Alaska seems to be one of those almost mystical places in the United States. It has been featured in countless documentaries and everyone has seen at least a dozen photos of Kodiak bears catching salmon. Many people have taken a cruise to Alaska or have that on their list. I wanted to explore it myself on a more personal level, camping. At least that was the plan until I was soaking wet from the heaviest rain-falls in 10 years (or so the locals told me to make me feel better). Regardless of the weather, I still got to experience beautiful landscapes, an abundance of animals and an interesting mix of locals.
Chapter One – Denali
The trip started out with a late arrival in Anchorage and foraging through various stores on the next morning. Anchorage is a great jumping off point. It is fairly small compared to my home near Los Angeles, yet is fully stocked with every store one could need from REI to Costco. After successfully filling the trunk of the car with enough food (and wine!) for 10 days, I set out inland. First stop was Denali State Park. It is a great stop on the way to the national park of the same name. The recently opened K’esugi Ken Campground is a the south end of the park and a comfortable half day drive from Anchorage. If the weather gods are with you, you can even view Denali itself. Be sure to attend the ranger talk in the evening to get a briefing on how to deal with bears. There are a couple nice hikes that start out at the campground with lots of informational posts to introduce visitors to the environment.
The next day had me going to Denali National Park where I was to stay for 3 nights. Unlike the state park, the national park to its north is very much a tourist attraction. As such it is not possible to drive through the only road into the park. Savage River campground is about as far as it goes. Beyond that it is by tour bus only. There are a couple choices, but I found that the green transit bus is a great compromise between cost and sight-seeing. As an added bonus it seemed a bit less crowded than the tan narrated busses into which the cruise line passengers get hoarded. I went all the way to wonder lake, which is a full 11 – 12h adventure. Even though it is a transit bus, it does stop for animal sightings. That gives everyone a chance to snap as many photos as the heart (and memory card) desires. On our tour we had 17 grizzly bears, mostly moms with cubs, countless caribou and several moose. After that it is easy to forget the gorgeous landscapes that surround it all.
The second day was taken up by some hiking to explore the landscape on a slower pace than the day before. There are several nice hikes from the savage river campground or you can take the free shuttle bus to the entrance and do some of the hikes there. One other highlight of the park is the fact that they still employ a cadre of working sled dogs. Every day the team that cares for them has a presentation to give some insight into the history and use of sled dogs. Definitely not to be missed. It is quite fascinating to see the enthusiasm of the dogs when they see the sled. They really want to run.
Chapter Two – Fairbanks to Wrangell/St. Elias
Unfortunately, at the end of the second day the clouds opened up and released a torrential downpour that would last for the remainder of the trip. As such camping was pretty much out of the picture. After Denali the next stop was Fairbanks to resupply, shower and change our rental car. The latter was not planned, but necessary as the Ford Explorer I received had a bad battery and left me stranded twice. Fortunately, the camp site host was prepared with a portable starter. As such, if you plan to do car camping, refuse a car that has more automated gadgets than you have fingers.
Fairbanks itself is a fairly compact city with only a limited number of attractions. The Museum of the North stands out. Downtown Fairbanks is home to a quite a few restaurants which was very much welcome after a couple days of freeze dried food. Freshly fed and showered, the trip went on along the Richardson highway towards Wrangell/St. Elias National Park. The trans-alaskan pipeline runs mostly parallel to the highway and is visible throughout the trip. I was hoping to camp at Tangle Lakes along the Denali Highway. It is a very beautiful route to there from Paxson. But the rains and lack of shelter at the high altitude of Tangle Lakes (above the tree line), made that rather uncomfortable. After a short stop at the lakes, I continued on to Gakona for the night.
The next day did not bring much relief from the weather as I progressed to the next major stop of the trip, McCarthy, inside the national part. The road to McCarthy used to be a railway and is fairly flat. It provides gorgeous views of the Copper and then mostly Chitina Rivers. Along the way you cross over the Kuskulana Bridge, a converted railroad bridge high above the river of the same name. Once more the heavy rains of the days before had its impact and transformed the 60 miles of gravel road into 60 miles of potholes within potholes. Take this road slowly as I have come across 4 people with damaged tires on the day alone.
