Sunday, May 28, 2017

Alaska: By Land, By Air and By Sea

Nearing my goal of visiting all 50 states, I had only Alaska and North Dakota to go. It is hard to believe it took me that long to get to Alaska. I found the website an invaluable resource in trip planning, the best source for any trip I've ever planned. The website suggests the best options of any number of activities, including the best places to see various kinds of animals, and suggests that you need to do both a cruise and a land-based trip to really get a feel for Alaska. We eventually incorporated 7 days on land and 6 days on a cruise in Alaska into our planning. The big issue in Alaska is cost. It is EXPENSIVE. Food and lodging is much higher. A Best Western in the lower 48 that is $110 a night is $225 a night in Alaska (we stayed in three different Best Westerns which were nice, but on the lower end of the cost scale). A little cabin at the end of the road in Denali NP is $1,100 a night or more. Excursions by boat are relatively reasonable, but excursions by air can be $600 or $800 per person and up.  

We flew from LAX on Alaska Air at 11:55 p.m. on a Wednesday evening and arrived in Anchorage at 4:15 a.m Thursday morning. The car rental did not open until 5:30 a.m., so we had to wait around for awhile to get our car. We had an appointment at Denali Zipline Tours in Talkeetna, 120 miles north (about 2 1/4 hours) at 10:30 a.m., but needed to get there by 10:00 a.m. to check-in. We got there early and enjoyed a great breakfast at Talkeetna Roadhouse, a wonderful place to mix with locals and get a flavor of the area. We drove up a hill and into a forest and ziplined seven different sections, including the very spectacular last stretch that crossed a lake. It was raining a good part of the time, and was quite cool, but it did not detract from the fun. Afterwards we spent a short time walking around Talkeetna, then headed north for Denali National Park. It was overcast and we were unable to see Denali. It was about 132 miles to Denali Backcountry Cabins, where we were scheduled to spend the next two nights.  We checked in, then drove 8 miles north to the Denali NP entrance and drove 17 miles into the park, as far as we could go in our private vehicle. We were disappointed as we saw no wildlife. Afterwards, we drove north of the park entrance to Denali Salmon Bake, in a large area of shops, stores and restaurants I'd not been aware of, where we had a mediocre meal, before going to our cabin for the night.
     Alaska! Talkeetna and Ziplining  (Judy)  

Friday morning we were out in front of the cabins at 6:00 a.m. to catch a bus with Denali Backcountry Adventure. It is the only tour company that takes visitors to the end of the 92 mile long restricted-access road in Denali Nat'l Park (this was 72 miles further than we'd been able to go in the night before). At the end of the road we spent several hours at the Denali Backcountry Lodge where we had lunch and took a botany walk, then got on the bus again for the trip back out. Unfortunately, Denali was not visible, but we saw a mother grizzly with two cubs, a solo grizzly, Dall sheep high on a mountain, several moose and quite a few caribou. We were out of the park by about 7:00 p.m. For dinner we ate at 229 Parks, very close to our cabin, and had one of the better meals of our trip (far better than our meal the night before).
     Alaska! Denali National Park  (Judy)
     Grizzly Bear - Denali NP  (Bob)
     Alaska Moose  (Bob)
     Porcupine Caribou - Denali NP, Alaska  (Bob)
     Dall Sheep  (Bob)
     Arctic Ground Squirrel  (Bob)
     229 Parks - Denali NP  (Bob)

