We just returned from our second trip to Alaska in two years and I am already planning our third – we are in love with Alaska! I hope that our trip report is helpful to others and also gives you a glimpse into what Alaska can be. I will be reviewing restaurants and lodgings in the review section of TA. We made many breakfasts and dinners on our own and most lunches were from our cooler on the road or our backpacks while hiking. We rented our car from Enterprise in downtown Anchorage; reservations were made in September using AARP so we got a great rate. We traveled to mostly new areas this year; our only repeats from last year were Anchorage, Denali and Seward.
Day one: We live 2 hours from the nearest airport so left home early in the morning to make our first flight. While sitting at the gate I got a notification on my phone that our first flight was cancelled – not a good start at all! We were rebooked on another airline and actually got to Anchorage 4 hours before our originally scheduled time. Things were looking up! We checked into Wildflower Inn, the same lovely B&B we had stayed in last year, and then decided to take advantage of the daylight to take a long walk on the Tony Knowles trail. Ended up at the bar at Glacier Brew House for a delicious dinner and then walked for another two hours admiring the gorgeous flowers and gardens in the yards of the neighborhoods of Anchorage.
Day two: It was 4th of July and we were not getting our car until the next day so after a fabulous breakfast at the B&B we walked to Delaney Park to see the beginnings of the day long events and parade. Took the free shuttle to the Native Heritage Center where we spent an enjoyable several hours walking around, visiting the buildings and seeing some demonstrations. We had an early dinner at ORSO – very good food in a lovely setting.
Day three: Enterprise picked us up at 9am and we were on our way! Stopped in Wasilla to fill our cooler (a great collapsible one from LLBean) and headed for Denali. The weather was beautiful and we were thrilled to have so many opportunities to see “The Mountain” on our way. Our first stop in Denali was the visitor center to sign up for a “Disco hike” – be sure to read the very detailed description at the desk when signing up! Picked up our previously reserved shuttle tickets (three days to Wonder Lake with a swap out for the disco hike) and then stretched our legs on the Horseshoe Lake trail where we were treated to a mama moose and calf crossing the trail and then feeding in the lake. Checked into the Denali Mountain Morning Hostel, made dinner and sat by the creek – a perfect evening!
Day four: The morning was crisp and clear and we were second in line for our 7am Wonder Lake shuttle. It was a glorious day with “The Mountain” visible and sightings of grizzlies, Dahl sheep, fox, arctic ground squirrels, caribou and a variety of birds. Glad we had our mosquito nets at Wonder Lake. Decided not to hike that day as we were really enjoying the bus. Dinner at McKinley Creek Side Café. Delicious, well prepared food on the sunny deck.
Day five: 8am Disco bus took us to Stony Creek to meet the ranger. The Mountain was out again! This hike up the gravel and on to the tundra was a great introduction to hiking off trail. Casey, the ranger, clearly loves her job and shared her enthusiasm with all. After the hike we hopped a bus heading out of the park and got off at the closure on Sable Pass to walk the road. We walked for several hours and then hopped a bus back to the entrance. Dinner again at McKinley Creek Side since it was so convenient to the hostel.
Day six: 7am shuttle to Wonder Lake. The Mountain was out yet again! We had planned to get off the bus just past the TWT turnaround and hike up one of the drainages. After we got off the bus and were getting ready to leave the road, we saw our bus stop about ¼ mile away. Took out the binoculars and saw that three grizzlies were near the road. Neither the bus driver of either of us had spotted them as we scanned! Decided to keep an eye on them and caught the next bus since they were still near the road and we wanted to see them! Figured we would hike at Eielson but the social trail was closed due to a wolf kill so hopped a bus back towards the entrance. Hiked at Polychrome (thanks to Ike Watt’s book) where we saw a herd of Dall Sheep. Made dinner at the hostel and prepared to leave in the morning.
Day seven: Drove to Fairbanks and you guessed it – the Mountain was out yet again! We began to wonder if we were imagining it! Took an enjoyable stroll around Nenana and learned about the betting that goes on around the ice break-up. Did some shopping at the farmer’s market in Fairbanks, lunch on the deck at the Pump House and checked in to our cottage at Arctic Roots Farm. It is a lovely cottage on a farm just outside of Fairbanks. Nancy and Chris, the owners, invited us to a bonfire with several neighbors, some of who were born in Alaska so lots of great stories.
Day eight: We had an 8am flight to Barrow on Alaska Air where we did a one-day tour with “Top of the World Tours.” We had made all the arrangements on our own and our guide met us at the airport in Barrow. It was an expensive day but we were happy to learn about Barrow, the residents and life above the Arctic Circle. It was sunny and 40 degrees – brrrr. Flew back to Fairbanks that night and our lovely cabin.
