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Trip Report Alaska Trip Report: Anchorage, Denali, Seward, Juneau & Glacier Bay

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I wanted to share the experiences from my two week Alaskan trip with other readers who may be planning their own trips for next year. First, I want to extend my appreciation to all those who offered advice as I was planning. I am grateful and found the information incredibly helpful as I made choices. My advice to anyone just beginning their trip planning is to read travel reports, ask questions, weigh the options, but in the end listen to your heart and select the route best suited to your style. Not everyone travels the same path or sees the same view out the window. I preface my trip report with that as we opted for some different choices, but they were just right for us and created a memorable trip.
We are two mature (as in 55 and over 65) women travelers who wanted to see a different Alaska than is offered by the cruises or land tours. We decided against renting a car and found we could get where we wanted without one. Our travels provided plenty of opportunity to chat with fellow independent travelers as well as the opportunity for interaction with full-time Alaskan residents. Alaska is so big we knew we couldn’t see it all; our goal was to select the locations and enjoy the experience of being there without rushing from one place to the next.
Another bit of advice I would offer is to purchase the Alaskan Tour Saver Coupon Book as you plan your activities. We saved about $1700 between the two of us - well worth the $100 investment. I was astonished more people were not using them. They were graciously accepted by all the businesses and were not inconvenient to use.
I’ll apologize upfront for the length of my ramblings below and will provide readers with a basic itinerary so you can fast forward if the destinations don’t interest you. We flew from Florida to Anchorage, took the train to Denali, took the train to Seward, took the marine ferry to Juneau, took a small plane to Glacier Bay National Park and flew back home to Florida. We didn’t back track and took advantage of a variety of modes of travel – which for me, is part of the journey, not just a means of transportation. I felt like we were able to sample a good portion of Alaska and gain an appreciation of the people and the land.
It was a long journey from Orlando to Anchorage. We arrived early in the afternoon Alaskan time and began our sightseeing as soon as we checked into the Inlet Towers. The Inlet Towers worked well for us. It is a reasonably priced hotel (by Anchorage standards), offers transportation to/from the airport and railroad, and has a grocery just across the street. Since there is a fridge and microwave in the room, we could get some basics to fill in any meal gaps. Not being a breakfast person, it was perfect for me. We had a corner room on the 10th floor with an incredible view. Since it was August, we needed the windows open and road traffic made it a bit noisy. I always travel with earplugs and it didn’t bother me. We also picked Inlet Towers because they were willing to store our luggage for a couple of days so we didn’t have to take our big suitcases on the train to Denali. The hotel is about a mile from downtown, but an easy walk or the hotel van can take you. We always opted to walk rather than wait around and discovered Star, the reindeer along the way. Once downtown, we soaked up the ambience, enjoyed the incredible flower gardens and hanging plants that seem to be everywhere and listened to live music in the park. Since the weather was gorgeous, we ate dinner outside at Humpy’s and settled for early bedtime since it had been a long day.
The next morning we walked back downtown and caught the free bus outside the Tourist Information Log Cabin to the Alaska Native Heritage Museum. Spent the entire morning at the center, but got back in time to have lunch at the outdoor Anchorage market and do a bit of shopping. We took advantage of another day of great weather and rented bikes to ride the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail. The trail is 11 miles around the inlet – mostly flat. It offers wonderful views and we were lucky enough to see a mama moose and her baby. It was one of my favorite experiences of the trip.
Next day, we began at the Anchorage Museum. The displays are top notch and provide an excellent foundation for understanding Alaska and the native cultures. You can easily spend hours there and not see it all. We grabbed a quick lunch at the market again and caught a bus to Flat Top Mountain. Unfortunately, the weather was less cooperative and the clouds rolled in and obliterated the views from the top. Even though I was rain soaked, it didn’t lessen my excitement when I saw a black bear along the trail. He was definitely more interested in berries than all the tourists who were ogling him. On the ride back to Anchorage, we saw several moose. We had a nice dinner at the Snow Goose with a table that overlooked the inlet.
On our 3rd day, the hotel van took us to the railroad where we caught the train to Denali. It’s a long ride (8 hours) but it goes by quickly. There’s plenty of space to walk around on the train, the staff are knowledgeable and provide lots of information about what you are seeing and you have the opportunity to chat with the other travelers and share experiences and future travel plans. At Denali, a bus was waiting to take us to the Princess Wilderness Lodge. The Lodge is comfortable – a bit Disneyish – but provided us with the services we needed. It is close to Denali and runs buses to and from the park. Besides we had a coupon! That evening, we went to the Cabin Nite Dinner Theatre – which was hokey, but fun. It’s all you can eat, family style dining so we chatted with the fellow tourists. I am pretty sure half the state of Florida was in Alaska with us. We picked up Subway sandwiches across the street from the hotel for the next day and called it a night since we had an early wake-up for the next morning.
