Alaska - First time trip planning! Help!

Old Aug 29th, 2003, 05:50 AM
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Alaska - First time trip planning! Help!

After reading several books I am convinced that the opportunities are endless to enjoy the natrual beauty of Alaska and her people. The problem is how and when best to do that.

We will have from 2 to 4 couples and will have 3 weeks in the summer of '04. We are in our 50's, enjoy outdoors and are in relatively good shape. The first big decision is when to go. Some say that June is the clearest month and that the first three weeks are just perfect. We thought about August, the beginning of fall and maybe fewer people but hear we will be in the rainy season. July is suppose to be great, but lots of people???? Can someone please give us the pros and cons of different travel times?

We liked the idea of going up on the ferry from Bellingham, and renting a RV in Skagway (one way is expensive?) but hit the road at Haines. Some of the points we want to hit are Denali,Richardson Hwy., Valdez, Glenn Hwy., and all of the Kenai Peninsula. If we have clear weather we are interested in a flight around Denali and over McKinley (any recommendations) We are also interesed in taking the ferry between Whitter and Valdez, a all day cruise trip into Kenai Fjords National Park and maybe a bear viewing flight out of Homer.

Is this too much? Is it doable? Is there a better way? Is there better route for our $$? What are your recommendations on specific service providers?

We are all excited about this planning stag and want to have our essential reservations made by the first of November. Your help will be appreciated!!!
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Old Aug 29th, 2003, 08:12 AM
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Some random or not so random thoughts -

First, I'm not aware of any RV firms that will set up one-ways from SE Alaska to Southcentral Alaska. That's not to say there aren't any, but you should confirm it asap.

Second, I bet you'll find that the ferry is not the cheapest option all things considered. You may be surprised to find that a one-way cruise from Vancouver BC to Seward is cheaper all things considered (meals, cabin, etc.) And that you'd arrive in the central part of the state much more relaxed and with money in your pockets. IMO the scenery between Haines/Skagway and Southcentral is not sufficient to warrant the time and cost of a rental, especially an RV with high per-mile costs and crummy fuel economy. Take the boat, then rent your vehicle(s) in Anchorage - much cheaper and more convenient. (Actually - see below - I'd recommend reversing your route.)

As far as weather goes, you just can't generalize. Every month has its good and bad days, and the weather will vary enormously by area. A couple of weeks ago we were in sunny, warm Anchorage, and people getting off the train from Denali were bitching nonstop about how it rained for the whole time they were there - 250 miles up the road.

I would almost always recommend as late in the summer as you can; late August through the middle of September. Yes, you will risk rain, but the bugs will be gone, the tundra starting to turn, maybe the leaves here and there, and there's an indescribable electricity in the air as folks start hustling to get ready for fall and winter. The days are getting shorter, mind you, so your best bet is to start in the north and work south. For that reason I'd strongly suggest you consider reversing your route - fly to Anchorage then return south on the water, rather than the other way. One other thing to consider is that accommodation gets easier and cheaper in the late summer/early fall, so the economics of the RV vs. a passenger car or SUV + motels might start getting very favorable. (I think they probably are anyway.)

Let us know if any of this makes sense, then more of your other questions will become answerable.
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Old Aug 29th, 2003, 09:33 AM
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We went to Alaska in late May this year and rented a truck camper from ABC Motorhomes in Anchorage. Unlike many companies, they do not charge a mileage fee. They also have larger campers and motorhomes to fit numerous people. We loved the camper, and went on the Denali Highway, which was fabulous. It was the highlight of our trip.

We camped along the road on the Denali Highway and outside Hope and in state, federal and municipal campgrounds. No crowds anywhere.

If you opt for the ferry, there is one that goes once a month, I believe, across Prince William Sound so you can connect to the Kenai from the southeast that way. The person from ABC who took us to the airport talked about doing a delivery to Seward, so it may be possible to get the camper dropped off there.

We opted for late May because we don't like crowds and the prices rise dramatically June 1. I though hotel prices were high for what you got once you got outside of Anchorage. I even saw one that listed a price of $100 a night with an outhouse.

We had no bugs and hardly any rain, but the rain part is pot luck. The weather was cold at night, but the camper had a heater, flush toilet and hot shower. It even had an oven. My other half had a birthday on the trip and I made him a pot roast dinner.

It was up in the 60s during the day.

We thought we would do a flightseeing tour of Mount McKinley, but there was a horrible crash the day before and four people died.

We did a boat tour to Kenai Fjords National Park. We booked with Renown, which we liked because they have smaller boats, but they had a boat failure and put us on Kenai tours. It was okay, but kind of cattle car like for us.

While some things like Independence Mine STate Park were closed, we liked it even better because the whole place was covered in snow. We parked for the night just down the road and just soaked in the view with a cup of hot chocolate in hand.

