In July 2016, my fiancé and I spent 3 weeks travelling through Alaska. I had been planning this trip for quite some time and we had some major bucket list items to tick off!
At the time of our holiday, we were living in Melbourne so we flew with Qantas to Los Angeles and then with Alaska Airlines on to Anchorage where we picked up a rental car for the first two weeks of our travels. We spent our first night in Anchorage to sleep off the jet lag with plans to return to explore Alaska's biggest city later in our trip.
Driving in Alaska was incredibly straight forward with just the one main road heading north from Anchorage to the main towns of interest. We began our drive to Denali National Park with a stop at Eagle River Nature Centre to walk the Albert River Trail. It was quite exciting to see the sign saying “black bear and moose spotted on trail”. The walk was an easy flat 1 hour loop from the information centre with some stunning views across Eagle River to the hills beyond. We luckily did not run into any bears but we did see lots of fresh paw prints along the trail.
By late afternoon we reached the town of Denali and the main entrance to Denali National Park. We had actually chosen to stay just outside of Denali in the town of Healey at Earthsong Lodge. Earthsong Lodge is a working dog-mushing camp year round and as well as the picturesque wooden cabins, they offer free tours in the morning of the dog camp where you can interact with the dogs and learn about their equipment and training regimes. Earthsong Lodge also run winter dog mushing trips of up to 10 days in winter which has definitely gone on my must do list someday. The 49th State Brewing Company was our dinner stop that night. The food was delicious and there was a great atmosphere with outdoor games to play and many local beers on tap. Here you can also find the bus from the film ‘Into the Wild’ which makes a great photo op.
Our first full day in Denali we were up bright and early to do a full day trip into Denali National Park. There are many different options for day tours but as you would expect the longer and further you go into the park the better the chance of seeing wildlife. With this in mind we had pre booked ourselves onto the 12hr Kantishna Experience day tour. Individual vehicles are not permitted to travel very far past the park entrance so a tour really is the only way to see the park. We boarded a repurposed school bus at 6.30am that morning and began a wonderful day of exploring the park. The commentary on board was excellent with the driver also acting as the guide. They make numerous photo stops and if you see wildlife from the window, they will stop the bus to allow everyone to get a good view. The guide had an excellent eye for spotting wildlife and pointed out many things I would have missed had I been by myself. We ticked off bears, caribou, moose and Dall sheep and came away with some magnificent photos of scenery and wildlife. A long day but well worth it.
After Denali we headed to Talkeetna where we were in that lucky 30% that managed to see Mt. Denali not covered in cloud. The weather stayed so perfectly clear that we decided to take a sightseeing flight and glacier landing with Talkeetna Air. We flew so close to the mountain and saw it from all angles before landing on a glacier just below Mt Denali where we were able to play in the snow. Talkeetna was one of my favourite towns we visited and I’m so glad we chose to stay here as it took on a whole different feel once the Princess Cruise line day trippers left in the afternoon. In Talkeetna we stayed at the gorgeous Denali Fireside Lodge close to the centre of the town.
After spending time in Denali and Talkeetna we headed back to Anchorage for four nights. We only spent one full day in Anchorage itself as there is so much to see and do in the surrounding area. On that one full day though we hired bikes and cycled the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail. A pedestrian/cyclist only pathway this trail stretches 18km along the Anchorage coast line. The scenery changes constantly and we even cycled past some moose ambling through the forest areas. The trail is mostly flat although there is one fairly decent hill towards the end – makes for a speedy trip back to town though! Moose’s Tooth Is a great local pizza place we visited for dinner but there are so many great restaurants to choose from catering to all tastes and budgets.
The absolute highlight of our trip and perhaps the best travel experience I have had anywhere so far was our day trip to Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park. There is a small window each year when the salmon are running where the Brown Bear come to fish for salmon from the falls. There is a limit to the number of people permitted to visit on any one day so this was something we had booked well in advance of arrival. We flew from Anchorage to King Salmon where we were met by Katmai Air who transferred us from the small airport to their float plane docks on the edge of town. We then travelled by float plane for half an hour to reach our landing site on Naknek Lake. Then it was off the plane and to the visitors centre for a brief lecture on bear safety. You cannot take food of any kind into the park or anything to drink other than water as it can attract the bears. They serve a hot lunch at the lodge back by the visitors centre as well as snacks and beverages there the whole day. After the safety briefing you are free to explore on your own. We hiked the half an hour to Brooks Falls and began a full day of bear watching on the 2 viewing platforms positioned to the side of the falls. Within minutes we spotted our first bear and then less than ten minutes later a mother bear and her three cubs. They were so close we could have reached down and touched them. During the day we saw over 15 Brown bear – at times many of them were out fishing the falls together. The water was so thick with salmon it looked like black rocks in the water and the Brown Bears just kept on coming. I came away with over 1000 photos from our day. Words can’t describe how amazing this experience was and you could tell from the look of awe on the other travelers faces that day that they felt the exact same way.
Our last adventure before we set off to our final stop was a dog sledding excursion on Punchbowl Glacier. We drove to the town of Girdwood from Anchorage and were whisked away in a helicopter to the summer training ground of an Iditarod racing dog team. The time on the glacier included a half hour private ride on the sleds with a full team of dogs leading us as well as time to have cuddles with a new litter of puppies. We learnt a lot about the time and money that goes into training a team of dogs and the team are great at taking photos for you on your own camera.
Our last stop before our cruise was the town of Seward. We chose to spend a few days here before the cruise left and i'm so glad we did. We travelled by train from Anchorage to Seward in the glass domed carriage and enjoyed a beautiful cooked breakfast on board. During our time in Seward our highlight was hiking to Harding Ice Field and Exit Glacier. It was a tough 8 hour hike and towards the end we were even hiking in snow but the views were stunning. Despite the snow it was actually quite warm up there and the trails felt very safe with lots of hikers about. Seward is also a great place to see Puffins and other marine life from the shore.
Alaska is becoming more and more popular as a destination and although I loved my cruise if you have the time I cannot recommend highly enough the amazing towns and scenery of the interior. The land based portion of our tour was the highlight of my trip and the experiences we had there were some of the best travel experiences I have had to date.