Alaska -- The last frontier?
In the past 30 years, we have visited Alaska 6 times and been to
places vacationers go. Many think of Alaska as a once in a
lifetime trip, but
it needn't be -- no more trouble and not much more cost than flying
other state but more different and interesting. What follows
attempt at a practical travel guide from our experience.
Alaska is a long way from anywhere else and getting there is half
fun. You have a lot of options.
- Drive the Alaska Highway. This is 2,000 miles of great
scenery, but most folks will have to drive at least 2000 miles
just to get to
it. Almost all of it is now paved, but the time required
this out of range for a 2 week vacation for most.
- Cruise. This is probably the most popular option, and
simplifies your planning since they can do it all for you.
also the best option if you want "civilized" lodging and
You are constrained though to being with several thousand
strangers and keeping the ship's timetable, which is less
weather and wildlife than the alternatives. A friend
recently said that a cruise is like an appetizer -- you get a
taste of what it's like but not much of the real thing.
- Fly/drive. You can fly to anchorage and rent a vehicle
there. There is good competition among carriers from many
and reasonable, though not bargain level fares for a 3,000 mile
Flying in on a clear day is the best way to see how vast
landscape is and how little of it has been built on.
- The Marine highway/ferry system. You can ride the ferry
from Seattle to Haines, and from Valdez or Seward all the way to
aleutians. (The two systems usually don't connect, so you
drive the thousand miles in between.) This isn't a quick
option, requires reservations and planning, and isn't cheap, but
best way to see the "panhandle" other than a cruise.
service is limited, though, staying in port when the ferry moves
means staying a few days for the next trip.
Cars and RVs reach a small part of the state with contiguous roads.
Most are paved, but many of the more interesting ones are
Alaskan gravel is much rougher than in the Midwest -- coarse
sharp rocks that eat tires. Rental car companies restrict you
from driving ordinary cars on gravel, but gravel is impossible to
avoid entirely as many driveways and parking lots are gravel.
The real problem is those useless mini-tires they put on
cars now. Before venturing something like the road to
consider how comfortable you are being 50 miles from the nearest
with a flat and only a mini-tire. Also control your speed and
spacing to avoid a windshield strike. Construction is another
hazard worth noting. In the eastern US, construction usually
means only a detour on paved road, a lane reduction, or a short
for a one lane bridge. In Alaska it often means destroying 10
road and routing traffic over mud and rough gravel, one direction at
time. That means delays of 30 minutes to an hour are not
uncommon. Plan for this in travel times and bathroom stops.
If you drive, get the current edition of the Alaska Milepost.
It's gotten more commercial, with ads for businesses, but
has mile by mile descriptions of all the roads including where the
turnouts are, what businesses are there, and comments on road
surface and construction plans.
Roads in Alaska go by name more than number:
- The Glenn Highway. This runs across the state
Tok to Anchorage. Most is in good shape. The section
Anchorage is the only real divided highway in Alaska. The
from Palmer to Glenallen goes through the mountains with close
mountain and glacier views, and has more frost heaves.
- The Parks Highway. This one runs from Palmer to
Fairbanks past Denali and is the way most people drive to the
It's relatively flat and in good condition. There
great views of Denali well south of the park along this road,
once you get past a long stretch stoplights and businesses north
- The Richardson Highway Runs from Fairbanks to Valdez
parallel to the trans alaska pipeline. It's not as highly
traveled as the ones above and has sections that are in bad
(frost heaves), but has a lot of spectacular scenery where the
crosses the Alaska range and the Chugach Mountains near Valdez..
It also provides access to several places you
can see the pipeline and interpretive displays on its
- The Seward Highway. This runs from Anchorage to
Seward . The first 40 miles south of anchorage run at the
tall cliffs along Turnagin arm of Cook Inlet. The rest
through the mountains with many great views.
- The Sterling Highway. This branches off the
highway in the mountains and runs along the Kenai river to the
(great fishing), and down the coast to Homer. Most of this
does not have close up
scenery, only distant mountain views.
- The Denali Highway. Not the road in Denali park,
a road built from the Richardson Highway to near Paxon that
access to the park before the Parks highway was added.
infrequently traveled gravel road. Spectacular scenery,
- The Dalton Highway. This is the road to the oil
operations in Prudoe bay. You can now drive it, though
miles of dusty gravel shared with oil production equipment and
limited services. Supposed to have dramatic views of
and the north slope though.
- The McCarthy road. This is the last 60 miles of
land route to the towns of McCarthy and Kennecott,
copper mining towns, and runs over rough gravel on an old
(watch for spikes). The one time we attempted it the
was so severe we didn't think
our vehicle would make it and turned back after a few miles.
bus service on the road to McCarthy as well as scheduled and
as an alternative. If you have nerves, tires, and buns of
supposed to be quite an experience.
Alaska has one train line with limited service from Anchorage to
and Fairbanks, To Seward, and to Whittier. It's mainly a tourist
with a lot of trips sold as part of tours. The railroad
parallel the highways giving you access to some scenery that can't
from the road.