We did some hiking too. We're in the same age bracket as you, probably older, and had no problems with any of this.

We were there nearly three weeks, and drove from Anchorage south to the Kenai as far as Seward, north to the Glenn Highway, south to Valdez for lunch, north up the Richardson Highway to the Denali Highway, across the Denali Highway and down the Park's Highway back to Anchorage. Of course, we made lots of stops along the way. Unlike many folks, we bypassed Denali National Park because we were not up for the bus stuff you have to do to see the park. After the solitude of the Denali Highway, it seemed to intrusive.

We'd do this trip again in a heartbeat.
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Old Aug 29th, 2003, 01:55 PM
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Hi Kentucky, I would suggest that you come to alaska in July but in order to avoid some of the crowds how about the last week and a half of May and the fist week and a half of June. I realize prices go up in June but it is the one of the nicest months(other than July). Although weather is unpredictable I would not visit in August It has been nothing but rainy this month. It would be a shame to spend so much money on this trip and have it rain most of the time...Denali park is absolutly beautiful even though it can get crowded. If fishing is an intrest try a halibut charter out of ninilchik. I dont know about the cheapest way you could make this trip, but I would fly to anchorage and then rent a moterhome to travel around in and then you could camp in denali and on the kenai.
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Old Aug 30th, 2003, 05:09 AM
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I too would recommend a look at one way cruises- they give a great look at ports, and a glacier and are scheduled for tourists. The Alaska Marine highway is transportation first- arriving at all hours. It probably will be cheaper on a cruiseship. My favorite and most traveled time is mid to late August- I would consider the last 2 weeks of August and 1st week of Sept. NO guarantees on weather and I have traveled plenty of time there in August with no rain. Great Alaskan Holiday rents RV's with free Alaska State Park permits but BIG restrictions on traveling the Denali Highway- too many for me to agree to so I skipped it. Check this out very carefully as some rentals won't allow any unpaved road travel, also verify what your insurance will cover- mine was void. A necessary reference is THE MILEPOST, try your library, half.com ( a few year old edition is fine) or wait until March for the new issue.
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Old Aug 30th, 2003, 05:18 AM
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We enjoyed the ferry trip from Bellingham to Skagway. The US Forest Service lectures were a great introduction to Alaska. We have not gone on any of the other recommended boat trips but from others' descriptions you will see more wildlife on one of these tours. Since our destination was the Anchorage area we did not take advantage of getting off and visiting Juneau, etc. We visited last week of July/first week of Aug in 2001 and had great weather. This year my son said May was great and yes, they've had a lot of rain recently. OTH the aurora has been very active and last weekend he saw the best northern lights he's ever seen while out camping but only lasted two minutes. It's dark enough in August at night but in June there's very little darkness (longest day is June 21). Our drive from Skagway to Anchorage was nice but very long. There's some great sights like Lake Kluane but I think you would enjoy two days doing something else. The other great sight on that route was the old burn area with fireweed in bloom so that's a late July event. We enjoyed Skagway but had read some history before hand and I enjoyed a chat with a shopowner about life in Skagway. There were lots of people while the cruise boats were in town but the streets cleared around 5PM. We did not see much traffic between Anchorage and Seward. It may be the most beautiful drive in Alaska. It was busy in Anchorage and Seward however but not as crowded as it gets in some New England tourist spots. I like country fairs and have been eyeing late August 2004 so we could visit the State Fair and just maybe have a chance to see the northern lights.
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Old Aug 30th, 2003, 09:45 AM
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we went to Alaska in July 2002. I don't know where anyone else went but there was no way I could call it crowded.

We rented an RV from Great Alaskan and it went fine, but check for any restrictions that might upset your plans. They are very friendly.
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Old Aug 30th, 2003, 11:15 AM
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we have only been to Alaska in September last year (2002), however, we went by cruise from Vancouver to Ketchican. But the weather all the way was great, very warm even. It was our first time in Alaska and hope to venture further next time. But I'm sure whatever the weather you won't be disappointed, it's a great place with magnificant beauty. Can't wait to return. What i will say is you cannot predict the weather, so go pretty much equipped for all kinds - layers of clothing appear to be the secret. Enjoy your trip.
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Old Aug 30th, 2003, 12:21 PM
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Thanks Gardyloo! Do you recommend any particular one way cruise options or lines?
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Old Aug 30th, 2003, 12:44 PM
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Thanks to all for the good information. I guess if we went one way to Seward we could ride the train up the Anchorage to rent the RV???

There are two companies that will do a one way rental ($495 or $1200 add on). Sounds like several of you don't think that the drive will be worth it. We had heard how beautiful it would be, and thought we would also do the scenic rail trip out of Skagway.

We also heard that the ferry system would provide closer up more intimate views on the Inside Passage. I think that I will start exploring one-way cruise options to Seward for comparison. Any suggestions??

