Alaska is known as America's last frontier, and for good reason: It's wild. Really wild. With 14 major mountain ranges and nearly 34,000 miles of coastline, huge parts of the state can be reached only by boat or plane. Anchorage is Alaska's largest city, but never lost its wilderness roots. It's entirely possible to encounter a moose or beluga whale on your way to dinner. It's a great jumping off point for excursions by car or train to Kenai and Denali National Parks -- paradise for adventurous families.
For nature lovers, wildlife spotters, hikers and bikers, summer is the most comfortable time to visit Alaska. The weather is mild, the days are long, and the cities are hopping with fairs, markets, and special events. Winter travelers are typically a hardier breed, but the rewards can be tremendous: flightseeing with glacier landings, skiing, dog sledding, and cheering for the Iditarod racers in March.
Alaska's reputation for unrelenting cold and snow is only true of the northern, arctic climate. Most Alaskan cruises head for southeast Alaska and the Inside Passage, where a temperate rain forest keeps the weather warmer and rainier than the rest of the state. Further northwest, Anchorage, the Kenai Peninsula, and Prince William Sound can reach the mid-70s on summer afternoons, with nighttime temps in the 40s. During winter, average temps in Anchorage fall to the single digits, and colder spells aren't unusual.
You can drive to Alaska via the Alaska Highway, but most tourists arrive by cruise ship, exploring seaside villages, tidal glaciers, and ocean wildlife. Others fly, usually to Anchorage, with connections to smaller cities like Juneau and and Fairbanks (though Alaska Airlines offers non-stop service to all three cities from Seattle). You can rent a car from any of the major car rental agencies at the Anchorage airport or in town, and most major hotels offer free airport shuttles.
In Anchorage, you can take the bus (called People Mover) all over downtown and to sdome outlying areas. Exact change is required, and day passes are available from drivers; see the website for transit maps, fares, and schedules.
If you're driving, the downtown Anchorage streets are laid out like a grid. Lettered streets run north-south, and numbered avenues run east-west. To find east, look for the mountains; to find west, look for the waters of Cook Inlet.
Leaving Anchorage, you can drive to places like Seward and Denali, but the Alaska Railroad is a lot more fun. For information about destinations, fares, and schedules, see www.akrr.com. Further-flung outposts may not be accessible by car; some destinations require travel by boat or plane.
Alaska is in the Alaskan Time Zone, one hour earlier than Pacific Time. If you're traveling during summer, bring an eye mask to make sleeping easier during the long daylight hours. During the long, dark winter days, consider bringing a small flashlight to make it easier to find keys and signal buses.
Alaska is so far away from the "Lower 48," many people ask whether it uses American currency... and it does. In fact, you'll find many familiar restaurants, shops, and hotels in Anchorage, which in many ways is a typical American city.
Because so much of Alaska is accessible only by boat or plane, many popular attractions bear the added cost of transportation or professional guides. Renting a car will cut down on the cost of train and bus travel. If you're visiting glaciers, consider hiking to a roadside glacier rather than flying in or taking a cruise.
Alaska hotels can be expensive. Outside Anchorage, many are open only during summer and need to generate a year of revenue in two short months. To save on lodging costs, stay in the city or look for a B&B. Or go camping!
Also, the travel season (a.k.a. summer) is short. Traveling before mid-June or after mid-August can mean significant savings.
In 1867, U.S. Secretary of State William Seward purchased Alaska from Russia for two cents an acre. At the time, many American's called it "Seward's Folly."
In 1880, Joe Juneau's discovery of gold sparked the gold rush era. People stopped calling Alaska "Seward's Folly."
Alaska's most important natural resource is oil, producing 25 percent of the oil in the U.S.
In the movie "Star Trek VI," scenes of the Klingon penal colony were filmed on the Knik Glacier, about 40 miles from Anchorage.
Most of America's salmon, crab, halibut, and herring come from Alaska.
Dog mushing is the official state sport.
The moose is the largest member of the deer family.
Reindeer aren't native to Alaska. They were introduced in the late 1800s as a food source for Native Alaskans.
Almost one-third of Alaska lies within the Arctic Circle, an imaginary circle around the globe where the winter solstice sees 24 hours of darkness, and the summer solstice sees 24 hours of sunshine.
Alaska is twice the size of Texas, while Rhode Island could fit inside it 425 times.
Alaska boasts 17 of the 20 highest peaks in the country. At 20,320 feet, Mt. McKinley is the highest peak in North America.
The name "Alaska" comes from the Eskimo word "Alakshak," meaning great lands or peninsula.
About half of Alaska's population lives in a 50-mile radius of Anchorage.
Camping options are nearly unlimited around Anchorage and throughout Alaska, ranging from RVs to tents, from cabins to yurts. RV camping is even allowed at Anchorage public school grounds. For Anchorage-area camp sites, see www.go-alaska.net.