Introduction, Flights, and Honolulu Stopover.
I promised that I would write a Trip Report as a way of honoring the fabulous people who contribute regularly to this forum. Given how much time and effort you put into answering our silly questions with no thought for reward, it is the least I can do in the hope that someone else may benefit from our experiences. I learnt so much from you Maple Manitoba, fti, Mombear, Denalicat, sdpryde, TimeshareVon.….Heartfelt thanks to you and all the other people whose advice I have read but whose names I have forgotten - your advice was much more personal, interesting and enjoyable to read than the guidebooks and you helped me plan an amazing trip.
Firstly, a little about us. We are a reasonably (but not super) fit, Australian couple in our 60’s. We are especially interested in scenery, wildlife and moderate hiking. We wanted to combine a three and a half week, independent Alaskan tour, with a small ship experience that focused on natural beauty and adventurous activities rather than shopping, too many people, ports and shows. Together, these two components meant that we could plan on six glorious weeks to fulfill a lifetime dream of visiting this wonderful state. We have just finished the three weeks of land travel. Tomorrow we start our cruise with Inner Sea Discovery. There will only be a maximum of 60 people on board and the itinerary promises plenty of hiking and sea kayaking. I will post a separate report on Cruise Critic of this part of the trip.
Our trip began in Sydney, flying overnight flight on the Qantas subsidiary Jetstar to Honolulu, which allows a direct connection to Anchorage with Alaska airlines. We wanted to break the trip rather than endure the 16 hours of flying in one burst. Both Jetstar’s and Alaskan Airlines’ seats do not recline far, and this does not allow me any sleep at all. Advice to anyone doing long haul flights on Alaskan Airlines is to bring your own blanket and pillow if you need them as they will not be supplied by the airline - even in first class [as we were] and I was a bit cold
We stayed one night at the Renew Hotel at Waikiki Beach. The hotel was good with very friendly guest service, a good room and free wireless internet. We had an excellent and authentic Japanese meal at the Sensai Restaurant opposite the hotel. The sashimi was fresh and beautifully presented.
Day 1-3. Alaska Homestead Lodge Lake Clare National Park.
We arrived in Anchorage at 5.00am after our overnight trip from Honolulu. We had arranged a charter flight with Regal Air to stay at the Alaska Homestead Lodge in Clark National Park for three full days. This proved to be a great beginning to our vacation with wonderful bear viewing and an opportunity to see other wildlife, such as many bird species, a couple of porcupines and several bald eagles.
On day 1, Regal Air picked us up from the Anchorage airport at 7.00 am. The scenery on the flight was stunning. Even though I was tired, I hardly noticed because I was so excited by the beauty of the mountains and lakes.
Almost immediately at Homestead Lodge, we saw amazing wildlife. On the first day we saw at least seven or eight bears including a Mom Bear with young triplets who walked within 15 feet of us. The bears are totally wild but habituated to humans - in other words they treat us as part of the background. Apparently the bear sows here even see humans as protection against the male boars so the sows often stay close to humans.
On one occasion we saw a bear catch a fish and on another occasion, we saw two adolescent bears climb a tree to escape their Mom who was determined to push them into independence. On other occasions, we just watched them eat, sleep, attempt to catch fish or dig for clams. We did not attempt to go really close to them, but on many occasions, they would come very close to us. The whole bear watching experience was moving and unforgettable. We traveled with our guide with a couple of others in a small group ATV with a with trailers or we walked to see the bears. I have reviewed the Lodge separately, but suffice to say that is not luxurious but it is homely and comfortable and the guide was great. The meals were good and served family style with plenty of variety. The Lodge also had day visitors for bear viewing and I think everyone we spoke to had a good experience of seeing bears. I am glad that we included this activity in our itinerary because, even though it was expensive, it was wonderful to see the bears at such close range for three whole days and to be without fear of them. I felt incredibly privileged to have this opportunity.
