I am often asked for advice on traveling to Alaska. Several months ago, the Springfield News-Leader published an email on Alaska travel tips that I sent to my former colleague and News-Leader travel columnist Juliana Goodwin. What follows is an edited and updated version of the advice I gave Juliana. Keep in mind that I’m definitely not your typical Alaska tourist since I’m more likely to be off working in a remote wilderness setting. I typically travel to Alaska at least several and different times of the year (usually summer and late fall/early winter). With that in mind here are some tips.
Unidentified passengers on the Alaska Marine Highway System ferry Malaspina enjoy the scenery of the Lynn Canal as the sun sets behind the Chilkat Range near Haines, Alaska.
I actually don’t do much driving in Alaska. Primarily, because most of the time I am traveling/working in remote areas inaccessible by roads and cars. It would make little sense for me to be paying for a rental car to sit idle in a parking lot while backpacking or sea kayaking for weeks at a time. The only time I use a rental car for an entire trip is during my November trips to the Chilkat River where I photograph bald eagles (southeast Alaska near the town of Haines). On those trips I spend the night at a bed and breakfast in Haines.
I have never rented an RV so I can’t speak to that except that I see a lot of them from rental RV companies. If readers think that RV travel would be a cheap way to see the state, consider that this past November (2011), I paid $4.53 per gallon for gas in Haines, Alaska. I’d hate to think what the price of gas would be in the “middle-of-nowhere” Alaska. Factor in that it’s hundreds of miles from most spots to the next, and the miles per gallon of an RV gets, I personally would not recommend doing the RV thing if I was doing a general trip across the state. However, for folks traveling to one spot, and staying put (like people who fish), then an RV would make sense.
A look at a highway map of Alaska shows that there are only a handful of highways, and that a few of those highways are gravel. The distances between cities are great. It’s difficult to realize the difference in scale between the size of the state and the lower 48. Alaska is the size of Texas, California and Montana combined. Gas stations are rare once you leave the Anchorage or Fairbanks metropolitan areas. There is a reason why you see folks with gasoline containers piled on top of their cars and RVs. That said, I wouldn’t be hesitate in driving anywhere on the paved highways. Just never pass up topping off at a gas station. A publication called “The Milepost” is a handy resource for traveling wanting to do their own automobile driving or travel in a RV. The nearly 800 page book has detailed sightseeing, dining and lodging information presented in a mile-by-mile format.
Don’t plan traveling off-road on dirt roads. It’s not like anything you would find in the lower 48. These roads don’t have bridges, not even the low water type like we have in the Ozarks. The roads can have huge potholes and can be muddy due to rain. My advice would be to stay on the paved or gravel-packed roads. Even with a 4 wheel drive vehicle, if it’s not gravel packed, you want to seriously ponder whether or not you can make it out if rains. Alaska is the REAL deal. That’s why you’ll see ATVs parked along the highways and more ‘Big Foot Monster Trucks’ than then shows at your local state fair. The final thing to keep in mind with driving is that once you leave the cities, even though you might be on the highway, you are in true wilderness — REAL wilderness so you shouldn’t depend that your cell phone will work. When I do rent a car, I like to rent a car with a trunk simply to be able keep things out of sight of potential thieves while in Anchorage, or while parked at a trailhead.
Jumping off points
Alaska gateway cities for flights from the lower 48 are either Anchorage, Juneau, or Fairbanks. If flight connections require you to overnight in Seattle, then there are plenty of hotels right next door to the airport. I’ve found the Coast Gateway Hotel to be reasonably priced and comfortable.
I’ll fly into Anchorage if I’m heading to Denali National Park and Preserve, Kenai Fjords National Park (Seward area) or Kachemak Bay State Park (Homer area). While in Anchorage I will rent a car for a several days as I collect needed supplies, etc. Then (using a trip to Denali as an example) I’ll either take the train (fun, but more expensive, slower) or a shuttle bus to Denali National Park. There are several shuttles to Denali. The one that I’ve used in the past is The Park Connection. I like them over some of the others because they use an actual bus, versus those that use a passenger van that tows a carrier for luggage. If a person was making their one and only trip to Alaska, I would suggest taking the train just for the experience.
A floatplane prepares to takeoff at sunset near the Sapphire Princess cruise ship docked in Juneau, Alaska.
