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9 highlights from 9 days in Alaska (late August 2021)

9 highlights from 9 days in Alaska (late August 2021)

Old Sep 15th, 2021, 03:57 PM
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9 highlights from 9 days in Alaska (late August 2021)

Given the uncertainty around traveling abroad, we decided to stick to domestic destinations during 2021, with an emphasis on places we haven’t been (a long list). In particular, we thought this might be a good year to take a driving trip in Alaska, before tour and cruise activity returns to pre-pandemic levels. After a short bit of research and some plotting around other already committed activities, we began planning in early April for a trip during the last week of August.

Due to work and other factors, it is hard for us to be away for much more than a week. Nine nights away was really pushing it.

To allow maximum planning flexibility, we chose to fly into Anchorage and out of Fairbanks. We knew full well that would mean a (not-insignificant) one-way fee for our rental car but decided that was a cost we could live with. No one will ever call this an original itinerary, but it provided a nice mix of basics and experiences for a first-time visit:

Night 1: Girdwood/Alyeska Resort

Our flight from Chicago landed at 4:30 pm, and we wanted a first-night destination that was within an hour’s drive of the airport but not right in Anchorage (i.e., less city, more nature). It was pretty cloudy when we awoke on our first morning. We took a short morning hike near the resort, but we decided to hit the road rather than availing ourselves of the aerial tram.

Nights 2-4: Seward/Airbnb

Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center on our way from Girdwood to Seward: We spent more time there than we expected to.

Two great hikes near Seward: Tonsina Creek Trail (~6 miles out and back on a relatively flat coastal trail) and Harding Icefield Exit Glacier Trail (relatively steep ~8 miles out/up and back/down, but we only had time to go about 2/3 of the way).

8.5-hour Major Marine excursion to Northwestern Glacier: It started out rainy but ended in clear blue skies. Seas were not too rough, although it did get a little bouncy during some brief passes through open water. We booked this about 3.5 weeks out and apparently got some of the last spots available for the two days we were in Seward.

Our base was this fantastic tiny house:



Night 5: Talkeetna/Talkeetna Cabins

This was partly to break up the drive from Seward to Denali and partly to provide the possibility for a flightseeing excursion, weather permitting (did it ever!).

Nights 6-8: Denali area/McKinley Creekside Cabins

On April 20, the National Park Service put a very limited number of passes on sale for driving the Denali Road between the Savage River (mile 15) and the Teklanika Rest Stop (mile 30). We grabbed one the moment they were available. In fact, that became one of the first concrete parts of our plan – even before we booked the return air. We used one of our full days for that drive – plus the first 15 miles. Our second day included a nice small-group, interpretive hike on the Triple Lakes Trail (~6 miles out and back).

Night 9: United Airlines flight from Fairbanks to Chicago, departing at 11 pm

We drove from Denali to Fairbanks and spent the afternoon at the Georgeson Botanical Garden and the University of Alaska Fairbanks Museum of the North, before heading for a Cuban dinner downtown (yes, Cuban in Fairbanks – and good!) and then to the airport.

Next, the highlights…
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Old Sep 15th, 2021, 04:15 PM
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1. The aurora borealis

It’s hard not to put this first. This has been a bucket-list experience for us for a long time. We didn’t plan this trip with the aurora in mind – although the “season” does begin in mid-August – but it just so happened that the last three nights of our trip had “high” solar activity. The first night didn’t pan out (and we were asleep, anyway). The second night apparently had a big show in Canada but not so much in Alaska (also cloudy). On our last night, we were pretty tired and ended up going to sleep before 11, at which point it wasn’t yet completely dark. Fortuitously, mr_go woke up around 1:30 and decided to take a step outside our cabin – and there it was. I didn’t have time to set up the camera, but I did manage a few fuzzy photos with my iPhone (while standing outside in pajamas and a wool scarf). The aurora was not as “green” to the eye as it is in the photos, but the movement is mesmerizing, and we were surprised by how much of the sky it filled.



