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  • Writer's pictureTrail Guide Joe

Alaskan Adventure; Denali & Kenai Fjords National Parks!

Updated: Oct 1, 2021

 
 

Friday July 13th, 2018

Day 1, the journey of a lifetime begins!! This is it, the trip I've been waiting my whole life for, ALASKA! All that stands between me and this adventure is... several hours, 3 plane rides, and roughly 4,148 miles of zig-zagging across the United States to get there! For once, it was nice taking a flight at a reasonable hour of the day rather than first thing in the morning! Unfortunately that meant a LONG day of travel!

 
 

Saturday July 14th, 2018

It's hard to believe this is 2:40 AM ADT! The sun, caught between sunset and sunrise, hovering just below the horizon. It was a foreign sight to me to say the least! That alone wasn't the strangest part of the day though. What I found most awesome was watching the sun set from the plane from San Diego to Seattle then rise again in the flight to Fairbanks from Seattle! I'm pretty sure that is the only way to see two sunrises and two sunsets in the same day! Absolutely incredible! Having safely made it to Alaska, it was way too early to be awake according to my internal clock... Time to pick up the rental vehicle and find the bed!

After a few hours of sleep (the rest was received on the plane), it was time to get our first taste of Alaska! What an interesting first impression! While out an about exploring Fairbanks, we happened upon the Golden Days Regatta which can only be explained with pictures! Each year, groups from Fairbanks construct "boats", usually based on a theme, and float them down the river, not as a race, but for fun! Onlookers were launching water balloons from all sides at the slow moving boats, boat occupants were firing off water guns back at the onlookers, and over all, it was a fantastic activity to witness on the first day of Fairbanks exploration! Great taste of Fairbanks Alaskan culture!

After the excitement of the Golden Days Regatta, we stopped off for a visit to the University of Alaska, Fairbanks cultural museum where we experienced Alaskan history and culture on a level known only to natives. From the history of whaling by native, which is still carried out today, to the little known fact that Alaska was and remains the only American soil ever invaded by foreign forces in WWII. Well worth the visit! After the museum, we then headed out for a hike across Creamer's Field, a well-known to locals wildlife refuge. Here we found a flock of Sandhill Cranes! In addition to the cranes, we found many variety and colors of wildflowers. It is fantastic to see governments as well as businesses doing their part to preserve and protect natural habitats for wildlife, some of which will travel hundreds to thousands of miles to nest or stop here to rest before completing their journey!


Sunday July 15th, 2018

Day 2 in Fairbanks took us east to the Chena River State Recreation Area. I can say two things about it: 1) it is beautiful, stunning, and worth coming back for some river side camping, river and stream salmon fishing, and general relaxation! 2) MOSQUITOES.

We hung out as long as we could before attempting to escape with the last few drops of blood we had left.. Mosquitoes here are big, BIG, and resilient! These two took a direct hit from me and, as you can see, they are still quite intact! The only thing that would keep me from coming back to camp would be the mosquitoes. One would need a Kevlar suit to keep them away!


On the way back, we took a spin through North Pole, Alaska; the town dedicated to Christmas year round! I wonder how many letters from children wind up here?


Monday July 16th, 2018

Finally! The first of my Alaska bucket list items! The trip to Utqiagvik (formerly Barrow) to see the Arctic Ocean! Why is the is this a bucket list item for me? How many visitors to Alaska venture this far north or ever see the ocean that boards the continent to the north? My guess was not many so this was a must for exclusivity! Having already been to the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and the Gulf of Mexico, it was the last stop for me to meet my goal!

There were no straight flights to Utqiagvik so the first stop was Deadhorse and Prudhoe Bay, Alaska!

 
 

It was interesting to see as these towns exist strictly to serve the oil fields. The landscape was also quite unique! Not a tree in sight, water pooling all over... It was very desert like while still recognizing your proximity to sea level due to the pools of water all over! It was also a surprise to see the signs taped to the airport door windows warning of a bear that had been sighted in the area just days before!

After a short layover, it was time to hop back on the plane and fly over to Utqiagvik! Utqiagvik is the northern most permanent town in the United States and exists solely because of the discovery of oil under the Arctic Ocean and Prudhoe Bay. Most residents either work for the oil companies or for the local government with the remaining few operating their own business.

