Comet Falls

Friday, July 29, 2016

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Comet Falls just might be the most impressive waterfall I’ve ever seen. As one of the highest waterfalls in Mt. Rainier National Park, it plunges 462 feet over the course of four drops, with the tallest drop being measured at 301 feet.

This outstanding hike begins from the Comet Falls Trailhead, located near Christine Falls between Longmire and Paradise. The trail follows Van Trump Creek for the majority of the route. Along the way you’ll pass numerous cascades, cataracts and waterfalls as the creek rushes down the gorge. As a result of the rugged terrain the trail climbs fairly steeply in many spots.

The trail itself is also very rugged, and is littered with numerous rocks and roots. Given that wet conditions normally pervade in the Pacific Northwest, descending back to the trailhead can be fairly treacherous as a result of slick rocks, roots and mud. As you descend, your best bet is to try and avoid anything that’s wet in order to prevent slips. I would definitely recommend using trekking poles - especially during wet conditions.

Roughly a quarter-of-a-mile above the trailhead hikers will cross over Van Trump Creek on a footbridge that spans roughly 50 feet above a stream that crashes through a narrow, rocky gorge. Upstream is an awesome cascading waterfall (photo above), while Christine Falls plunges through the canyon just downstream from the footbridge. Although you can’t see it from this vantage point, I highly recommend visiting the roadside viewing area just up the road from the trailhead (photo below).

As we climbed higher we enjoyed a wide variety of wildflowers.

At just over 1.5 miles you’ll cross over Van Trump Creek where Bloucher Falls crashes into the rocky terrain just upstream from the footbridge. Don’t confuse this with Comet Falls, which is still another quarter-of-a-mile up the trail.

A distant Comet Falls finally comes into view not far above Bloucher Falls:
I highly recommend continuing a little further up the trail to get an up-front view of the falls as they thunder and crash into the rocks below. It’s quite amazing! This was by far the best waterfall hike we’ve ever done.

The waterfall received its name because it resembles the tail of a comet.
Beyond the falls the trail continues up to the sub-alpine meadows of Van Trump Park. Although snow made this area impassable during our mid-June hike, we really wished we could’ve continued on as this area is known for its awesome wildflower displays, as well as its dramatic views of Mt. Rainier. To reach Van Trump Park you’ll have to travel another mile and climb an additional 1100 feet.

Trail: Comet Falls Trail
RT Distance: 3.8 Miles
Elevation Gain: 1250 feet
Max Elevation: 4875 feet
TH Location: Near Christine Falls east of Longmire
Map: Mt. Rainier National Park Trails Illustrated Map

Day Hike! Mount Rainier uncovers the best trails for the day tripper, whether you’re a newbie hiker or a veteran with hundreds of miles on your boots. Northwest outdoors expert and Seattle Times's Trail Mix columnist Ron Judd reviews more than 50 of the best day hike trails in Mt. Rainier National Park, from Paradise and Sunrise to the lower foothills. The book describes classic routes - from easy to moderate to extreme - giving hikers the choices they want.

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Bench and Snow Lakes

Thursday, July 28, 2016

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We really lucked out on this one. We inquired about the Snow Lake Trail upon our arrival to Mt. Rainier National Park, but the ranger told us that it was still impassable due to snow. However, the next day, the park updated their website and stated that the trail was now “open”. So we jumped on our chance to hike this very scenic trail.

The hike begins from a roadside parking area known as “The Bench”, located east of Paradise on Stevens Canyon Road. From the trailhead you’ll enjoy some awesome views of Mt. Rainier and Little Tahoma Peak.

I would estimate that at least three-quarters of this hike passes through open terrain, which means you’ll enjoy some great views along much of the route. Not far from the trailhead we had a great view of 6917-foot Unicorn Peak, which rises out of the Tatoosh Range.

In mid-summer this area explodes with a wide variety of wildflowers, including beargrass. During our mid-June hike hundreds of avalanche lilies lined the trail near the trailhead.

Further up the trail we saw trillium and several other varieties, including these marsh marigolds sprouting from a tiny island in the stream.

