Exploring Alaska on Foot
A Roundup of Spectacular Places
Alaska’s land area is nearly equal in size to half of the rest of the United States. Imagine traveling from San Diego to Atlanta, and you’ll have grasped the approximate east-west span of this great land. Alaska can be broadly divided into a number of topographically distinct regions, each of which has its own characteristic vegetation and weather patterns.
Southeast Alaska is defined by water. The thousand-mile-long stretch of the Inside Passage provides the most accessible routes through this region’s rugged mountains and forested fjords. Tlingit and Haida people still inhabit quaint bayside villages overlooked by the totem poles of their ancestors. Fair weather is a rarity here, and you can expect to be rained on frequently. Early explorer Addison Powell remarked that”a prospector who visits these mountains should bring a photograph of the sun with him, as well as a diving suit.” Because of the difficulty involved in getting around, southeast Alaska is better suited to sea-kayaking than it is to hiking. Waterborne travelers can gain access to myriad trails on the islands and mainland that afford good day-hiking opportunities. Check first at the local US Forest Service offce for current trail conditions.
South-central Alaska is a diverse land of moderate rainfall and pleasant climate. The long days of summer make the Matanuska Valley the breadbasket of Alaska, and oversized fruits and vegetables are routinely produced there. Intermittent rain squalls are the rule along the coast, while the broad valleys farther inland typically enjoy sunnier weather. Craggy ranges line the valleys, with peaks that rise well above the timberline. Dense brush is prevalent at lower elevations, and a limited system of trails provides the best option for accessing the high country. Deep winter snows provide the moisture needed to maintain the region’s lush vegetation.
The Alaska Peninsula and Aleutian Islands comprise a bleak, stark land with few trees and sparse wildlife. Born of a chain of volcanoes, the Aleutians still experience volcanic upheavals on a regular basis. Access is limited to plane and boat, as no roads connect this remote region with the rest of Alaska. The weather here can be notably foul, with rainstorms being the rule rather than the exception. Winters are relatively mild, with frequent rains and wet snow.
The Copper River Basin is tucked between the Alaska Range to the north and the Wrangell Mountains to the east. A broad, forested bowl, the Copper River Basin often experiences sunny weather even when the surrounding mountains are veiled in clouds. Remote from the larger towns but still accessible by highway, this region is sparsely populated, but contains a rich diversity of wildlife.
The interior of Alaska extends along the great Yukon Basin from the Yukon border west to the Bering Sea. Miles and miles of uninterrupted boreal forest characterize the region, which is also known for its low hills mantled in loess, or windblown glacial dust. The entire region remained unglaciated during the ice ages, and the then arid grasslands gave refuge to a rich assemblage of giant mammals, from woolly mammoths to saber-toothed cats. In the present day, wildlife is relatively sparse and difficult to view. The weather in the interior is predictably dry, with hot summer temperatures occasionally reaching 90 degrees Fahrenheit.
Alaska’s vast Arctic encompasses a stark and beautiful landscape populated by animals specially adapted to life in the frigid North. The treeless tundra of the North Slope is pockmarked with lakes and ponds that harbor breeding populations of waterfowl. Huge herds of caribou migrate hundreds of miles to breed along the barren coast of the Arctic Ocean. The long winters and stormy summers provide little chance for the ground to thaw, and, as a result, permafrost lurks only inches below the surface of the soil.