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Top 10 most photographic highlights in Alaska
It’s the epic landscapes, iconic grizzly bears, and spectacular medley of mountains, fjords, and glaciers that take centre stage in what’s known as America's last frontier. Factor in far-stretching rainforests, jagged sea cliffs, vast volcanic valleys, characterful towns, and superb national parks, and it’s easy to see why the 49th state of Alaska begs to be captured on film. Here’s 10 of the best places in Alaska worth upgrading your camera for.
For photo ops that just aren’t possible from the air or road, you can’t beat rolling through Alaska by train. There’s two superb railroads operating in the state: the White Pass & Yukon Route that chugs its way past the Bridal Veil Falls, Inspiration Point, Dead Horse Gulch, and the original 1898 Klondike Trail - and the 500-mile-long Alaska Railroad that stretches from Seward to Fairbanks (with stops in Anchorage, Wasilla, Talkeetna, and Denali National Park). Both routes serve up stunning scenery (churning rivers, rugged mountains, sparkling glaciers, ice-cloaked backcountry) and offer a “whistle-stop” service for passengers to disembark along the way.
Get the shot: It’s the Denali Star Route between Anchorage and Denali and the Coastal Classic Route between Anchorage and Seward that get all the love from photographers travelling on the Alaska Railroad. The first crosses the Knik and Matanuska Rivers and heads north towards the Talkeetna Mountains and into the Matanuska Valley, while the latter hugs the coastline along the Turnagain Arm. Both assure incredible imagery from inside the glass-domed carriage, but you’ll need to use a manual focus and set your camera lens to infinity for sharp shots without glare.
Given that it’s the largest state in the US, floatplane travel is often the only option for Alaska’s hard-to-reach places (the majority of towns and cities, including the capital, Juneau, are inaccessible by road). While flight-seeing excursions are readily available in almost every port, most make a beeline for the cruise-ship capital of Ketchikan - the one-time Canned Salmon Capital of the World whose waterway hums with tiny aircraft. Just bear in mind that when photographing moving floatplanes from ground level it’s best to set your DSLR (digital single-lens reflex) to continuous shooting mode and adjust the focus as necessary.
Get the shot: Taking off from Ketchikan, a Misty Fjords air tour by floatplane is an absolute must-do for epic shots of this 3,570-square-mile glacier-carved wilderness where sea cliffs, steep fjords and rock walls jut straight out of the ocean. Alternatively, hop on a floatplane from the quaint town of Talkeetna for compelling aerial images over Matanuska-Susitna Valley, Ruth Glacier, the Great Gorge, the base of the Alaska Range, and Mount McKinley (also known as Denali) - the highest mountain peak in North America with a summit elevation of 20,310 feet.
While sightings of the Aurora Borealis (otherwise known as the Northern Lights) is never guaranteed, you’re most likely to catch a glimpse of these neon ribbons if you’re visiting Alaska in the dead of winter - usually from September until late-April when the skies are at their darkest. Geographically located under the "aurora oval," the once rough-and-ready Gold Rush town of Fairbanks is arguably the best place in the state to view this phenomenon; mostly because it boats more clear nights than in the coastal areas. According to the Fairbanks Visitors Bureau you have an 80 percent chance of seeing the lights if you stay here for at least three nights.
Get the shot: Aurora chasers who’ve legged it up a hill for the best views of the horizon should prepare for awe between 11pm and 2am (although this depends massively on seasons). For further striking images, visit the Aurora Ice Museum for its fantastic carvings and ice scenes, the underground Permafrost Tunnel for its fascinating soil, rock, and palaeontology features, and the Pioneer Park for its Gold Rush Town that features a prospector’s shaft, a drift mine, and 35 restored Fairbanks buildings (including a house owned by Judge James Wickersham).
Most visiting the 3,670-square-mile Kodiak Island in July, August and September are only there for the world’s largest bears - the cousins of the brown or grizzly (Ursus arctos middendorffi) who tip the scale at a whopping 1,500 pounds. The bear watching here is nothing short of incredible, especially at the 112,000-acre Kodiak Brown Bear Centre (KBBC) located 40-minutes from Kodiak City. Here you’ll find three established bear-viewing locations around Karluk Lake that can be visited only with experienced guides: Karluk River Outlet in the north, Thumb River towards the middle, and O’Malley River at the southern end.
Get the shot: Head to Karluk Lake for the highest density of fish in the entire Kodiak Archipelago (red salmon in June, pink in July and silver in August). Further exciting photo ops can be found at Fort Abercrombie State Historical Park, the docks at St. Paul Harbor, and the Coast Guard base (the largest in the US). For less clichéd shots, walk the trails at Fort Abercrombie State Historical Park, get an overhead view of the channel from the Near Island Bridge, watch the float planes at Trident Basin, and hike to the alpine summit of Pillar Mountain for Alaska's first utility wind farm.
Designated as a National Scenic Byway, the Glenn Highway takes you from urban Anchorage to the Richardson Highway at Glennallen. Running for 135 miles (unless you include the Tok Cut-Off, making it 328 miles), you’re rewarded with photo-worthy shots of the Chugach, Talkeetna, Mentasta, and Wrangell mountain ranges as well as the 13,000-feet-high Matanuska Glacier - the largest road-accessible glacier in the state. This jaw-dropping drive also rewards with exceptional wildlife-watching (bear, moose, caribou, Dall sheep), hiking at Lion’s Head Trail, and the chance to explore the three unique communities of Palmer, Sutton, and Hatcher Pass.
