Alaska’s always been at the top of our travel bucket list, and this summer, we decided there’s no time to wait, and no better time to go. From breathtaking nature, untouched mostly by humans, exciting outdoors adventures, spectacular wildlife, and the best-tasting salmon on earth, Alaska’s austere beauty and wild heart captivated us from day one.
Oh, there were so many things we were excited about – witnessing the midnight sunsets, getting close encounters with animals, visiting the legendary Danali park, and getting our first taste of glaciers…We quickly realized though, that Alaska’s vast wilderness, and ever-changing nature has so much more to offer, and as we were leaving, we were certain we’d return one day…at least one more time.
This is a quick travel log of our first venture into the wild Alaska.
June 16: Anchorage
We board a midday flight from Oakland to Seattle, and then hop on another flight to Anchorage. We arrive at 7pm, and the sun is still high in the sky. It feels so strange, as the day stretches indefinitely, into the wee hours. We fall into the false illusion that everything happens at slo-mo. We rent our car, and drive into town, check in at the hotel, waste a good hour in our room, before heading out to Moose’s Tooth for dinner, wait 45 minutes for a table at one of Alaska’s best pizzerias, leave the place at 11 pm, and we still have time to go out and explore, and hopefully witness the sunset at 11:40 pm! Not bad, for what we thought was a wasted day!
Anchorage is where half of the population of Alaska lives, and where, they say, mousses roam the place like street dogs in other cities. However, it’s not very exciting as a city. It’s a great base point to explore the nearby places of interest.
A few words about Moose’s Tooth before I move on to more exciting events. Recommended by locals, and Tripadvisor/Yelp reviews, it’s touted as one of Alaska’s best pizzerias, its fame spreading far and beyond Anchorage. The place is packed and very busy, waiting time is long, but it’s also a nice size, with lots of seating inside and out. The pizza menu is quite impressive, with lots of interesting choices, and even gluten free pizza crust option. The portions are big, and overall it’s really delicious food.
June 17: On the road: Anchorage to Denali
We have a long day ahead, driving about 250 miles up north to Denali National park, with multiple stops on the way. We grab a quick bite at the Great Harvest Bread Co., where we try a delicious array of local artisan breads and pastries. The freshly baked samples they give you, are so generous (and so good, especially with the butter they provide on the side) that you can fill up easily by trying 2-3 of them.
Our first adventure is hiking Flat Top Mountain, just 20 minutes outside of Anchorage. The hike from the parking lot is a 3-mile loop, which starts easy, and gets progressively difficult, especially in the last third. We have our first taste of snow-specked mountains, and gorgeous ridges and valleys, with a panoramic view of Anchorage bay below. It’s quite populated so no great chances of seeing wild life but we meet a cute porcupine on the way up! For the last portion of the hike, the trail path gets lost, and you can hike to the top from multiple sides. It’s more of a climb, than hike at this point, the rocky terrain quite challenging and treacherous at times. Overall it takes us about 2-3 hours to make it all the way to the top and back, and it feels good to get some exercise before the long drive.
For the first couple of hours, as we take Hwy 3 north all the way to Denali, the trip is uneventful, as there aren’t many stops we can make along the way. As we approach the park, there are two view points where you can stop and take a peek at Mt. Denali in the distance, if you’re lucky to have clear weather, that is. It’s very cloudy when we first stop at Denali Viewpoint South, and although we can see some mountains in the distance, Mt. Denali is completely obscured from view. You can’t even tell it’s there. About 20 miles north, Denali viewpoint north is another stop to try your luck, and see the giant. The weather changes so fast in Alaska, so keep that in mind and don’t give up after your first failure. We’re not lucky that day.
After a short stop and a quick walk to Byers lake a few miles north, we continue straight to McKinley Park – a small community with a concentration of hotels, restaurants, and tourist shops, located on both sides of the highway. You cannot even call it a village but it is the most lively and touristy place we’ve seen, after leaving Anchorage, due to its immediate proximity to Denali park’s main entrance. You can grab some groceries, fill up your gas tanks, and even get some ice-cream at the local parlor. We have a great dinner at Karsten’s Public house, where we try their delicious caribou burgers with garlic Parmesan fries. The restaurant offers a cozy interior but they also have a really nice yard with fire pits, and live music. It’s a little tricky to find, especially if you try to follow your Google maps. It’s on the left side of the road, if you are driving north, but I recommend you stop, and ask a local for directions.
Our sleep quarters for the next two nights is Denali Park hotel, about 10 miles north of McKinley Park, and the most reasonably priced place around. The place is basic but a huge bonus is the presence of mousses who frequent the site every day! Our friends see a mama mousse and her calf right next to their window on the first day. Seeing a mousse, preferably a male, up close, is high on my wish list in Alaska, so I feel a little jealous, and keep a tight watch, even go look for them, but no mama mousse and babies in sight for me. I am sure they’ll show up one of these days.
