Author: Pieter De Pauw
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After long discussions where our next travels would take us, we decided to go for the odd choice of Alaska. Not many Europeans ever consider this lonely state of the US as a travel destination, but we took on the challenge of going on a roadtrip during the month with the longest and (hopefully) warmest days the 49th state has. So we were off in June 2013 to this so called “last frontier” of the USA. Alaska is both the biggest and the least densely populated state with only 700 000 inhabitants of which half of them live in Anchorage. So imagine the population of a city like Amsterdam living in a country the size of France, Belgium and Italy combined. This gives a feeling of loneliness, especially if you travel outside of Anchorage.
The two of us decided to rent an RV , which we had not imagined doing before turning 50. But it seemed a rational choice since motel rooms (or cabins in Alaska’s interior) will cost easily more than $200/night and cost of renting a car was also significantly higher vs the average US rate we were used to. The upcharge to rent an RV instead of a regular car was approx 50% and for $3000 we had our bed, shower and private toilet with us all the time! On top, and this we realized while on our way already, you simply cannot find lodging or food facilities in several areas of interest. We found that Alaska accommodates RV’s very well and camping facilities are plenty (you will find more campgrounds than rooms in the interior) while roads are wide (much wider than in Europe) and in relative good condition, making it easy and comfortable to drive with 32 feet behind you. The only downside would be that it proved to be quite difficult to pull over quickly in case you see something worth a picture.
Our trip started in Amsterdam (The Netherlands), from where we flew to Reyjavik (Iceland). There we had a direct flight to Anchorage. And all of this for only $900 pp return with Icelandair and decent comfort (more legroom than on any other airline we had been on in the past 3 years)! The beauty of this itinerary was the fact that not only it is cheap, but the limited travel time from Europe (approx. 12 hours – whereas flying via New York, Chicago or Seattle would easily take 24 hours), and above all the fact that you get fantastic views on Greenland and the North Pole!
Day 1: Anchorage – Trapper Creek, via Parks Highway, 110 Miles
The first things we noticed when arriving in Alaska: the numerous small airplanes on every single lake allowing locals and tourists to travel around the state; the large number of pick ups; and lastly that it is still America with burgers and coke even in the most remote bar and waiters checking your age when ordering alcohol.
After our mandatory introductory video at the RV rental company on “how to drive and manage an RV” outlining the importance of “leveling “ your RV (allowing the fridge to run smoothly), how to fill and empty the water and waste tanks and how to take curves on roads widely enough, we headed towards Walmart to stock up for roadtrip supplies. Equipped with the super helpful guidebook “the Milepost”, outlining every mile on every highway in Alaska, we were then finally on our way and left Anchorage North on the Parks Highway towards Fairbanks. On the way, we passed by Wasilla and made a little detour to Talkeetna hoping to find a campsite for the night, but unfortunately this was the only time during our trip that the single campsite in the region had no vacancies anymore.
We finally ended up at a little lake close to Trapper Creek where we paid $35/night for a dry site (thus only electricity, no water): at that point in time we didn’t know this was a complete rip off (dry site would cost approx. $15/night) though the fact that there were no other campers should have rung a bell with us…
During a little walk around the lake, we quickly discovered the famous annoying Alaskan midges, took a picture of a libellee and the owner’s airplane and went to sleep, disturbed by the midnight sun and the relentless midge attacks.
Day 2: Trapper Creek – Denali NP, via Parks Highway, 132 Miles
The day after, we continued our trip along the same road, driving further North up to the park entrance of Denali National Park to our reserved site at Savage Creek campground. This National Park is amongst the biggest National Parks in the USA and contains Mount McKinley (6 190m), the highest mountain in North America. Its vertical relief of 5 500m from base to top is the highest in the world. We were told the peak of Mount McKinley can only be seen for 20 days/year and it seemed we were going to be lucky!
At night, we went for a moderate walk (although it was still very sunny at 9pm on Jun 21 just below the Arctic circle) from our campground to the bridge over the Savage River, while being super greatful for having brought the headnets we had purchased prior to our trip to avoid the midges.
Day 3: Denali National Park.
Today, we were not in the driving seat! Given the road inside the park cannot be accessed by private vehicles, we boarded the park service shuttle bus to Wonder Lake (5 hours drive one way) and enjoyed some magnificent views over Mount McKinley and had some close encounters with wildlife like moose, caribou and grizzly bears . A ride definitely worth it, though if weather would have been crappy we think this might have been a bit too long.
Day 4: Denali NP – Tangle River, via Denali Highway, 151 Miles
After a better night, armed with bugspray and closed curtains, we drove East on the Denali “Highway”. Reading, one would expect at least a double lane well maintained road allowing to drive at least more than 55mph. In fact, the Denali highway is a legendary road for Alaskans and tourists alike and driving this road is considered a real challenge. The road is paved for only 24 miles, and the remaining 110 miles are gravel recommending a speed of 30mph but we did 20mph for most of the time (and even then it felt like our big RV could fall apart any time), making this a full day drive. But as a result, the road is very calm and we only met very few other people that day. The scenic views however, are fantastic and abundant. At the end of that day, we were extremely happy that we had made it without having had a flat tire, and convincingly recommended the route to a concerned elderly couple we met at the end of the road wondering if they should go for it or not .
Day 5: Tangle River – Valdez, via Richardson Highway, 207 Miles
Another day of scenic views driving South to Valdez and passing along the Wrangell St Elias National Park (the biggest National Park in the USA) with its snow-covered peaks.