Saturday morning we were on the road by 7:30 a.m. for a 132 mile drive back to Talkeetna. We had to be at Talkeetna Air Taxi by 10:30 a.m. for an 11:00 a.m. flight around Denali. We took the 2 hour Grand Denali Tour with Glacier Landing. This is probably the most amazing thing we have ever done, on any trip. We flew over the Alaska Range in a 10 seater airplane, circling the cloud covered Denali, then the pilot found a hole through the clouds and went up through them so that we could get an unobstructed view of the summit of Denali. Amazing. Then we landed on the Ruth Glacier and spent about 30 minutes there walking around. In Talkeetna we bought some sweet peas, tomatoes and green beans from a roadside stand to eat in the car and set out for the Musk Ox Farm in Palmer, heading back toward Anchorage, an 84 mile drive. We spent about an hour at the farm, learning about musk ox and viewing them in their fenced fields. Then we drove 10 miles to the Reindeer Farm, also in Palmer, where we had an opportunity to pet and feed reindeer and feed some elk. That was another hour. Afterwards, we drove about 45 miles to Anchorage and had a nice meal at the Rustic Goat. We stayed the night at the Best Western Golden Lion Hotel in Anchorage which was located conveniently on the road we were taking the next morning to the Kenai Peninsula. 
     Alaska! Taking a Taxi to the Top of Denali and Strolling on a Glacier  (Judy)
     Denali - Alaska High Point  (Bob)
     Alaska! Musk Ox Farm and Reindeer Ranch  (Judy)
     Musk Ox  (Bob)

Sunday morning we set out on a 221 mile drive to Homer, at the bottom of the Kenai Peninsula. It was rainy and cold. I'd scouted out places to look for wildlife along the way and had no luck in that regard. At Windy Point along Hwy 1 on the north side of Turnagain Arm was a place that was supposed to be good for viewing Dall sheep. There was a wild fire being put out and fire crews were blocking all the pullouts (we did see several Dall sheep along here several days later on our bus to the cruise ship, but could not stop for pictures). We stopped at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center near the end of Turnagain Arm. It was raining hard and Judy stayed in the car for the most part. However, I used an umbrella and enjoyed enclosures which included wood bison, grizzly bears, moose, a porcupine, caribou, elk, Sitka black tailed deer and a young wolf. We drove down Portage Glacier Road about 4 miles to Williwaw Creek which was supposed to be a great place to view spawning salmon, from late July on. We must have been a few days early as there were none to see. At Daves Creek, just off Hwy 1, where the Jeep trail leads off, we stopped and investigated the creek where salmon were supposed to be spawning from mid-July through September, but saw none. We made a stop or two along the gigantic Kenai River which was supposed to be full of spawning salmon. There may have been some, but we didn't see any. The Kenai was a beautiful turquoise blue. We took a detour to the Kenai River estuary area, past Soldotna on Kalifornsky Beach Road. This was an area caribou frequent, but we did not see any. We got to Homer and checked into our Best Western Bidarka Inn hotel. We then drove out to the end of the Homer Spit and viewed some art galleries, saw them cleaning halibut and salmon from the days catch, and then found one of the best souvenir shops I've ever seen: Inua, The Spirit of Alaska. We purchased a caribou rug and what Judy calls her eskimo Madonna and Child carving, made out of whale bone and walrus tusk. I've since ordered a couple of mammoth tooth pendants from them for gifts for Judy. We ate a very nice dinner at Fat Olives Restaurant, including a fantastic fresh sockeye salmon filet.
     Wood Bison  (Bob)
     Homer, Alaska   (Judy)
     Fat Olives - Homer  (Bob)

Monday morning we were scheduled to fly to Katmai National Park with Alaska Bear Adventures to see grizzly bears. Unfortunately, because of bad weather, our trip was cancelled. So we drove out the Homer Spit to Mako's Water Taxi and asked if they could take us out to Gull Island, 3 miles out in Kachemak Bay. We were in the boat in 20 minutes, just the two of us and the skipper of the boat. We were out for a little over an hour. We followed a humpback whale for awhile, catching portions of its body several times and getting a wonderful view of it breaching, almost entirely out of the water and creating a huge splash. Then we circled Gull Island where we saw several sea otters, some horned puffins, tufted puffins, some gulls, and black-winged kittiwakes, common murres and cormorants. Afterwards we had a nice lunch at Little Mermaid on the Homer Spit, then got in the car and headed for Seward, 168 miles away. We saw a couple of bald eagles, but not much else in the way of wildlife. We checked into the Best Western Plus Edgewater Hotel in Steward for the night.
     Homer, Alaska: Gull Island  (Judy)
     Northern Sea Otter - Kenai Peninsula Alaska  (Bob)
     Horned Puffin  (Bob)
     Tufted Puffin  (Bob)
     Pigeon Guillemot  (Bob)
     Pelagic Cormorant  (Bob)
     Black-Legged Kittiwake  (Bob)
     Glaucous-Winged Gull  (Bob)
     Glaucous Gull  (Bob)
     Common Murre  (Bob)
     Humpback Whale  (Bob)
     The Little Mermaid - Homer  (Bob)

