It may seem difficult to believe, but Alaska is a pretty small place.
Granted, the state has a stockpile of 365 million acres, but visitors usually see only a tiny sliver of that. Anyone who's been to the state knows the routine: Denali. Portage Glacier. Homer Spit. Alaska Railroad goes north, Grayline buses go south, and the tourists go round and round, replicating the same picturesque photographs into infinity.
Now, we can't go blaming Alaskans for that -- after all, if you lived in such a beautiful place, you probably wouldn't want herds of people rambling all over it. But you should know that there are choices.
So here are three oft-visited places, and two distinctly different ways to see each of them. By the way, feel free to take the first choice -- you'll certainly have plenty of company.
Most of the summer pilgrims in search of North America's highest peak head for Denali National Park. After all, it's big, well-developed, has an honest-to-goodness hotel and, since private cars are not allowed, sends out its patrons in yellow school buses early each morning to search for photogenic Dall sheep and grizzly. There's a shuttle service and even backcountry camping -- if you don't mind filing a permit a few months in advance.
Then again, you could make the turnoff just before the national park, and stay in its smaller, forgotten cousin. Denali State Park is just one-eighteenth the size, but still has all the essentials, including wildlife (moose, Dall sheep, mountain goat, ptarmigan and the occasional grizzly), unrestricted backcountry camping, and views of the mountain sufficient to satisfy noted Alaskan landscape painter Sidney Laurence, who frequently painted the peak from the Peters Hills, in the western edge of the park. And if the elbow room should grow scarce, you can always drive to Talkeetna and hop a flight on a ski-plane to the glaciers of Denali herself. Standing on the football-field flats of the Ruth or Kalhitna glaciers, with several thousand feet of granite rising beside you, has a way of curing any nagging claustrophobia problems.
About 500 road miles south of Denali sits Kachemak Bay, set like a broad smile at the end of south-central Alaska's Kenai Peninsula. Known for its fishing, wild-berry jams and world-class driftwood, Homer is the fishing town where most people stay. And if you like Winnebagos, fishing charters and "I Went to Homer for the Halibut" T-shirts, you should stay there, too.
The southern side of Kachemak, however, remains blissfully behind the times. There's Seldovia, a fishing village built mostly on stilts that still has its Russian Orthodox church. There's Halibut Cove, an artists' colony that despite a dizzying bout of development in recent years (phone service and a restaurant) still is worth a visit.
There's the Tutka Bay Lodge, where proprietors Jon and Nelda Osgood still adopt guests as part of the family. And there are the hundreds of small coves and bays designed for kayaks and small boats, providing they carry good charts and wary captains -- the tides can run 25 vertical feet and the rocks are unforgiving.
Down in the state's panhandle, the glacier-filled nooks of the Inside Passage attract a steady stream of luxury liners. Having ridden one, this author can assure you that the experience is not all bad: The scenery edges past at a dignified pace, the food is plentiful, and it doesn't tend to rain much inside a ship's cabin.
Then again, if you want to get off the boat and hike around a bit, it might best be done from Skagway, northern terminus of the Alaska Marine Highway and starting point for the Chilkoot Trail, a historic 33-mile gold-rush trek that runs from Alaska's coast to the rivers of Canada's interior. You'll have to be ready for any kind of weather, as well as for customs officials, but the payoffs are big. Beginning in the flat-bottomed expanse of the Dyea Valley, the trail winds quickly upward past an eerie assortment of sled runners, boat ribs and other artifacts left by the stampeders of 1897-1899, as well as razored peaks, golden birch trees, hanging glaciers. It goes to prove that it's not always bad to go along with the crowd. Just so they are a century or so ahead of you.
IF YOU GO . . .
* Denali State Park, Alaska Division of Parks, HC 32 Box 6706, Wasilla, Alaska 99654; (907) 745-3975.
* Talkeetna Air Taxi, P.O. Box 73, Talkeetna, Alaska 99676; (907) 733-2218.
* Tutka Bay Lodge, Box 960, Homer, Alaska 99603; (907) 235-3905.
* The Boardwalk Hotel, P.O. Box 72, Seldovia, Alaska 99663; (907) 234-7816.
* U.S. National Park Service, Klondike Gold Rush Historical Park, P.O. Box 517, Skagway, Alaska 99840; (907) 983-2921.
* Canadian Park Service (Yukon National Historic Sites), P.O. Box 5540, Whitehorse, Yukon, Y1A 5H4; (403) 668-2116.