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Planning a trip - summer 2012 - seeking advice

Cypress, Texas
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Planning a trip - summer 2012 - seeking advice

My wife and I are planning a driving trip from Houston to Alaska in June and July 2012. Time really is not of the essence – I expect to be retired by the time of the trip. We intend to take the trip in a small SUV, so do not plan to do much off road driving. Here is my proposed itinerary, followed by a few questions at the end. I’ve been to Anchorage on business trips many times and have been to Talkeetna, Kenai River fishing, and Portage Glacier / the Double Musky, but beyond that everything is new to us, and my wife has never been to Alaska. We’ve planned this trip based on Moon Alaska Guide, Ron Dalby’s Guide to the Alaska Highway, the 2009 edition of Milepost, and various reviews and forums on Trip Advisor. I’d appreciate any advice.

Drive from Houston to Fairbanks via Banff / Jasper / Dawson Creek – 14 days.

Fairbanks – two days – sightseeing in town and nearby. Also time for oil change and any other repairs / servicing / medical needs.

Denali National Park – transit day and two days at park. Any recommendations on whether to use a shuttle bus or a tour bus? What are the “must see / must do” attractions? We’re planning to stay in Healy rather than at Glitter Gulch. Any advice on that decision?

Talkeetna – transit day and one day at Talkeetna – to include the rapids boat ride.

Anchorage – transit day and three days in Anchorage. Local sightseeing, museums, Portage Glacier, visit friends, etc. Fishing charter?

Homer – transit day, three days in Homer. Ferry to Seldovia, local sightseeing. Fishing charter?

Seward – transit day, three days in Seward – including possible overnight at Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge, visit Exit Glacier, SeaLife Center. Can anyone help me with the “pros” and “cons” of an overnight stay at the Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge vs. an all day Fjords sightseeing cruise?

Travel day – Seward to Valdez – via Glenn and Richardson Highways. I had originally contemplated taking the ferry via Whittier, but have read that these highways are quite scenic. I may time this so that I drive up to Anchorage the previous evening.

Valdez – one full day – Prince William Sound sightseeing cruise.

Cordova - ferry from Valdez and one full day – plan to drive Copper River Highway / hope to visit Childs Glacier. Two questions – is the Copper River Highway a relatively good gravel road to drive? Does anyone have any insight as to whether the Alaska DOT & PF plans to reopen the road beyond the bridge at Milepost 36 in the summer of 2012?

Cordova to Copper Center – ferry and drive – two nights in Copper Center – take the Kennicott Shuttle to McCarthy / Kennicott as a one day round trip. Any advice on taking the shuttle rather than driving? As my wife points out, two round trip shuttle tickets cost less than one flat tire. Any advice on doing this as a day trip vs. overnight? Will five and a half hours in McCarthy / Kennicott allow sufficient time for a light lunch and a tour of the Kennicott ghost town?

Travel day - Copper Center to Haines – two to three day drive

Travel day - Haines to Juneau via ferry.

Juneau to Glacier Bay – round trip by air – two nights in Gustavus / Glacier Bay National Park; sightseeing cruise in Glacier Bay. Any recommendations on staying in Gustavus vs. in the park?

Juneau – two full days plus departure day on Marine Highway – Mendenhall Glacier; Douglas Island; Mt. Roberts Tramway; Tracy Arms cruise; browsing downtown.

Travel days - Alaska Marine Highway to Prince Rupert

Travel day - BC Ferries – Prince Rupert to Port Hardy – we’ve taken the Northern Expedition northbound and thoroughly enjoyed it.

Drive from Port Hardy to Duke Point / take BC Ferries to Tsawwassen / drive to Houston via Seattle / Billings / Denver – plan to take five days.

So the questions are:

1. Are we missing anything that we should be “sure to see?”

2. Are we doing anything that is not worth the time invested to do it?

3. As you can see, we are planning on four open water sightseeing cruises – Kenai Fjords, Prince William Sound, Glacier Bay and Tracy Arms. If we were to eliminate one (or two), which cruises would you eliminate, and why? (This is not a quiz :-) I just want to get some insight as to which cruises are best for us).

4. Is the McCarthy Road / Kennicott visit worth the two nights it would add to our itinerary (since the day round trip is an all day trip)?

5. I’ve read rave reviews about the Copper River Highway and watching Childs Glacier calf. Is this worth the two days we have invested in it?

6. I’ve read how crowded the Kenai River gets for fishing in June and July. Both my wife and I are inexperienced fishers, and the primary goal would be to experience the outdoors – and perhaps catch one or two nice fish to ship home. Given our itinerary, if our primary goals are salmon fishing and enjoying the Alaskan outdoors, are there better places than the Kenai River to take a one day fishing charter?

