Alaska is one of the most unique states of America for a variety of reasons. Firstly, it isn't directly connected to the contiguous United States, being located in the extreme northwestern section of the continent of North America, being bordered on its eastern side by Canada. Alaska also has a maritime border with Russia at its western extremity. Alaska is the largest of the United States in terms of physical size, but has the third lowest population, making it one of the most sparsely populated states of all. CDC information for travelers. Hours/availability may have changed.
5 of the Largest Cities in Alaska
- Overview, Photo: Bryan/stock.adobe.com
- Anchorage, Photo: MixMotive/stock.adobe.com
- Fairbanks, Photo: Gary Whitton/stock.adobe.com
- Juneau, Photo: illuminaphotographic/stock.adobe.com
- Sitka, Photo: bummi100/stock.adobe.com
- Ketchikan, Photo: Alan James/stock.adobe.com
- Cover Photo: Courtesy of Rocky Grimes - Fotolia.com
Attraction Spotlight: Sitka National Historical Park
Located in Sitka, Alaska Sitka National Historical Park commemorates the site of a seminal battle between the indigenous Tlingit people and invading Russian traders, preserving the experiences of both groups in the area and the ways they shaped Alaskan culture. The earliest known inhabitants of the Sitka area were the indigenous Tlingit people, whose territory, at its peak, spanned the area that now encompasses the border of British Columbia and Alaska, from the Portland Canal north to the Copper River delta.
As a hunter-gatherer culture, the Tlingit fished for herring, halibut, and cod in the area’s waters, building canoes carved out of cedar tree trunks. European exploration of the Alaska area began in 1741, as part of commissioned expeditions by Russian Tsar Peter I. The area was soon established as a hub for sea otter fir trade, with private trading companies consolidating into a state-sponsored Russian American Company.
In 1799, facing trading competition from the Americans and British, the RAC established a trading post near present-day Sitka with the help of the local Tlingit people. The trading post was soon replaced by fortifications, known as Fort Saint Michael, which included a barracks and a warehouse storing facility for furs. Unhappy with the development of the facility, the Tlingit led an attack on the fort in 1802, known as the Battle of Old Sitka, which completely destroyed its structures. Two years later, the Russian traders returned to the site to seek revenge and reestablishment, a move which resulted in the Battle of 1804. Though the Russians were nearly defeated, a Tlingit supply of gunpowder was accidentally destroyed near the close of the battle, resulting in a strategic retreat. Several decades of conflict between the two forces ensued, until overhunting resulted in Russian retreat from the territory in the 1850s. In 1867, Russia’s Alaskan territory was sold to the United States for a sum of $7.2 million, ending Russian commercial activity in the area.
The territory of the Battle of 1804, including the Tlingit fort Shis’ki Noow, was designated as a federal historic site in 1890 by United States President Benjamin Harrison. Throughout the first years of the 20th century, indigenous totem poles were collected from sites throughout Alaska for display at the park. After vandalism and poor maintenance threatened the totem poles, the site was declared a National Monument in 1910 as a result of citizen activism efforts. Throughout this period, it was known as Indian River Park and later Totem Park. In 1972, the park was designated as a National Historic Park.
Attractions and Programs
Today, the 112-acre peninsular park is operated by the National Park Service and the United States Department of the Interior and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Totem poles are still viewable along the park’s two-mile pathway system, although many are replicas of deteriorated original poles. Much of the park’s land consists of a temperate rainforest environment, which contains old growth portions among its closed canopy of Western hemlock and Sitka spruce trees. Open meadow at the edge of the forest gives way to the Indian River estuary, which contains a wetland and beachfront area. The park is home to a rich variety of animal life, including the Indian River’s pink and chum salmon population, which migrate to the region yearly for mating. Birds of prey are common, including bald eagles, gulls, and ravens, and Sitka blacktail deer and brown bears can be seen periodically. Views of the nearby Alaskan shoreline provide views of whales, seals, sea otters, and sea lions.
Structures inside the park include the Russian Bishop’s House, which serves as one of only a few extant examples of Russian colonial architecture on the continent. Constructed in 1842, the House was the central building for the Russian Orthodox Church in America until 1969. The National Park Service began renovation of the property in 1973, restoring the once-crumbling building to its original 19th-century architecture. The historic Tlingit Fort Site also remains commemorated in the park, now a grassy opening within the forest.
