AUG 26 2022    
8 things that make camping in Alaska special
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8 things that make camping in Alaska special

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Seasoned campers may already know what to expect while camping in Alaska: There'll be spectacular scenery, lots of wildlife, and many of the familiar trappings of any camping experience such as picnic tables, fire pits, and an overall opportunity to live closely with nature.

But Alaska packs a few notable surprises that make it stand out from other camping destinations, and a few other aspects that can be challenging if you're not prepared for them. Here's a look at some of the things that make camping in Alaska so special and different from other places.

1. The scenery is beyond epic

I know I already mentioned the scenery, but it's worth bringing up again because even our everyday roadside scenery is at a level that might, in other places, qualify for inclusion in a national park. Here in Alaska, that's just what the road looks like.

Well, most of it. There are plenty of places, particularly in Southcentral and Interior Alaska, where the road is bordered by long, unbroken stretches of close-packed trees and brush. Rest assured, however, that if you keep going up the road you'll hit those amazing views again, often from a spectacular new angle.

All that greenery also serves a very useful purpose when you're camping: They make a pretty decent privacy screen in most public campgrounds and some private campgrounds, although just like anywhere else you'll find private campgrounds that are the equivalent of a big parking lot, so choose carefully.

Oh, hey, and if you really want to level up your scenery? Check out some of the places you can see the highest peak in North America, 20,310' Denali, from the road or your campsite. For example, the featured photo in this article is from one of the tent camping sites in the beautiful K'esugi Ken Campground in Denali State Park (not the national park). And yes, that is Denali in the background.

2. You get to unplug

While some private Alaska campgrounds do offer amenities like WiFi and cable TV, not all do, and none of the public campgrounds offer such things. If you come here looking to stay current with all the trappings of technology (or your favorite TV show) that are a given in other places, you might be disappointed. But if you approach your camping trip as an opportunity to unplug and soak up the one-of-a-kind natural beauty all around you? It becomes a thrill. 

3. The animals are everywhere... and they want your lunch

Alaska is larger Texas, California and Montana combined, but our year-round population is less than 750,000 people, with about half of them concentrated in the Anchorage area. That leaves an awful lot of open space for wildlife, and even in the cities they often live quietly alongside us, with most humans none the wiser to the presence of their furry neighbors.

As you might expect, that translates to a rich wildlife experience in campgrounds, too — and potential for animals to see your provisions as an easy meal. While the idea of Yogi Bear and his buddies making off with your pick-a-nick basket is pretty adorable, the end result is a downer for everybody: You miss out on lunch, and animals that develop a taste for human food lose their fear of us and have to be euthanized when they become aggressive in pursuit of what they see as an easy, logical food source.

That's why most campgrounds sport heavy metal cabinets with a special bearproof latch. If you're camping in a tent or a soft-sided vehicle, those bearproof food lockers are where you store your food and any other items with an interesting scent that might attract bears: Deodorant, toothpaste, cosmetics, and so on. If you're sleeping in a hard-sided vehicle, just make sure your foodstuffs and other "smellables" are secure inside the vehicle when not in use.

And the funny metal trash cans with locking lids and doors? Those are bearproof garbage cans. Usually, opening them is as simple as sticking your hand into the covered opening. Press up or in on the latch that's hidden inside, and that will unlock the trash can's door so you can swing it open. The bearproof food lockers are often secured with a similar mechanism.

The good news is that when we avoid that oh-so-easy trap of letting wild animals get used to human food (or trash), they stay wild — and that means incredible photo ops and wildlife viewing opportunities for you, sometimes right from your own campsite.

4. Alaska is very, very seasonal

We Alaskans like to say there are two seasons: Construction season and winter. No, wait — it's three seasons: Winter, mud season (spring) and mosquito season (summer). Regardless of how you chop up the year, Alaska's seasonal swings are much more extreme than what you'll find in more temperate climes. That sets up some spectacular experiences — if you're here at the right time of year.

