North America, United States

Alaska: Summer Sun in the Great, Wild North

Kayaking among icebergs in Seward, Alakas

There are a million ways to see Alaska, but here’s a good start that will showcase both the coast and the interior – ahem, Mount Denali – in an easy-to-swallow week long itinerary. Read on to find out which stop we recommend skipping, and which excursion goes down in the books as a once-in-a-lifetime splurge that’s worth every penny.

THE LOWDOWN

JESSICA: Nothing says ‘Merica more than Alaska. So, last Fourth of July, we booked a couple of flights westward to experience all that the 49th state had to offer. Well, at least the central lower half of it.

I’d been to Alaska once years ago, having traveled along the southeastern part of the state, from Ketchikan to Juneau to Skagway, and loving every minute of it, had vowed to return.

TREVOR: This time around, I wanted to tackle a region that both of us would be visiting for the first time, so after some research, we landed on a road trip that would include Anchorage and Denali National Park, with a couple of stops in between.

Our road trip ended where the rainbow did … Denali.

Anchorage

J: Our flight into Anchorage arrived LATE. We made things easy on ourselves and booked an airport hotel just so that we could get some sleep before kicking things off the next day. With no particular recommendation, we booked the The Lakefront Anchorage, A Millennium Hotel because it sat on the nation’s busiest float plane takeoff lake. Most airport hotels are nothing to write home about, and this one was no different. But our stay did include shuttle service from the airport and to the rental car counter the following morning, so no complaints here.

T: First order of the day was to head over to the car rental counter to pick up our ride for the trip … an ever-adventurous Toyota Prius. HA. (But really, in the summer months, there was never a point when we needed “more” car than the Prius, and the gas mileage was great, as you’d expect.)

I’d heard good things about the Snow City Cafe in Anchorage, so we headed there after checking out of our hotel, and good news, the busy spot entirely lived up to its name. Good eats – like the Eggs Benedict for me and quiche for Jess – alongside strong coffee; what more could you want?

And then, since one coffee is never enough, we strolled a bit more of town, picked up more caffeine at AK Alchemist, housed in a repurposed shipping container, and then hit the road toward our first stop, the Kenai Peninsula.

Cold and rainy highway stops to walk remote beaches

J: The weather in July was brisk but nice and sunshine-y in Anchorage, but as soon as we drove out of the city, cloud cover filled the skies and rain started to fall. Of course, Trevor doesn’t mind the rain (eyeroll), so we stopped along the road to traverse a grassy beach in the drizzle and even I can admit that between the fog and the mountains and the sand and the water, it felt magical.

Note to self: If you’re even the tiniest bit inclined, pull over and soak up the scenery.

Seward

That afternoon, we made our way into Seward, a small sea port that boasted my favorite views of the trip, hundreds of boats sandwiched together in the icy blue water underneath looming, snow-capped mountains. It. Was. Gorgeous.

Our hotel room looked out over the marina; definitely request a balcony

T: And our hotel, the Harbor 360 Hotel, sat right on the marina and couldn’t have offered a better view. I’d recommend booking a water-facing room with a balcony if they’re available. And as an aside, don’t forget to pack an eye mask – even if you’re a dude – if you’re traveling in the summer months. Blackout shades are in most hotels, but for folks who are light-sensitive, it’s never enough given that the sky’s still bright past midnight.

J: That night, we walked just outside the hotel to grab a bite at Chinooks, where we sat looking out over the harbor and enjoying some good – if not particularly pricey – seafood.

T: In the morning, we hit up the Smoke Shack next door, which is an old, cramped train car. We waited for at least 30 minutes to get a seat, but the ambience and hearty breakfast was worth the wait.

A quick morning hike to Exit Glacier

We headed out immediately after eating for the quick-and-dirty Exit Glacier hike in Kenai Fjords National Park, only a few minutes from our hotel. Quick in that it only took about 60-90 minutes after plenty of exploration, and dirty in that the glacier is a particularly gray one. Our goal was to reserve some energy because that afternoon, we’d be indulging in our big ticket experience on the trip: kayaking through Bear Glacier’s iceberg-filled lake.

J: When I first stumbled upon Liquid Adventures in our trip research stage, I knew almost immediately that it was *exactly* the type of excursion that would make the trip. Not only did the offering include kayaking and truly stunning scenery, it also included a 45-minute jet boat ride out to Bear Glacier, which would offer a great seaside perspective of Seward that we wouldn’t have otherwise. The price was steep at $300 a person, but after thinking it over, we decided to pull the trigger. Pop over to the website, click “book this trip!” and S&%! … it was suddenly full. Pick up the phone and call to confirm … still booked. The jet boat is at capacity. BUT, they tell me, there is one way to get us in that day. We can book the Helicopter option, which allows us to get out ahead of the others for a private guided kayaking session as well as a roughly 15-minute heli ride there and back. For the low, low price of $600 a person. Mmmm-hmmm.