Two walking trails depart from the park’s Visitor Center, the Russian Memorial Loop, which commemorates the Battle of 1804, and the Totem Trail, which highlights the park’s 18 totem poles. For advanced hikers, the 2.5-mile Mount Verstovia Trail, the 4.5-mile Indian River Trail, and the 6-mile Gavan Hill-Harbor Mountain Trail provide scenic views.
Beach Discovery Packs, available at the park’s Visitor Center, offer tools for young visitors to explore the park’s intertidal coastal area, including buckets, magnifying glasses, and digging tools. A Junior Ranger Program is also available, featuring a scavenger hunt through the park to complete age-based activities before returning to the Visitor Center for a participatory badge and certificate.
103 Monastery St, Sitka, AK 99835, Phone: 907-747-0110
Attraction Spotlight: Kobuk Valley National Park
The Kobuk Valley National Park is a remote park, located north of Kotzebue, in northern Alaska. Due to its remote location, the park is accessible by aircraft only. There are no facilities in the park itself, rather the Northwest Arctic Heritage Center, 80 miles to the southwest of the park serves as its visitor center, and operates a small museum on Inupiaq culture and the Arctic ecosystem. The Kobuk Valley region is a wetlands valley in a transition area between the boreal forest and the tundra.
The park is bordered to the north by the Baird Mountains, and in the south by the smaller Waring Mountains. The Kobuk River runs though the park, and on the south side of the river are the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes. During the summer months, the park is popular for backcountry boating, hiking, camping, fishing and wildlife and bird viewing. Visitors with winter survival skills enjoy the park for snowshoeing, backcountry skiing, and dogsledding or skijoring. Flightseeing, or aerial tours by airplane, is a popular way for visitors to see the remote location.
The Great Kobuk Sand Dunes within the park are a popular place to camp. In the fall, visitors to the sand dunes may witness the caribou migration, which has occurred in this area for at least 9,000 years. In the summer months, camping and hiking on the sand dunes is popular, although visitors should have experience with orienteering to safely navigate the open planes. There are no delineated trails or roads within the park. Onion Portage is a long, narrow peninsula located at a bend in the Kobuk River on the east side of the park. The area is popular for wildlife viewing during the summer months, and as an additional location to witness the caribou migration. Descendants of the Inupiat still live off the land and come to the shores of the river at Onion Portage to hunt and fish, as their ancestors did over 8,000 years ago. Per United States National Park regulations, sport hunting by visitors is not allowed.
History: The Kobuk Valley region has been home to humans since their earliest existence. Free of ice during the last great ice age, the area has been flush with wildlife and big game, including the wooly mammoth. Archeological evidence suggests that caribou have migrated through the area for at least the past 9,000 years. In the late 1960’s archeologists uncovered artifacts from nine different cultures at Onion Portage, some over 8,000 years old. The campsite was popular with native groups who came to the shores of the river to hunt whales and seals, as well as nomadic groups who came to hunt the caribou during their bi-annual migrations. The Archeological District in Onion Portage is now a National Historic Landmark. In the late 1800’s when prospectors falsely announced they had found gold in the area, the Kobuk River Stampede brought thousands to the region. Those who waited out the winter months found very little gold, but enjoyed ice-skating and recreational pursuits. The stampede drew attention to the area and in the early 1900’s, the US Geological Survey mapped the region and discovered Alaska’s other gold; oil. In 1980, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act was established to provide protection for over 157 million acres of land in Alaska. Of this, several regions were designated as National Parks, including the Kobuk Valley.
Ongoing Programs and Education: Park rangers operate a variety of programs for children and adults at the Northwest Arctic Heritage Center, which serves as the park’s visitor center. Programs for adults include lectures on projects and research being done at the Kobuk Valley National Park, a range of workshops on crafts and medicinal use of plants, and community activities such as bird walks and archeological digs. The Arctic Circle Film Series is a weekly film series offered in partnership with Alaska Geographic, the non-profit educational partner and bookstore of the park. All films are centered on the Kobuk Valley and Arctic conservation. In addition to the Parks Services’ Junior Ranger program, kids programs include Roving Rangers, in which park rangers bring a truck full of bones, pelts or science projects to children in the nearby community of Kotzebue. Movie Story is a weekly children’s movie program that shows short clips from films on area wildlife and Inupiaq history.