Day 4. Anchorage
We left the lodge and had another beautiful charter flight back to Anchorage. The weather was clear again so the views of the mountains were spectacular. We spent the day in Anchorage doing some shopping and walking about the town. We stayed the night at Fairfield Inn and Suites. The mid range hotel was comfortable and had a laundry, free internet and shuttle to the airport. The hotel was happy to store some luggage for us.
Day 5. Haines and Chilkoot River
Early in the morning we left for a flight to Juneau. Again it was clear weather and the views were awesome. The Wings of Alaska flight on the 10 seat plane from Juneau to Haines was even better. The sky was almost cloudless. The pilot flew us over the Mendanhall Glacier and honestly, it was worth going to Haines just for the scenery on that flight. It was even better than the scenery on the flight to Clare National Park. After a good grilled salmon lunch at the Lighthouse Restaurant in Haines, we picked up a Subaru Forester car from the Captain’s Choice Motel and drove the 11 miles to the Chilkoot River Lodge for the night.
The view over the Chilkoot River from the communal patio of the lodge, took my breath away. We spent a couple of hours walking along the river, watching a bear fishing for salmon from the porch and talking with other guests staying at the lodge. The owners gave us some home smoked salmon and left fresh muffins. We were so engrossed in bear watching that we did not go into town for dinner, so the muffins were a treat. The lodge was inexpensive and very comfortable and there was even a small microwave and a communal BBQ. I would thoroughly recommend this accommodation to anyone who wants a beautiful view, a comfortable bed and the opportunity to safely see bears without paying too much.
Day 6. Haines to Whitehorse
In the morning, we watched a bear fishing for salmon on the Chilkoot River and then caught the car ferry to Skagway to begin our Golden Circle drive The ferry took an hour to get to Skagway. From there, we drove to Whitehorse through majestic, glaciated mountain scenery. The first half of the trip was especially wonderful. At Whitehorse we stayed at the High Country Inn which was OK.
We ate two meals at the Klondike Ribs and Salmon Restaurant and the food was excellent. For dinner we had baked salmon and fresh Yukon Char. Both were great. I saw a sign on the wall to say that the restaurant had won a number of awards but it was more of a homely atmosphere rather than a fine dining place. The walls and ceiling have a lot of gold rush memorabilia and some interesting historical photographs on display. We spent half the day hiking some of the trails along the canyon and the river. The views of the blue clear water and the columnar basalt canyon walls were very picturesque and I would thoroughly recommend these easy hiking trails. The site of the old Canyon City which we saw on the walk, was also interesting with an example of the peeled pine log horse drawn tram car still on the site. After lunch we drove to Haines Junction, along the Alaskan Highway. We saw more wonderful scenery including views of mountain peaks capped by early season snow and lots of boreal forest. We saw a large elk on the road too.
Day 7. Whitehorse to Haines Junction
At Haines Junction, we stayed at the Alcan Motel which was surprisingly comfortable, given it’s inauspicious external appearance. The bed was good and the room was quite a bit bigger and more comfortable than the High Country Inn where we had stayed at Whitehorse. We had another easy walk in Haines Junction – this time, a 5 km stroll called the Dezadeash River Trail. It began in the centre of the town and passed through wetlands, forest and meadows. It was very pretty with the gorgeous mountains in the background and the beginnings of autumn [fall] colours. We ate at the Mozart Restaurant in the Alcan Motel. I had vegetarian noodles and broccoli. My husband had the goulash which he said was authentic and very tasty. The proprietor was Hungarian.
Day 8. Haines Junction to Haines
This glorious day of full sunshine began with coffee at the Haines Junction bakery. The owner was very helpful and gave us some good suggestions for the day. We picked up a nice salad at the bakery for lunch along the drive..