Chapter Three – McCarthy and Kennecott
The main attraction to come along all this way is to visit the abandoned Kennecott mill and copper mines and the Kennicott glacier. It is really spelled with an ‘i’, but a clerk made a mistake and misspelled the mine with an ‘e’ and henceforth the two have different spelling. I wanted to do a day’s worth of hiking on the glacier, but the trail to the glaciers had disappeared the night before thanks to the rain. No hiking for me.
However, the mill was still there. It was the other reason to get here and it did not disappoint. It was the most profitable copper mine in the States before it was abandoned. History has it that the owner of the mine did not want the workers to slack off and did not tell them that the mine was closing. That is until the last train pulled in and everyone was given a couple hours notice to leave on that train or be on their own. Up until recently the mill was a free for all when the national park service took it over and is now working on preserving what is left. It is amazing to see what they built in the middle of nowhere to access the copper in the mines above the mill.
McCarthy is the little settlement about 5 miles from the mill and used to be the place where the workers lost their hard earned money. Today it is home to an eclectic mix of folks, a hotel and a couple eateries.
Chapter Four – Valdez to Seward
After two days in McCarthy I had almost forgotten how bad the next 60 miles of road would be, but it is the only way in or out of McCarthy. At least the weather had cleared out a bit and made for nicer landscapes. Clearing the rough road, I continued on to Valdez along the remaining section of the Richardson Highway. This being Alaska, there is a lot to see along the way. I came across several eagles, a river otter and lots and lots of jaw-dropping landscapes.
Originally I wanted to take the ferry from Valdez to Whittier. I did not anticipate the heavy demand for that ferry and the fact that it needs to be booked 2-3 months in advance during the summer. Instead I drove the 420 miles to Seward. Turns out that the Glenn highway that connects those cities is very much a destination in its own right with beautiful meadows and deep valleys.
Even with all the beauty, the highlight was the Matanuska Glacier. The end of it is accessible from the highway. You can take a guided tour or, after signing a two-page liability waiver, wander off on your own. The advantage of the guided tour is that they give you the proper equipment to walk on mountains of ice. Of course, I did not do that and slid and scampered along the icy surface. It is an experience not to be missed for sure.
Chapter Five – The Kenai Peninsula
After a long day of driving I arrived at Seward to explore the Kenai peninsula for the last two days of the trip. Seaward is a pretty touristy little place as that is where the cruise ships dock and the railway starts. For me the main draw was the Alaska SeaLife Center. It is primarily a rehabilitation center for injured animals, but also houses a very nice aquarium.
Given the high concentration of tourist shops, I made a quick exit to enjoy the sights of the road to Homer, the last stop of trip. The part of the road through Moose Pass goes along the Kenai Lake and river until you hit the ocean. Finally, the roads runs along the ocean to open up to a beautiful view of the glaciers of Kenai Fjords National Park. Make sure to continue on the road past Homer as more and prettier views of the glaciers lie ahead.
In Homer itself, go past the tourist attraction along the Homer Spit all the way to the end of the road. The tip of the spit is a rough, windy beach with full view of the bay and filled with Sea Otters and Seals.
Alaska is a very interesting place. I thoroughly enjoyed the almost two weeks there despite the record rains. It is also a fairly expensive place to visit, though. I went there early August and places are still bristling with tourists. On the upside, the rains seemed to have helped with the mosquitoes. I got almost none.
If you are interested in planing your own trip to Alaska, here are a couple places and companies that I found to be very helpful.
- ah Rose Marie Bed and Breakfast, Fairbanks
- Gakona Lodge and Trading Post, Gakona
- McCarthy Cabins, McCarthy
- Land’s End Resort, Homer
- St. Elias Guides, Kennecott