Get the shot: Known as Alaska's agricultural heartland, the crop-producing Matanuska Valley is always a photo winner. Located approximately 45 miles north of Anchorage, this fertile farmland is best known for its extraordinary growing season (approximately 19 hours of daylight during the summer months). You’re most likely to spend your time photographing giant-sized vegetables (cabbages, mainly) that have become the area's trademark, but you’ll also get some interesting shots at the historic Havemeister Dairy Farm that's been run by the same family since 1935.
Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park is hands down one of the world’s most iconic places to watch and photograph active grizzly bears - the undisputed symbol of the Alaskan wild. And while July is the best time to capture the state’s famous annual Sockeye (Red) Salmon Run on film, sightings are guaranteed from mid-spring until mid-autumn. Alternatively, take a 30-minute floatplane ride from Juneau to the Pack Creek Viewing Area on Admiralty Island (whose native Tlingit name, "Kootznoowoo" means “Fortress of the Bears”) - or head 10 minutes from downtown Juneau to the easy-to access Steep Creek next to the Mendenhall Glacier.
Get the shot: Claiming the highest population of bears per square mile of any place on Earth, Chichagof Island (part of the 1,100-strong Alexander Archipelago) is where bear-lovers go to photograph cubs, females, and male bears in a wide range of habitats. It’s not uncommon to see upwards of 20 bears in a day, giving you ample chance to get an eye-level perspective. For gripping portraits and action shots, remember to shoot with long lenses if you have them, as it’s not particularly safe for you (or the bear) to get too close.
Just south of Anchorage, the outdoorsy playground of Kenai Peninsula delights with bear-spotting (one Katmai or Wolverine Creek bear per square mile), wildlife-watching (whales, sea lions, puffins, seals, mountain goats), boat tours from Seward Harbour, and incredible flight-seeing, rafting, and canoeing trips. And then, of course, there’s the mind-blowingly good kayaking at Resurrection Bay (also known as Blying Sound, and Harding Gateway in its outer reaches) where you can paddle your way along pristine Alaskan wilderness. Highlights here include hiking up to an abandoned WWII fort, passing local salmon spawning streams, and learning more about the tragic earthquake of 1964 at the Eldorado Narrows Ghost Forest.
Get the shot: For some of the most exciting Kenai shots, head to the port city of Seward for an insight into one of Alaska’s oldest and most scenic communities (the showstopping Exit Glacier is just a few miles from here). Also noteworthy is the 18-mile-long Skilak Lake Loop Road for its lakes and glaciers, and the Kenai River Viewing Platform for its volcanoes, beluga whales, harbour seals, and tons of birdlife (approximately 125 different species).
It’s unlikely you’ll return from Alaska without at least one Insta-worthy shot of a fjord. And while Misty Fjords may be the most famous, the fact that it can only be explored by kayak appeals only to the super-adventurous. For many, the essence of Alaska is the 600,000-acre Kenai Fjords National Park - the smallest in the state but with the biggest ice-cloaked thrills. Here you’ll find the Harding Icefield (the park's crown jewel measuring almost 714 square miles of ice up to a mile thick), as well as a huge amount of charter boats, floatplanes, and skiplanes. Also expect more orcas, grey whales, and humpbacks than your camera’s shutter speed can cope with.
Get the shot: More glacially-carved stunners await at Nassau Fjord - the four-mile-long inlet branching off from Prince William Sound (the fjord is also home to the tidewater Chenega Glacier). Also worth the trek is the 27-mile-long Tracy Arm Fjord, just 45 miles south of Juneau. Named for Civil War politician Benjamin Franklin Tracy, the imagery potential here is monumental; think cobalt-blue icebergs, cliffs rising more than 3,000 feet on either side, 1000-foot-high waterfalls cascading down steep rock walls, and amazing wildlife everywhere you look.
Denali National Park
The mountain looms large at Denali National Park - the most obvious attraction in Alaska’s interior wilderness. Spread over six million acres with just one access road inside, it ticks every box for photographers hankering for the perfect portfolio; wildlife (grizzly bears, moose, caribou, wolf), miles of untracked country, and the mighty Alaska Range reflected in the still waters of Wonder Lake. And at the centre of it all is a mountain whose name sparked a long-running controversy. Known to most Alaskans and native Koyukon Athabascan people as Denali (which translates as “The Great One") and to everyone else as Mount McKinley, this is the highest mountain peak in North America and the third highest of the Seven Summits.
Get the shot: So huge that it makes its own weather, Mount McKinley is shrouded by clouds roughly one-third of the time. But as long as you can see the mountain, you can photograph it. One of the most iconic images is from Reflection Pond, just beyond Mile 85. But the views are just as sensational from the Eielson Visitor Centre at Mile 66 on the park road, only 33 miles from the summit. Aim to arrive here before 11am (when it’s crowd-free) for the most arresting views of this geographical wonder that has such a deep cultural significance.
The tidewater glaciers spilling out of the mountains have unsurprisingly made Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve a UNESCO-declared World Biosphere Reserve and World Heritage Site. Spread over three million acres, most venture here to spend every waking hour filming a glacier-carved landscape that’s all sculpture rock walls, imposing cliffs, emerald-free forests, and persistent bodies of ice. As you’d expect, the nature thrills come fast and furious; from kayaking in the same waters as acrobatic humpback whales and 2000-pound sea lions, to hiking in the temperate rainforest (the Forest Loop Trail and the Bartlett River Trail are both excellent).
Get the shot: Measuring 21 miles long and 250 feet high (with a base 100 feet below sea level), the magnanimous Margerie Glacier remains gloriously unfettered by global warming (it’s been growing approximately 30 feet per year for the last few decades). Successfully capturing its icy beauty on film is challenging, so keep your camera in manual mode, pop a polarising filter on the end of your lens, and use “the rule of thirds” - a simple principle where you break your photo into three sections to improve composition and balance.