Alaska -- The last frontier?

In the past 30 years, we have visited Alaska 6 times and been to most 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 to any other state but more different and interesting.  What follows is an attempt at a practical travel guide from our experience.  

Getting there.

Alaska is a long way from anywhere else and getting there is half the fun.  You have a lot of options.

Getting around.


Cars and RVs reach a small part of the state with contiguous roads.  Most are paved, but many of the more interesting ones are gravel.  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 McCarthy, consider how comfortable you are being 50 miles from the nearest garage 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 delay for a one lane bridge.  In Alaska it often means destroying 10 miles of road and routing traffic over mud and rough gravel, one direction at a 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 still 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:
  1. The Glenn Highway.  This runs across the state from Tok to Anchorage.  Most is in good shape.  The section near Anchorage is the only real divided highway in Alaska.  The section from Palmer to Glenallen goes through the mountains with close up mountain and glacier views, and has more frost heaves.
  2. The Parks Highway.  This one runs from Palmer to Fairbanks past Denali and is the way most people drive to the park.  It's relatively flat and in good condition.  There are some great views of Denali well south of the park along this road, once you get past a long stretch stoplights and businesses north of Wasilla.
  3. 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 shape (frost heaves), but has a lot of spectacular scenery where the road 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 construction and maintenance.
  4. The Seward Highway.  This runs from Anchorage to Seward .  The first 40 miles south of anchorage run at the foot of tall cliffs along Turnagin arm of Cook Inlet.  The rest runs through the mountains with many great views.
  5. The Sterling Highway.  This branches off the Seward highway in the mountains and runs along the Kenai river to the coast (great fishing), and down the coast to Homer.  Most of this road does not have close up scenery, only distant mountain views.
  6. The Denali Highway.  Not the road in Denali park, but a road built from the Richardson Highway to near Paxon that provided road access to the park before the Parks highway was added.  It's now an infrequently traveled gravel road.  Spectacular scenery, but rough gravel.
  7. The Dalton Highway.  This is the road to the oil operations in Prudoe bay.  You can now drive it, though it's 400 miles of dusty gravel shared with oil production equipment and with limited services.  Supposed to have dramatic views of Brooks Range and the north slope though.
  8. The McCarthy road.  This is the last 60 miles of the land route to the towns of McCarthy and Kennecott,  abandoned copper mining towns, and runs over rough gravel on an old railroad bed (watch for spikes).  The one time we attempted it the washboard was so severe we didn't think our vehicle would make it and turned back after a few miles.  There is bus service on the road to McCarthy as well as scheduled and charter air service as an alternative.  If you have nerves, tires, and buns of steel it's supposed to be quite an experience.


Alaska has one train line with limited service from Anchorage to Denali and Fairbanks, To Seward, and to Whittier. It's mainly a tourist service with a lot of trips sold as part of tours.  The railroad doesn't always parallel the highways giving you access to some scenery that can't be seen from the road.

Small planes. 

Many destinations can only be reached by air, usually by single engine float planes landing on lakes.  Hiring them isn't difficult, think of them as long distance taxis.  It isnt always cheap.  There is also scheduled service on small planes to many small cities that is a bit cheaper than hiring a plane.  Don't expect to recognize the carrier or get an in flight meal service :-).


The Ferry, mentioned above, provides the primary access to most of coastal Alaska not connected by roads.  While they aren't frequent, the service is quite usable.  Passengers can often get on without reservations (but but sleeping cabins require reservations), but vehicles need to be planned well in advance at peak season.  The ferries in summer visit a lot of the same places that tour operators go and include wildlife viewing and commentary in some spots, so you get the added bonus of a tour.  The boats are 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 to row boats with motors, so inquire what kind of boat you will be on and what kind of clothing you will need, and whether or not the landing will be at a dock or someplace you may need to wade ashore.  

Tour boats -- Popular areas like Kenia Fijords or Columbia Glacier have tours that depart and return from the same place.  Not transportation, but usually a great way to see watery areas of the state.

