Ice-cold weather, bears, and northern lights are a few things we instantly associate with Alaska, but besides these, what is Alaska famous for?
Located in the extreme northwest of North America, Alaska only borders Canada and is separated from the 48 contiguous states. With roughly twice the size of Texas, Alaska is the largest state in the union. On the other hand, it’s one of the smallest populations, making it by far the least densely populated American state. It’s easy to understand why a state with such extremes is so popular and well-known.
Nicknamed “the last frontier,” “the land of the midnight sun,” and sometimes “Seward’s Icebox,” Alaska is truly a destination that takes your breath away with majestic natural scenery and landmarks.
But without any further ado, let’s explore what is Alaska famous for?
12 things Alaska is famous for
Yes, we have already mentioned Alaska is enormous. But how big is Alaska? It can fit Texas, California, and Montana – the three largest states. Or in other terms, it represents about one-fifth the size of the Lower 48. If Alaska were a country, it would be the 17th largest in the world, just a bit larger than Iran.
Alaska’s capital city, Juneau, is also considered the second-largest city in the USA by area, with a territory bigger than Rhode Island and Delaware. At the same time, Sitka (also in Alaska) is the largest.
Another gigantic Alaskan feature is its coastline – with 6 640 miles, it’s bigger than all the other US states combined! It also has 3 million lakes, 130 volcanoes, and 17 of the 20 highest mountains in the USA, including the highest point in North America (Mt Denali) – a truly American Natural Wonder.
So, when people say everything is bigger in Texas, they definitely forget about Alaska. Alaska is enormous.
Besides its immense dimensions, Alaska is notorious for having a small population. The small population (48th state) and the colossal size mean that Alaska has an incredibly sparse population, even more so if we consider that about half the people in Alaska live in Anchorage.
On average, the USA has 93 people per square mile; New Jersey has more than 1200, while Alaska doesn’t even reach 2, making it by far the least densely populated state and one of the most sparsely populated areas in the world. On the other hand, if we compare Alaska with other extreme northern regions, we notice that it more than quadruples the combined populations of Northern Canada and Greenland.
Alaska has always had a low population, but it has increased by about threefold since the 1960s, mostly due to heavy immigration. It reached a maximum of about 740,000 people in 2016, but it has decreased recently due to the economic crisis.
One of the main reasons Alaska has always had a small population is the extreme cold weather, snow, and harsh life. How cold is Alaska? In general, it is very cold, but in a state so extensive, the temperature can vary dramatically by region and season.
Nearly one-third of Alaska lies within the Arctic Circle, which means winters see temperatures dip below -20 °F. Surprisingly, the Arctic is technically a desert, as it gets less than five inches of precipitation per year. However, it’s a snowy desert. Coastal areas aren’t as cold, but it’s still freezing, with snow blankets perfect for skiing, snowmobiling, and dog sledding.
While the cold winters in Alaska are legendary, the summers can be mild. The interior of Alaska reaches between 70-90ºF (20-30ºC), which is quite lovely. Mountains and coastal regions may only get 60ºF, but it’s still a perfect temperature for outdoor activities and hiking in the National Parks.
Alaska fun fact: The lowest temperature ever recorded in Alaska was -80º F (-62ºC) at Prospect Creek Camp in 1971.
What is Alaska famous for? Glaciers. Glaciers are snow compacted into ice that becomes thick enough to move. They form when over the years, more snow falls than melts. A snow patch becomes a glacier when the weight of the overlying snow and ice deforms the deepest layers.
There are so many glaciers in Alaska that only a tiny percentage of them have a name. The best estimations indicate about 100 000 in Alaska, and only 616 have official names. Glacier Bay National Park alone has more than 1000 glaciers, making it an excellent place to see this natural phenomenon.