Along the way, we stopped at Copper Center (recommend in our guides, as this was an old Copper Mining city), but this was not exactly worth the detour. Along the road, we caught glimpses of the 800 miles Trans-Alaska Pipeline that was built in 3 years and operational by 1977 to allow transportation of oil from the far north of Alaska (Prudhoe Bay) to America’s most Northern ice-free harbor Valdez. Interestingly, despite Alaska being a main source of oil for the US, gas prices are among the highest in the country. Arriving in the charming city of Valdez, it felt like we were back in civilization: we found a normal supermarket (bigger than the gas-station little stores), reasonable fuel-prices and restaurants that served (a bit) more than burgers! And this time we did not need to check expiration dates on all foods we bought or pay 25% extra vs regular prices as we had done in the remote areas we had been in before.
Day 6: Valdez
In this magnificent little harbor town, we decided to take a full day boat trip to the famous glaciers in Prince William Sound. One of the Glaciers “Columba Glacier” is surging at a pace as great as a couple of meters a day, resulting in calving icebergs into the sea.
The other glacier “Meares Glacier” is one of the few advancing glaciers, so less calving ice, but ability to get closer to the glacier.
During our way back, we were lucky to see some wildlife like Bald Eagles, Whales, Sea Lions, Seals, a Black Bear, Orcas, Sea Otters,…
The Sea Otters have the densest fur of all animals and were hunted in the 18th and 19th century, and the world population fell back to 1000 – 2000 animals. Nowadays, population has recovered in most parts. These animals give a friendly and somehow funny expression when floating in the sea; in fact whatever body part has less fur (like head, feet,…) they try to keep above the water to avoid cooling down too quickly. This is why they seem to be sunbathing, even in the freezing winds.
The Bald Eagles -national animal of USA- was once on the list of endangered birds in the USA when it was close extirpation in the continent. Nowadays, close to half of the USA Bald Eagles population is in Alaska and we saw them frequently during our road trip.
Day 7: Valdez – Chickaloon, via Richardson Highway and Glenn Highway, 228 Miles
Valdez is a famous fishing destination, especially for Halibut. Before leaving, we had a look at the catch of the morning: fish as big as myself were caught and sold!
Driving back North, we pulled over at Worthington Glacier, a National Natural Landmark, and one of the more easily accessible glaciers from the road. A short walk from the parking led us to ice of the glacier (not sure if it was safe to walk on the ice though, but I couldn’t resist…)
Day 8: Chickaloon – Seward, via Glenn Highway and Seward Highway, 199
The road to Seward had more traffic (and more RV’s) than any of roads we had been on before. Clearly we had entered a touristic area. This is the Kenai Peninsula, also referred to as “Alaska’s playground”, and this was very noticeable. Alaskans and tourists alike come here to soak up all of Alaska’s diverse nature, fishing, hunting and wildlife. All of this on a very small area. Unfortunately at this time, the weather had turned around and after days filled with sun and warm breezes we were now shivering in the cold and hearing rain every night on the roof of our RV.
Day 9: Seward
We made it a relaxed day and walked the Tonsina Creek trail, starting from Lowell Point up to the beach. This interesting beach hosts several dead trees; victims of the salt water as the beach and the tree’s roots sank after the 1964 Good Friday earthquake in Prince Williams Sound.
We spent the night at the other side of the bay, overlooking Seward, where fishermen tried to catch catch pink salmon.
Day 10: Seward – Homer, via Sterling Highway, 168 Miles
On our way from Seward to Homer, we stopped at Exit Glacier, a surging glacier but still accessible. Several other locations in our guidebook were indicated as “prime spots to spot bears and moose”, but unfortunately we were not that lucky. We spent the night in an RV-site in Homer Split, overlooking the bay and a famous destination for Bald Eagles. From here, we intended to do a bear-viewing trip by plane to Katmai National Park, but since heavy rainshowers were forecasted we thought the $600pp was way too high for a cold day with dark and limited views and we decided to look for an alternative for the next day.
Day 11: Homer – Captain Cook, via Sterling Highway, 90 Miles
The city of Nikolaevsk, a settlement of “Russian Old Believers”, reminds us that Alaska used to be part of Russia until 1867 when USA bought this piece of land. A Russian orthodox church with blue dome was built by the Russian Orthodox in this settlement. According to our guidebooks, Russia is still the main language here and the men are obliged to grow beards. However, to us it all looked still very American.
We stopped in Kenai at the flats of the famous Kenai River and spotted some Sandhill cranes flying over. The night was spent in the very quiet Discovery Campground, literally at the end of the road (Kenai Spur Highway). Unfortunately, the famous midges in combination with potential bear encounters in dense forest concluded our walk quickly.
Day 12: Captain Cook – Anchorage, via Sterling Highway, 170 Miles
We were sad to head back home, though looking forward to warmer temperatures in Belgium. Before arriving back in Anchorage, we made a brief stop at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Centre, a drive-through animal park dedicated to rehabilitation of orphaned and injured animals, and where one could see e.g. bears, moose, caribou, reindeer, muskox and bison in captivity. Probable good for kids, but we found it a waste of time and money and quite ridiculous that this was a drive through park instead of a nice zoo, as the animals all had their own little fenced area.
A stop in Potter Marsh (close to Anchorage) was worth the visit. Several boardwalks cross the marsh and give nice opportunities to see fowl and other small birds.
Finally back in Anchorage after this wonderful trip, we ventured into the city itself, hoping for some civilization and culture after all this nature. But , as most American cities, culture remains limited and the town proved to be mainly filled with giftshops. We did some nice souvenir and clothes shopping and spotted a giant whale mural next to an ugly parking lot. After a final meal, in a real restaurant (not a roadside diner), we spent a final night in our RV bed, listening to the rain and the 4th of July fireworks.