The Weather

If you visit in summer, expect days in the 60's to 70's in the interior (50's at the coast), and night time temperatures in the 40's.  We have been told that there is less rain along the coast in May and early June than later, but going that early you will find snow at higher elevations that limits your options for hiking and wildlife viewing.  Mainly we have found most days are partly cloudy with occasional drizzle or light rain, some more so than others.  Just carry something waterproof and a light jacket for cold.  

One thing that visitors should be aware of is that Glaciers are really cold.  Standing in front of one or anywhere near one, especially on a boat is like walking into a freezer.  Many people are unprepared for the 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 very little darkness north of Anchorage.  a couple of hours of dim or bright twilight.  This makes for furious plant growth, strange human schedules (golf tee times at 10PM!), and lots of confusion when people keep odd hours.  Most restaurants and hotels still keep reasonably normal clock hours, so even though the sun came up at 3:30 and you are raring to go on a hike you may find yourself skipping breakfast because the dining room doesn't open until 8.  (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 pay 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 still a lot of it.  Think of the 1950's, a dozen motel rooms attached to a small restaurant or the owners house, mostly with tired furniture.  Adequate, not luxurious.  In most areas these places can be 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 really popular tourist areas or areas with special events (i.e. the peak salmon run).


Cabins mean many things in Alaska.  Some are basically motel rooms with individual walls, and include a full bathroom.  The Denali area has many like this.  Others have some kind of primitive bath (e.g. a jug of water and a portable toilet) or none at all, and some provide only the shelter -- you provide your own bedding.  Always confirm what you are getting.  Don't expect an individual cabin isolated in the woods, especially in popular areas like Denali.  Chances are your cabin will be separated from your neighbors by 3 or 4 feet and surrounded by others in a large complex.  Still more fun than a basic motel room.

Luxury Lodges

The money brought in by the cruise crowd has prompted a building boom of luxury lodges in some areas that provide spas and other special amenities, and cost like they do as well.  This option was largely 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 cabin attached to the innkeepers home, but a lot are cabins or roadhouses converted to B&B because it's more fashionable.  

The short tourist season (and in many areas the only season these are occupied), explains both the high prices and the variable quality you get from all lodging.  Always expect the picture on the brochure to look much better than what you get, and it's absolutely amazing to me how they always find a way to 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 driving a motel room on wheels, an RV provides a solution.  Keep in mind though that they are big (many as big as a city bus) and awkward, and require you to do all the work of setup and cleanup.  (Cleaning plumbing fixtures isn't my idea of vacation).  Also note that many of the private campgrounds, especially in the highest traffic area, are 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 to 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 over 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 are always amazed by is the dilapidated buildings and derelict vehicles.  It's a tough climate and the short summer doesn't leave much time for repairs, and people clearly learn to live with what they have. I doubt they ever did much recycling or scrap reprocessing here before recently, so most things that broke just got towed into the woods some place and left. The TV Series "Deadliest Catch", has had a big impact on the coastal areas, with several towns promoting their connections to the show and some boats that appeared there with their own souvenir shops.  Alaska has really embraced Microbreweries -- expect to find them everywhere, and many are excellent.  Fish is really the name of the game on the menu.  Though you can get other 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, though not the remote destinations.  Here are some comments on what to expect.


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 all kinds.  It's big enough to have most of the evils of lower 48 cities -- nasty traffic, bad drivers, pay parking, and pan handlers, but has a compact downtown tourist/restaurant district.  Park your car in one of the garages with reasonable rates (e.g. $1.25 cents an hour, no minimum), or at the end of the day find a meter that isn't checked after 6PM, and check out the gift shops on your 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 tourist info shack has lots of interesting information from state and federal agencies who manage the land, though you have to go through an airport style security checkpoint to get in.  (It also has public bathrooms, rare in this area).  There are lots of restaurants in this area.  We have always been partial to the open air "salmon bakes", which haven't entirely disappeared here behind the establishments catering to the espresso and raspberry vinegarette 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 popular 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 a local guide on which you may want for a day hike.  It also has a long paved bike/foot path along the shore.  Do heed the warnings about not venturing onto the mud flats.  People get trapped there every year.  I can't see  why you would want to walk out onto slimy mud anyway.