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Old Aug 30th, 2003, 10:42 PM
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Actually I was recommending one way cruises FROM Seward. Fly to Anchorage, pick up the RV, then end up by taking the train to Seward for the cruise. Use the cruise to unwind, rehydrate ;-) and prepare yourself for re-entry.

Look at the Alaska board (under "Ports of Call") on www.cruisecritic.com for lots of advice on cruises to/from Alaska. Your choice of cruiseline is very dependent on your style and what ports/cruise experience you'd prefer.
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Old Aug 31st, 2003, 05:23 AM
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My husband said he would take the ferry again and so would I but keep in mind that it is a ferry and not a cruise ship. Cabins are very basic. We preferred the cafeteria food over the dining room. We lucked out on being on the Columbia's first northbound trip after being refitted. Since it was late going back into service the reservations were made based on a smaller ship. There were a lot less passengers than usual. There is a section of the Inside Passage that the cruise ships are too big to go thru so the ferry passengers see a section the cruise ships do not. We brought books and binnoculars with us and typically spent most of the day in the forward observation lounge where the lectures were given. Any animal sightings were announced. I was amazed that two orcas swam next to the ferry when we were leaving one port. Being a much smaller boat than a cruise ship, we seemed very close to them. There are areas of water where glacier rivers mix with sea and the colors are amazing.
You are free to bring your own food on board. All deck chairs in the heated area were quickly snapped up by people who didn't book cabins. Friends said they preferred sleeping in a tent but it was sure windy back there (bring your own duct tape). We had a 4 person cabin. The bunks are comfortable but there isn't room to sit. (Unlike the Nova Scotia ferry which has upper bunks that fold up into the wall.) We used our bag chairs.
I agree that a south bound cruise at the end of your trip to relax and unwind would be a good idea. If you're like us, you might put on too many miles and do too many things during your vacation. Have a great trip. Our dentist had terrible weather for his cruise but still enjoyed the trip.
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Old Aug 31st, 2003, 08:47 AM
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Islandpaddler,

What was the condition of the Denali Highway?

Last year (2002), they had stopped maintaining it two months previously and it took us an hour to go 15 miles. We decided to turn back.

I'd love to try it again--the scenery was awesome and we were finally out of traffic and away from crowds.
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Old Aug 31st, 2003, 09:52 AM
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Connie,

We took the Denali Highway in late May. The condition was great. The driver at ABC Motorhomes, where we rented the camper, said it is usually in better condition early in the season because it's seen less traffic. It did receive maintenance. In fact, we passed the crew grading the road.

That said, we drove slow on purpose. We went about 15 mph in order to soak in the gorgeous scenery. I think you could probably go a little faster, but we weren't in a hurry.

We stopped often to take in the views, and stopped for the night on a bluff overlooking a river.

The Denali Highway was the highlight of our trip.

You could check with the couple of road houses along the route for up-to-the-minute information.

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Old Sep 8th, 2003, 06:59 AM
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I am encouraged to hear how wonderful and doable the Denali Hwy. is. Several references I had read did not recommend going in over 15 or 20 miles from the east side because of the road conditions. Is there a consensus that most times the Denali Hwy. is passable by RV?

Also, is there a consensus that the road trip into Haines on the the Haines Hwy. by way of TOK is just not worth the time, $ and energy. I had read that is is beautiful and thought that we might be itchy to get off the ferry and move around.

We are beginning to settle on 3 weeks in August or 2 in Aug. and 1 in Sept. Is it true that the Ferrys are less crowded going north that time of year?
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Old Sep 9th, 2003, 01:25 PM
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Hello, I just got back from Alaska Sunday morning. Was out there from August 27-September 7. It had always been a dream of mine to go to Alaska, and the trip was everything I hoped it would be and then some.