For trips to southeast Alaska, I’ll fly into Juneau (typically flying through Seattle as Alaska Airlines only flies to Juneau). Juneau is the gateway city for Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, the upper Lynn Canal towns of Haines and Skagway and a host of other even smaller villages in the Inside Passage. There is no road access to or from Juneau. It’s totally off the highway grid. So to travel from Juneau your options are either by air (scheduled small plane or bush plane/helicopter charter service if you are backpacking) The other alternative and the one I recommend is to travel on the state run ferries that are part of the Alaska Marine Highway System. The AMHS ferries are the lifeblood of southeast Alaska traveling from small town to small town. The term “ferry” probably isn’t very descriptive of what these vessels really are. These are big ships, that carry buses, tractor trailers, and dozens and dozens of cars and RVs. Depending on the ship, some have cabins, showers, bars, movie lounges, and cafeterias (all have food service of some sort). I especially love to hang out on in a deck chair on the top deck solarium, part of which is covered and heated. I will rent a car in Juneau and take the car on the ferry to Haines (or Skagway). Be aware that the price to bring a car on the ferry varies by size so you don’t want to rent a bigger car than what you really need.
Make sure that your personal auto insurance and/or rental car/rental RV insurance is good in Canada. The Yukon Territory and British Columbia are just up the road from Haines and Skagway. Don’t forget your passport either. You’ll need it for any border crossings. As an aside, Carol and I drove from Haines to an unknown point on the highway in the Yukon. We drove for several hours (wonderful scenery). Never saw a town, house, or gas station though, actually I don’t recall even seeing another car! When we headed back to Haines and crossed back into the U.S. the border guards were determined that we tell them where we went. Just driving for several hours wasn’t enough. Finally, I recalled a landmark, near where we turned around that seemed to do the trick.
The mountains of the Chilkat Range serve as a backdrop for evening sunlight on the Eldred Rock Lighthouse, located on the Lynn Canal in southeast Alaska. Construction of the lighthouse was finished in 1906 after shipwrecks occurred in the area during the 1898 Klondike gold rush. The light was automated by the U.S. Coast Guard in 1973 with the original fourth-order Fresnel lens moved to the Sheldon Museum in Haines.
What would I recommend for first time visitors? If they are reasonably seasoned travelers I would not recommend doing the cruise thing. Why? The thing to keep in mind about traveling on a cruise ship is that the ships travel at night so they can be in ports of call during the day. While it stays light late in the evening during the summer you’ll still miss the best part of the cruise as you eat dinner, etc. In my mind, the highlight of traveling the Inside Passage is the magnificent scenery, not shopping in the countless jewelry shops in Skagway or Ketchikan during the day or eating dinner in a cruise ship dinning room. Cruising the Inside Passage on the AMHS ferries will have the exact same views. This past summer, Carol and I saw whales bubble net feeding just off the side of the ferry on the way to Gustavus (Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve). I love the ferry not only for the scenery but also for the local folks you’ll meet. During the summer you’ll have more tourists than locals, but I’ve had some great conversations with local folks traveling 4.5 hours one way just to go grocery shopping, to the doctor, or for a high school wrestling meet. It’s not a stuffy white linen napkin fantasy affair with tuxedoed waiters — it’s the real world.
With a little planning, a person can put together a great first time trip. If I was telling a friend what to do on their first trip to Alaska, the following is what I would recommend.
Fly to Anchorage. Aim for a window seat for the portion of the flight flying into Anchorage. On a clear day, there are magnificent views of ice fields. You’ll know “you’re not in Kansas anymore” when you see mountain after mountain without a road in sight.
In Anchorage spend several days sightseeing around town. For me, that includes a trip to the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center, biking or walking along the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail for views of downtown Anchorage surrounded by the nearby Chugach mountains (TIP: easy access to the paved trail is from Elderberry Park off of 5th St. and Pacific Pl.), a drive up to the Glen Alps Trailhead just outside town for great views looking down on Anchorage and the Cook Inlet and if clear, views of Mt. McKinley and Mt. Redoubt. (NOTE: The nearby hike up Flattop Mountain may look easy but it’s difficult and can be dangerous if you are not prepared with proper clothing and equipment). Other fun Anchorage activities include walking 4th Avenue downtown to check out all the tourist gift shops (the nicest being Cabin Fever, spending time at the impressive Tidal Wave Book Store (primarily used books), checking out REI (has Alaska specific items), and Alaska Mountaineering and Hiking (AMH) a local version of the nearby REI, and taking a short hike at the Eagle River Nature Center, located just outside Anchorage. Obey any bear warnings, and make plenty of noise while hiking.Fly to Anchorage. Aim for a window seat for the portion of the flight flying into Anchorage. On a clear day, there are magnificent views of ice fields. You’ll know “you’re not in Kansas anymore” when you see mountain after mountain without a road in sight.
