Alaska - Nature and Scientific Wonders

Alaska has the biggest, longest, highest, most and best of any destination. Of the nation's 20 highest peaks, 17 are in Alaska. That includes the legendary Mt. McKinley, the tallest mountain in North America at 20,320 feet. Mt. McKinley is the tallest mountain in the world from base to peak. Alaska has 3 million lakes, over 3,000 rivers and more coastline (47,300 miles) than the entire continental United States. Alaska also has an estimated 100,000 glaciers, which cover almost 5 percent of the state. There are more active glaciers in Alaska than in the rest of the inhabited world. Alaska is also home to 80 percent of all the active volcanoes in the U.S. The largest known concentrations of bald eagles, over 3,000, converge near Haines from October through January to feed on late run salmon in the Chilkat River. And the nation's two largest national forests are located in Alaska. The Tongass in Southeast includes 16.8 million acres, and the Chugach in Southcentral has 4.8 million acres.

For some travelers, Alaska is wilderness, at least compared to what they may know from back home. Of Alaska's 365 million acres only about one million of them are private. There are 16 national parks in Alaska, comprising more than 54 million acres. This is about 2/3 of the land in the entire National Park System. Glacier Bay and Denali (home of Mt. McKinley) may be two of the most recognized and visited National Parks and Preserves in Alaska, but all the park lands have something special to offer including wildlife viewing, camping, fishing, outdoor photography, rafting, kayaking, mountain climbing, cross-country skiing, flightseeing, day cruises, tours of historic and cultural monuments, hiking and nature walks. Alaska is also home to more than 130 parks, ranging from roadside campgrounds to large wilderness parks, spread over more than 3 million acres.

One of the most photographed scenes of an Alaskan vacation is the towering blue face of a glacier. No wonder three of the top 10 most-visited attractions in the state are glaciers. Of the 100,000 glaciers in Alaska, many are easily accessible by car, including Worthington Glacier on the Richardson Highway, Matanuska Glacier on the Glenn Highway, Exit Glacier on the Seward Highway, Portage Glacier on the Seward Highway and Mendenhall Glacier on Glacier Highway. Visitors can also pack numerous glaciers into a day with a boat tour of Glacier Bay National Park, Kenai Fjords National Park or Prince William Sound. Flight-seeing trips over ice masses like Sargent Ice Field, the Bagley Ice Field, Harding Ice Field and Juneau Ice Field allow travelers to experience the vastness of the glaciers from the air.

Alaska also offers unparalleled opportunities to observe and photograph wildlife. The variety and impressive numbers of mammals, birds and marine wildlife in Alaska draw visitors from all over the world.

There are 12 species of big game, including some not found in the lower 48. Approximate numbers of some Alaskan mammals are 144,000-166,000 moose; 950,000 caribou; 60,000 to 80,000 Dall sheep; 32,000-43,000 brown bear; 100,000-200,000 black bear; 5,900-7,200 wolves; 2,100 musk oxen; 13,000-15,000 mountain goats; and 350,000-400,000 black-tailed deer.

Nearly 430 species of birds can be found in Alaska, including ducks, geese, swans and the millions of seabirds that nest in colonies along Alaska's coastlines. Some migratory birds travel up to 20,000 miles on their round-trip journeys to Alaska. The spring concentration of shorebirds is one of the most impressive sights in the world. Alaska is the best place in the country to view our national symbol, the American Bald Eagle.

Alaska's shorelines are home to an abundance of marine life, including stellar sea lions, walrus, whales, seals and sea otters. The world's largest colony of seals, numbering over one million, breeds undisturbed on the Pribilof Islands. Sixteen species of whales have been identified in Alaska's waters. Increasing numbers of visitors arrange whale-watching tours during migration in hopes of witnessing the massive mammal "breach" high above the water level. Sea otters are amusing creatures to watch. They are playful and are often seen carrying their young on their chest.

Wildlife viewing opportunities are statewide and include:

  • Wildlife tours by motorcoach and van in Denali National Park
  • Fly-in bear viewing from Alaska's Southwest
  • Fly-in, boat-in or roadside bear viewing in the Inside Passage
  • Whale watching cruises from Alaska's coastal communities including Kenai Fjords National Park, Prince William Sound, Gustavus and Glacier Bay National Park
  • Undersea marine life viewing and snorkeling, Ketchikan

For guaranteed wildlife sightings and good background on the life of Alaska's wild animals, visit:

  • The Alaska Raptor Center in Sitka
  • The Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward
  • The Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center in Portage
  • The Alaska Zoo in Anchorage
  • The Musk Ox Farm and Reindeer Farm in Palmer
  • The Large Animal Research Station in Fairbanks

With more than 400 documented species winging their way to and around Alaska, birding fans flock to these special birding sites and festivals:

  • Fairbanks' Creamers Field Migratory Bird Refuge
  • Nome
  • Barrow
  • Haines' Chilkat River
  • Attu Island in the Aleutian Chain
  • St. Paul Island – the Pribilofs
  • Cordova's Copper River Delta
  • Anchorage's Potters Marsh
  • Gambell, St. Lawrence Island, Bering Sea
  • Sitka's Alaska Raptor Center
  • Haines, Alaska Bald Eagle Festival, November
  • Wrangell, Stikine River Garnet Festival, April
  • Cordova, Copper River Delta Shorebird Festival, May
  • Homer, Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival, May

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