It really is a strange place as there are no roads connecting the town to anywhere else yet almost everyone seems to have at least one car... but the town is so small, you can walk across it in about 20-30 minutes. I guess when it's -50°F in winter, you probably don't want to walk anywhere for 20-30 minutes much less just a single minute! Fortunately for us, it was a brisk 38°F, comparatively warm to the -50°F in winter yet comparatively cold to the 98°F that was experienced back home during this time of year! I for one was all for it! I'm much happier in the cold than I am the heat.

 
 

Tuesday July 17th, 2018

The last day in Utqiagvik started rather early. I couldn't leave without taking a look at the midnight sun at least once! My original intention was to stay up all night to get the full experience and why not? With nothing but flights surrounding the excursion, it seemed the best opportunity imaginable! Stay up all night and sleep on the flight back to Fairbanks to make up for it! Well, that didn't happen. What did happen was a random, sudden awakening at 12:40AM ADK to catch the midnight sun! It would have to do! Then it was back to sleep because sleep is important (and my body told me I had no choice in the matter)!

Waking up again at a more reasonable hour, we set out to do a little more exploring before hopping on the plane again to head back to Fairbanks. All in all, Utqiagvik was the best bucket list item on my Alaska trip list!

Walking around town before boarding the plane we stopped in to look around at the local shops and to take one last look at the Arctic Ocean. While ocean gazing, we found these most unusual birds! Believed to be Common Murres, these birds were traveling along in the ocean just off shore, would cluster together, dive all at once, and about a minute later, would resurface all spread out across the water! They would then cluster together as they collectively moved along the shore and dive all over again once clustered together! That was very interesting to watch!

 
 

With time running out, it was most unfortunate we never sighted a Polar Bear. That just leaves me with one option. To return to try again some day! I'm more than happy to do just that! I don't know when, I don't know how, but I will return to the Arctic Ocean some day!

After a morning of exploration, it was time to head back to the airport and catch the plane back to Fairbanks!

 
 

Wednesday July 18th, 2018

Denali Star train to Denali National Park

After several days in Fairbanks, the trip to Utqiagvik felt like the true start to the Alaskan Adventure! That said, this was the start of the next phase! On to Denali National Park! Denali NP is built for hiking! There are very few designated hiking trails because they encourage you to start from anywhere and see where you wind up! Unfortunately I was not able to do that much hiking however … wait … how did I even get here?!

The Alaska Railroad of course! We took the Denali Star train 125 miles to the southwest to Denali NP where we would stay for the next couple of days. The train ride, though expensive compared to renting a car and driving yourself, was incredible! You have all the time in the world to view the sights and even better, each railroad route comes with a tour guide to help explain what you're seeing and provide other interesting facts! By far the best way to travel in Alaska if you can make it happen! Think of it this way, in some cases, you are getting to see things you wouldn't otherwise get to see by taking the train (though more on that later)!

The train ride brought us the first views of an unobstructed Denali (formerly Mt McKinley), something that can be quite rare for tourists! In fact, by seeing the mountain, you join the "30% club", a club named because roughly 30% of tourists to the area ever get to see Denali unobstructed! I did go overboard on the pictures not knowing whether I would get to see the mountain from inside the park. Check another item off the Alaska Adventure bucket list! Even though I could check this off the list, I would still be hoping for better views inside the park but the 30% rule may have other ideas for me. We will just have to wait and see!

After 125 miles and 6 hours of train travel and outstanding sights, we arrived at the Denali National Park depot where we found our hotel for the next few days just outside the park. Not having much time remaining in the day, we quickly checked in to the hotel and headed into the park to catch the sled dog demonstration! Denali NP is unique in that it has its own sled dog teams for official park use during the winter! How cool is that?? They were by far the happiest Federal Government employees I had ever met in all my life! The demonstration also discussed care of the dog teams throughout the year, their jobs within the park, and more about their history with the park in general. Very insightful and worth making the show if you're ever there!

