On January 3, 1959, Alaska became the 49th state of the United States. Alaska is the largest U.S. state by area and the seventh largest subnational division in the world. Conversely, it is the 3rd least populous and the most sparsely populated of the 50 United States.
Located northwest extremity of the United States West Coast, just across the Bering Strait from Asia. The Canadian province of British Columbia and territory of Yukon border the state to the east and southeast. Its most extreme western part is Attu Island, and it has a maritime border with Russia (Chukotka Autonomous Okrug) to the west across the Bering Strait. To the north are the Chukchi and Beaufort seas—southern parts of the Arctic Ocean. The Pacific Ocean lies to the south and southwest. It is technically part of the continental U.S., but is sometimes not included in colloquial use; Alaska is not part of the contiguous U.S., often called “the Lower 48”. The capital city, Juneau, is situated on the mainland of the North American continent but is not connected by road to the rest of the North American highway system. Anchorage is the largest city by population.
Alaska is nicknamed The Last Frontier. It is also well-known as the “Land of the Midnight Sun”. The state tree is the Sitka Spruce, the state bird is the Willow Ptarmigan and the state flower is the Forget-me-not. The state motto is “North to the Future”.
Built around 1915, the Alaska Railroad (ARR) played a key role in the development of Alaska through the 20th century. It links north Pacific shipping through providing critical infrastructure with tracks that run from Seward to Interior Alaska by way of South Central Alaska, passing through Anchorage, Eklutna, Wasilla, Talkeetna, Denali, and Fairbanks, with spurs to Whittier, Palmer and North Pole. The cities, towns, villages, and region served by ARR tracks are known statewide as “The Railbelt”. In recent years, the ever-improving paved highway system began to eclipse the railroad’s importance in Alaska’s economy.
The railroad played a vital role in Alaska’s development, moving freight into Alaska while transporting natural resources southward (i.e., coal from the Usibelli coal mine near Healy to Seward and gravel from the Matanuska Valley to Anchorage). It is well known for its summertime tour passenger service.
The Alaska Railroad was one of the last railroads in North America to use cabooses in regular service and still uses them on some gravel trains. It continues to offer one of the last flag stop routes in the country. A stretch of about 60 miles (100 km) of track along an area north of Talkeetna remains inaccessible by road; the railroad provides the only transportation to rural homes and cabins in the area. Until construction of the Parks Highway in the 1970s, the railroad provided the only land access to most of the region along its entire route.
In northern Southeast Alaska, the White Pass and Yukon Route also partly runs through the state from Skagway northwards into Canada (British Columbia and Yukon Territory), crossing the border at White Pass Summit. This line is now mainly used by tourists, often arriving by cruise liner at Skagway. It was featured in the 1983 BBC television series Great Little Railways.
The Alaska Rail network is not connected to Outside. (The nearest link to the North American railway network is the northwest terminus of the Canadian National Railway at Prince Rupert, British Columbia, several hundred miles to the southeast.) In 2000, the U.S. Congress authorized $6 million to study the feasibility of a rail link between Alaska, Canada, and the lower 48.
Alaska Rail Marine provides car float service between Whittier and Seattle.
Alaska has few road connections compared to the rest of the U.S. The state’s road system covers a relatively small area of the state, linking the central population centers and the Alaska Highway, the principal route out of the state through Canada. The state capital, Juneau, is not accessible by road, only a car ferry, which has spurred several debates over the decades about moving the capital to a city on the road system, or building a road connection from Haines. The western part of Alaska has no road system connecting the communities with the rest of Alaska.
The Interstate Highways in Alaska consists of a total of 1082 miles. One unique feature of the Alaska Highway system is the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel, an active Alaska Railroad tunnel recently upgraded to provide a paved roadway link with the isolated community of Whittier on Prince William Sound to the Seward Highway about 50 miles (80 km) southeast of Anchorage at Portage. At 2.5 miles (4.0 km), the tunnel was the longest road tunnel in North America until 2007. The tunnel is the longest combination road and rail tunnel in North America.
Cities not served by road, sea, or river can be reached only by air, foot, dogsled, or snowmachine, accounting for Alaska’s extremely well developed bush air services—an Alaskan novelty. Anchorage and, to a lesser extent Fairbanks, is served by many major airlines. Because of limited highway access, air travel remains the most efficient form of transportation in and out of the state. Anchorage recently completed extensive remodeling and construction at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport to help accommodate the upsurge in tourism (in 2012–2013, Alaska received almost 2 million visitors).
Regular flights to most villages and towns within the state that are commercially viable are challenging to provide, so they are heavily subsidized by the federal government through the Essential Air Service program. Alaska Airlines is the only major airline offering in-state travel with jet service (sometimes in combination cargo and passenger Boeing 737-400s) from Anchorage and Fairbanks to regional hubs like Bethel, Nome, Kotzebue, Dillingham, Kodiak, and other larger communities as well as to major Southeast and Alaska Peninsula communities.
The bulk of remaining commercial flight offerings come from small regional commuter airlines such as Ravn Alaska, PenAir, and Frontier Flying Service. The smallest towns and villages must rely on scheduled or chartered bush flying services using general aviation aircraft such as the Cessna Caravan, the most popular aircraft in use in the state. Much of this service can be attributed to the Alaska bypass mail program which subsidizes bulk mail delivery to Alaskan rural communities. The program requires 70% of that subsidy to go to carriers who offer passenger service to the communities.
Many communities have small air taxi services. These operations originated from the demand for customized transport to remote areas. Perhaps the most quintessentially Alaskan plane is the bush seaplane. The world’s busiest seaplane base is Lake Hood, located next to Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, where flights bound for remote villages without an airstrip carry passengers, cargo, and many items from stores and warehouse clubs. In 2006 Alaska had the highest number of pilots per capita of any U.S. state.
Another Alaska transportation method is the dogsled. In modern times (that is, any time after the mid-late 1920s), dog mushing is more of a sport than a true means of transportation. Various races are held around the state, but the best known is the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, a 1,150-mile (1,850 km) trail from Anchorage to Nome (although the distance varies from year to year, the official distance is set at 1,049 miles or 1,688 km). The race commemorates the famous 1925 serum run to Nome in which mushers and dogs like Togo and Balto took much-needed medicine to the diphtheria-stricken community of Nome when all other means of transportation had failed. Mushers from all over the world come to Anchorage each March to compete for cash, prizes, and prestige. The “Serum Run” is another sled dog race that more accurately follows the route of the famous 1925 relay, leaving from the community of Nenana (southwest of Fairbanks) to Nome.
In areas not served by road or rail, primary transportation in summer is by all-terrain vehicle and in winter by snowmobile or “snow machine”, as it is commonly referred to in Alaska.
Many cities, towns and villages in the state do not have road or highway access; the only modes of access involve travel by air, river, or the sea.
Alaska’s well-developed state-owned ferry system (known as the Alaska Marine Highway) serves the cities of southeast, the Gulf Coast and the Alaska Peninsula. The ferries transport vehicles as well as passengers. The system also operates a ferry service from Bellingham, Washington and Prince Rupert, British Columbia, in Canada through the Inside Passage to Skagway. The Inter-Island Ferry Authority also serves as an important marine link for many communities in the Prince of Wales Island region of Southeast and works in concert with the Alaska Marine Highway.
In recent years, cruise lines have created a summertime tourism market, mainly connecting the Pacific Northwest to Southeast Alaska and, to a lesser degree, towns along Alaska’s gulf coast. The population of Ketchikan may rise by over 10,000 people on many days during the summer, as up to four large cruise ships at a time can dock, debarking thousands of passengers.