The Alaskan Interior is the large, sparsely populated, and seemingly foreboding inland expanse of the state. Far away from Alaska’s coasts, the Interior boasts gorgeous mountains and valleys, as well as fantastic manmade attractions such as the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System. Despite Alaska’s cold climate, countless tourists visit the Interior every year to witness the Northern Lights and partake in the region’s unspoiled beauty.
While the attractions of the Alaskan Interior are too numerous to list in a single article, there are a number of major sights that will be on every visitor’s list. Here is a brief guide to some of the major tourist attractions of the Alaskan Interior.
Denali National Park and Preserve
Denali National Park and Preserve is the home of Denali, also known as Mount McKinley, the tallest mountain in both the U.S. and in North America. Located along the Parks Highway between Anchorage and Fairbanks, it is one of the top tourist draws in Alaska.
The park was originally formed in 1917 as Mount McKinley National Park after a decade-long lobbying effort by conservationists, who sought federal protection for the Denali area and its fragile ecosystem. Construction on park facilities was completed in 1921 and coincided with the laying of the Alaska Railroad, which connected Anchorage and Fairbanks by rail for the first time. In 1923, President Warren Harding stayed at the Mount McKinley Park Hotel on a tour of the Alaska Railroad, where he drove the final spike marking its completion at Nenana.
For many decades, the Alaska Railroad was the only means by which visitors could reach the park, as it lacked road access. The construction of the Parks Highway in the 1950’s allowed motorists to reach Denali by car for the first time, greatly increasing tourist traffic. The park was formally renamed to the Denali National Park and Preserve in 1980, and the mountain itself was renamed Denali in 2015.
The Denali National Park and Preserve is also known as the location where Chris McCandless (also known as Alexander Supertramp) died in 1992. McCandless explored the park without maps and eventually settled into an abandoned bus off the Stampede Trail, where his remains were found four months later following his death from starvation. Since McCandless’ death, the bus where his body was found has become a minor tourist attraction, with many visitors leaving tributes to his memory.
Denali is known as one of the toughest mountains to climb in the world, requiring considerable experience, expensive equipment, a climbing permit, and a mandatory orientation. However, Denali National Park and Preserve has many other attractions for less adventurous travelers, including hiking trails, kayaking, and camping.
The Alaska Highway is a 1,387-mile road stretching from Dawson Creek, British Columbia, Canada to Delta Junction, Alaska, several miles south of Fairbanks. It is one of the most scenic highways in North America and was the first land link between Alaska and the lower 48 states.
The Alaska Highway was built in the 1940’s as a military transport route during World War II. While the U.S. had expressed interest in building a highway to Alaska as early as the 1920’s, the Canadian government, whose approval was necessary for construction to begin, was not interested due to a perceived lack of benefit for that country. Construction began and was finished in 1942, though the highway was not opened to traffic until 1943.
The Alaska Highway is notable as the only land route between the contiguous U.S. and the Alaskan Interior, but it has also become a tourist attraction in its own right, offering many gorgeous views of mountains and wildlife. Many towns along the route, including Dawson Creek, have attractions for tourists, and the city passes through several important cities, such as the Yukon territorial capital of Whitehorse.
Driving the Alaska Highway can be risky due to inclement weather and wear-and-tear on vehicles. However, the route has become considerably safer in recent decades due to paving and road realignments, allowing motorists to cross it safely.
The Dalton Highway is a 414-mile road running north from Fairbanks to the settlement of Deadhorse, along the Prudhoe Bay oil fields. Originally constructed as a support route for oil companies and the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, it has since become popular with tourists.
Following approval of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System in 1973, construction on both it and the Dalton Highway began the following year. The Dalton Highway is noted for scenic mountain vistas and tourist attractions such as the Yukon River Bridge and the Arctic Circle Sign, which signifies to motorists that they have crossed into the Arctic Circle.
The Dalton Highway is largely gravel for most of its length due to permafrost in the northern part of Alaska preventing road paving. It is also noted for its desolateness, with the only settlements along its length being Coldfoot and Wiseman, with a population of 10 and 22, respectively. Services are extremely limited as a result and are only available at its termini as well as at Coldfoot and the Yukon River Bridge. Travelers are advised to pack survival gear and to drive carefully. Additionally, all motorists on the Dalton Highway are required to drive with their headlights on, even during the day.
Despite its dangers, the Dalton Highway is popular among tourists for its views of untamed nature as well as its easy access to the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, which parallels the road for much of its length. Many tour operators in Fairbanks offer guided tours between the city and Deadhorse along the Dalton Highway.
Trans-Alaska Pipeline System
The Trans-Alaska Pipeline System is an 800-mile oil pipeline that runs from Deadhorse, along Alaska’s North Slope, to the port city of Valdez, along Alaska’s southern coast. It was constructed in the 1970’s in order to ferry oil from the newly discovered oil fields at Prudhoe Bay to ships at Valdez. Oil cannot be shipped by sea directly from Prudhoe Bay due to the presence of heavy sea ice in the Arctic Ocean, a lack of infrastructure due to the North Slope’s sparse population, and the expense of sending ships into the Arctic Circle.
Uniquely among pipelines, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System is located aboveground. While most oil pipelines are built underground or covered up with earth, this is not feasible in Alaska due to permafrost causing potential damage to the pipeline. This makes the Pipeline easy to see along the Dalton Highway (which parallels the Pipeline for much of its length) as well as in other parts of Alaska. The Pipeline has also served as an unexpected boon to Alaskan wildlife, as they have been observed cuddling around it in order to stay warm during the winter.
The Trans-Alaska Pipeline System became popular as a tourist destination in the 1970’s after it was toured by several prominent celebrities and politicians, including John Denver, Gerald Ford, Henry Kissinger, and King Olaf V of Norway. Many tourists choose to travel along the remote Dalton Highway specifically so they can see the Pipeline. Alaska is required to dismantle the Pipeline when oil production at Prudhoe Bay ends, though there is currently no estimate on when this will occur.
Prudhoe Bay Oil Fields
Located along Alaska’s North Slope, the Prudhoe Bay Oil Fields are one of the largest reserves of oil and natural gas in the U.S. Oil was discovered in the region in 1968 following a series of explorations and surveys. Development began in the 1970’s following the 1973 oil crisis, when skyrocketing fuel prices and gasoline shortages caused by OPEC’s embargo against the U.S. spurred interest in developing the country’s own oil reserves. The Trans-Alaska Pipeline System and Dalton Highway were constructed in order to solve the logistical difficulties of transporting oil from the frigid and remote North Slope.
Deadhorse, the settlement where Prudhoe Bay oil operations are headquartered, is largely off-limits to the general public due to most roads being privately owned. However, visitors can still witness the oil rigs and other buildings from the areas that are open to the public. Deadhorse attracts many tourists for this reason as well as for the fact that it is located within the Arctic Circle, with the Arctic Circle Sign being a popular place to take pictures.
The Alaskan Interior can be thought of as one of the last frontiers of not only the U.S., but the world, as it is remote, difficult to travel through, lightly inhabited, and filled with large tracts of untouched wilderness. It’s for these reasons that it has become a favorite place to visit among tourists who come to Alaska, to get a taste of unique sights that cannot be found anywhere else in the world. While traveling the Alaskan Interior can be risky for those who are unprepared, it offers experiences that nowhere else can.