Great Driving Trip to Alaska, June/July 2014

Jul 13th, 2014, 12:08 PM
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Great Driving Trip to Alaska, June/July 2014

We travelled to central/south-central Alaska for twelve days from June 25 to July 7. Except for a horribly rainy day in Denali, we had a great trip, saw lots of wildlife and ate better than we expected to. Started in Fairbanks, then to Denali, Girdwood, Seward and Homer before coming home from Anchorage. Roads were generally good, traffic light (to a city dweller). I’m not good at detailed trip reports, but wanted to report on some tours, accommodations, restaurants, etc. that may be helpful to others. Will post details as replies.
traveler318 is offline  
Jul 13th, 2014, 12:09 PM
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Was afraid of traffic delays from construction. Only place it really delayed us more than 5 or 10 minutes us was from Fairbanks to Denali. Took close to 3 hours to drive there with one short stop.

We took the shuttle bus to Eielson Visitor center in Denali, and because it rained most of the day, the windows were covered with mud for about 2/3 of the trip. We saw some animals, but not much of the beautiful scenery I’ve seen photos of. So if it looks to be raining the whole day and you can change your plans, I recommend rescheduling (or not scheduling until you are there). As luck would have it, next days was clear and sunny, so we saw Denali itself, but only from the Richardson highway, as we had to move on.

Liked the Alyeska tram. We didn’t walk up, but many did. Great views on a clear day, and we hiked a bit at the top (until we ran into a patch of snow).

Took the Kenai Fjords 9 hour Northwestern Fjord tour. I chose it because the boat was larger than the other company’s for the all day tour, and thought that would be better if the seas were rough. We had a glorious day with calm seas, so that didn’t matter, but was very happy with our choice because the captain, Mark Lindstrom, was fabulous. Just the right amount of time spent at each wildlife sighting, made sure all sides of the boat got a view, right amount of narration, etc. Saw lots of whales and other marine mammals and birds. Just an absolutely perfect day. I wasn’t bored on the 9 hour journey. Not sure what it would have been like in less than perfect weather.

Really liked the Alaska Sea Life Center in Seward, especially glad about their rehab work. Highly recommended.

One of our guide books said Skilak Lake Road (19 mile gravel road near Soldotna/Kenai) was a scenic drive—not so much. However, there are several great hikes from the road. If not doing one of these (or camping in one of the campgrounds), I’d stay on Sterling Highway. There are great views from some of the hikes. Saw no wildlife other than a few birds, just fresh bear scat.

Used Homer Ocean Charters for a guided hike in Kachemak Bay State Park.
Guide was very good, and although we didn’t really need him on the trails (well marked), it was nice to get some history and information and to know when/how to get to the trail-head and pick up point.

Highlight of the trip was our bear viewing day trip by float plane. We used Emerald Air Service from Homer and took a flight slightly over an hour to Hallo Bay. The flight was scenic and mostly quite smooth, and the location for bear viewing was great. I took a long time to decide which bear flight to take, finally deciding on (a) float plane as opposed to wheeled plane and (b) Katmai National Park, but NOT Brooks Falls (which I suspected was too crowded). Am extremely happy with the choice. We saw at least two dozen bears, including some really cute cubs, and all the behaviors, including grazing, clamming, fishing, play, etc. Sarah, the guide, was quite knowledgeable and did a wonderful job making sure we had a safe and productive day. You hike around in hip boots to see the bears with a beautiful backdrop of mountains and glaciers, plus rivers, coast and streams. Emerald Air uses the Hallo Bay sight in June and first three weeks of July. Very high marks to the operation. Not cheap, but if coastal grizzlies interest you, this is very much worthwhile. I reserved about three months in advance, and they only had availability on one of my two chosen dates, so book in advance.
traveler318 is offline  
Jul 13th, 2014, 12:10 PM
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We like luxury accommodations and knew that wasn’t what we would have, but what’s with the tub/shower with a shower curtain? Every place had one…

Best Western Chena River in Fairbanks looks like nothing from the outside, but was pretty nice for a Best Western, close to the airport and across from Fred Meyer where we bought a few things for the road trip.

