Island Hopping the Aleutian Islands: North to Alaska

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Aleutian IslandsAlaska’s Aleutians consist of more than 300 volcanic islands—part of the “Pacific Ring of Fire” that extends over 1,000 miles (1,610km) into the Pacific Ocean from Alaska. This vast archipelago is divided into several strings of islands, all of which are actually the tops of submerged volcanoes. Most share in common a rugged landscape of lush green tundra blanketed with grasses and wildflowers. The Aleutians are now part of the Alaska Maritime National Refuge, attracting hardy visitors who don’t mind the frequent rainstorms and wind.

In the summer, a ferry runs every 2 weeks from the mainland city of Homer out to the Aleutian island of Unalaska with stops in several remote Native communities along the way. To fly to a roadless village, or to fly between most towns without returning to a hub, you can also take a small, prop-driven plane with an Alaska bush pilot at the controls. To find a bush pilot, inquire at the Homer visitor center. Unalaska Island, the hub of the island chain and the nation’s largest fishing port, provides a wealth of outdoor activities and fascinating landmarks. Some of its hiking trails were forged by natives thousands of years ago. A visit here would not be complete without a trip to the Holy Ascension Cathedral, a 19th-century white church, and Sitka Historic National Park, the site of clashes between Russian troops who sought to claim the Pacific Northwest for Russia and the native Tlingit forces who fought them.

Amaknak Island affords great views of active Makushin Volcano, the fourth-highest point in the Aleutians, and attracts mountain climbers from around the world. The island is actually an islet in Unalaska Bay, just northeast of Unalaska Island. It’s home to more than 2,500 people, making it the most populated island in the chain. The U.S. Navy used Amaknak as a site for a radio station in the 1930s. The largest island in the chain, covering over 1,571 sq. miles (4,069 sq. km), is Unimak Island. It is the site of Mount Shishaldin, one of the 10-most-active volcanoes in the world, and is largely uninhabited: The 2000 census counted only 64 people, all living on the eastern end of the island in the city of False Pass. Much larger is the population of brown bears and caribou that roam the wilderness. Also worth checking out is Fisher Caldera, a volcanic crater marked by volcanic cones and lakes.

In a single day, you can observe murres, kittiwakes, puffins, and gulls at Bogoslof Island, a bird-watcher’s dream. Theodore Roosevelt dedicated it as a sanctuary for bird and marine life, and it astonishes with its diversity. The name Bogoslof comes from an Aleutian word meaning the “voice of god,” earning its name when a volcanic eruption lifted the land from the Bering Sea in the late 18th century. The island’s volcano remains active and has long fascinated geologists.