On the way to Haines, we stopped at Kathleen Lake and walked the King’s Throne trail. The trail gave beautiful elevated views of the lake. It took us about two and a half hours to get to the throne and back to the car park. The view was well worth the effort of climbing uphill. We saw a collared pica (small mammal), many different birds, and a couple of arctic squirrels.
The views from the road between Haines Junction and Haines were magnificent. The day remained clear and sunny and the light dusting of snow on the middle slopes of the mountains, added to their beauty. We have driven in mountain scenery in many countries from Patagonia to Austria, but it is hard to remember a more scenic drive anywhere in the world and we felt so lucky to be able to see it in perfect conditions. We stopped at the Tatshenshini pullout and a road worker drove over to us suggested we get back into the car because a grizzly was only a few meters away. I did not see the bear as the trees obscured my view. It was instructive to know that even on a roadside pull out, it is important to be ‘bear aware’. We stayed again at the Chilkoot River Lodge and because we wanted to be there for bear viewing at dusk. The lodge only has three or four rooms and did not have a vacancy for three nights straight, so book early if you plan to stay there. After more bear viewing, we ate a late dinner at the Lighthouse Restaurant. Again we had salmon and steamed vegetables and enjoyed the meal.
Day 9. Haines and Chilkoot River
Again it was perfect weather – apparently causing locals to pinch themselves as we heard that it had been a wet summer! After an excellent coffee at the Haines Mountain Market, we arranged a sightseeing flight with Haines Mountain Flying Services. To fill in time until it began, we walked the Battery Point trail. It was an easy and pleasant stroll through the forest. The flight over Glacier Bay was breathtaking. The little 5 seater plane was perfect and Paul, the pilot did a good job with the low flying and commentary. We even saw mountain goats on the edge of the mountains. Afterwards, my partner, suffering some neck-muscle strain (not from the flight!) had an excellent massage at (Maine) Stillpoint Therapies (907) 7662724. We had another river walk, and spent a couple of hours hiking the Ripinski Trail, watched a bear from the verandah of the Chilkoot River Inn and then ate a splendid meal at the The Commander's Room Restaurant, located in the Hotel Halfingsland. I had beet and goat cheese salad with pistachios and pan fried fresh halibut with potato cake and butternut sauce which were all delicious. The restaurant has a nice view and good food. I recommend it if you want an unpretentious but relatively fine dining experience. After dinner we drove back to Chilkoot River where we watched the moon rise above Lynn Fjord while a bear skinned a salmon in the foreground. How good was that! I loved Haines.
Day 10. Haines to Seward.
Again perfect weather for Haines. We caught an early flight to Juneau in a Wings of Alaska in a ten-seater plane. Our schedule took us to Juneau via Skagway and one of the passengers asked if he could take the scenic route. The pilot obliged and flew in over the mountains. Again the conditions were perfect and the flight was almost as scenic as the sightseeing flight we had done the day before. The Air Alaska flight was also very scenic until we hit clouds close to Anchorage.
At Anchorage, we picked up our Enterprise rental car and headed to Seward. Something that I had not understood is that in the USA, vehicle insurance it seems can be covered by the policy on the driver’s own ‘normal’ car. This is not the case in Australia. We needed to pay an extra forty dollars a day or the car would not be insured. In Australia the car hire fee covers all insurance except for an excess fee, which our credit card covers. Over the years, we have driven many thousands of miles in US thinking that our credit card vehicle insurance would cover the excess, but now we realize that if we had caused an accident, we would have been up for the cost of all repairs-not just the excess for the insurance which is the case in Australia. If you are an Aussie driving in Alaska, make sure that you are clear about what you would be up for in the event of an accident. I was glad to have clarified this and would rather pay the extra than find out the hard way. Enterprise gave us the ‘go ahead’ to drive the Denali Highway and the McCarthy Road which we had planned for later in the trip.
