By Andrew Collins
I spent 15 days touring Alaska with a friend last summer — my second extended trip in the past three years to our nation’s largest state. My previous trip included a cruise through the Inside Passage, followed by a four-day land trip north through Anchorage and Talkeetna. On my latest trip, I overnighted in eight different towns, from Juneau and Skagway in the southeast to Fairbanks in the east-central section of the state.
Even still, I’ve but scratched the surface of this state more than twice the size of Texas. But I have come up with a list of must-see activities or places I strongly recommend. Here, in no particular order, are the essential Alaska highlights.
Drink your share of local craft beer. What Alaska lacks in gay nightlife, it more than makes up for in quirky, offbeat bars with diverse, generally gay-friendly followings. Some of the best of these hangouts are craft-beer pubs, of which Anchorage has the greatest number. A few blocks apart in the city’s downtown, Glacier Brew House and Humpy’s both serve first-rate beer and great food, and in Midtown, the Bear Tooth Theatrepub and Grill, and nearby Moose’s Tooth Pub & Pizzeria are popular with the gay community and serve great food and distinctive beers.
In Juneau, the venerable Alaska Brewing Co. is one of the foremost craft-beer makers in the country; although there’s no brewpub on site, you can stop by for a tour and tastings, and the company’s beer is widely available at bars all over Alaska. Also in southeast Alaska, the funky and friendly Skagway Brewing Co. is a great place to sip Spruce Tip Blonde (a locally distinctive beer flavored with hand-picked Sitka spruce tips). Fairbanks is home to the terrific Silver Gulch brewpub, which is as well-regarded for its malty Pick Axe Porter as for such delicious fare as beer-braised pork ribs and IPA fish-and-chips.
Take the bus into Denali. Visitors to Alaska’s iconic national park, Denali, can be overwhelmed by the immensity of this 6-million-acre wilderness crowned by North America’s highest peak, Mount McKinley (20,320 feet). The park is ideally explored over the course of a few days, but even with one full day, it’s possible to cover a remarkable amount of ground. There’s one road into the park, and beyond the first 15 miles, only official park school buses are permitted.
Options for touring the park by bus include guided tours and more flexible and less expensive “hop-on/hop-off” shuttles. A practical one-day strategy is taking a shuttle bus to the stunning and relatively new Eielson Visitor Center, which is 66 miles into the park and access two short but very scenic hikes with Denali peak views. The trip takes a minimum of eight hours round-trip, but the ride itself is part of the fun — guides comment on the scenery and stop to allow passengers to snap photos of wildlife, which can include caribou, Dall sheep, golden eagles, moose, wolves and grizzly bears.
Explore the Kenai Peninsula. With relatively easy access to Anchorage, a slew of engaging towns and attractions, and rugged, spectacular scenery that takes in everything from massive glaciers to icy fjords to dense forests, this peninsula about half the size of South Carolina is ideal for road-tripping. The top towns for visitors are the artsy and progressive fishing town of Homer (the farthest from Anchorage, at 220 miles); scenic Seward, the gateway to Kenai Fjords National Park; and secluded Whittier, situated at the end of Passage Canal, which links to Prince William Sound.
On your way to the peninsula, consider tacking on a night or two in tiny Girdwood, just 40 miles from Anchorage, spending the night at the elegant Alyeska Resort. This upscale hotel and ski resort has beautiful rooms, a full spa and one of the top destination restaurants in the state, Seven Glaciers, which is reached via aerial tram.
If you’d prefer an all-inclusive approach to touring the Kenai Peninsula, book a trip with Alaska Wildland Adventures, which has three one-of-a-kind accommodations on the peninsula: the Kenai Riverside Lodge, Kenai Backcountry Lodge and Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge. AWA’s trips include everything from adrenaline-pumping white-water rafting and sea-kayaking to more easygoing hikes, float trips and fishing outings, ideal for families or friends.
Trek on a glacier. Opportunities to view these glaciers abound from Juneau north into Denali National Park. One of the most amazing ways to experience one of these hulking masses of slow-moving ice is to hike directly onto one. In the historic gold-rush town of Skagway, Packer Expeditions offers wilderness and snowshoe hikes onto Laughton Glacier. These full-day adventures involve riding the historic White Pass & Yukon Route Railway to a mountain trailhead, and then trekking about four miles through verdant woodland and then onto the glacier.
In Juneau, Above & Beyond Alaska has developed an amazing glacier trek on which you’ll hike three and a half miles through a rainforest then don crampons and ice axes and walk atop Mendenhall Glacier. If conditions permit, you may also hike inside one of the surreal, blue-walled ice caves that have formed beneath the glacier.
See Alaska from the air. Alaska is home to more licensed airline pilots per capita than any other state. A number of smaller airlines offer regular service through the Inside Passage, with the trips from Juneau up to Skagway or Haines, or to Ketchikan are especially magnificent. Flights are also a favorite for viewing Denali Park.
Stay at a small, atmospheric inn. Most of the state’s key communities have at least a few gay-friendly inns, which typically have distinctive settings and offer guests the chance to gain a better sense of what it’s actually like to live in Alaska. Anchorage has a number of terrific options, including the affordable Copper Whale Inn, which is within walking distance of downtown attractions. Also centrally located are such gay-owned options as the Wildflower Inn and the City Garden B&B.
Dale and Jo View Suites is a luxurious, cozy spot with wonderful views in Fairbanks, while Pearson’s Pond is one of the most sumptuous places to stay in Juneau. Funky Homer is home to such welcoming B&Bs as Brigitte’s Bavarian B&B, which is set on a birch-shaded hillside, and the sunny and contemporary Bay Avenue B&B, which overlooks rippling Kachemak Bay. In Skagway, well-priced, welcoming White House B&B is centrally located.
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