Tuesday morning we checked-in at Major Marine for their 8 1/2 hour Northwestern Fjord Cruise. About 9:00 a.m. we set out through Resurrection Bay and Kenai Fjords National Park. We saw some great wildlife, including bald eagles, sea otters, Steller sea lions in the Chiswell Islands, harbor seals, puffins and a number of humpback whales. We saw some beautiful blue-colored glaciers, including the Northwestern Glacier which was the farthest point on our trip. While in the open water of the Gulf of Alaska we got into 8 and 9 foot swells and the boat was really rolling. About a third of the people on the boat, including Judy, got horribly sea sick. She enjoyed this trip much less than I did because of that. We enjoyed dinner at The Cookery, right across the street from our hotel.
     Seward, Alaska: Kenai Fjords National Park  (Judy)
     Steller Sea Lion - Chiswell Islands, Alaska  (Bob)
     Eastern Pacific Harbor Seal - Kenai Peninsual, Alaska  (Bob)
     Bald Eagle - Alaska  (Bob)
     Mountain Goat - Kenai Peninsula, Alaska  (Bob)
     The Cookery - Seward  (Bob)

Wednesday morning we left Seward for Anchorage, a 127 mile drive. We dropped off our car at the airport, then got a shuttle bus to take us to Whittier where we were to catch our cruise on the Princess Island Princess. This was frustrating, because we had to retrace much of the route we drove earlier that morning and we had to sign-in for the shuttle at 11:00 a.m., which did not leave until noon. Then we did not have to be at the ship until 6:30 p.m. at the latest, for an 8:30 p.m. sailing, so we were wasting lots of time just sitting around. I looked at all sorts of options to try and avoid this problem. The best was to rent our car in Anchorage and drop it off in Whittier. We would have been able to drive from Seward to Whittier, save lots of driving time and allow us to do much more with our day. Unfortunately, doing so would have cost more than $600 more and the finances won. One of the things I learned in planning for Alaska is that Princess owns the place. If you try and do shore excursions on your own, if Princess has a tie-in, their contract forbids the proprietor booking with you unless you book with Princess. We got checked in to the cruise with time to spare and spent time resting and exploring the ship.
     Alaska! From Anchorage to Whittier and a Cruise Ship Trip to the Hubbard Glacier  (Judy)

Thursday was spent at sea. It was cold and rainy and most of our time was spent inside the ship, as opposed to on the deck. But we did sail into see the beautiful Hubbard Glacier, which Judy covers in the link above for yesterday.

Friday was also spent at sea, this time in in Glacier Bay National Park. Still very cold and often rainy. If it is like this at the end of July, I hate to think of it in May.
     Alaska! Glacier Bay  (Judy)

Saturday morning we finally hit land again, in Skagway. We arranged our own shore excursion. We rented a car at Avis in Skagway, a reasonable walk from the ship, and drove 126 miles to the Yukon Wildlife Preserve, 17 miles past Whitehorse in Yukon Territory. We had some beautiful scenery, first on the North Klondike Hwy up through the pass, then past a number of beautiful lakes. The Yukon Wildlife Preserve is one of the better zoos, for lack of a better word, we've visited. The enclosures are gigantic, all in natural habitat. It is like seeing the animals in the wild. For example, the moose enclosure has its own lake. We saw mountain goats, arctic fox, lynx, woodland caribou, muskox, wood bison, elk, thinhorn sheep, hare and mule deer, in addition to the moose and some wild arctic ground squirrels. We drove into Whitehorse for a nice lunch at the Burnt Toast Cafe, then got back to Skagway with time to visit the colorful grave yard before boarding the ship.
     Yukon Territory  (Judy)
     Stone Sheep  (Bob)
     Dall Sheep  (Bob)
     Arctic Ground Squirrel  (Bob)
     Burnt Toast Cafe - Whitehorse  (Bob)
     Alaska! Skagway and the Gold Rush Cemetery  (Judy)