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Old Sep 16th, 2021, 09:24 AM
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Lucky you! I have missed them several times. Where were you that night?
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Old Sep 16th, 2021, 10:27 AM
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We were staying in a cabin complex about 10 miles from the entrance to Denali NP. Our luck wasn't limited to the northern lights...

2. Denali without clouds

We heard that it is pretty unusual to see all of Denali, from any angle. This summit is shrouded in clouds about 70% of the time. We saw the full mountain – not just once, but on four different days.


Driving from the south near Talkeetna (shot through the windshield - ignore the bugs)


From the road in Denali NP, with a telephoto lens

We consider ourselves very fortunate to have had the weather we did – on the entire trip, actually. In nine days, weather never really inhibited our activity. But we know it could have.


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Old Sep 16th, 2021, 10:49 AM
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Great start! Really looking forward to the rest of your trip report. But wowza - the Aurora Borealis AND a totally clear Denali (those would both be bucket list items for a lot of people)

That tiny house looks wonderful -- How many sq feet is it?
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Old Sep 16th, 2021, 06:53 PM
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Originally Posted by janisj View Post
That tiny house looks wonderful -- How many sq feet is it?
It was wonderful. I'm not good at estimating size - it is small but very efficient. This is the Airbnb listing that shows more info: Coffee House Cottage
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Old Sep 17th, 2021, 05:21 AM
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WOW! Aurora borealis and Denali without clouds. You were so lucky!!!
Thanks for sharing.
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Old Sep 17th, 2021, 05:29 AM
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3. Denali really close up

There are flightseeing options all over the area we visited. One town that offers quite a few is Talkeetna, which is located just south of Denali. On our last night in Seward, we looked at the weather forecast for Talkeetna. It looked promising for two days ahead, so we decided to stick a crowbar in the wallet and book a two-hour flightseeing tour of Denali and nearby parts of the Alaska Range, on a 10-passenger de Havilland Otter with a 30-minute landing on the Ruth Glacier. We didn’t just get a good weather day – we got a spectacular weather day, with no clouds except a very thin layer on the north side of the mountain. I asked the pilot how often this happens. He said that they have maybe had 10 such days this season.

Oh, and there was a marriage proposal during our glacier landing – two of our eight fellow passengers got engaged.







BTW, I thought Talkeetna Air Taxi runs a friendly, informative, and well-organized service. Happy to recommend.
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Old Sep 17th, 2021, 06:13 AM
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mr_go picked up a phrase that he heard his father (bobthenavigator - some here will know who that is) say often: "I'd rather be lucky than good." I heard that more than a few times on this trip.
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Old Sep 17th, 2021, 10:09 AM
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Haha, I wonder if bobthenavigator played golf? That's where I heard that expression.

I think we flew quite close to Denali on the way to Nome, which was pretty cool. That was also a "pry the wallet" open flight, roundtrip. About the same as your flight without the landing.

You do have a "good weather fairy".
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Old Sep 17th, 2021, 03:29 PM
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Originally Posted by mlgb View Post
I think we flew quite close to Denali on the way to Nome, which was pretty cool. That was also a "pry the wallet" open flight, roundtrip. About the same as your flight without the landing.
I fly a lot commercially, but those little planes that intentionally go close to mountains definitely raise my anxiety level. According to my Fitbit, I was in cardio mode during this excursion, even though I was sitting down. But I can't resist the views.
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Old Sep 17th, 2021, 05:54 PM
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4: Glaciers

We’ve walked on a glacier in Norway. We landed on one in New Zealand. We saw calving at Fjallsárlón lagoon in Iceland. But I don’t think we’ve ever seen so many in such a short period of time – and particularly in the one day of our Major Marine cruise. We spent close-up time observing the Northwestern Glacier, which just so happens to be named after our alma mater. We also got a good look at the Exit Glacier from a fairly strenuous hike up the Harding Icefield trail near Seward. And a bird’s eye view of the Ruth Glacier snaking through its gorge below Denali. All of these experiences provided a sobering reminder of how quickly these are receding. There is a sizeable island in the entrance to the Northwestern Fjord that was only discovered in the middle of the last century, when the ice receded.


