"North to the Future" says the state motto of Alaska. Does your future lie in the northland of wild beauty, harsh climates and hard-won opportunities? It's the country's largest state, and the state with the lowest population density (only 650,000 Americans call Alaska home). That means there's plenty of room for newcomers, if you're up for the challenge.
What to Expect
Residents and tourists alike seem to focus mainly on two aspects of life in Alaska: appreciating the scenery and surviving the weather. No other state offers more breathtaking natural beauty than Alaska, with its mountains, coasts, glaciers and diverse wildlife. Nature lovers and outdoor-sport enthusiasts are in heaven here—during the summer, anyway. Long hours of sunlight and temperatures in the 70s and 80s in the most populated areas make for pleasant living from late spring to early fall. Come winter, the temperatures drop well below zero and sunlight is scarce, making residents flee the great outdoors for the comfort of their apartments. But the hard winters make residents appreciate the glorious summers all the more.
Alaska ranks 20th among the states in per capita income. Alaska's three major cities—Juneau, Fairbanks and Anchorage—rank among the country's 10 most expensive cities to live in, with pricey apartment rentals high on the list of what cleans out pockets. Combine a high cost of living with above-average unemployment and slow economic growth, and Alaska may not seem to be the most welcoming place to settle down. But for those who have steady employment and can afford to live here, the advantages of this unique locale are abundant.
Where to Explore
Alaska's population is concentrated in a handful of major cities. What may be most surprising about life in these areas is how similar it is to bustling cities in the Lower 48. Modern homes and apartments, cars, stores, restaurants, museums—all the typical American amenities are here to be found.
Alaska's largest city, with a population of more than 250,000, is a major hub of economic activity for the state. Anchorage boasts the most job openings, but the cost of living runs high; in 2004, two-bedroom apartments cost an average of $913 a month. The city skyline is punctuated by plenty of tall buildings, but nature still runs rampant. It is truly a modern city in a wild setting. Another bonus? Anchorage's climate is milder than many newcomers expect. Spring arrives in April or May, followed by pleasant summers with highs in the 70s. Snow doesn't come til October, which leads into the 40-below winters that fit the image most new residents have of life in Alaska. The amount of sunlight varies according to the season; the longest day is 19.5 hours, and the shortest is 5.5 hours.
The state's second largest city (84,000 residents) has a lower cost of living than Anchorage, with the average two-bedroom apartments for rent going for $821. Fairbanks and its surrounding areas are extremely outdoors oriented—extreme being the operative word. Popular activities include fishing, hunting, hiking, rafting, snowmobiling, dog-sled riding, skiing, birding and gold panning. The climate is warm, often hot, in the summers, with temperatures reaching the upper 80s in July and August. In the winter, the serious cold sets in with the temperatures bottoming out below 50 degrees.
If a fear of harsh winters is giving you second thoughts about moving to Alaska, don't give up until you've explored the state capital, Juneau. This stunning city is located in the Tongass National Forest, the largest temperate rainforest in North America. Yes, that means Juneau gets plenty of rainfall, but it also keeps the temperatures mild and steady, ranging from a low of 20 degrees in the winter to a high of 60 in the summer. With a population of 30,000, Juneau is the third largest city in the state. State government is the largest year-round employer, with tourism as the primary source of seasonal employment. Prices for apartment rentals in Juneau average $895 for two-bedroom apartments, placing it between Anchorage and Fairbanks in terms of housing costs.
What to Evaluate
Moving to Alaska is not for the faint of heart; bitterly cold winters, expensive apartments for rent and vast distances between communities are factors that deter many, even those who are drawn to the dramatic beauty of the landscape and wide range of outdoor activities. However, if you consider moving to Juneau's more temperate climate, or if Anchorage's or Fairbanks' white winters appeal to your daring (and ski-loving) side, Alaska may well be the land of your future.