The shape of our future travels is gradually growing clearer. BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land will be big. So will the newly opened national parks (with strict social distancing). Road trips. Microadventures. Freaking picnics.
In short, Americans are going to spend more time exploring the 50 states that make-up our country and they’re going to do so in the great outdoors. Which brings us to Alaska. The Last Frontier. 365 million acres of elbow room. When the time is right — and local populations will dictate that more than anything else — exploring state number 49 offers the chance for adventure writ large and a meaningful connection to the wild.
To add a dose of grandeur and a little wanderlust to another week in quarantine, we reached out to Nikon photographer Taylor Gray. He gladly shared some of his favorite photos with us from a recent trip through three particularly picturesque parts of the Alaskan Frontier. We also hit him up for some camping and hiking suggestions — to ensure that your own adventure looks just as amazing as his — plus some info on where to hop on a longboard and soak in the beauty of it all.
Now, let’s jump into this visual tour of the Alaskan Frontier. All italicized captions are Taylor’s!
Doug Brewer, expert bush pilot and owner of Alaska West Air, flying through rainy weather as we made our way to Crescent Lake in Lake Clark National Park and Preserve. This particular lake is known for the population of brown bears often seen frequenting its sandy shores.
Doug straightening out his DHC-3T Turbine Otter after parking it on the shoreline. The lake’s beautiful turquoise water can be seen in the background.
Where can we experience some great camping in Alaska?
Hatcher Pass or a backpacking trip to Exit Glacier. There is nobody else out there, it’s about a 5-mile hike roundtrip. You can find a camping spot out there easily.
I remember waking up, it was very windy, so I didn’t get a ton of sleep because the tent was shaking the entire time. I woke up at like 2 am and II looked out, and on Exit Glacier, it was just bathed in moonlight. It was pretty much daylight because it was so reflective, and it was really really beautiful. The next morning, to see the first light on the glacier, and this huge ice field, it’s really amazing. It’s a great scenic height, tons of great wildlife. If you go camping bring some bear spray.
In fact, if you’re camping anywhere in Alaska make sure to have some bear spray and know how to use it. There are a lot of bears! You might run into one on the trail at any moment.
A mother brown bear pokes her head above the water as she fishes for a tasty salmon dinner along the lake’s shallows.
The mother brown bear paces the shoreline, keeping a keen eye out for salmon as well as other competing bears in the area.
Where are the best hiking spots?
I’d say Hatcher Pass is one of my favorite areas, it’s easy to access. A lot of backcountry camping. The first night that I got into Alaska after driving up from California, I met up with a buddy of mine and he took us to Hatcher Pass, and we camped up there and watched the moon rise over the mountains and it was really incredible.
It’s really close to Anchorage, so it’s pretty accessible for people who can’t travel too far into the state.
After a long day of photographing brown bears, it’s time to go home. Doug coming in for a soft landing on the calm waters of Crescent Lake.
Denali National Park
My buddy Daniel skating the long, empty roads outside of Denali National Park. Because Alaska is so far north, it stays light outside for a much longer time during the summer months. This shot was taken at around 11:30 pm.
If there is one thing you have to do when visiting Alaska, what is it?
Depending on the year, if it’s the end of summer, early summer and it still gets dark out, try to see the Northern Lights. In Fairbanks, you have a third of the year you’re able to see the Northern Lights up there. I stayed up until early September and got to see it a couple of times.
If you’re in the summer months, go to Russian River Falls and watch the salmon. There are millions of salmon that run upstream and you can see them jumping out of the water. You can go right to the edge of the river and if you were to reach your hand in and scoop out a handful of water, you’ll come out with 10 fish. You get to watch them jump incredible heights to make their way upstream, there is nowhere else where you can really see that large amount jumping upstream.
Take a flight, doesn’t matter where you do it — Denali is my favorite. Get in a small plane, I promise you it will be worth it to see Alaska from the air, it’s just an experience like no other.
Early September brings stunning fall colors to Denali National Park, and I couldn’t resist quickly grabbing a shot of myself skating down the park’s photogenic roads.
What makes the Denali National Park such a great skate spot and do you have any favorite areas to ride?
