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Detailed Trip Report: 11 day Alaska trip by land in July '12

Pune, India
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Detailed Trip Report: 11 day Alaska trip by land in July '12

We had a most memorable tour of Alaska in July 2012. This forum had been of tremendous help in planning our trip. We relied on no guide books (save for the Milepost); the recommendations of this forum were good enough. A special thanks to the regular posters on this forum, who patiently answered every question, and made excellent suggestions. This had been a dream trip of ours for many years, and you made it one which we will cherish for a very long time. Only fair that we post a Trip Report, describing how the trip went, for possible use for other travelers.

First, a bit about ourselves. We are a couple living in India, in our 50’s, avid travelers who like to take two annual vacations in different parts of the world. Have been about quite a bit, including several times in the US, but never to Alaska. We were arriving in Alaska after spending about 5 days in New York City with our kids who are working in the US. Had been really looking forward to this trip for many months.

Our broad itinerary was as follows :

Anchorage – 1 night, Seward – 2 nights, Matanuska – 1 night, Talkeetna – 1 night, Denali – 3 nights, and Fairbanks – 2 nights. Here follows a Trip Report, possibly posted in a few installments (as it will get very long to go in one shot !).

Day 1 : July 24th (Anchorage): We had spent the night at the Grand Hyatt NYC in downtown Manhattan. Got up at 4am, and were off in a taxi by 5:15am for EWR airport. Checked into Air Alaska, had some breakfast at the airport, and departed on time at 7:25am for Seattle. We managed to get a fair bit of sleep on the 6 hour flight, reaching Seattle at 10:25am local time. A light lunch at airport, and off to Anchorage at 12:05pm. This sector had a very nice and friendly crew. Had light snacks and sodas on the flight, and reached Anchorage on time at 2:40pm Alaska time.

Took a taxi from Anchorage airport to our B&B, the Wildflower Inn, which was close to downtown, at the corner of I-Street and 13th Avenue. It turned out to be a lovely B&B, with a warm and friendly host in Larry. He showed us around the property, and we settled in our Wild Iris room. It was a spacious room with a big bathroom, and well decorated. We quickly set off to Avis Car Rentals on 5th Av & B-Street, where we had to pick up our car rental. We had booked a full sized car, and got a Toyota Camry. Used our Northern Light Coupon book to knock off one day’s rental price. While the car was being washed, we went for an early dinner at the Glacier Brewhouse nearby (recommended by our B&B host). Turned out to be a very nice place – popular and bustling with patrons. We had good pizzas with garlic mashed potatoes, and excellent dark Alaskan beer.

We picked up our car, drove back to the B&B, and set off walking on the Coastal Trail (via the Chesterfield Trail near the lake). We had a nice brisk walk on the Coastal Trail. It was overcast, but no sign of rain. Nice views of the coastline. Emerged in the down town area, near 5th Avenue. Walked back to Wildflower Inn, and went to bed. It had been a long day for us, starting at 4am Eastern time in NYC, and we were tired.

Day 2 : July 25th (Seward): We awoke at 6am to a beautiful day, bright sunny and clear. Got ready and reported for breakfast at 7:30am. We were in for a surprise – a sumptuous breakfast of Finnish pancakes, cereals, fruits, juices etc. Larry played his role as a host to perfection. We finally loaded our luggage into the car, said goodbye, and drove off to Seward by 8:15am.

We knew that a picturesque journey awaited us on the Seward highway, and it certainly did not disappoint. We stopped at too many places to gape at the views and click photos, including Beluga Point, many many turnouts on the Turnagain Arm, and finally at Canyon Creek. One of the best drives in my lifetime, reminding us repeatedly of the fabulous drive in New Zealand from Queenstown to Glenorchy. We were in no particular hurry to reach Seward, and would stop whenever the scenery beckoned us. Some construction delays just before Seward, and we were at Seward by 12:15pm. We detoured towards Exit Glacier area first, stopping at Seavey’s Iditarod to book their 1:45pm tour.

We had an excellent crepe lunch at Le Barn Appetit nearby, with warm and talkative hosts. Then returned to Seavey’s to catch their tour. It was an excellent tour of 90 minutes, during which we learned so much about the Iditarod race, the preparations, the protective attire of the dogs etc. Visited the kennels and picked up the young puppies. Finally, a 30-minute cart ride pulled by 16 dogs ! The dogs were raring to be selected and just could not wait to start pulling the cart. It was overall a very enjoyable tour, and we would highly recommend it. The Seavey family has raced the Iditarod for 3 generations, and won it twice, including in 2012.