Alyeska Resort was nice enough, and I found the location stunning. Not up to service standards of similar mountain lodges in other places, but a fine experience and not that expensive for a 4+ star hotel and the location. Around $250.

Holiday Inn Express in Seward was fine, well located (could walk to boat cruise and several restaurants), bed comfortable, serviceable wifi. However, don’t get a balcony room unless you can sleep in full light (or have an eye cover). The balcony door had a mini-blind and no black-out curtains. People were nice, and I’d stay there again.

Driftwood Inn/Seaview in Homer seemed to me like the best choice. We’re not really B&B people (there are lots in Homer), and the Spit looked a little kitschy. Room #25 was nice, but they don’t really meet “hotel service” standards (had to ask for soap, for example) and wifi was slow and hit and miss. However, the view was beautiful, people were nice and you could walk to several restaurants as well as Bishop’s beach. Was happy with the choice.

Captain Cook in Anchorage was fine for one night. I picked it because my husband had stayed there 20 years ago on business and said it was best location. It was, as well as a bit nicer than he remembered. Service was probably best of the trip, room acceptable. Fast wifi.
traveler318 is offline  
Jul 13th, 2014, 12:14 PM
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We had a little trouble with breakfast (the giant cinnamon rolls did not appeal) and lunch, but found dinners better than we expected. A disclaimer, we are from the SF Bay area, and probably are food snobs (“foodies” before it was a word, or at least a pejorative). So my husband whined in advance about how awful the food would be. It never quite met SF standards, but we had some pretty good meals, and there are chefs trying creative things. I was pleasantly surprised by fresh produce. Often, there was one good restaurant (to our palates) in a place and we would return. Places we would rate highly:

229 Parks near Denali. Salads were quite good as was the steak baguette. Ate there twice.

Jack Sprat, Girdwood. Good for vegetarians/vegans.

Two Sisters Bakery, Homer. Really a great place. Nice people, wood oven, creative cuisine. Had breakfast and two dinners. Two blocks from the Driftwood.

Other places that were fine were Ray’s Waterfront in Seward, the Asian restaurant in the Alyeska, St. Elias Brewing Co. in Soldotna, and Sack’s Café in Anchorage.

Best hotel breakfast was Alyeska probably, or maybe Captain Cook. Didn't always eat at lodging. Coffee was excellent almost everywhere, as was the beer. I really liked Alaska Amber, which was very common. Wine was not expensive in restaurants.


Mosquitos were present but not everywhere or as bad as we feared. Used repellant sparingly and didn’t suffer many bites. Was glad to have brought an eye cover—those black out curtains always let in some light.

Thanks for reading. Let me know if anyone has questions. Will post a link to photos when they go live.
traveler318 is offline  
Jul 13th, 2014, 04:01 PM
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Sounds like a fine trip. Sorry that the weather didn't cooperate in Denali.

Did you post any pictures?

Thanks for the report.
emalloy is offline  
Jul 18th, 2014, 11:31 AM
Join Date: Oct 2007
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Thanks for the recommendation of Emerald Air for coastal brown bear watching. And thanks for the trip report! We're planning to visit AK in 2015 and I'm trying to settle on a few areas to visit.
ccipups is offline  
Jul 27th, 2014, 02:11 PM
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The pictures and fuller trip report are up now. Click "go to archive" to get all the entries.

ccipups, I was really pleased with our 12 day itinerary. One more day at Denali might have been good to give more flexibility regarding the weather, but we found there wasn't that much to do if you aren't taking the shuttles (or longer hikes than we were prepared to do given the weather), so for us, three days would have been too much. But, we at least got to see the mountain in the sun. We might have skipped the night in Soldotna, but it gave us some time to explore the Kenai Wildlife Refuge at leisure, do some hiking, etc.
traveler318 is offline  
Jul 27th, 2014, 05:24 PM
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Loved your blog. Looks like you had a great trip. We were in Alaska last year at this time. I would love to return someday. Thanks for reporting back and sharing your blog.
LindainOhio is offline  
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