Anchorage, Alaska
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1. Re: Planning a trip - summer 2012 - seeking advice

Hi jbtexas,

Welcome to TA. I'm already envious of your opportunity and my wife and I just finished driving up here (Anchorage) from Farmington, NM. We've a trip journal at this link: http://www.getjealous.com/sdpryde if you'd like to review some of the things we did & saw.

I'd encourage heading up the Cassier Hwy (even though it's a little bit out of the way from Jasper). We just love the scenery from the Cassier versus the ALCAN.

In Denali I'd definitely use the shuttle. They are just way more convenient and give you many more options for a fraction of the price.

Some might say 3 days in Anchorage is too much (not me, I live here & love it); but with your "wide open" agenda and no fixed timeline, you should find plenty to do in & around ANC.

When driving south from ANC to Homer/Seward, leave plenty of time for stopping on the pullouts for scenery. There's many. many opportunities and southbound is the easiest/safest direction to do this in.

The drive to Valdez from Seward is also really amazing. GIven the chance stop in Palmer for lunch at the Vagabond Blues (a really eclectic soup & sandwich place). Also you may want to take the opportunity to have one of the "outfitters"/guide services take you on a glacier trek on the Matanuska Glacier. If you don't get on Matanuska GLacier, Worthington Glacier (near Valdez) is a worthwhile & easy stop to get a good glacier viewing.

I think your 5+ hrs in McCarthy/Kennicott via the shuttle will get you your two desires and the road in can be "exciting" if one (or others) isn't careful. You definitely might save some stress by taking the shuttle and relaxing.

For things being "worth it"; only you can decide that; but I think you've got the workings of a "bucket list" type of trip.

You should get lots of responses/advise/opinions here to help you out.

Good luck & enjoy AK,

Scott

Cadiz, Kentucky
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2. Re: Planning a trip - summer 2012 - seeking advice

My first thought is that you haven't allowed enough time from Houston to Fairbanks. Going through Canada is an awesome experience - as are Banff and Jasper! We saw more wildlife on that drive than we saw in AK, so you will definitely want to take your time. You're going to find lots more to do on that route than you think. Have you purchased a Milepost? It's a good guide to give you a start.

As to Denali, you don't have to read much in this forum to know the shuttle is much preferred over the tour bus. And take it all the way to Wonder Lake. Also check out the kennels and other things available there.

I'll leave it to the experts here to answer your other questions since it's my bedtime! :) You'll have a great trip no matter how you do it! We're heading back in May for our third trip.

Chugiak, Alaska
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3. Re: Planning a trip - summer 2012 - seeking advice

'6. I’ve read how crowded the Kenai River gets for fishing in June and July. Both my wife and I are inexperienced fishers, and the primary goal would be to experience the outdoors – and perhaps catch one or two nice fish to ship home. Given our itinerary, if our primary goals are salmon fishing and enjoying the Alaskan outdoors, are there better places than the Kenai River to take a one day fishing charter?'

I found that being inexperienced at Alaskan river fishing, it was pretty tough to actually catch a fish. Also, the water's cold to stand in (I found it colder and was going numb more standing hip deep in the Kenai than it was chest deep in the ocean at the mouth of the Kenai- in the same waders) and standing on the rocks for an extended period of time can make you foot sore. I'm not one to not enjoy something that is work, but depending on when you are there and when the fish are there could mean you are working hard for nothing. In that case, it'd be more fun to be sitting on the bank watching the others work.

You could hire a guide to help you learn the techniques. You could also get on a charter out of Seward or Homer so they can take you to the fish (hopefully! No guarantees there, either). You could also get a guide to take you fishing elsewhere like up on the Little Su about an hour and a half north of Anchorage. Not so busy, still pretty and I think most of them will have you in a boat (more comfy).

But I think you'll need to figure out more of what days you'll be at which places first and then check the past years fish charts (on Fish and Game's web site) in the various places to see what could be timed to coincide with where you'll be already. You can pretty much know that you'll get *something* on a charter, just might end up being a small halibut and some rockfish rather than a nice silver or red salmon. Red are tough to fish for because they aren't 'biting' you are just hooking them in the mouth. When they are in the river, they are focused on spawning. Catching reds and silver when they are still in the ocean is easier because most of them are still feeding in preparation for their run up the river.

Just be prepared for the super high shipping costs to send it home. Sending a little even will likely be about $150 for overnight or two day with the gel packs, etc.

Cypress, Texas
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4. Re: Planning a trip - summer 2012 - seeking advice

Thanks for the great advice. Scott, especially appreciated the road condition reports in your trip diary. Alaskantiger - thanks for the fishing tips. Yes, we definitely want for the guide to have us "in a boat."