We then drove to the Exit Glacier carpark, and did a self-hike along the well marked trails. First to the Glacier Viewpoint, and then to the Glacier Edge. The whole round trip took just about an hour, and was mildly strenuous but very doable. Thoroughly enjoyable. We were back by about 4:45pm, and drove off to the Sealife Center in downtown Seward. Used our 2-for-1 coupon of NL book to buy tickets, and spent a worthwhile hour inside. It was a fantastic aquarium with excellent exhibits. Loved the touch pools, where you could feel the sea urchins and other strange sea creatures. Their balcony has super views of the Resurrection Bay.

Then we drove to Lowell Point, and sat on a bench admiring the views of the Bay. It was a lively place, full of campers with their RVs. We returned to downtown Seward, and dined at the Apollo restaurant on 4th Avenue. Had Turkish dolmas which were delicious, with some dark beer. Finally, past 8pm, we drove to our B&B on Bear Drive : the Bear’s Den. The host Richard came over and settled us in. What a place ! It was lovely beyond description, with a huge suite containing two queen beds, a large sitting area with sofas, TV etc, and a comfortable kitchen and bath. It had a large balcony with excellent views. The place was very tastefully decorated and very well stocked. It was well past 10pm by the time we retired to bed.

Day 3 : July 26th (Seward) : We awoke at 7am to find that our good luck with the weather was continuing. It was sunny and clear, although there was some fog overhang on the ground. The B&B was well stocked with breakfast provisions, and we were off by 9am. We left our car at the B&B all day, and preferred to walk to the Small Boat Harbor. We were booked on the Major Marines Kenai Fjord cruise of 7.5 hrs, starting at 10am. We had booked this with a NL 2-for-1 coupon, and we handed over the coupon at the check-in counter and picked up our boarding cards. As we boarded the vessel, we liked the arrangements. Two levels of covered inside seating, with large glass windows. But of course the best views were out on the open deck in the front of the boat, where we spent a lot of our time.

As we moved out of the Seward harbor, we immediately spotted an otter lazily swimming on its back, and very soon thereafter were some humpback whales quite close by. Lots of porpoise sightings. The surroundings were very pretty, and the overhanging low clouds and fog added to the mystique of the landscape. There was an excellent Ranger on board, who provided good narration of all sightings. The bartender mixed up some delicious Bloody Mary’s, and we were having a great time.

We soon crossed the Chiswell Islands, where we saw a huge number of nesting birds. Tons of puffins. Bunch of sea lions lounging on the rocks. The islands themselves were very pretty, with unusual shapes. As we left the islands behind, and sailed into the Gulf of Alaska, we came across a large pod of orca whales (about 7-8 of them), frolicking about near our vessel. Great photo ops. The fog had completely cleared by now, and the views were excellent.

We had booked for the lunch on board. We had opted for the vegetarian meal, which was lasagna with salad, bread, bean rice, and sodas/coffee, followed by excellent deserts. Meanwhile, the vessel moved to the Holgate glacier, where it stopped for 20 minutes. Could see a lot of calving activity, every 3-4 minutes. Then off to the Aialik glacier, where we were fortunate to see similar glacier calving. Then the vessel started its return journey, and we came across more humpback whales and porpoise. Lovely to see the humpbacks take deep dives to the bottom, with their trademark tail above the water as they disappear ! Then we came across an unusual sighting of two humpbacks, who were flapping their pectoral fins wildly in the water; this went on for almost 30 minutes, which the Ranger described as being uncommon.

We returned to the Seward harbor by 5:45pm, after an awesome 7.5 hr trip. We then walked on 4th Avenue all the way to Sealife Center, and did some souvenir shopping in the shops nearby. Then boarded a free shuttle bus back to the harbor. Had a great beer at Chinooks (overlooking the waterfront), followed by super burritos at Railway Cantina across the street. Walked back to the B&B by 9pm and retired to bed.

Trip Report of subsequent days will be posted shortly.

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1. Re: Detailed Trip Report: 11 day Alaska trip by land in July '12

A wonderful report ... I hope "shortly" means later today !