Driving the Seward Highway, was, as I had expected, amazing and beautiful. We drove in a leisurely way, stopped frequently and took in the sights. We stayed overnight at the Holiday Inn Express Hotel. The hotel was more than adequate with a good bed and a location close to the harbor. We had dinner at the Ms Genes- a restaurant in the Hotel Seward. I had razor clams and white king salmon, which were both excellent.
Day 10 Seward
We had an early start and walked to the Exit Glacier, hiked the Harding Icefield and spent some time in the Visitor Centre. The Icefield was a wonderful hike. Afterwards went to the Sealife Centre.
I realize that most people want to be on the water which makes sense, but we wanted to enjoy the land as we knew that shortly, we would have sixteen days on a boat. The Harding Icefield was quite a strenuous walk but the effort was worthwhileDinner was at Chinook Restaurant next door to the Holiday Inn. It was quite a nice meal. I had steamed Alaskan crab for an appetizer and bouillibasse. The crab leg was good and the bouillabaisse was tasty with lots of good fresh seafood- but authentic French Mediterranean it was not! We stayed for a second night at the Holiday Inn.
Day 11 Anchorage to Denali
We left early for Denali and went immediately to the park. I was immediately overwhelmed by the beauty and understood immediately why so many TA DE’s write so glowingly about it. The fall colors were stunning and we were so glad that we arrived in early September. We hiked one of the trails close to the entrance, perused the Visitor Centre, watched the film there and checked in at the Lakeview Inn at Healy. The Inn was great. The view over the lake was gorgeous and it was quiet and comfortable. We ate at the Black Diamond Grill Restaurant, which was within an easy walk. It is in the clubhouse of the Golf Club. The food there was the best that I had anywhere and there was a good view of the fall colored trees through big picture windows. Food seems to be Northern Italian style. I had salmon and grilled salmon with Parmesan cheese risotto.
Day 12. Denali Park Road to Kantishna
We caught the 7.05 Camper bus at the Science Center, about a mile inside the Park Entrance. The trip was wonderful with the wildlife and reds and yellows of the tundra. We were very lucky and saw a wolf just past the Eielson stop. The wolf was quite close and paraded in front of us for a while before slowly sauntering off. Seeing this amazing wild animal was one of the highlights of the whole trip and it will live in my memory forever. I had remembered driving around National Parks for weeks in the lower 48 states in the 1970’s, hoping for such a glimpse but never having this experience.
We also saw a number of bears in the distance and a bull moose next to the road. After seven hours we reached the Skyline Lodge where we were staying. The time on the bus went quickly and there had been lots of stops. We enjoyed Skyline Lodge, and I thought that it was good value (about $335 per couple per night for all food and lodging) compared to other Kantishna places I looked at. The only problem was an unpleasant septic smell but I guessed that it was because it was so late in the season and the infrastructure was not quite adequate. There are two or three shared bathrooms in the main part of the lodge and it is necessary to leave the individual cabins to use these facilities. Remember to bring a dressing gown and slippers to avoid having to get completely dressed in the middle of the night if you need to go to the bathroom. I did not mind a bit because it was so amazing to be staying so far into the heart of the park The staff seemed very nice and gave us advice about hikes in the area. There was also a comfortable sitting area and some educational books available for guests. The food was simple but adequate. Breakfast was continental style and bread, sliced processed meat, and cheese was available for a ‘self made’ sandwich inside the lodge or a bagged lunch to take hiking. Dinner was served family style. The dishes one night were chilli beef, ravioli , peas and carrots, cheesy potatoes and a green salad. There was a banana and cream pie for dessert and coffee and tea were available at any time. Our cabin was very quiet and the beds were comfortable.
Day 13. Kantishna
We hiked the moderate Quigley Trail, which gave us a beautiful view from the range to the mountains beyond. It took about three hours with stops. We made sandwiches for a late lunch and walked another shorter trail in the afternoon. We stayed the second night at Skyline Lodge.
Day 14. Kantishna to Healy.
