operators will sail this summer out of Juneau, Sitka, Ketchikan and even Seattle. These ships, carrying 10 to 100 passengers, do not offer the bells and whistles of a big-ship cruise. But you’ll visit smaller coves and communities, with the focus on wildlife viewing and beach landings in small skiffs, kayaking, hiking and photography.

Small-ship lines operating in Alaska this summer include Alaskan Dream Cruises, Uncruise Adventures, Lindblad Expeditions, American Cruise Line and Maple Leaf Adventures.

The Alaska State official tourism website is a fine trip-planning resource.



This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.