Southwest Alaska comprises some of the ruggedest, most remote territory in the state. Its island-chain tail extends 1,200 miles out to sea. Yet for those intrepid enough to strap on their all-weather gear and venture into this far-flung wilderness, the unearthly landscapes offer ample rewards.
Occupying the eastern extreme of the Alaska Peninsula, Katmai National Park is a kind of explorer’s Holy Grail—a place everyone longs to visit, but few have been. Here active volcanoes provide backdrop for rapids teeming with brown bears, the stars of the local ecosystem. In many lakes, overlooks allow you to watch packs of up to 20 bruins as they paw at salmon jumping in the falls. You can also probe the lava domes and fumaroles of the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, created by a 1912 volcanic eruption, before warming yourself back at your wilderness lodge.
No less apt for wildlife viewing are the Aleutian Islands, whose windswept shores jut out 1,000 miles towards Asia. The site of a 19-day battle between Japanese and American troops in May 1943, the archipelago preserves a vast network of World War II pillboxes and bunkers. Today, its main residents are marine mammals—sea otters, harbor seals—as well as the puffins, auklets, storm petrels, and cormorants that make up the islands’ winged population.
More remote still are the Pribilof islands of St. George and St. Paul, in the middle of the Bering Sea. Accessible via flights from Anchorage, these tiny islets are huge among naturalists. St. George boasts a nesting population of 2.5 million birds from over 240 species, the largest seabird colony in the Western hemisphere, while St. Paul’s beaches are home to 500,000 fur seals. Visitors can also explore the islands’ Russian churches, built a century ago by fur traders who harvested the seals’ pelts.
Southwest Alaska is not easy to visit. But naturalists and adventurers who go will be generously recompensed by the region’s otherworldly beauty.