At about 10.00am we flew to the Park Entrance with Kantishna Air Taxi, the airline which operates Skyline Lodge. Although weather conditions made the flight past Mt Denali impossible, the scenic flight was beautiful with fall colors. The lichens, berries and other ground covers wrapped the ground in a carpet of brilliant reds which was punctuated by the deep greens of the small conifers and the autumnal yellows of the conifers, aspen, willows, birch and other trees. At times I felt like bursting into tears with the physical beauty of such a wilderness area. Flying gave me an idea of the different terrains in the park and how big Denali is.
After arriving at the entrance, we again drove the 15 miles back into the park, allowed by private vehicle. We saw a young moose right on the side of the road. It was raining so we restricted our hiking to the fairly short Taiga and Horseshoe Lake View trails. There was an excellent close-up view of a Beaver Dam at the end of the Horseshoe Trail. Later, we checked in to the Alaska Spruce Cabins which were located in a pleasant rural setting in Healy. The cabins were homely and well set up with good kitchen facilities. Each cabin had two comfortable beds and plenty of room. We preferred cabins to motels and also welcomed the opportunity to talk with the owners. We had another excellent meal and a couple of glasses of a good pinot noir at the Black Diamond Grill.
Day 15. Healy to Paxson Via Denali Highway.
The combination of fall colors and the spectacular scenery made the Denali Highway truly memorable. The scenery was similar to Denali but we did not see as much wildlife - probably due to the large numbers of hunters everywhere. We saw about twenty caribou cross the road in front of us. Unfortunately they were being watched and then pursued by a group of hunters using ATV’s, which for all of us, was quite distressing. After checking in to our accommodation, we hiked to the Gulkana Glacier. It took about three hours; by the time we got back to the car it was snowing heavily.
We stayed at the Denali Highway Cabins, which were excellent. The cabins were very aesthetically attractive and cosy. They were in a secluded spot by the River. Breakfast was delicious with home made breads and muffins, hot porridge, good coffee, freshly laid eggs and fresh fruit. The host Jenny was helpful in suggesting local hikes. For dinner, we ate a basic hamburger meal at a local roadhouse as it was all that was available. Apparently, Jenny and and her partner, Audie often have salmon and other frozen food available for BBQ but it was too late in the season for us. Unfortunately, Audie in Anchorage buying supplies and so the float trip [which we had heard was excellent] was not available. I loved Paxon and could easily have stayed two or three days there.
We began the day with a scenic drive to Tower Mountain, then drove back up the Denali Highway to hike for a couple of hours at Mile 13 from Paxson [pullout to left at top of ridge, trailhead to the right]. The trail follows up the ridgeline to some spectacular views from the ridge’s high spot. We had decided to drive only as far as Gakona, 80 miles away so we had time for a morning hike. It was sleeting and very windy but we were well rugged up and it was exciting being in the forbidding weather and getting to see more beautiful country.
At Gakona, we checked into the Lodge and Trading Post. The cabins were rustic, but had all facilities and were heated and comfortable. The owner told us that it is one of the last two original roadhouses from the mining era in Alaska. We had a nice walk along the river and had some Copper River salmon at the Lodge’s restaurant.
Day 17. Gakona to McCarthy.
There were some expansive views of the Copper River on the way to McCarthy and it was a beautiful drive. We did not find the road difficult. Many of the outback roads in Australia are far worse.
