Alaska - Landmarks and Points of Interest | Travel | Smithsonian

Alaska - Landmarks and Points of Interest

Alaska - Landmarks and Points of Interest

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From Mount McKinley to the Mighty Yukon, 15 Alaska Icons Travelers Must See
The checklist is impressive: Not many states can list the continent's tallest mountain, one of the country's longest rivers, Santa Claus' home and America's national symbol on their "must do and see" list. They all exist in Alaska, and travelers can see them all in one trip. From the Southeast Inside Passage to Fairbanks to the tip of the Kenai Peninsula, here are Alaska's 15 most famous icons.

Totem Poles
Beginning in Ketchikan and extending north throughout many of the Southeast Alaska Inside Passage communities, totemic art can be found in galleries, and ancient totems tower among the trees and rest in museums.

Sitka is home to Sitka National Historic Park, which boasts a collection of totems near the visitor center and along the walking trail. The pieces, primarily from Prince of Wales Island, were on display at the 1904 St. Louis Exposition. Ketchikan has the Totem Heritage Center, which houses 33 totems retrieved from deserted Tlingit and Haida Villages. The Center is a national landmark and is the largest such collection in the United States. To get to either of these destinations, drive north to Prince Rupert, British Columbia and catch the Alaska state ferry, or take a cruise ship shore excursion.

Glacier Bay's Great Whales
What the Tlingit Indians called "Big Ice-Mountain Bay" is also home to a healthy population of humpback whales. Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve is one of America's most revered natural treasures, and the chance to see these magnificent animals as they breach the glacier-fed waters is a special treat.  Glacier Bay is best accessed by Gustavus, located just outside the park boundary. Visitors can take a ferry or fly from Juneau, Alaska's state capital, to get to this awesome destination. From there, any number of private tours will escort guests to the best whale-watching sights.

America's Symbol, the Bald Eagle
Most visitors to Alaska will surely see a bald eagle before they leave the state. The bald eagle population is reported to be more than 30,000 in Alaska, and Haines, Alaska, located in Southeast, boasts one of the largest concentrations of bald eagles in North America. Every October, eagles flock to the nearby Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve. Eagles come for the late run of salmon; people come to watch and photograph them as they feast. The 48,000-acre Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve is accessible by road on Highway 7 or via the Alaska Marine Highway System's ferry or by cruise ship.

The Chilkoot Trail
A Southeast Alaska Inside Passage vacation would not be complete without learning about its fascinating Gold Rush history. While hiking either all or part of the Chilkoot Trail just outside of Skagway, visitors will find history at their feet, literally. Hundreds of discouraged gold miners ditched their supplies as they gave up their dreams of Klondike gold and headed home. Old pick axes, wagon wheels, shovels and countless other items are found along the 33-mile trail. Less adventurous travelers can walk just part of the trail, while hardcore hikers will want to take on the once-in-a-lifetime trek. Visitors can get to Skagway by driving Highway 2 from Whitehorse or by taking a ferry or cruise into the town's port.

The Mighty Yukon River
There are several ways to access one of the longest rivers in the North made famous by Robert Service. Drive to Whitehorse on the upper reaches of the Yukon or north to Dawson, Yukon Territory. From Dawson, drive the Taylor Highway into the small town of Eagle, Alaska. Eagle is perched on the south bank of the Yukon River below Eagle Bluff. The area is quiet and remote and offers canoe and raft rentals for visitors. From Fairbanks, drive to Circle, Alaska. Located 50 miles south of the Arctic Circle, Circle was the largest gold mining town on the Yukon River prior to the 1898 Klondike Gold Rush. Today Circle is a small, picturesque town with lots of summertime activities. Canoeists put in and take out on the Yukon, and visitors come and go on the Steese Highway.

