The Best of Alaska Trip

9 days in our 49th state

This was my first trip to Alaska, and I was determined to use the opportunity to see as much as I could, and scout-out opportunities for future trips. I spent a couple of days in the Anchorage area, drove down the Kenai Peninsula to Homer, Soldotna, and Seward, visited Denali National Park, and then completed the loop up to Fairbanks, North Pole, Delta Junction, and Glennallen. It's a good plan for serious roadtrippers, who don't mind a lot of mind-blowingly-scenic driving.

Day 1

Hiking and exploring in the Anchorage area

Day 1 actually began around 1:30 a.m., when my flight arrived in Anchorage. I caught a few hours of sleep, then started my day with a trip to Walmart, to buy a new cell phone (I learned that my cheap prepaid CDMA phone didn't work in Alaska). After fixing that problem, I tackled an easy trail: the hike to Thunder Bird Falls, north of Anchorage.

After that hike, I returned to Anchorage and explored a bit -- including a drive out to Earthquake Park. Then, I headed south, with a scenic drive along the Seward Highway and Turnagain Arm. Then, another hike: I explored a short portion of the trail to McHugh and Rabbit Lakes, which provided fantastic views of Turnagain Arm and the Kenai Peninsula's mountains.

I finished the day with some wildlife-spotting time at Potter Marsh, on the south side of Anchorage. I didn't make it to sunset, though. It was a long day.

Day 2

Hiking in Anchorage, then the drive onto the Kenai Peninsula

Day 2 began with a leg-buster of a hike at Flattop Mountain. This local landmark is a favorite hike for locals and visitors, and provides a great view of Anchorage and the Cook Inlet.

That hike filled the first portion of my day. Once it was done, I needed to do some driving. I headed down the Seward Highway, then the Sterling Highway, to my overnight stop at Soldotna. With a few hours of daylight remaining (there's never any shortage of daylight hours in Alaska in late spring), I drove out to Kenai Beach, then drove north, and then south to Kalifornsky Beach. I returned to Kenai Beach for my first Alaska sunset -- and I learned a lot about how things work up here.

Day 3

Lots of driving down, and up, the Kenai Peninsula

If there's one day on this trip that I tried to do more than I should, this is it. I was starting the day in Soldotna and ending it in Seward. But in between, I decided to drive south, all the way to the end of Highway 1 in Homer, then backtrack to Soldotna, and cross over to Seward. It was so much driving, that I didn't really have enough time to spend in Homer.

That said, I'm glad I was able to see it all. Since this was my first trip to Alaska, I figured that my primary goal was to see as much as I could, so that I'd be familiar with it all on future trips. I would have liked more time in Homer, but now I know I'll just have to go back.

Day 4

Hiking near Exit Glacier, in Kenai Fjords National Park

After the previous day's long drive, I was happy to be spending two nights in Seward. At first, I had considered taking a sightseeing cruise out of Seward, to see glaciers and whales in Kenai Fjords National Park. But, I awoke to cloudy skies, and I decided I didn't want to spend money on a boat ride in less-than-ideal conditions.

Instead, I drove down the dirt road that runs south from Seward, along Resurrection Bay, to Lowell Point. It turned out to be a great spot for bald eagle spotting!

Most of the day was spent in Kenai Fjords National Park, which is just outside of town. There's only one way to drive into the park, and just one thing to see: Exit Glacier. This massive river of ice is impressive, even on a cloudy day. I hiked out to the edge of the glacier, then followed the Harding Icefield Trail as far as I could, for better views of Exit Glacier.

Day 5

A long, rainy drive, and an unexpected, spectacular sunset

Skies were gloomy on Day 4, but downright dismal on Day 5. I awoke in Seward, and my destination was Denali National Park. That meant a long, hard day of driving, that would be challenging in the best of conditions.

But the best of conditions were nowhere to be found in Alaska on this day. It rained on the Kenai Peninsula, it rained in the Mat-Su valley, and it rained on the Parks Highway, all the way to Denali National Park. Nearly 400 miles of rain, mostly on Alaska's two-lane highways.

I reached my motel in Healy, late in the day. It was also depressing -- a sparse room inside a prefabricated mobile housing unit. I ate the Thai food that I picked up outside Denali's entrance, and then I looked outside. I was finally on the edge of the clouds. It was still raining, but the sun was also shining, and it was just about an hour away from an 11:55 p.m. sunset. I had already driven plenty, but I drove some more. I headed northbound on the Parks Highway, chasing the sun, the edge of the rain, and a relentless double rainbow. It turned into a great day, after all.