Anchorage has plenty of lodging, but it's expensive and among the least "wilderness" you will have.  If your arrival and departure schedule permits, consider staying elsewhere, though there is nothing particularly convenient.  Lodging in the Anchorage area is in 3 places.  The airport, which is convenient, but busy, and float planes on Hood lake may look really interesting, but they aren't much fun when the noise of their engines wakes you up in the middle of the "night".  The downtown area has downtown style hotels (highrises and lowrises), mostly in walking distance to other downtown attractions.  There are also a few places along the Seward Highway in a "suburban" setting.  We have stayed at the Puffin Inn, Best Western Barrat Inn, The holiday Inn Express, and Long House 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 of Alaska, and a tramway that provides a quick ride up 2,000 feet.  The hotel is pricey, but not outrageous for Alaska, and the restaurants 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 snow 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.

Hatcher Pass.

This is only about 50 miles from Anchorage but is the other end of the 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 of tundra and mountains to hike in and lots of trails.  Hatcher Pass 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 Willow beyond that won't often be open before early July, and even Independence mine park won't open until mid June (though you can always walk up the road from the lodge and walk the trails in that area, but expect deep snow, evven in June.

Get a good hiking guide to trails in this area.  We hiked Craigie Creek to Dogsled pass (mostly old road and easy though long),  and 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 trail hiking.

The main road isnt usually bad, but in 2002 the road beyond  indepence valley was covered in fresh, coarse gravel  and awkward. 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 Denali, down a 10 mile spur road from the highway, but on the railroad line.  It is the moose nugget capital of  Alaska (if you don't know what a moose nugget is, don't buy any of those moose nugget souvenirs), but mainly it's a base for climbing Mt McKinley, flight seeing, and rafting trips.  The mountain is often visible here, unlike Denali Park, and quite spectacular.  It has several road house motels, basic, but livable, and now a couple of newer resort lodges in the area.  The ranger station in town has lots of interesting exhibits on mountain climbing.  From Talkeetna's airport (an amazingly modern one with a long paved runway, you can get flights to tour the mountain, some of which will actually land on the glaciers on skis.  We did this in 1987, when individual tourism to Alaska was not as popular, and it was a very memorable experience.  We took off in a small plane and flew to a remote lodge to pick up another couple. The lodge had a gravel airstrip, which our pilot had not landed on before.  He circled a few times looking at the strip and the trees before figuring out how to approach so as to miss the trees, and skidded to a halt on "gravel" the size of baseballs.  After a quick check of the tires and picking up the other couple, we were off again, flying over woods and meadows looking for moose and bears, and then up through the mountains.  The planes fly between sheer rock walls often through small gaps, and the pilots flying tours had established an air traffic control system (using a solar powered transmitter at the mountain climbing base camp) to avoid unplanned encounters.  This is by far the best way to see what glaciers and mountains really look like.  We landed on the snow at the base camp, using a pair of skis that the pilot cranked into position.  Even though it was about 8:30PM, the camp was a brightly sunlit world of white snow and black rock walls, like nothing I've seen.  There were several parties there preparing to climb or recovering (the camp is 1/3 of the way up at 7,000 feet).  I 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 and moutain scenery.  You probably won't see mount McKinley, which is often hidden by clouds from this area.  The park has one road, paved and public for the first 15 miles and gravel and accessible only by bus for the rest.  The paved section is interesting, but you have to see the rest to appreciate the park.  There are several ways to do it.  All of them involve long (8-12 hours) days of riding on school busses.  All of the busses 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 get to their camp sites.  Camping has to be reserved in advance as well (even back country camping), and it is difficult to get.  There is one RV site on the gravel portion of the road that drivers can drive to, but they have to stay 3 days and can only drive the road once in and once out.  

