Alaska — ‘The Last Frontier’
Where the sky has multiple colors in the night and mountains are all white, bears have salmon to eat and Dall sheep has mountain peaks. This is home of wild and a land of untouched beauty. ~Rhishi
It all started with mesmerizing photos of fall colors that one of our friends posted on Instagram (social sites are a great inspiration to travel). With couple months of planning and figuring out our budget, we finalized our itinerary to Alaska.
We started our journey from JFK to Anchorage, it’s around 9 hours of connecting flight via Seattle. Alaskan airlines is one of best airlines,, they have sufficient leg space and good in-flight entertainment options (free movies, TV shows..). It was a good decision to carry an iPad, as they didn’t have screens. One can download an app to view everything for free. Alaskan-air inflight-entertainment
On 7th September, we reached Anchorage in the afternoon and rented a car from Enterprise. You really don’t need four wheel drive or a convertible (unless you want) in Alaska and a nice sedan should do the job. After shopping some required items like water bottle pack, snacks etc from Walmart and other grocery stores, we started our drive from Anchorage to Denali National Park. All stores are nearby international airport. Anchorage to Denali is a scenic route and you can get the glimpse of glaciers and Mt. Denali. Denali has few resorts and one motel outside of the national park. There are camping options as well: Denali Campground. Our stay was Denali Rainbow RV Park & Motel. There is a cozy Thai place for takeout and their food is awesome (Thai & Chinese Food To Go)
Our second day started early for Denali trip. We booked one of the transit bus to Wonder Lake. There are multiple transit bus tours as well as few tours which go till Kantishna. They both have the same kind of buses and they take same stops for viewpoints and wildlife viewing. The later one takes you till Kantishna where you can enjoy lunch and activities like gold panning and dog sledding. There are tours offered by resorts as well -
Denali Wildlife Tour
Denali Backcountry Adventure
Our tour started at 6:45 am and we parked our car in Wilderness Access Center from where the tour started. They have sufficient parking early in morning.
Our bus driver, Richard gave a brief about the history of Denali park, he stopped at all locations where there was a chance of viewing wildlife or if someone noticed some movement. We got a chance to view bear, caribou (reindeer), Dall sheep, moose, golden eagle, peregrine falcon and a baby wolf crossing the road. I will advise carrying binoculars, we had to zoom in our camera to see wildlife in the viewfinder which is not advisable from the bus.
The best view that we awaited for was of Mt. Denali and to our luck, it was clear sky. We got a full view of Mt. Denali (formerly known as Mt. McKinley). There are multiple places to spot Mt. Denali but the best one was just before the Eielson Visitor Center.
Our last spot in the Denali tour was Wonder Lake. Only in the best day of the year with a clear sky, no wind and perfect light you can see the reflection of Denali but this was not the day :) And from there we headed back to Denali Wilderness Access Center and to Fairbanks.
Our third day started with an exciting tour to Arctic Circle through the famous James Dalton Highway. It’s a 414 miles long highway starting from north of Fairbanks ending at Deadhorse near arctic ocean.
We booked Northern Alaska Tour Company Arctic Circle Drive and Homestead Aurora tour. One of the reasons we decided to travel to Alaska during September was to watch Aurora as that is the best time, when Alaska gets enough dark nights and the weather is good enough to be out during night time.
Our tour guide and bus driver Sarah started the tour with a brief history about Fairbanks. The first stop for us was at an outhouse for a quick bathroom break followed by the first spot of Dalton highway. The second spot was the great Alaskan trans pipeline, our tour guide Sarah explained engineering behind the design of pipeline. They also played a documentary on why Alaskan pipeline was built, controversies around it, struggle of building the pipeline and the opportunities for the people of Alaska.
Dalton highway is a rugged one. There is a lunch option on the way if you are not carrying food with you (it’s recommended to carry) at Yukon River Camp. They serve really good sandwiches, soups and salad. We stopped there for a while for lunch and a quick rest break.
Before reaching Arctic Circle, we made a last stop at Finger Mountain Point. It’s a stone in shape of a finger (which finger I don’t know), there is a theory that in old times folks traveling towards south used it as a marker as finger points towards south direction. One can get a nice landscape view of the entire place from here.
After almost 6 hours on the road, we finally reached Arctic Circle Point. It’s said only 1% people who come to Alaska, visit Arctic Circle. This was surely an achievement and we celebrated it with lot of photos and few mosquito bites (yes Alaska do bite).
From here bus took a reverse turn to our original destination but this was not end of today’s journey, everyone was curious to look out for Aurora Borealis. There was still some day light at around 10:30 PM when we headed back to Yukon river camp to have dinner and to have view of mighty Yukon river just beside the camp. It was pretty dark after dinner while we headed back to outhouse in Joy (town near Fairbanks) with no sign of Northern lights.
Finally the moment we were waiting for anxiously arrived when we saw first glimpse of Norther lights in the horizon just behind Dalton highway sign (end of dalton highway). It was magical but it didn’t last long and we all hopped in bus in the hope that we are going to see it again from outhouse.