After about a half mile you’ll reach a small rock outcropping just off the side of the trail on your left. This vantage point offers good views of Bench Lake to the east, as well as Mt. Rainier and Little Tahoma Peak towards the north.

From the outcropping the trail begins descending. At roughly two-thirds of a mile you’ll reach a split in the trail. The short spur trail leading towards the left will take you down to Bench Lake. Due to very high and dense brush surrounding the lake at the time of our visit, we really couldn’t see anything here. I’m not sure if this is typical or not, but it really wasn’t worth the effort. Perhaps the water level in the lake was higher than normal, which may have prevented us from reaching the shore.

Once back on the main trail we continued descending down towards a beautiful meadow along the valley floor. After crossing over a small creek the trail began ascending towards Snow Lake. Roughly one mile from the trailhead we reached our first snow field. From this point forward we hiked across hard-packed snow all the way to the lake. Because so many hikers had already reached the lake over the prior days and weeks, the route was very easy to follow. This lingering snow, which often rings the lake until late summer, is very likely the inspiration for its name.

At 1.2 miles we finally reached the end of the trail at Snow Lake. The views from the lake, which is tucked in a cirque below 6917-foot Unicorn Peak, are simply outstanding.

Here’s a view of Snow Lake looking towards the northeast:

On our way back to the trailhead we enjoyed sporadic views of Mt. Rainier:

All in all this was a very nice hike – in fact, we really enjoyed it. For the best photographic opportunities I would highly recommend doing this hike in the morning, as the mountains lie towards the west and the north, and will present themselves at their best in the morning light. I should also mention that the park website notes that “there is always a chance of seeing black bears” on this trail.

Trail: Snow Lake Trail
RT Distance: 2.4 Miles
Elevation Gain: 700 feet
Max Elevation: 4679 feet
TH Location: The Bench – east of Paradise
Map: Mt. Rainier National Park Trails Illustrated Map

Day Hike! Mount Rainier uncovers the best trails for the day tripper, whether you’re a newbie hiker or a veteran with hundreds of miles on your boots. Northwest outdoors expert and Seattle Times's Trail Mix columnist Ron Judd reviews more than 50 of the best day hike trails in Mt. Rainier National Park, from Paradise and Sunrise to the lower foothills. The book describes classic routes - from easy to moderate to extreme - giving hikers the choices they want.

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Lookout Mountain in the North Cascades

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

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After disembarking from our Alaskan cruise ship in Vancouver, British Columbia, we drove down to Burlington, Washington with the intention of hiking in North Cascades National Park over the next couple of days. Since this was mid-June we knew that our options would be quite limited as the best hikes are at the higher elevations, and therefore would be impassable due to snow. Because it rained on our first day we were left with only one day to do any hiking in the park. Our one and only hike, however, was almost a complete bust. After consulting with a park ranger that morning we decided that the hike to Monogram Lake would be our best option. As you read further below you’ll discover that we decided to abandon that route, and instead, opted to head towards Lookout Mountain.

The Monogram Lake Trail begins in the Cascade River Valley, and immediately climbs steeply through a lush temperate rain forest of towering western hemlocks. Just a few yards up the trail we saw this albino banana slug:

At roughly one mile from the trailhead, just above a steep rock cliff section, we reached an unmarked side trail that lead towards the left. This went nowhere, so we continued along the main trail which proceeded towards the right. This first stretch of trail is very steep and strenuous. Although you’re climbing up and away from the river, you’ll still be able to hear the Cascade River rumbling through the gorge below throughout this portion of the hike.

As we climbed higher we could also hear the periodic calls of varied thrushes’ emanating from the surrounding woods. Their distinctive call sounds like a referee’s whistle.

At 2.1 miles we reached an overgrown meadow inundated with stinging nettles. This section of trail was quite treacherous. In addition to the stinging nettles, the chest high vegetation did its best to block our view of the path as we climbed over logs, large rocks and rain run-off. This section of “trail” travels for roughly two-tenths of a mile before reaching the upper side of the meadow. You should definitely consider bringing trekking poles, and you should probably consider wearing long pants and a long shirt to protect against the stinging nettles. As you proceed higher during this stretch you might notice 8868-foot Eldorado Peak looming almost directly behind you.