We caught an early (7 am) bus into the park. I selected the cheaper park bus that went to the Eielson Center over the tour buses. The drivers are excellent and knowledgeable and we saw lots of wildlife. The park bus offers flexibility as I wanted to go for a hike in the park and my travel partner did not. She was able to take an earlier bus back to the hotel while I went walking. Mt. McKinley/Denali did not appear for us but the animals did so no complaints from me. We saw caribou, moose, both black and grey wolves, a golden eagle, Dall sheep (although they are sooo far up the mountain all you really see are dots with legs!) and bears. You are pretty much captive for meals when you stay at the Princess, but the hotel restaurant we ate in was fine and you can’t beat the view of the mountains.
The train back to Anchorage didn’t leave until noon so we had time for the exhibits at the Visitor’s Center and go for a short hike. We grabbed another Subway sandwich to eat on the train. There is a restaurant car on the train but we didn’t use it. People who did said it was good. I thought the journey back would be dull since it was a repeat of the same scenery from 2 days ago, but somehow the time evaporated. We saw a number of animals from the train. Upon arrival in Anchorage, the Inlet Towers van picked us up.
The next morning we were back at the train station for the trip to Seward. This train trip was shorter and the scenery more dramatic. The journey takes you past the Cook Inlet and through mountain passes and right next to the glaciers. Upon arrival in Seward, we took a taxi to our bed and breakfast, The Brass Lantern. Seward is a small town and taxis charge a $5 flat rate for anywhere in town. There is also a free bus that runs every 30 minutes that hits all the places you would want to go. Since the weather had now turned nasty, we decided the Sealife Center was an ideal place to spend the afternoon. It’s also a good place to become familiar with the animals we hoped to see on the cruise through Resurrection Bay. The Brass Lantern provided a perfect refuge from the weather and after dinner, it was great to be able to settle in for a quiet evening (I am not sure there is another kind in Seward…)
The next day the weather was glorious! Sunshine makes all the difference. We took a bus to Exit Glacier. My travel partner took the short hike but I headed up the Harding Ice Field trail. The views are amazing – another highlight for me on the trip. Back in town, we checked with Major Marine for the seas report before deciding to book the cruise. They very graciously told us the truth and did not encourage us to buy tickets while the seas were rough. It was deceptive as the weather was good, but the seas were still 8-10 ft.! I was really nervous about being seasick on the cruise through Resurrection Bay. I was so thankful we allowed extra days in Seward which gave us the luxury of selecting a day with calmer seas. I was glad we had not pre-purchased the boat tickets since you really are at the mercy of Mother Nature. That evening we bought fresh fish from Captain Jack’s and cooked a simple supper. It was fabulous to take a break from eating out!
Whew! We guessed correctly and the cruise through Resurrection Bay was most enjoyable. I highly recommend the 7.5 hour tour. Fortunately for me, the seas were calm and I could appreciate the scenery, glaciers and animals. I never tire of puffins and otters! Dinner that night was more fish from Captain Jack’s.
We had an open day and again I thought I might be bored, but not so! The weather cooperated and we walked to the waterfall and around the bay. Spent a long time watching porpoises and otters right from the shore. Strolled through town, checked out the art galleries and drank coffee and chatted with the year round Seward residents. This Florida girl can’t imagine what a winter must be like! Every afternoon the library has a film about the 1964 earthquake – it’s worth seeing and provides perspective on the devastation it caused. Amazingly, the day slipped by most pleasantly.
Here’s where the more unusual part of our journey begins… Somehow I had it in my head that part of our adventure should consist of a sea journey but neither of us was interested in a cruise. The Alaska Marine Ferry seemed the answer – only problem was the ferry leaves from Whittier and we were in Seward without a car. Fortunately, the folks at the Seward Bus Lines agreed to take us. They were great! Helen was a wealth of information and not the kind you get from any tour book! The route from Seward to Whittier is not part of their standard run, but we took the bus that was traveling to Anchorage and they let us off in Girdwood. The bus coming from Anchorage picked us up and took us down to Whittier. The coordination worked perfectly and we just made the tunnel before the traffic direction changed! Going through the tunnel was amazing – never been in a tunnel quite like that – narrow, just enough room for one way traffic and you drive over the train tracks. Emerging on the other side of the tunnel, we discovered what residents already know – the weather in Whittier is abysmal! No wonder our taxi driver in Seward burst into laughter when we told her we were going to Whittier. We had a long wait before the ferry was to leave and I had anticipated spending it walking the town and taking short hikes I had read about. It didn’t work out that way … First, there is no luggage storage at the ferry terminal, second, there is not much to the town of Whittier and third, it was rainy and miserable. I suspect the mountains that surround Prince William Sound are spectacular but I wouldn’t know – I only saw clouds. Fortunately, we made friends with fellow travelers who were also waiting for the Kennecott and we traded off luggage watching duties. That enabled us to walk a bit as we dodged raindrops and have a delightful dinner with several glasses of wine overlooking the Whittier harbor before getting on the ferry.
