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State Spotlight: Alaska

Massive, wild and delightfully unspoiled, Alaska remains the last great frontier in the United States and sits at the top of many American travelers’ bucket lists. Take a trip there, and you’ll soon discover why: The state enjoys a combination of beauty and rugged independence you won’t find anywhere else in the country.

Although it is known for its abundant natural resources, such as oil and gold, Alaska’s real treasure is its wealth of opportunities for visitors. Climate limits the Alaskan travel season to the summer months, but the many thousands of guests who visit every year enjoy memorable natural experiences and 24-hour daylight.

Guests can have many different experiences in Alaska, from whale-watching and glacier-cruising to backcountry hiking and train expeditions, and they can be found in plenty of places around the state. The 2012 tourism season brought a number of new attractions and tours designed to give groups natural thrills, luxurious experiences and educational encounters.

Visitors can get up close with wildlife with new attractions in Juneau, Kodiak and Kaktovic. There are new glacier-hiking opportunities in Girdwood and an exciting new zip-line tour near Denali. And in Fairbanks, groups can now explore a historic gold dredge.

A Paddle To Remember

Many travelers go to Alaska with a dream of seeing brown bears in the wild. Now, a new “flightseeing” and kayaking tour takes participants to Admiralty Island, in the heart of Alaska’s bear country.

Beyond Alaska is an outfitter and guide company based in Juneau. This year, the company began offering a new experience called the Admirality Wildlife Kayak. The new tour takes guests on a daylong trip from Juneau to the Pack Creek area of Admiralty Island, home to one of the world’s largest populations of brown bears.

The tour begins with a 25-minute scenic floatplane flight from Juneau to Windfall Harbor. From there, guests and guides load up in sea kayaks and paddle over to Pack Creek Brown Bear Sanctuary. Guides help visitors find the best places to see and photograph wildlife. The area is said to have about 1,500 bears, in addition to numerous bald eagles and other animals.

The ‘Bear’ Necessities
In southwest Alaska, Kodiak Island is the second-largest island in the country and is home to the 1.9 million-acre Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge. This year, the native people who live on the island opened the Kodiak Brown Bear Center, which puts visitors in the middle of the island’s bear population.

Guests travel 45 minutes by floatplane from the city of Kodiak to Karluk Lake, where they then embark on a short boat ride to the Bear Center, which is located in the midst of prime bear habitat. Guides take visitors to numerous bear-viewing sites in this remote area; some require hiking to reach them. Along the way, the guides teach participants about brown bear safety and the ecology of the surrounding wilderness.

In addition to day sightseeing trips, the center offers a number of overnight experiences in guest cabins that include electricity, bathrooms, private decks and wireless Internet service.

A Train and a Glacier
Glacier viewing and train trips have long been fixtures of Alaska tourism. This year, a company called Ascending Path partnered with the Alaska Railroad to create a new glacier-hiking experience for train travelers.

Adventurers board an Alaska Railroad train from Anchorage, Girdwood or Portage, and ride to the Spencer Whistle Stop. From there, they take a short van ride to a wilderness area, then join guides for a 2.5-mile hike to Spencer Glacier. After stopping to take in the sights, participants gear up with crampons and helmets (provided by Ascending Path) and step onto the glacier for two additional hours of exploration.

The daylong excursion includes a total of five hours of hiking and walking, along with many photo and rest stops, and short lessons on the area wildlife, history and glacier formation. The tour company provides lunch along the way. Participants return to their accommodations by train in the evening.

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.