Answers to Frequently Asked Alaska Questions

alaska mountains

As much fun as I’ve had writing about Alaska, this is final post about the state for now. There’s more to come later, but the all-Alaska, all-the-time policy ends on Monday when I shift focus to Denver.

During the planning stages of my trip, I had several questions about everything from where to see wildlife in Alaska to how to obtain backcountry permits for Denali National Park. I’m sure others may have the same questions, so here’s a resource with some frequently-asked Alaska questions and answers.

Got any more questions? Leave a comment and let me know.

Where can you see whales from shore in Alaska?

Whale-watching cruises are worth your time if you can afford them, but you may also be able to see whales without ever boarding a vessel. Perhaps the best place to see whales from shore in Alaska is Beluga Point in Chugach State Park, just south of Anchorage. You can pull off the road at Mile 110 on the Seward Highway and look for beluga and killer whales. Binoculars are helpful.
Orca whale in water

What is cell phone reception like in Alaska?

Alaska is one of the last frontiers of cell phone service in the U.S. If you look at one of those coverage maps from AT&T or Verizon, you’ll see spotty coverage up here. The big cities all have good service. The long roads between cities typically do not. In many places, you can’t even get a single station on the radio. It’s like a time warp, and it’s kinda cool.

Also, when you do have phone service, be careful that it’s not pinging a Canadian tower and charging you roaming fees. That almost happened to me both in Seward and while driving north of Glennallen. I kept getting pop-ups asking me if I wanted to enable international service, which I had to decline.

Are there any glaciers accessible by car in Alaska?

Landing on a glacier in a plane is an easy way to get up close and personal with some ancient ice formations, but you can also drive to a glacier.

Matanuska Glacier is the main glacier in Alaska accessible by road. You can take a guided tour or hike there on your own after paying the entrance fee. Other options include Exit Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park; Byron Glacier, which is less than one mile from the road; and Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau. Portage Glacier used to be a good option, but it has retreated so much in the past 10 years that it’s no longer visible from the visitor center and requires a boat ride across a lake.

Here’s a good rundown of all the Alaska glaciers accessible by road.

How far can you hike on the Matanuska Glacier without a guided tour?

Not far at all. The ground is muddy and you’ll be crossing streams and patches of rock and ice, so you can’t safely venture very far into the glacier.

matanuska hike

As I noted during my post about hiking on Matanuska, I highly recommend taking a hiking or trekking tour of the glacier. They start around $45, and it’s worth it to have a guide and the ability to use crampons and move into some of the deeper regions of the glacier. I had a great experience with MICA Guides, and there are other tour companies as well. Just choose a guided tour if you can afford it.

What is the weather like in summer in Alaska?

Summer temperatures are actually pretty nice. The average high temperature in Anchorage in June, July and August is in the mid 60s and can easily reach the 70s, although during my week there it was stuck in the 50s.

The weather can change in an instant. It routinely switches from bright and sunny to chilly and rainy and back again over the course of a few hours, so always have warm clothing on hand.

What’s the cheapest flightseeing tour available in Alaska?

The most affordable tourist flights I could find were $99 rides around the Anchorage area. These flights are only 30 minutes long though, and that includes the take-off and landing time, so you really only get 20 minutes in the air and won’t be close to any of the mountains. Flightseeing is something that you’ll probably want to spend a bit more on, if you’re going to do it at all.

glacier plane

How much does it cost to rent a car in Alaska?

If you go during peak season, late June to August, expect to pay more than you ever dreamed for a rental car in Alaska. We’re talking around $90 per day, before taxes and insurance. In early June, I found cars for as little as $30/day, but the rates jumped quite a bit each week for the rest of June. The difference in price is so much that I recommend moving your vacation to early June to take advantage of the far lower rates.

I managed to find a deal at the last minute for $58/day, and since my reservation was refundable, I was able to cancel it and switch to the lower price.

There are a couple of local budget rental car places in Anchorage you can try, but check the fine print. Most require you to have your own vehicle and car insurance and to use a credit card. If you don’t own a vehicle or plan to rent with a debit card, these options won’t work.

For more details on costs, check out the definitive guide: How much does it cost to go to Alaska?

How hard is it to get a backcountry camping permit at Denali National Park?

