Alaska – The why and how
Alaska and I are the same age, both born in 1959, so we decided to celebrate our birthdays together this year. Alaska has been on my radar for a long time. It’s one of those places you hear only good things about (Sarah Palin excluded. More later about her.)
When I began planning our trip last year, I contemplated a cruise. I’m prone to seasickness and claustrophobia and the idea of being on a ship with thousands of people made me feel sweaty and a little sick to my stomach. That’s not a good sign when you are standing on solid ground in your own home. Also, the cost of the cruise with excursions and a trip to Denali exceeded our budget, so the cruise was out.
We wanted to have an outdoors experience, be able to cook our own meals and not have a set schedule. Both car rentals and hotels are expensive in Alaska so after a bit of research, we decided to fly to Anchorage and rent an RV. It was a perfect fit for us.
After a very long flight from Portland, Maine we arrived in Anchorage at 11pm (3am to our East Coast bodies). Even though it was one hour shy of midnight, it was still daylight! We grabbed a taxi and headed to the Great Alaskan Holidays RV rental facility where they had our RV all set up . Paying the RV rental for that day rather than a hotel saved us $150 and allowed us to take our RV as soon as they opened rather than waiting until late afternoon.Good deal!
Great Alaskan Holidays and ABC Motorhome are the two largest RV rental companies in Anchorage. Great Alaskan has a bigger fleet and I chose them mainly because ABC wanted the entire rental up front, where Great Alaskan required only a $500 deposit to book. Rental prices vary according to RV size, season and how early you book. I would recommend booking early as the smallest size RV was sold out by the time I got around to it.
Also to consider is the additional insurance offered. I usually deny it when renting a car because my credit card and personal auto insurance will cover. That’s not the case with an RV. Insurance is included but has a huge deductible and doesn’t cover windshields. In my reading I learned that Great Alaskan averages a broken windshield and an accident every day. It’s a gamble but I went to Alaska for peace and it was worth it for the peace of mind the policy provided.
We chose a 22 series RV which is 25′ long. It’s big enough to be very comfortable inside, gets fairly good gas mileage (for an RV) and is relatively easy to park versus a Class A school bus sized rig. It had a tip-out with a queen sized bed, a dinette that made into a bed, a bed over the cab and a full bath, good for a couple or a family. The toilet alone was worth the rental cost. Gotta go? Just pull off the road and take care of business. Good deal!
We were first in line when they opened, watched a short movie, dealt with the financial details and off we went.
First on the list was food. I had heard that everything in Alaska is expensive but was pleasantly surprised to find the cost of groceries in Anchorage the same as home. Fred Myer was our market of choice. It’s a Canadian chain with stores that are a cross between a Super Walmart and Target with everything we needed. The RV had a gas/electric refrigerator and freezer, a three burner stove and oven, a microwave, a generator and most important: a coffee maker, all the comforts of home. We also rented a portable gas grill. The initial food expense was high, but even if we were home, we’d still have to buy groceries, right? Most meals in a restaurant averaged $20, so made sense to cook our own food.
A word of warning: stock up as food prices are higher outside of the larger towns.
Next to tour Anchorage. By Maine standards it’s a big city with a population of over 300,000, but it has a small city feel. Rather than drive an RV around we did a trolley tour to get an overview of the city and its history. Anchorage began as a tent city to support construction of the Alaska railroad and grew from there.
I found most interesting the story of the The Good Friday Earthquake of 1964. At 9.2 on the Richter scale, it is the second strongest earthquake ever recorded. The city was decimated and an entire housing development was demolished in a landslide with many lives lost. The area is now Earthquake Park. You can walk trails with hill after hill and see how the once flat land was changed by the waves of the quake. It’s an eerie place. Families were comfortabe in their homes one minute and in the next minute their homes and their lives were gone.
On to the “camping” adventure!
When traveling with an RV in Alaska, reservations are needed only at Denali National Park and on the Kenai Peninsula during salmon season. I would add Talkeetna to that list since it was the one place that was full when we arrived. The reality is, you don’t even need a campground in Alaska. Many just pull off the road and since most RVs are self sufficient, you can easily get by with no facilities.
There are many private and state campgrounds in Alaska. The difference is mainly facilities and price. The private campgrounds are more expensive, usually have hook-ups of water, power, showers and toilets and even cable TV in places. The state run ones tend to be under $20 and in very beautiful places with few or no facilities.
The Traveler’s Guide is an excellent resource that lists campgrounds only and is arranged by highway. Before leaving Maine I made campground reservations for our first night in Portage, just an hour outside of Anchorage and in Denali for our last two nights. The six nights in between we were free to go where we wanted depending on weather and whim. Upon deciding a destination for that day, I’d highlight my top choices to stay and land at one of them at the end of our travels.