 
 

Thursday July 19th, 2018

After seeing Denali on the train ride south out of Fairbanks, I was VERY excited to get to spend the first full day in the park! I was most excited to finally see some Alaska wildlife (mostly BEARS)! The first day did not disappoint as I spotted a moose on the way in, 3 grizzlies (brown bears; a mother and two cubs, hard to see in the pic on the left but they are there in the enlarged photo), 4 ptarmigans (Alaska state bird; 2 adults and 2 kids), a black fox that decided to police traffic by walking down the road, and plenty of caribou! Of course, Denali was visible from the west end of the park out at Wonder Lake!

The bus ride was the only way out that far and took just over 11 hours to complete the round trip of 173.2 miles (86.6 miles one way). On the way back, we did spot 3 grizzles in roughly the same area as the previous spotting. Having never been too sure whether I have spotted the same bears before... this was a new situation to me! I felt these could be the same bears but then again... I have no way to know they weren't! I'll just have to mark this off with an asterisk and see how I feel later!

All in all, this was a very successful first full day in Denali National Park! Saw grizzlies, definitively, for the first time. Saw Denali up close, partly shrouded in clouds, which added to the awesomeness of the mountain in my opinion. Saw a wide variety of other wildlife as well which added to the overall experience! I was just thrilled to mark more off my Alaska bucket list!

 
 

Friday July 20th, 2018

Day two in Denali saw a repeat of day one.... but BETTER. More grizzlies, more Denali (the mountain), and more wildlife! That's exactly right! We did the exact same bus tour for a second day. All 11 hours and 173.2 miles round trip. It was the same tour but not the same experience. The bus drivers were different and they couldn't have been more different! Quite interesting to have two different perspectives within the park. Back to the details though... The second trip started out with an up close viewing of a great, big grizzly bear! OUTSTANDING! This is what I had been waiting for the whole trip! Fortunately, it wouldn't stop there! By the end of the day, we would see a total of 14 grizzlies! Again, not able to distinguish whether any of these had been the same 3 from the day before or even whether any were repeats in the afternoon (from the morning viewing).

I certainly felt more comfortable calling them different bears as the set from the morning was not viewed in the same exact spot, or even close, unlike the day before! With all the bear sightings, this day very quickly became one of the most memorable! To further increase the memorability, Denali was quite a sight once again! Absolutely stunning and no two days was the view exactly the same! Having already done the bus tour once already, we were more adequately prepared to hop off the bus and do some hiking. The buses are on a very tight schedule and, although you could get off the bus and catch any following bus, most people never got off so space was very limited. We made sure to get back on our bus after getting off to stretch our legs and do a bit of hiking. Back on the bus, we were set to see more of the sights!

The return trip brought us 10 of the 14 grizzlies within a very short distance! It was absolutely incredible! Not to be outdone, a photogenic fox stole the show briefly as we tracked him down a grassy hill to, presumably, his den. Pictured here, the fox was just about to sneeze giving this perfect grinning fox photo! 

Just for clarification, the fox was on the morning route out to Wonder Lake, not the return trip from Wonder Lake. I must also mention that I am completely pleased with the bus drivers and their desire to make the trip especially memorable by stopping as often as possible for as long as possible to view any wildlife that is spotted! Very accommodating!

Last but not least, a view of Denali from the Eielson Visitor Center where we did a short hike and made sure to take plenty of photos of Denali for our third straight day of viewing! I couldn't have asked for a better second day in Denali if I tried!

 
 

Saturday July 21st, 2018

Today was the last day in Denali National Park. To cap the Denali portion of the trip, it felt appropriate to try to get in a few more hikes. It seemed a shame to visit one of the most hike friendly National Parks and not take advantage of the opportunity! The first plan was to take a hike out at the Savage River area however, due to time and bus transit schedules, we were only able to pop out there and pop back without hiking. Too bad... It was a very beautiful area that would have been awesome for a morning hike! Instead, coming back from Savage River, we hopped on a trail around the visitor center where we met with an unusual wildlife sighting! Unusual to us back home but, when there is 19 hours of daylight, probably not as unusual to Alaska! The sighting was none other than a great horned owl! After the quick hike, it was time to pack up and board the Denali Star once more, this time heading towards Anchorage. 

