During the summers before and after I went to grad school, I spent the four months working at a helicopter company located next to Denali National Park in Alaska. It was glorious. I love Alaska; next to Idaho it is probably my favorite state. In addition to being an excellent way to escape real world responsibilities for a while, the job provided me a perfect opportunity to get out and explore the wonders this wonderful place has to offer.
If you are planning on heading up to the Final Frontier, here are some suggestions of cute Alaskan towns to visit. (Note: Part 2 of this post will discuss experiences and adventures to have.) One caveat to this list is that Alaska is huge. Like if you divided the entire continental U.S. in fifths, Alaska would be one of the fifths. So of course this list isn’t all inclusive; instead it gives a few suggestions for places to go in the area (roughly) around Denali National Park (DNP).
Denali National Park
Okay, this isn’t actually a town. But just north of the DNP entrance is a strange conglomeration of hotels, restaurants and businesses that cater to the visitors that flood this place each summer. The makeshift town doesn’t have anything particular to recommend it, except that it is the basecamp for exploring the area. And towns are few and far between in this neck of the woods. The nearest town to Denali is Healy, population of about 1,000. Definitely not big enough to support the 550,000 visitors that came to Denali in 2015. When you visit the park, you can either camp or stay in one of the hotels in town. The important thing is that you get there somehow, because this park is truly spectacular. This “town” is where I spent most of my days and I recommend the Salmon Bake, the restaurant/bar where us quasi-locals would go hang out.
Denali is about a four-hour drive north of Anchorage and two hours south of Fairbanks.
Fairbanks is the closest big town to Denali. That’s about the only reason to visit this place…it is the fastest way to get to the Park. That sounds harsh; it’s not a bad little town and is home to the University of Alaska: Fairbanks so there is a pretty good population of students milling around. But when you compare Fairbanks to other areas, there’s really not a lot of reason to stay put once you land at the airport. I know two people from Idaho who now call Fairbanks home. The reason is they are both in the medical profession and you can get paid a wicked lot of money if you agree to live in Fairbanks. That right there tells me it can’t be the most desirable town around…
Fairbanks is in the center of the state. It is about a six hour drive north of Anchorage.
If this town was a person, it would be the uber-cool-without-even-trying kid in high school who girls want to date and boys want to be. Talkeetna is the stepping-off stone for hikers loco enough to want to summit Denali–that is to say it is chock-full of badasses most of the summer. It is also in a beautiful area (not tough to do in AK) and is small enough to be charming and friendly. I spent a rainy weekend there by myself in a tent and the town was cute enough to make it a delightful experience (if rain+tent+solo don’t seem super appealing). There is an interesting mix of outdoor activity and cool art and handcrafts around Talkeetna.
Talkeetna is about two hours north of Anchorage and two hours south of Denali.
Yep, there is a North Pole in Alaska. This town is kitschy, but kind of fun. The streetlights are permanently wrapped in red and white material so they look like candy canes and Santa is EVERYWHERE. Each year the town receives hundreds of thousands of letters from little tykes who want to tell Santa their heart’s desire. North Pole is definitely not a destination you should work to get to, but if you happen to be in the area you should swing through and get a picture next to Santa Claus Lane street sign or the North Pole post office.
North Pole is a suburb of Fairbanks, about 15 miles southeast.
The population of Wiseman is 14. And let me tell you friend, those 14 are hearty folk. Wiseman is a collection of houses along the Dalton highway (the one that is sometimes in that ice trucker TV show) and one of the last stops before you hit the top of Alaska. My friend and I visited Wiseman via a small plane from Fairbanks and were shown around by one of the 14 residents. Fascinating facts about this guy and life in Wiseman: 1) he was a subsistence hunter, meaning he hunted so that he could survive; 2) it was so cold in Wiseman that he didn’t need a refrigerator. He had a door in his floor where he kept his food. He had to insulate this area so it didn’t get too cold; and 3) online dating was alive and well, even in Wiseman. He had the internet (go figure) and had convinced a nice lady to come live with him (she was due to arrive a few weeks after we were there).
Wiseman is a seven hour drive north of Fairbanks. Alternatively, we flew a 1.5 hour flight to Coldfoot and drove the rest of the way.
Juneau might be the capital, but Anchorage is the largest city in Alaska. It has almost 300,000 people (about half of the state’s population). It is not particularly cosmopolitan, but you wouldn’t really expect it to be since it is Alaska. Anchorage is the place where the thousands of cruise shippers dock after their float up from Seattle. There are two military bases around Anchorage–Uncle Sam uses these to give the side eye to North Korea and Russia. Anchorage stays fairly light in the winter (compared to Fairbanks) but winters would still be pretty rough. I had a friend who was a pilot at the helicopter company who grew up and lived in Anchorage during the off season. She had a nice path behind her house that people could run on during the summer that stayed covered with snow during the winter that she would cross country ski on during the winter months.
Anchorage is a 3.5 hour flight from Seattle.
This town is named after William Seward. You know, the guy who pulled a fast one on the Russians and ended up with a kick-butt state. Seward is on the Kenai peninsula, a finger that is attached to mainland AK. The town only has about 3,000 residents, but this number swells during the summer. My favorite thing about Seward is that it is the home to the Kenai Fjords National Park. We took a little boat out to see the gorgeous greens fjords contrasting with the gorgeous blue of the glaciers bobbing around. Also in this area is the enormous Harding icefield (300 miles of glacier). You can go hike through it and be awed by its vastness. Just don’t make a wrong turn and get lost.
Seward is a 2.5 hours drive south of Anchorage.
Homer is on the other side of the Kenai Peninsula from Seward and is a booming metropolis of 5,000 residents and millions of fish. During the summer months, lots of locals and tourists pull up huge halibut from the ocean. In fact, little ol’ Homer is known as the Halibut Fishing Capital of the World. When you walk down the boardwalk along the water you’ll see lots of fishing operations with their huge halibut hanging on hooks. I’m not a fish lover, but these guys are pretty tasty. I was introduced to a delicacy called ‘halibut chunks’ during my time in AK. I typically avoid food that has the word ‘chunks’ in the title, but in this case I did well to forget my rule and enjoy.
Homer is four-hour drive from Anchorage.
The town of Whittier is perched on the edge of the Prince William Sound, about 60 miles south of Anchorage. It has not always been easy to get there; in 2000, a giant tunnel opened up that connected it. Previous to that, you couldn’t drive there, just go on a boat or train. (When I say giant tunnel, I mean it. it is the longest tunnel in North America at 2.5 miles and if you get claustrophobic, prepare yourself for a rough ride.) Once you emerge from the mountain, Smaug-style, you get to see the sound. It is pretty. Pretty enough that lots of cruise ships make Whittier a port of call. We took a nice little boat tour and watched some glaciers calve and seals swim. But….I think Whittier is creepy. There are two big tower buildings in Whittier that were constructed in the 50s; one of which has now been abandoned and the other one looks like it should be abandoned and houses the majority of Whittier’s residents. It just seems weird to me that a whole town lives in one apartment complex. I imagine all kinds of shady things happening there.
Whittier is about 1.5 hour drive southeast of Anchorage.
There are lots more towns I wish I would have been able to explore, like Kodiak or Bettles (near Gates of the Arctic National Park) and I fully plan on taking a cruise through the inside passage to check out Juneau. Hopefully that will be Part 3 of this post. (Fingers crossed.)