Along the way, I’d follow along our route with the Milepost book in hand. It is published annually and is a mile-by-mile guide of each of the major Alaskan highways and the Alcan, the 1,400 mile long Alaskan-Canadian highway. The Milepost book lists gas, lodging, dining, historical landmarks and other important information on each highway by mileage on that particular highway. Each highway has a numbered post every half mile, and each listing in the Milepost is listed by the location on that highway, for example, the Worthington Glacier is at milepost 28.7 of the Richardson Highway.
After loading up on groceries and touring Anchorage, we headed south toward the Kenai Peninsula. The highway follows the Turnagain Arm, a body of water named by Captain Bligh of HMS Bounty fame (insert mental images of a young Marlon Brando here). Under orders of Captain Cook, the Bounty was in search of the Northwest Passage and found yet another dead end, hence, Turnagain. The road follows the bay, surrounded by impressive mountains on each side. Of note, the Cook Inlet and the Arm have the second highest tides in the world at 40 feet; only the Bay of Fundy in New Brunswick is higher. When the tide is out, as it was when we passed, the bay is a mudflat and is prime feeding ground for bald eagles, the first of hundreds we would see on the Kenai Peninsula.
There are two big attractions in the Portage area: the Alyeska Resort in Girdwood and the Portage Glacier, neither of which we visited. Alyeska is a ski resort and the tram operates in the summer offering a great view of Turnagain Arm and the surrounding mountains. Unfortunately, it was a showery day and the upper half of the tram was enveloped in clouds. The Portage glacier has receded and can only be viewed from a boat now. I knew we would have more opportunity to see glaciers so we passed.
We went directly to our campground, Portage Valley Cabins and RV Park. The park is carved out of a bit of forest and is really just a gravel parking lot, but it was surrounded with beautiful snow-capped mountains. The park is basic but has a huge covered outdoor fireplace where campers gather every night.
I met three young people who had traveled from Montana with the promise of jobs, only to arrive to find that their job offers had fallen though. They were optimistic in spite of their circumstances and determined to stay and find other opportunities. With that attitude, I knew they would be successful.
I also met an Alaskan government cabinet member and learned a bit about Alaskan politics. Alaska is the only state in the union that has a Republican governor and a Democratic lieutenant governor. I found this remarkable in the current era of partisan politics.
No conversation about Alaska politics is complete without a discussion of Alaska’s most famous politician, Sarah Palin. According to my fireside source, she had much promise, but ended up being a supreme embarrassment to the state and he admitted he had voted for her for governor, so I understood this wasn’t just political opinion speaking.
Like nearly state in the lower 48, Alaska is in financial trouble. In spite of its wealth of oil, the state is deeply in the red. Oil prices have dropped and revenues are no longer enough to support the state’s needs. There was talk of discontinuing the resident stipend and adding income tax for the first time ever, neither popular options. Oil is the number one industry in Alaska; tourism is number two. We were happy to contribute to the latter.
The RV park sits in the midst of the Chugach National Forest. At nearly ,6,000,000 acres, it is the second largest national forest in the US. The largest? Tongass National Forest in Alaska, of course (largest in the US… you will see a recurring theme throughout). Hundreds of miles of trails weave through the forest. In the Portage area, the Trail of Blue Ice is one of the most popular. The five mile, one way gravel and paved trail connects the glaciers of Portage Valley. The weather was not cooperative for me to check it out, but if inclined, bikes can be rented at the RV park. Just be cautious of bears on the trail.
Seward and the City of Kenai
I knew very little about Seward, except that it is the gateway to Kenai Fjords National Park and I LOVE national parks, so this was a must-see. It is the stepping off point for many glacier sightseeing boat excursions. I had Prince William sound in mind for that so we chose to visit the aquarium instead.
While I am not a big fan of enclosed animals, I respect that their goal is to rescue, educate and promote conservation. The Alaska Sea Life Center has a very good salmon display and also a good bird enclosure where we got to see puffins up close and learn about conservation efforts throughout the state.They also had rescued sea otters; what’s not to love about that? We left educated and more dedicated. Goal achieved.
Seward is the terminus of many Alaskan cruises, so it was a typical cruise ship town with many souvenir shops. Luckily the ship in port had already discharged its passengers to buses and was awaiting the next group to arrive, so the town was remarkably quiet. There is a lovely waterfront where we parked and took in our first good views of the grandeur that is coastal Alaska. I would have been happy to camp right there, but since it was not an option we moved on.
Just outside of Seward is Exit Glacier. It is the only glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park that is accessible by road. As we drove in from the main highway, we saw numbered posts and after about the the third, I realized that the numbers were actually dates showing the recession of the glacier through the years. Since 1815 it has receded 1.25 miles and 187 feet last year alone!