Many destinations can only be reached by air, usually by single
float planes landing on lakes. Hiring them isn't difficult,
of them as long distance taxis. It isnt always cheap.
is also scheduled service on small planes to many small cities that
a bit cheaper than hiring a plane. Don't expect to recognize
carrier or get an in flight meal
The Ferry, mentioned above, provides the primary access to most of
Alaska not connected by roads. While they aren't frequent, the
service is quite usable. Passengers can often get on without
but sleeping cabins require reservations), but vehicles need to be
well in advance at peak season. The ferries in summer visit a
the same places that tour operators go and include wildlife viewing
in some spots, so you get the added bonus of a tour. The boats
large and stable.
In some areas "water taxis", provide access to hiking or to small
communities. These can be anything from 100 foot power yachts
row boats with motors,
so inquire what kind of boat you will be on and what kind of
will need, and whether or not the landing will be at a dock or
may need to wade ashore.
Tour boats -- Popular areas like Kenia Fijords or Columbia Glacier
tours that depart and return from the same place. Not
but usually a great way to see watery areas of the state.
If you visit in summer, expect days in the 60's to 70's in the
at the coast), and night time temperatures in the 40's. We
told that there is less rain along the coast in May and early June
but going that early you will find snow at higher elevations that
your options for hiking and wildlife viewing. Mainly we have
most days are partly cloudy with occasional drizzle or light rain,
so than others. Just carry something waterproof and a light
One thing that visitors should be aware of is that Glaciers are
Standing in front of one or anywhere near one, especially on a
is like walking into a freezer. Many people are unprepared for
cold and driven inside or away from some of the best views.
The Midnight Sun
Well, unless your itinerary includes Barrow or Kotzube, you probably
won't see true 24 hour sunlight, but during June and July there is
north of Anchorage. a couple of hours of dim or bright
makes for furious plant growth, strange human schedules (golf tee
10PM!), and lots of confusion when people keep odd hours. Most
and hotels still keep reasonably normal clock hours, so even though
came up at 3:30 and you are raring to go on a hike you may find
skipping breakfast because the dining room doesn't open until
(Locals tend to keep west coast time or later (i.e. no one does
anything early)) Use
all the daylight you can to maximize your stay.
Alaska is for better or worse becoming more like the lower 48 in the
lodging options offered, but still unconventional. Expect to
premium prices for minimal accommodations in many places (especially
Anchorage). Air conditioning is practically non existent, but
that usually means sleeping with windows open for ventilation, which
given the long days means exposing yourself to unwanted light and
noise. Fairbanks is probably where you will miss the A/C most.
Lodging comes in various varieties.
Road house Motels
This used to be the most commonly available lodging and there is
a lot of it. Think of the 1950's, a dozen motel rooms attached
a small restaurant or the owners house, mostly with tired furniture.
Adequate, not luxurious. In most areas these places can
had relatively inexpensively (150% to 2 times the price of the
same room in the lower 48), and had at the last minute except in
popular tourist areas or areas with special events (i.e. the peak
Cabins mean many things in Alaska. Some are basically motel
with individual walls, and include a full bathroom. The Denali
has many like this. Others have some kind of primitive bath
jug of water and a portable toilet) or none at all, and some provide
the shelter -- you provide your own bedding. Always confirm
are getting. Don't expect an individual cabin isolated in the
especially in popular areas like Denali. Chances are your
be separated from your neighbors by 3 or 4 feet and surrounded by
in a large complex. Still more fun than a basic motel room.
The money brought in by the cruise crowd has prompted a building
of luxury lodges in some areas that provide spas and other special
amenities, and cost like they do as well. This option was
mising 30 years back.
Alaska always had B&B lodging, but it's gotten more prominent
recently. Some are true B&B style lodging in a room or
attached to the
innkeepers home, but a lot are cabins or roadhouses converted to
it's more fashionable.
The short tourist season (and in many areas the only season these
occupied), explains both the high prices and the variable quality
get from all lodging. Always expect the picture on the
to look much better than what
you get, and it's absolutely amazing to me how they always find a
take that picture so you can't see the highway, gas station, or town
dump that adjoins it.
The RV option
If you don't want to deal with the lodging issue and don't mind
a motel room on wheels, an RV provides a solution. Keep in
though that they are big (many as big as a city bus) and awkward,
require you to do all the work of setup and cleanup. (Cleaning
plumbing fixtures isn't my idea of vacation). Also note that
of the private campgrounds, especially in the highest traffic area,
little more than RV parking lots. Some park RV's close enough
that it's hard to walk between them. If you drive an RV, learn
keep it on your side of the road and be considerate of others.
There are a lot of novice RV drivers in Alaska, and while the
roads are wide and good in most places a bad driver wandering all
the road can create a real hazard.
Alaska is different in many ways. An odd mix of boom town
pioneers (gold boom, fishing boom, oil boom, etc.), hippies (it's
literally the end of the road), and nature fans. One thing we
always amazed by is the dilapidated buildings and derelict
vehicles. It's a tough climate and the short summer doesn't
much time for repairs, and people clearly learn to live with what
have. I doubt they ever did much recycling or scrap reprocessing
before recently, so most things that broke just got towed into the
woods some place and left. The TV Series "Deadliest Catch", has had
big impact on the coastal areas, with several towns promoting their
connections to the show and some boats that appeared there with
own souvenir shops. Alaska has really embraced Microbreweries
expect to find them everywhere, and many are excellent. Fish
really the name of the game on the menu. Though you can get
things, if you like fish, Alaska is a great place to get it.
Places to Visit.