Day 6

An entire day on Denali National Park's stunning road

On this day, I let the National Park Service do the driving. Private vehicles aren't allowed on the dirt portion of Denali's scenic park road, so I caught a ride on a shuttle -- a lumbering old school bus -- for the 66-mile trip out to Eielson Visitor Center.

The ride through the park on a shuttle bus is wonderful and frustrating. It's tough to see such amazing scenery, without the freedom to hop out and photograph it at will. It's also tough on anyone who suffers from motion sickness. When we finally got to Eielson, I needed time to recover, and I actually found a place to take a nap. But then, I hiked around the visitor center, and hiked part of the road before catching a bus. Onboard the bus, we stopped for a family of sheep, and at another spot, a brown bear, right beside the road. Once safely past the wildlife, I got off the bus and walked. For an hour. All alone. It was amazing.

When the next bus finally arrived, I hopped aboard, and discovered that I was the only person onboard, aside from the driver, Glenn. Never before had he driven back with an empty bus -- or with just one passenger. He was thrilled to have someone to talk to, and I was happy to hear about the kind of experiences a person has, when they spend every summer driving Denali's park road. And when I (finally) caught a glimpse of Denali (the mountain), Glenn slammed on the brakes, and backed up to a suitable viewing spot.

I finished the day by re-driving the portion of the park road where private vehicles are allowed. I saw a porcupine, and a family of moose that I had also seen earlier aboard the bus. Alaska is cool.

Day 7

The drive north to Fairbanks, then some exploring and hiking

The drive up to Fairbanks isn't quite as dramatic as some of the other stretches of Alaska highways. There are mountains and curves and trees, but with less drama than in the Alaska Range, hope to Mount McKinley (Denali) and other big peaks. Fairbanks, it turns out, is also not quite as thrilling. It's a very spread-out small town on the edge of civilization.

The best thing in downtown Fairbanks is the visitor center. It's new and modern, and full of helpful people and literature. I received a suggestion on how to fill the rest of my day: drive out to Angel Rocks, in the Chena River State Recreation Area. The 50-something-mile drive didn't sound long, but it was. The hike was okay, but probably not worth the long drive. Oh, and then there was another 50-something-mile drive back to Fairbanks.

I finished the day with an up-close look at the Alaska Oil Pipeline, and then a walk around Creamer's Field. An old dairy farm has been preserved as a bird-watching area. I saw more mosquitoes than birds.

Day 8

A long drive down Richardson Highway

In order to get back to Anchorage, I either needed to drive back down the Parks Highway, or cover new ground on the Richardson Highway, which forms a loop to the east. I knew parts of this road would be beautiful, so I decided to take the long way around. Plus, I needed to visit Santa.

Just outside of Fairbanks, you'll find the town of North Pole, Alaska. It has fully capitalized on its holiday theme, with attention centering on the Santa Claus House -- a giant gift shop where the holidays never end. I visited Santa, bought the appropriate souvenirs, and headed on down the road.

The next big attraction on the Richardson Highway is the end of the Alaska Highway, which connects Alaska to the lower 48 states. I'd love to drive it someday, but for now, I had to be happy with seeing where it ended.

Further south, there isn't much in the way of civilization, but the scenery gets much better. I detoured for a while onto the Denali Highway -- a mostly dirt road that cuts across the loop made by the more developed roads. With no gas stations in sight, I held my breath and clinched the steering wheel as I coasted into Gakona, Alaska on fumes. The innkeepers at my roadhouse in Gakona were kind enough to sell me some gas. I really, truly, almost didn't make it.

I ate a burger at the bar next-door to the roadhouse, then drove around a little on my newly-purchased fuel. The sunset, looking towards Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, was fantastic.

Day 9

The drive back to Anchorage, plus a historic detour and a final hike

From Gakona, Anchorage is about 200 spectacular miles, mostly on the Glenn Highway. Along the way, I passed the Matanuska Glacier -- half of the namesake for the Mat-Su Valley that surrounds Anchorage. I also drove past Lion's Head, a perfectly placed mountain that's pictured in just about every Alaskan road-trip guide ever published.

Shortly before arriving in Anchorage, I detoured up to the Independence Mine Historic Site. It was still snowy, but accessible by foot. This ghost town has been preserved to provide a history lesson on Alaska's mining history.

But I didn't stop there. I needed one more good hike before catching my 2 a.m. flight. So I made my way to Rendezvous Peak. It was a grueling hike up the almost-vertical side of a mountain, but the view was great. It rained, snowed, and sleeted on me, only about 12 hours before I would arrive home to Florida. It was an amazing way to end an amazing trip -- my first to Alaska, but certainly not my last.