Several years ago my mom planned on taking my older two kids, one year apart in school, to Alaska as a high school graduation present. She asked me to plan it. I told her no, I would not plan a trip to Alaska for any family members that did not include me. Well, it worked, Mom laughed and said ok, plan it for all of us!
Alaska had long been calling to me, and it still does. As large as the state is, any visit is going to touch a very small portion. We did what we could to see a cross section in the time we had. My mom had envisioned a cruise and then a land trip to see Mt. McKinley. But her budget did not permit that.
I planned us a land trip from Anchorage to Denali National Park and then down to Seward on the Kenai Peninsula, where we took a 6-hour whale watching cruise into the Gulf of Alaska. We stayed in bed and breakfasts except for the Back Country Lodge in Denali National Park and a large cabin in Seward. The hosts at the b&bs were wonderful and one, in the town of Willow, even suggested a side trip to one of Alaska’s state parks, which was rehabbing the Independence Gold Mine. We crossed a mountain pass, the kids played in the July snow remaining, and then we saw how the miners had lived. Driving through the Matanushak-Sisitna Valley on the way back to Anchorage, we did not see the famous huge cabbages nor could we see Russia. LOL
The decision to stay deep inside Denali National Park was not difficult. The park has one long road with amazing scenery and a plethora of wildlife. Access is restricted to the 25-30 buses that operate each day the park is open, roughly from the middle of May to the middle of September. Most visitors pay for a round trip of 4-8 hours in length to go as far as the Eiselson Visitor Center at the 66 mile marker. This is the first possible view of Mt. McKinley, weather permitting.
It was that “weather permitting” warning as well as my strong desire to get off the more beaten track that prompted me to present a persuasive argument to head further on to one of the two lodges located 92 miles inside the park. Both are located at Kantishna, a former gold mining town. It takes 8 hours to drive there. The bus does not travel quickly on the gravel road and there are numerous stops for wildlife photography and a few rest stops. We were fed a lunch as we traveled and a snack at one of the stops.
We enjoyed 3 meals a day, activities such as panning for gold, fly fishing, hiking in the tundra and the opportunity to take a small 4-seater plane up and around Mt. McKinley. The small airport at Kantishna is one of a few privately owned businesses located in that area and the driver told us that the prior year the fireweed had not given enough notice. Traditionally, the blooms move up the stalk during the summer and the estimate to snow is the length in inches from the highest bloom. But the summer before we went there was an early storm and all people in Kantishna had to be flown out as the snow was too deep for the buses to travel on the road.
One of the best views of the mountain is at Wonder Lake, a beautiful still reflective surface that permitted this picture postcard capture from my camera. One reason Denali appears to be so dramatic is that it is almost completely visible from the base to the peak. Located at about 2,000 feet above sea level, the visible height of the 20,320 foot high mountain is actually higher than the visible elevation difference of Mt. Everest (base elevation there is 17,000 with a total elevation of 29,000 meaning only 12,000 feet is visible).
Another amazing aspect of the natural landscape that I enjoyed was the braided rivers, flowing from glaciers and carrying a lot of sediment, these shallow but rapid-flowing channels weave across a wide floodplain.
And the wildlife! We saw so many caribou that it got to be “hohum, another caribou”. We saw moose, wolves, bears, as well as eagles, the Dall sheep and much much more.
And then we went south to Seward to be able to experience the sea-life in the Alaskan waters. We did see one whale, a number of sea otters, seals, sea lions and many many birds. We returned to our rented cabin where a hot tub called to us.
The glaciers we saw from the cruise were amazing but perhaps the best awareness we got about size, color and NOISE was when we stopped to see Exit Glacier.
Our last day in Anchorage we visited the Alaska Native Heritage Center which had a marvelous outdoor exhibit with the various tribal lodging presented around a small lake. We also participated in a native dance lesson.
Alaska still calls to me…..I will go back. And no, this does not break my “do not repeat a location” rule….there is a LOT more to see!!!