Wilderness holidays in Alaska

Nothing good ever comes from staying in your comfort zone.
– Dave Patrick, of our specialist operator Infinite Adventures
Wilderness holidays are about embracing unfamiliarity. About testing yourself a little more than you normally might. About stepping off the beaten track and then going into the trees just beyond. However, while they might sound rugged and outdoorsy, they don’t involve setting off with just a penknife and a compass to see how long you can survive in the wild. Christopher McCandless, who died close to Denali National Park in Alaska in 1992 and came to be an icon of free-spirited wandering, was at the extreme end. You will be accompanied throughout by expert tour leaders and guides, ensuring that adventure doesn’t come at the cost of safety.
Dave Patrick and his wife Natalie run our specialist Alaska operator Infinite Adventures: “For me, wilderness is all about disconnecting and getting away from your norm. It’s unzipping your tent in the morning and seeing a glacier or a forest. Or just the pleasure of cooking dinner on an open fire. It’s not worrying about your phone, or politics, but compartmentalising and letting go of all the noise. Nothing good ever comes from staying in your comfort zone.”

Alaska is not the wild frontier it once was. Camera-wielding coach groups roam up and down the highway in Denali National Park during summer, and mega cruises carry around one million people every year around coastal destinations such as the Gulf of Alaska, the Inside Passage. But it’s still incredibly easy to find yourself in a vast expanse of nothingness, and the best way to do that is with an Alaska wilderness holiday. These are itineraries designed to give you a taste of that frontier spirit, with a degree of roughing it in places – don’t expect chocolates on your pillow every morning – and a passion to immerse you in the landscapes and wildlife while going that little bit further than your average Alaska holiday.

What do Alaska wilderness
holidays involve?

Camping, a lot of the time. Sometimes on official campsites, sometimes wild camping, but on many Alaska wilderness trips you will be spending at least a few nights under canvas. That’s because this far north it gets so remote there just isn’t much in the way of infrastructure. But don’t expect hardship, instead anticipate the fun of sharing smores and stories of bear sightings around the campfire, the thrill of unzipping your tent every morning to an incredible view, the sounds (and the silence) of being right on nature’s doorstep. And you’ve always got a hot shower to look forward to soon. “We use a mix of established camps and wilderness camping,” says Dave Patrick. “The established camps have hot showers, Wi-Fi and laundry, in the wild it’s just a big emptiness. So if you’re roughing it for a few days you know there’s comfort waiting for you soon. It’s best of both worlds.”

Answering the call of the wild also means throwing in your lot with others. The vast majority of Alaska wilderness tours are small group trips where bonds form quickly as you share long journeys, amazing activities and endless games of cards. Depending on the trip, there may be an element of pitching in on occasion, such as helping to prepare meals and wash up, or cleaning out the transport – entirely optional of course, but that feeling of ‘all being in it together’ does make for a more satisfying experience.
While wilderness holidays in Alaska vary, er, wildly, something that they all have in common is getting you close to nature – specifically, the animals. So you could be hiking the backcountry of Denali National Park in search of the ‘Big Five’, flying out to remote lodges on specialist bear-watching tours or using a small ship for wildlife cruises down fjords that larger vessels could never hope to negotiate, to find whales, sea lions and porpoises. Over to Dave and Natalie from Infinite Adventures: “Our travellers are heading out on treks without us a lot of the time, so we spend a lot of time helping people understand how to be safe. And what that really boils down to is that positive interactions with Alaska wildlife mean following the rules, being smart and aware of your surroundings. It’s not like the parks further south where there are millions of visitors every year and so the animals see them as a food source. Here, give them their space and you should be fine.”
The other thing that links all Alaska wilderness tours is the guides, and their quality. You’re not so much being led but shown around, by people whose passion for Alaska remains undiluted however many times they visit, and who love introducing it to others. People like Dave and Natalie from Infinite Adventures, or Powell Ettinger, founder and director of our specialist operator The Small Cruise Ship Collection, whose vessels treat their itineraries as simply a rough guideline, free to adapt according to what the wildlife is doing that day. “We also provide expert-led talks whenever the opportunity arises. In Glacier Bay National Park the rule is that every ship has to pick up a park ranger on the way. If you’ve only got 60 or so passengers on the ship, that gives them a lot more time to speak with everyone.”
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Alaska wildlife or need help finding a holiday to suit you we're very happy to help.

Alaska wilderness activities

You’re not here just to admire the view. On any given day you might be strapping on a set of crampons to walk across a glacier, husky sledding across the snow, kayaking along a fjord surrounded by creaking icebergs, enjoying a lesson in salmon fishing, taking a sightseeing flight by helicopter or float plane, white water rafting or spending hours in near-silence as you wait for a grizzly to approach your photography hide. With overlanding tours such as those run by Infinite Adventures, all activities are entirely optional, but the great thing is that you’ve got a ready-made group of enthusiastic companions. So there’s always someone to accompany you, and sometimes everyone will head out together.
Powell Ettinger, on how activity schedules work on a small ship cruise: “About two or three times a day there is a choice of activities, everything from Zodiac boat tours to paddle boarding – yes even paddle boarding in Alaska. And because we’re a small ship, when you’re on the Zodiacs, you’ve got no more than 10 people or so per crew member.”
Wherever possible, responsible operators will use local suppliers for activities, benefitting remote communities that are often quite dependent on tourism. Alaska is not a cheap destination to travel to, but when it comes to the unique experiences and the memories you’ll have afterwards, wilderness holidays here are exceptionally good value.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Infinite Adventures] [Tent Alaska: Steve Halama] [Trek: Infinite Adventures] [Kayaking: Jianjun Jia]