We reached outhouse for our homestead aurora tour, it was the same place where we took our first restroom break. It was getting cold (~ 30F) and there was nice hot chocolate and coffee to enjoy and even couch to lie down after being in bus for almost 15 hours. After quick break we headed out to scan for lights while we were waiting we observed the sky, this was one of the darkest and clearest sky we have ever seen (death valley was another one). We could clearly see the milky-way and not one but so many shooting stars.After around 30 minutes lights once again came to say hello but it was not very strong, just a few rays in horizon, we struggled to capture them initially with just theoretical knowledge of which camera settings to use. After bit of trial and error we finally captured our first northern light snap, not a great one but something to be happy about.
It was almost 4 AM in morning and our tour guide made announcement to head back to Fairbanks, we all convinced ourself that it was not best view of northern light but we were lucky enough to get some glimpse. We started from there around 4:15 AM, we were still on highway just outside Fairbanks around 4:30 AM and we got a gorgeous view of Northern light in the sky and everyone shouted at once to stop the bus, after looking for a safe space our tour guide stopped the bus. The view was mesmerizing and the light were dazzling from one end of horizon to another. We were really lucky and this was a great way to end a long exciting day and to have aurora dreams.
Our morning started at 1:30 PM, we did plan an extra day in Fairbanks to relax and give ourself feeling of vacation. After lunch we took a scenic drive to Chena hot springs lake, it’s around 65 miles from Fairbanks and is a resort.
After dinner at lemongrass thai restaurant which I definitely recommend, we started planning our second chance to catch Aurora. There are not too many dark places in Fairbanks town but there was one just behind our resort. River edge is a beautiful resort with lot of cottages and one of the recommended place to stay in Fairbanks. There is one more close by recommended by local person, it’s near University of Alaska — Smith lake.
If you plan to view Aurora by yourself do check for current weather and kp index. KP index ranges from 0–10 and higher rank means more chances of aurora.
iPhone app to shot aurora
We did get few nice Aurora views and kp index was 4 with clear sky.
We reserved this day for a scenic drive back to Anchorage and we decided to take back route via glennallen. This is around 100 miles more than one via Denali but it’s totally worth it. Our first stop was Santa Clause house in North Pole at Nicolas Drive (that’s really a Santa house).
The views were breathtaking along the highway with glaciers, rivers and fall colors.
We made our lunch stop at glennallen where highway takes right turn to glenn highway. There are few lunch options here and we opted for Tok thai, it’s a small take-out kind of place with really nice food. The accept only cash (don’t expect Internet everywhere).
After saying goodbye to Mr. Drum, we started our journey to glenn highway.
And the first close close view of glacier we encountered was Matanuska glacier. There is view point where you can park the car and get a good spot of glacier.
While you are here don’t miss to get hot Cinnabon roll from Sheep’s lodge.
When you are in Alaska you don’t want to miss three things, first is Aurora second is wild life and third one is glacier. This day was dedicated for glaciers and we were off to Prince William Sound from anchorage in Whittier town. Seward highway is quite scenic with ocean running along and mountains all around. Please make sure that you check Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel schedule before going to Whittier, that’s the only way if you are driving.
We booked surprise glaciertour with Major Marine. This is around 5 hours 30 mins of cruise and they have buffet option as well, whittier has few restaurants as well and one can pack lunch before boarding.
Prince William offers splendid views all around with lot of glaciers, the closest one cruise goes to is the surprise glacier. If you are lucky you can see big chunks of glacier falling into ocean and making a splash sound. These glaciers also melts and create waterfalls in mountain. Watch out for wildlife as well, we got chance to see otters, salmon. On the way back we saw two black bear near house on the shore.
Our cruise reached back to Whittier around 5:30 and we continued our journey to Seward once again hitting scenic Seward highway enjoying scenic and calm sunset.
Seward is small and cozy town and our stay here was a small and cozy hotel trail head lodge. It has nice downtown with really good restaurants, please lookout for restaurant timings if you are going for dinner as lot of them closes early. With a nice hot dinner at Chattermark we called off the day with thoughts of glacier dreams :)
Today we planned to enjoy Alaska by foot and planned a hike to exit glacier, this is the only glacier accessible by road and one can hike to get a close view of it. It’s around 2.4 miles of hike to reach in front of glacier.
From here we headed to Alyeska to get ourself a bit of luxury vacation in Alyeska resort. It’s a beautiful resort surrounded by Chugach Mountains. Resort has 7 restaurants and we made reservation to dine at seven glacier restaurant, it’s a AAA Four Diamond award winning mountaintop luxury restaurant. If you have advance reservation the tram ride is free. They have a beautiful setting to enjoy delicious dinner with gorgeous sunset.
This was our last day in Alaska and we started it with scrumptious breakfast at the Pond Cafe. We headed back to anchorage and on the way we decided to visit potter marsh. It’s a wild life viewing area and something not to be missed if you are near anchorage. We observed lot of birds along with bald eagle and it was treat to see not one but two eagles patiently waiting to hunt it’s prey.
After reaching anchorage we had our supper in yak & yetirestaurant, it’s a Tibetan & Indian cuisine restaurant with simple and delicious food and good one to end your journey in Alaska.
This day was just a more of to properly bid adieu to Alaska as we had afternoon flight. We started our day with breakfast at Cafe Amsterdam(excellent place for breakfast in anchorage) and after that we visited few shops in downtown area to buy souvenirs and gifts for friends and family. Polar bear and The Kobuk are nice gift shops in downtown. And from there we headed to Airport to board the flight back to home with lot of good memories to cherish forever and hope to visit this beautiful land one day again.
Written By: Rhishi
Editing & Photography: Priyanka