While still in Anchorage, I also recommend spending a day/afternoon to drive along the Turnagain Arm on the Seward Highway towards Portage Glacier. Keep an eye out for mountain goats along the cliffs of the arm and beluga whales in the water. Inquire with locals on when the bore tide is for scheduled. You may see surfers on the incoming wave. One warning though, never, ever walk on the mud flats. People have gotten stuck only to drown in the dramatic tidal fluctuations that Alaska experiences. A fun lunch on the drive is to grab grub from a grocery store in Anchorage and picnic along the many scenic pullouts along Turnagain Arm. I guess it’s worth going to the Portage Glacier for the visitor center exhibits, but don’t expect to see much, if anything, of the Portage Glacier except possibly for some icebergs. The glacier has since retreated many miles out of sight since the visitor center was built — climate change in action.
This drive could be combined with a longer drive to Seward which I highly recommend. There’s too much to see to make the drive to Seward a same day trip from Anchorage. Instead plan to overnight in Seward. Here you can see a glacier up close, and I mean walk up close (Exit Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park). As you walk to the glacier note the signs marking the years where the face of the glacier was at that point of time. Exploring the action at the harbor docks in Seward is interesting to see what the sports fisherman have caught. Any trip to Seward should include the Alaska Sealife Center. Finally, the highlight of traveling to Seward is taking one of the tour boats out into the deeper wilderness of Kenai Fjords National Park. I suggest taking a tour that at least goes to Aialik Bay. Kenai Fjord Tours and Major Marine Tours are two of many companies
Mt. McKinley, also known as Denali (Athabaskan for “The High One”) basks in morning light at sunrise in Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska. The snow and glacier covered mountain, part of the Alaska Range soars to a height of 20,320 feet. Mt. McKinley is the tallest mountain on the North American continent. Although Mt. Everest is higher, the vertical rise of Mt. McKinley is greater. This view is a small detail from the north slopes of the mountain seen from Wonder Lake.
Denali National Park and Preserve
In my opinion a must thing to do on a first time trip to Alaska is a trip to Denali National Park and Preserve. As I mentioned earlier, I think it is better to take either the train, or a shuttle to the park. Outside of taking a detour to the town of Talkeetna (base for most of the Denali flight-seeing flights, and base for those preparing to climb Denali and the other mountains of the Alaska Range) there really aren’t many places to stop or things to do.
There are several hotels at the park entrance. Book early as most are booked by cruise line companies. Plan on at least two nights at the park. If camping, plan camping your first and last night at the park’s frontcountry campground at Riley Creek. I won’t get into the details of camping, backpacking or hiking within the park. There are plenty of books, along with excellent information on the Denali National Park and Preserve website for planing a trip to the park. Folks might want to download the park’s newspaper before visiting.
The park has only a single, mostly gravel, road. Visitors can only drive their personal vehicles the first 15 miles of the 92 mile road. To go further into the park you need to board one of the shuttle busses or tour busses. I prefer the shuttle busses as you can get on and off as you please. Both types of busses stop for wildlife, etc. Technically, the shuttle bus drivers aren’t supposed to give narration, but I’ve found most are talkative and informative. The tour bus drivers supposedly go into greater detail. I’d suggest reading more about the bus travel options in the park. It’s important information as this is the only way to travel in the park.
I strongly recommend signing up for a shuttle bus or tour bus that goes at least to the Eielson Visitor Center at mile 66. This will ensure that you go through some prime wildlife viewing habitat and if you are lucky see “The Mountain” up close. If you are taking the regular shuttle bus, be sure to take food and drink as there are no food services beyond the park frontcountry area (some of the tour buses may provide food – check before leaving). Don’t sulk if it is raining, cloudy, or chilly. While you might not see the peaks of the mountains of the Alaska Range, I’ve found that you’re more likely to see grizzlies, wolves, caribou and moose as they tend to be more active on cool, cloudy and drizzly days.