Once onboard, it wasn't long until before we got our fourth view of Denali! If only 30% of people who visit Denali National Park ever get to see the mountain... I wonder what percent I'm in for having seen it 4 days straight? Regardless, it was awesome! It's crazy to think about but the entirety of the road system of Alaska rivals that of Rhode Island, the smallest of the states in this country. That means that, in order to get around, it's either plane, train, or automobile! I have to say, the train isn't a bad way to go! Firmly planted on the ground, no traffic to deal with, and you get all the best views of scenery that you really don't get to see any other way!

Continuing south, we were able to keep sight of Denali for quite a while. Although we were leaving Denali National Park behind, the scenery did not become less beautiful! On the contrary! Glaciers created rivers flowing from the base of the Alaska Range, forests of spruce trees as far as the eye could see, and the occasional spotting of wildlife! In just a short 8 hours and 233 miles later, we were in Anchorage where we would spend the night before continuing on to the next leg of our journey! Unfortunately we would not get to experience much of Anchorage on this trip. Perhaps on a return trip some day!

Sunday July 22nd, 2018 Glacier Discovery to Girdwood

After one night in Anchorage, we checked out of the hotel and headed back to the train depot to start our journey towards Seward! We would not be heading straight there however. Instead, we would board the Glacier Discovery and head through a few stops to our destination. One of the coolest stops along the way was Whitter! Surrounded by mountains on three sides and the water on the fourth, it's very secluded and quite a beautiful place!

Moving on, we headed towards a rather cool destination, Spencer Whistle Stop! Buried in the Chugach National Forest, accessible only by train, we found the Spencer Glacier which was one of the closest glaciers we could hike to! Even better, had we planned on it, we could have kayaked out to the glacier and several of the icebergs floating in the waters of the lagoon at the terminus of the glacier! Perhaps next time. We hung out here for a while as the train departed for it's final spot and turn around point at Grandview. Spencer Glacier was by far one of the most stunning sights to behold and well worth the trip to get there!

When the train returned from Grandview, we boarded again and headed for our final stop of the day, Girdwood, where we stayed in what was certainly the fanciest hotel I have ever stayed in! This stop, like Anchorage, was only for a night as we would be heading to Seward in the morning!

In a side note, this train takes you through Portage (several times in fact depending on your travel plans). Portage may not look like much but in 1964, Portage was a growing town set along the beautiful Turnagain Arm of the Cook Inlet. On Good Friday in 1964, a powerful 9.2 earthquake struck the area causing the soil under Portage to liquefy causing the town to sink between 6 to 15 feet! This brought the town below the high tide level which caused massive flooding! The whole town was a total lost and all that remains today are a few remains of the original buildings and a ghost forest, trees that sucked in the rush of salt water that flooded the town killing them and preserving them as they stood; where they will stand for another 50 years! Quite a sight and happy to hear the history still lives on to this day!

 
 

Anchorage to Spencer Whistle Stop - 83 miles Spencer Whistle Stop to Girdwood - 39 miles

Monday July 23th, 2018 Girdwood to Seward

After our one night stay in Girdwood, we boarded the train once more and set off for the last leg of our trip, Seward, Alaska and Kenai Fjords National Park! The train route took us along the Turnagain Arm of the Cook Inlet and then into the Chugach National Forest and through the towns of Moose Pass, Crown Point, Primrose, and Bear Creek before entering Seward. Along the way we passed through a row of houses along the railroad tracks that had a functional grass airstrip running through their combined backyards! The only place in America where this can still be allowed! Rules have since changed and this is no longer allowed however those who have these airstrips are to be grandfathered in which pretty much means they are the last to ever have a backyard airstrip! What more can you expect from the state where more people have a pilot's license than a driver's license!

Arriving in Seward, we were treated to a spectacular view of Resurrection Bay right outside our hotel window! We were able to see ships coming and going, fishing boats bringing in their massive catch, and sea otters swimming and playing all right below our windows! Absolutely incredible! We would stay here in Seward for the remainder of our trip which was about to get a whole lot better! Girdwood to Seward - 51.6 miles

Tuesday July 24th, 2018

On our first official day in Seward, we were to go out on the water to explore Kenai Fjords National Park! We would be expected to see whales, seals, walruses, puffins, glacial calving and more! I, in particular, wanted to see glacial calving above all else! What started as a great sea trip, however, took a very ugly turn when we started out into open waters. We were met with 15 foot waves and, on a tight schedule as we were, the boat was not going to slow down.