At roughly 2.7 miles we reached a creek crossing with a small waterfall tumbling just upstream. Unfortunately we didn’t have a footbridge to help us get to the other side. It appeared there was once an existing bridge here, but had been washed away at some point. Using rocks and a few planks of wood we found nearby, we built a makeshift bridge and got across with no problems.

Roughly one-third of a mile above that stream crossing we reached a split in the trail. To the left is the path that travels to Lookout Mountain. We turned right to continue along the Monogram Lake Trail - towards our original destination. After about a third-of-a-mile the trail finally entered North Cascades National Park. Up to this point we had been traveling through the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.

Shortly after passing the national park boundary, and after crossing over numerous downed-trees blocking our path, we reached a field that had essentially become a swamp after all the recent rain. It looked like this area was nearly impassable, even if we attempted to bushwhack around it. To be honest, we were exhausted and were tired of all the obstacles, and decided that we had had enough. So we turned around with the thought that we would try to make it up to Lookout Mountain.

Once back at the trail junction we turned towards Lookout Mountain. Roughly three-quarters of a mile above the split we reached a large meadow along the northeast ridgeline, just below the summit of Lookout Mountain. This area offered great views of the Cascade River Valley, Hidden Lake Peak, and portions of Eldorado Glacier and Inspiration Glacier. We could also see the fire lookout atop Lookout Mountain roughly one thousand feet above us (see the last photo below). We decided that this would be the end of the trail for us, and broke out the sandwiches.

From this ridgeline the trail travels another 1.1 miles to reach the summit of Lookout Mountain. From the fire lookout hikers will enjoy spectacular views of Mount Baker, Mount Shuksan, Teebone Ridge, Hidden Lake Peak and Eldorado Peak. You should probably note that the national forest website warns that hikers should limit the number of people on the catwalk to just two per side in order to prevent them from collapsing. The original lookout was built in 1929, but was replaced in 1962.

Although this is a pretty good hike for the early summer season, I would highly recommend waiting to visit the North Cascades until at least mid-July so that you can enjoy some of the much better hikes this region has to offer. I would recommend looking into hikes such as the Maple Pass Loop, Cascade Pass / Sahale Arm, or Ptarmigan Ridge and Skyline Divide in the Mt. Baker area - among many others.

Trail: Monogram Lake Trail / Lookout Mountain
RT Distance: 9.8 Miles
Elevation Gain: 4420 feet
Max Elevation: 5699 feet
TH Location: Monogram Lake Trailhead (near Marblemount)
Map: North Cascades National Park Trails Illustrated Map

100 Classic Hikes in Washington is a collection of 100 hikes in the Alpine Lakes, North Cascades, Glacier Peak, Mount Rainier, South Cascades and Olympics regions. The guide features color maps and photos on high-quality (recycled) paper. At-a-glance information for easy browsing includes the following: mileage, suggested duration in hours or days, high point, elevation gain, seasonality, topo map codes as well as additional contact information.

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Part 2 of Our Trip to the Pacific Northwest

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

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Last week we ran a series of blogs that highlighted our recent trip to Alaska. After disembarking from our ship in Vancouver, British Columbia, we drove down to North Cascades National Park for a couple of days, and then paid a visit to Mt. Rainier National Park.

Over the next several days I'll be sharing photos and trip reports from our hikes while we were in those two parks.

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Two Waterfall-related Fatalities on the Pisgah National Forest Last Week

Monday, July 25, 2016

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Two fatalities related to waterfalls occurred on the Pisgah National Forest this past week.

On Thursday, an Atlanta-area woman was wading in the stream that flows over Rainbow Falls on the Pisgah Ranger District when she lost her footing and was swept over the falls by the current. On Saturday, a local-area man jumped off the top of Elk River Falls on the Appalachian Ranger District. His body was recovered from the deep pool at the base of the waterfall on Monday.

These are the first waterfall-related fatalities on each of these districts this year. However, there have been several fatalities on nearby state and private waterfalls. There have also been numerous injuries to people who were recreating on or near waterfalls.