Hiking in Denali is interesting and mostly without trails.  There are more trails near the park entrance, at the savage river, and at Elieson visitor center than there used to be.  Most are easy, except the Mt Healy trail which climbs partially up a steep slope, and the mountain trail at the savage river.  Those hard hikes are a good introduction to what hiking mountain ridges in the park is like.  There is an excellent trail at the end of the paved road (Savage Canyon), where you may see Dall Sheep very close coming down to drink.  If you hike on your own, your best choices are stream beds (Denali has wide gravel stream beds with very little water in them, known as gravel bars), or ridge tops.  The lower parts of the park are covered in alder and willow, or wet tundra and very difficult to hike.  Pick a gravel bar without large streams to cross (or bring footgear for stream crossing), and follow it.  Ridge hikes offer great views but are not for anyone with a fear of heights.  Not having trails to follow can make your descent challenging.  (After hiking up a steep tundra and scree slope, we chose to return via a difficult stream channel when we were unsure of how to locate and avoid the cliffs on the way down hiking back the way we came up).  It is still an experience.

Back country campers have to reserve space in an area of the park for an overnight, and carry everything remotely edible in bear proof containers.  The tough part is you may need to do some difficult hinking to get into the area you choose to camp in.  It is the best way though to appreciate the landscape and the animals.

There are many lodging options in Denali.  Most are in a 1 mile stretch of the Parks highway that is near the park entrance but not in the park, known as the strip.  Options there range from primitive cabins to luxury lodges.  Every year there are more places here, and they have started building significantly up the side of the mountain across from the park.  (Don't be there in the next landslide).  This area is busy and noisy, but you have easy access to everything.  We have stayed at the Crows nest cabins and the Sourdough cabins, both complexes of cabins with full baths.  Don't expect solitude, but they are otherwise nice.  Other options include cabins and lodges in an area 6 miles south of the park known as McKinley villiage, and the town of Healy, 12 miles north.  We stayed at the Denali river cabins, similar to the others but a bit newer.  (They look just like the picture in the milepost, except that that picture doesn't 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 evening.)  Still a good place to stay with a good restaurant).  2 miles further south 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 lodges there are VERY expensive ($500+/night), and the town itself is not in particularly spectacular country, but you get good views of McKinley when available, and quicker access to the park (always by busses).

Meal options in Denali are limited -- no park hotel.  All the big hotels in the strip have restaurants, and the little hole in the wall 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 -- it's 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 beers (49th state after all) on tap, more than half of them Alaskan microbrews.  Great Pizza, decent appetizers, and a fantastic beer 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 trucks.)

For old time visitors, note that in 2002 they demolished the old park 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 the rest areas along the road.)


Fairbanks is Alaska's second city, and a base for all kinds of activities in the North.  It's a base for flight or bus tours to remote communities in the north.  It was a gold mining center and there are several old mines offering tours.  Fairbanks also has several riverboats giving cruises on the Chena river, as well as two golf courses, one of which claims to be the northnern most officially rated course.  (See my golf travel notes).  Fairbanks has a lot of motels and a few resort lodges. (We stayed in Pike's riverfront lodge, which was nice and a good bargain at the internet rate we got, as well as the Best Western Chena River Inn, new, 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 New Steese Highway at the state patrol weigh station).  The brewery has a fantastic variety of beers on tap as well as a great selection of interesting beers and ales (lambec's, doblebock's, etc.), and the food 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 to get onto the base first, awkward since they want a lot of documentation for you and your car, particularly if your car is a rental).  The University of Alaska has an excellent museum highlighting history and art of Alaska.  It's well worth the price of admission and you can 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 spill, but you will find no evidence of it there.  It's a small town whose main industries are fishing and the pipeline terminal, which gives it more money than many of the other small coastal towns.  The setting is spectacular,  on the end of a long fjord and surrounded by mountains and glaciers, but the weather is often too cloudy to see it all.  Several tour operators 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 is as extreme as I've experience anywhere, bring very warm clothing for the 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, outside of Valdez on the Richardson highway, used to be a great "drive in" glacier.  You walked a paved trail to within a hundred feet of the glacier, 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 boat harbor is also interesting.  Watch the gulls clean up around one of the fish cleaning stations at which charter operators deal with your catch.  Visiting the Solomon creek fish hatchery is a must see when the salmon are running.  This looks like a sure fire business.  They release fish at the outlet of the creek, which has been dammed for a hydro plant, and the returning fish litterally swim back into the hatchery.  Millions of them choke the bay in front of the hatchery unable to get in and the hatchery hires boats to scoop them up and sell them, generating the money to pay for the operation, which uses the fish that do get in to spawn and generate the next generation.  I've never seen so many fish in one place.  Birds 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.

