Magazine article Sunset

The Ultimate First Trip to ALASKA

Magazine article Sunset

The Ultimate First Trip to ALASKA

Article excerpt

You don't have to see the same places everyone else does. Here's Sunset's guide to the coolest glaciers, biggest bears, and best smalltown BY E. READICKER-HENDERSON

ALASKA is THE ULTIMATE dream vacation. But the thing about dreams is that they can be amazing and a little scary.

Same with Alaska. The state has 100,000 glaciers, thousands of brown and black bears, and 586,412 square miles - bigger than Arizona, California, Montana, and Oregon combined, How can you decide which glaciers/bears/square miles to see? The sheer overwhelming magnitude prompts many first-time Alaska travelers to take shelter in guided group tours, which visit all the same places your sister-in-law saw on her Alaska vacation.

There's nothing wrong with that - Alaska's standard tourist "stops are, indeed, astonishing. But if you want your first Alaska visit to be even more extraordinary, plan on hitting these 10 destinations that locals mostly keep to themselves. You'll leave knowing that your dream vacation has been one-of-a-kind.

WATCH BIG, BIG BEARS

In parts of Alaska, bears outnumber people by a large margin. But where to see them easily and safely? Pack Creek on Admiralty Island is famous. But we like Anan Wildlife Observatory, near Wrangell, even more. Anan Creek gets so jammed with salmon it looks like you could walk across fish and never touch water. The area draws as many as a hundred bears each July and August - and is one of only a couple of places in the state where black and brown bears fish the same stream at the same time. The U.S. Forest Service maintains a viewing platform over a small waterfall, and when the bears feed there, you can be close enough to see a bear's nose twitch when he digs into a salmon.

INFO See Anan JuI 5-Aug 25 with Alaska Vistas ($252; alaskav/stos. com) or Breakaway Adventures ($220; breakawayadventures.com).

While you're there For humpback whale-watching, take a boat to Point Adolphus, south of Glacier Bay. A good longtime outfitter is Gustavus-based Annie Mae Lodge (tours /rom $120; May 25-Sep 5; anniemae.com).

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FIND THE QUIRKY SMALL TOWN

You grew up on Northern Exposure,, fascinated by the eccentric small Alaska town? There are plenty to choose from - artsy Homer, cruise-ship-stop Ketchikan. But for the mostquirk-for-the-buck, head to the lesser-known Southeast Alaska town of Wrangell.

False-front buildings make Wrangell (population 2,100) look like a Wild West prop; in fact, Wyatt Earp turned down the job of sheriff here. Strong on nightlifeit isn't: In Wrangell, the hardware stores have better hours than the restaurants. But the setting can't be beat - the rugged landscape explains why John Muir lingered here before he founded the Sierra Club. Give yourself three days to take in the Stikine River, fastest free-flowing river on the continent, and Anan Wildlife Observatory (see page 37) for prime bearwatching. (There's also Wrangell's Bearfest, held in July.) Want more quirk? Wrangell has Southeast's sole regulation golf course, with its only-in-Alaska rules; Moose play through, and a raven stealing the ball is a mulligan.

INFO wrangell.com

WHERE TO STAY ft EAT Stikine Inn ($$; rooms from (134; stik'me inn.com)

While you're there A short ferry ride (i33; dot.state.ak.us) from Wrangell, Petersburg is a fishing town with a Scandinavian feel - check out the Little Norway Festival (May 17-20). The deli at the local fish-packing plant, Coastal Cold Storage ($; 907/7724171), offers superior fish and chips. petersburg.org

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MEET THE FIRST ALASKANS

From the Inupiaq on the Arctic coast to the Haida in Southeast, Alaska's native peoples - who number about 165,000 today - have indelibly shaped the land they call home. Three good places to experience their cultures:

ALASKA NATIVE HERITAGE CENTER, ANCHORAGE This stylish contemporary cultural museum draws exhibits from all over the state. …

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