Dates: August 22nd to September 1st
Transportation Used: Rental Car, Boat, Hand Tram
Currency: US Dollar
Accommodation: Tent, Hostels
Number of Photos Taken: 1197
Favorite Place: Denali National Park
Average Cost of a Full Meal: 20 – 25 Canadian Dollars
Average Cost of a Night per Person: $30 – 35 per person
Favourite Foods Eaten: Grilled Halibut with Garlic, Pizza from Mountain High Pizza Pie in Talkeetna
I’ve always wanted to travel to Alaska. Even just the name “Alaska” seems to inspire thoughts of cold, open places where only the strongest things can survive. Places that are both beautiful and intimidating, that are ready to be discovered and explored. Even though Alaska is part of the United States, it seems to be the forgotten state that is more like its own country that has been isolated and put into a corner for bad behaviour.
For some reason, it’s these cold, far-off places that I always want to visit the most. More so than any warm beach or cool blue waters. So, when Hilary and I had 10 days of holidays to use from our jobs, Alaska was an easy choice. We found cheap flights and it was fairly close to Calgary, where we were working, so we booked the flights and went.
Anchorage: (August 22)
We arrived in Anchorage around 1:00PM after a brief layover in Seattle. We had reserved a rental car for the trip, so once we had signed the papers and gotten the keys we were on our way.
TIP: We booked our car through Avis as they had the best reviews and prices at the time. Our total bill was about $650 for the 10 days.
Seward: (August 22 – 24)
Our first stop of the trip was Seward. If you’re wondering, it’s not pronounced “Sea-Word” like we had thought, but instead it’s “Soo-Word”. It’s unfortunate because it makes you think of smelly things every time you say it.
Seward is a very small town on the southern coast of Alaska. It has a small harbour and is surrounded by steep mountains that are fantastic for hiking. It tends to be a bit of a touristy spot with cruise ships frequently harboured at the edge of the port, but it’s easy to forget about that with all of the wide-open places to explore and get away from the crowds.
We stayed at the Moby Dick Hostel in Seward. It worked well for us and had everything that we needed. It was within walking distance of both the harbour and the downtown. In general, we found that the hostels in Alaska were good, but weren’t quite as organized or established as hostels in other places, like Europe. This is to be expected as the tourist season is quite short, and they have far fewer visitors. But they are still a great way to travel the area, and beat sleeping outside if the weather turns bad.
On our first night in Seward, we were exploring the town and spent some time sitting on a bench near the waterfront. We were only there about 20 minutes, but in that time we saw sea otters, eagles, seals, and porpoises. One of the things that Alaska is known for, is it’s rich and varied wildlife populations, and these first sightings in Seward were just going to be the first of many during our trip.
We knew that we wanted to do some hiking when we went to Seward, so on our first full day, we headed to Exit Glacier. It’s only about 20 minutes from Seward by car and is one of the more popular hikes in the area.
TIP: We had our own car rental, but I believe that there is a bus that can take you out to Exit Glacier. Otherwise, there are plenty of other travellers around Seward so you might be able to hitch a ride from someone else that has a car if you’re able to make a few connections.
The hike is quite popular, and for good reason. But even though there is a fairly large parking lot at the bottom of the glacier, once you get on the trails, you don’t see nearly as many people as you would think. Most people stay on the bottom trails which go out to the foot of the glacier and back, and don’t do the full hike along the glacier.
Our goal was to hike the entire trail, which climbs along beside Exit Glacier and eventually ends overlooking the Harding Ice Fields. The entire hike took us about 5 hours, and was definitely one of the highlights of the trip. The first part of the hike starts out in the thick bush and doesn’t offer many views of the area, but as soon as you break out above the treeline, the views of Exit Glacier and the ice fields are all of the encouragement that you need to make it to the end.
Throughout the trip, we didn’t eat at restaurants very often, but one of the nights that we were in Seward, we ate at Nellie’s Roadhouse restaurant along the main street (4th avenue). This was our first time trying fresh Alaskan Halibut, and it is something that everyone should have when they’re in Alaska.