Sunday morning we landed in Juneau and arranged for a ship shore excursion to go see brown bears, to make up for our excursion out of Homer that was cancelled because of bad weather. We were picked up by Bear Creek Outfitters and drove to the airport in Juneau where we flew 30 minutes by float plane to Chichagoff Island to view brown bears. We landed in the water of Pavlov Bay and were ferried to shore and then walked about a half mile up a river near a waterfall. We were fortunate to see a mother brown bear and her two large cubs walking the side of the river and fishing for salmon in the waterfall. This was an expensive, but fabulous excursion! We were picked up by float plane and flew back to Juneau where we ate a quick meal at Tracy's King Crab Shack, on the dock near the ship, the meal I'd looked most forward to on this trip. We had 3 pounds of wonderful king crab legs and claws.
     Alaska! Grizzly Bear Watching on Chichagoff Island and a Crab Leg Feast in Juneau  (Judy)
     Brown Bear - Chichagoff Island, Alaska  (Bob)
     Tracy's King Crab Shack - Juneau  (Bob)

Monday we docked in Ketchikan at 10:00 a.m., kind of late, and the ship was leaving at 6:00 p.m. We arranged for our own shore excursion to Anan Bay to see black bears. A driver picked us up at 11:00 a.m. and drove us to Family Air Tours owned by Dave Rocke. Dave had some of the coveted permits to (only 64 are granted for each day) the Anan Wildlife Observatory, run by the USDA. We had a 30 to 40 minute flight by float plane and were dropped off at Anan Bay where we were met by a ranger and given a short orientation. We then took a 20 minute walk (a half mile) through old growth forest to a gated area just off Anan Creek where we viewed black bears for the next 2 hours. The black bears are drawn to the creek where the salmon were running and it was one of the most phenomenal experiences of my life. We got to spend a half hour in a blind overlooking the waterfall where we saw bears very close-up catching salmon. After returning to Ketchikan the way we came, we went from restaurant to restaurant getting turned down because they were closed or out of salmon. We finally settled on Annabelle's very a very disappointing dinner, before getting back on the ship.
     Alaska! Bear Watching at the Anan Wildlife Observatory  (Judy)
     Eastern Black Bear - Anan Bay, Alaska  (Bob)
    Annabelle's Famous Keg and Chowder House - Ketchikan  (Bob)

Tuesday we had our third cruising day on this ship. I'm not a big fan of cruising days, made worse when the weather is cold and rainy. I'd rather be out and about. Judy captures this day and combines it with a post on Granville Island in Vancouver, which post is listed after the next entry.

Wednesday morning we arrived in Vancouver, British Columbia at 7:30 a.m. We took a train to the airport and rented a car, then drove to Granville Island Public Market where we spent the morning and had lunch. Then we drove to the very crowded Capilano Suspension Bridge Park (a nature lover's Disneyland), and followed that up with a stop at the nearby Capilano River Hatchery. Then we spent time walking Chinatown until our dinner appointment at Forage, a wonderful restaurant.
     Vancouver, British Columbia: Granville Island Public Market  (Judy)
     Granville Market - Vancouver  (Bob)
     Vancouver, British Columbia: Capilano Suspension Bridge Park  (Judy)
     Vancouver, British Columbia: Chinatown  (Judy)
     Forage - Vancouver, B.C.  (Bob)
Alaska is very expensive, but it also has some amazing activities. Three of my favorite trip activities, ever, were the flight around Denali and glacier landing, the flight to see brown bears on Chichagoff Island, and the flight to see black bears at Anan Bay. Not as high on my list, but still quite high, was the boat trip out to Kenai Fjords National Park. Unbelievable beauty and wildlife. 


  1. I have to agree with you about the three favorites on this trip. What an adventure! However, I could have done without being tossed around on the waves on the way to the Kenai fjords. As beautiful as it was once we got there, it wasn't worth it for me.

  2. Wonderful pictures and post. Alaska is a beautiful place and I love to see northern lights here. This is very popular place for Northern lights trip