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See America’s Largest State In Three Days – Really!

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WhitePasstrain
White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad train climbing across mountains from Alaska into British Columbia, Canada. Photo by Yolanda Brunner

 

By Linn Washington Jr.

Is it really possible to see America’s largest state in just 36 hours?

Alaska’s 1,420-mile length north-to-south is longer than the distance from New York City to Miami.

How is it possible to see Alaska in three days where just one of its national forests – the Tongass – encompasses an area larger than the combined territory covered by the four states of Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey and Maryland?

Well, strictly speaking it is impossible to see every section of Alaska in three days or even three weeks. Alaska stretches from Arctic regions in the north to the immense Tongass National Forest along Alaska’s southeast coast. The Tongass is the largest national forest in the United States.

However, it is possible to have a satisfying Alaskan experience in just 36 hours.

The way to get this quickie exposure to wonders of Alaska is on a cruise ship.

Cruise ships docked in the harbor of Skagway, the town that was once the largest city in Alaska. Yolanda Brunner Photo
Cruise ships docked in the harbor of Skagway, the town that was once the largest city in Alaska.
Photo by Yolanda Brunner

Mention cruise ship and most thoughts quickly sail to images of visiting tropical islands in the Caribbean or fabled sites along the Mediterranean Sea.

A cruise to Alaska can land tourists in a real rain forest albeit with a twist. The Tongass Forest with its lush plant life does get tons of rain annually like its Caribbean counterparts although the Tongass is technically a ‘temperate’ rain forest not the ‘tropical’ rain forests found on Caribbean islands.

Another image-clashing surprise about Alaska: summer temperatures along cruise ship routes range from 60-80 degrees during the day, somewhat comparable to the warmer summer climes of the Caribbean and Mediterranean.

While Alaska offers an array of unique sights and sites, cruises to this northland offer visitors an attraction not found in either the Caribbean or the Mediterranean – glaciers.

Certain cruise routes actually take visitors alongside glaciers where they can experience the majesty of these massive ice formations from the deck of the ship or even sitting on the private balcony outside of their shipboard rooms.

Glacier Bay National Park is a popular locale for cruise ships. Also, there are excursions where persons can walk on glaciers, fly over glaciers and/or dog sled along glaciers…all adventures not available in the Caribbean or Mediterranean.

Every year over half of the nearly 2-million people who visit Alaska arrive there aboard cruise ships. The seven-day cruises on ships sailing from Seattle, Washington and Vancouver, Canada spend at least three days in Alaska visiting ports like Ketchikan, known for its totem poles and Juneau, Alaska’s capital with the distinction of having a glacier just 12-miles from its downtown.

Visiting these ports affords a 36-hour exposure to the varied ‘flavors’ of the state noted for its breathtaking natural beauty and abundant wildlife. There are cruises longer than seven-days that reach destinations further north along Alaska’s southern coastline. And, some cruise lines offer land travel packages that take tourists into areas of Alaska’s expansive interior for an added cost.

Gold is the glittering substance that initially drew tens of thousands up to Alaska in the waning years of the 1800s. Most of those drawn to Alaska for gold at that time failed to fulfill their dreams of ‘striking it rich.’

That rush to find gold, for example, triggered the growth of Skagway, a regular stop on cruise ship routes.

One of the many totem poles in Totem Bright State Park outside of Ketchikan. YolandaBrunner Photo
One of the many totem poles in Totem Bright State Park outside of Ketchikan. Photo by Yolanda Brunner

This small town with a year-round population of less than 1,000 once held the title of Alaska’s largest city with over 20,000 residents at the height of the gold rush era. Today, Skagway holds the

title of having one of the most scenic railroads in the world – the White Pass and Yukon Route. This railroad begins in Skagway climbing through steep mountains and over the nearly 3,000 feet high White Pass Summit into Canada.

Another cruise ship stop steeped in Alaskan lore is Ketchikan, a town that calls itself “The Salmon Capital of the World.” Ketchikan has annual rainfall averaging 150 inches, more than twice that of Mobile, Alabama, the rainiest city in the Lower 48 states.

Totem poles carved by indigenous people of Alaska are a major attraction in Ketchikan securing that town with distinction of having the world’s largest collection of standing totem poles. Totem

poles were culture artifacts representing things like family legends and notable events. Christian missionaries that came to Alaska mistakenly deemed totem poles pagan religious objects and destroyed many.

A cruise ship is a great way to get acquainted with Alaska. One in three visitors to Alaska are repeat travelers to that state, according to tourism industry findings, with many of those return visitors having first arrived in Alaska on a cruise ship.

 

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