Milwaukee, Wisconsin
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2. Re: Detailed Trip Report: 11 day Alaska trip by land in July '12

Loving it so far . . .

Pune, India
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3. Re: Detailed Trip Report: 11 day Alaska trip by land in July '12

Day 4: July 27th (Whittier & Matanuska) : Woke up again at 7am, and feasted once again on an excellent breakfast. Telephoned our hosts to say goodbye, loaded our stuff in the car, and drove off towards Whittier by 9am. This Bear’s Den B&B had been one of the best B&B that we had ever stayed in, and we would highly recommend it to anyone.

On the way to Whittier, we stopped at the Trail Lake overlook about 32 miles out of Seward, and then at Skoogum Glacier viewpoint about 80 miles from Seward. Then took the turnoff towards Whittier. The next 11 miles of driving towards Whittier was also pretty, and we stopped for photos more than once. We reached the tunnel by 11:15am, and caught the 11:30am opening. We parked at Whittier and checked into the Major Marines office for the Blackstone Glacier cruise, once again using the 2-for-1 NL coupon.

The vessel sailed at 12:45pm. It was a much smaller boat than the one on Kenai fjords the previous day, and was only 30% full. So we could spread out wherever we wanted on the vessel. As for the weather, what can we say about our good luck – it was the best day ever so far; lovely and sunny, with not even a hint of cloud in the sky. As the vessel set out, we had our lunch on board, which was the same fare as the previous day. The Bloody Mary was even better ! Prince William Sounds was superb. Never seen anything so beautiful in my life. We were completely surrounded by snow clad mountains and glaciers, and turquoise blue calm waters of the PWS. With the crystal clear weather, this was pure Heaven on earth !

We went first to the Beloit glacier, and then to the Blackstone glacier. Both were quite near each other. Both were very wide and quite a spectacular sight. We negotiated a lot of pack ice to come close to each glacier. Although the vessel halted for 20 minutes at each glacier, we were not witness to any calving activity today. However, the glaciers were extremely pretty, with lots of waterfalls of the glacial melts. Nice to see groups of kayakers everywhere. If Kenai fjords was about wildlife, the PWS cruise was just about natural beauty. Very different cruise, and even though our cruises were on consecutive days, it did not feel repetitive.

We returned to the harbor by 5:15pm, retrieved our car, and caught the 6pm tunnel opening out of Whittier. We had a long drive ahead, all the way to Matanuska glacier area, and we avoided any further photo stops. Crossed Anchorage just after 7pm, and were on the Glenn Highway. About 40 miles out, we stopped near Palmer to fuel up, and to stock up on some food supplies. Then continued driving on the Glenn highway, which turned very pretty after Palmer. We were forced to make repeated stops at various overlooks of the Matanuska river. The drive itself was fabulous, up and down mountain roads, with super scenery. People rave about the Seward highway, but I found the Glenn highway just as pretty (if not more !).

We finally reached our nesting point for the night : Homestead Cabins, near the Matanuska glacier, about 98 miles out of Anchorage. It was 10pm, and we had told our hosts we would be late. We were booked in a large log cabin in the wilderness, comprising of two bedrooms, a large sitting and dining area, and a bath which had washer/dryer too. Everything hand-crafted by the host family. In the middle of very beautiful wooded area, with no cell phone coverage or wi-fi !

We did our laundry, cooked some dinner, ate showered and retired to bed by midnight ! Thanks to poster coalminer for referring us to this wonderful place. You should have insisted that we stay here for 2 nights, as it seemed such a waste to be leaving next morning.

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4. Re: Detailed Trip Report: 11 day Alaska trip by land in July '12

Yescanada and TimeshareVon, thanks for the compliments. You both had responded to so many of my queries, and helped us plan this trip.

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5. Re: Detailed Trip Report: 11 day Alaska trip by land in July '12

Wow! Bright, sunny clear days in Seward! What good luck. THEN... sunny in Whittier? SUNNY in WHITTIER!? Unheard of! Super lucky.

What kind things you said about your help here on TA, indiancouple. I must say that was touching and that you were such a gracious person to help!

Looking forward to the continuing saga.... Thanks!