At a glance: Anchorage
Where to sleep
My Place Hotel – an updated, clean, budget friendly place, great for extended stays.
June 18: Denali National Park
We dedicate the whole day to Denali National Park – a vast, pristine wilderness, encompassing over six million acres of mostly tundra, and jagged, glacier-sculpted mountain ranges, which offers some of the most spectacular scenery and wildlife we’ve seen. Towering above this majestic landscape is Mt. Denali, the tallest peak in North America, rising at 20,310 feet high (6,190 m).
Despite the size of the park, there is only one road, and private vehicles are prohibited after mile 15. This leaves a couple of other options for exploring. If you only have one day in the park, your best bet is to book an organized all day bus tour that drives through the heart of the park, all the way to the end of the road, at Kantishna.
It’s a 92-mile drive one way, and a 12-hour journey on a school bus, and it’s one of the best things we’ve done in Alaska. Between the breathtaking views, and multiples stops, the unforgettable encounters with wildlife, and the constant, engaging narrative of the bus driver, we hardly have any time to get bored. We see Dall sheep on distant cliffs, mousses playing in ponds, a huge herd of caribou, a few ones up close, and mama bear cuddling with her young cubs in the grass. In the end, we are extremely lucky to witness another grizzly bear and her two cubs, playing in the distance, then coming very close to the bus, causing a ‘bear jam’ as multiple buses stop and watch in awe the show of a lifetime, as if taken out of a National Geographic documentary. Despite the palpable excitement reaching its highest maybe for the day, everyone on the bus is as quiet as humanly possible, and the only sound you hear beside shushing is the endless clicking of the cameras. The two little bear cubs are so cute, and curious, they come really close to the bus, stop and look up at us, completely oblivious to what emotions they’re causing, then nonchalantly turn away and go on with their business, clumsily trotting behind their mama.
The only animal we don’t see that day is a wolf, but that’s a rare treat, we learn, as there are only 22 wolves roaming the vast 6-million acre wilderness!
About half way through, we see the outline of Polychrome mountains in the distance, and it’s truly a postcard view. As we approach, and make a quick stop at the Polychrome pass overlook, dark clouds have gathered overhead, but the sun is still shining, and this creates a dramatic lighting, making the colors of Polychrome mountains pop even more.
Aside from the spectacular wildlife, the park is most famous for its centerpiece, Mt. Denali. Its name means “the great one” in the native Athabascan language, but despite its impressive height, it’s a pure luck to catch a cloudless glimpse of the giant. Most of the year, low-hanging clouds completely block the view.
Supposedly, the best viewing of Mt. Denali is from the Eielson Visitor Center, which stands just 33 miles from the peak. The bus stops here for a longer break, and we’re free to walk around, or sit at the few picnic tables and have lunch. Although the views are some of the most gorgeous we’ve seen that day, Mt. Denali is still no where to be found.
As the bus drives on, and the road climbs up and meanders, we suddenly see it…only a fraction of its tip, camouflaged among the clouds, and we sort of imagine the rest of it, but it gives us a sense of its humongous form, soaring more than twice as high, as the lower mountain ranges below it. We’re speechless and humbled, silenced by the sheer magnitude and grandeur of the mountain. The bus driver stops, and we shoot a gazillion pictures of the peak, knowing that we’re one of the lucky 30%, who get a chance to see it.
Another great view of Denali, on a clear day, can be snapped further down the road, at Wonder Lake. By the time we get there, though, the wind has picked up, the clouds have thickened, and we see no reflections in the lake, and certainly no Mt. Denali. It’s still a pretty view, though.
We stop frequently to take in the views, and make short walks, and time just flies by. The only regret we have is that we don’t have more time to do longer hikes, and explore the park by foot.
If this is the type of experience you want, you can still do it in one day, by hopping off the bus, at designated stops, then catching a later shuttle bus, if spaces are available. It’s a little more risky, especially if you have a larger group, as once you get off the bus, your space is not guaranteed on the next.
If you have more time, you can opt to stay in the park, and get a more intimate experience with Denali. There are a few lodges at the secluded center of the park, in Kantishna which are expensive but offer all-inclusive experience, or a handful of hotels and resorts near Denali Park entrance. You can also camp at one of Denali’s 6 campgrounds, if you feel more adventurous. Keep in mind though, that there is no place to buy food, snacks, or water in the park, so pack well before you go anywhere.