Valdez has several motels, none of which would win any stars from travel guides.  Most of the lodging was built for workers on the pipeline or during the spill cleanup and is utilitarian.  We have stayed at the Villiage Inn (now the Aspen inn) which was a basic motel, probably the best of the bunch, as well as the pipeline inn (roadhouse motel), and the keystone 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, each with small industry (Sewards being the railroad), fishing, and some tourism as their industries.  Seward has grown greatly over the past 15 years in part because cruise ships dock there.  Like Valdez, it is on the end of a mountain ringed Fjord, though not as dramatic.  It is the base for boat trips to see Kenai Fjords, a national park of rugged coastline, glaciers, and mountains.  The tours are well worthwile.  You will see sea lions, puffins, probably seals, maybe whales and porpoises, and many other sea birds.  Unlike the boat tours from Valdez and Whittier, these cruises can encounter rough water, so anyone who gets seasick should check on conditions and pick a resolution bay cruise instead if the conditions are rough.  The glaciers here aren't as big and don't produce as much ice as in Prince WIlliam sound (Valdez, Whittier), but are fun to watch, listen to, and photograph.  There are many different cruises available.  Primarily, the longer you stay on the water the more you will see and the greater your chance of seeing whales, seals, and other animals.  Because of the cruise ship crowd, you may find a lot of tours book on some days, while others have lots of availability because there is no ship in port.  Some of the cruises offer a salmon bake lunch on an island.  This is an interesting addition, with some time to walk around and skip stones on the beach if it's nice.  The facility you visit is a permanent camp, with a large "mess hall" for the meal and some cabins you can stay at overnight if you make arrangements with the company (Kenai Fjords Tours).  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 long. 

Seward also has an acquarium/research center funded in part by the oil spill cleanup settlement.  It's not redundant with taking a cruise because you can see the animals up close, and you can see them underwater, which you can't on a boat.  Watching the puffins and other birds dive and "fly" unerwater is quite interesting.  

Exit Glacier is the other  main attraction here.  It's a little out of town, but is another one you can drive fairly close to.  There is a trail that takes you close to the glacier, though the glacier has melted back now beyond a deep crack in the underlying rock and you can no longer walk up and touch it as of 2002.  There is a second trail that climbs over 3,000 feet along side Exit Glacier to the Harding ice field.  This one is difficult and a half day to full day excursion, but the views are spectacular.  We saw black bears on this trail.  

There are many day hikes and overnight camping opportunities off the Seward 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 were there during salmon runs.)

Seward has many more lodging options than Valdez, as well as more restaurants and gift shops.  Most of the action is either near the harbor, or the center of the town (and the aquarium) about a mile away.  We stayed at the Breeze Inn (right at the harbor, though a lot of rooms will overlook the road instead), a reasonably good motel, though not cheap, and the Harbor View Inn (nice place, new, and walking distance to the harbor, though the view from a lot of rooms is of a church that sits next to it.  We also stayed at the Windsong lodge, which is several miles out of town on the road to Exit Glacier.  This used to be a nice isolate lodge with a few 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 town can be noisy (we heard the desk clerk at the Harbor Inn warn some folks who were being directed elsewhere because the Inn was full about noise from a bar next to the Best Western). 