We made our way to our destination for the night, the Beluga Lookout RV Park in the City of Kenai. The RV park is located high on a bluff overlooking the Cook Inlet and the mouth of the Kenai River. The RV park earns its name as an excellent place to spot beluga whales as they feed on salmon migrating to the Kenai river. We chose a site right on the edge of the bluff to have the best view. Unfortunately the weather was not on our side. The wind was up and if there were whales out there we couldn’t see them in the rough water.
What we missed in whale sightings we more than made up with eagles. Winds that come off the water and up the bluff make a perfect place for young eagles to practice riding air currents. At any given time there were 6-12 young and adult bald eagles soaring not far over our heads. They seemed to expend no effort, not flapping their wings, just an occasional dip of a wing to adjust their ride; grace and beauty in motion.
The beach below the bluff is prime territory for salmon netting. Each year in mid-June, Alaska residents are allowed to dip net salmon as they make their run to spawn in the Kenai River. Each head of household is allowed 25 fish and every family member 10. The shore and river banks are lined with people, so you can see why camping reservations are essential during fishing season. Many families preserve the fish right at their campsites so presence of so many eagles is understandable.
History abounds in Kenai. The city was established in 1791 by Russian fur traders. Just around the corner from the RV park is Holy Assumption of the Virgin Mary Russian Orthodox Church. The simple wooden building with traditional onion domes is a national landmark and is the oldest Russian Orthodox Church in Alaska. While the church was locked when we were there, it is still an active church with services on Saturday evening and Sunday morning.
The Sterling Highway (Rte 1) to Homer
Route 1 follows the west coast of the Kenai Peninsula allowing spectacular views of the Cook Inlet and the mountains across the bay. Most impressive is Mt. Redoubt, the 10,000′ cone shaped volcano. It last erupted in 2009 and the ash fall reached as far away as Anchorage where it forced a temporary airport closure.
Another Russian Orthodox church can be found on Route 1 in the village of Ninilchik. The Holy Transfiguration of Our Lord Chapel sits on a high bluff above the village. Built in 1901, the church is similar in structure to the one in Kenai, but has a cemetery too. Each grave site has its own white picket fence and a three bar Orthodox cross. The bluff has some of the best views of Mount Redoubt and is one of the most photographed places in Alaska. Aside from the eagles soaring overhead, we were the only visitors there and enjoyed a quiet and remarkably peaceful moment.
Homer is the end of the road, literally. It is the terminus of the Sterling Highway, and as if not quite finished, the road continues 4.5 miles on a narrow spit of land jutting out into the Pacific barely above sea level. With Kachemak Bay on one side and the Cook Inlet on the other, the views from the spit are the stuff of National Geographic photos. Imagine: bald eagles lining rocky beaches, blue, blue water, even bluer skies, 360 degree views of snow-capped mountains ladened with glaciers that run from ridge to sea and some of the clearest, cleanest air you will even draw into your lungs.
Homer is known as the Halibut Fishing Capitol of the World and, as expected, is all about fishing, but it is so much more. You can book trips for flightseeing and bear viewing at Katmai and Lake Clark National Parks, arrange a sea taxi to Kachemak Bay State Park, take a sea kayaking trip or hike one of the many trails in the area.
We shopped for halibut and were surprised to find the prices the same as home. A similar experience that visitors to Maine find with our lobster, I suppose.
Homer is also known as Alaska’s Arts Capital. The town has a unique vibe that happens when artsy meets outdoorsy. It’s my kind of town (insert smiley face here). In one square mile, I visited:
- The Bunnell Street Arts Center which featured an exhibit of very fine metal sculpture
- The earthy, heavenly, home baked bread scented Two Sisters Bakery (lemon cookie and ballistic coffee, thank you very much)
- The Pratt Museum with displays of local culture and natural history and a very informative exhibit on the Exxon Valdez oil spill
- The US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Alaska Islands & Ocean Visitor Center for the Alaska Maritime Wildlife Refuge. The refuge consists of 3.4 million acres of some of remotest islands and shore land in Alaska. The visitors center highlights conservation efforts and its displays and film are very well done and free!
There are several places to camp on the spit and I had considered it… briefly. I have a confession to make. I am a worst case scenario person. In any situation, my mind instantly goes to the worst thing that could go wrong and seeks a solution. Camping on land 1′ above sea level? Worst case scenario: tsunami. Solution? Don’t camp on land 1′ above sea level. Ocean View RV Park in the town of Homer was situated on a hill well above the beach. Did we miss anything? This was our view out the camper door. Not much, I would say.
A word here about those white flowers you see in the foreground of the above picture. Beware! It’s cow parsnip (called pushki locally) and is highly poisonous. It is related to the giant hogweed we have in Maine. The flower looks like a giant Queen Anne’s lace that grows up to 10′ tall. If you brush the plant and then are exposed to light, you will experience symptoms as bad or worse than poison ivy. It is EVERYWHERE on the Kenai Peninsula! I asked a ranger at the Island and Ocean Visitors Center about it and he hauled up his pant legs to show me his scars. That alone was enough to convince me to stay away.
