Of all the 10-day loops, this trip will probably take more careful and advanced planning than most of our trips. Summertime in Alaska is like the gold rush that helped to populate the area in the early 1900's. People flood in from all over the world for a glimpse of the beauty and majesty of our 49th state. If you can go in May or September, you will be able to avoid the massive influx of people in June, July and August. It will be somewhat colder in these shoulder months, but prices for lodging and food will be lower and the animals everyone wants to see will tend to be in the valleys instead of higher up the mountains. For information on all of Alaska's state parks, national parks, wildlife refuges and other outdoor recreational sites visit www.alaskacenters.gov ». Every time I plan a trip to Alaska I purchase a copy of The Milepost, Alaska Travel Planner for the latest up-to-date information on everything Alaskan www.themilepost.com ».
Trip report by Michael Robbins
On our 2nd day we'll drive the farthest to see some of Alaska that many visitors don't see. Most tourist spend their entire vacation riding up and down the Parks Highway viewing the small area from Anchorage to Denali to Fairbanks. We too shall follow this path, but first we'll see some of the area of Alaska that few dare to visit.
Just north of Eagle River you'll turn east toward Palmer on the Glenn Highway. This 189-mile section has beautiful mountain views its entire length. Remember to watch for moose on the road on this and all Alaskan highways. Their size and weight can stop you and a vacation in it tracks if you hit one.
Just east of Palmer is the Musk Ox Farm ». These ancient creatures survive on the tundra far north of this farm. Turn in to see them in a field and take the tour if you'd like. A gift shop sells knitted items made from musk ox wool (qiviut). Its warmth helps native Alaskans survive the frigid winters in the artic.
Back on the Glenn Highway you'll be paralleling the Matanuska River valley. About 60 miles east of Palmer is a turnoff for the Matanuska Glacier State Recreation Site to the south has a good view of the glacier. Continue east along the Glenn Highway enjoying the mountains and valleys as you drive. Toward Glennallen you'll begin to see mountains due east. These are the peaks of the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve.
At this interchange you will connect to the Richardson Highway (Hwy. 4), Alaska's first highway was originally a trail started during the 1898 gold rush in Eagle and again in 1902 when gold was found in Fairbanks. South of here lays the all weather port of Valdez (115 miles). Destroyed by the 1964 Good Friday earthquake, the new Valdez was built 4 miles west of the original town and is the terminus of the 800- mile long Trans- Alaskan pipeline.
Our pathway turns north 151 miles to Delta Junction. The highway parallels the pipeline with 2 crossings at which you can stop at and touch. Also you'll have good views of the Chugach Mountains to the southwest, the Wrangell Mountains to the southeast and the Alaska Range to the north.
Around 14 miles north of Glennallen the Glenn Highway/ Tok Cutoff exits to the right, but we'll continue north toward Sourdough, Paxson and Delta Junction. As you wind north look for wildlife, glaciers, mountains, lakes, rivers and views of the pipeline. Along the way we'll climb over the crest of the Alaska Range. Both Sourdough and Paxson offer roadside shops and lodging or press on to Delta Junction for a more traditional motel.
You should spend a little time in Delta Junction before you move on. The town is named for the nearby Delta River. It started as a construction camp for the Richardson Highway in 1919. It is the actual end of the 1422-mile Alaska Highway built in 1942 to aid in the protection of Alaska from invasion by the Japanese during World War 2. At the center of town the Richardson Highway meets the Alaska Highway. At this interchange there is an End of Alaska Highway monument, a visitor information center and the Sullivan Roadhouse Museum. Locals often dress in period wear and the area has information about the region. The library has internet (WiFi and 6 internet stations). If you like jerky, visit the Delta Meat & Sausage shop about 7 miles south along the Alaska Highway. There you can purchase almost any kind of locally harvested game, plus some other exotic varieties.
Back on the Richardson Highway (now Hwy. 2) we head for Fairbanks. About 8 miles from Delta Junction is the town of Big Delta. At the confluence of the Delta and Tanana Rivers, the site served as a gathering place for trappers and miners and riverboat traffic. Off the main road on the right is Rika's Roadhouse State Historical Park. It offers free admission to a 10-acre park that includes a roadhouse built in 1910 that has a large fur room, gift shop and historic rooms. It also offers a restaurant and other outbuilding including a bird enclosure with turkeys, peacocks and ducks.
