The sun is shining deep into the night across most of Alaska while farther south, ships and planes have begun filling up with visitors curious to see the land of the midnight sun. "Dress in layers" are the three magic words for early-season travelers this year; snow is still falling in many places around Alaska. Whether you're headed north of Anchorage, south toward Seward or east toward McCarthy, there are some great travel deals. Let's take a look at some of the favorites, near and far.
Crow Creek Gold Mine, Girdwood
Send your visitors out the door on this one, since it includes an in-town pickup. Explore Tours makes the arrangements for the drive down to Girdwood and the back roads up to the mine. At the mine site, there are many historic buildings from the late 19th century; Crow Creek was mined around the same time as Hope and Resurrection Creek. But this still is a working mine site--and you can try your hand at gold panning in the stream. If you really get gold fever, your hosts at Crow Creek will rent you a sluice box!
These tours start May 15. Call (907)786-0192. The all-inclusive tour is $175 per person (transportation, admission to the mine, drinks and snacks, panning equipment).
Alaska Princess lodges
Trim 50 percent off the cost of a three-day, two-night rail-hotel package with Princess Tours.
Choose from lodges near Talkeetna or near Denali National Park -- and ride the Princess Tours rail cars to get there. Tours start on May 15, northbound to Talkeetna, where you catch a bus for the ride up to the lodge on the Chulitna River. The cost for three days, two nights is $259 per person, which includes a beautiful railway journey from Anchorage through the Alaskan wildnerness, bus transfers to the lodge and return accommodations. Traveling all the way to Denali Park via railroad ups the three-day, two-night package cost to $309 per person.
Prefer to drive? There still are special rates just for the lodges, too. In May, rooms are available at the Mount McKinley Princess for as little as $79 per night. While you're in Talkeetna, go on a flightseeing trip around Denali or take a jetboat ride up the Susitna River. Up at Denali, the rates start at $99 per night. Be sure and save time to take the long bus ride into Denali National Park (Tundra Wilderness Tour). There also are popular raft trips on the Nenana River and flightseeing tours of the mountain or nearby glaciers.
Over at the Copper River Princess, just south of Glennallen on the Richardson Highway, it's $99 per night in May. From the lobby, you can look out and see the trans-Alaska pipeline, the Klutina River and the confluence of the Klutina and the Copper rivers.
Visit Kennicott Glacier Lodge and Wrangell-St. Elias National Park
The heart of Alaska's old copper mining history, Kennicott Glacier Lodge is located in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. The lodge opens on May 24 with a $99 special on rooms through June 15.
Kennicott Glacier Lodge lies in the old, deserted mining town of Kennecott, just up the road from McCarthy. You cannot drive into McCarthy; park your car near McCarthy and the lodge will send a van to pick you up. Explore the old mine buildings while you're there, but don't miss the chance to go glacier hiking! It's just a two-mile hike to where ice meets trail.
Flightseeing trips from McCarthy are great; the glaciers of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park surround you!
If you're planning to drive back from Chitina to McCarthy, take it slow. The state of Alaska maintains the road, but the posted speed on what amounts to an old railroad bed is 35 mph. There are hazards, but I've driven it several times without incident (extra clearance helps, though). I recommend an SUV or a truck.
Tip: Don't take a rental car along the road; in most cases that voids the contract. And it's an expensive towing bill if you break down on the McCarthy Road! Alternatively, you can fly back from Chitina to McCarthy with Wrangell Mountain Air. It's a great flight!
Southcentral gems: Kenai Fjords and Resurrection Bay
Stay in the middle of Resurrection Bay at the Kenai Fjords Wilderness Lodge, which is offering a 10 percent discount on select days in June. The lodge is just finished with some major remodeling. Your rate includes all meals, plus a glacier cruise with Kenai Fjords Tours.
Actually, the 30-minute cruise to get from Seward out to the lodge is pretty spectacular as well!
Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge
Stay at the Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge near "downtown" Talkeetna for as little as $139 per night on select Tuesday and Thursday nights in May. The lodge opens May 20.
See Alaska by railroad or waterway
The Alaska Railroad is starting its Coastal Classic to Seward May 11. The Glaicer Discovery train (up to Spencer Glacier and Grandview) starts June 1. The train to Denali and Fairbanks (the Denali Star) starts daily service May 15. The railroad offers a 20 percent discount to all Alaska residents and to military families.
Take the Alaska Railroad to Whittier and sail on the Klondike for the 26 Glaciers cruise. You can travel any time during the summer season, but you have to purchase the special $189 per person package before June 1, 2013.
Head up to Fairbanks and stay at the Westmark Fairbanks for as little as $79 per night through May 31.
Scott McMurren is an Anchorage-based travel marketing consultant who has lived in Alaska for three decades, spending much of that time traveling the far-flung corners of the state. Visit his website at www.alaskatravelgram.com or follow him on Twitter for breaking travel news.