Homer to Cooper Landing to Whittier
Decision time: where to from here? A friend had strongly suggested we drive the Richardson Highway (the road to Valdez) as it is one of the most scenic drives in America. The drive from Homer to Valdez was 521 miles (9.5 hours) and then we would have to turn around and drive a lot of that same highway again to get to Denali.
A better option for us was to take the ferry to Valdez instead. The state of Alaska runs an extensive ferry service from Bellingham, Washington through the Inside Passage and Prince William Sound and down to the Aleutian Islands. Ferries are a necessity in Alaska. Many small communities are accessible by ferry only and some not so small ones too; if you want to visit Juneau, the capital of Alaska you need to travel by air or ferry. There are no roads to Juneau. Only in Alaska!
The ferry fare for two passengers and the RV was $350 which seemed like a lot at first. We originally were going to do a glacier boat tour out of Whittier that cost $150 per person, so the ferry trip wasn’t that much more. We would not have the up-close glacier experience we’d have on a tour, but would still see many glaciers and have the experience of being out on the water.
There is a ferry that ports in Homer, but it services the Aleutians so the best option for us was to drive to Whittier. We backtracked and followed the Sterling Highway out of Homer to that night’s destination: The Kenai Princess Lodge RV Park in Cooper Landing.
The lodge is one of five that Princess Cruise Lines (queue the Love Boat theme song) runs as an optional add-on to their Alaska Cruises. The RV park was built to house seasonal lodge workers, but they rent out empty spots to the public. As a guest you have access to the lodge and its facilities. We checked it all out, but what we were most interested in was its proximity to the pristine Kenai River. A steep road (for foot traffic only) leads you down to a platform at river’s edge. Just a week later, the river would be teeming with salmon and with fisherman on the banks in search of the perfect pool to hook a king, sockeye or coho. All was quiet for the moment though, and we watched river flow.
Cooper Landing to Valdez via Prince William Sound
We were scheduled for a 12:45 ferry sailing so we got an early start. Whittier is tiny town, but is a busy cruise ship port, a fishing village, the base for glacier sightseeing boats and the terminus of the Alaska Railroad. To get there you must pass through the one-way Whittier Tunnel. When you arrive at the tunnel you pay a toll, get in line and wait your turn. The tunnel is also used by trains, so when inside you drive on top of the recessed rails. This is an improvement over the days when you had to drive your vehicle on a flat bed train car and be transported through the tunnel by train.
When you pop out of the tunnel, the view is spectacular.
My only concern: 30 mph winds! There was big chop on the water and I had major worries about rough seas and seasickness. I was relieved when a ferry terminal worker told us that inlet was like a wind tunnel and once we entered Prince William Sound the wind would die down. Phew!
Once again we got in line, our RV was measured and inspected, our propane tanks were shut off and we surrendered our small propane gas grill tanks. Soon the ferry pulled into dock and we were instructed to drive down the ramp and board the ship for our eight hour sail. It was a bit eerie driving a vehicle so large on what seemed like a not-so-large ship, but we had no problems and plenty of room to park. The ferry had airplane-like seating, a full dining room and plenty of outside space to hang out.
We pushed off and were launched into an Alaskan marine wonderland. In minutes, we spotted several large glaciers and got an understanding why so many opt for an Alaska cruise as their vacation of choice. As predicted, when we entered the Prince William sound, the wind died down. The sail was as smooth as sitting in your favorite recliner in your living room. I bought a map on board and we followed along with the big screen GPS map as we cruised. At one point, we spied Dall’s porpoises bow riding in the waves along side of the ship. The highlight of the trip was the Columbia Glacier and the icebergs that had calved from it. The glacier is one of the most rapidly receding glaciers in the world with a loss of nearly 15 miles of ice since the 1980s, but it is expected to stabilize by 2020.
The luck of the beautiful day continued when we heard an announcement that since there were no passengers for the village of Tatitlek, our voyage would be shortened by two hours and we would arrive at 7pm instead of 9pm.
As we cruised into Valdez harbor, on port side we saw the tank farm that stored oil from the Alaska pipeline. It was a thrill for hubby to see as he has worked in the petroleum refining and storage industry as part of his long and varied career as a welder / pipefitter / quality manager / construction site manager. The 14 massive tanks have a storage capacity of 7 million barrels of oil or nearly 300 million gallons of oil. That is a lot of oil!
We departed the ship and made our way to the Eagles Rest RV Park, our stop for the night. The place was busy and we were parked right next to the office. It seemed like a good idea, to be close to the showers and laundry room, but our bedroom window was only feet away from all the vehicles coming in all hours of the night. Lucky for us there is something in the air in Alaska that made us sleep like we were on drugs. Sun setting at 11pm? No problem. Go to bed at 9 and sleep like a log all night. Zzzzzz!
