Frequently Asked Questions about Alaska
With immense glaciers, deep fjords and ancient forests, Alaska is the ultimate adventure destination. Wildlife flourishes in vast stretches of wilderness home to birds, bears, whales, caribou, moose, deer and wolves. On the shore, charming villages and bustling harbour towns pepper a coastline longer than all other US states combined.
If you're considering an expedition cruise to this rugged frontier state, you may have some questions before you go. We've compiled this list of some of the most commonly asked questions to inspire you and help you get started.
Jump to a relevant question or browse at your leisure. If you can't find the answer you're looking for, you can always get in touch – our knowledgeable team are always happy to help. Please note, this section is general information about Alaska, the wildlife and places mentioned are not necessarily covered in our itineraries.
Frequently Asked Questions about Alaska
Where is Alaska?
Alaska is located at the extreme northwest of the North American continent. It shares a border with Canada on the east and is encircled by several bodies of water, including the Arctic Ocean to the north and the Pacific Ocean to the south.
On a Hurtigruten Expeditions cruise, you’ll actively explore the wild side of Alaska. With smaller ships, our expeditions get closer and deeper than traditional cruises. You’ll seek out the less travelled spots along the coast, enabling unique experiences. Here are some of the places we might visit:
Icy Bay and College Fjord offer a dramatic glacial landscape where ice and forest meet. College Fjord is home to five tidewater glaciers, five larger valley glaciers and a dozen smaller glaciers.
Wrangell is one of the oldest island towns in Alaska. The town is one of the very few that have existed under three flags and to be settled by four peoples: the Tlingits, Russians, British traders and Americans.
The spectacular Misty Fjords Monument is a mosaic of natural wonders. It takes its name from the high levels of precipitation and mist, and the mountains are covered with thick rainforest. Misty Fjords is the second-largest wilderness area in Alaska.
How big is Alaska?
The name Alaska is derived from the Aleutian word Alyeska, meaning ‘The Great Land’. It is vast and it can look even bigger on a map due to size distortions of landmass nearer the poles.
Alaska spans 663,267 square miles and is the largest state in the USA by a long way. It’s twice as big as Texas and four times as big as California. It also has a coastline measuring an incredible 6,640 miles - 50% of the whole US continental coastline, which makes it perfect for exploring by ship.
As well as covering the most land area, you’ll also find North America’s highest point in Alaska. Denali National Park is home to Mount Denali, standing at 20,310 ft tall. One of the largest national parks in the US, Denali is a great wilderness that boasts hundreds of species of wildlife and is comprised of alpine tundra and boreal forest – it’s Alaska’s most popular land attraction.
When did Alaska become a state?
Alaska became the USA’s 49th state in 1959 under President Dwight Eisenhower. Along with Hawaii, Alaska is a non-contiguous state. This means it doesn’t share a border with any other US state. Instead, it’s separated by Canada. Like all US states, Alaska has its own flag. In this case, it was designed by a 13-year-old orphan who won a nationwide competition in 1926.
Upon gaining statehood, Alaska immediately became the largest US state, increasing the overall size of the country by nearly a fifth. Its distance from the rest of the country and natural obstacles to travel mean large stretches remain uninhabited, with wildlife reigning supreme.
Alaska’s official state animal is the moose, but in reality, there was a wide range of animals to choose from. Bears fish for salmon in the rivers, deer wander the forests and golden eagles swoop above the plains. On our shore excursions and nature walks, we’ll get you up close and personal with Alaska’s wild side.
How many people live in Alaska?
Alaska may be the USA’s biggest state, but it has almost the smallest population with just over 730,000 inhabitants. Only Wyoming and Vermont have fewer people. In fact, there are more caribou than people in Alaska.
Despite its huge size, most of Alaska’s residents live in Anchorage, Juneau and Fairbanks, with around 40% in Anchorage alone.
But people have inhabited Alaska and its surrounding islands since the second Ice Age, and indigenous Alaskans make up about 15% of the population today. Alaska’s Inside Passage is home to the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian people, whose history and cultures are reflected in towering totem poles.
What is the capital of Alaska?
Alaska’s capital is Juneau. The question that puzzles many of Alaska’s visitors is why? Anchorage is by far the largest city and home to about 250,000 inhabitants. On the other hand, Juneau has a population of only 32,000. Furthermore, Juneau has no roads connecting it to any other city and you can only reach it by sea or air.
Naturally, there've been plenty of campaigns to move Alaska’s capital to a more accessible city, with Anchorage top of the list. These attempts have largely been unsuccessful so far.
However, what Juneau lacks in size, it certainly makes up for in sheer beauty. This is a city surrounded by majestic glaciers, lush forests and spectacular waterways. Some of our itineraries take in the spectacular Tracy and Endicott Arm Fjords near Juneau.
How far is Alaska from Russia?
Russia and Alaska are divided by the Bering Strait, which is roughly 55 miles at its narrowest point. However, in the middle of the Bering Strait, you’ll find two small islands – Little Diomede and Big Diomede. When Russia and the USA were drawing the borders of their land treaty of 1867, they used these two tiny islands as a benchmark. Little Diomede belongs to the USA, while Big Diomede belongs to Russia – and the distance between the two is only 2.5 miles. So, not only can you see one island from the other on a clear day, when the ice freezes over in the winter months you could technically walk from the USA to Russia.
When can you see the Northern Lights in Alaska?
Although the Northern Lights occur all year round, your best chances of seeing them in Alaska are between August and April. From early May through to late July, places north of cities like Fairbanks and Nome bask in 24-hour sunlight – the so-called Midnight Sun.
Come winter the opposite is true, with Arctic Alaska experiencing about two months of 24-hour darkness. It’s not total darkness though. The skies vary from a deep black, studded with twinkling stars, to a light twilight blue as the dim glow of sunlight radiates on the horizon. This creates the perfect backdrop for the mesmerising Northern Lights to appear at any time during the day or night.
Can you drive to Alaska?
Of course – but it’ll be a long journey! Regardless of where you start, your route will eventually lead you to the appropriately named Alaska Highway, constructed in WW2 to connect the contiguous United States to Alaska across Canada.
Just be prepared to for a lot of driving. Depending on where you start, it will take you anything from 6 – 10 days if you’re driving for eight hours a day.
A much more comfortable and immersive way to discover Alaska is by ship. Our small expedition boats make it possible to discover places that are truly off the beaten track, including colourful historic towns and indigenous communities all along this rugged and diverse shoreline.
What is baked Alaska?
Baked Alaska is an old-fashioned dessert inspired by the 1867 land deal between Russia and the USA. Traditionally consisting of three layers, a base layer of sponge cake is heaped with ice cream and then entirely encased in a thick dome of meringue, decoratively applied with peaks, swirls or ridges. It’s baked in an oven or flambéed until the meringue is lightly toasted and marshmallow-like.
The dessert’s origins can be traced to a scientific discovery in the early 1800s. It was found that air bubbles in whipped egg whites prevented meringue from conducting heat. Soon after, chefs all over France were broiling layers of cake and ice cream wrapped in meringue and calling it Omelette Norvégienne or Norwegian omelette.
Later that century, a Parisian chef of the world-famous Delmonico's restaurant in New York City created the dessert to mark the American acquisition of Alaska from Russia. He initially called it Alaska Florida, referencing the combination of cold and hot components. It may also have been a nod to the Florida-born US Secretary of State William H. Seward, who negotiated the purchase of Alaska.