Want to see 24-hour sunlight, or as good as? Plan a visit near the summer solstice. But if you want to see the northern lights you'll need to come back during the fall or spring shoulder season, when nighttime skies are getting dark enough for you to see the aurora. The aurora still shines during the summer, but you can't see it when the skies are bright with daylight or twilight.

Want to see bears? Your odds (and tour opportunities) increase exponentially when the salmon are running in July and August, luring bears to congregate near fish streams for an easy, rich source of food.

The upside of these seasonal swings is that there's always something new and interesting going on — and you could stay here all summer, or come back to visit several times, without ever getting bored.

Oh, and that mosquito season? We try not to talk about those little bloodsuckers that pop up all summer long... but the good news is that they're usually not as bad near the coast, in drier areas, or on breezy days.

5. Our road system is pretty basic

Not every Alaska community is accessible by road, and those communities that are on the road system are often strung along our scant few highways like beads on a string: There may be just the one highway connecting you to the next town over. Your options are to go this-a-way or that-a-way on that single road, and that's it.

It's true that our minimalist road system can be challenging, especially if there's a closure due to accident or natural disaster such as flooding or landslides. But having only a few roads through great swaths of wilderness, even outside the boundaries of state and national parks, has its perks. 

First of all, pretty much anywhere you stop between Alaska communities, you're going to be looking out at the wild — not another roadway, and certainly not another city. If you're the adventurous sort who'll go for a hike off the road or put a paddlecraft into the water (after carefully scouting and researching local hazards, right?) you're going to be bopping along on the fringe of wilderness, not trapped between roads.

And, of course, all that wilderness means the land around the roads is teeming with wildlife that you might be lucky enough to see.

6. It's a long way to... everywhere

I think I've already implied this, but it's worth mentioning outright: Alaska is big, so big that if you superimpose it on a map of what we call the Lower 48 [states], it comes pretty close to touching the northern and southern borders, and the east and the west coasts, all at once. Our communities are pretty spread out, too — so it can take a lot longer than you expect to drive from one town to the next. 

Google Maps usually gives a pretty good approximation of drive times under ideal conditions, but the conditions during camping season are rarely ideal... so on shorter trips (under four hours one-way) I usually add another hour to account for construction and traffic delays, or two hours on longer trips. 

Bottom line: If you embrace the idea that it can take a while to get from here to there, or anywhere really, it'll be easier to enjoy the journey — and you won't accidentally run yourselves ragged with a schedule that ends up being all driving and almost no camping.

7. You can sleep almost anywhere (within reason)

Here's a big perk of all that wide-open space: As a general rule, you can boondock in almost any pullout along our paved roads that pass through public lands, as long as there are no signs forbidding it and you're not blocking traffic/access.

Private lands work the opposite way for boondocking: They're off-limits unless you've received permission from the landowner. Some Alaska Native corporations, which own large swaths of land near the roads, offer inexpensive permits that allow you to camp, hike, and otherwise recreate on their land.

Oh, and big box stores in towns and cities? As in many places, some of Alaska's big-box stores have started to decline overnight campers — either because there simply isn't space for all those big rigs, or because people have abused the privilege. But if you need a place in the city, some stores will let you park there if you check at the customer service desk. 

8. The people!

It may be Alaska's most obvious charms that draw people here — mountains, glaciers, wildlife, and so on — but let's not forget something that makes Alaska really special: Its people! This remains one of those places where people will stop to offer help if you're broken down, and If you chat up the locals they're usually happy to share tips about their favorite places and things to do.

Except maybe berry pickers. They guard their secrets jealously... and I reckon that's the same everywhere, not just here in Alaska.

Photos: View of Denali from a tent campsite in K'esugi Ken Campground; view of Denali from a public use cabin in K'esugi Ken Campground; camping in the mountains of Blueberry Lake State Recreation Area, Thompson Pass, Alaska; camping in the middle of downtown Seward, Alaska; a cow moose that wandered straight through my campsite in Eagle River Campground, Eagle River, Alaska.

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