The best way to enjoy a waterfall is from a safe distance. Heed posted warning signs indicating danger and stay on established trails. Never climb on or around waterfalls and never play in the water above a waterfall. Rocks can be slippery and it's easy to lose your balance especially with bare feet. Currents near waterfalls can be extremely swift even in areas further upstream.

Never jump off waterfalls or dive into plunge pools at the base of waterfalls. Rocks and logs can be hidden beneath the surface of the water. Often waterfall pools have swirling water or currents that can drag and keep you underwater.

Even if you have seen other people enjoy playing around waterfalls, be aware that they have been lucky to escape unharmed. Waterfalls are constantly changing with varying water flows and erosion of the rocks around them. The current from one place to the next may be faster than you anticipate and the arrangement of rocks or other debris such as logs in the plunge pool is ever changing.

Waterfalls are exciting and rivers are a great place to cool off on a hot day, but both pose risks to unprepared visitors. We hope this information helps to make you aware of the hazards so you can enjoy a safe and fun visit to your National Forests in North Carolina.

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Shenandoah National Park Hosts Night Sky Festival

Sunday, July 24, 2016

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Shenandoah National Park will celebrate the importance of dark skies and the beautiful night skies that Shenandoah protects with a Park-wide Night Sky Festival from Thursday, July 28th to Sunday, July 31, 2016. Join Park Rangers, special speakers, and local volunteer astronomers during four exciting days of talks, walks, audio-visual presentations, and sky viewing throughout the Park. Shenandoah and other national parks provide excellent opportunities to experience starry night skies and natural darkness. Join the park to learn the basics of astronomy, discover the importance of protecting dark night skies, and enjoy some close up views of stars and planets.

Activities will take place in a variety of locations throughout the Park with events co-hosted by both Shenandoah National Park and Delaware North at Shenandoah National Park, the authorized concessioner for Shenandoah. Special speakers include Shanil Virani, Director of the John C. Wells Planetarium at James Madison University; Greg Redfern, Jet Propulsion Laboratory Solar System Ambassador; Dr. Uwe Konopka, Associate Professor in Physics at Auburn University; and, Astronaut Tom Jones, Senior Research Scientist at the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition.

For a complete list of the weekend's thirty-four events, see the schedule at All programs, unless otherwise noted on the schedule, are free. There is a $20-per-vehicle entrance fee to the park which is good for seven days.

Participants are encouraged to dress for cool mountain nights during evening activities and bring blankets, chairs, and flashlights for stargazing. Night sky viewing may be canceled depending on cloud cover.

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Misty Fjords National Monument

Saturday, July 23, 2016

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We really wished we could’ve of done this excursion first, rather than on our last day in Alaska. To be honest, after seeing all of the incredibly stunning beauty over the last few days, we felt that Misty Fjords National Monument was somewhat anticlimactic. Although it was still a nice excursion, we likely would’ve have enjoyed it much more had we visited here at the front end of our trip.

Our excursion began from Ketchikan. Just getting to Ketchikan that morning was a bit of an adventure itself. Two weeks before our trip a Celebrity cruise ship crashed into one of the docks and put it out of commission for an indefinite amount of time. Instead of docking right next to town, our ship had to anchor in the bay, which meant we had to take a tender over to the shore. The tenders we used were the lifeboats for our ship. I can’t even imagine being cramped in one of those for days waiting for a rescue!

From Ketchikan harbor our catamaran sped south through Revillagigedo Channel before making a sharp turn towards the north and into the Behm Canal.

Established in 1978, Misty Fjords National Monument encompasses almost 2.3 million acres within the Tongass National Forest. The vast majority of the wilderness lies between Behm Canal and Portland Canal. In this part of Alaska, fjords, or glacially-carved valleys filled with sea water, are known as "canals". The near-vertical walls that form these canals rise to as much as 3000 feet above the sea, and drop at least 2000 feet below the surface of the water. At one point, while we were floating less than 100 yards off the shore, our interpreter noted that we were in 700 feet of water. At more than 100 miles in length, the Behm Canal is the longest waterway within the national monument. The canal is also home to the U.S. Navy’s Southeast Alaska Acoustic Measurement Facility, which strives to make submarines as quiet as possible.