My friend and I flew into Anchorage and rented a car. We stayed in Anchorage overnight taking in some of the downtown sights. The next morning we headed down to Seward via the Seward Hwy where we stayed for the next 3 nights in a B&B. We filled the time in that area by going to Big Game Alaska, Alyeska Resort, Exit Glacier and hiking around, doing sea-kayaking in Resurrection Bay (which was an awesome experience ?the sea otters, harper seals, salmon, and bald eagles were in abundance), we drove over to Cooper Landing and did a scenic float trip down the Kenai River and then continued to drive over to Kenai City via the Sterling Hwy, we drove back to Seward. It rained on and off the beginning of our trip but it didn't stop us from doing anything and the scenery was still gorgeous. The clouds gave the mountains a magical/mystical look. After Seward we headed back up towards Anchorage and connected with the Glenn Hwy. Instead of doing the State Fair in Palmer we opted to do the Hatcher Pass Loop. This took quite a while and it also took us a good bit out of our way, but it was so worth it. The scenery was gorgeous. The road treacherous at times though. But, again, it didn't matter. The views were breathtaking. The Loop ended up taking us out on the Parks Hwy which we just drove down until we connected with the Glenn Hwy again and we continued on our way. We stayed 2 days in the Matanuska Valley. It is the fall out there now so the colors are VIBRANT and just plain beautiful. We did some hiking in this area. I wanted to go to the Matanuka Glacier but a part of the Glenn Hwy is under construction (a local told us it has been since LAST March). In order to get to the glacier we would have had to go through the construction again, so we skipped that and took in some of the hiking trails. After that we continued up the Glenn Hwy to the Richardson Hwy which we then took to the Denali Hwy. This was a really nice drive. The Denali Hwy is gorgeous. We ended up driving a lot of it in the rain, but again, if you're in an adventurous frame of mind it doesn't matter. It's still fun and gorgeous. The weather did end up clearing for us during the drive. The Denali Hwy was a bit rough and took us over 4 hours to travel the 134 miles. Almost all of it is gravel and full of pot holes. Again, didn't matter. Was worth it. We took the Denali Hwy to the Parks Hwy and drove up to Denali National Park. We had reservations for 2 bus trips into the Park. Why 2 since you basically see the same thing on each trip? Because of the weather. Going in August is iffy, so I figured if it rained the first day we might have a chance the second day. We were right. First day it was foggy in the morning and when we got back to the Eileson Center it was even snowing. That was a neat experience in itself. Going out of the Park though it cleared again. Then, the next day we had an absolutely gorgeous day in and out. The second time we went as far back as Wonder Lake. It wasn't clear enough to see Mt. McKinely, but then she is only visible about four times a year anyway. The next day we drove up to Healy for a horseback riding trip which was fantastic. The views, again, gorgeous! The day we were leaving (we had an 8PM flight out of Anchorage) we took the Parks Hwy down to Talkeetna where we had a sightseeing flight booked to fly around Mt. McKinley. On the way down the Hwy what was out in all her glory? - MT. McKINLEY!!! We had a perfect view of her the whole way to Talkeetna. We took the flight and it was so impressive. We took the flight with the glacier landing, which means we landed near the base of Mt. McKinley. What a sight! The pilot told us that getting a cloudless day like we did in August was only about a 2% chance. I guess we were rewarded for meeting the rain right all the other times. After leaving Talkeetna we continued on the Parks Hwy down to Anchorage for our flight home. How sad! I could have stayed much longer.

If I were to go again, and I would in a heartbeat, I'd probably still go out the same time, even though we got the rain. You cannot beat the colors this time of year out there. However, we were told that in about 2-1/2 weeks everything would be turning brown.

I hope you weren't bored silly with all this. Good luck with whatever you decide to do. I can guarantee you that you'll love whatever it is.

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Old Sep 9th, 2003, 02:33 PM
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We visited in late May and early June a few years ago and the weather was excellent most of the trip. No bugs until we got deep into Denali around June 6 or June 7. If I recall correctly, statistically June was the best of the summer months for viewing Denali. The mountain was clearly visible all three days we were there.

Parts of Denali may still have snow in early June so the park road may not be open the entire length. I would not hesitate to go again in the late May, early June timeframe. Whenever you decide to go, enjoy your trip!
 
Old Sep 9th, 2003, 07:53 PM
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Well, no, there is not a consensus that the Haines Highway and the Alaska Highway from Haines Junction are not worth it. Just becuase it is one of my favorite drives! It's not a place where you'll find crowds and mega tour operators. The tours that are available in the Kluane National Park and the Wrangell-St. Elias Naitonal Park will get you out into wilderness unlike any other. If you are considering this drive, see the website, www.alaskayukontravel.com

It's a stunning way to intoduce yourself to interior Alaska.

I liked your original idea of the ferry up - then a one-way RV rental from Skagway.

Keep us posted!
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Old Sep 11th, 2003, 07:47 AM
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CJG - Your trip sounded wonderful! I think planning for a trip and learning from other's esperiences is exciting.

Mile King - May sounds great! We are going to try it on our second trip.

Alaska Traveler - YES! Just what I wanted confirmed. I am going to the Alaska Yukon Travel site today. We want to experience the wilderness and thought the trip up from Haines accross the Denali Hwy. would do it. I have, however, focused on the "adventure trips" out of Homer and Seward and Denali. Thanks for refocusing us to the first leg of our journey!
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Old Sep 11th, 2003, 07:58 AM
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I went in July 1999 for a week, and no bugs and the days are still quite long (daylight to 11 pm), but it is not all that warm even at that time of year.

One thing I really noticed, was that every public building and hotel lobby was decorated with dead animals, so be ready for that. Culture shock for me!

I really really enjoyed Kodiak island.
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