Whittier bills itself as Alaska's strangest town, with good reason.  It was built by the military in the 1940's as a second port to supply Alaska, and until recently was inaccessable by road.  You came by ferry or by a railroad through a long tunnel that carried your car.  After an 18 million dollar project they opened the tunnel to both trains and cars (cars 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 population of Whittier left.  Most of the town lives in 2 huge buildings built by the military, which look incongruous in the setting of tall mountains and glaciers on a Fjord.  The main thing to do here is take a tour of College Fjord, which is the most spectacular of the tidewater glacier fjords we have visited (including Glacier bay).  We were reluctant to take this tour(the 26 glacier tour),  because it is heavily promoted in Anchorage and were afraid it would prove to be a long day on a boat with tourists.  The boat is large and crowded, but MUCH faster than other tour boats (a big power catamaran like they use to ferry tourists to the great barrier reef for anyone who has done that), meaning you reach the scenery fast and have time to enjoy it.  Spend time on the back deck to appreciate the view close up.  The lunch served was basic, but good, and the sights were as I said probably the best of any of the tours.  The boat is very stable -- you won't know you are on a boat.

The town itself has few lodging and dining options -- a few shacks on the docks that sell "fish and chips" style meals, but the food we had there was quite good, and a couple of small restaurant/lounges in town.  The Anchor Inn is the only motel, and that's basically a restaurant, motel, gift shop, general store, and laundromat all in one.  Our room there was large, clean, and cheap for Alaska, with a view of the railroad yard and harbor beyond.  Our first night was very peaceful.  Unfortunately we discovered on the second night that a barge had come into the harbor and the railroad spent all night rearranging feight cars and piling iron scrap into them with loud crashing noises.  (Note that in 2011, we discovered again, Whittier has grown again, probably mainly because cruise ships now dock 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 to have spectacular views -- if it's not raining, which it apparently is most of the time (175 inches of percipititation).  Don't let the rain discourage you on a boat tour though.  Our tour guide gave the local wisdon of "it's shittier in Whittier":, and indeed over the glaciers we had partial sun.  Whittier is also a good base for kayak tours in Prince William sound.  Operators take you into an area with calm water and better weather where you can kayak and camp for several days, paddling among icebergs if you like.


These  are probably the biggest towns on the Kenai Peninsula and are bases for fishing and canoing on the Kenai river and lakes in the area.  This is quite a sight, as the fishermen are practically elbow to elbow on the river, which is aqua, catching the salmon, which are dark red.  There are many hiking trails on the upper Kenai river off the Sterling Highway.  One popular one is russian river lake and falls, which is a trail surfaced in fine gravel that takes you to a mountain lake and a cascade in which salmon jump the falls.  This is a popular spot during the slamon run, and you pay $11 (2018) to park at the trailhead.  The trail is a little uphill and seemed a bit longer than the 2 miles marked.  The view is from besides and above the falls.  Kenai is also the location of one of the better 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 to 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.  It is the Halibut fishing capital of the world, and many charters are available.  Judging from the buckets of fish being offloaded from the boats there are plenty to catch.  (This is another interesting place to visit the Harbor.  Homer has clearly benefited from the "Deadliest Catch" TV series as the home base of the Time Bandit crab boat and its captains.  What distinguishes Homer from the other coastal towns is the Homer spit, a 4 mile long finger of gravel protruding into the bay which provides the boat harbor, camp grounds, and a location for many  small shops and restaurants as well as the Lands End resort at the end of the spit.  Lands End probably has the best view of any place we stayed.  Rooms aren't new, but adequate, and the food is excellent.  (Note that they now also rent condo units attached to the lodge -- pricey but also excellent.)  Most important though is that you can walk out your room to the gravel beach of the spit where you can fish or watch sea otters and seals swim around the point (along with fleets of boats at all hours of the day and night).  Homer has many other lodging options in town or on the bluff above town.

Homer is on  a relatively gently sloping hillside, but sits across the bay from mountains and glaciers, basically the same territory as Kenai Fjords.  This is a state park and has many hiking trails.  You can access them via water taxis out of Homer (for a fee of about $50 round trip), or a couple of passenger ferries.  The water taxis are limited somewhat by tides and wind as to where and when they can land,  and want to combine passengers in one trip, so don't assume you can go any time and place you want.  You can also use the water taxis to access several small communities on the other side of the bay which have shops, restaurants, and B&B lodging.

