Friday, May 27, 2016

Trip to Alaska - The Last Frontier

Many of my friends are asking me about our Alaska trip and itinerary. So I thought it is probably a better idea to do a blogpost on our trip which might help many of you. This will be my first travel blogpost, so any feedback will be appreciated.

We went to Alaska for a 9 day vacation almost towards the end of July 2015. Both me and my husband prefer road trips instead of luxury cruises that are so very common in Alaska. So we decided to fly into Anchorage and drive around on a rental car.

Our itinerary at a glance:
Day 1 - Reached Anchorage late at night. Stayed near the airport.
Day 2 - Drove to Denali National Park
Day 3 - Took the shuttle bus tour at Denali National Park
Day 4 - Drove to Fairbanks and from there to Copperville. Stayed at Glenallen
Day 5 - Visited Matanushka glacier. Stayed at Girdwood.
Day 6 - Drove to Seward (we had planned to visit few more places that day, but unfortunately there was a big accident on Seward highway and we were stuck there for 8 hours). Stayed at Seward.
Day 7 - Took the Kenai Fjords cruise from Seward. Stayed at Seward.
Day 8 - Drove to Homer. Stayed at Homer.
Day 9 - Drove back to Anchorage and flew out

Our Trip Route; Source:Google Map

You will want to take note of these while planning your Alaska trip:
  • Alaska's travel season is very short; so plan your trip much ahead, at least 4 to 5 months before your travel date
  • Because of the short tourist season, everything is expensive. So buy your tickets, reserve your rental car and book your hotels as soon as you decide to visit
  • Alaska's weather is very unpredictable, so pack summer as well as winter clothes and some rain gear like water proof trousers, jackets, shoe and cap. We bought our waterproof gear from Columbia. Columbia items are really good in quality and are a steal for the price. I highly recommend buying from Columbia!
  • If you plan to take any cruise in Seward then I will suggest that you buy the Northern Lights coupon book. It costs $55 but it will pay for itself and also save you additional $ at many restaurants and glacier flight tours.
  • Stock your car with plenty of food and water, you will need them for sure. There are not many stores/restaurants around.
  • Gas up your car whenever you hit half tank. There are very few gas stations along the highway.
  • In terms of weather, we did not find any snow; instead we felt it was unusually hot and humid. I think that the best time to visit Alaska will be either in the beginning of season (as soon as the parks open up) or later towards the end of August. If you go late in August, you will also get to see the Northern Lights.

