On Thursday, August 16, 2011, three weary travelers landed in Anchorage: my partner Louis, my mother Eva and myself. We rested, purchased groceries and did a little exploring before heading out on our grand road trip. This page provides an overview of our route and planning process. The resources included in the tabbed content box might be useful in planning a trip of your own.
Please enjoy the photo galleries by enlarging them and follow the “link” icons to posts that elaborate on each segment of the trip.
Here are some good books and websites to get you started:
Take with you:
Alaska, Jim DuFresne (a Lonely Planet guide)—most helpful
Read ahead of time:
Alaska : Off the Beaten Path : a Guide to Unique Places, DeVaughn, Melissa
Buy once you get there:
Rocks, Ridges and Glaciers (a guide to the Denali Highway)
Waterford Press Pocket Naturalist guides to birds, trees and wildflowers and seashore life
Compact field guides like Alaska’s Wild Berries and Berry-like Fruit
A good laminated map of Alaska
The Milepost 2012 (might be useful; too heavy to pack
Also, alaskageographic.org offers a great selection of science and nature books, narratives, maps, guides and more.
*Visit park and museum book stores for the best local resources.
And a few helpful websites:
The National Park Service http://www.nps.gov/state/ak/index.htm?program=parks
The Bureau of Land Management http://www.blm.gov/ak/st/en/prog/recreation/denali_highway.html
Denali Highway Cabins, especially its blog http://www.denalihwy.com/
Visit Wild Alaska http://www.visitwildalaska.com/Natural_History_Tours
Trip Advisor http://www.tripadvisor.com/
- Alaska has a short “travel” season: from mid-May to mid-Sept. For best options, book early, i.e. four to six months in advance. Of course,visitors who are interested in “winter” activities and who are willing to make appropriate preparations will have different opportunities including skiing and snow machining. For a glimpse into Alaskan snow sports, read this New York Times article on “Extreme Alaska.”
- It is a vast state with great distances between destinations. If you have time constraints, coordinate your transportation, lodging and activities carefully.
- Food is expensive and more difficult to find in rural areas. Shop for groceries in Anchorage for lunches, snacks and beverages and, if necessary, a light dinner. Keep them fresh in a foil “freezer bag.” Be sure to purchase some fresh fruits and vegetables, for they are scarce at rural restaurants.
- Packing: in late August, be prepared for autumn weather. Bring layers, waterproof shoes & rain gear. Also helpful: Lonely Planet travel guide, field guides, binoculars, spotting scope, daypack, ziplock bags, black eye masks, and copies of all reservations For a road trip such as this, be prepared to re-pack frequently.
- Expenses. Total cost for three adults=$10,000. This included exciting activities, modest restaurants & mid-level lodgings. TourSaver coupon book offered valuable savings.
- Airline tickets. Do yourself a favor: if at all possible, choose an airline with more comfortable seats.
Some of the places we visited . . .
The Alaska Native Heritage Center fosters an appreciation of Native Alaskan cultures, both traditional and contemporary, through indoor exhibits, live presentations, and an outdoor village of dwellings representing six major cultural groups. We attended a lecture on medicinal plants and a musical performance. Our best experiences were the conversations we shared with the museum interpreters and with artists who displayed and sold their work at the museum. Learn more at http://www.alaskanative.net/
The Matanuska Glacier, a spectacular 26-mile river of ice descending from the Chugach Mountains, can readily be viewed from the Matanuska State Recreation Area. Drive another mile to reach the access road to Glacier Park Resort which, for a fee, allows visitors to drive even closer. A short, but sometimes slippery, walk leads right to glacier where one can explore the face and flat areas and admire the deep blue ice.
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park is the nation’s largest national park, a mountain wilderness with major peaks, an active volcano, the huge Bagley Icefield, mountain goats, and the amazing Kennecott copper mine. Hiking, rafting, glacier and history tours are available as well as independent exploration. Visit the NPS site and the McCarthy-Kennecott Visitor Information Center for resources. For a comfortable and spectacular flight to McCarthy, book through Wrangell Mountain Air.