Misty Fjords is just one part of a vast rain forest that stretches along the Pacific coast, from the Gulf of Alaska to Northern California. Western hemlock, Sitka spruce and western red cedar dominate the forests within the monument. Visitors may also see a wide variety of wildlife, including both brown and black bears, mountain goats, moose, wolves, wolverines, otters, sea lions, harbor seals, killer whales, and Dall porpoises. During our visit we saw a few pigeon guillemots, sea ducks, and at least two dozen bald eagles.

Although we didn’t see any rain during our visit, we did experience overcast skies throughout much of the day. That was fine by us. Ketchikan is the 4th wettest place on Earth! On average it receives roughly 160 inches of rain per year, with much of it arriving during the fall.

Just before reaching Rudyerd Bay and Punchbowl Cove, our ultimate destinations on this trip, we passed by New Eddystone Rock. Discovered by Captain George Vancouver in 1793, New Eddystone Rock is a 237-foot high pillar of basalt rock, which was originally formed by a volcanic vent that allowed magma to rise to the earth‘s surface. There were several harbor seals resting on the tiny island as we passed by.

Rudyerd Bay and Punchbowl Cove are recognized as being the one of the most scenic areas in Misty Fjords. During our visit we also saw dozens of nesting seabirds along the steep cliffs of the cove.

Just after leaving Rudyerd Bay we stopped to check out a Tlingit pictograph painted just above the water line on a very interesting and picturesque rock. I’ll be honest, I couldn’t discern the ancient artwork from the natural rock, but certainly enjoyed the beauty of the rock itself.

As we made our way back to Ketchikan our guides brought out some snacks and beverages. They provided us with fresh smoked salmon, soup, a variety of locally made jams and relishes, as well as pickled kelp. At first this didn’t sound all that appetizing, but after trying the seaweed, I was hooked. It has a very unique and somewhat tangy flavor. Of course they sold all of these products onboard, so we took home some fresh smoked salmon and a couple jars of kelp.

As mentioned above, just two weeks before our visit, the Celebrity Infinity, a 965-foot, 91,000-ton cruise ship, crashed into one of the docks in Ketchikan. The crash caused one of the gangways to break off and puncture the ship’s hull. Ketchikan’s Port and Harbors Director estimated that the crash caused $2-3 million in damages to the dock. It sounds like wind was the culprit in this accident, as gusts were clocked at around 45 MPH.

Lonely Planet Alaska is your passport to the most relevant, up-to-date advice on what to see and skip, and what hidden discoveries await you in Alaska. This guide includes full-color maps and images, highlights and itineraries to help you tailor your trip to your personal needs and interests, as well as insider tips, cultural insights, reviews for all budgets, and essential info at your fingertips, such as hours of operation, phone numbers, websites, transit tips and prices.

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Denver Valley Hike

Friday, July 22, 2016

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On Day 4 of our cruise, our ship made a scheduled stop at the Port of Skagway. For our excursion that day we chose to do the Denver Valley Hike, with the thought that this could be our only chance to ever go “hiking in Alaska”. Additionally, this excursion included a ride on the famous White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad.

The excursion began with a van ride along the Klondike Highway up to White Pass (elevation 2865 feet), which also marks the border between the U.S. and Canada. From there it proceeds down to Fraser, British Columbia where we would board the train. While creeping along towards White Pass we spotted a cinnamon-colored black bear meandering just off the side of the road. After arriving in the tiny town of Fraser, located at Mile 27.7 on the track, we passed through customs and finally boarded the train. From the railroad depot we could see several rugged mountains towering towards the north, some of which were located in the Yukon Territory roughly 20 miles away.

From Fraser the train headed south towards the Denver Valley Trailhead, located at Mile 5.8 on the track, where it would drop-off our hiking group before continuing down to Skagway. Along the way the historic railroad route traced portions of the “White Pass Trail of 98”. In some spots you can still see remnants of the original path used by thousands of gold rush stampeders during the late 1800s, which would become “the largest gold rush the world has ever known”. 

