This is, sadly, the last post in our Off to Alaska tour. There are two things we think you absolutely must do while in Alaska: one, take a bus tour through Denali National Park and two, take a boat tour through Kenai Fjords National Park.
We took a 9-hour tour, starting from the harbor heading about 75 miles to a glacier and back through Kenai Fjords National Park with Kenai Fjords Tours. The tour is $184 per person, including breakfast and lunch (surprisingly good), and was well worth the price. The captain was extremely knowledgeable, giving information throughout the tour, and I don’t know it if it was just luck, but we saw plenty of wild life, though my camera wasn’t that great at capturing it.
Before the tour
We saw some jellyfish, apparently there is an abundance of phytoplankton and zooplankton in the fjord estuary
Seagulls! Wow. But you can see some scale based on the size of them coming out of that cave
Looking out at distant glaciers
Hopefully the pictures speak for themselves. All in all, we highly recommended the Kenai Fjords Tour if you’re not used to seeing fjords, whales, sea lions, orcas, glaciers and puffins… which I think is many of us.
First of all, Sarah Palin, you are a liar. I never got to see Russia from where we were staying, which was quite the disappointment as I’ve heard Putin’s winter coat should just be coming in. But, the scenery more than makes up for it in Alaska.
Driving between the major cities, Anchorage and Fairbanks, takes about six or seven hours. Being battle-hardened road trippers, Mandy and I had no problems here, and the mid-point between the two cities is Denali National Park, which is just pants-on-head, stupid beautiful. If we had any hard feelings about leaving Fairbanks, it was only because the farm we were staying at was so nice. The rest of the trip was pretty okay, but I didn’t feel like we were really mourning our leaving of the city as much as our dwelling.
If you’ve spent time anywhere else in Alaska, your first impression of Anchorage is that it’s much more of a city than most other places.
In fact, Anchorage is the most populated city in Alaska, at ~292,000 people. The second biggest is Fairbanks, at ~31,535. The difference in population of the most populated to second most populated is around 257,000 people. As you can expect, there is a lot more to do in Anchorage. We tried to hit as much as we could in our week there. I think we did alright.
On our first day in Anchorage, we did some sightseeing in downtown where Mandy managed to make it to almost all (two out of three, ain’t bad) of the yarn shops and we took a humbling, interactive hike that detailed the sort of destruction a 9.0+ earthquake wrought upon the city in ’64. I also slipped down a muddy hill, thoroughly ruining everything I was wearing for the day. All in all, 10/10, would embarrass myself in front of locals again.
Our second day was spent on an eleven hour boat tour of Kenai Fjords in Seward, Alaska. Much like the Denali trip, we’ll give this section its own post, but glaciers, whales, puffins, and sealife abound.
The rest of our trip consisted of a lot of hiking, sightseeing, and coffee drinking. Anchorage actually has more espresso stands, per capita, than anywhere else in the US.
The hike was an extreme uphill stair climb against gravity, and when you got past the steps, you were rock climbing the west of the way to the top. Combined with mossy, loose rocks and slippery mud, it made for a harrowing climb. But in the end, as always, we conquered the mountain and were in for a hell of a view at the top. You could see most of Anchorage and the Seward peninsula leading out into the ocean, as well as a fantastic backdrop of mountains. The climb down was actually a lot easier, as you could crab-walk most of the way.
Views from the trail
Go, John, go!
Where’s the trail?
Mandy and John on top of the world, or at least Anchorage, AK
If you look closely, you can see the parking lot to the right of those hills.
These guys had the right idea – jump back down to the parking lot!
About 40 minutes out of Anchorage, this trail system felt a lot more removed from the city than the other trails. There are salmon and beaver viewing decks, along with meandering, shady trails. The Rodak Nature Loop is nice and easy, probably taking no more than 30 minutes to go around if you stop for a bit at the viewing decks. The Dew Mound trail comes off of the Rodak Nature Loop, it’s an easy but not boring hike. We swear we heard a wolf howling a few times while we hiked!
Dew Mound Trail starts after the Rodak Nature Loop
John on the Dew Mound Trail, watching for bears!
From the salmon viewing deck
Taking a break from nature, we walked the Anchorage Museum and saw tons of native Alaskan art and tools. We watched a talked-up movie about the aurora that was of horrendous quality, with seats out of a medieval torture manual – seriously, don’t pay for this unless you can get in the viewing room first.
By the end of the trip, we had put 2000 miles on our rental car, but there is still so much more out there waiting to be seen. A monumental state with monumental qualities, Alaska is not a state to be experienced in a matter of weeks. Regardless of the time you have, anybody that considers themselves a fan of nature should pack a bag and head off to Alaska.
We had been planning on visiting Denali National Park once we made it to Anchorage, since it was an hour closer than Fairbanks. But, the dismal weather in Fairbanks had us itching for a change of scenery. On a whim, we decided to drive out and see what sort of magic Alaska had in store for us.
It turns out, it had a lot.
Rangers showing off the Denali huskies
Train tracks along the trail toward the Wilderness Access Center in Denali National Park
Under the train tracks along one of the trails near the visitor center
Over the creek
Salmon Bake – an awesome restaurant outside of Denali National Park
A view near the science center at Denali
Visit the huskies at the Denali Kennels
On our first visit to Denali, we took a hike on a couple of the trails near the Wilderness Access Center and the Visitor’s Center, and we scheduled a bus tour for the next day.
Before we left the park for the day, we heard there was going to be a demonstration of the Denali sled dogs given by the rangers, so we visited the kennels. There were husky puppies and we got to see the dogs pull a sled around in front of us! Such cute! Wow.