Kotzebue, AK 99752, Phone: 907-442-3890
Attraction Spotlight: Matanuska Glacier
Located near the cities of Palmer and Glennallen, Alaska approximately 100 miles northeast of Anchorage, Matanuska Glacier is the largest glacier that is accessible by vehicle within the United States and one of the state’s top attractions. More than 100,000 glaciers are located within the state of Alaska, covering more than 3% of the area’s landscape.
The Matanuska Glacier stretches 27 miles across by four miles wide at its maximum, with an average width of two miles. Its origin is located within South Central Alaska’s Chugach Mountain range, with its terminus feeding into the nearby Matanuska River. In contrast to the majority of Alaskan glaciers, which are alpine glaciers located off mountain slopes, Matanuska Glacier is a valley glacier located on top of a valley floor.
The history of human occupation within the Matanuska-Susitna Valley area spans back at least several thousand years to the arrival of the Ahtna Athabascan indigenous tribe, which followed caribou and salmon populations to the Matanuska River area. In 1741, Russian explorers arrived in the area, and by 1910, American settlers began populating the area, establishing railroad lines and trade routes. The area is best known in modern American culture for the 1935 Matanuska Colony Project, an initiative by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to give 203 welfare families from the Midwest a new start with a 40-acre land plot, a house, and a barn. Though more than 60% of participants abandoned their properties within the first three years of the project, several farms from the project are still standing in the area today.
Today, the Matanuska Glacier is the largest vehicle-accessible glacier within the United States, visible from the nearby Glenn Highway National Scenic Byway. The glacier advances at a rate of approximately one foot per day, taking 250 years for ice to travel from its origin to its terminus. It began its retreat to its current location approximately 10,000 years ago and has not seen significant mass change within the past two decades. As cold air from inside the glacier works to force warm air upward into the surrounding mountain peaks, the weather near Matanuska Glacier is known for its sunny skies and favorable weather, making it one of the state’s top tourist destinations.
A number of pullouts along Glenn Highway allow for photo opportunities, as the glacier can be seen from several miles away. Among the highway’s pullouts is the Matanuska Glacier Scenic Turnout, which fits six cars and provides the closest vehicle viewpoint of the glacier from the road. Up-close photo opportunities are also provided at the glacier’s edge, located approximately two and a half hours from Anchorage. As the glacier resides on private land, an access fee is charged for exploration of the immediate glacier area.
Several park areas are located near the glacier, including the Matanuska Glacier State Recreation Site, which is managed by Long Ridge Rifle and located at mile marker 101 along Glenn Highway. The site encompasses approximately 229 acres and offers an Edge Nature Trail that runs parallel to the glacier and the Matanuska River. 12 campsites are located at the park, along with fire pits, picnic tables, and restroom facilities. Interpretive signs detailing area natural and glacial history are located throughout the park, along with viewpoints for telescopes and handicap-accessible walkways. In addition to offering some of the safest viewing opportunities within the region, the site offers opportunities for summer and winter sporting activities, including hiking, river rafting, skiing, and snowshoeing.
At mile marker 102, the Matanuska Glacier Park allows visitors to explore the glacier on foot, either via independent exploration or as part of guided tour packages. Hiking time to the glacier from the park is approximately 15 to 20 minutes, though independent exploration is not recommended for beginning hikers. Day trip tours are offered for visitors of all mobility levels, with tour guides sharing information about glaciology and area history. Ice climbing instruction is also offered by park guides.
Other nearby attractions include the Lion’s Head Trail, a rock outcropping area that offers a one-hour hiking climb to a 2,000-foot cliff lookout over the glacier. Panoramic views encompass the Matanuska River, the Talkeetna and Chugach Mountain ranges, and Caribou Creek. ATV tours, ziplining adventures, and whitewater rafting excursions are offered in the nearby community of Glacier View. The nearby Sheep Mountain Lodge, open for more than 70 years, features luxury cabin and RV accommodations and a restaurant serving authentic Alaskan seafood, homemade desserts, and beers from the Alaskan Brewing Company. More than eight miles of trails also embark from the lodge’s trailhead, offering self-guided hiking experiences and wild berry picking excursions.
66500 S Glacier Park Rd., Sutton, AK 99674, Phone: 907-745-2534
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