Money no object?
Stay at Camp Denali or North Face Lodge. Both are very expensive and are deep in the park’s backcountry. They cater to high end tourists who can’t bear the thought of sleeping in the dirt with grizzlies wandering about. I once got to sample some “leftover” bake goods that one of the cooking staff brought on the park camper bus (yup, a third type of bus). Yum Yum! All I can say is that folks appear to eat well there. Definitely better than the freeze dried food I was eating.
A grizzly bear scratches itself against a small spruce tree as seen from the park road in the Sable Pass area of Denali National Park in Alaska.
Score a campsite at the Wonder Lake campground in Denali National Park. It’s the closest campground to the continent’s tallest peak offering unobstructive views of 20,320 ft. Mt. McKinley. Be aware that the mountain makes its own weather. Because of this the peak can be cloud covered for weeks at at time. Increase the probability of seeing the mountain in all it’s glory by camping more than one night at Wonder Lake (I suggest 3-4 nights). IMPORTANT TIP: If the mountain is going to be visible, it is most likely to be visible at or just before sunrise. Set your alarm to peek out the tent door and be prepared to quickly take photos. The mountain can become cloud covered in just a few minutes. If you are lucky enough to see Mt McKinley (or Denali as most folks call it) I guarantee that it will be a life changing experience. While Mt. Everest is higher, Denali has the tallest base-to-peak height. You can’t see a taller vertical relief of rock anywhere on the planet. Why isn’t everyone in the world trying to stay at Wonder Lake? It’s the mosquitos. There are literally a ton of them there. You need to be in the right mind set when camping in Wonder Lake. It can be cold and buggy, but if you’re lucky it truly is the most jaw-dropping spot on the planet.
Hikers to Nugget Falls located next to the Mendenhall Glacier near Juneau, Alaska are dwarfed by the 377 foot waterfall.
With no road access to U.S. or Canadian highway systems for much of southeast Alaska, my tips for that part of the state are more straightforward. In Juneau, be sure to check out the Mendenhall Glacier just on the edge of town. In addition to the glacier and visitor center there are plenty of hiking trails of for all levels of hikers.
To reach Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, you need to fly via Alaska Airlines, or take one of the twice weekly AMHS ferries. The highlight at Glacier Bay National Park is the full day tour of the park by boat. Sea kayak rentals are available for experienced paddlers interested of traveling on their own (Carol and I sea kayaked for 114 miles in a remote wilderness area of the park during a trip in 2011). Another way to see Glacier Bay is by air. I’ve had a great experience with Mountain Flying Service based in Haines.
Skagway and Haines are reachable by ferry or small plane. Skagway is rich in history of the Klondike gold rush era. I recommend taking the guided National Park Service walking tour of the town at the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park. While I’ve never taken the train trip up to White Pass, it looks like it would be a fun thing to do. I would describe Haines as being less touristy than Skagway and a bit more spread out. Haines is the site of the Southeast Alaska State Fair and the finish for the Kluane Chilkat International Bike Relay race. Be sure to check that if you are visiting at the time of these events that you have firm lodging reservations. The town will run out of rooms. The same is true if you are visiting in early spring during the heli-skiing season. I can’t imagine a more beautiful place to live than Haines.
The historic buildings of the former U.S. Army facility, Fort William H. Seward in Haines, Alaska are dwarfed by Mount Emmerich and other peaks of the Takhinsha Mountains as the setting sun lights up the Chilkat River valley. Haines is a cruise ship destination on the Lynn Canal in southeast Alaska. Cruise ships dock at the pictured Port Chilkoot dock near downtown Haines.
This all sounds like complicated planning
If you don’t like to plan and would rather have a more structured travel experience, then definitely consider a cruise. Just because I didn’t play up cruises doesn’t mean that you should skip going to Alaska if you rather have something more structured. The more important thing is you MUST go to Alaska. Cruises typically travel the Inside Passage. To see places like Denali National Park, Anchorage and Seward you would need to sign up for the additional land excursions that the cruise companies offer.
On one August 1, it was so warm that we went swimming in Wonder Lake in Denali National Park. On August 1 the following year, we trudging through blowing snow with nighttime temps in the teens. Most of the time, the summer temps are in the 60 degree range with little variation between day and night temps. My point though is that the weather can change dramatically and quickly. Again, plan and expect rain. If you don’t get rain then consider it a bonus.
