We spent the first day just exploring Anchorage and hiked up to The Dome, which offers a spectacular view of the city as well as Mt. McKinley – almost 150 miles north of the city – on a clear day. We were warned about bears before setting out, so we read up and prepared with some helpful knowledge: Bears don't normally prey on humans and, in fact, prefer to stay away from us. A bear bell for your dog helps, and in the event you see one, DO NOT RUN! Apparently, bears have such terrible eyesight that they are likely to think you're a tasty treat and chase you down, running at almost 30 mph. Instead of sprinting, just make yourself big and let the bear know you're there by talking in a loud voice and slowly backing away.
We actually got to try this out at the very end of our hike when our furry companion, Hank, refused to continue down the trail. I cautiously looked ahead and saw a black bear walking down the hill quite a ways off. So we waited a bit, and then continued on, singing songs above the roar of the creek running below. It must have worked since we didn't see the bear again, but it was quite a fright.
After exploring Anchorage, we borrowed our relatives' car and headed south 200 miles to Homer. The drive as you head south out of Anchorage is spectacular as you follow the coast around the Turnagain Arm of the Cook Inlet, with the sea on one side and mountains on the other. Homer offers some nice views, but the town doesn't have much to write home about.
Next, we drove over to Seward and stayed in a great little cabin near a creek with spawning salmon. From there, Exit Glacier is close by and worth a short walk up to its terminal. But the best part was a day-long tour of the Kenai Fjords National Park, with views of orca whales, Steller sea lions and other wildlife and an up-close view of the Aialik glacier and its calving chunks of huge ice. The ride was a bit rough in parts, but luckily we had taken some precautionary meds that seemed to do the trick.
After our tour around the Kenai Peninsula, we headed back north to Denali National Park. We stopped on the way for a flight-seeing tour, which was worth the expense. We not only saw the massive glaciers, jutting peaks and beautiful landscape surrounding Denali but also flew right next to the northern peak of Mt. McKinley. At 20,320 feet, the mountain is the tallest in North America. Only half of those attempting to climb it each year actually make it to the top. The mountain is so tall that it creates its own weather systems.
To get close to the peak, you have to enter the Denali National Park and Preserve, which takes up more than 6 million acres surrounding the peak. Only approved vehicles are allowed in the park, so we met up with a previously arranged tour bus and made our way on the 90-mile stretch of unpaved road headed toward the majestic Mt. McKinley. Along the way, we saw grizzly bears up close, some dahl sheep, caribou, moose and various other wildlife, not the mention the beautiful mountains.
Heading east the next day, we got onto the Denali Highway, another unpaved road traversing majestic scenery. We actually got tired of seeing so many rainbows along the way, and I personally was tired of taking so many beautiful scenery shots!
From the end of the Denali Highway, we drove south to Valdez, where we caught a ferry ride through the Prince William Sound to Whittier. More glaciers were in view, as well as an obstacle course of small icebergs. There's not much in Whittier, but the views were spectacular. A drive through the two-mile tunnel put us back toward Anchorage, where we rested up before our overnight flight back to North Carolina.
The trip overall was a great time, though we just scratched the surface of what Alaska offers. Alaska is not the place to vacation if you want superior service and bargain accommodations. Because almost everything in Alaska is imported from the lower 48 states, costs are quite high.
The best time to go is in the summer, which is also why you have to call ahead to reserve your accommodations and tours. The end of August and beginning of September is arguably the best time to go – the crowds are mostly gone, but everything is still open for the summer before winter starts in September. Plus, the fall colors are at peak. We did run into a few places that had switched to winter hours already, which made finding a place to eat after 9 p.m. tricky, even though the sun was just barely starting to set at that time.
For photographers, Alaska is a dream come true. Beautiful light happens pretty much all day, and the morning and evening twilight times are extended to a few hours. Alaska also has some great clouds and dramatic weather that changes quickly. Dress for 60-degree days and colder at night. A light fleece and pants kept us comfortable in most situations, though with wind or altitude it can get much colder.