Edited: 12 August 2012, 16:57
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6. Re: Detailed Trip Report: 11 day Alaska trip by land in July '12

Day 5 : July 28th (Matanuska & Talkeetna) : Got up at our usual 7am timing, cooked breakfast and loaded up again in the car. Host Sandy lived a short walk away, and we went over to say goodbye. The views from her garden were to die for – best so far in Alaska. We left at 9am, and reached MICA guides within 5 minutes. We were booked on their 9:30am Ice-fall trek. Our guide was Clare from Colorado. There was another Indian family in our group, and we were fitted out with hiking boots and crampons.

We all then departed in a vehicle towards the Matanuska glacier toe. It was another beautiful day, bright and sunny, with no hint of any cloud (I am not making this up, about the good weather !). As the vehicle started descending towards the glacier, superb panoramic views unfolded before our eyes. We reached the glacier toe by 10:30am, and started our glacial trek. The experience was adventurous and exhilarating as we crossed small streams of melt water, and came nearer the “moulon” ice-tunnels, the beautiful “seracs” that rose from the glacier, and the crevasses that we could see from a distance. Filled our water bottles with fresh glacial melt water. We clicked a huge number of photos, and had a great time on the ice for over 2 hours. Weather was perfect – it was mildly chilly near the glacier, but nothing very uncomfortable. We did not realize how time just flew by. Not at all strenuous.

All good things have to come to an end, and we finally had to return to our “base camp”, dress down from our hiking boots, and set off. It had definitely been one of the high points of our trip. We drove to Grand View Café about 7 miles away, and had lunch. Then we retraced our steps on the Glenn Highway, heading back towards Palmer. Enjoyed driving on the Glenn highway, and just before Palmer, we detoured towards the Independence Mine. We drove the paved portion of the Hatcher Pass Road, paid the $ 5 parking fee at the carpark area near the Visitor Center, and got off. The drive on Hatcher Pass Road had been pristine, with lovely green mountains on both sides.

At the Independence Mine, we did a self-guided tour of their Assay building, the Water Tunnel etc. We were more interested in the scenery than the mine, and we soaked up the views all round. Then we stopped at the Hatcher Pass Lodge for a coffee (what a lovely place !). Then we retraced our steps on the Hatcher Pass Road, turning on the Wasilla Fishhook Road (another lovely drive), until we joined with the Parks Highway. Then we drove non-stop till we reached Talkeetna, at about 8:15pm. Went straight to the small “downtown” area, and had dinner at the Twister Creek restaurant. It was a popular place, and there were long wait lines. We had veg burgers, twisted fries, Thai curry, and superb Chuli Stout beer.

It was almost 10pm when we reached our Talkeetna Chalet B&B. Our room was really tiny. The toilet was not ensuite, but across the hall (did not know this before). Anyway, we were really tired after another long day, and crashed out immediately.

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7. Re: Detailed Trip Report: 11 day Alaska trip by land in July '12

Thanks denalicat, as you had been one of the persons who had responded most to my queries during the planning stages, along with coalminer, spryde, TimeshareVon and yescanada. I am sure there were others too.

I believe that the weather in Alaska had been miserable until we got there, but it remained lovely all through our 11 day sojourn. I guess we just carry good weather along with us !

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8. Re: Detailed Trip Report: 11 day Alaska trip by land in July '12

It was a pleasure to provide you assistance here on TA. As DenaliCat said, you are being so gracious in thanking folks and to provide such a wonderful trip report.

It is amazing to have 11 days of great weather. I am so impressed with how much you got to see and do . . . and we're only through day 5 so far!

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9. Re: Detailed Trip Report: 11 day Alaska trip by land in July '12

Day 6: July 29th (Talkeetna & Denali) : Woke up at 7am to find no hot water in the toilet. Went up to locate our hosts; they were already aware of the hot water problem in our bath. They said our water heater had just blown up, and that it would take time to fix, and they were helpless. All other rooms were occupied, and we could use another toilet only when some other guest left. I could not believe this. They even offered to make our stay free, but that was no solution to the problem.

As we finished our other chores, the hostess came and refunded our 50% deposit. There was nothing we could do but wait. Shortly thereafter, the guest in one neighboring room departed for the day. The hostess has their bath tidied up, and we were allowed to use it for our shower. When we went up for breakfast, we saw that the hosts were genuinely sorry, were trying to make amends, and we had just been plain unlucky. They were nice people. It did not feel right to have stayed here for free, so we insisted that she take back the 50% deposit, as even a 50% discount was adequate compensation for our woes. She relented with some persuasion, and we felt less guilty. We loaded up again in the car, and were off again to downtown Talkeetna. The souvenir shops had started to open up, and we looked around every one of them. Best place to do shopping in Alaska.