The biggest Glacier in Alaska (and North America) is Hubbard Glacier which is about 76 miles long, seven miles wide, and as tall as a 30-story building. It is a sight to be seen and a one-a-lifetime experience. Other well-known glaciers include Matanuska Glacier (accessible from Anchorage), Mendenhall Glacier (one of the most accessible and scenic), Denver Glacier, Exit Glacier, Holgate Glacier, McBride Glacier, and Knik Glacier.
Alaska’s wildlife is diverse and abundant. The state has significant fish, mammal, reptile, and bird habitats.
Bears are the most famous mammal from Alaska (more about them below), but moose, bison, caribou, wolves, otters, and beavers also live here. Sea lions, sea otters, seals, turtles, and whales are among the most popular animals that appear close to the shore of Alaska.
Alaska is also a paradise for those who love birds and bird watching, as it’s possible to find hundreds of species of birds, such as eagles, owls, ravens, falcons, and ducks swans.
One of the main reasons to visit Alaska is to enjoy the opportunity to see some of these marvelous creatures in their habitat.
Among the thriving wildlife in Alaska, the bears are the most popular and one of the things people really search for when visiting the last frontier. With 50,000 black bears and 35,000 brown bears living in the Alaskan wilderness, you could think it would be easy, but you usually don’t just encounter them; you need to search for them and know where to go. Or you can take a bear tour in Alaska.
Bears are at the top of the food chain in Alaska. They are the dominating species in the state; they are extremely intelligent and evolved social creatures. You’ll find all three bear species from North America in Alaska: Brown, Black, and Polar. You’ll also find some unique subspecies, like the Kodiak bear, which is native to Kodiak Island and considered the biggest bear in the world.
Bears are marvelous animals to see in the wild, particularly near the water when playing, sunbathing, and fishing. Finding a group of Bears fishing salmon and enjoying the show can easily be the highlight of any trip to Alaska. With the right tour, you can even get reasonably close, endangering yourself or disrupting the animals.
There are 17 National Parks, 7 National Preserves, and 16 wildlife refuges, with about 60% of all Alaskan land managed by the National Park Service. So, all this plentiful wildlife is spread throughout the state. Some are easy to reach; others are challenging and expensive.
A few of these national parks are well-known and could easily make this list on their own, such as Denali, Glacier Bay, and Kenai Fjords. Denali is known for its amazing flying tours, while Kenai Fjords has wonderful cruise tours.
Denali National Park is possibly the most famous Alaskan National Park and a mandatory visit in any Alaska road trip itinerary. With more than 400,000 visitors, it’s the most popular and the easiest to reach. There are some amazing tours to see this NP. Denali is amazing to see wildlife like brown bears, caribou, Dall sheep, wolves, and moose. It’s also home to the highest mountain peak in North America, Denali Mountain (previously Mount McKinley).
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park is probably a bit lesser known. Maybe you haven’t even heard of it, but we need to highlight it, as it is by far the biggest national park in the USA, with more than 8M acres.
If we include the National Preserve, it becomes more than 13M acres, six times larger than the much more famous Yellowstone. As usual, when it comes to size, nothing beats Alaska. Seven of the ten biggest National Parks in the USA are in Alaska.
Being bought from Russia
One of the things Alaska is famous for is how it became an American state. In 1867, the USA actually bought Alaska from Russia for about 7.2M USD (about 133 Million USD adjusted for inflation), or two cents per acre ($4.74/km2).
Critics of the deal nicknamed Alaska “Seward’s Icebox” because they believed the land had nothing to offer. However, the discovery of gold in the 1890s created a rush of prospectors and settlers, setting up the development of Alaska.
The Russians were the first European power to settle in Alaska at the beginning of the 18th century when the Russian Czar Peter the Great dispatched Vitus Bering to explore the Alaskan coast. Russia was keenly interested in this region, which was rich in natural resources and lightly inhabited. Those early settlements were known as Russian America and spanned through the territory that later became Alaska.
Despite the interest, Russia lacked the financial resources to support significant settlements or a military presence along the Pacific coast of North America. Permanent Russian settlers in Alaska never numbered more than four hundred. Sitka, originally named Novo-Arkhangelsk (New Archangel), was the most important city and the capital of Russian America.