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 for a fee).  You can easily kill an hour and a half there, but don't 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).  The 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 anyone 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 view bears fishing for salmon.  There are many operators who will take you and most guarantee that you will see bears.  The spots they go varies depending on where the bears are, but in June and the first half of July, most go to Brooks Falls in Katmai park, which is a developed facility for bear viewing.  Other places may be more primitive and involve more rugged hiking or wading and may not have bathrooms, so inquire where you will go and what you will view to make sure you are adequately equipped.  These are expensive day trips ($500+), but a unique experience.  If you have seen films of bears fishing at a waterfall, chances are good that they are of Brooks falls.  This is about a 2 hour flight from homer.  The flight is scenic, with opportunities to see whales and other wildlife over the water, and good views of several of the volcanos along the Alaskan coast.  When you arrive you are instructed in bear ettiquette (carry no food, and the bears always have the right of way), and they take the food you brought and store it in a cache area until you want to eat it.  You can then spend 4 or 5 hours wandering the park, which involves the beach the planes pull in to, a bridge over the Brooks river with a large viewing deck, and a trail to the falls with a smaller deck.  The viewing decks are elevated and safe from the bears, so visitors have to be in the decks whenever bears are present.  This means that you may be stuck in a deck for a long time, but usually the bears move on very quickly.  You will see lots of bears everywhere here.  Viewing at the falls is limited and you have to sign up for a waiting list for a 10-15 minute time at the falls,  and then are admitted to walk the trail to the falls when space is available.  The falls deck is always crowded.  It is close enough to the bears that you will not need long lenses (unless you want to fill a frame with a face), and can't really use a tripod.  If the sun is out you will be shooting at a somewhat backlit secene.  Overall we found this experience well worth doing.  There is a lodge and campground here.  I am told the lodge is very expensive and books well in advance, but gives you the opportunity to view the bears during early morning and evening when the day viewers on planes are not there.  Camping must be an adventure, as the bears are really everywhere.  (I've got pictures of cubs climbing on the floats of the planes and a large bear diving from the footbridge, as well as bears exploring canoes.)


Juneau is the state capital, but has no road access to other parts of the state.  Alaska constantly debates moving it but so far won't stand the expense.  It is a major cruise ship port and jumping off point for trips to Glacier Bay.  There can be as many as 3 or 4 large cruise ships in Juneau at once, so there can be a LOT of people on the streets as well as competition for excursions.  Probably because it is the state capital it has more reasonable hotels than most of Alaska.  Juneau does have a small road network connecting to an island across from it and some of the coast line and it is well worth exploring.  There is a hiking trail in Juneau to a lookout point that we found steep but interesting.   (Watch for bears here).  Just North of Juneau is Mendenhall glacier, another drive in glacier park with hiking trails and excurisions onto the glacier itself.  There are also many air tours that access the ice fields above Juneau.  Finally Juneau is home to Alaskan brewing, which offers tours and souvenirs. 

Glacier Bay National Park

Glacier bay is an area of fjords, glaciers, and mountains accessible only by sea.  You can see tidewater glaciers, wildlife, and a lot of the geology of glacial areas here.  The large cruise ships enter part of Glacier Bay but are limited in where they can go and do not reach  all the areas smaller boats can.  This is the way most people see the park though.  Another way is to stay at one of the lodges in Gustavas, a small community on an island just outside the park with a large resort lodge and several smaller properties.  This is expensive, but gives you access to day tours of  the park.  You can also kayak in the bay, hiring a tour operator who will drop you, your camping equipment and kayaks and pick you up later.  We chose another option, which was a 2-1/2 day cruise from Juneau aboard a boat holding about 100 people.  The boat (Spirit of Glacier Bay, though the same company has several ships and operates short cruises on them in various parts of the alaskan coast), is really designed for sightseeing.  Cabins are spartan, the food is excellent, and most of the passengers spend all their waking hours looking out the windows.  (We had great weather and spent most of the time sitting on deck at the bow of the ship).  Because boats are limited in the calendar days they can spend in the park, they time the cruise so you enter just after midnight and leave 24 hours later, meaning with the long days you spend 18-20 hours gawking at the sights and use the nights for travel.  Any time you don't spend sleeping outside the park can be spent watching whales (abundant) or porpoises (somewhat less so but you will surely see them).