30 miles per hour flying over these monster waves... Safe to say at least ¾ of the passengers on this boat, if not more, got sick... myself and the other 2 members of my party included. It was 6 hours and 115 miles of torture to put it nicely! There was a time I was hanging on the side of the boat and when I looked up, everyone was gone! That's about the time we were flying over the first of the 15 foot waves! Not the best time to be left alone when the first instruction of the boat was how to handle a "man overboard" situation...

No one to keep eyes on me in the water was a bad situation! When I finally had a break, I made my way back inside... Talk about a worse situation than going overboard when no one could see you.... The smell was horrific. That, and how many people I actually witnessed barfing into the water, was how I determined ¾ or more of the passengers were sick! As the saying goes, it was enough to knock a buzzard off a gut wagon!

After the trip out to sea, which I wish would have gone much better, we all crawled back into the hotel and waited for everything to stop spinning. Despite how awful it was, I would absolutely do this trip again only next time with medication to stop the seasickness! Seward to Aialik Bay and back - 115 miles Wednesday July 25th, 2018

Waking up after the "barf boat" trip was rough. Unfortunately, things were still spinning in my head. Today was not the day to be under the weather. Today, was Harding Icefield and Exit Glacier day! The day I had been eagerly anticipating since viewing Denali! The Harding Icefield is an incredibly deep snow pack where glaciers are born as they slide between the mountains and out to freedom!

Exit Glacier would be my best chance to see a glacier up close after trying my best to accomplish this goal in Glacier National Park back in 2016! The hike to the Harding Icefield would take us right up along Exit Glacier providing new and ever stunning views the whole time! Once at the top, we would be standing at the edge of the Harding Icefield where we would be witness to snow as far as you could see with nothing but the peaks of mountains sticking up here and there! Pretty crazy to think of how deep that snow must be!

Hiking up to the top of the trail, we passed through a variety of ecosystems! We started in a temperate rainforest then up into a meadow and then up farther into the land of glaciers and snow packs! Also up this high we ran into the first black bears of the trip! These bears would eventually work their way down towards the trail forcing us, and the other passing hikers, off the trail and further down away from the bears. Best to give them space then wind up with one of them in your face!

Unfortunately the weather on this hike was not all that ideal for viewing the icefield and top of the glacier as it was quite foggy/cloudy at that elevation. It was tough to see when the sky ended and the icefield began but I was there and I stood on the snow and it was awesome! The best part of this hike, other than the spectacular views, was that it cleared up my "barf boat" hangover! Definitely worth the effort to climb the mountain!

 
 

Harding Icefield hiking round trip - 9.9 miles round trip Thursday July 26th, 2018

For our last day in Seward, we went back into Kenai Fjords to walk the Exit Glacier terminus trail and outflow plains! It was truly a sight to behold! I sincerely hope this is not the last time I will ever get to see this sight either!

After the short hike in Kenai Fjords, we went back to Seward and visited the Sealife Aquatic Center where they care for and rehabilitate sick and injured sea mammals as well as educate the general public about caring for the sea. The scariest lesson learned was that our seafood, a large amount of it, has eaten plastic... That plastic sticks with the animal until it winds up on our dinner plate! Not cool that plastic has become part of the food chain. After one last tour of the town, we boarded the train one last time and headed back to Anchorage where we would catch a couple hours of sleep before heading to the airport and flying back home!

 
 

Exit Glacier hiking round trip - 2.33 miles Seward to Anchorage - 110.7 miles Friday July 27th, 2018 After a short couple of hours of sleep, we were shuttled to the Anchorage airport where we would catch our first flight back to Seattle then on to St Louis and finally back home! The trip was everything I imaged and more! It's a great feeling when I get to accomplish all my trip bucket list items and to do so in one of the most important trips of my lifetime, well, it was nothing short of incredible! Fortunately, this pair of flights will be much shorter than the trio of flights to get to Alaska. Unfortunately this would also mean getting out of Alaska much faster than I would have liked. In fact, I would have much rather stayed forever!

 
 
 
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