Soldier's Summit on the Alaska Highway
For the history buff, Soldier's Summit is a must-see. Located at Mile 1061 of the Alaska Highway, this site marks the spot where the Alaska Canada Military Highway was officially opened with a ribbon-cutting ceremony on a blustery November 20, 1942. The Alaska Highway was built in less than eight months to ensure a safe supply road during World War II. Known for years as the Alcan, the road was originally for military use only. But it was opened to the public in the late 1940s. Today, a trail leads from the main highway up to the original dedication site from the parking area.

North Pole
It doesn't take much imagination to figure out why this is a "can't miss" for travelers to the North. North Pole is just south of Fairbanks. Visitors usually stop and take a picture with the giant Santa Claus and have their Christmas cards postmarked "North Pole." During the Christmas season, the local post office is besieged with letters to Santa from children all over the world. There is more to North Pole than Santa Claus, however. Visitors should take time explore Chena Lake Recreation Area for boating and swimming.

Trans-Alaska Pipeline
Astronauts say they can see it from space, but visitors to Alaska don't have to go that far to see one of engineering's modern marvels, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. A trip to Valdez allows the best views of the pipeline as it snakes its way down to the marine terminal at tidewater and unloads its liquid cargo into waiting tankers. This is not the only way to see the pipeline, however. A pipeline viewing area is located just minutes away from Fairbanks and along the Haul Road, a road that parallels the structure.

Mount McKinley (Denali)
Ancient Alaskans called Denali "The High One," for good reason. Towering at 20,320 feet, Mt. McKinley is North America's tallest peak. Glimpses of the mammoth mountain are visible along stretches of the Parks Highway, with designated pullouts providing the best views. Of course, the closer visitors can get to the mountain the better the view, so it's better for them to park at the Denali National Park Visitors Center and hop on a Park Service shuttle bus. On a clear day, the view is majestic.

The Iditarod Trail
Dog mushing is Alaska's official sport, and the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog
Race held every March is the longest, toughest test of a professional musher's endurance. Travelers don't have to own a sled to check out the trails traversed by the mushers and their team of dogs. Drive down Joe Reddington Road in Wasilla to see Iditarod Trail Headquarters. Visitors can stroll the famous trail or even take a sled ride with any number of tour operators offering summer and winter trips.

Prince William Sound Glaciers
No trip to Alaska would be complete without glacier viewing. Some of the best access to glaciers is found in Prince William Sound, accessed either in Whittier, Valdez or Cordova. Board the state ferry or private day excursion boats in any of these communities for up close and personal views of these magnificent rivers of ice.

Kennecott Mine
For the history buff, Kennecott Mine is a must. The mine is located off the McCarthy Road and lies within Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. Perched on the side of Bonanza Ridge next to Kennicott Glacier, the mill town was built by Kennecott Copper Corporation in 1907. When the copper market died down in 1938, the company essentially abandoned the site, leaving it as a virtual ghost town. Tours into some of the historic red buildings are available through private operators.

Huge Halibut
Homer fisherman call them "barn door" halibut because of their huge size. Of course, not every angler who visits Alaska will catch the big one, but respectable halibut are definitely here for the taking from Alaska's pristine waters. Charter a boat out of Homer, Deep Creek, Dutch Harbor, Seward or many places along the Southeast Inside Passage to the best fishing spots where the delectable flat fish lurks below.

Kodiak Brown Bears
Kodiak Island is home to world famous brown bears. Known for their huge size and large numbers, sighting a Kodiak Brownie is the highlight of more than one traveler's trip to Alaska. Visitors craving views of the big beasts can take the state ferry to Kodiak, book cabins in Katmai National Park and Preserve or hop on one of many privately operated bear-viewing tours.

Kenai River Salmon
What Kodiak is to bears, the Kenai River is to salmon... home to the largest salmon in the world. In fact, the Kenai offers anglers all five species of salmon, and anyone can access it by making sure to buy a fishing license, driving to the Kenai Peninsula and casting a line into its distinctive green-blue waters. Guided charters are also available along the length of the river.

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