The next day, we got up around 3am to get to Denali National Park for our 6:15am, 11 hour bus tour. We managed to catch some aurora displays on the way (sorry for the crappy iPhone pics of it, but we didn’t have time to stop for pictures).
Needless to say, the views in the park were breathtaking. We highly recommend taking a tour farther into the park than you’re allowed to drive yourself because the mountain ranges become more spectacular with each mile. We saw tons of wildlife and had a great time!
Aurora borealis on our way to Denali
Morning sky from Fairbanks to Denali
Waiting for the bus before our bus tour
Mandy and John on the bus, REALLY early in the morning!
A moose and her baby that we saw pretty early on the bus tour
Dall’s Sheep – We never got to see them any closer than this
One of the many grizzly bears we saw from the safety of the tour bus
Two caribou seen from the tour bus
The views during the tour were amazing!
Wonder Lake, the farthest part we got into the park
The view from Wonder Lake
Arctic Ground Squirrel – so cute!
Mount Mckinley from the Mandy and John near the Eielson Visitor Center
John in front of yet another amazing view
Mandy and John on a trail in front of the Eielson Visitor Center
With minimal planning — as we now like to do because we’ve realized jam-packed weeks of vacationing are tiring — we attempted to leave Denver for Fairbanks, Alaska two weeks ago. After a delayed flight, we managed to make it to Fairbanks a day later than expected.
Just a traveling tip here, if you call your hotel to let them know you won’t be able to make it for the first night of many nights of your reservation, be sure you are positive they understand you still want to stay the subsequent nights of your stay! We got to our hotel to find out that they had sold our room even though we had called them. We holed up in a Motel 8 instead and fell promptly asleep, hoping to make up our lost time in the coming days.
Fairbanks is a big place to navigate, but a small place to live and hang out. Maybe there’s not much to do in the summer, or maybe we just didn’t plan enough. Most of the roads are filled with construction crews trying to finish their work before winter sets in. There’s plenty of hiking to do, but the summer days seem to be typically overcast and rainy, making pretty miserable hiking weather.
We spent the next couple of days at Chena Hot Springs Resort, hoping to catch some sights of the aurora and to bask in the hot springs located on sight. The resort was…pretty alright. The room we stayed was sparse, and the cabin itself was being painted and renovated, which led to much noise and cigarette smoke through most of the day and night. The weather was not very cooperative, resulting in a nonstop overcast sky and rain throughout most of our stay, which was not conducive to viewing the aurora, so we missed out there. But, the hot springs, pool, and jacuzzi, as well a pretty great restaurant made up for some of the trouble.
Caribou kept at the resort
Little cottage on the resort grounds where you can buy a massage
Mushrooms we found on the trail
John, pretending to be excited about this very boring trail we took around the resort
Chena Hot Springs Resort was covered in flowers and vegetables
John, enjoying dinner at the restaurant at the resort
There was a stinky goat and chicken pen on the resort grounds
We left Chena feeling indifferent about Fairbanks, moving on to our next base of operations for the rest of our trip, a small farm cabin on a sheep farm via Airbnb. The cabin at Arctic Roots Farm was clean and comfortable, surrounded by tons of flowers, with a great view of the pasture and mountains from the living room and porch. Unexpectedly, the couple that runs the farm also provided homemade continental breakfast each morning — scones, banana bread, homemade yogurt and strata. Needless to say, our stay in the cabin on the farm really perked up our moods after becoming a bit jaded while staying at the ‘resort’.
This is one of the first places we visited and the museum inside is definitely worth a visit. It’s free and a bit interactive, full of information about Fairbanks culture and wildlife. The first thing we realized about Fairbanks while viewing the exhibits is that it seemed like most of the action seems to occur during the snowy winters.
Musk Oxen are the providers of one of the softest, warmest fibers available on earth, so they were the reason we went to visit the Large Animal Research Station (LARS for short). At the station, you can get fairly close to musk oxen and caribou/reindeer. Take the $10 tour to learn a lot of interesting facts about the animals and the research that the University of Alaska Fairbanks does regarding these animals.
The Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum was one of the places we’d actually planned on going before heading out to Alaska, we weren’t expecting too much but were pleasantly surprised at the size and quality of this museum. We’re not huge car enthusiasts, but really loved walking through the museum and seeing all of the antique cars. Antique dresses and fashion accessories were displayed alongside the cars, which gave you a feel for what women were wearing while riding around in these cars.
An old snowmobile
The museum displays women’s fashion trends alongside the cars
Learned that the first Audubon Society was started because of the overuse of feathers in fashionable hats
John trying on hats
Loved the typography / logos on all of the antique cars
I’m not sure if we just weren’t looking at Pioneer Park the right way, but we found this (luckily free) park to be a bit depressing. It’s full of historic cabins that have been converted into shops and cafes, playgrounds and museums. It seemed like a place that used to be exciting and fun but lost the excitement along the way. But hey, it was free.
A creepy old bedroom
Cool raven art
Lonely street in Pioneer Park
Steese Highway Scenic Byway
Perhaps if the weather was clearer, this drive would have been better but it just felt boring. We turned around after a couple of hours, having gone that long hoping the next turn would reward us with amazing views of… anything. The only interesting thing we saw on half of this byway was part of the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline.
Someone offered to take our picture in front of the pipeline
We felt like we could have been anywhere with views like this
Another view on the byway
After making it to the farm, the weather began clearing a little and we decided to make our trips to Denali Nat’l Park, which we’ll save for its own blog post, but suffice to say, it was absolutely incredible. After multiple trips out to the park, across mountains and massive straights of amazing scenery and roads, finally catching the aurora, and seeing the highest mountain peak in North America, we had had our fill of Fairbanks, and knew that Anchorage was calling for us.
Travel Blog: A couple in search of exploration points