See polar bears, whales, sea lions, birds, and more at these secret Alaska spots. Photo by Michelle Theall, wilddepartures.com
This article originally appeared in Alaska magazine and is reprinted here with permission from the author.
You’d expect a destination that’s 2.5 times the size of Texas to have a few secrets. Maybe you’ve already hit Denali National Park and Glacier Bay. Or, perhaps you took a cruise up the Inside Passage. Beyond those idyllic and renowned places, there are secret Alaska gems you might never have heard of that bear consideration for future exploration. A few of them that made our list for various reasons are in this essay. Some are easier to get to than others, but all of them are worth the trip.
In Inupiaq, the name Arrigetch means fingers of the outstretched hand, and the granite spires and glacial cirques at the head of the Kobuk River reflect their given name. You’d be hard pressed to find a more impressive mountain range in North America, with peaks rivaling the rugged, wild beauty of those in the Himalayas. Found in the central Brooks Range in the Endicott Mountains, the Arrigetch remain protected by remote stretches of uninhabited, roadless wilderness, reached only by small plane or perhaps a combination of packraft and backpacking. Here, in this dramatic expanse, you’ll find the essence and heartbeat of Alaska, and will share it with bears, wolves, and caribou—and the sound of your own heartbeat.
The Inside Passage includes more than the cruise ship port cities of Juneau, Skagway, Sitka, and Ketchikan. Consider the Inian Islands, which extend 4.5 miles off the coast of Chichagof Island. Where the Gulf of Alaska enters Southeast, the Inians provide prime feeding waters for active Steller sea lion colonies, humpback whales, horned and tufted puffins, harbor seals, and sea otters. The density of marine life leaves visitors reeling in a place that can only be reached by boat—and is widely available on some zodiac tours from cruise ships.
Located on the North Slope at Barter Island, this Native whaling village rivals Churchill, Manitoba, for the moniker of “Polar Bear Capital of the World.” Kaktovik remains home to the great white bear, especially after whaling harvest, when scraps from bowheads are removed by front loaders to the end of the spit, drawing bears to fatten up on the scraps of the bone pile. A unique and authentic symbiotic relationship between bears and humans exists in this remote and rural community abutting Arctic National Wildlife Refuge waters.
Make your way out into the middle of the Bering Sea for some serious birding on St. Paul and St. George islands. More than 2.5 million seabirds gather here along steep cliffs housing the largest seabird colonies in the Northern Hemisphere. Beyond the 230 species of birds, you’ll have the opportunity to view northern fur seals, walruses, and Steller sea lions. Both St. Paul and St. George remain sparsely populated by Native Aleuts who provide services in both locations to intrepid travelers.
You might think to find a secret Alaska destination with whales you’d have to brave the ocean swells like Captain Ahab, but you’d be mistaken. Just 6.5 miles south of Anchorage, you can drive to Beluga Point on Turnagain Arm from mid-July through August for a chance to see belugas. Yes, those friendly, smiling, white whales cruise into the inlet during the salmon runs and can be spotted from a road turnout at milepost 110.5 on the Seward Highway on the jutted rocks once used by Native hunters.
On the south end of Wrangell Island, you’ll find a haven for black and brown bears, mingling together, catching pink salmon at a waterfall. Most folks have heard of or seen brown bears fishing at the infamous Brooks Falls in Katmai, but Anan Creek remains more obscure. The site, reached only by boat or plane, is carefully managed, accepting just 60 visitors per day via permits starting July 5 to August 25. An observation deck overlooks a cascading falls where the two species of bear feast on fish.
Sitka National Historical Park
A walking tour along the seaside trails at this 109-year-old park reveals its Tlingit and Haida Native history in the form of towering totems. Smartphones connect to audio narrative regarding the origins and meanings of the carvings, and bald eagles roost above as you make the one-mile, short, flat, wooded hike. What you’ll find here is nothing short of a peaceful haven you’ll want to return to again and again during your visit to Sitka. While many of the 20-plus totems here are replicas, you can view the originals in Totem Hall at the park visitor center.
A totem stretches toward the sky in Sitka National Historic Park. Photo by Michelle Theall, wilddepartures.com
Bear Glacier Lagoon
This playground for paddlers allows visitors to cruise around building-sized ice bergs and through frozen arches and tunnels for a picturesque setting unlike most on Earth. The formations are the result of ice shedding from the face of Bear Glacier, the longest glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park, into the 3.5-square-mile lake. Consider a guided trip to this body of water just 12 miles southwest of Seward. Water taxi is recommended, and be aware that bergs can tip and capsize boats or create dangerous wakes and swells.
One of the best places to see the northern lights might just be the northern outpost of Wiseman, population 14. This small mining community on the Middle Fork of the Koyukuk River in the Brooks Range offers a smattering of lodging and is three miles off the Dalton Highway. Original buildings, including the old post office, remain as relics to past eras of prosperity. The location also provides a jumping off point for adventures in the Gates of the Arctic—mushing, hunting, river rafting, and fishing abound.
A “mileage” sign illustrates the remote location of Wiseman. Photo by Michelle Theall, wilddepartures.com
You don’t need to go all the way to LeConte Glacier to enjoy John Muir’s favorite glacier. Just a short ride from the small fishing village of Petersburg, you’ll find a sculpture garden with towering glacial works of art. These pyramids of ice have traveled from the face of the glacier and been sculpted by wind and water, compressing over time into dense blue miracles of Mother Nature. Atop the bergs, bald eagles roost, and at their base, seals haul out for rest. Within a day, the formations will melt into the water, a memory against the backdrop of rainforests surrounding them.
Want to send a message to a loved one with a postmark from the North Pole? This is the place. While not the geographic North Pole, the spirit of St. Nick lives on here year-round. A short drive from Fairbanks and you can reach Christmas central, complete with a vast array of holiday ornaments, reindeer, and Santa Claus himself. For those who go overboard on the X-mas lights and decorations, overloading circuit breakers and the tree, this is a must-stop destination in Alaska. And yes, you can still sit on Santa’s lap, no matter how old you are.
Mountaineers attempting to climb Denali often start or finish in this historic village to celebrate success or ease their disappointment with a Twister Creek IPA at Denali Brewpub. But Talkeetna is more than a launch point for peak baggers. A scenic two-hour drive from Anchorage, Talkeetna exudes a small-town, eccentric, uniquely Alaskan vibe—one that inspired the television series “Northern Exposure.” Truth be told, Talkeetna also offers one of the best views of Denali and the Alaska Range, as well as rafting, hiking, wildlife viewing, arts, and good eats. And then there’s the fishing. All five species of salmon can be found within the confluence of the glacially fed Chulitna, Susitna, and Talkeetna rivers—at the end of your walk down Main Street.
While most folks opt for round-trip shuttle rides on the Denali Park Road, Kantishna offers visitors a reason to stay a few days at the end of the 92-mile journey before making the return trip home. There are several places to stay (Camp Denali, the North Face Lodge, Backcountry Lodge, Kantishna Roadhouse), as well as a campground, allowing you the time to enjoy this part of the park without the crowds and traffic. Wonder Lake alone is worth a stopover, as the large body of water affords stunning views and reflections of Denali and the Alaska Range, and moose wade across to cool off and feed on marshy grasses.
This old mining outpost, rumored to get its name because the prospectors who founded it couldn’t spell ptarmigan, can be accessed via the Klondike Loop. The main thing to do in Chicken is look for gold, either by panning in the creek or going out on a real claim to do some recreational digging. Beyond the possibility of striking it rich, you’ll enjoy walking back through time among roadhouses and structures dating back to the early 1900s.