If you decide to take the bus tour, I definitely suggest taking the narrative one. I was very impressed by our driver, who literally talked for 12 hours straight, telling us interesting facts and history about the animals, the mountains, and the park. Having done this for 19 years, he was obviously a wealth of knowledge.
At a glance: Denali
Where to sleep
Denali Park hotel – budget friendly, decent place, located about 10 miles from Denali Park’s entrance
Kantishna lodges: upscale, with all-inclusive options.
Other hotels near the park’s entrance
June 19: Glaciers
Our next destination is Seward – a small, port town, located almost 400 miles south of Denali, at the tip of the Resurrection Bay, it’s our starting point for the day-long glacier boat cruise in Kenai Fjords National park the next day. We have a long drive ahead, but at least we have the endless summer days on our side. We stop again at the Denali viewpoints, both north and south, and this time we are rewarded with a magnificent view of the peak. It is the clearest day with the perfect visibility.
Once we pass Anchorage, and start on the Seward highway, along the Turnagain Arm, the scenery changes completely and we are once again in awe of the ever changing postcard views. By that time, the hot sun had turned into grey, rainy skies, but we don’t mind them. It’s a beautiful drive and despite the long day so far, we are invigorated and eager to see more. The road meanders along the Turnagain bay with dramatic views of the Chugach snow-covered mountains just a short distance across the water. The Turnagain arm is where you can see one of the biggest bore tides in the world. Two days later, as we drive back along the same highway, the bay looks completely transformed, with the water gone, and only mud flats left in its place. It’s like someone pulled the plug, and drained the huge bay overnight!
We really want to see Portage glacier, but as we approach the Begich Boggs visitor center at Portage lake, the weather gets even worse, with dark low-hanging clouds, more rain, and icy winds. Portage glacier is accessible either by a boat ride, or via a 5-mile round trip hike. The boat tours have closed for the day, and we are warned that the hike maybe dangerous in this weather, plus we are short on time. The only thing we can possibly do is a hike to Byron glacier – a smaller one, but more accessible. We are duly warned about bears, and the danger of avalanches, and after quite some debate, we decide to give it a go. It really is a nice, short hike to Byron glacier (never mind the light drizzle and wind), and our spirits are high, especially after reaching the tip of the glacier (our first!) and getting closer and closer until we step on it!
The scenery changes once again, as we enter the Chugach National Forest and continue on our last leg to Seward. This is a sub-polar rainforest, and we begin to see lily ponds by the road, with snow-covered Alpine mountain ranges as their backdrop. We pass by lakes, their water – a milky turquoise color, so unreal, as if taken from a tropical island and transported in the forest. I know I’ve said it before, but this is my new favorite part of the drive so far. I wish we have more time to stop and linger…
Just before Seward, we take the Exit Glacier road to the right and a short 20-min drive takes us to the parking lot of Exit glacier. Despite the late hour (it’s past 8pm), the place is crowded. We follow the short path leading to the glacier, and come closer and closer, seduced by the view, until we actually can step on it, and get into the giant crevices! It’s the most amazing thing to get so close and intimate with this giant relic from the ice age, and we can’t get enough of it…
We’ve planned to eat in Seward but on the way to the glacier we spot a nice and cozy place that looks quite promising, aptly called Salmon Bake! It does not disappoint and in fact, turns out to be the best food we have in Alaska! We arrive almost at 10pm, just 15 minutes before closing time, but everyone is super nice and hospitable. Every dish on the menu we order is exceptional – even something as mundane as mashed potatoes taste amazing. The special of the day is salmon stuffed with shrimp, and topped with asparagus and corn saute! The salmon fish and chips are the best fish and chips, I’ve ever had in my life. Not too greasy, and not too heavy on the breading, and definitely juicier and tastier. The grilled halibut with a side of garlic butter rice is another hit! The whole vibe of that place, tucked in the forest, and looking like a cozy log cabin, with its quiet charm, and rustic decor makes this one of the most memorable meals weve had! They offer cute cabins for lodging too.
After a nice walk at the Seward marina, where we spot otters, and try to guess which one of the boats will take us on a cruise the next day, we finally retreat to our hotel, and call it a day, at quarter past midnight!
At a glance: Anchorage to Seward
Where to eat
Dinner: Salmon Bake, Seward – fantastic food, and great ambiance, close to Exit Glacier and Seward.
What to do
Hike to Portage Glacier or jump on a boat tour.
Take the short hike to Byron glacier, and explore the ice caves.
Take the Alyeska aerial tramway at Girdwood for a panoramic view.
Get adventurous and book a Glacier dog sledding tour at Girdwood
Next post: A cruise into Kenai Fjords National Park and more glaciers, Homer, and more animals!!