Alaska Airlines now flies out of St. Louis and Kansas City. I like to fly Alaska Airlines because I participate in their mileage plan but be aware that their schedule out of St. Louis and Kansas City is limited. Most of the other big airlines have summer service to Anchorage (American, Delta, etc.). As I mentioned earlier, the only way to fly into Juneau is with Alaska Airlines. When I travel to Haines, it takes me three days of traveling. One day to travel and fly from St. Louis to Seattle where I overnight. The second day to travel to Juneau. The third day to travel to Haines on the ferry. Obviously, if you can avoid the overnight in Seattle, you can save money but it will make for a long day of traveling. I personally don’t mind breaking the trip up in smaller bites. Speaking of bites. …
Two de Havilland DHC-3 Otter float planes are docked in the Juneau Harbor next to the Merchant’s Wharf Mall in downtown Juneau, Alaska. Float planes are a vital mode of transportation in Alaska where much of the state is only accessible by float plane. The Hanger on the Wharf restaurant is located in this building.
Favorite places to eat
Anchorage – Simon and Seaforts Saloon & Grill (make reservations – great oceanfront view of the several hour long summer sunsets, fancy and pricey, Haines – Mosey’s Cantina has some of the best Mexican food I ever had. Their mole is incredible. Mosey is the owner’s dog, typically greeting diners outside the front door. Outside Haines – If you want a true backwoods road house experience, 33 Mile Roadhouse located 33 miles up the Haines Highway near the Canadian border is “unique” and a local favorite. The Discovery Channel “Gold Rush” Porcupine Creek gold miners are working hard only a few, but difficult to access, miles away. Juneau – The Hanger on the Wharf has great views of the action at the cruise ship docks. While the food is good, the view is better. Homer – Cups Cafe. Elsewhere – Any place you can picnic. That’s my favorite. Just be mindful of bears by being able to quickly put food away.
A humpback whale engages in “tail slapping” in the Sitakaday Narrows of the main bay of Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve in this view seen from Young Island located in the Beardslee Islands of the park in southeast Alaska. In the near background is Marble Mountain and in the far background is Mt. Abdallah. It is unknown why whales engage in this behavior but speculation is that it is a way to ward off other whales or the opposite, an invitation to join a group of whales.
Places to stay
My favorite place to stay is in a tent in a remote wilderness location watching grizzly bear cubs play, wolves on the hunt, or whales breaching out of the ocean.
More civilized spots include the Alaska Guardhouse in Haines. Joanne and Phyllis are the nicest hostesses you will every meet. The Guardhouse is located on the historic grounds of Ft. Seward, an old army post that was established shortly after the Klondike gold rush and yes, it really was the fort’s guardhouse and jail. Don’t worry, the jail cell is long gone.
The choices for Anchorage are numerous. I used to stay at a cheap B&B downtown but that has rightfully been torn down and made into a parking lot. In any event I suggest staying in downtown Anchorage for walking opportunities.
Just outside Seward, the Seward Windsong Lodge is nice. though my favorite place to stay in the Seward area are the remote wilderness cabins in Kenai Fjords National Park. The cabins are cheap, but the effort and expense to get to them are very expensive (involves several hour water taxi, sea kayaking, etc.). The cabins are definitely not for your average tourist.
Saving money on tours, etc.
I’ve never used it but the Alaska TourSaver coupon book is supposedly is a great way to save money in Alaska. Obviously, a person would want to check out the book’s website to see if the $100 coupon book offers savings for things that they are going to do to make it worthwhile.
Probably the best advice I can give
One important thing that potential visitors to Alaska have to be aware of. The weather is more likely to be cool and wet. While I have experienced many glorious sunny warm days in Alaska, the norm is more likely to be cloudy and wet. That’s why I highly recommend that visitors have decent rain gear (rain parka and rain pants). Having decent rain gear will ensure that you’ll have a great time. Umbrellas are useless in the Alaskan winds and ponchos tend to leak and turn you into a human kite. Along those same lines, having proper hiking boots, if you plan to do any walking. Remember, your shoes WILL get wet too. Wear clothes in layers so you can adjust as needed. I see too many people unprepared, swearing never to return, only because they were wet and cold.