TIP: The restaurants along the harbour were very expensive, and we didn’t end up eating there. Instead, we found that there are a few restaurants along the main street (which is at the opposite side of town from the harbour) that were far more reasonably priced.
Beside hiking, we also wanted to get out on the water while we were in Alaska. While we were still in Seward, we booked a trip into the Kenai Fjords and it was one of our more expensive endeavours, but it was a lot of fun and checked off many of things that we wanted to see.
TIP: There are several companies that offer these trip and several tours within each company. I believe the company that we went with was Kenai Fjords Tours and we did the National Park Tour which was about 8 hours total.
We were able to see grey whales, eagles, seals, otters, and many other sea birds that I’ll probably never remember the names of. My favorite, however, were the porpoises, which would swim along beside the boat because they were attracted by the pressure wake that the boat creates.
Hilary’s favorites were the puffins. Mostly because they are very clumsy fliers (apparently because they don’t have any tail feathers) so they are a lot of fun to watch land in the water. They aren’t able to land with any precision, so when they hit the water they do several flips and flops before they splash to a stop.
Besides the wildlife, the tour was a great way to see the coastline and get close to some glaciers. We were even able to see some calving of the glaciers, which is just the fancy way of saying that big chunks of ice fell off the glaciers and crumbled into the water, making all sorts noise and commotion.
Our general rule is to avoid tours as often as we can, but in this case, the tour enabled us to see wildlife and coastline that we would have had a hard time seeing any other way. I would definitely recommend the tour, but you have to be prepared to spend 8 hours on a fairly crowded boat, so keep that in mind.
Later that night, after we had returned from the tour, we found out that the northern lights forecast looked promising for that night. Some of the other people that we had met at the hostel were planning to head out to see them, so we decided to join them. We made our way to one of the local bars along the main street to wait until around 2:00AM when the northern lights were expected to show.
The bar that we went to had a lot of character and was a very typical “dive bar” that you would expect in a small Alaskan town. It was a lot of fun to spend a night out with fellow travellers from places like Isreal, Argentina, and Germany. And it was even made more unique by the character of a small town Alaskan bar. These are the fun experiences of travelling that are often hard to describe in words, so I’ll let you use your imagination here.
Once it was near the time that the northern lights were supposed to appear, we headed down to the water and found a spot on the rocky beach. They started right on schedule and it was a clear night that was perfect for seeing them. I still haven’t quite figured out the night photography thing, and I tried my best to get photos, but it was hard to capture how they looked when we were there. It was made even tougher by the lights from the town.
Homer: (August 24 – 27)
After Seward, we made our way over to the town of Homer for a couple of days. It’s about a 3 hour drive from Seward to Homer, but the scenery through the mountains and along the coast makes the time fly by.
We found Homer to be slightly larger and more spread out than Seward and it had very different feel. Homer is more isolated and has the “end of the road” feeling, whereas Seward is still fairly close to Anchorage and doesn’t feel as far off of the beaten path. To us it seemed more real and unchanged by tourism and still felt very much like a small Alaskan fishing town, rather than a small Alaskan tourist town.
TIP: We stayed at a place called the Seaside Farm Hostel. We were in the main house, which had a bunkroom that was similar to a hostel, but there were also private cabins available, or a field where you could put up your own tent. It was a really cool spot with good views over the bay, and there was even a path down to the water. It’s a few minutes out of town, however, which might make it difficult if you don’t have your own vehicle.
One of the things that makes Homer the most unique, is it’s 4.5 mile long spit that juts out into the ocean. The main town of Homer is located on the steep shore of Kachemak bay, and the spit is like a thin finger of land the sticks out from the centre of town. You can drive all of the way out to the end of the spit, and along the way you’ll find shops, beaches, the harbour, restaurants, and a graveyard of old boats.
Besides the spit, Homer is also famous for its halibut fishing. They claim to be the halibut fishing capital of Alaska, or the World, or North America, I’m not completely sure which one. I’m also not sure if that’s a self-assigned title or if it’s somehow official, but either way it must mean that the halibut fishing is good.
When we were researching the trip beforehand, we had decided that going out on a fishing charter looked like fun. So, we checked it out and found a company that could take us out for our first day in Homer.
