One pleasure of parenting is introducing your children to places you love. When my husband and I first took our kids to Alaska a decade ago, we hoped that at ages 9 and 5, they'd be old enough to enjoy it as we did. From their first bites of reindeer hot dog at the Anchorage Saturday Market to the last petting of sled-dog puppies at Denali National Park, they were entranced. We have since returned to Alaska several times, but our list of places to see the next time just grows longer.
Alaskans joke about kids who promise Mom they'll be home before dark, thereby giving themselves permission to stay out all summer! Extra hours of daylight go a long way toward helping visitors discover the state's scenic wonders, too. Comfortably mild in the panhandle, hot and sunny in the interior, Alaska's summer climate is family friendly.
Planning an Alaska trip can be daunting. When your destination is a thousand miles away, getting there had better be at least half the fun. Luckily, with Alaska, which comes in sixth among America's top-10 family destinations, it is. Traveling by ferry, plane or automobile, or taking an Inside Passage cruise, are all great choices. So how do you choose among them?
Cruises. For the stressed-out family in search of serious R&R, nothing beats a cruise. Most cruise lines offer children's programming and shore excursions. Casual dining is the norm on today's ships, offering kid pleasers like fish and chips, chicken nuggets and burgers. A round-trip cruise from Seattle serves up glaciers, wildlife and Gold Rush ambience in one week. For a longer getaway, combine a seven-day, one-way cruise from Vancouver, B.C., with a visit to Anchorage and Denali National Park, then fly home from Anchorage. Cruise lines arrange discounted airfares, but you can often do as well or better on your own.
Alaska ferry. The "blue canoes" are popular with families for good reason. More casual than a cruise, the trip is shorter and less expensive. Plus, you can bring the family vehicle and rub elbows with Alaska families for whom the trip is transportation, not vacation. Ferries run between Bellingham and Skagway and take three-and-a-half days. Brief stops of a few hours -- some at night -- are made at Ketchikan, Wrangell, Sitka, Juneau and Haines. All ferries have cafeterias; some also have dining rooms. No-frills staterooms for two or four people are available, and most have bathrooms. Or do as Alaska families do and pitch a tent on deck. Laundromats, storage and showers are provided. Most ferries feature small games arcades and theaters where videos are shown (families are welcome to bring their own). In summer, U.S. Forest Service employees give talks on Alaska's wildlife and history.
Air and road. Multiple carriers fly to Anchorage, making it easier and cheaper to reach than destinations like Juneau or Sitka. In Anchorage, rent a car or RV and head southwest to the Kenai Peninsula (three hours) or north to Denali National Park (eight hours). Or drive the all-paved Alaska Highway, the road trip of a lifetime. For Seattle to Fairbanks, allow two weeks. Roadside attractions include moose, black and brown bears, bald eagles, wild sheep and caribou.
Activities for the under-6 set. Juneau, Skagway and Fairbanks have authentic Gold Rush remains to explore. You can pan for gold in 'seeded' streams, where even the smallest prospector is guaranteed a strike. A visit to Turnagain Arm, near Anchorage, will have you singing "Baby Beluga." (Look for white ovals just under the surface.) A half-day or shorter wildlife cruise on a boat with restrooms, snacks and room to roam goes down well with fidgety preschoolers.
For older kids. Hiking, mountain-climbing, cycling and boating opportunities abound for all fitness levels. Instruction and equipment rentals are available everywhere. Age limits apply to some, like kayaking and river rafting. Some helicopter tours include glacier landings and a chance to try mushing on the ice.
For all ages. To visit a glacier in its native habitat, head for Exit Glacier, 120 miles south of Anchorage in Kenai Fjords National Park, or Mendenhall Glacier, just outside Juneau. Train enthusiasts will enjoy the day trip from Anchorage to Whittier and back, which includes a long tunnel.
When selecting activities, consider the weather. Alaska's interior often has sunny, warm days, but the coast can be gray and drizzly. Blend indoor activities such as museum-going and attending performances by Alaska natives with outdoor pursuits. And bear in mind that if you run out of time before you run out of choices, there's always next year.
Nancy Thalia Reynolds has two teenagers and is the author of two books about Alaska, Going Places: Alaska and the Yukon for Families and Inside Passage Activity Guide, both available from Sasquatch Books.
Hot tips for a cool trip
Denali National Park is a top family destination. But skip the park's long wildlife sightseeing trip on uncomfortable school buses. These can be dull for younger kids; often wildlife is visible only through binoculars. Instead, head for Savage River at dawn, when wildlife-spotting chances are best, and hike the short, scenic Savage River Trail. Then drop by park headquarters to watch the free sled-dog demonstration and shake paws with the furry stars. Drive or take a free park shuttle bus to both. Schedules are online and at the park's Visitor Center.
For first-rate bear watching head to Haines, which is served by Alaska ferry and by road. Just outside town on the Chilkoot River, brown-bear moms and cubs amble across the road to fish for salmon in the river each August. Local outfitters offer evening bear-watching junkets that last an hour or two. They're easy on the wallet and small-fry attention spans.
- Alaska Travel Industry Association (www.travelalaska.com) Travel-planning information.
- The Milepost (www.themilepost.com) Detailed road guide to the Alaska Highway and major Alaska and Yukon routes.
- Alaska Marine Highway System (www.dot.state.ak.us/amhs) Call Juneau Central Reservations at 800-642-0066. For Alaska ferry reservations, book six months in advance for staterooms and vehicle slots.
- Denali National Park (www.nps.gov/dena/) Information about park facilities and services.