When we checked into the McCarthy Lodge, we found our room to be tiny. The small ‘double sized’ bed was barely big enough to hold us and we are average size. The thin walls meant the footsteps woke me up every time other guests went to the bathroom or walked around in the room above. The room did not have bed lamps or power points in the room. The cost was quite expensive- $US183 per night and it was also the only accommodation in the whole of Alaska where we were charged extra for the internet and for breakfast. I wished we had stayed at the Kennicot Glacier Lodge which Frommer’s guide recommended. I had originally booked at the McCarthy Lodge because the hotel website said that some rental cars are allowed on the McCarthy Road if booked through the Lodge. As it turned out, we had no problems pre-booking a car through Enterprise Rentals at the Airport and getting permission to drive the road, but by this stage, I had already paid a deposit and when I raised the idea of staying only one night, we were told that no cancellation was possible. To be fair, the owner did offer to credit the amount for a future stay, but it is unlikely that I will be back into this part of Alaska. I admit that I am less interested in the history of McCarthy/ Kennicot than I am in the natural beauty of the park, and probably a history lover would find the lodge to be appealing but I just found it over-priced, inconvenient, and not conducive to sleep. However the accommodation was clean, the park was beautiful, wonderful hiking trails abounded, the drives in and out were very scenic, and we were glad we had made it to this area.
Day 18. McCarthy
We spent about five hours doing the half day day walk on Root Glacier with a Wrangell St Elias Alpine Guide. It was a fabulous experience - perfect weather for views of the glacier and mountains. The crampons took a little getting used to but the whole experience of walking on the snow-white glacier and seeing the deep blue crevices and streams of water disappearing into moulins, was exhilarating. Again we stayed at the McCarthy Lodge because we were unable to cancel. We went on a walk across the road bridge in the afternoon and saw more beautiful colours and mountains. The weather was clear all day.
Day 19 McCarthy
In the morning, we hiked the Bonanza Mine Trail. It was a long, steady and fairly strenuous uphill hike but worth the effort for the vistas. Again it was a clear, sunny day and the weather and fall colors made the day memorable. In the afternoon, we went on a 70 minute flight tour with McCarthy Air. The views of the glaciers were beautiful and it was historically interesting to fly in a four seater, 60 year old Cessna 180. I felt very safe with the pilot who did some pretty sharp turns at the heads of the glaciers and flew quite low for us to get good views. It was a bumpy, noisy ride without headphones and so it was not possible to converse in the way we had with our other sightseeing flights, but it was a wonderful experience and I gained some small idea about the scale and vastness of the mountains in the Wrangell St Elias National Park wilderness area. Another noisy and nearly sleepless night at McCarthy Lodge!
Day 20 McCarthy to Matanuska Glacier .
We drove back along the McCarthy Road and Glenn highway to the Sheep Mountain Lodge which was perfect for a night’s accommodation.. The log cabin in which we stayed was large, beautifully constructed, warm and inviting, with every modern convenience inside. The staff even arranged to do a large bag of laundry for us for $10. The restaurant at the lodge had not planned to be open in mid September but a large group booking made it suddenly possible to have an excellent meal of salad, salmon and wild rice and berry pie for only $24 plus wine and gratuity. The Lodge has ten miles of hiking trails and we walked on three of them- a total of about five miles-just enough exercise after a day of driving. The views of the mountains were marvelous. Just one more incredible day in Alaska!
Day 21 Matanuska Glacier
We left Sheep Mountain and drove straight to Anchorage. We had planned to stop at Hatcher Pass and a couple of other places but we decided to skip these stops as we had a few things that needed doing in Anchorage and we wanted to return the car without incurring an extra day. The drive was fantastic with the lower maintain sides colored yellow with fall foliage and some fresh snow on the peaks.
Day 21 Anchorage to Juneau
We caught the plane to Juneau and checked into the Westmark Baranoff Hotel. It is a typical chain hotel- comfortable but with no particular redeeming features. We had some good sashimi at the little Japanese restaurant diagonally opposite. We walked around the historical parts of the town. It rained and were feeling lazy so did not do a long hike.
Day 22 Board Ship.
Tomorrow we board the Inner Sea Discovery ship, for what they advertise as an ‘uncruise’ I am a bit nervous about the sea kayaking as I have never done it before but will write more when we have finished this next fourteen days of our adventure. Alaska, so far has been everything and more that I dreamed about and hoped for. Thanks again everyone for all of the help.