The Aleut people called it Alyeska, the great land. Alaska is one of the world's special places, full of exotic wildlife, magnificent mountains, glacier-carved valleys and steep, rocky coastlines.
Alaska is bigger than life, its sheer mass hard to comprehend. The distance from Barrow, on the northern coast, to Ketchikan, at the southern edge, is more than 1,350 mi/2,174 km—about the same as New York City to Miami. Alaska has six distinct climatic regions, the tallest mountains, the biggest glaciers, the most plentiful fishing and the wildest nature preserves on the North American continent.
Visitors go to Alaska for the fishing, hiking, hunting and camping—Denali National Park is a big attraction. Some go for the northern lights, or to whale-watch while cruising the Inside Passage. Some even go to Alaska for the Iditarod dogsled race.
Even as Alaskan vacations become more accessible, distance creates costs. Per-day expenses in remote parts of the state are comparable with those in major urban centers. The abundance of spectacular scenery and wildlife, however, should more than compensate.
Alaska borders the northwest edge of Canada and is actually closer to Russia (just 39 mi/62 km by air across the Bering Strait) than it is to the rest of the U.S. The landscape is dramatic and, because it covers such a huge territory, quite varied. In the south is temperate rain forest (Tongass), and in the north is Arctic desert.
The state is traversed by 14 major mountain ranges, encompassing 17 of the highest peaks in the U.S., including North America's highest mountain, Mount Denali, as well as most of the country's active volcanoes. It has more coastline than all of the other states combined. The geography ranges from endless miles/kilometers of tundra to sheer mountain walls, from the densely forested temperate coasts of the Inside Passage to the permafrost of the treeless Arctic Circle.
The first settlers in Alaska arrived at least 20,000 years ago when hunters from Asia followed large game over the Bering Strait land bridge into North America. By the time the first Europeans arrived in the mid-1700s, they found several diverse cultures living in Alaska: Whale- and seal-hunting Inupiat and Yupik peoples inhabited the treeless tundra along the Arctic Ocean, Chukchi and Bering sea coasts, and nomadic Athabascan caribou hunters roamed the forested interior along the Yukon River. Alaska's panhandle was home to members of the Tlingit, Tsimshian and Haida groups, who lived in a lush coastal environment.
Even though Russian explorers had seen the Alaskan coast as early as 1741, Europeans didn't venture into the territory's immense interior until well into the 1800s. Even after the U.S. purchased the area in 1867 for cents an acre/hectare, the region remained largely unexplored.
As was often the case elsewhere in the opening of the American frontier, it took the discovery of gold in Juneau in 1880 to get folks headed for Alaska. During the famous Klondike Gold Rush of 1898-99, thousands of rowdy, ambitious and gutsy prospectors and speculators flooded into Dawson, Skagway, Valdez and other towns.
Alaska was made a U.S. territory in 1912, but statehood wasn't granted until 1959. Then the discovery of oil at Prudhoe Bay in 1968 sparked a new rush to Alaska. The construction of the Alaska Pipeline from the Beaufort Sea to the Gulf of Alaska in the 1970s brought new wealth, new jobs and new environmental concerns.
Even now, the debate continues as to how much of Alaska's pristine wilderness should be developed. Most recently, the focus has been on oil development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, declining populations of marine mammals in the Bering Sea, and the impact from cruise-ship travel and other tourist activity, especially in southeastern Alaska.
Alaska's main attractions include spectacular scenery, wildlife viewing, camping, skiing, the northern lights, volcanoes, Inside Passage cruises, hiking, riverboat rides, fishing, canoeing, river and sea kayaking, friendly people, Alaska Native and Russian cultures, totem poles, glaciers, and dogsled rides.