T: We talked this one over for a couple of days. That’s a damn expensive activity for an already expensive trip. Not surprisingly, the YOLO side of my brain won out over the fiscally responsible, and we booked the tour. It rained that day. And I’d still do it again. The total silence of the water, the woosh of a calving iceberg which were only 48-hours old chunks of ice that had broken off the glacier, the helicopter ride over the mountains, our tour guide … every piece added up to equal an experience that I doubt we’ll come close to again.

Kayaking at Bear Glacier, near Seward, Alaska

J: And the true piece de resistance? Hot cocoa and brownies served mid kayak tour. {Takeaway: If you’re planning a trip and have interest in kayaking the ‘bergs, book now! But also beware; guides were giddy over the fresh ice off Bear Glacier during our trip. All of those blue floating beauties aren’t guaranteed if the weather has been calm or if global warming suddenly reverses ;) }

T: You’ll see from our photos that it was an overcast, rainy day, which we thought would be a bummer until we arrived to Bear Glacier. Turns out that the ‘bergs shine an even more brilliant blue under gray skies.

Hot cocoa break mid kayak tour

Girdwood

J: After the afternoon that we had in Seward, it was admittedly difficult to leave town. If I could do it over, I’d cut Girdwood from our itinerary and stay in Seward another day. We never had a chance to fully explore the area and it’s sweet downtown district, which I only saw from the helicopter. But, reservations weren’t aligned and so onward we went. I was lured by the promise of the only resort in our trip, the Alyeska Resort and it’s Seven Glaciers restaurant (where we’d made a dinner reservation), perched at the top of a mountain tram and overlooking the valley.

The resort was pleasant and smelled like heaven thanks to a signature candle burning in the lobby. Our room was nice and clean and also generally unimpressive, but the aerial tram ride to dinner was simply gorgeous. At the top, we dined alongside other abnormally sophisticated looking Alaskan travelers, partaking in seafood (me) and ribeye steak (him) and beers (naturally).

T: The next morning, we packed up and headed north. We actually backtracked and passed through Anchorage as we trekked on toward Denali, which ended up being a roughly five-hour drive. To break up the trip, we jogged off the highway to Talkeetna – base camp for Denali climbers – for a late lunch. Talkeetna was one of my favorite stops in Alaska; it’s a little hippy town (read: LOTS of pot smoking in these parts) with stellar views of Mount Denali on clear days. We stopped into the Denali Brew Pub for dinner at the bar and scoped out a few of the shops along main street.

Side note: I dug the laid back vibe of Talkeetna so much that we made a point to return there for a longer visit on our ride home. On that day, we stopped for lunch at Mountain High Pizza Pie, grabbed ice cream and strolled town.

The road into Denali as we neared town

Denali

J: The drive to Denali was a wet one. But just as we neared the park, the hills opened up to rolling green vistas peppered with pines, and the sun peeked through the clouds and rewarded us with quite the scene upon our arrival.

Our lodging in Denali was the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge. Princess like the cruise ship, because, presumably, the cruise lines own the hotels and use them in their land-and-sea cruise packages. A nice, large hotel property situated along the river, which wasn’t too different than the other properties we saw nearby. All to say, there aren’t many options. For food or for lodging or for much else. Folks are here to see the mountains.

The lush Savage River Trail was easy, but beautiful

T: We kicked things off with the Savage River Trail, an easy but impressive three-mile hike along a river path; I’d say it’s the best short hike I’ve ever done.

After that, we were off for our second pre-planned activity of the trip, an ATV tour.

J: I’d read good things about Denali ATV Adventures on another blog and it seemed like a genius way to see the park in between hikes. We booked the two-and-a-half hour Explorer option and were teamed up with our own guides for a private tour. Because ATVs aren’t technically allowed in the national park, this vendor operates within a private land area – approximately 10 by 30 miles – that’s surrounded on three sides by the park. THIS is where you’ll ride, and while it’s not exactly the park, it’s essentially the park, full of wildlife and impressive scenery. And just plain fun, of course, assuming you like getting a little muddy.

