Lonely Planet: Big, beautiful and wildly bountiful. Far away, rurally isolated and very expensive. Alaska is a traveler’s dilemma. There are few places in the world with the grandeur and breathtaking beauty of Alaska. Not only is Mt McKinley the highest peak in North America, it’s also a stunning sight when you catch its alpenglow in Wonder Lake at Denali National Park. A 900lb brown bear catching a leaping salmon in its jaws is not something seen in Iowa, but a common apparition on Kodiak and Admiralty Island and in the scenic Katmai National Park, a hop-skip-jump from King Salmon or Homer. A 5-mile-wide glacier shedding chunks of ice the size of small cars is another unique Alaskan sight; for this quiet thrill, venture down to Juneau, gateway to Glacier Bay National Park, or to Prince William Sound, boasting the largest collection of tidewater glaciers.
For adventurous types with a little extra time and a love for life on a grand scale – whether it’s kayaking through a sea of icebergs and seals around the coast of Kenai Fjords National Park or witnessing a 40-ton humpback whale breaching in Southeast Alaska – this state is a hard place to pass up.
Alaska is also an out-of-the-way and costly destination for anybody tripping through the rest of the country. It takes a week on the road to reach the 49th state, two to three days on a ferry or, from any region outside the Northwest, a $600-to-$800 airline ticket. Once there you’ll find accommodations expensive, bus and train options meager and much of the state roadless and inaccessible. But once there, even on a short side trip, you’ll marvel at this amazing land and begin plotting your return.
Plan in advance: Believe me when I say this place needs a considerable planning. Every tour, hotel runs full capacity during the warmer months. We started our planning for this place 7 months in advance. The first thing that struck us is that there are no deals for this place like the others, no special Hotwire/Priceline/Kayak etc stuff going. For a while we were wondering how we can afford this place and if it would be worth it. Then a collegue told me about the alaska coupons http://www.tripadvisor.com/ShowTopic-g28923-i349-k5157100-Coupon_Books_for_Alaska_Travel-Alaska.html there are other as well which are better for families(though less adventurous) but its these 2 which caught our eye. Our next bit was to check against what was available on these coupons versus what we were interested to do. The Tour Saver coupon finally turned out best for us, but of course there were these whole bunch of other stuff that caught our eye which didn’t have discounts.
Choose the right month: As you’d guess, Alaska is extremely season driven and every month offers a very different experience, it’s important to identify what you want out of your trip.
Around March – Aurora, spring just starting to kick-in, still quite cool, not a lot of wildlife, days still short
June-July – The best time to go for warm weather lovers, whale watching, clear(er) skies, 22hr days(the rest of the 2 hours still see light), everything is bustling with life though on the hotter days it may be difficult to see wildlife since the animals go higher up the hills to get cooler. The glaciers are considerable larger haven’t melted all the way for the year, no chances of seeing the Aurora though. This season is packed with families.
Aug-Sept – Great chances to see wildlife, the glaciers a bit smaller(melt in the summer) but beautiful none the less. Pink salmon running up the rivers and bears having a feast, berries everywhere, your chances of seeing an Aurora increase. The skies start to be overcast, I’d consider this to be Alaska’s monsoon.
Weather: The North American Himalayas( just made that up) give Alaska a unique climate. Be prepared for overcast skies and poor visibility. They say Mt Mckenley only has a 33% chance of offering a view, as goes for the rest of the scenic drives, glaciers and vista points. Be prepared to reschedule your tour plans and reshuffle agendas on the fly if needed to make the best of your trip.
Places to go: Here are the personal highlights,
Anchorage – I found the cheapest to fly into, nothing much going on there.
Matanuska – The glacier is a treat to hike, there’s also ice climbing offered but from what I learnt these are large group tours which involve a lot of hanging around in the cold for a short climbing experience.
Valdez – Kayaking the glaciers, Ice caves. They have a salmon harvesting station and a lot of small rivers and creeks to spot salmon and of course bears.
Fairbanks – Really not a lot going on here, this town at first glance looks to be a place that is past it’s glory days. BUT a great place to spot the Aurora being in the north, especially the closer towns like Fox and Ester that are a quick drive away. We decided to stay here and drive down to Denali for our day activities. Though the drives are a bit exhaustive the lower hotel rates and higher chances of seeing an Aurora in the nights give you a chance to get the best of your time here. Keep sometime for the chena hot springs and ice museum, not to impressive but worth a visit.
Denali – Be sure to keep a couple of days here, PLEASE don’t do the one day bus tours, we were warned against it but still fell for the marketing – it’s a complete waste of a day. If you’d like to get a good glimpse of Mt Denali/Mckenley just drive down the high way and you’ll have great vistas between Denali and Talkeetna. Camping/backpacking here(if you have the time) would be the best use of your time. Beautiful trails offering you superb views and the campride shuttles being a great way to drop you across different locations in the park so you can begin your explorations for the day. The summer months see the a lot of bustle since the official climbing season is until the 4th of July.
Juneau – we couldn’t make it here because if its location and our time constraints but its a great spot to go! A whole array of spectacular glaciers, hanging waterfront restaurants with great food and a good place to catch up with the native culture.
Seward – I find the drive to this place over hyped, we found the Valdez-achorage drive a lot more scenic. Once your there this little town puts you in another world, cradled between the mountains or Fjords to be more specific. This place is quite romantic. Of course the Kenai peninsula cruises is a must here along with the Harding’s ice field hike( you can choose less strenuous hikes).
The Downtown is literally one street of 3 blocks which make it all the more cute! Don’t miss the great ice-cream shop here, real fruit!
Scenic drives: Richardson highway and the drive down to Seward from Anchorage would be your best drives.
Chasing the Aurora: If watching the Northern lights is a big deal for you as it was for us you might want to plan your trip in March or the end of August. Spending 3 days in Fairbanks or any town higher up almost seals the deal of you having a sighting as long as you avoid the summer months. They even have a FB feed on this that’s helpful.
Remember it has to be a clear sky, don’t even bother about the forcast if you see cloudy on TWC
Our Mt Denali site seeing had to be shuffled because of bad weather, but here’s our original plan.
|17-Aug||Achorage||Glacier hike matanuska||http://www.bestglacier.com/AboutUs.html|
|18-Aug||Seward||Kenai Fjords Glacier boat tour||http://www.majormarine.com/kf/kenai-fjords-fullday-national-park-cruise/#tour_10001|
|19-Aug||Seward||Hiking||Harding ice field|
|20-Aug||Achorage||Drive||Drive to Valdez|
|21-Aug||Talkeetna||Drive||PM drive to Talkeetna|
|22-Aug||Talkeetna||Mt Mckenley air tour||http://www.talkeetnaaero.com/|
|22-Aug||Talkeetna||Drive||Drive to fairbanks|
|22-Aug||Fiarbanks||Bus tour||Denali National park|
|22-Aug||Fiarbanks||Aurora chance #1||Fox/Ester|
|23-Aug||Fairbanks||The Aurora Ice Museum/Chenna Springs||http://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g60826-d2311132-Reviews-The_Aurora_Ice_Museum-Fairbanks_Alaska.html|
|23-Aug||Fairbanks||Aurora chance #2||Fox/Ester|
|24-Aug||Fairbanks||Hiking||Denali National park|