Kennecott is a historic mill town in the heart of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. According the the National Park Service which manages much of this outstanding historic site, “Kennecott is considered the best remaining example of early 20th Century copper mining.” It is also a testament to the determination of its financiers, the ingenuity of its designers and the resilience of its workers. See the NPS site for details and to view an informative video on the mill.
Talkeetna , a quirky town that once was a supply depot for miners and a headquarters for the construction of the Alaska Railroad, now delights tourists with its combination of history and amusement. Located at the confluence of the Susitna, Talkeetna and Chulitna Rivers, this area is a springboard for rafting, flight-seeing and mountaineering trips. We arranged a 4-hour “float trip” down the Chulitna River through Talkeetna River Guides, which began in Denali State Park. On clear days, it would offer fabulous views of “the great one.” Bald eagles were everywhere!
Seward is a quaint town that was rebuilt after the 1964 earthquake. Its parks, harbor, restaurants, and services make travelers comfortable; and, nearby, there are mountains, a glacier, and the Alaska SeaLife Center. Above all else, though, Seward is the launching point for visits to Kenai Fjords National Park, a magical place of sea, land and fog that is very rich in marine life. We booked through Major Marine for a 6 1/2 hour cruise and were delighted with the trip.
Lodging and Food
Over the course of our trip, we stayed at 3 bed and breakfasts, 1 lodge, 2 cabins, 1 roadhouse, and 1 modern hotel. We enjoyed each of these lodgings because they offered distinctive atmospheres and because they put us in contact with different sets of people. None were unpleasant; but here are a few that stood out.
- The Coastal Trail Bed and Breakfast is a comfortable home in a quiet neighborhood of Anchorage located across the street from the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail biking/walking path. We stayed in both the Garden Room and the Backpacker’s Suite. The rooms were pleasant, the food tasty, the pets friendly and well-behaved, and the garden delightful. What makes this place really special is its warm and helpful hostess, Sherry, who offered interesting conversation, reassurance, extra snacks, a ride to the Anchorage Museum, and even a tour of the town! She shared part of her Alaskan lifestyle in a friendly, low-key manner.
- The Kennicott Glacier Lodge was a pleasant surprise. I feared it would be ostentatious and, perhaps, stuffy–quite the contrary. The entire place exuded relaxed comfort, and it had the most congenial young staff. Everything about this mining-era replica felt just right: homey rooms, historic photos, spacious balconies, family-style dinners and convenient shuttles to the McCarthy airstrip. All of this and a glacier, too!
- How I wish we could have stayed longer at Denali Highway Cabins! The cabins themselves are attractive, well-built, and located in a beautiful setting near the Gulkana River. The Great Room is an outstanding common area; the hosts, Audie and Jenny, are the most knowledgeable naturalists we met on our trip. They know and love their “home,”– its land, its wildlife, its beauty–and for good reason: the nearby sections of the Denali and Richardson Highways are glorious. Inquisitive travelers should not miss this environmentally-sound refuge.
Though we love good food, dining out was not a priority on this trip. The lodge and B&Bs provided many meals, and we ate snacks and picnic lunches. Most restaurant meals were pretty ordinary, offering far too many “half pound” burgers and fries. Here are two choices that were especially pleasing.
- The Talkeetna Roadhouse has been sustaining travelers since 1917. It offers very nice breads and sweets, homemade soups, sandwiches and more in a convivial setting. Youthful guests, colorful locals, and happy travelers lend a lively, enthusiastic atmosphere to the place.
- Great views of Seward’s small boat harbor and delicious food make Ray’s Waterfront a popular spot. After a chilly marine cruise, my mother and I thoroughly enjoyed our seafood dinner, the views of Resurrection Bay, and the mounted fish displayed on the walls.
Here is the route of our trip. Please examine it in a larger view to see where this route fits into the state as a whole. You won’t want to miss the satellite and terrain views because they go a long way towards explaining the character of our stops: the river valleys, the glaciers, the tundra, the high peaks, the location of towns, etc.