Wheatland, Wyoming
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5. Re: Planning a trip - summer 2012 - seeking advice

I second the idea of driving up the Cassier Highway joining the Alaskan Highway at Watson Lake(signpost forest). I would also think about going north from Whitehorse to Dawson City, taking the ferry across the Yukon River there and taking the Top of the World and Taylor Highways through Chicken to Tok.

Agree with getting the "Milepost", it will cover all the roads you will use from Alberta/BC and north. Amazon has it for about $19.

Las Vegas, Nevada
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6. Re: Planning a trip - summer 2012 - seeking advice

I too am very envious of your trip!

You might find some helpful tips by reading thru a few journals on mytripjournal.com. These journals are similar to Scott's. Most folks are driving RV's or pulling campers but they are driving from as far away as Florida so looking at their routes might be informative.

The front page starts with several "BEST' journals, then further down the page is a list of Alaska towns; you can click on the town and read everyone's thoughts about their visit to that location. Or further down the page is a chronlogical list of everyone's entries. You can click on an avatar and read their entire trip.

Here's the front page. mytripjournal.com/travel-United_States-Alaska

And here is a specific journal: www.mytripjournal.com/ouradventures_2011

Appleton, Wisconsin
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7. Re: Planning a trip - summer 2012 - seeking advice

Our experience with Kenai RIver fishing with a guide...my husband & I are are both experienced fishers here in WI, but had never fished for salmon before. We just got back form our trip a few days ago, and did 4 fishing charters while there: 2 fly ins, 1 halibut charter, 1 Kenai River salmon fishing. Of the 4 charters, neither of us liked the Kenai River charter. It could have just been our (terrible, lazy!) guide or the area we were fishing on the river (about 10 min north of Soldotna), but from our experience if your primary goal is to experience the outdoors and catching fish is more secondary, that is not the best choice. The area of the river we fished along (I think what he called the pastures) was just steep river banks & boring tall grass with some trees. There were tons of boats on the river so you're never in an area by yourselves. I caught my 2 silvers in about 30 min (guide would not catch & release), and was done fishing for the rest of the time. Sat there doing nothing (in the same spot) for 5 hours waiting for the rest of the group to catch their limit. This was the worst charter of the trip, and that we have ever been on in our lives. This was really more because of the guide we had though, so I can't say how the experience would have been with another guide.

We also went on a halibut charter out of Homer. The halibut are not difficult to catch, so wouldn't be a problem for inexperienced fishers. Again though, this wasn't our favorite. It's actually hard work reeling up from the deep water because of the heavy weights, even without a fish on! We only caught small halibut and got into some silvers, but even the 15 pounders felt like 100 lbs by the end of the day we were so pooped! So not difficult to catch fish, and many people love it, we just prefer lighter tackle and not so much physical work to reel!

The best fishing charter of our trip and that we have ever been on was a fly-in. I HIGHLY recommend it to anyone!! It was through Alaska West Air in Nikiski, which was 45 min or so north of Soldotna. We went on both the Wolverine Creek trip and the "Arctic Char, Lake Trout, and Salmon Combo". Wolverine Creek was nice (saw more people/boats there than we expected form a fly in), but the combo trip was simply amazing!! You are flown to Crescent Lake, a remote lake across the Cook inlet. There were bears just down the beach when we arrived, with a backdrop of mountains around us including a glacier on one side, and Mount Redoubt on the other. They took us down the river on a small boat, and we saw 7-8 bears on the way to our fishing spot. You don't fish in the boat but in the river (plenty of shore so you can get out of the water when you want if your feet get cold). Spent our time fishing for silvers & dolly varden (we didn't care to take any fish home from that trip and wanted to catch something we hadn't before, so targeted the dolly), but the most amazing part was just being there in the remote area, enjoying the scenery & solitude! I just kept looking around in amazement at how beautiful it was! On the ride back up the river saw another handful of bear. This was by far the best fishing trip we ever had, and the highlight of our whole vacation!

Sorry that got so long, I just get so excited thinking about that fly in! :-) Anyway, if you're looking to experience the outdoors and some fishing along with it, I think something like that would far outweigh a Kenai River charter. Of course it's also a lot more expensive, but for us was well worth it!

Bellmore, Long...
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8. Re: Planning a trip - summer 2012 - seeking advice

We just returned from a trip to Alaska via a Holland America cruise/tour. The cruise portion stopped at Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway, cruised glacier bay for 6 hours, College Fjords, and ended at Seward.

The land package included a flight to Prudhoe Bay from Anchorage, a 2 hour tour of the oil drilling facility with a stop at the Arctic Ocean, bus ride down the Dalton Highway with a night at Coldfoot, one night in Fairbanks, the McKinley Express train in a glass domed car to Denali, continuing on the train to Anchorage.

