By land area, it is, by some way, the biggest state in the Union, but it has one of the smallest populations, with only 730,000 people calling the ‘Last Frontier’ home. Bordering Canada to the east and facing Russia across the narrow Bering Strait to the west, Alaska is different. Separated geographically from the rest of the United States, it has a reputation for quirkiness and rugged individualism, and a spirit of adventure which still exerts a powerful appeal for those hardy souls who don’t mind a bit of snow; some 60% of Alaskans were born elsewhere. The state is also renowned for its pristine beauty and, with more miles of coastline than the rest of the USA combined, an ocean cruise has long been the most traditional introduction to Alaska for visitors. But to travel by land is to gain a whole new perspective on this wonder of world travel.
The ‘Golden Heart City’ of Fairbanks, which, with a population a little over 32,000, is the second largest in the state, lies just 200 miles south of the Arctic Circle. In the middle of summer, that means its citizens experience almost continual sunlight, with the sun not setting until after midnight and rising again less than three hours later. Of course, the reverse applies during the winter months; you’ll be waiting till almost 11am to see the sun on a Fairbanks Christmas Day. One consolation on these crisp, dark days, though, is the spectacular appearance of the Northern Lights, rolling across the clear skies above, with the period from January to April offering the best views of this celestial phenomenon.
Fairbanks was a city built on gold. Italian immigrant Felice Pedroni – better-known by his alias, Felix Pedro – had spent years searching for gold in the rivers and creeks of central Alaska, and then, in 1902, he made his big gold strike, some 16 miles north of modern Fairbanks. Word soon got out and the ensuing stampede of hundreds of hoary-handed Gold Rush pioneers rapidly transformed the basic trading post, opened here by riverboat captain E T Barnette only the previous year, into a thriving town; by 1905, it had a church, bank and various stores, and was connected to the outside world by telephone, telegraph and rail. Much was lost in a devastating fire in 1906, but Fairbanks was soon rebuilt, and by 1911, its population of 3,500 made it the biggest city in Alaska.
Although gold production declined after the First World War, commercial gold mining still remains an important part of the local economy today; the largest gold mill in North America, at the Fort Knox Gold Mine 25 miles northeast of town, processes 40,000 tons of ore every day. Visitors can learn about the history of Fairbanks in the town’s excellent Pioneer Park, which is home to several museums dedicated to native Alaskan culture, vintage aircraft and the lives of the Gold Rush prospectors, as well as a vintage narrowgauge railway and a number of lovingly restored early 20th century buildings. Also worth seeing is the University of Alaska’s Museum of the North, whose varied collections include an enviable display of gold nuggets, as well as native art and natural history specimens. Don’t miss ‘Blue Babe’, a remarkable 36,000 year-old mummified steppe bison, discovered near Fairbanks in 1979.
If you begin feeling the cold, head to Chena Hot Springs, around 60 miles east of Fairbanks. Founded over a century ago, this relaxing geothermal resort is famous for its steaming mineral water pools, alleged to possess curative properties for a range of ailments such as skin conditions, arthritis and circulatory disorders. Also here is the literally breathtaking Aurora Ice Museum, an exhibition hall in which the temperature is maintained at a bracing -7˚C, filled with intricate ice sculptures created by world-champion ice-carvers Steve and Heather Brice, including life-sized jousting knights and polar bears.
From Fairbanks, you can join the Alaska Railroad for a leisurely train journey through some of Alaska’s most dramatic terrain to Denali, crossing the wide Tanana River and travelling through the Nenana River Canyon. Denali National Park encompasses six million acres of wild and varied countryside, of alpine tundra and taiga forests, glaciers and snow-blanketed mountains, dominated by North America’s highest peak, the 6,168 metre-high Mount McKinley. If you’re lucky, you might spot some of the park’s skittish inhabitants: black bears, grizzly bears, caribou and moose, or rare birds such as the bald eagle, that majestic national icon, which can, on occasion, be seen soaring high overhead in search of prey.
At the end of the tracks is Alaska’s biggest city, Anchorage, which celebrates its centennial in 2015. From humble beginnings as a ramshackle ‘tent city’ for railroad workers in the early 1900s, it has grown into a cosmopolitan metropolis -home to more than 40% of the state’s population – with all the amenities and advantages of big-city life on the edge of vast tracts of wilderness. From Anchorage, it’s an easy day-trip to Chugach State Park, which begins around 10 miles to the south. With its varied landscapes of dense spruce forests, wildfl ower meadows, ice fi elds, rivers, lakes and coastal wetlands, it’s a haven for wildlife such as bears, moose, wolves, lynx and wild goats, and a popular destination for city dwellers who come to walk the gentle hiking trails, pick berries and enjoy the fresh air. There is plenty to see and do back in town, too. A tamer collection of native plant species is on show at Alaska Botanical Garden, while Anchorage Museum holds an unrivalled collection of art and artefacts chronicling the state’s colourful history, and the Alaska Native Heritage Centre offers an absorbing introduction to the culture of Alaska’s tribal peoples through storytelling, music and art.
From serene icy wilderness as far as the eye can see to urbane cities buzzing with energy, where the summer sun burns at midnight and some of the continent’s most impressive natural wonders rise from landscapes of primordial beauty, Alaska offers a travel experience like no other. The ‘Last Frontier’ awaits discovery.