Four-wheeling the Denali terrain in an area that’s ATV-safe

T: The next day, we tackled Savage Alpine Trail, a four-mile fairly strenuous hike starting at the Mountain Vista trailhead. Lots of elevation, but with the reward of gorgeous, sweeping views at the top of the mountain. The last 30 minutes of our hike, the skies opened and so here’s a little plug for good quality rain gear. Waterproof hiking boots and a hooded rain jacket, at least. And layers.

J: Lots of layers.

The stunning Savage Alpine trail from the top 
A cold brew and the movie-set bus from Into the Wild

T: Time for beer, so off we went to the 49th State Brewery in nearby Healy, home to the rickety school bus used for filming of Into the Wild. The brewery purchased it because too many hikers were heading out to see the real bus and dying/getting injured. So now, people who want to see the bus, can grab a beer instead of a poisonous berry, bear attack or flooding river.

The food was great, by the way. Order the Yak Burger.

Yakkity-yak … don’t come back.

J: And this is where our trip would’ve ended …

T: But … I forced Jess to stay another day in Denali to squeeze in more time on the trails and just maybe catch a glimpse of Denali, which we hadn’t actually seen yet. We hit the leisurely Horseshoe Lake Trail where we found a moose hydrating at the lake while we ogled from a safe distance.

Our first moose sighting on Horseshoe Lake Trail

And guys, on this day, we finally saw Mt. Denali. One thing we didn’t realize before we arrived is that only one-third of travelers ever lay eyes on Denali due to the weather system that exists among the mountains. You can be close. You can be far. If the weather system isn’t cooperating, you’ll easily stay a week without catching a glimpse. So, we got lucky. The clouds didn’t entirely dissipate and we were at a distance (near Talkeetna, actually), but we SAW THE MOUNTAIN.

J: Perfect timing, because it was time to head back to the D.

*Actual travel date: July 2017

Mount Denali is in the distance, behind this excited guy

RECOMMENDED ITINERARY

Day One

  • Fly into Anchorage and if you land late at night, book an airport hotel

Day Two

  • Grab a rental car; you’ll want a vehicle of your own to make stops as you please
  • Put your name on the list for breakfast at Snow City Cafe
  • Grab a quick coffee to go before heading out of town at AK Alchemist
  • Make your way toward Seward … stop anywhere and everywhere along your ride
  • Check into  Harbor 360 Hotel and request a marina-side room with balcony
  • Dinner at nearby Chinook’s
Seward at midnight

Day Three

A close-up at the Seward Marina

Day Four

  • Check out of Seward; drive back through Anchorage and head north toward Denali
  • Make a pit stop in Talkeetna to stretch legs and grab food or a beer
  • Arrive in Denali and check into a hotel or rented cabinScope out rental options; none of the big hotels are particularly unique or fantastic
A glimpse of Talkeetna lifestyle and retail options ;)

Day Five

  • Start the day with the Savage River Trail hike which is leisurely for all ages
  • Consider a tour using the park bus system or through an operator like Denali ATV Adventures
  • Grab a bite or make some food (there aren’t many restaurants up here)

Day Six

Farewell, Alaska

Day Seven

  • Cap your stay with another leisurely morning hike, this one at Horseshoe Lake Trail
  • Check out and head back toward Anchorage with a stop in Talkeetna for lunch or an early dinner – and one last chance to glimpse Mount Denali!
  • Catch an evening flight home
We pulled off the highway to snap this creepy old (and now defunct) motel

TIPS AND SUGGESTIONS

  • Be sure to pack layers, layers and more layers. Light layers, heavy layers, waterproof layers. The climate can be pretty diverse and when hiking – which you’re sure to do some of – it’s incredibly helpful to peel off and pull on as needed.
  • Don’t miss Seward! It doesn’t look all that impressive when generally researching Alaska, but it’s a must-see and a great stay if you can swing a night (or two!) should you fly into Anchorage.
  • Save your sanity and pick up a bear bell that can clip onto your backpack as well as bear spray while you’re in Alaska. Hiking – even on busier trails – can put you in a tricky wildlife situation and the locals advise that you’re prepared. We each carried a bottle and I wore a bell during ALL of our hikes, even those that didn’t veer too far from the parking area.
  • Consider a rental car, or better yet, an RV rental (that’s my plan for next time) so that you can take your sweet time and stop wherever, whenever you’d like. We had considered taking a train from Anchorage to Denali, but I’m so glad we didn’t.
  • Never traveled to Alaska? Get into the mood and learn more about the land and the risk that comes with the Great North by reading or watching Into the Wild, or checking out my favorite novel of 2018, The Great Alone.
Denali in the distance

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