In 6 trips we have visited many of the places most tourists go,
not the remote destinations. Here are some comments on what to
If you fly in, Anchorage is unavoidable. It's the largest city
and has by far the most cultural events as well as restaurants of
big enough to have most of the evils of lower 48 cities -- nasty
bad drivers, pay parking, and pan handlers, but has a compact
district. Park your car in one of the garages with reasonable
(e.g. $1.25 cents an hour, no minimum), or at the end of the day
meter that isn't checked after 6PM, and check out the gift shops on
way in or out. (As with any area there's a wide assortment of
things available, some local and authentic, some imported from just
about anywhere. Expect to pay plenty for real native alaskan
goods). The old federal building across from the log cabin
info shack has lots of interesting information from state and
who manage the land, though you have to go through an airport style
checkpoint to get in. (It also has public bathrooms, rare in
There are lots of restaurants in this area. We have
partial to the open air "salmon bakes", which haven't entirely
here behind the establishments catering to the espresso and
crowd. (Note that in 2011, the microbrewery phenomenon has hit
big in Alaska and there are now 2 brew pubs near the west end of
town. We found the Glacier Brewhouse excellent, also very
with locals.) Gwinnies used to be a downtown salmon bake, now
moved to Spenard Road near the airport.
Anchorage has many good trails into the Chugach mountains. Get
local guide on which you may want for a day hike. It also has
long paved bike/foot path along the shore. Do heed the
about not venturing onto the mud flats. People get trapped
every year. I can't see why you would want to walk out
slimy mud anyway.
Anchorage has plenty of lodging, but it's expensive and among the
"wilderness" you will have. If your arrival and departure
permits, consider staying elsewhere, though there is nothing
convenient. Lodging in the Anchorage area is in 3 places.
airport, which is convenient, but busy, and float planes on Hood
look really interesting, but they aren't much fun when the noise of
engines wakes you up in the middle of the "night". The
has downtown style hotels (highrises and lowrises), mostly in
to other downtown attractions. There are also a few places
Seward Highway in a "suburban" setting. We have stayed at the
Inn, Best Western Barrat Inn, The holiday Inn Express, and Long
Inn, all at the airport. The
Best Western was probably the best and also most expensive.
The Anchorage area has lots of chances for wildlife viewing and
hiking, mostly on the Glenn highway north of town and the Seward
Highway south of town (see below for Portage). The Seward
highway passes potter marsh, a great birding site, and beluga point,
a place where you can often see mountain goats on the slopes above
as well as watch the churning changing of the tides in Cook Inlet.
The Aleyska resort is a ski resort about 40 miles south of
Anchorage. They have a variety of lodgings, including a hotel
that looks more like it belongs in New York City than the mountains
Alaska, and a tramway that provides a quick ride up 2,000
The hotel is pricey, but not outrageous for Alaska, and the
serve good food at competitive prices. You can get spectacular
views from the top of the Tram, but clouds are a common
condition. You can hike in the area but again realize that
lingers a long time. Aleyska is convenient to Portage and
Whittier making a nice base to explore several areas from.
The Portage glacier area, 9 miles south of Girdwood on the Seward
Highway, is a major tourist destination. Portage lake and
glacier are what it was created for, but the glacier has retreated
to the point where the only way to see it is by riding the tour boat
(expensive, $39 for an hour cruise in 2018). There are lots of
other glaciers visible there though, as well as viewing points for
the salmon runs, and a visitor center that has exhibits on glaciers
and sometimes samples of glacier ice (it charges a fee, the park
doesn't.) Very near there is the Alaska Wildlife Conservation
Center. This is well worth the $12-$15 fee, and has most of
the large land mammals of Alaska to see. You can drive between
the enclosures on a rough gravel road, ride a shuttle (only runs
infrequently), or just walk (not more than a mile total and
flat). You can see bears, moose, caribou, buffalo, musk ox,
and others. Most of the animals are "rescues" -- animals that
were injured, abandoned, or siezed as illegal pets, and the proceeds
go to support their rehab and support efforts, as well as research
and in some cases animal re-introduction into the wild. It's
the best wildlife viewing you will find in a small place.
This is only about 50 miles from Anchorage but is the other end of
world in variety. It's an old gold mining area along a gravel
road in the Talketna mountains north of Palmer. There is a
somewhat preserved gold mine historic park, but mainly there is lots
tundra and mountains to hike in and lots of trails. Hatcher
lodge is a set of cabins (primitive baths with a portable toilet and
water jug) set out in the tundra here. The lodge also has a
good restaurant (though a limited menu). The cabin units are
individual A-frames with 360
degree views. If you want more conventional lodging, you now
have to stay in Palmer , the mother lode lodge, which used to be
another option, is gone now. One thing to note about Hatcher
Pass is that opening
time comes late -- the lodge is always open and the road (now paved
from Palmer) will be plowed as far as the lodge, but the road to
beyond that won't often be open before early July, and even
Independence mine park won't open until mid June (though you can
walk up the road from the lodge and walk the trails in that area,
expect deep snow, evven in June.
Get a good hiking guide to trails in this area. We hiked
Creek to Dogsled pass (mostly old road and easy though long),
some of the trails off independence valley and the fairangel valley,
as well as upper willow creek and the trails to Gold cord mine and
gold cord lake. You cant go wrong in
this area for
scenes and wildflowers. Get a local guide to trails and off
The main road isnt usually bad, but in 2002 the road beyond
indepence valley was covered in fresh, coarse gravel and
The side roads to craigie creek and archangel valley are rougher and
not suited for most cars. Note that the Archangel road in 2011
looked to be driveable with some effort until the bridge over the
creek, getting you close to the trail head for Reed lakes.