The 67-mile White Pass & Yukon Route was built in only 26 months. It’s now designated as an International Historic Civil Engineering Landmark, as it was considered to be an impossible task to build. Tens of thousands of men used picks and shovels, as well as 450 tons of explosives, to blast through the towering mountains.

Our hike began from the old White Pass caboose at the trailhead. This refurbished 1960s era caboose is now rented out by the Tongass National Forest for overnight stays. Hikers, skiers and snowshoers can use this unique accommodation as their basecamp while exploring the Denver Valley area.

The Denver Glacier Trail more or less follows the East Fork of the Skagway River. It begins by traveling through a second growth forest, but eventually enters an old growth temperate rain forest. The deeper you proceed up the valley, the lusher and more enchanted the forest becomes.

For the most part the route travels along a moderate grade. As you climb higher the 7000-foot Sawtooth Mountains will become visible on your left. During our mid-June hike we saw several varieties of wildflowers along the trail, including dwarfed dogwood and foam flower. Both the trees and the forest floor were covered in ferns, lichens, moss and fungi. Devil’s club is likely the most dominant species growing along the forest floor, while western hemlock and Sitka spruce dominate the canopy, some of which are estimated to be 1000 years old.

This glacially-carved valley, deeper than the Grand Canyon, is also home to bears, moose and mountain goats – though we didn’t see any.

For lunch we stopped along the banks of the river where we enjoyed good views of the Sawtooths towards the north. Given how slow our group was moving, I asked one of the guides how much further we were going to go. She indicated not much further due to time constraints. I then asked if we could split into two groups, with one going faster than the other in order to cover as much ground as possible. She was in complete agreement with this plan. In fact, I wished I had approached her with this recommendation much earlier, as we could’ve covered even more terrain. With a total of four guides on our trip, this accommodation was not an issue in anyway.

While our group consisted of only 15 hikers, the guides can handle up to 25 per trip. After lunch, our group of "fast" hikers proceeded at a much brisker pace in order to reach Denver Falls, our final destination of the day. We estimate that we hiked roughly 2.2 miles to reach the falls, and probably climbed about 600 feet along the way.

Speaking of lunch, here’s another insider tip. The lunch provided by our tour guides was quite pedestrian – in other words, just plain. Although Holland America states that you shouldn’t take food off the boat, we saw no evidence that they ever check, or care, on any of the excursions we did. For this particular excursion I would definitely bring a much tastier sandwich from the boat if I were ever to do this tour again.

After arriving back at the trailhead we noticed a mother grouse and her newborn chicks hiding underneath the caboose. After waiting several minutes the last train of the day finally came by and took us back to Skagway. Once in town we promptly beelined over to the historic Red Onion Saloon and ordered a couple of Moose Drools.

All in all it was a nice hike. But to be honest, most of the major national parks in the lower 48 have far more scenic trails than this one. We were really disappointed that we didn’t get the opportunity to hike all the way to Denver Glacier. This likely would’ve made this a great hike.

I should mention here that mosquitoes weren’t really an issue for us during our hike. Although we did see a few, and declined the use of Deet which was offered to us by our guides, we had no problems with Alaska’s “state bird”.

I should also point out that we attended a Klondike Gold Rush program on the last full day of our cruise. The program was absolutely great. However, I really wish that Holland America would’ve offered this program before our visit to Skagway. Moreover, I wish that they would've posted a video of the presentation on their website, which may have possibly influenced my decision on which excursion to take while in Skagway. If the Klondike Gold Rush is of any interest to you at all, I would highly recommend doing a little research up front in order to learn more about this historical event so as to make the most of your time in Skagway.

Lonely Planet Alaska is your passport to the most relevant, up-to-date advice on what to see and skip, and what hidden discoveries await you in Alaska. This guide includes full-color maps and images, highlights and itineraries to help you tailor your trip to your personal needs and interests, as well as insider tips, cultural insights, reviews for all budgets, and essential info at your fingertips, such as hours of operation, phone numbers, websites, transit tips and prices.

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