Valdez to Tolsona (The Richardson Highway to Glennallen)
We packed up early and headed out. First stop: a closer look at the Alyeska Pipeline and tank farm. Unfortunately the pipeline is not visible in the Valdez area and the general public is not allowed too close to the tanks, but I did get a picture of Hubs at the sign. Close enough.
Also on the Daysville Road is the Solomon Gulch Fish Hatchery. I thought this might be a good opportunity to see salmon, but the outside tanks were empty.
What I did see? Plenty of warning signs. Worst case scenario Karen alert!
- Tsunami alert: Run like hell and drive to higher ground.
- Flood alert: just behind you over that hill is a huge man made hydro power lake. In the event of a strong earthquake (which happened in the not so distant past), the walls of the dam will rupture and billions of gallons of water will wash you clear to China. Please note the last few lines: “Because the dam is so nearby, evacuation should be immediate. There will be very little time between failure of the dam and the arrival of a flood wave at this site.” No time to take pictures Nana! Get in the damn car!
- Bear alert: Where there are salmon, there are bears. Bears will eat you.
- If you doubt there are bears, just look at the bear prints in the concrete.
- Also there is a small oil refinery that makes jet fuel at the head of the road. Beware of explosions!
- The vibrant neon flashing sign in my head: this may be the most dangerous place in Alaska! Drive away. NOW!
The Richardson Highway
Alaska is beyond beautiful. If challenged to name the most scenic place, the Richardson Highway between Valdez and Glennallen would be high on the list. It has it all from ocean to waterfalls to an up-close glacier to views of some of the biggest mountains in North America all in a 120 mile drive. My advice: don’t miss it!
Not far out of Valdez the road climbs to Keystone Canyon with its sheer cliffs on each side. Beyond the cliffs are great mountains. Where there are snow-capped mountains, there is snow melt. The snow melt forms rivers and a few of those eventually spill over the canyon rim. The most spectacular displays on the Richardson are Horsetail Falls and Bridal Veil Falls, both in close proximity to each other and to the road. The flow is so impressive that you need to clean the windshield from the resulting spray as you drive by.
We momentarily closed our jaws and continued to climb to Thompson Pass. The summit of pass is the highest elevation on the highway and has the claim of being the snowiest place in Alaska. While there were patches of snow left here and there, the inverted ‘L-shaped’ snow plow guide poles on both sides of the road were a good indication that the reputation was well deserved. The road curves and twists as it climbs and descends. I regret that we didn’t stop for pictures, but if you can imagine Julie Andrews singing “the hills are alive…” in the movie The Sound of Music, that’s what Thompson Pass looks like. Close jaw, move on.
Just when I didn’t think it could get any better, there was Worthington Glacier. You can’t miss it. It’s massive and very close to the road, actually one of the few glaciers left in Alaska that can be accessed by paved road. There are paved sidewalks up to an observation deck, but that was not close enough for us. We scooted around and found the unofficial trail up to the toe of the glacier and got very close, as is in hands on ice close. What an incredible experience!
And if the pics aren’t enough, check out the video:Worthington Glacier Waterfalls
We reluctantly drove on and soon began to see the Alyeska Oil pipeline running along side the road. Say what you will about its environmental impact, but from an engineering and construction standpoint, the pipeline is magnificent. The 800 mile pipeline took 7 years and 70,000 workers to build in some of the harshest conditions on earth. Many came to Alaska to work on the pipeline and never left. They are the the latest generation of rugged souls that make Alaska the unique place it is.
Speaking of rugged, it doesn’t get much more rugged than Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. We had spectacular views of the park and its peaks from a pull off on the Richardson Highway. America’s largest national park (the size of six Yellowstones) is so wild there is only one 50 mile road in its entirety. It’s an all day trip on a very bad road and one we were not allowed to do with an RV so we had to enjoy from afar and enjoy we did. We parked and pulled out some chairs and sat and took it all all in.
Ten miles down the road, we left the Richardson Highway at the town of Glennallen. The big attraction seemed to be a massive truck stop. Hubby filled the fuel tank and I wandered around. Apparently most of the town is permafrost, so many buildings including the DMV and a Wells Fargo bank were built on pilings rather than a foundation. It was the first bank I’ve ever seen with a gravel drive-thru, real Alaska for sure.
Final stop: Tolsona Wilderness Campground. It came highly recommended and for good reason. Most campgrounds in Alaska are essentially parking lots. Not so here. Nearly every site was on the creek and all are wooded and private. We even had our campsite ‘christened’ by a mystery moose who left us a big pile of poop. My only complaint: it was our first real encounter with the dreaded Alaskan mosquito. So far we had been lucky, but our luck ran out. Out came the long sleeves, pants and Deet. They weren’t horrific, but enough to cut our campfire time short. We could still hear the creek from inside the camper snug in our bed, safe from the hungry mosquitoes.