The town of Talkeetna is about half way between Anchorage and
a 10 mile spur road from the highway, but on the railroad line.
is the moose nugget capital of Alaska (if you don't know what
nugget is, don't buy any of those moose nugget souvenirs), but
a base for climbing Mt McKinley, flight seeing, and rafting trips.
mountain is often visible here, unlike Denali Park, and quite
It has several road house motels, basic, but livable, and now
of newer resort lodges in the area. The ranger station in town
lots of interesting exhibits on mountain climbing. From
airport (an amazingly modern one with a long paved runway, you can
to tour the mountain, some of which will actually land on the
skis. We did this in 1987, when individual tourism to Alaska
as popular, and it was a very memorable experience. We took
a small plane and flew to a remote lodge to pick up another couple.
had a gravel airstrip, which our pilot had not landed on before.
circled a few times looking at the strip and the trees before
how to approach so as to miss the trees, and skidded to a halt on
the size of baseballs. After a quick check of the tires and
up the other couple, we were off again, flying over woods and
for moose and bears, and then up through the mountains. The
fly between sheer rock walls often through small gaps, and the
tours had established an air traffic control system (using a solar
transmitter at the mountain climbing base camp) to avoid unplanned
This is by far the best way to see what glaciers and mountains
look like. We landed on the snow at the base camp, using a
skis that the pilot cranked into position. Even though it was
8:30PM, the camp was a brightly sunlit world of white snow and black
walls, like nothing I've seen. There were several parties
to climb or recovering (the camp is 1/3 of the way up at 7,000
think I shot 3 rolls of 36 exposure film on the trip.
Denali National Park
Most visitors go to Denali, which is a great place to see wildlife
scenery. You probably won't see mount McKinley, which is often
by clouds from this area. The park has one road, paved and
the first 15 miles and gravel and accessible only by bus for the
paved section is interesting, but you have to see the rest to
the park. There are several ways to do it. All of them
long (8-12 hours) days of riding on school busses. All of the
are the same, though the amenities and desitnations vary.
(Don't let the "school bus" look put you off -- they have individual
seats with adequate spacing for adults and overhead racks for your
packs and gear and aren't uncomfortable to ride in, though the
windows are just as hard to operate to get your pictures as you
remember of school bus windows.
Most campers in Denali have to ride the busses as well in order to
their camp sites. Camping has to be reserved in advance as
back country camping), and it is difficult to get. There is
site on the gravel portion of the road that drivers can drive to,
have to stay 3 days and can only drive the road once in and once
- Park service shuttle. These operate regularly and most
to Eileson visitor center (66 miles in) or Wonder lake (85
You have to buy tickets in advance ($40-$60), and they are often
Tickets can be bought by phone oronline for
something like 2/3 of the
while the rest are sold on site for trips in the next 2 days.
most of the trips for the next day are sold out by early
I've always seen availability 2 days out. (Better than that in
season) The shuttle was intended
as a shuttle system, and you can indeed get off your bus, hike,
another, but few people do. The busses travel quite slowly
(that's why it takes 8 hours to go 132 miles round trip), and
people see wildlife. They basically operate as wildlife
are likely to see Caribou, Dall Sheep, Grizzly bears, and maybe
well as many small animals and birds. (One driver made a
us a fish, an arctic greyling). The road is rough and
prepared for a long day. They do make bathroom stops every
a half or so and make about a half hour or longer stop at the
Beyond the visitor center, the scenery isn't as dramatic,
lake is interesting (Bring LOTS of Mosquito repellent). A
go as far as the town of Kantishna.
- Tundra wildlife tour. These are privately
and go into the park almost as far as the visitor center, where
McKinnley is available on a rare clear day. They offer
service doesn't), and probably more narration, for a higher fee.
in 2011) The
organized tours ride them frequently.
- Kantishna tours. A couple of operators of lodging
use buses to get their guests in and out and offer tours
for the day. These are expensive, but you travel the whole
hours), and have entertainment of various kinds available.
- Natural History tour. This is a tour for those
have time for or can't get on the others and goes only on the
section of the park road, offering naration and a visit to a
Hiking in Denali is interesting and mostly without trails.
more trails near the park entrance, at the savage river, and at
Elieson visitor center than there used to be.
are easy, except the Mt Healy trail which climbs partially up a
slope, and the mountain trail at the savage river. Those hard
hikes are a good introduction to what hiking mountain ridges in the
is like. There is an excellent trail at the end of the paved
Canyon), where you may see Dall Sheep very close coming down to
you hike on your own, your best choices are stream beds (Denali has
gravel stream beds with very little water in them, known as gravel
or ridge tops. The lower parts of the park are covered in
willow, or wet tundra and very difficult to hike. Pick a
without large streams to cross (or bring footgear for stream
follow it. Ridge hikes offer great views but are not for
a fear of heights. Not having trails to follow can make your
challenging. (After hiking up a steep tundra and scree slope,
to return via a difficult stream channel when we were unsure of how
and avoid the cliffs on the way down hiking back the way we came
is still an experience.
