Where to Photograph in Alaska
I’m often asked this question, but I find it very difficult to answer. Part of Alaska’s lure and fascination to me is found in its tremendous diversity of environment. Sampling from one makes the other’s uniqueness more prominent. I like winter because of summer, and I like summer partly because of winter. Change and diversity make travel across this landscape both distinctive and remarkable. Then there is the topic of wildlife, which is quite different in the Arctic than in Southeast Alaska’s marine waters, both of which are astonishing in their own right. So as unsatisfying as it seems to not “name” a particular spot or location, Alaska’s collective spaces win me over. I was raised in the Midwest and became addicted to wide open spaces very young. I like the ability to see for long distances and across grand vistas. Alaska feeds this addiction well. Out of fairness, the question of where to photograph in Alaska is good – it is a BIG place!
Often a given location is excellent for one particular subject but has a few drawbacks in other ways. For example, Katmai National Park at Brooks Falls is a fantastic place for brown bear photography, but there are many people there for this reason. Dealing with groups of people can be far more complicated than dealing with bears!
So instead of naming a favorite, I’ll list a few places I enjoy photographing—mainly from a photographic perspective, not necessarily the pure nature experience or absence of people. They are not secret spots in any measure, relatively well known, but they are that for a reason.
Brooks Falls, Katmai National Park
I like the topographical relief of the Brooks Falls area, the nearby mountains, the aqua-blue water of Naknek lake, the sunrise orientation, the diversity of wildlife, and yes, of course, the tremendous congregations of brown bears. Access to Brooks lodge is made via commercial airplane to King Salmon and then by float plane ride to Brooks Lodge, situated on the shores of Naknek Lake. A day trip directly to Brooks from the Anchorage or Homer region is increasingly popular. While this might be a great quick chance to see the bears, you miss the excellent light of early morning and late evening. So I prefer to go for sufficient time to get familiarized with the animals and their behavior and sample the diversity of weather. A campground is inexpensive, but the spots go quickly during prime summertime salmon runs, which bring the bears.
Prince William Sound
The long fjords choked with lush green hillsides are fantastic in this sheltered waterway of Prince William Sound in southcentral Alaska. Glaciers are thick and active, dumping huge icebergs into the sea. The weather can be wet but not as severe as in southeast Alaska. Its coastal landscapes and wildflower meadows are amazing. The bird life, marine wildlife, and the interface of human participation through kayaking and/or maritime industry make it intriguing. It’s growing in popularity and the number of visitors, mainly due to the road access available to public vehicles through the tunnel from Portage to Whittier. The sound can also be accessed from Valdez or Cordova on the northern and eastern shores. The Spring birding festival, held in May in Cordova, is a fascinating and, at times, mind-blowing experience. Especially if you time your visit to see the hundreds of thousands of shorebirds that migrate through.
The Brooks Range
The Brooks Range is a massive region. The great continental divide in northern Alaska separates the interior from the arctic north slope. It is extreme, austere, beautiful, and rugged. Far less populated than the other areas mentioned above, it is equally more difficult to access. But the landscapes fascinate me, the rugged mountains, the infusion of light in the summer (and mosquitoes!!). I hope to do more work in this area over the next few years. There is access directly from the Dalton Highway, should you choose to hike. Or you can fly into several areas for extended hiking or river travel. Coyote Air Service, based in Coldfoot, is a reliable air taxi service. The pilot Dirk and his wife, Danielle, know the area exceptionally well: www.flycoyote.com
Denali National Park
While I often go to Denali National Park with mixed feelings—there are so many people to contend with along the road corridor—it does remain a very productive and beautiful place to photograph. The road moves through four mountain passes, which parallel rivers with grand vistas–all in just 90 miles! I know of no other road system in the state with this diversity in such a short distance. The wildlife is abundant, relatively speaking, and diverse as well. It is also one of the few places to effectively and safely photograph interior grizzly bears—presuming one has a professional photographer’s permit, which allows the luxury of traveling the park road in your vehicle. This permit system has gradually phased out the plan over the last ten years. Getting the specific dates is very difficult since only a few vehicles a day are permitted. However, in 2009 I used my bicycle to travel around and photograph, based out of the Wonder Lake campground within the park. It is not the easiest way, but it’s great exercise, and while the shuttle buses often travel and provide a good service, I prefer to be mobile on my own.