Tolsona to Willow
Glenn Highway day. Of all the highways we drove, the Glenn was in the worst condition. That may be because we drove through miles of permafrost area which can’t be good for roads. Permafrost is earth that never thaws completely. You can tell by the stunted tree growth.
We were on a mission this day: get groceries and get within striking distance of Denali. Our only stop of the day was Matanuska Glacier at mile 101. The closest public viewing is the state park there. There are opportunities to get closer but on private land with fees. We opted for the Edge Nature Trail in the state park with overlooks to the glacier and the braided river that flows from it. I had never heard the term before, but braided rivers are shallow channels in gravel beds that split off and rejoin each other with a braided appearance.
As we finished our walk, we met a couple who asked us about the trail. They were locals who live in Wasilla and were headed to Valdez in the opposite direction that we had just come. They gushed appreciation for their beautiful state and graciously welcomed us and even offered to let us park our RV in their driveway and camp for the night. We declined the offer but told them if they ever came to Maine, we would have lobster waiting for them. Such nice people.
After a quick stop for groceries in Palmer, just north of Anchorage, we hopped on the last of our highways: the Parks Highway which connects Anchorage and Fairbanks. Although it passes through Denali National Park, it is actually named for George Parks, an early Alaskan governor.
Our destination for the night was the town of Talkeetna ten miles off the highway, but when we arrived we found out the RV park was full. I tried begging, hoping they could park us in a corner with no hookups, but no luck. We did a quick drive through the town. I would love to have stopped but hubby was ready to settle for the night so we moved on. Talkeetna is a tiny town that is a mix of touristy shops, rustic restaurants and many outdoor outfitters where you can pick up gear and make arrangements for flightseeing/landings of Denali, ziplining, whitewater trips and other adventures. It is also the jumping off point for Denali summit teams. I made a mental note to come back to Talkeetna but with reservations the next time.
We backtracked to the highway to a RV park in Willow that we had passed earlier. There are two separate campgrounds, one on each side of the highway on the south side of the Montana River. On the left is a state campground with no hookups and on the right is a private one. Hubby wanted hookups so we opted for the private one and only after paying we found out their only service was electricity. They had a hose so we could fill our water tank and were told we could dump at a gas station ten miles down the road. We were tired, so OK, whatever.
After dinner we went for a walk to check out the river and other campground. There is a large walk-through culvert that connects the two so you do not need to cross the busy highway. We no sooner got through the culvert when we were followed by a young bull moose who seemed quite interested in us. I wasn’t sure what to do, but didn’t want to run, so we slowly moved toward some of the campers hoping someone would let us in if need be. The moose turned off into the woods though. Phew!
We headed out in the morning in search of the dumping station which was at a local convenience store. The surly clerk told us there was a $10 fee, which we declined. The lady at the RV park made it sound like it was free. Lesson learned. I googled and found out Denali had a free dump station so no worries. No story about RV camping is complete without some discussion of emptying your poop tank. Now you know. End discussion.
Advice from me: unless you desperately need electricity (we had a generator and didn’t), go to the State campground across the street and save yourself $20. It’s actually nicer too. Just watch out for moose.
Denali National Park
I’ve read a lot about the park and seen many pictures, but they did not scratch the surface of how big and how wild and how magical Denali National Park really is.
The magic begins with peeks of Denali as you drive along the George Parks Highway. Denali, formerly known as Mt. McKinley, is the highest peak in North America and is massive. At 20,310 feet, it stands head and shoulders above all its surrounding peaks and there is no doubt what you are looking at when you see it.
The park and preserve are huge too: at over 6 million acres, it is the third largest national park in the United States. The first? Wrangell St. Elias in Alaska. The second? Gates of the Arctic in Alaska. Of the top ten, seven of the ten biggest are in Alaska. Big state, big parks.
There are six campgrounds along the 92 mile Denali Park Road. Only Riley Creek at Mile 0.25, Savage River at mile 14 and Teklanika at mile 29 are open to both RVs and tents. All others are tent only. Each campground has specific regulations for minimum and maximum night stays. I urge you to read the Denali National Park Campground web site carefully before booking.
I chose the Riley Creek mainly because it is the area where the action is: educational programs, visitors center, dog kennels, etc. We arrived early and had our choice of campsites, but learned they were full for the entire weekend so were very happy to have booked ahead.
Even though the campground was full and the park was busy, it really didn’t feel overcrowded like some places I’ve been (Yosemite NP, Arches NP). A lot of that has to do with how fiercely the National Park Service has worked to keep Denali natural and wild. Private vehicles are permitted only to mile 14 of the park road, unless you are camping at one of the campgrounds. Beyond that you must travel by plane, bus, bike or foot. Since there are grizzlies on that road, only the very brave and the very foolish use the last two modes of transportation.