Another bit of advice I would offer to anyone considering traveling on the marine ferry is to analyze your comfort level. My travel companion and I decided we were not up for sharing our bathroom with fellow travelers and opted to pay the extra for a cabin with full facilities. For us, it was the right choice, even though there was extra cost involved. It was a little complicated making sure I booked what I wanted on-line, so I would caution anyone to book carefully. There were passengers who were unpleasantly surprised to find they had booked a cabin without facilities. Fortunately for them, the ferry was not crowded and was able to find them a room they were more comfortable with. The other caution I would offer is much of the journey from Whittier to Juneau traverses the Gulf of Alaska. Seasickness for me is always a worry and thankfully our journey was smooth and I was able to enjoy the ride, but from chatting with the crew and other passengers, the trip 2 weeks prior was so rough, everyone was barfing. I enjoyed being on the marine ferry. I found it clean and comfortable and a wonderful way to travel (provided the seas are calm!). The journey from Whittier to Juneau is not so long that I had the opportunity to be bored. The ferry stopped briefly in Yakutat and we were able to get off for a short walk. The scenery as we approached Juneau was spectacular and whales and porpoises frolicked beside the boat. I appreciated chatting with the crew and year-round Alaskan residents who were delighted to share their opinions on what they loved about Alaska.
The ferry docks at the marine terminal which is a good distance from downtown Juneau. We had rooms at the Best Western because they provided transportation and they sent a van to pick us up. After settling in at the hotel, the van took us downtown. Unfortunately, the rain had settled in so we opted for another museum. The State Museum was interesting but disappointing after having seen the Anchorage Museum. I wanted to take the tram up to Mount Roberts but the pouring rain dissuaded me and we headed back to the hotel to organize ourselves. We were to leave our big luggage in storage at the BW and take a small bag on our flight to Glacier Bay National Park the next morning.
Using another Tour Saver Coupon, we flew with Wings of Alaska on a 6 seat plane over Juneau to Gustavus – a 25 minute flight. My face was glued to the window and the view over the water from the air was spectacular. Upon arrival, the Glacier Bay Lodge van picked us up and transported us the 7 miles to the park. It’s the only accommodation actually in the park, but it is comfortable and convenient. We had lunch in the lodge and each table is supplied with binoculars. As we were eating, I was amazed to spot a whale swimming up and down Bartlett Cove providing entertainment! We spent the rest of the afternoon, looking at the exhibits in the ranger area, watching a film about Alaska and taking a ranger led hike. The next morning we boarded the catamaran for the 8 hour Glacier Bay Cruise. While it was similar in concept to the cruise in Resurrection Bay, the scenery was different and we saw more whales and otters were everywhere! I had hoped to see a large glacier calving but we were not in luck. I would encourage anyone who opts for the boat tours to dress warmly. This Florida girl came equipped with a hooded down parka and furry gloves and was happy to have them! What was most astonishing to me about this particular boat is that it also served to drop off and pick up camper/kayakers who spend days out on some of the islands. To get off the boat, these hardy souls had to take off their shoes and step into glacier water to wade to shore! One couple was going off into the wilderness to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary! Each to his/her own – and I can certainly admire their sense of adventure – but I think that epitomizes what I stated at the beginning of this report, one must recognize their own personal travel style and what is heaven for one, would be misery for another. I know I was really pleased to retire back at the lodge that evening for a fabulous dinner, looking out the window and watching the sun set behind the Fairweather Mountains. I’ll take a lodge with a roaring fireplace over a cold tent on the hard ground any day!
We returned to Juneau via Wings of Alaska – only this flight was the bigger 9 seat plane and the route was through the mountain pass. It was the most extraordinary flight I have ever taken – it was take your breath away gorgeous. The sunshine provided spectacular lighting and we passed so close to the mountain tops that I could see the mountain goats. On the approach into Juneau, you flight right over the Mendenhall Glacier. If I had to pick only one memory to keep from the trip – that would be it. I can’t attach words to the capture the awe inspiring beauty of the scenery, but I began to understand why people endure the dreadful weather for moments of incredible wonder that become etched in your heart. I felt blessed to be given such a splendid day as our final day in Juneau was another rainy one. I never got to the top of Mount Roberts but that’s ok. It’s good to leave something for next time….

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