Day ten: Spent the morning hiking in the Kenny Lake/Chitna area and also took a quick walk along the river to see the fish wheels before our 2:45 flight to McCarthy on Wrangell Mountain Air. The Chitna airport consists of a gravel airstrip, a gravel parking lot and a pay phone. It was our first cloudy day and we wondered how we would know if our flight was cancelled since there was no cell coverage! At just about 2:30 two small planes landed and we were soon in the air. We were the only ones on our flight so I got to sit in the co-pilot seat and my husband had great access for photos. Our pilot pointed out sights during the 30 minutes flight to McCarthy, making it a tour as well as transportation. We were met by the van from Kennicott Glacier Lodge where we would be spending the next two nights. After check-in we explored the town before a delicious dinner and time on the porch admiring the glacier.
Day eleven: It was my husband’s birthday and we celebrated on the glacier! We had an amazing hike with an enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide from St Elias Alpine Guides. In the afternoon we did some hiking on our own before enjoying the sunshine on the porch and another delicious dinner at the lodge.
Day twelve: It was our first rainy day. After a hike in the early morning we did the mill tour with St Elias Guides. It was informative and interesting though the stairs in the mill were more challenging than the glacier hike! Our flight out was at 3pm and once again the pilot pointed out sights along the way. As we drove towards Valdez, the sun came out and we were treated to magnificent views of Worthington Glacier and the mountains through Thompson Pass. Checked into Wild Rose’s By The Sea B&B, had dinner at The Harbor Café and then did laundry in town.
Day thirteen: This was originally scheduled as a full day kayak but a week before the trip my husband injured his shoulder so we swapped it out for the nine hour trip to Meares Glacier with Stan Stephens. They are a great operation. The boat was immaculate, the crew friendly and knowledgeable and the commentary was very informative. We had spectacular weather in which to enjoy scenery, icebergs, calving, sea otters, stellar sea lions, harbor seals, Dall porpoises and a show by two Humpback whales who seemed to be trying to out-do each other with breaching activity. Our captain never rushed and the trip actually took ten hours as there was so much activity.
Day fourteen: We took our time leaving Rose’s and Valdez. Did a short hike in the morning, bought fresh salmon and halibut at Peter Pan fishery and drove out to Solomon Gulch to see the fish weir. Our destination was Homestead Guest Cabins near Matanuska Glacier.
Day fifteen: Homestead Guest Cabins are owned by Sandy and Dan, whose parents were homesteaders on the property. Their house has a beautiful view of the Matanuska River and although our cabin did not have a view it was a peaceful spot to spend some time. Dan gave us information on hiking right out the back door so we had a totally car-free day with gorgeous views of Matanuska Glacier, the river and the surrounding mountains. He even gave us directions to a fossil bed where we had great fun hunting around for fossils.
Day sixteen: This was our second rainy day so we did not see much as we headed towards Anchorage for breakfast at Snow City Café. By the time we finished, the sun was out and we were quire excited to make the drive to Seward with good visibility since last year we had rain during our time on the Kenai. We made a side trip to Hope and enjoyed the different perspective of Turnagain Am from there. Once in Seward we parked and walked around town and the boat harbor for several hours before checking into Bear Paw Lodge where we cooked the last of our fish purchased in Valdez, enjoyed the hot tub and porch and a visit with other guests.
Day seventeen: If one can have a “crowning event” at the end of an already memorable and spectacular trip we certainly found ours on this day. Since our trip last summer it has been our goal to hike the Harding Ice Field Trail. We woke to a day with not a cloud in the sky and could not believe our good luck. The trail is indeed long and a steady uphill but the constant views of Exit Glacier, mountains, the river and fields of alpine flowers make you forget that you are gaining 1000 feet in elevation for every mile. And then there is the top – I am still trying to find the words to describe what it was like to reach the top and have the Harding Ice Field open up in front of us. Miles and miles of white, punctuated by the tops of mountains as far as the horizon. While our trip to Barrow may have been to the “top of the world” geographically speaking, this was indeed the top of the world to me. The round trip took seven hours, including many photo stops, time at the top and three bear encounters that meant waiting for two to move away from the trail and one to move off the trail! This was our last full day in Alaska so we wanted outdoor seating for dinner. Had a very nice meal at Resurrection Roadhouse on their lovely deck.
Day eighteen: Our original plan had been to hike at Alyeska and take the tram down but we decided on a slower pace for our last day. Before leaving Seward we drove to the end of Nash Road at the head of the bay for a lovely different perspective on Seward. The weather was again magnificent so we opted for the tram at Alyeska so we could take in the views. Last year we had not even been able to see the top of the tram on our one day stop in Girdwood! As we were getting closer to Anchorage and feeling sad about leaving Alaska we came around a curve along Turnagain Arm and – “The Mountain” was out! It was also visible as we walked at Potter Marsh where we saw bald eagles, sand cranes and a mama moose and two calves. And it was also visible as we drove around Anchorage! We know just how lucky we are to have been able to see the mountain on six days and each day fully out. Used a Groupon coupon at Spenard Road House for dinner, returned the car, took a cab to the airport and said good-bye (for now) to Alaska.
It was a fabulous trip with many memories of scenery, wildlife and the people we met along the way.