Back country campers have to reserve space in an area of the park
overnight, and carry everything remotely edible in bear proof
The tough part is you may need to do some difficult hinking to
into the area you choose to camp in. It is the best way though
the landscape and the animals.
There are many lodging options in Denali. Most are in a 1 mile
of the Parks highway that is near the park entrance but not in the
known as the strip. Options there range from primitive cabins
lodges. Every year there are more places here, and they have
building significantly up the side of the mountain across from the
(Don't be there in the next landslide). This area is
noisy, but you have easy access to everything. We have stayed
Crows nest cabins and the Sourdough cabins, both complexes of cabins
full baths. Don't expect solitude, but they are otherwise
options include cabins and lodges in an area 6 miles south of the
as McKinley villiage, and the town of Healy, 12 miles north.
at the Denali river cabins, similar to the others but a bit newer.
look just like the picture in the milepost, except that that picture
show that the Parks highway runs right next store to them.
(Note also that the cabins in this resort are part of a unit that
includes a live stage and dinner theater -- don't expect a quiet
good place to stay with a good restaurant). 2 miles further
are Denali Cabins, where we stayed in 2011 -- less zooey than any of
the others, and they do have a shuttle to the park if you need it.)
Another option for some
is the town of Kantishna, at the end of the park road. The
are VERY expensive ($500+/night), and the town itself is not in
spectacular country, but you get good views of McKinley when
quicker access to the park (always by busses).
Meal options in Denali are limited -- no park hotel. All the
hotels in the strip have restaurants, and the little hole in the
place at mile 229 is supposed to be grand (we didn't get to try
it). The Denali Salmon bake is still there in name only --
a real restaurant now with decent food and great beer, but not the
salmon bake format any more (I'd still recommend it.) Our find
was Prospectors -- a tavern at the north end of the strip with 49
(49th state after all) on tap, more than half of them Alaskan
microbrews. Great Pizza, decent appetizers, and a fantastic
list. There's also a brew pub in Healy, 10 miles north with a
menu similar to the salmon bake and a good spectrum of brewed on
site beers. (It's a bit tricky to spot the sign on the right
side of the road -- look for a gravel parking lot full of cars and
For old time visitors, note that in 2002 they demolished the old
hotel and rebuilt the visitor's center. (The park hotel was
actually moved to Healey, 10 miles north of the park). The
visitor center at Eielson has also been rebuilt, as have several of
rest areas along the road.)
Fairbanks is Alaska's second city, and a base for all kinds of
in the North. It's a base for flight or bus tours to remote
in the north. It was a gold mining center and there are
mines offering tours. Fairbanks also has several riverboats
cruises on the Chena river, as well as two golf courses, one of
to be the northnern most officially rated course. (See my golf
notes). Fairbanks has a lot of motels and a few resort lodges.
stayed in Pike's riverfront lodge, which was nice and a good bargain
internet rate we got, as well as the Best Western Chena River Inn,
nice, but like everything else in Alaska Pricey, and a comparably
pricey Hampton Inn). One restaurant
worth noting is Silver Gulch Brewing -- 10 miles north in Fox (turn
back toward Fairbanks on the old Steese Highway from the end of the
Steese Highway at the state patrol weigh station). The brewery
has a fantastic variety of beers on tap as well as a great selection
interesting beers and ales (lambec's, doblebock's, etc.), and the
is quite good -- nice atmosphere too and very popular) Golf is
possible at a couple of places (Northstar is easy, the Chena bend
course on Fort Wainright is rumored to be even better, but you have
get onto the base first, awkward since they want a lot of
for you and your car, particularly if your car is a rental).
University of Alaska has an excellent museum highlighting history
art of Alaska. It's well worth the price of admission and you
spend a rainy afternoon there easily (bring some small bills though
because you pay for parking via a machine). Also of note is
the Pioneer Aviation Museum, which feathers vintage aircraft plus
some modern stuff and memoriabilia mostly focused on the early days
of aviation in Alaska and military aviation in WWII and after.
It's all inside in an odd dome, and there is a lot of interesting
stuff, especially for the price, but it badly needs organization and
better signage -- a jumble of exhibits accreted from many different
collections. The museum is in Pioneer park, which was
apparently constructed as some kind of "worlds fair" exhibition and
now is a city park with some other museums, a full sized riverboat
(on land?), a tourist railroad, and Fairbanks's salmon bake, an
all-you-can-eat buffet close to the original tradition of salmon
bakes, but pricey and apparently popular with tours (they have a
fleet of buses to haul people there from hotels). A slogan on
a beer glass is a fitting summary: Fairbanks -- where the
people are unusual and the beer is unusally good.
Valdez became associated with polution after the Exxon Valdez oil
but you will find no evidence of it there. It's a small town
main industries are fishing and the pipeline terminal, which gives
money than many of the other small coastal towns. The setting
on the end of a long fjord and surrounded by mountains and
but the weather is often too cloudy to see it all. Several
offer tours of Columbia glacier from Valdez, which is interesting,
though with the glacier rapidly retreating it's not as dramatic as
it once was and takes a lot longer to reach than it used to.
The "glacier wind" here
as extreme as I've experience anywhere, bring very warm clothing for
tour (Not for Valdez, which is far enough away from any ice that you
won't need it.) The ferry between whittier and valdez used to
come close to the glacier, but it doesn't any more so if you want to
see a glacier you need to take the tour. Worthington glacier,
on the Richardson highway, used to be a great "drive in" glacier.