In the early years, the United States paid little attention to Alaska. It constituted a civil government in 1884; then, it was organized as a territory in 1912. Only after WWII, on January 3, 1959, did Alaska become a state – the 49th state.
Curiosity: During World War II, the Japanese occupied two Alaskan islands, Attu and Kiska, for 15 months.
What is Alaska famous for? That’s easy, Eskimos! Well… not so fast! The term Eskimo has been used to describe indigenous circumpolar peoples who have traditionally inhabited the northern circumpolar region, particularly from eastern Siberia, Alaska, Northern Canada, and Greenland. However, today, Eskimo is perceived as a racial slur and thus offensive and unacceptable for many people.
In the US, the legally used and accepted term is Native Alaskans. According to the different geographic areas, the Native Alaskans are usually divided into eleven cultures and, within them, 231 tribes. They speak more than twenty languages.
The Native Alaskans have unique cultures with rich traditions that are well worth learning and exploring. One of the best ways to learn more about their history and culture is by visiting cultural centers and native museums.
About 15% of the population in Alaska is (or considers themselves) Native Alaskan, making them proportionally the highest indigenous people of any American state. They exercise considerable influence in local and state politics.
Northern lights are one of the most spectacular natural phenomena in the world. People travel hundreds of miles to witness them; some of the best places in the world to see them are in Alaska. Despite everything else Alaska has to offer, some people will say the Northern Lights are the best of Alaska – the best thing Alaska has to offer.
Northern lights, or Auroras Borealis, are natural lights in the sky, predominantly seen in high-latitude regions (around the Arctic and Antarctic). They display dynamic patterns of brilliant lights that appear as curtains, rays, spirals, or dynamic flickers covering the entire sky.
Auroras result from disturbances in the magnetosphere caused by the solar wind, which alter the trajectories of charged particles in the magnetospheric plasma.
Due to its geographical position, Alaska and the inland Alaskan Arctic – where the sky tends to be clearer – are ideal for seeing this natural show. There are northern lights all year round, but the best time to see them is between August and April when there’s less daylight and darker skies. Under the midnight sun, it’s much harder to see them, which takes us to the next thing Alaska is famous for.
The Midnight sun is another incredible natural phenomenon in Alaska in the summer months in the areas north of the Arctic Circle. It simply means that the sun doesn’t set. It remains visible at the local midnight and during the whole night in some places.
This means that Alaska receives more sunlight in spring and summer than any other US state and most other parts of the world. On the other hand, the opposite phenomenon, the Polar night, also occurs. During winter, the sun stays below the horizon throughout the day. The 24-hour daylight during summer and 24-hour darkness during winter make Alaska a somewhat mysterious, even strange place.
At the Arctic Pole, the midnight sun occurs for six months, continuously and without a break. The further you move south, the less time the midnight sun is visible. Barrow, Alaska’s northernmost community, has had 24-hour daylight for over two months, between May 10 and August 2.
“Only” about one-third of Alaska lies above the Arctic Circle, so only this part of Alaska experiences this phenomenon. However, even southern Alaska has more than 17 hours of daylight in June.
Dog sledding, or dog mushing, is one of the things Alaska is known for. It was once the primary mode of transportation, but today, it’s a fun activity and the state’s official sport. However, more than a sport or a way of transportation, dog mushing is a tradition. It is part of Alaska’s history and culture.
The Iditarod Sled Dog Race from Anchorage to Nome is the biggest Dog Sledding event. Every March, it celebrates this tradition and sport with an 1150-mile race, which should take 10 or 11 days to complete. It is considered the most significant sports event in Alaska.
Taking a dog sledding tour is one of the most sought-after activities in Alaska. Despite being an expensive tour, it is a truly remarkable experience. Some of the tours even let you meet Iditarod racers and their dogs and explain what running this brutal race is like. You’ll also experience the thrill of dog sledding first-hand.
Click to learn what each state is famous for