The Alaskan Railroad is another great way to see Alaska
My boyfriend, Pat, and I usually travel to run a marathon, attend a conference, complete fieldwork or visit family. So for our first real vacation in five years or so, we wanted to go big and wild. There’s no larger or wilder US state than Alaska!
Another first for us was traveling via RV. We weren't so sure we were “RV people,” but after clocking over 700 miles on Alaskan highways AK-1 and AK-3, we were hooked.
Only 3% of Alaska is populated, making exploring the gigantic state an adventure. Its scenery is breathtakingly beautiful and diverse. In the ten days we were there, we merely scratched the surface of all there is to see and do. Here are just a few of our most cherished highlights:
We spent three days hiking in the national park with our RV comfortably parked at Riley Creek, one of their nice campsites (complete with public hot showers) along the first 15 miles of Denali Park Road – the only road in the park.
There are hiking and wildlife viewing options on an adventure-seeking gradient for every type of visitor to enjoy. Over 80% of visitors see the park through a bus window. You might think (as we did), "Bus tour. Boring." And while it’s true they’re long (up to 90 miles into the park and 8 hours roundtrip), we were astonished to find out (after not paying the $45 each to take the tour deepest into the park) that the bus tourists that day saw 13 bear, 14 Dall sheep, 11 wolves and dozens of mountain goats.
Given that, we’d certainly recommend this mode of wildlife viewing to those who are up for it. It's a great way to see the park in a day. And the park’s bus system is essential to getting into and out of the park for all tourists.
Our first day in the park, we opted to hike the Mt. Healy trail maintained by the NPS. We couldn't have haphazardly stumbled upon a better choice! We thought it was normal to have clear skies and 70˚+ weather giving us nearly perfect views of Mt. McKinley, the tallest peak in North America (20,320 feet). Not true. Apparently there's roughly 6-7 days a year that the mountain is viewable. What luck!
After our nicely groomed hike, we decided to venture into the unruly backcountry to find some wildlife. This is one of the most unique things about Denali National Park: They believe that spreading the impact of hikers over the entire terrain is less impactful than concentrating footsteps on a maintained hiking trail. So they've sectioned the park into 85 "backcountry units," allowing up to 12 overnight hikers (day-hikers aren't counted) in each unit by issuing free backcountry permits.
There are no trails, but after an hour-ish orientation provided by the Wilderness Access Center, hikers are given a bear-safe food container to hang 100+ yards from their tent and encouraged to buy a detailed topographic map and bring a compass. The only rules are: 1) no fires, and 2) be bear and moose aware.
During our awesome day hikes in Units 3 and 4, we saw caribou, snowshoe hare, Arctic ground squirrels, and a super cute and tiny long-nosed rodent that we have yet to identify.
Kenai Peninsula (our favorite!)
The drive south from Anchorage around the Turnagain Arm of the Cook Inlet (highway AK-1) down to Seward was gorgeous. There are lots of places to turn off to take pics, fish or park your RV (for free) overnight.
In Seward we stayed at Miller's Landing, which is remotely situated at the southerly end of Lowell Point Road on the west side of Resurrection Bay. We loved this area and could go on and on about how quaint and fun this town is, but our brief highlights:
1) Yurting on Orca Island (www.orcaislandcabins.com) where we kayaked, fished and tidepooled at our leisure among harbor porpoise, sea otters and lots of seabirds in picturesque Humpy Cove.
2) Scoping out Mt. Marathon, the epically difficult 5K run/rock climb the town hosts each July 4th (we will certainly be back so Pat can run it!).
3) Boat touring Resurrection Bay with Chance Miller, owner of Miller's Landing – a hilarious local who knows everything about the area and wildlife. On the tour we saw glaciers, endangered Steller sea lions, puffins rock-nesting, humpback whales and lots of bald eagles.
4) On our last day we hiked the Harding Icefield trail in Kenai Fjords National Park. We again had beautiful weather, and we saw a marmot and a black bear (!) on our return hike. It was the perfect ending to our amazing Alaskan vacation.