Alaska is a fascinating state full of history, natural phenomena and some of the nation’s tallest mountain peaks. Visit Alaska to marvel at natural wonders and walk through historical landmarks. Learn about Alaska’s role in World War II or kayak around breathtaking glaciers. Hike around some of the tallest mountains, or try climbing them if you are more experienced. We compiled a list of facts about Alaska to help you understand this state’s incredible background and appreciate it to the fullest.
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15 Facts About Alaska
Learn about Alaska’s incredible history, original settlers and natural wonders before visiting. Understanding the historical events and science behind Alaska’s beautiful cultures and landscapes will make your time in this breathtaking state even more meaningful. Before traveling to this amazing state, consider the following Alaska facts and figures:
1. Some of the First Alaskan Settlers Came From Asia and Russia
Anthropologists believe that the first Alaskan settlers traveled from Asia over 10,000 years ago. They believe people traveled along the shorelines or crossed the Bering land bridge. Tribes such as the Athabascans, the Inupiaq people, the Yupiks and the Aleuts inhabited various parts of Alaska.
Danish Navigator Vitus Bering led a Russian expedition in 1741 and landed on the Alaskan mainland, beginning the European discovery of Alaska. Russian hunters invaded areas of Alaska and exposed the local population to diseases. In 1784, a Russian fur trader, Grigory Shelikhov, founded the Three Saints Bay colony. This colony was Alaska’s first permanent Russian settlement. Russian settlers explored Alaska and established fur trade centers.
In 1799, Russians invaded Alaska’s largest city, Sitka, and established Fort St. Michael. In 1867, the United States purchased Alaska’s land from Russia for 7.2 million dollars.
2. Alaska’s Name Has a Unique Origin
Alaska’s name comes from the Aleut word, “alaxsxaq,” which translates to “the mainland.” This term translates more literally to mean “the object towards which the action of the sea is directed.” Alaska’s name also originates from “Aleyeska” — another Aleut word that means the “great land.” The Native Aleuts migrated from Asia and settled on the Aleutian Islands approximately 10,000 years ago.
3. North America’s Largest Glacier Is Located in Alaska
The United States’ largest glacier, the Bering Glacier, covers over 1,900 square miles near Cordova, Alaska. Its name commemorates Vitus Bering, a member of the Russian Navy who explored the Bering Strait in the 1700s and helped prepare a way for Russians to settle in Alaska.
The Alaska Almanac estimates there are approximately 100,000 glaciers in Alaska, but only 616 glaciers are officially named. Glaciers form when annual snowfall exceeds annual snowmelt. Some areas such as Kenai Fjords National Park and the Harding Icefield receive around 60 feet of snow on average per year. Glaciers transform the earth’s surface as they move, and scientists use them to learn about past weather patterns.
Travelers can visit many glaciers in Alaska for a breathtaking experience. In some state parks, you can even kayak among glaciers. Some of Alaska’s most famously visited glaciers include the following:
4. Alaska Is Home to North America’s Tallest Mountain
Denali is North America’s tallest mountain with a 20,310 foot-high peak, and its name translates to “The Great One.” Travelers can see this incredible mountain at Denali National Park, which consists of over six million wildland acres and one road.
The first group of mountaineers to reach the top of Denali climbed the mountain in 1913. Denali is covered in ice walls and peaks where adventurers can test their skills, so travelers often visit Denali for exciting experiences. Less adventurous travelers can view Mount Denali from nearby trails and roads. Denali National Park is also one of the best locations to witness the Aurora Borealis and is home to dinosaur fossils.
Alaska’s mountain ranges also include 17 of North America’s highest peaks. Besides Denali, Alaska’s tallest mountains include the following:
- Saint Elias
- University Peak
5. Alaska’s Wildlife Includes the World’s Largest Bear Species
Alaska is home to the Kodiak bear, the world’s largest bear species. A male Kodiak bear can be over 5 feet tall when he stands on all four legs and over 10 feet tall on his hind legs. Male Kodiak bears can typically weigh up to 1,500 pounds, and female Kodiak bears typically weigh about 30% less than males. Kodiak bears live on the Kodiak Archipelago islands. They have lived separately from other bears for about 12,000 years.