Back on the Richardson is the Big Delta Bridge Tanana River/Pipeline Crossing. Stop on the south end of the bridge for your last view of the pipeline suspended across the river. As we continue on the mountains of the Alaska Range are to our south and the road is dotted with lakes and roadside shops. Keep your eyes open for moose and other wildlife both in the valleys and on the road.
Just south of Fairbanks is the town of North Pole. Originally named in hopes of luring a toy manufacturer who could claim it toy were made at the North Pole. It now proclaims itself as the town where the spirit of Christmas lives year round. Whether children are on the trip or not, a stop at Santa Clause House is a must. Shop for everything Christmas and mail your letters and cards here for an authentic North Pole postmark.
Alaska's second largest city and the administrative center of the Interior, Fairbanks was founded in 1901 as a trading post and began to grown when gold was discovered nearby one year later. Today, its economy is linked to its role as a service and supply point for the interior and arctic industrial activities such as oil exploration and mining. Fairbanks has more than 100 restaurants and more than 3,200 rooms at two-dozen hotels and motels; 4 hostels; and more than 200 bed-and-breakfasts. Don't forget to make advanced reservation during peak months. It provides over 100 attractions for visitors. Go to www.explorefairbanks.com or schedule a Golden Heart Greeter and be paired with a local who shares their insights on local attractions by emailing Explore Fairbanks ».
Visit Fairbanks and Surrounding Area
Get suggestions from your Golden Heart Greeter, but we enjoyed a visit to the University of Alaska Museum of the North. The campus is situated on a ridge overlooking Fairbanks and the Alaska Range. The museum has both free and fee charging exhibits. Visit University of Alaska Fairbanks Museum ». Also near the UAF campus is the Georgeson Botanical Garden ». The garden displays many varieties of flowers from the northern climates.
Pioneer Park is Alaska only pioneer theme park. It contains historic building, small shops, food, entertainment, picnicking, playgrounds, miniature golf and train rides. Admission to the park is free, but some activities have a fee. At the rear of the park is Mining Valley with displays of gold mining equipment. Also, the popular Alaska Salmon Bake serves dinner from 5-9 P.M. The Palace Theatre & Saloon is adjacent and features the musical comedy review about life in Fairbanks at 8:15 P.M.
South out of Fairbanks is the Parks Highway (Hwy. 3), which runs past Denali National Park and Preserve and down to the Richardson Highway just north of Anchorage. This highway was only completed in 1972 opening this stretch to motor vehicle traffic. Along its length is the Alaska Railroad, which run from Seward and Whittier on the Kenai Peninsula to Fairbanks. We will travel the whole 362-mile length, but today we will just concern ourselves with the section to Denali. The road begins to rise as we again approach the crest of the Alaska Range.
About 55 miles south is the town of Nenana. It sits at the confluence of the Tanana and the Nenana rivers, two important shipping lanes north to the Yukon River. With the Alaska Railroad it is a hub for shipping to all of interior Alaska. But this small towns claim to fame is the Nenana Ice Classic, Alaska's Biggest Guessing Game since 1917. With an average payoff of $300,000 in cash prizes to the lucky winners who guess the exact day and minute of the ice breakup on the Tanana River. Tickets are sold all over Alaska from February 1st through April 5th.
Continuing south we begin to see more commercial buildings, as we get closer to Denali National Park. The town of Healy is the start of miles of development that caters to the summer tourist. Motels, lodges, service stations, RV parks, stores and diners spot the highway. Soon after we descend into the Nenana River Canyon with its steep slopes and rushing river well suited to whitewater rafting. As we top the hill the town of Denali Park spreads out in front of us. Continue south to the entrance of Denali or stop and shop at the many stores here. Again, lodging reservations are a necessity as this area is always full during summer months. Accommodations range from simple motel rooms to chalets. Make plans for two nights here; there's so much to do.
The entrance to Denali National Park and Preserve leads us to a number of building that perform as National Park service sites. First is the Riley Creek campground and mercantile, followed by the Wilderness Access Center that is the transportation hub offering shuttle bus tickets and camping permits. Next, the Denali Visitor Center Complex closely followed by the Murie Science and Learning Center. I could spend half a day in this area by itself, but nearby is the Park kennels via shuttle bus from the Visitor Center. Meet the dogs and their handlers and see a demonstration and hear an explanation of the role of sled dogs in the park. The road continues almost 15 miles before access is restricted to shuttle and tour buses. Wildlife can be seen on this stretch
especially near dark. Access into the park from here is a must, but you'll have to decide if you want to take the shuttle bus that you can get off and on if you want to hike. Another option is a tour bus that takes you to a certain spot on the road before it turns and goes back toward the entrance. Several lengths are available to choose from, so just pick the one you'd like. With so much to do I'd suggest some areas at the entrance to the Park be explored on Day 5 and venture into the park on day 6. If bus riding and hiking is not your thing, then there's are plenty of exciting options from paddling the whitewater of the Nenana River, flight seeing Mt. McKinley, shopping along the highway or many other choices in Denali Park. See more on the park map ».