You walked a paved trail to within a hundred feet of the
and walk beyond right up to it. Now the glacier has backed off
to the point where you can't get to it without going off trail in
spite of lots of warnings not to, and it's not as dramatic.
There used to be a maintained trail on the moraine to the left of
the glacier that was interesting, though scary, but it looked closed
in 2018 -- probably just to dangerous with the glacier having
retreated down as well as back and leaving the morraine unsupported.
Valdez has a lot of other trails that are interesting
You used to be able to tour the Aleyska pipeline terminal, but since
9/11/2001, that is no more. The small
harbor is also interesting. Watch the gulls clean up around
the fish cleaning stations at which charter operators deal with your
Visiting the Solomon creek fish hatchery is a must see when
are running. This looks like a sure fire business. They
fish at the outlet of the creek, which has been dammed for a hydro
and the returning fish litterally swim back into the hatchery.
of them choke the bay in front of the hatchery unable to get in and
hires boats to scoop them up and sell them, generating the money to
the operation, which uses the fish that do get in to spawn and
next generation. I've never seen so many fish in one place.
and sometimes other animals come down to try to catch them.
(If you drive the road to the pipeline terminal and hatchery watch
for bears in the marshes on the inland sides. We have seen
then there several times.
- The Goat walk. This is an old wagon road through
canyon. In spite of the name it's mostly easy and not
in a couple of spots, which aren't really dangerous. You
of the waterfalls in the canyon. The whole trail is 5
it's split by a creek in the middle that you may or may not be
In 2002 there was the battered remains of what looked like
a sturdy bridge at this site, no doubt crushed by an avalanch,
be used to cross, but I doubt they will rebuild it if it washes
- Shoup Bay trail. This goes along the side of the
to a side bay with a valley glacier. Getting there is
one way and difficult hiking. Gold Creek is 3.5 miles one
requires climbing about 600 feet on the trail and back
level at the creek. Views of the bay and the pipeline
- Mineral Creek road/trail. This is a gravel road
probably be driven most of the way in a jeep, but most will want
out early on the road and walk the rest. It goes through a
waterfalls on boths sides. If you go to the end there is
mine and eventually a glacier, but that's a long way.
- Solomon gulch/lake. This trail goes to a mountain
created by a hydro electric project in a hanging valley.
to be very good, but in a couple of attempts we didn't get past
1/4 mile of this trail, which climbs a steep and muddy hillside
and ropes. I think it has to be very dry for this to be a
hike. *Note that as of 2011 they have rerouted the first
this trail to use a pipeline access road from further down
road (near the Pipeline terminal). That makes it longer,
easier. Didn't get a chance to try it.)
Valdez has several motels, none of which would win any stars from
guides. Most of the lodging was built for workers on the
during the spill cleanup and is utilitarian. We have stayed at
Villiage Inn (now the Aspen inn) which was a basic motel, probably
of the bunch, as well as the pipeline inn (roadhouse motel), and the
hotel (neat and clean, but small rooms and no soundproofing).
(Note, in 2011, this is still one of the least changed places in
Alaska. The hotels have new names, somewhat better, but it's
basically all the same places it was a decade or two.)
One note on the ferry from Valdez to Whittier, a popular transport
option. They want you at the terminal an hour and a half
before sailing time, and most people show up then. We were the
last in line arriving an hour before, and as a result were the last
to load and had to maneuver the car into the bow of the boat to pack
in with the standby vehicles they took that day. No big deal,
but you won't be fast off.
On our first trip in 1987, Seward and Valdez were similar towns,
small industry (Sewards being the railroad), fishing, and some
their industries. Seward has grown greatly over the past 15
part because cruise ships dock there. Like Valdez, it is on
of a mountain ringed Fjord, though not as dramatic. It is the
for boat trips to see Kenai Fjords, a national park of rugged
glaciers, and mountains. The tours are well worthwile.
see sea lions, puffins, probably seals, maybe whales and porpoises,
other sea birds. Unlike the boat tours from Valdez and
cruises can encounter rough water, so anyone who gets seasick should
on conditions and pick a resolution bay cruise instead if the
are rough. The glaciers here aren't as big and don't produce
ice as in Prince WIlliam sound (Valdez, Whittier), but are fun to
listen to, and photograph. There are many different cruises
Primarily, the longer you stay on the water the more you will
the greater your chance of seeing whales, seals, and other animals.
of the cruise ship crowd, you may find a lot of tours book on some
while others have lots of availability because there is no ship in
Some of the cruises offer a salmon bake lunch on an island.
is an interesting addition, with some time to walk around and skip
on the beach if it's nice. The facility you visit is a
with a large "mess hall" for the meal and some cabins you can stay
if you make arrangements with the company (Kenai Fjords
The Northwest Fjord/Glacier tour from them is unique and worth the
extra pice/time. Note that in 2018, the retreat of the ice
everywhere was very apparent. There are still tidewater
glaciers in both fjords they visit, but it's unclear that will last
Seward also has an acquarium/research center funded in part by the
cleanup settlement. It's not redundant with taking a cruise
you can see the animals up close, and you can see them underwater,
you can't on a boat. Watching the puffins and other birds dive
"fly" unerwater is quite interesting.