TIP: We decided to go with Inlet Charters (on the Nauti Lady boat) who was located at the end of the spit. There seemed to be a lot of companies to choose from, and you can find them around town, as well as out on the spit itself. As we were booking last minute, we went with the one that was going out the day that we wanted to go, and who had room on their boat. From everything that we could see, all of the companies were very similar and all offered the same packages and trips.
Fishing trips are quite expensive to begin with, and the costs add up faster than we had expected. One thing that we hadn’t thought about, was if we were going to keep the fish that we caught or not. Eventually, we decided that with the cost of the trip, it made more sense to pay a bit extra and at least go home with something to show from it. After everything was totalled, here was the final costs that we ended up with:
- Charter (each): $155.00
- Fishing License (each): $42.00
- Processing (freezing and cleaning and packaging): $23.30
- Freezer space at Anchorage: $20.00
- Bag fees to take home: $30.00
We left the trip with about 20 pounds of halibut to take home, but it was definitely more expensive than we had anticipated.
Unfortunately, our time out fishing wasn’t quite as we had expected either. There was a lot of wind the morning that we went out, and the water was rougher than usual. About 20 minutes after leaving the harbour, Hilary started to feel seasick from the motion of the boat. If you’ve ever been seasick, you probably know that you never really start to feel better until you get back onto solid ground, so Hilary’s entire trip was spent in a rough state.
In total, our trip was about 4 or 5 hours, and we were just thankful that we hadn’t chosen any of the full-day trips. Hilary was able to do a small amount of fishing at least, and we both ended up catching our limit. Other than the seasickness, it was great to get out fishing and the captain, Captain John, made the trip a lot of fun.
The next day, Hilary was feeling recovered from the fishing trip and we decided to brave to open waters again. This time, we took a water taxi across the bay to spend the day hiking around Grewingk Glacier. There are two different drop off points, and we got dropped off at the Saddle trailhead and arranged for the taxi to pick us up again about 8 hours later. Neither of us had cell phones, so once we had been dropped off, we had no way to arrange to be picked up earlier or later if we needed.
TIP: If you’re looking to book a water taxi, head down toward the end of the spit and look for a place called Mako’s Water Taxi.
Unfortunately, not long after we were dropped off, it started to rain. We had food and warm clothing with us, but it still seemed like it was going to be a long day, and we both got a bit nervous as we watched the boat get smaller in the distance as it headed back towards Homer.
Our goal for the day was to head up the alpine ridge trail that takes you above the lake and the glacier. The trail starts out very narrow and overgrown, and all of the bushes and grass along the trail were wet with rain, so we ended up soaked in no time.
The trail eventually breaks out into the open and the views are great. Unfortunately, the wind and rain were so bad that after a quick look around we headed back down the trail to try to find some shelter. On a nice day, however, you could keep climbing along the ridge for a great hike, and this would be my recommendation if you find yourself in the area.
The weather gradually cleared throughout the afternoon, and we spent the day walking around the trails near the lake and checked out the hand tram that you can use to get across one section of the river.
By the time that we ended up back at the beach waiting for the taxi to pick us up again, it had been a fairly long and cold day and we were excited to get back to Homer. Throughout our entire day hiking around the Grewingk Glacier Trails, we only saw a total of about 10 people, so it’s a great place if you’re looking for a quiet day without any crowds.
TIP: We didn’t have enough time to check any of these out, but some other things around Homer that might be fun would be Halibut Cove, or a trip to Seldovia.
Even though we had a few disappointments with the weather and the fishing trip, we really enjoyed our time in Homer. If you’re heading to this area, it’s definitely worth making the time to check out both Seward and Homer. Both are fairly similar in size, but are completely different in appearance and feel.
If you only have time for one, however, I would choose Seward. This is simply because it’s less distance to travel if you’re coming from Anchorage, and I enjoyed the scenery and hiking around Seward more. It you’re going to the more rugged and real feeling Alaska, however, make sure that you check out Homer.