Heading south the Parks Highway runs along the upper section of the Nenana River for several miles. This area has more businesses that cater to Denali visitors as we pull into Cantwell. About 5 miles and again about 4 more miles south is a large paved parking area from which you can see Mt. McKinley on a clear day. Another 5 miles is Broad Pass. The 2400 ft. pass is the crest of the Alaska Range. Over the pass we begin to parallel the Chulitna River. Continue to look northwest over your shoulder for beautiful views of the Alaska Range. Views of Mt. McKinley can be seen all the way to Anchorage on a clear day.
A great place to take a break is Talkeetna. On a 14-mile spur road about 100 miles north of Anchorage is the home of the Moose Dropping Festival in July and the Bachelor's Auction in December. Founded as a trading post in 1896 and boomed following the Susitna River gold rush in 1910. The population grew during construction of the Alaska Railroad. Today it is the main staging area for climbers of Mt. McKinley. Expeditions fly out of here to Kahiltna Glacier at about 7,200 feet. Talkeetna has several historic building including the Nagley's General Store and a vibrant tourist trade. The Talkeetna Historical Society Museum has displays varying from local history to a scale model of Mt. McKinley. It's a great place to have lunch or just take a break.
Back of the Parks Highway the road levels out as we parallel the Susitna River and re- enter the Mat-Su Valley. We continue through the towns of Willow and Houston in an area famous for fishing in its lakes and rivers. Just past Wasilla we rejoin the Glenn Highway (Hwy. 1) for the 35-mile drive back to Anchorage. Book a room in town (advance reservation) and enjoy downtown Anchorage's many shop, restaurants and bars.
Now we have a decision to make. South of Anchorage there are two choices. See more natural beauty and aquatic animals or visit a drinking town with a fishing problem (or is that a fishing town with a drinking problem?). Seward is 127 miles with beautiful scenery and access to Kenai Fjords National Park, Exit Glacier and the Alaska SeaLife Center. The drive is 2 hours 31 minutes.
The other option is a 228-mile drive to Homer. Along the way we'll see many of Alaska's best know fishing rivers that include the Kenai, Russian, Anchor and Kasilof Rivers. Pass these is the coast of the Cook Inlet and magnificent views of the Chigmit Mountains across the Inlet. This drive is on narrow and winding roads and will take about 4 hours 31 minutes.
But don't be in a hurry. The first 90 miles holds a beautiful drive along Turnagain Arm, pass the town of Girdwood and the Mount Alyeska Recreation Area (a world class ski resort). Further along is the Portage Glacier/Whittier Access Road. Take the Seward Highway (Hwy. 1) out of Anchorage. We will closely parallel Turnagain Arm and the Alaska Railroad for the first 47 miles passing the 3-mile Alyeska Highway at mile 37. Just back on the Seward Highway as we reach the end of the Arm is the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. It is dedicated to the rehabilitation of orphaned and injured animals and features moose, bears, caribou, musk ox, bison, elk, deer, eagles and owls. Its fees contribute to the animal care program.
Adjacent is the Portage Glacier / Whittier Access Road. Portage Lake and Glacier is a must if you plan to go to Homer, but I think it's a must see for all. The Begich, Boggs Visitor Center on Portage Lake is 5.2 miles down the road. The center offers both free and fee exhibits. Another 1.5 miles past the Visitors Center is the Portage Glacier Cruises where for about $30 you can take a one-hour cruise to the edge of Portage Glacier. Further down the Road will take you to the toll charged 2.5-mile Anton Anderson Tunnel. Originally build as a railroad tunnel to the all-season port of Whittier during World War 2; it has been expanded to allow one-way motor traffic. Whittier is a port of call for some of the cruise ship that travel from the lower 48 every summer and operates as a hub for shipping to Alaska.