I can comment on a few of your questions.

Denali tour:

We arrived in Denali, and Holland America set us up on the Tundra Wilderness Tour. This is a 7 to 8 hour tour. We were on the 2:10pm tour and returned at about 9:15pm. If you want to see the greatest portion of the park, this is the only tour that will do it. It travels a total distance of about 125 miles. You can only drive in your own car about 17 miles.

Denali was far from the highlight of our trip. The tour used to be given in real school buses but now they have dedicated vehicles which are modeled after school buses and not much better. The buses come complete with small windows with a horizontal bar across each window which will surely interfere with your pictures, a rough ride, and a marginal bus driver/ tour guide.

The bus driver sped through the first 17 miles (the area where moose are found) at about 40 to 50 mph. Picture taking was impossible. Someone spotted a moose, but by the time he stopped, we were a quarter mile away. He backed up about 200 feet, but would not do any more. People in the bus were screaming to back up more but into forward he went for some more 50 mph driving.

On the narrow curvy road after the ranger checkpoint at the 17 mile mark, he slowed down. Of course, this area had no trees and therefore no chance of mouse. As we drove, we did see a number of Dall Sheep, both in the mountains and on the road. We also saw Caribou. The driver spotted a Lynx, but the driver never told us what side of the bus so only he got to see it.

In contrast, on the Dalton Highway, we saw a Blond Grizzly, Muskox, Mouse, and much more.

When we got to the farthest point the bus goes, the driver said this gives the best view of Mt McKinley. The mountain, which is about 40 miles away, was fogged in and the driver make a quick U-turn and headed back without stopping. He never asked if anyone wanted to get out even though the mountain was clouded in. What is the world was the point of driving this far out only to make a quick U-turn.

Several rest stops were made. There was at least 20 permanent outhouses at each (no flushing toilets) which were adequate for the multiple buses at each stop.

By the time we got back, we were so glad it was over. I couldn’t have taken another minute.

If we would have arrived earlier in the morning and gotten an earlier tour, we may have seen more animals. It also would have given more time to visit the main visitor center which had a wonderful display and movie. We did not have time to fully see this. I heard poor reviews of Denali from our relatives, but let’s face it, if you are in Alaska you must see Denali. In my opinion, if you are not planning to go hiking or explore the park in other ways, you can easily see it on one day.

There are shuttle busses that you can get on and off. I saw lots of them, but I don’t believe they go as far as the actual tour. I am not sure how much narration the driver of these buses do.

Seward:

We took a 6 hour sightseeing tour of Kenai Fjords. We thought it was wonderful. We had a calm day and the water was relative calm (although one poor woman was terribly sea sick). Our tour went as far as the Aialik Glacier. They change what glacier you see depending on how much time is spend whale watching. This is by far the better glacier that the small one that was the alternative. This tour was wonderful. We saw whales sea otters, sea lions, thousands of birds on a large rock and much more. The tour company at Seward offers many possible tours of varying duration. We never got to the Exit Glacier since our bus to Anchorage was waiting right after this tour ended.

The rest of our tour was a flight to Prudhoe Bay and the drive down the Dalton Highway. I won’t comment on this since this does not seem to be in your plans. Have a great time – we did.

Wasilla, Alaska
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9. Re: Planning a trip - summer 2012 - seeking advice

There's a glacier flight tour out of Talkeetna that flies you in and around Denali. Local resident friend of mine who lived here all his life raved about it. For him to be that excited, it must be something and one day I hope to do it myself.

I fish Seward. Say hello when you come through Anchorage.

Dale

Edited: 26 July 2012, 19:36
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10. Re: Planning a trip - summer 2012 - seeking advice

Since this old thread has come to life, I will comment regarding Retired Traveler's disappointments with Tundra Wilderness Tour in Denali.

We recommend the shuttle buses in Denali rather than the Tundra Wilderness Tour. The shuttles go way further, to Eielson visitor center and Wonder Lake. Tundra Wilderness goes either to Tolklat mile 53 or in good weather Stony Hill mile 60. The shuttles go to Eielson mile 66 and Wonder Lake mile 85.

Plus, the price of the Tundra Wilderness Tour is around $123 including a box lunch. The price of a shuttle to Eielson is $44 & to Wonder Lake $56. The shuttle drivers also give commentary & are great about stopping for wildlife Plus, you can get on & off shuttle buses all day, if you so desire for walks & photo opps & flag down other shuttles..

Retired Traveler, sorry you had a tough trip into Denali with Tundra Wilderness.

Edited: 26 July 2012, 20:08