TIP: You can get a good view of Homer and it’s famous spit if you head up to Skyline Drive. I drove up there one night and found a lookout spot where I watched the sun set. There was a haze in the air, so the pictures didn’t turn out quite as I had hoped, but it’s an awesome spot nonetheless. This is where the picture at the top of this section was taken from.
Denali National Park: (August 27 – 29)
After Homer, we made the long trip all of the way up to Denali National Park. It was about an 8 hour drive, and along the way we made a quick stop at the Anchorage airport to leave our box of halibut in freezer storage at the airport.
Denali was the part of trip that both Hilary and I were looking forward to more than any of the other areas. If you’re not familiar with Denali, it’s likely the most well-known national park in Alaska and is known for it’s beautiful, wide-open landscapes and large animals. If you’ve seen the pictures of large caribou, moose, fox, wolves, or bears from Alaska, there is a very good chance that they were taken in Denali.
Denali is also home to Mount Mckinley (or Mount Denali) which is the highest mountain in North America and is a very significant mountaineering undertaking to climb. The other piece of the Denali park that makes it unique is how you access it. From the park entrance, there is only one road in and out of the park. This is the 92 mile park road that you are only able to access by bus.
TIP: You can drive the first 15 miles of the road up to the Savage River Trailhead with your own vehicle. Here is a link with a map and more information about the park https://www.nps.gov/dena/planyourvisit/maps.htm.
Our plan for Denali, was to spend our first night in a hostel about 10 minutes from the park entrance, called the Denali Mountain Morning Hostel (the hostel was great by the way, and had quite a few different options for accommodation). We were then going to get backcountry permits for 2 or 3 nights and head out to the Wonder Lake area at the end of the park road. We would then slowly make our way back to the park entrance hopping on and off the bus and camping each night along the way.
TIP: There are several dedicated campgrounds within the park, but backcountry permits let you free-camp outside of the dedicated areas. The park is divided into units, and each unit has a certain number of campers that they allow each day. So you can go the day before, and get a permit for an area as long as it is still available, and then you are free to camp anywhere you would like within that boundary. https://www.nps.gov/dena/planyourvisit/backpacking-guide.htm.
Unfortunately, the weather had other plans for us. It snowed the first day that we arrived at the park, and the road was closed for most of the morning. They also weren’t giving out any backcountry permits because of the weather, so we couldn’t have camped if we had wanted to.
Rather than waste the day, however, we decided to get tickets for the shuttle bus out to Wonder Lake, and once the road opened up, we were off. Even though the visibility was bad, we were still able to see bears, moose and caribou. It was also a great time to visit the park as all of the Fall colours were nearly at their peak.
TIP: There are two options for busses into the park. The first option is shuttle busses (the green ones) which simply take you as far as whatever stop you payed for and then back. And the second are the tour busses (the white ones), which are more formal guided tours. I would highly recommend the shuttle busses, as the driver will still tell you about the park and answer any questions, and they make the same stops as the tours. They’re simply less formal and more relaxed. Our bus driver was named Chuck (and he was so awesome that I wouldn’t have been surprised if his last name was Norris), and he told us stories about wildlife, the history of the park, and even his experiences from climbing Mckinley three separate times.
The bus never made it to Wonder Lake, as the road was closed from that point forward, and we had to turn around at the Tolkat Rest Stop, 53 miles along the park road. Even though we were both discouraged by the weather and the change in plans, we had a great day. What we could see of the park was awesome, and definitely made us want to return.
TIP: We weren’t able to try this out ourselves, but the way that the busses work in Denali is that you can get the driver to drop you off anywhere along the road that you want, and you can get picked up by any other bus coming by that has room. You just stand on the side of the road and flag them down. We were confused at first, because some busses only go as far as certain stops on the way out, and there are only a few per day that go out to the farthest parts of the park. So if you get off of your bus, you might not get on another one that will get you to where you need to go. So, the best way to do this, is to get your ticket for the farthest point that you want to get to in the park and take your bus all of the way out to that point. Then as you come back (either the same day, or after staying a few nights out in the park) you flag down the busses as needed, because they will all be going back to the entrance.