Exit Glacier is the other main attraction here. It's a
out of town, but is another one you can drive fairly close to.
is a trail that takes you close to the glacier, though the glacier
back now beyond a deep crack in the underlying rock and you can no
walk up and touch it as of 2002. There is a second trail that
over 3,000 feet along side Exit Glacier to the Harding ice field.
one is difficult and a half day to full day excursion, but the views
spectacular. We saw black bears on this trail.
There are many day hikes and overnight camping opportunities off the
highway near Seward. One nice one up the road a bit accesses
Russian River Falls. You pay to park at the trail head ($11 in
2011), but it's worth it if the salmon are running as you can watch
them jump the low falls, and may see bears there too (you can also
fish, and everyone we talked to was catching their limit when we
there during salmon runs.)
Seward has many more lodging options than Valdez, as well as more
and gift shops. Most of the action is either near the harbor,
center of the town (and the aquarium) about a mile away. We
at the Breeze Inn (right at the harbor, though a lot of rooms will
the road instead), a reasonably good motel, though not cheap, and
View Inn (nice place, new, and walking distance to the harbor,
view from a lot of rooms is of a church that sits next to it.
stayed at the Windsong lodge, which is several miles out of town on
to Exit Glacier. This used to be a nice isolate lodge with a
rooms, but is now a large lodge with almost 200 rooms and a nice
restaurant. It's still a nice place to stay, but don't expect
idylic any more. Too many "cruise people". The places in
be noisy (we heard the desk clerk at the Harbor Inn warn some folks
being directed elsewhere because the Inn was full about noise from a
next to the Best Western).
Whittier bills itself as Alaska's strangest town, with good reason.
was built by the military in the 1940's as a second port to supply
and until recently was inaccessable by road. You came by ferry
a railroad through a long tunnel that carried your car. After
million dollar project they opened the tunnel to both trains and
go at scheduled times), to make it accessible by road and expected
to build the town up with more tourism and industry, -- and half the
of Whittier left. Most of the town lives in 2 huge buildings
by the military, which look incongruous in the setting of tall
and glaciers on a Fjord. The main thing to do here is take a
College Fjord, which is the most spectacular of the tidewater
we have visited (including Glacier bay). We were reluctant to
this tour(the 26 glacier tour), because it is heavily promoted
and were afraid it would prove to be a long day on a boat with
The boat is large and crowded, but MUCH faster than other tour
(a big power catamaran like they use to ferry tourists to the great
reef for anyone who has done that), meaning you reach the scenery
have time to enjoy it. Spend time on the back deck to
view close up. The lunch served was basic, but good, and the
were as I said probably the best of any of the tours. The boat
stable -- you won't know you are on a boat.
The town itself has few lodging and dining options -- a few shacks
docks that sell "fish and chips" style meals, but the food we had
quite good, and a couple of small restaurant/lounges in town.
Inn is the only motel, and that's basically a restaurant, motel,
general store, and laundromat all in one. Our room there was
clean, and cheap for Alaska, with a view of the railroad yard and
beyond. Our first night was very peaceful. Unfortunately
on the second night that a barge had come into the harbor and the
spent all night rearranging feight cars and piling iron scrap into
loud crashing noises. (Note that in 2011, we discovered again,
Whittier has grown again, probably mainly because cruise ships now
here, so there is a new hotel and a couple of better sounding
restaurants. Still a tiny funky town though.)
The Portage Pass trail from Whittier is realitvely easy and supposed
spectacular views -- if it's not raining, which it apparently is
the time (175 inches of percipititation). Don't let the rain
you on a boat tour though. Our tour guide gave the local
"it's shittier in Whittier":, and indeed over the glaciers we had
sun. Whittier is also a good base for kayak tours in Prince
sound. Operators take you into an area with calm water and
where you can kayak and camp for several days, paddling among
These are probably the biggest towns on the Kenai Peninsula
bases for fishing and canoing on the Kenai river and lakes in the
is quite a sight, as the fishermen are practically elbow to elbow on
river, which is aqua, catching the salmon, which are dark red.
are many hiking trails on the upper Kenai river off the Sterling
One popular one is russian river lake and falls, which is a
in fine gravel that takes you to a mountain lake and a cascade in
jump the falls. This is a popular spot during the slamon run,
pay $11 (2018) to park at the trailhead. The trail is a little
a bit longer than the 2 miles marked. The view is from besides
above the falls. Kenai is also the location of one of the
local golf courses. Note that this area is a zoo during salmon
runs -- lots of trailer/boat/RV traffic on the roads, and lots of
people doing crazy things, like stopping in the middle of the road
look at wildlife or walking on a narrow stretch of road with no
shoulder to reach a fishing spot.
Homer is at the end of the Sterling highway on a bay off Cook inlet.
is the Halibut fishing capital of the world, and many charters are
Judging from the buckets of fish being offloaded from the
are plenty to catch. (This is another interesting place to
Harbor. Homer has clearly benefited from the "Deadliest Catch"
series as the home base of the Time Bandit crab boat and its
distinguishes Homer from the other coastal towns is
Homer spit, a 4 mile long finger of gravel protruding into the bay
provides the boat harbor, camp grounds, and a location for many
shops and restaurants as well as the Lands End resort at the end of
Lands End probably has the best view of any place we stayed.
aren't new, but adequate, and the food is excellent. (Note
they now also rent condo units attached to the lodge -- pricey but
though is that you can walk out your room to the gravel beach of the
where you can fish or watch sea otters and seals swim around the
with fleets of boats at all hours of the day and night). Homer
many other lodging options in town or on the bluff above town.
