The snout of the Mendenhall Glacier, complete with icebergs, near Juneau. Picture: Mark Thornton

The name Alaska derives from a native Aleut word meaning "great land" and the State is indeed a great and unusual place. It's huge at 1.5 million sqkm, making it larger than all but 18 sovereign countries, but is one of the most sparsely populated areas in the world.

The US bought it from the Russian Empire in 1867 for just $US7.2 million ($127 million in 2014 dollars).

The Russians, who had loosely colonised the area in the 17th century, were worried that the British, then moving through Canada, might seize it from them by force, so selling to the Americans seemed like a good idea. William H. Seward, US secretary of state, negotiated the purchase.

It was considered a waste of money at the time and was known as Seward's Folly. It was only after he died in 1872 that gold was discovered. Now, of course, the State's oil, natural gas, fishing and tourism contribute significantly to the US economy and he's regarded as a hero with great foresight. Public structures have been named in his honour.

One of these worth visiting is Fort Seward in Haines. It's not like the palisade forts we've seen in western films, rather a collection of large and stately weatherboard former officers' quarters and barracks standing around what used to be a parade ground. The US Army decommissioned it after World War II so a group of veterans bought it. Most of the houses are now privately owned but some are up for rent. One has been converted into the Hotel Halsingland.

This charming hotel with an award-winning restaurant is owned by Jeff and Shannon Butcher from Seattle, who keep it open for the April to October season. Their bar manager is John Hunt, a musician and former radio station manager who moved to Haines from Oregon 25 years ago. He still plays trombone in Haines' band, the Swing Set. Haines is a good place to hear music, which features prominently in its Southeast Alaska State Fair, held in August.

Most tourists visit both Haines and Skagway. Haines is smaller, and gets about 100,000 tourists in the summer season. Quieter and less "touristy", it has great indigenous art and unusual shops. It also has the Chilkat and Chilcoot rivers, with their unsurpassed concentration of wildlife, only half an hour's drive away. By comparison, Skagway is much more popular thanks to its association with the 1890s gold rush. It has the lion's share of cruise-ship tourists - up to five ships arrive a day in the height of summer.

In the 2010 census, Skagway's population was 920. In the summer tourist season that number doubles to deal with more than a million visitors, 750,000 of them arriving on cruise ships from the south.

Skagway is only an hour and a half from Haines by sea, so by visiting the area you're not tied to one town. One of Skagway's highlights is the spectacular road or rail trip up the White Pass, the same trail taken by gold prospectors during the gold rush.

The train, pulled by three huge engines, hugs granite walls, crosses glacial rivers, waterfalls, gorges, trundles over trestles and disappears in and out of tunnels, each time revealing peaks and valleys of vast and gasping proportions. The railway stops at Carcross but you can carry on by bus or, if driving, continue on the road to Whitehorse in Canada.

Skagway is situated at the end of a magnificent fjord and is steeped in gold-rush history. It was a pretty lawless place back then, effectively run by a swindler named Jeff "Soapy" Smith who eventually got his comeuppance in a gun battle between his gang and a citizens' committee on the town wharf.

Now the main street is lined with gorgeous period hotels, saloons and gift shops, especially ones offering gold souvenirs and jewellery. There's also a museum with exhibits ranging from exquisite indigenous artefacts, including Aleut sealskin sea kayaks, to historic records and mementos.

It's a fun and fascinating town. Locals dress up and entertain tourists by recreating scenes from the early days in the saloons. Tent City, just out of town, is a copy of the camp many prospectors lived in temporarily before heading up to the Klondike. Buy a copy of Jack London's seminal novel The Call of the Wild while you're there; it's partly set in Skagway.

While Skagway is impressively located in its fjord, Alaska's capital Juneau is equally splendid, nestling under the towering cliffs of Mt Juneau which soar more than 1000m above the city to the east. The old part of the city is architecturally interesting with weatherboard houses of many colours and great curiosity shops stepped up above one another on the mountain's lower slopes.

Be prepared for wet weather. Juneau has a maritime climate milder than its latitude suggests. Precipitation averages 1500mm a year - even from the town centre you can see waterfalls more than a 100m high cascade off Mt Juneau.

Tourists visiting Alaska for the first time are often puzzled to find Juneau is the State capital, with a population of only 32,000 and surrounded by mountains and thus accessible only by air or sea.

It might seem more logical for Anchorage, with 291,000 people and 40 per cent of the State's total population, to fit that role. But in several plebiscites - the most recent in 1996 - Alaskans voted to keep Juneau as their principal city. Anchorage receives fewer tourists because it's considerably further west of the usual routes. For some that adds to its appeal. It's surrounded by huge national parks, including Denali Wilderness, home of North America's highest peak Mt McKinley, also known by its Athabascan name Denali.

For most tourists, though, the State's south-east has entertainment aplenty. Juneau is surrounded by wilderness in the Coastal Range of mountains. Just south of the city, the mighty Taku River adds considerable value to BC and Alaska as a commercial and sport fishery and as a destination for adventurers. Also a must-see is the Mendenhall Glacier, easily accessible and just 19km from Juneau. It has a visitor centre and receives half a million visitors each year.

It's just one of several glaciers in the region; on the cruise ships or ferries up and down the coast you can clearly see others shouldering their way through the mountains. The magnificent Glacier Bay National Park is only a couple of hours boat ride west.

The mountains, endless forests, rivers and waterways in between the coastal islands of the region make Juneau a great base for adventure touring. If you enjoy fishing, skiing, boating, kayaking, panning for gold, wildlife watching and photography (including whales and sea otters), walking or mountain climbing, you won't be disappointed.

While Juneau is well patronised by tourists arriving by air and sea, the lack of road access gives the place a truly remote feeling. It's a unique ambience.

The West Australian

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