Back on the Seward Highway at about 90 mile is the turnoff for the 143-mile long Sterling Highway (Hwy. 1) to Soldotna, Kenai and Homer (description to follow). The Seward Highway (now Hwy. 9) continue 37-miles to Moose Pass and Seward.
South 7 miles is the town of Moose Pass that is known for a replica of a waterwheel that was used to cut lumber for area homesteads. Look to your right as you pass a sign that proclaims: "Moose Pass is a peaceful little town. If you have an ax to grind, do it here".
Continue on another 25 miles till the junction with Herman Leirer Rd. From this interchange it is 8.5 miles to reach the Exit Glacier Nature Center in the Kenai Fjords National Park. There you can hike 3 miles steeply uphill to reach the glacier. When our family visited this site in 1999 we only had to hike about a half a mile to get to the face of the glacier.
Another 3.5 miles south is the all-weather port of Seward. Founded in 1903 by railroad surveyors as a supply center (the 470-mile railway connecting Seward with Fairbanks was completed in 1923). It is named for the Secretary of State who arranged the purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867. Seward's economy is driven by tourism (including cruise ships during summer months), marine research and fishing. Stay the night (reservations, please) and prepare to enjoy the area's attractions in the morning.
If you choose not to make the drive to Seward, you can instead head towards Homer, Alaska. You should follow the alternative suggestions for both Day 8 and 9 in this case.
On day 8 at the turnoff to the Sterling highway is a 143-mile long road of opportunity for anyone that thinks a bad day fishing beats any other day. Soon after the turn you'll cross several rivers and lakes that offer great small rod fishing. If that's your interest, then go no farther. Check out fishing news and regulations at www.sf.adfg.state.ak.us ». On our family trip through this area in 2002 we witnessed what could only be called full combat fishing with anglers elbow-to-elbow in the Russian River at a viewpoint on the highway. But if you long for a bigger catch, then continue on to Soldotna and points south.
Starting at Soldotna you'll begin seeing signs for saltwater fishing. Just north on a spur road is the town of Kenai that is the terminus of the Kenai River, but also the second permanent Russian settlement in the area. I'd suggest you continue south not just to fish, but also to see beautiful seashore and mountains. A little further south is the town of Ninilchik where my family and I stayed on our 2002 trip. The views across Cook Inlet and the Russian Orthodox Church there were fantastic.
Another 43 miles is the fishing village (or drinking village) of Homer. Be sure to stop at the rest stop as the road widens to 4 lanes to get a great view of the Homer Spit and Kachemak Bay. Stay the night (reservation!!!) and plan your events for day 9.
Seward is home to the Alaska SeaLife Center. You've seen all the animals that walk in Alaska; now see all the animals that inhabit the waters around Alaska. Partially funded through the Exxon Valdez oil spill settlement, this facility offers tours (fee) of its research tanks containing nearly 2,000 animals including octopus, fish, sea lions, puffins and other marine life. Visit www.alaskasealife.org ». You can spend a couple of hours or a full day here, but I'd suggest splitting the day with a water excursion.
While here, a cruise on Resurrection Bay can get you up close to several glacier that flow into the Bay from the Harding Icefield in Kenai Fjord National Park. Aquatic animals in their natural habitat are always thrilling to see. Or try you luck at catching the big one. The small boat harbor has fishing charters. Spend another night (reservations, please) or check out some of the things you might have missed on the way back to Anchorage. But watch for moose and other animals on the road if you are driving near or after dusk.
As stated above, the alternative suggestions for day 8 and 9 work together best.
Homer has many saltwater fishing vessel and several bars, so take your choice. Our boys were too young for the bars, so we choose to fish. We were able to catch enough halibut to fill our cooler with frozen halibut steaks to last us for nearly a year in just a half-day trip. (The Anchorage airport has a large freezer that can hold your fish till you are ready to board your flight home and the airlines will charge you just like it's luggage.) Take an early trip, catch your limit and have the fish dressed onboard the boat then drive back to Kenai to have your fish fast frozen over night then pick them up in the AM before you drive back to Anchorage.
Return flight home.
Day 10 is the final day of the loop. Collect your fish or just your memories and return to Anchorage. Take some extra time to stop on the side of the road and drink in the beauty of Alaska. Your flight will probably be later in the day so don't spend your time waiting in the airport. This adventure will only whet your appetite for Alaska. We hope you truly enjoy the loop experience and have found that you were able to see much more in this one trip than you could have imagined.