Some major highlights from our trip:
  • Immediately after reaching Anchorage, first thing we did was buy the Northern Light's coupon book.
  • On our way to Denali National Park, we stopped at the Eagle River Valley for a short hike and then again stopped at the Byers Lake. Even if you don't go to Byers Lake you won't miss much. The entire stretch of the drive from Anchorage to Denali is very beautiful and we pulled over quite a few times along the way to enjoy the view.
  • Initially we had planned to take a glacier air taxi ride from Talkeetna to Mt. McKinley (there are stunning photos of Mt. McKinley on the internet). But once we reached the spot, we changed our plan. Both of us have fear of heights and the air taxis were like a small metal box shaking badly when flying. So we decided to skip this part from our itinerary. However I will encourage you to go for this trip if you are adventurous.
  • At Denali we took the Kantishna Shuttle bus which is a 13 hour long round trip. There were plenty of wildlife to see along the way, specially bears, mooses and caribous on the way. Before we started on the bus trip, we picked up couple of sandwiches from the Wilderness Access Center. We also carried with us plenty of water on the bus, as there are no food/water facilities inside the park. The bus trip was a bumpy ride, but the scenic beauty was absolutely mesmerizing. This shuttle will take you to the end of the park, whereas if you drive by yourself, you will be allowed to go only until the Toklat River, after which no private vehicles are allowed. The next morning we drove till the Toklat River before leaving Denali.
  • From Denali we drove first to Fairbanks where we stopped briefly at the University of Alaska campus. There is not much to see per se around there. From there we drove on the Richardson Highway to Glenallen. If you want to skip this route, it will be totally fine. The route is definitely beautiful, but its very desolate and quite a long drive with very minimal convenience stores/gas stations. You will not see much cars on this route, it's that remote. Sometimes we felt like we were passing by ghost cities along the highway, but no doubt this route is very beautiful in its own right. 
  • The resort where we stayed in Glenallen was stunningly beautiful. They have motel rooms as well as resort rooms, a private lake where you can go for kayaking. If you are in Alaska for a leisure trip then you can definitely spend a couple of days at this resort for a memorable experience. It's not too far from Anchorage also.
  • At Matanuska Glacier, you have the option to either go for a guided tour or can go on your own on the glacier. They even rent boots from their office. Our Columbia waterproof sneakers served us well and we went by ourselves on the glacier. Walking on the glacier was not that tough and there is no way that you will lose your way there. As you might have seen in the pictures,  there are quite a many crevices on the glacier, so it may happen that at times you will have to retract your steps and find another route. 
  • On our way to Girdwood, we stopped at Anchorage and spent the afternoon leisurely walking around the small downtown. It is here that we had a proper dinner since we had arrived in Alaska. 
  • We did not stay at the Alyeska Resort in Girdwood, but we went there to take the aerial tram to go to the top of Mt. Alyeska. The view from the top is worth the ride and there are short hikes on the peak as well. 
  • Before leaving Girdwood, we went to the Portage glacier which is a small dive from the city. 
  • Then we drove on the Seward highway towards South. The first stretch of this route is absolutely beautiful, with the famous Alaskan Railroad on one side running along the highway and the Gulf of Alaska on the other makes it a picturesque place.
  • In Seward, we took the 9 hour Glacier and wild life cruise in Kenai Fjords. On this cruise we got to see a lot of humpback whales, orcas, sea otters and other marine mammals. The view of glaciers were enchanting, specially when huge chunks of glacier broke apart and crashed onto the sea below, and it's roaring sound. 
  • Once we came back from the cruise, we went to Exit Glacier which is a short drive from Seward downtown. We walked onto the opening from where we could see the glacier, but did not go for a hike on the glacier as it was getting dark by then.
  • Seward also has a pretty little downtown. We took a small walk around it and had an Alaskan seafood dinner seated next to a huge window with a lovely view of the harbor, the snow capped mountains standing tall in the background.
  • The Sterling Highway drive from Seward to Homer is very scenic. You will see many people doing fly fishing along the Kenai river. There are many spots along this highway where you will want to stop and enjoy the view!
  • In Homer, we took it light, relaxed quite a lot and enjoyed the scenic small city, called "Land's End". There was a small hill near the downtown from where you can get a panoramic view of the Homer spit and the glacier.
  • There is one more national park near Homer, called Katmai National Park & Preserve. This park is famous for brown bears. The quickest way to access this park is by Air Taxi from Homer/Anchorage, but these trips are very expensive. We did not visit this park, but if you are a wildlife enthusiast, you can certainly plan to go there.

After we came back home, we were checking the Alaskan Railway packages and found that the railroad is pretty well connected and seems to provide a very comfortable ride. If you don't want to drive much, you can take the railroad instead. They have different kind of packages that you can chose from as per your liking. The fun part is that the roof of their trains is made of clear glass. I can imagine how beautiful the view will be when the train travels though woods, hills and near the water falls.

If you want to know where we stayed and dined in Alaska, you can check my TripAdvisor or Yelp account. I have added my reviews of all these places. Hope this helps! If you have any question, please drop me an email or post your question in the comments section; I will try to help you as much as I can. Here are few photos taken on my phone camera from our trip. You can find more photos from Alaska here.


Lisa said...

Can you please mention all the hotels where you stayed? We are planning to visit Alaska this summer and I am looking for hotel recommendation

zest and leisure said...

Sorry Lisa. I just saw your comment now. Follow my TripAdvisor/Yelp link on the post, all the hotels are listed there.