Saturday, June 12, 2010

Alaska by Land

Our big trip this year was to Alaska for 2 weeks! We got a great deal on a 7 night cruise on Princess for $399 per person, so we decided to spend a week driving around the interior before getting onto the cruise ship.

It started with a flight from Burbank, thru Seattle to Anchorage. In the Seattle airport, we had fish tacos for lunch at Anthony's restaurant. They were excellent! Once in Anchorage, we were hungry again. Our Moon guidebook recommended the Moose's Tooth Brewery. It was also an excellent choice. We shared a pizza and drank a couple of pints of the brew. Unfortunately, we didn't pick up a 'growler' (jug of beer to take home). We stayed at Elmendorf AFB lodging, which enabled us to splurge later in the trip.

Our first day was spent going to church and tooling around Anchorage in our rental car (Alaska Railroad Depot, Visitor's Center, Local Farmer's Market and Star the Reindeer. In the evening hours, we hiked to a scenic waterfall (Thunderbird Falls) in Chugach State Park.

Day 2 on the ground, we drove 127 miles along Turnagain Arm from Anchorage to Seward. En route we checked out the Girdwood ski area and nearby gold mine, then stopped in to the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center (Bear, Caribou, Moose, Oxen, Bald Eagles). Then we dropped into the Portage Glacier visitor center and arranged a boat tour across the lake to the glacier face. This was a fantastic beginning to our overall glacier experience. Most of Portage Lake was still frozen, giving it a truly 'explorer like' feel.

Then we stopped at the Exit Glacier visitor center (and got a N.P. stamp) where the National Park ranger told us it was one of just a few days a year when you could hike to the toe of Exit Glacier. The reason was that runoff hadn't yet increased, so you could still ford the stream to get to the toe. What she didn't say was that we had to wade through 24-inch deep snow to get there. We were soaking wet, but we touched the toe of the glacier (see above photo). Amazing!

In Seward, we stayed at Hotel Seward for 2 nights. Food and lodging in Seward is tricky as its a small town. We ended up picking up some food from the town grocery store. On day 3, we went to the Alaska Sea Life Center and opted for the "Behind the Scenes" tour. It was $12 pp extra, but we ended up as the only two on the tour. So it was neat to see what goes on behind the tanks. We also did some local hiking in Seward, spotted sea otters and enjoyed walking around a bit.

Day 4 took us from Seward, up Rt 3 to Denali N.P. On the drive, we stopped to see a salmon hatchery, then visited the Iditarod Museum in Wasilla. For lunch, we checked out the Road House in Talkeetna (MKJ recommendation). Five stars here for excellent atmosphere and superb food. It's also walking distance to a Denali N.P. ranger station, where Elizabeth could stamp our National Parks passport book. We checked into the Dome Home B&B, 12 miles North of Denali and realized that in the land of the midnight sum, 8pm was way to early to turn in for the night. And luckily, the Denali Park Road was still open to milepost 30. It is normally only open to milepost 15. So we jumped in the rental car and drove into the park. We saw Moose, Caribou and a porcupine.

On day 5, our first stop was to the Denali sled dog kennels for a pretty cool demo. Humorously enough, a moose was on the sled dog trail, so the park rangers called for a 'Wildlife Technician' to scare off the moose. Otherwise, the sled dogs wouldn't run the path. On the long walk back to our car, we too ran into the same moose.

Our afternoon activity was the 8 hour bus tour of Denali. We had mixed feelings about an 8 hour tour before hopping on. But it was truly amazing. Our guide was a very bright fellow and taught us so much about the landscape, flora and fauna. We saw the 'Big 5:' Moose, Bear, Caribou, Wolf, Dall Sheep. Jeff's favorite part was the erratic boulder - a 25' tall rock placed into a field by a prehistoric glacier.

Our second day in Denali was gobbled up by us driving into the park for several hikes. All meals in Denali were eaten at the Denali Salmon Bake - an eclectic local joint 1.5 miles north of the park entrance. We normally eat at different places on our trips to get a flavor of the locale, but after our first meal at the salmon bake, we were sold! Try the salmon on a cedar plank, the BBQ pulled pork or the fish tacos.

The last treat of our land portion came in an unassuming way. En route back to Anchorage before getting onto our cruise boat, we stopped to see a mother black bear and her two babies. They were only 15 feet away (we stayed in the car, then quickly moved on). We spent another night at Elmendorf AFB, then took the Whittier Shuttle to Whittier to board our boat. Of note, the road to Whittier goes thru a mountain on a 1-lane road shared by northbound traffic, southbound traffic and the Alaska Railroad. Each of the 3 get 15 minutes of transit time per hour so you have to hit the tunnel just right.

Observations: Alaska is America's Last Frontier. We were very lucky to have the chance to visit the interior to see the beauty.

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