6. America’s Coldest Recorded Temperature Was in Alaska
Alaska is known for being a colder state, but temperatures actually fluctuate between low temperatures and warmer degrees. America’s coldest temperature of 80 degrees below zero was recorded on January 23, 1971, at Prospect Creek. The state’s highest recorded temperature of 100 degrees Fahrenheit occurred at Fort Yukon on June 27, 1915. Most areas of Alaska typically experience temperatures ranging from 20 degrees Fahrenheit to 60 degrees Fahrenheit, but the average numbers can be lower or higher in different locations.
7. You Can View the Aurora Borealis in Alaska
A spectacular phenomenon that occurs around the world is only visible in the world’s northernmost locations, including Alaska. Alaska’s night sky is a stunning sight thanks to the Aurora Borealis, also known as the Northern Lights. The Northern Lights light the dark sky with vibrant colors and wispy movements, creating a breathtaking spectacle.
The Aurora Borealis spectacle occurs when the sun’s charged particles — electrons and protons — collide with the atmosphere’s gases. This collision of charged particles and gases appears in the following colors:
- Blue: results from molecular nitrogen.
- Green: results from molecular oxygen.
- Red: results from atomic oxygen.
The best time to view the Northern Lights is during the winter months since the sky is darker during this time.
8. Alaska Has 394 Public Airports
Many locations within Alaska are only accessible by air, so the state has plenty of airports and pilots to provide transportation. Alaska has many air travel options, from large commercial flights to small sightseeing flights. The state has 394 public airports, 363 additional landing areas and 8,734 registered aircraft.
9. Over 130 Volcanoes Are Located in Alaska
Alaska is home to over 130 volcanic fields and volcanoes that have shown activity within the last 2 million years. Ninety of Alaska’s volcanoes have shown activity within the last 10,000 years, and over 50 volcanoes have shown activity since around 1760. Most of the state’s volcanoes sit along the Aleutian Arc, a 1,550-mile arc of volcanoes also known as the “ring of fire.”
10. More Coastlines Line Alaska Than the United States Combined
Alaska’s mainland has the United States’ longest coastline, stretching for 6,640 miles. Alaska’s many islands contribute even more coastlines, which adds up to 33,904 miles of coastline. Alaska is the only state to border two separate oceans, the Arctic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. It also faces the Beaufort Sea, the Bering Sea and the Chukchi Sea.
11. A Teenager Designed Alaska’s State Flag
Alaska’s state flag has a unique history. Alaska lacked a flag prior to 1927 because it was still a territory and under the federal government’s control. In 1926, Governor George Parks asked the Alaska American Legion to open a contest for Alaskan children in grades 7-12 to design the state flag. The governor believed that a new flag would help Alaska become recognized as a state.
Schools throughout the area received the contest rules, and 13-year-old Benny Benson won the contest. Benson was born in a small fishing village along the Alaska Pensinsula’s south shore. His father was a Swedish Fisherman, and his mother was an Aleut-Russian. Benson’s mother died when he was only three years old, and his father eventually had to place him and his brother in Unalaska’s Jesse Lee Home orphanage due to hardships.
The orphanage eventually moved to a facility in Seward on the Kenai Peninsula. Benson was a seventh grader at a Seward territorial school when he entered his flag design. Benson’s flag design portrays the North Star and the Big Dipper’s seven stars. Benson explained to judges that the blue represented Alaska’s sky and state flower, and the North Star represented Alaska’s future as the Union’s most northern state. He also explained that the Big Dipper stars represented the Great Bear, a symbol of strength.
The judges chose Benson’s flag design over 141 other submissions and adopted it as Alaska’s state flag in 1927. The flag became official in 1959 when Alaska achieved statehood. Benson received $1,000 as a prize, and many local Alaskans considered him a hero.
12. Dog Mushing Is Alaska’s State Sport
Dog mushing was Alaska’s main transportation mode in the past, and now it’s the state sport. Alaska’s biggest sporting event is the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Every March, mushers and their sled dog teams race approximately 1,000 miles between Anchorage and Nome, Alaska. Race organizers and mushers take great care of the participating dogs, and veterinarians complete examinations before, during and after the race.