Not super hard, but there are some hoops to jump through. You need to fill out a form describing how much backcountry experience you have and what safety precautions you’ve taken (bear spray? GPS? extra food?) Then, you’ll watch a 30-minute video explaining how to safely store your food. Rangers will provide you with a free bear-proof food storage container.

tent denali

Also, you’ll need to select which one of the 85 backcountry units you want to camp in. Each unit has a maximum number of campers who can stay there per day (often only 4 or 6), and you may not reserve units in advance. So come to the backcountry camping office with a few different units in mind in case your top choices are taken.

Is there public transportation in Anchorage?

Yes, Anchorage has a bus system that covers large portions of the city. Check their schedules, though, or you might end up like me, waiting for a bus that was never going to come because service was shut down on July 4.

Fairbanks also has a bus system, and some smaller cities have cab service, like Seward, where I ran into a bizarre duck-loving cabbie.

What is there to see and do between Fairbanks and Glennallen?

If you look at a road map of Alaska, you’ll notice almost a figure 8 between Fairbanks and Anchorage. If you choose the eastern portion of the circle, you’ll be driving on the Richardson Highway. This side of the state doesn’t have a national park like Denali, nor any mid-size towns like Palmer and Wasilla.

So what’s over here? The Alaska Pipeline, for one thing. It shadows the highway for most of the way. Other highlights: A couple of glaciers in the mountains visible from the road (but not close enough to walk to), and Fort Greely, a military base with impressive tanks at the entrance.

You’ll also pass through the quirky town of North Pole, where everything looks like Christmas.

santa claus house north pole

What’s the difference between camper and shuttle buses in Denali National Park?

This really confused me as I was trying to plan my foray into Denali. Shuttle buses are buses that take tourists to a specific destination in the park, like Eielson Visitor Center or Wonder Lake. You have to pay for your round-trip ride in advance.

Camper buses take only folks staying at campgrounds or in the backcountry. You must secure your camping reservation and pay for the camper bus in advance. There’s more room to store your bags on the camper buses, and they will let you off anywhere you want.

For more Alaska facts and trivia, check out 12 Things You Didn’t Know About Alaska.

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About Scott Shetler

Scott is a Chicago-based journalist and blogger who seeks out quirky sights and awesome destinations throughout North America and beyond.

20 comments on “Answers to Frequently Asked Alaska Questions

  1. Great info! Even though I find the possibility of hiking on a glacier on my own exciting, I cannot believe they allow it even for a little bit – and without crampons!? Sounds dangerous. The group I joined for a glacier hike in Argentina had 2 guides – one in the front, to verify we don’t step into a place that’s starting to melt, and one in the back, to make sure everyone was OK.

    I would love to see beluga whales in the wild! I hereby protest the end of the all Alaska all the time policy, though I’m curious to read about your experiences in Denver. Plus, I’m behind on my blog reading, so it will still be all Alaska all the time for me as I hopefully catch up in a few days 🙂
    Ayelet – All Colores recently posted..Where the Southernmost Glaciers in North America Await

    • I guess it is weird that they let anyone on without crampons. The land is privately owned, so I don’t believe there’s any sort of regulation. They could be setting themselves up for a lawsuit, I suppose.

  2. Wow…killer whales!!! That’s pretty awesome to have spot that. I miss the chance to see killer whales while in Antarctica!

    And I did check out your post regarding the killer whales also…great photos!!! I had been to Alaska but only during the winter time…it’s -59F when I got there!!!! IT’s was still awesome tho cus I got to see the northern light!!!! BUT definitely need to go back once again during the summer time!!!! Great information in here and I got to know there’s still TONS of thing I need to do!!!
    EDGYMIX-TRAVEL FOR FASHION recently posted..Chanel Bag x Hello Kitty Fondant Cake

  3. This is such a great post! I really like how you brought all that stuff together, super good info! We’re thinking about driving up and checking out Denali before we head back to Colorado in about a month… we’ve been down on the Kenai Peninsula all summer and haven’t gotten to see much of AK outside of that, so I hope we make it before winter hits. Apparently there’s already a bunch of snow on the Dalton…
    Payje recently posted..Whale Watching in Resurrection Bay, Seward Alaska

    • I would highly recommend Denali if you get a chance! I know it can be expensive to fly up there but the sights are worth it. Winter will be here soon in Alaska!

    • Yeah, that’s a big one. As much as I like the quaint idea of not having cell service throughout parts of the state, it really came in handy when it was available.

  4. Hi Scott
    I would really like to visit Alaska – not only to see the glaciers but to take a dog sledding tour to see the northern lights. Seeing as how you are soooo clued up – better than most. Do you think this would be possible, and which month would be about the best and cheapest.
    Regards
    Karyn

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