Homer is on a relatively gently sloping hillside, but sits
bay from mountains and glaciers, basically the same territory as
This is a state park and has many hiking trails. You can
them via water taxis out of Homer (for a fee of about $50 round
a couple of passenger ferries. The water taxis are limited
by tides and wind as to where and when they can land, and want
passengers in one trip, so don't assume you can go any time and
want. You can also use the water taxis to access several small
on the other side of the bay which have shops, restaurants, and
Homer has developed several tourist attractions. There is a
museum/visitor's center run by the National Wildlife service, which
serves as the headquarters for the many wildlife refuges in
Alaska. It's free and has lots of interesting exhibits.
(They also run programs and trips to the far side of the bay, that
a fee). You can easily kill an hour and a half there, but
expect much from the Beluga Slough nature trail which adjoins
it). The Pratt museum is interesting, but not as much as the
wildlife service visitor center (and it charges admission).
camera they have on Gull Island though is quite nice. We also
visited the Bear Creek Winery, the only one in Alaska as far as
knows. Lots of berry and grape wines of varying quality but a
nice setting and a good tasting experience. There's another
nature center run by a different group that has a center with
trails on a hilltop behind Homer, a center across the bay that has
full day tours, and a center at the harbour that offers tours of sea
life in the harbor, all for varying fees.
Finally Homer is the base for plane trips into Katmai and Kodiak to
bears fishing for salmon. There are many operators who will
and most guarantee that you will see bears. The spots they go
depending on where the bears are, but in June and the first half of
most go to Brooks Falls in Katmai park, which is a developed
bear viewing. Other places may be more primitive and involve
hiking or wading and may not have bathrooms, so inquire where you
and what you will view to make sure you are adequately equipped.
are expensive day trips ($500+), but a unique experience. If
seen films of bears fishing at a waterfall, chances are good that
of Brooks falls. This is about a 2 hour flight from homer.
flight is scenic, with opportunities to see whales and other
the water, and good views of several of the volcanos along the
When you arrive you are instructed in bear ettiquette (carry
and the bears always have the right of way), and they take the food
and store it in a cache area until you want to eat it. You can
spend 4 or 5 hours wandering the park, which involves the beach the
pull in to, a bridge over the Brooks river with a large viewing
a trail to the falls with a smaller deck. The viewing decks
and safe from the bears, so visitors have to be in the decks
are present. This means that you may be stuck in a deck for a
time, but usually the bears move on very quickly. You will see
of bears everywhere here. Viewing at the falls is limited and
to sign up for a waiting list for a 10-15 minute time at the falls,
then are admitted to walk the trail to the falls when space is
The falls deck is always crowded. It is close enough to
that you will not need long lenses (unless you want to fill a frame
a face), and can't really use a tripod. If the sun is out you
be shooting at a somewhat backlit secene. Overall we found
well worth doing. There is a lodge and campground here.
told the lodge is very expensive and books well in advance, but
the opportunity to view the bears during early morning and evening
day viewers on planes are not there. Camping must be an
as the bears are really everywhere. (I've got pictures of cubs
on the floats of the planes and a large bear diving from the
as well as bears exploring canoes.)
Juneau is the state capital, but has no road access to other parts
state. Alaska constantly debates moving it but so far won't
expense. It is a major cruise ship port and jumping off point
to Glacier Bay. There can be as many as 3 or 4 large cruise
Juneau at once, so there can be a LOT of people on the streets as
competition for excursions. Probably because it is the state
it has more reasonable hotels than most of Alaska. Juneau does
a small road network connecting to an island across from it and some
coast line and it is well worth exploring. There is a hiking
in Juneau to a lookout point that we found steep but interesting.
(Watch for bears here). Just North of Juneau is Mendenhall
another drive in glacier park with hiking trails and excurisions
glacier itself. There are also many air tours that access the
above Juneau. Finally Juneau is home to Alaskan brewing, which
tours and souvenirs.
Glacier Bay National Park
Glacier bay is an area of fjords, glaciers, and mountains accessible
by sea. You can see tidewater glaciers, wildlife, and a lot of
geology of glacial areas here. The large cruise ships enter
Glacier Bay but are limited in where they can go and do not reach
the areas smaller boats can. This is the way most people see
though. Another way is to stay at one of the lodges in
small community on an island just outside the park with a large
and several smaller properties. This is expensive, but gives
to day tours of the park. You can also kayak in the bay,
a tour operator who will drop you, your camping equipment and kayaks
pick you up later. We chose another option, which was a 2-1/2
from Juneau aboard a boat holding about 100 people. The boat
of Glacier Bay, though the same company has several ships and
cruises on them in various parts of the alaskan coast), is really
for sightseeing. Cabins are spartan, the food is excellent,
of the passengers spend all their waking hours looking out the
had great weather and spent most of the time sitting on deck at the
the ship). Because boats are limited in the calendar days they
spend in the park, they time the cruise so you enter just after
and leave 24 hours later, meaning with the long days you spend 18-20
gawking at the sights and use the nights for travel. Any time
spend sleeping outside the park can be spent watching whales
porpoises (somewhat less so but you will surely see them).