Then we headed off to Talkeetna airport, as we had a Mckinley flightseeing tour booked at 11am with Talkeetna Aero Services (also with a 2-for 1 NL coupon). There were some clouds in the sky and we were worried. We were told that the clouds were at a low level, and the mountain was in good view above the clouds, so we would be fine. There were a total of 6 passengers on the flight including us. This turned out to be the best experience on this entire Alaska trip, and we cannot praise it enough. As we rose above the clouds, the sky was crystal clear. Both the north and south peaks of the mountain were in very clear view. We circled the mountain for a full hour. The pilot was excellent. He would tip the aircraft on one side to give the best view, then bring the same view on the other side and tip that side over. His commentary was very good, and we had an amazing flightseeing experience. Everything that he wanted to show us on the mountain was very clearly visible. A small cloud which clung to one peak also disappeared after some time, and we could not believe our luck.

After the flight, we again drove to downtown Talkeetna – if you can call one and a half bocks of shops to be much of a downtown ! Very cute town. Today was Sunday, and there was an artists’ craft market on display. We did a lot of souvenir shopping, both at the craft market and at the souvenir shops. Then went to the Flying Squirrel Bakery for lunch. Loved this café, where we had quiche, spinach pastries and wonderful potato salad. After lunch, it was time to head towards Denali, and we reached the park entrance just after 5pm.

We first drove to the Visitor Center and saw their lovely film – “Heartbeats of Denali”. Then to the WAC where we collected our pre-booked shuttle tickets for the next 2 days. Then we drove to the Savage River, parked our car, and undertook the River Loop trail of about 2 km total. It was a nice walk, and the weather was clear. We did not sight any wildlife, but really enjoyed the walk. After the walk, we exited the park and headed towards Healy. Stopped at the 49th State Brewery for dinner, with some excellent self-brewed dark beers. Fueled up gas, bought some grocery provisions, and drove off into Healy.

We were booked at Aspenhaus, which had been highly recommended on this forum. We had made a habit of checking in at our B&Bs around 10pm, and we maintained our record. Ann Marie was a wonderful hostess, and came over to chat with us and settle us in. It was well past 11pm when we hit the bed.

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10. Re: Detailed Trip Report: 11 day Alaska trip by land in July '12

Day 7: July 30th (Denali) : Ann Marie had provided some baked items for breakfast, and we had provisions for the rest. We set off by 8:15am, stopping at the Subway at Glitter Gulch to pack some sandwiches for lunch. We boarded our 9:15am shuttle bus to Wonder Lake, on which we were booked. It was an overcast day, with dense low clouds and strong winds. However, fortunately there was no sign of any rain.

The bus driver Wayne gave excellent commentary. We stopped at the Teklanika Rest stop, and then at Polychrome for photo ops. I immediately fell in love with the Polychrome area, as it was so pretty. Further stops at Toklat River and at Eielson. Were blessed with multiple sightings of grizzly bears and caribou, including some grizzly sightings very near the bus. We ate our lunch at Eielson, and decided against proceeding to Wonder lake that day, in view of the overcast sky. There did not appear to be any chance of seeing the mountain that day, and we had another day in hand. At Eielson, we saw the film on McKinley climbers, and took the loop trail hike below the Visitors Center, including the spur road which projects off it. We then veered off on to the George Creek trail, which took us a great distance down before we turned back and returned.

We boarded a bus back at 3:15pm, and crossed the Polychrome area at about 4:30pm. We got off the bus here, walked the short loop trail here, and proceeded to walk on the park road. It was very windy, and we flagged another shuttle bus and headed out of the park, reaching the WAC at 7:15pm. Had several other grizzly and caribou sightings on the way out, including a caribou walking alongside our bus on the park road. It had been a nice day, but could have been better if the weather had been clearer.

We went to Prospector’s Pizza for dinner, where there was a 30 minute wait for seating. Well worth it, as the pizza and the beer was great. Had Juneau brewed King Stout beer ! Then back to Aspenhaus for much deserved sleep and rest.