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From expansive wilderness to wildlife, Alaska's got it all

By Curt Merrill, CNN
The Harding Icefield Trail in Kenai Fjords National Park provides a stunning view of the mountains near Seward, Alaska.
The Harding Icefield Trail in Kenai Fjords National Park provides a stunning view of the mountains near Seward, Alaska.
  • Alaska is a huge state, so start by figuring out what kinds of things you want to do
  • Many travelers start in Anchorage, site of the state's largest airport and several trails
  • Denali National Park is home to North America's highest peak, Mount McKinley
  • Have you ever been to Alaska? Share photos from your journey
  • Alaska

Editor's Note: CNN's Destination Adventure series takes a look at destinations for the wanderer at heart. We're kicking things off with Alaska. In this story, you'll find tips from a former resident who recently returned for a visit. Each week, we'll feature favorite regional foods, secrets from the locals and the best photos and stories from readers. Have you been to Alaska? Share your story with CNN iReport. Next week, we'll journey to Hong Kong.

(CNN) -- Alaska's a big place.

It sounds obvious, but it's an important fact to remember when planning a visit, because you won't get to see everything in one trip. I spent the first 24 years of my life in four different Alaska towns, and there are still new things to do when I go back to visit.

So tip No. 1 is to make some decisions: Do you want to camp in a national park? Hike to the top of a glacier? Go backcountry skiing? Catch and/or eat some of the best seafood in the country? See the northern lights? You won't be able to do it all, but with a bit of planning you can pack quite a few adventures into a week or two.

Here are some ideas for activities based on a recent trip I took with some friends:

As the state's largest city and home to its biggest airport, Anchorage is the place where many will start their adventures on the Last Frontier -- and our trip was no different. The city is surrounded by water on two sides and a mountain range on the third.

At sea level, the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail skirts the city along the water. It's an 11-mile paved trail available for walking and cycling, or skiing and snowshoeing, depending on the season.

For those looking for more elevation, Chugach State Park is just east of the city and has several trails. I recommend heading up Flattop Mountain. It's a relatively short hike, just 1.5 miles from the trailhead to the mountain top, but the trail is steep in parts, especially near the summit. With a bit of care, though, most people shouldn't have too much trouble making it up and enjoying the sweeping view of the city and surrounding scenery.

On our trip, we left Anchorage after a couple of days and drove 130 miles south to Seward. From there, we spent a day hiking alongside Exit Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park. The National Park Service calls this 7.4-mile hike "strenuous," but seeing the ice field at the top makes the hard work worthwhile. And it doesn't get much better than an Alaskan Amber beer and fresh halibut once you make it back down.

If your legs are tired from hiking, you can work out your arms with a sea kayaking trip in Resurrection Bay. The clouds were low the day of our excursion, but we saw bald eagles in the tree tops and were escorted by sea lions as we paddled along the rocky shoreline.

To finish off our Alaska adventure, we left Seward and drove 360 miles up to Denali National Park, home of the tallest peak in North America, Mount McKinley. The public is allowed to drive only a few miles into the park, but there are buses that provide access farther into the wilderness. On our bus ride we saw bears, mountain goats, moose and coyotes. A few lucky visitors will get to see wolves, but sightings are rare.

After a few nights of camping in the park, it was time to drive back to Anchorage and catch our flights home. And even though we experienced a lot during our visit, there are plenty more adventures to be had when we go back.

Like fishing for king salmon on the Kenai River, or watching the northern lights while relaxing in natural hot springs, or downhill skiing in Hatcher Pass, or sailing along the Inside Passage, or panning for gold in the Tanana Valley, or ...