Sled dog teams carried supplies and mail along the route between the coastal towns Kinik and Seward and northwestern Alaska’s mining fields and gold camps during the early 1900s. Airplanes eventually replaced dogsleds in the 1920s. However, a famous team of mushers and sled dogs is remembered for delivering antitoxin to Nome during the 1925 diphtheria epidemic when no pilots were available. The heroic 1925 journey became known as the “Great Race of Mercy” and gained international fame along with the team’s lead dogs, Balto and Togo.
Visitors can learn more about the dogs, race and mushers at the Iditarod Headquarters in Wasilla, Alaska. Browse through a gift shop and museum to see photos, trophies and displays. You can even ride a short trail on a summer dog cart ride, pulled by a team of sled dogs.
13. The Only World War II Battle on American Soil Took Place in Alaska
Alaska was the location of the only battle fought on American soil during World War II. Japanese soldiers bombed the United States Army’s Fort Mears and the United State’s Dutch Harbor Naval Operating Base near Unalaska. They then occupied Attu and Kiska’s Aleutian Islands for over a year. Researchers have discovered that the Japanese Aleutian operation’s purpose was to eventually expand and develop an eastern defensive perimeter.
United States forces landed on Attu on May 11, 1943 and fought Japanese soldiers for 19 days until the battle ended and they won the island back. American and Canadian forces later landed on Kiska on August 15th, but they found that the Japanese soldiers had already evacuated. The National Park Service granted National Historic Landmark status to eight sites, which include the following:
- Fort Mears and Dutch Harbor
- Adak Army and Naval operating bases
- Ladd Field
- Fort Glen
- Kiska Japanese occupation site
- Attu Island WWII battlefield and bases
- Kodiak WWII Army forts and Navy base
- Sitka Army Defenses and Navy base
Although there are plenty of interesting facts about Alaska’s involvement in World War II, historians believe there is still much to learn about Alaska’s role in this part of history.
14. Alaska Has History in the Gold Rush
Alaska’s Klondike Gold Rush was one of history’s most frantic gold rushes. It started in August of 1896 when Skookum Jim found gold with his family in Canada’s Yukon territory along the Klondike River. Nearby miners gathered to collect gold, and the news spread within a year, attracting gold seekers from the United State’s west coast.
Gold miners traveled to Alaska to find gold via various routes. Some sailed around Alaska to reach the river while others walked overland. Some gold-seekers even traveled over glaciers, causing many to become lost. You can learn more about Alaska’s gold rush at the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park. The park’s visitor center features a film about the gold rush, and you can attend ranger chats to learn additional facts about the gold rush locations.
Near the visitor center is a museum focused on the gold rush that features artifacts, photographs, video clips, maps and interactive exhibits. Learn more about each gold rush route and how people fared in their pursuit of a better life.
15. Alaska Is Known as the Land of the Midnight Sun
Barrow, Alaska experiences interesting sunlight patterns. In this Alaska’s northernmost community, the sun remains in the sky for over two and a half months. Starting on May 10th and ending on August 2, Barrow has sunlight all day and overnight. From November 18 to January 24, a different phenomenon occurs where the sun doesn’t rise above the horizon.
The Arctic Circle is located at a 66-degree latitude. The sun remains below the horizon for 24 hours during the winter solstice and above the horizon for 24 hours during the summer solstice. Other areas in Alaska, such as Fairbanks, also receive bright twilight, 24-hour light for long periods during summer and very few hours of daytime sunlight during long periods in the winter. Even southernmost areas such as Ketchikan can experience 17 hours or more of daylight during June days.
Visit Alaska on a Windstar Cruise
Travel to Alaska on a Windstar Cruise. Enjoy the intimate and welcoming ambiance of a small ship that can take you to unique areas and ports that larger ships cannot access. Travel Alaska with a caring and attentive staff and crew that will ensure you have a great time. Windstar cruises carry less than 310 travelers and provide immersive travel experiences so you can avoid large crowds and tourist cliches. Explore Alaska on a Windstar Cruise to experience the state’s greatest wonders.