There are free shuttle buses that connect the campground with all the points in the lower part of of the park. Beyond the 14 mile point, bus trips must be booked in advance and they are not cheap. There are two options: Shuttle buses and Denali Park tours. Green Shuttle buses are basic point A to point B transportation and the less expensive option. If time allows, the driver will briefly stop for wildlife photos, but it is not a narrated tour. The tan Denali Park Tours are narrated with a focus on the history, culture, and geography of the park and are more expensive. There are several tour options that vary in time and price. Since it was our birthday (me and Alaska) and since it was unlikely I would return any time soon, I decided to go for the gusto and book the narrated Tundra Wilderness tour for the next day.
That done, we went to visitors center and wandered around and watched the film and checked out the exhibits. I was totally fascinated by the story of the first climbers to reach the summit of Mt. McKinley.
The displays told the story of those men: “Episcopal Archdeacon Harry Stuck was captivated with Mt. McKinley. In 1913, he recruited dog musher Harry Karstens, future superintendent of the park, to lead an attempt on Mt. McKinley’s south peak. Stuck and Karstens teamed up with two young men, Robert Tatum, a worker at the Episcopal mission and Walter Harper, a part Athabaskan who served as who served as Stuck’s interpreter. None of the four had climbed a mountain before. The party suffered setbacks; an earthquake shattered a ridge on their route; storms immobilized them; food and food and equipment were lost to fire. But their tenacity was rewarded when they succeeded where eight other parties failed. 83 days after setting out, Harper was the first to summit, others followed.”
One thing glaringly stood out in my mind: none of the men had climbed a mountain before. Let’s put this in perspective: one hundred years later, only the fittest mountaineers attempt Denali with guides and the best high tech clothing and gear and over half of them fail. Over 100 people have lost their lives in the attempt. This speaks volumes for the determination and grit of these men.
Sled dogs are still used in the park today. The park maintains a kennel and breeds dogs for winter patrols. The kennel is open to the public and they do demonstrations several times a day. We were allowed to visit with the dogs first. Most are mellow but that changes as soon as they are put in a harness and it’s work time. They jump and bark impatiently waiting for the command ‘mush” and off they go!
It is not unusual to see wildlife in the campgrounds, and I had my own up close encounter. I decided to go for a walk after dinner and only made it a hundred yards when I was waved down by a couple in the cab of their parked RV. They warned me of a cow and calf moose nearby. I could see the calf in the woods behind the RV and decided to walk the other way. Before I had time to turn around, the cow walked out from behind the camper. Maybe it was the proximity, but it was the biggest moose I have ever seen in my life, and I’ve seen my fair share. I sent mental messages of love and respect for the big girl and her young one and then slowly turned and eased my way back to our RV. When I flew in the door, eyes as big as half dollars, hubby wondered why I came back so quickly. It was the second night in a row, my evening walk was cut short by a moose!
In keeping with the wild and natural theme, the campsites have no utilities and there are restricted generator hours. I like this idea. Who wants to hear a bunch of generators running nonstop in a national park? Our only concern: coffee! We had an electric coffee maker and couldn’t turn the generator on until 8 am. We are early risers and serious coffee drinkers so it was time for creative thinking. In the evening we made a pot of coffee and put in a pot with a cover. In the morning we just turned on the burner and voila! Hot coffee!
Full of coffee and ready to roll, we met our bus at the Wilderness Access Center. The bus was a basic school bus but the seats were tour bus style – a good thing for an all day tour. Unfortunately some windows would not stay closed. It was cold and rainy at times but it warmed as the day went on and we survived. Our driver and guide is a naturalist that has worked, hiked and camped in the park for over thirty years. As we made our way deeper into the park, he told us of its history, that it was the vision of a game hunter, Charles Sheldon, to create a preserve for Dall Sheep. It is the only national park in the US created specifically for that purpose.
We learned about the ‘big five’ that Denali visitors hope to see: grizzly bears, moose, caribou, Dall Sheep and if very, very lucky, wolves. We also learned of conservation efforts including closing the park road to private vehicles to reduce impact on the park.
It wasn’t long before we had our first photo op, a herd of caribou in a field. My camera wasn’t good enough to take decent pictures, but the bus was fitted with video screens. The guide used a video camera to zoom in so we were able to get an up close view. I was thrilled to see caribou as I had never seen them in the wild. In the late 80’s there was an effort to reintroduce them to Maine, and we went to see them at their pens at the UMO. Unfortunately, the experiment failed, but I was happy to see them thriving in Denali.
A little further down the road, someone spotted movement on a far hillside. Our driver stopped and zoomed his camera in on a grizzly sow and her two cubs. I am scared – no terrified – of bears, but this was an incredible moment, to see them in their natural environment. Mom foraged for food and the cubs romped and played and even stood up and looked at us. Moments later, momma grizzly leaned back and the cubs began to nurse. It’s a rare sight and I felt so lucky witness it.