The Denali roads, for the most part, are pretty well maintained, The road system goes way back into the park, like 80 some miles, but you have to take a tour bus there so I didn’t take my skateboard. But just along the park entrance roads, there are a lot of great mountains and a lot of great scenes. It’s a very scenic skate, and the roads are pretty smooth as well.
I don’t really know the specifics of the roads as much, but I do know there are a lot of great hills. The image with the fall colors, that road is actually the beginning of that 80-mile road that leads all the way back into the park, and you can drive up that far to that point and just pull off to the side of the road and just skate down.
Passing rain squalls and early morning light creates unique conditions deep inside the heart of Denali National Park. The scale and grandeur of this place is hard to wrap your head around and even harder to convey in a photograph.
While visiting Denali, I had the chance to meet up with a few friends and take a scenic flight over the park and its incredible landscapes. One of my friends told me, “You haven’t really seen Alaska’s landscapes until you view them from the air…” and they were absolutely right. Soaring above the colorful valleys and expansive mountain ranges was one of my all-time favorite experiences to date.
Denali and its surrounding mountains grow closer and closer as we fly further into the park. Because of its large size, Denali creates its own weather systems and is often covered in clouds. In fact, only 1-in-3 park visitors ever get to see the top of this impressive mountain because of this, so we got extremely lucky with the weather for this flight.
What’s one of the best areas of Alaska to view aerially?
Alaska is a place where you really can’t believe how large the mountains are, how wide the landscapes are, until you’re really there. I had this feeling of smallness the entire time I was there no matter where I went. It’s overwhelmingly large. You can get in a plane, get anywhere in the air and be content with viewing the landscapes below.
I’d say my favorite spot by far was flying over Denali National Park out of the town of Talkeetna. It’s a really incredible experience, I flew with the company Talkeetna Air, and the pilots are really great, really safe, they can take you super close to the sides of the mountains. It really feels like you can reach out and touch the ridges as you’re flying by.
I think its like, 1 in 100 Alaskans have their pilot’s licenses. 90% of the state can only be accessed by air, so flying is a huge part of the culture. It helps that everything is so scenic.
Slow-moving glaciers wind in and out of the snowcapped mountain ranges that surround Denali as the late afternoon light basks the landscape in a soft glow.
A final view of Denali through the plane window as we head back to Talkeetna, the town we first took off from.
A photo of our pilot, Michael Gold, as he weaves our plane in and out of the mountain ranges. Seeing Denali and its surrounding mountains from the air is an experience like no other. It was mesmerizing looking out of the windows and see nothing but mountains both above and below me — and snow-covered ridges so close, it felt like I could reach out and touch them. I highly recommend checking out Talkeetna Air Taxi if you are ever to make it up this way.
A lot of the locations I wanted to visit during my trip throughout Alaska were very spread out, which meant a lot of long hours in the car. I put around 10,000 miles on my car’s odometer during the 5-week trip, so I found it important to get out and stretch the legs every once and while. And that’s exactly what my friend Daniel and I did here, as we headed towards Harding Icefield.
The 8.2-mile round-trip hike to Harding Icefield follows Exit Glacier, pictured here, as it slowly carves its way through the valley. Harding Icefield is absolutely massive. It is over 700 square miles across and spawns over 40 different glaciers in the area. Again, the scale of this place is not easy to convey in a photograph.
Conditions weren’t particularly favorable during this hike as we were constantly being soaked by a steady drizzle. That being said, the area was still incredibly beautiful. An alpine glacier can be seen here above several waterfalls that cascade down the steep slopes into the valley floor below.
As we neared the trail’s end, it was impossible not to stop and admire the view every once and a while.
My friend Brandon gazes out at the huge crevasses in the ice field’s surface as low clouds drift across the alien landscape. Although the weather wasn’t very cooperative, this hike was definitely one of my favorite memories from the trip.
Where is the first place you want to go once quarantine ends?
I really want to go back to Yosemite National Park. I grew up in California, Yosemite is always just a stone’s throw away and a place I always go back to draw inspiration from. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of its views. There is the valley floor, where about 90% of visitors visit, but if you get up in the high country for some backpacking it’s really an unbelievable place.
To find out more about Taylor’s approach to photography and his travels, be sure to catch him on Instagram Live on Tuesday, May 19th, where the photographer will be hosting an Instagram Live Talk as part of Nikon’s Creators Hour, on the NikonUSA Instagram.