We did some research and found out that the weather wasn’t supposed to improve until the day after we had to leave. So we decided to change our plans completely. Rather than try to camp in the park, we stayed one more night at the hostel and spent the next morning driving our own vehicle along the first 15 miles of the park road. We took our time getting photos and stopping when we saw different animals. Later in the afternoon, we then headed South again to the town of Talkeetna where the weather was supposed to be better.
Talkeetna: (August 29 – 31)
Talkeetna is a small town south of Denali that is just off of the highway. We arrived and found a place to stay at a hostel called the Seven Trees Hostel. The weather was clear and sunny, and we felt that we had made the right choice rather than getting snowed on a frustrated in Denali.
We were even able to get our first sighting of Mount Mckinley shortly after we arrived in Talkeetna. Until now, the mountain had been completely covered in cloud and fog. Even from such a great distance, it is a very impressive mountain.
Our first full day in Talkeetna, we decided to drive up to Byer’s lake to do some hiking and see some of the area. We arrived at Byer’s lake and found out that there is a great campground, and that it was nearly empty. After some discussion, we decided to change our plans yet again. Rather than staying one more night in Talkeetna, we thought that we would at least try to do some camping after our plans had been spoiled in Denali (we also weren’t overly excited with the hostel that we were staying at in Talkeetna as it wasn’t much more than a stuffy metal shed in someone’s back yard). So, after some time at the lake, we drove back to Talkeetna, loaded up our things and headed back to the Byer’s lake campground where we stayed the night.
It wasn’t quite the rugged experience that we had been looking forward to in Denali, but it was great to sleep outdoors. The next day we hiked up to the top of Kesugi Ridge for a great panoramic view of Denali. Just like anywhere, we would have loved to have more time in the area to do more hiking and try to conquer Denali park like we had planned.
Anchorage: (August 31 – September 1)
Our time in Alaska came to end far too soon, like it always seems to on these trips. We had an early flight to catch on the morning of September 1st, so we stayed the night before at the Spenard Hostel in Anchorage.
Ironically enough, we happened to be sharing a bunk room with a couple that we had met in Denali. They had stayed in Denali after we left, and said that the weather never did improve, which helped us feel better that we made the right decision by heading South to Talkeetna and Byer’s Lake.
The morning of our flight, we dropped off our car, and quickly grabbed our Halibut that we had left in freezer storage and headed for our plane. The plane, however, was delayed from taking off and we had to sit on the runway for about 2 hours. When we finally got going and landed in Seattle, our connecting flight back to Calgary had already left. We were able to catch the next flight to Calgary in a couple of hours so everything ended up fine in the end.
The problem is that, in the confusion, our bags (including our box of frozen halibut) was sent to Salt Lake City. It eventually made it’s way to Calgary, but by the time that it was in our hands, it had been about 48 hours since our box of halibut had left the freezer in Anchorage.
We were surprised to find that the fish was nearly all still frozen and we were able to save the entire box. While we had been waiting for a lost baggage to show up, however, I had sent a claim to the airline explaining the situation. We were shocked when a couple of weeks later, they sent us a cheque which covered our charter costs, processing costs, and baggage fees! It made all of the hassle (and even Hilary’s unfortunate sea sickness) a lot easier to bear.
Alaska really does live up to its reputation of being one of the last true frontiers for exploration in the world. It is rugged and untouched and has a wild feel that remains unique when compared to lot of other places. Whether you want to do some hiking, fishing, photography, or just want to witness the wildlife, there is bound to be something in Alaska’s outdoors that will grab your attention.
Our trip to Alaska followed a fairly typical route that is well travelled by many visitors to the state. I would like to return one day and get further from the beaten path and see some of the more untouched areas of the Alaskan outdoors. As well, my small taste of Denali National Park already has me thinking of a return trip to the area.
Throughout the trip, it felt like we had a streak of bad luck with Hilary getting sick on the fishing trip, followed by the rain when we were hiking in Homer, then the snow and road closures in Denali, and lastly the delayed flight and lost baggage on the way home. But looking back now, all that seems minors, and I only have great memories from Alaska. I would definitely recommend anyone that has an appetite for adventure and the outdoors to travel to Alaska…I already feel the pull to return myself.
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