Exit Glacier


Northwestern Glacier


Anchor Glacier, Northwestern Fjord


Northwestern Glacier


Northwestern Glacier


Leaving Northwestern Fjord
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Old Sep 18th, 2021, 05:07 AM
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LOVE your photos.
We took a flight through the glaciers in a 10 seat plane as well. It was 82 degrees and totally clear. The pilot told us there were maybe two days a year like the one we experienced. It was so moving. Most on the plane were brought to tears.
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Old Sep 18th, 2021, 01:09 PM
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Thank you!

5: Varied hiking experiences

We love to hike. And while this wasn’t to be a total hiking vacation, we did come prepared with poles, which necessitated checked luggage. And since we had to check luggage, along came the boots, as well as regular hiking shoes. Not sure the boots were completely necessary. The poles were lightly used but helpful when needed - especially coming down the Harding Icefield trail.

Our primary hikes provided three very different but enjoyable experiences, each with great scenery and unique foliage that ranged from mossy to forest to arid.

Tonsina Creek Trail (~6 miles out and back on a relatively flat coastal trail), trailhead near Lowell Pt., south of Seward:

Silver salmon

Beach at the end of the trail


Harding Icefield Exit Glacier Trail (relatively steep ~8 miles out/up and back/down, but we only had time to go about 2/3 of the way), trailhead at the end of the road accessed near the north end of Seward. Steep steps up (and down):




Triple Lakes Trail (9 miles one way from the Denali Visitor Center to Nenana Bridge on the highway (we did 3 miles out and back from the trailhead at the bridge):




We were advised to carry bear spray, just as a precaution (which we did sometimes) but that the best defense is talking loudly and making our presence known.
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Old Sep 19th, 2021, 11:41 AM
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6: Good seafood, every day

We can get decent seafood at home. But living 1,000 miles from an ocean and way out in the far Chicago burbs, that takes some effort.




We didn’t eat poorly on this trip. In Seward, we had good meals at the Gold Rush Bistro and the Cookery (lucked into what is a tough reservation to get). In Talkeetna, we enjoyed the Denali Brewery’s nice outdoor patio in the sun (and the halibut pictured above). And our accommodation near Denali, McKinley Creekside Cabins, has a popular café/restaurant/bakery with good specials on offer for each of our nights, and a decent wine list. The one break in my seafood streak was for Cuban lechon asado in Fairbanks.

Many restaurants were feeling the effects of staffing shortages + decreased tourism + end of season – operating fewer days or shorter hours. At Alyeska on a Tuesday, only two of the restaurants were open. In the area where we were staying in Seward, only a few of the restaurants were open on a Wednesday night. That meant waiting lists at peak times. In Talkeetna, we had to wait an hour for a seat in our desired restaurant.

I didn’t keep great records, but my impression was that meals were a bit more expensive than at home. We moderated that by getting some groceries early in the trip and making our own breakfasts and lunches. We took a small flexible cooler along for this purpose.
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Old Sep 20th, 2021, 02:15 PM
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6. Wildlife

I went to the extent of renting a telephoto lens in anticipation of photographing Alaska’s abundant wildlife. While the opportunities were somewhat sporadic, I did get to try out the lens a few times. One was at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, which, by the way, we felt was a worthwhile stop between Anchorage and Seward. It wasn’t part or our original plan, but we ended up spending a couple of hours there. Another was on our Major Marine cruise – although trying to find and focus with a lens three times the weight of the camera body while on a moving boat is an acquired skill (“Hey look, I got part of the whale!”). I also got a few shots of some moose in Denali, but I never could quite catch a sight of the grizzly that some others near us were claiming to see. So, my first real attempt at wildlife photography was definitely a work in progress. But it was fun trying.


Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center

Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center - close-up of the hooves!

Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center

Somewhere in Resurrection Bay

Steller sea lions

Sea otters


Moose in Denali (in hindsight, what I should have shot was the crowd of people trying to photograph the moose)
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Old Sep 21st, 2021, 04:55 AM
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Wow!!! Awesome photos and awesome trip report! I haven't been to Alaska yet, but my husband was there on a business trip in the 90's. I hope we can visit before we are too old to travel.
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Old Sep 21st, 2021, 03:47 PM
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Thanks, KarenWoo! I hope you get the chance to visit.

Someone apparently can't count - I had two #6s above.

8: Emerging fall color

We left Chicago with 90-degree temps and summer thunderstorms, and I was very happy to arrive in a climate much more fall-like. In fact, we almost hit the peak of fall foliage around Denali – maybe a couple of weeks too early – with trees beginning to yellow and the tundra beginning to sport patches of red and orange. Also, bugs weren’t much of a problem.

Our guided hike with Walk Denali provided a lot of interesting information about the area’s foliage and geological features. And honorable mention to the small botanical garden in Fairbanks, where the flowers may have been past peak, but the herb and vegetable gardens were going gangbusters.


Denali

Somewhere on the Tonsina trail

9: Scenery in general

It’s hard to capture the vistas in photographs. For example, somewhere around mile 20 in Denali, we pulled over and had an almost 360-degree panorama of snowy mountains surrounding the early autumn colors on the tundra. Probably the most frequent comment on this trip: “It’s amazing to look at, but it won’t make a very good photo.” For the most part, we were content to let that be.

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Old Sep 22nd, 2021, 10:11 AM
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Driving:

As part of our quest for flexibility, we didn’t want to be constrained by restrictions on where we could drive – not that we had big off-roading plans, but you just never know. And from reading comments about the rental majors, we weren’t entirely clear on whether the Teklanika Road in Denali would even be permitted under some contracts.

We happened upon some good reviews for Alaska 4X4 Rentals, whose conditions and general flexibility (e.g., no restrictions on where we could drive) met all of our needs. Price…well, it was what it was: a Jeep Renegade for nine days, including all taxes, fees, and the significant ($450) one-way charge @ ~$1800. This is an odd year for car rentals, so it is hard to know what is normal. But we did search around, and it didn’t seem that we were going to do too much better with another agency.

In the end, we were satisfied with this choice. We knew what we were getting (not a given with car rentals). And the communication and experience – from booking to pick up and drop off – was very easy. Our drop off in Fairbanks was after hours, but there is an arrangement with a hotel that receives the car and provides a shuttle to the airport.

A few other notes/tips on driving and road-related matters:

Although cruise/tour volume is down (but not completely – we saw Tauck, Globus, Trafalgar and other buses on the road), we expected that the road travelers would make up for it. While it wasn’t quiet, things were not nearly as crowded as I thought they would be. I don’t think we ever had a problem finding parking. And on some of the major roads, such as the Parks Highway, we could drive for a while without seeing a car either in front of or behind us. Even on the Denali Road, the car traffic was fairly light – except for that one time when everyone pulled over to look at some moose.

Be prepared for road construction. At one point south of Anchorage, we had to stop for 20+ minutes.

For that reason – and others – allow plenty of time for drives. Distances are longer than they seem. Speed limits are sometimes lower than expected. And there are lots of places you’ll be tempted to stop for scenic views.

Don’t let your fuel tank get too low. If you think you might need gas soon, fill up when you see a station – because you might not see another one for a while.

Finally, if you’re planning to go to Denali next year, check the status of the Denali Road before formalizing plans. A persistent rockslide issue forced the NPS to close the road at mile-marker 43 a few days before we visited. It didn’t affect us, but it did affect many others, including truncating the bus tours. From what I was told, this will be a very difficult fix, and it could take a couple of years.
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Old Sep 24th, 2021, 08:53 AM
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This looks like a fantastic trip! We just got back from the Alaskan bush last night and while I love that, I really want to see more of the state. Your report has me itching for that even more now

We lucked out and saw the northern lights our first night.
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