We drove on and soon encountered Dall Sheep balancing on the steep sides of the mountains. I had never heard of Dall sheep but they look similar to the big horned sheep of the Colorado Rockies, if that helps. They moved jumping from rock to rock on the steep cliffs without a concern. The lambs were as nimble as the adults. These creatures were the catalyst for creating this national park. I silently thanked them.
Within a short time, we saw three of the ‘big five’. We learned that there only about 50 wolves in the park today and the likelihood of seeing one was very low. We also did not see moose, but I’d already had my own personal viewing the night before so I was all set. We did see a large heard of caribou and another grizzly though. None of the encounters were close which secretly pleased me. It seemed wilder that way. If they were close, it would have seemed somehow like a zoo.
In Polychrome Pass, the road is a narrow shelf on the side of a mountain with no guard rails and very steep drop offs, like 700 feet steep! On the trip up, the bus was on the inside so it didn’t seem too bad. Not so on the way back. I moved to the other side of the bus so not to look over the edge and was still nervous as hell. And then the bus driver stopped the bus and said,”I am going to have to do a maneuver that is a little scary. I have to bring the front tire of the bus to the very edge so that I can see around the corner. If I meet a vehicle on the turn, I have to do an even scarier maneuver known as backing up.” Gulp. I closed my eyes and said my prayers. We made it, but I was left wondering why this road didn’t have traffic lights or the bus radios or some way to do this without taking years off my life in worry.
In spite of my nerves and the misty weather, it was impossible to not appreciate in Polychrome Pass. The multicolored bluffs are one of the most photographed areas in the park and for good reason. It is also a popular area for hiking. Click HERE for a great picture of the the Pass and a bus on the previously mentioned corner. Both impressive.
I have never been in a place like Denali. The Maine woods are remote and wild, but nothing like this. On our trip to mile 55 , the terrain changed from forested land to tundra to open valleys and far off mountains. We only drove part of the 92 mile road. I imagine it only got better. Other than the buses we met and our rest stops, there was no sign of man. Everything seemed as it was when the park was created a hundred years ago, tundra, mountains, glaciers, valleys, rivers, flora and fauna. In the mist and light rain of that day, it felt almost eerie in its isolation. It was perfect. What would it be like on a sunny day? I left with the utmost respect of those who foresaw the need to preserve this magical place and those who have fought so hard to keep it wild.
Denali to Anchorage
Last day in Alaska. We packed up and did the obligatory national park sign picture and headed south to Anchorage on Parks Highway. Since we took the same highway up to Denali nothing was new, but I tried to look at everything with different eyes, eyes that had been opened with awe in the last ten days. We stopped at The Alaskan Veterans Memorial in Denali State Park (yes, both a state and national park) and had lunch at the Montana Creek State Campground. No sign of our friend the young bull moose though.
We made our way to Anchorage to drop our things at the airport hotel and then returned the motor home. That should have been the end of the story, but I like to squeeze every opportunity out of every opportunity, so I nudged hubby to take a walk along the shore of Lake Hood to take a look at the seaplane base there. Since there are no roads in much of Alaska, many areas can be accessed only by float plane. It would make sense that the float plane base there is the largest and busiest in the world. We watched planes come and go and wondered what adventures they were on.
We ate the only restaurant meal of our entire vacation at our hotel. I expected it to be microwaved frozen food but it was great! Way to go Courtyard Anchorage Airport!
Our flight left at the crack of dawn: 530 am (actually dawn was two hours previous). We had one last gorgeous view of Denali from the terminal and off we flew. We went home via Minneapolis and Detroit and it was a shorter and much easier flight. Keep that in mind if you are booking. We arrived in Portland at 10pm, but it was only 6pm to our Alaska acclimated brains so we drove straight home. As the saying goes, there’s no place like home, and it’s true, but, for sure, there’s no place like Alaska.
I recently heard Alaska described as a living pop-up book. Turn the page. Around each corner there is a new dramatic panorama that rises in front of you, each better than the last. That’s what Alaska is like, really.
It was a dream come true to experience it all. I’m so happy to have shared it with my husband who loved it as much as I did. We arrived with just carry-on suitcases and lived in jeans, sweatpants and sweatshirts. Hubby didn’t shave the entire time, and we never turned on the TV. We ate food we loved, played cribbage every night and talked more than we had in a long time. We had few specific plans and took each day as it came. We were different people in Alaska, rested in spite of not resting… at peace. Alaska does that to a person. We both agree we’d go back in a minute and do it all over again.
1959 was a very good year. I was born that year, the last child in my family, and the US welcomed its last state into the union. I like to say that my parents and our nation saved the best for last
# We traveled to Alaska in June of 2016 #