Discovering Alaska: a five days trip to The Land of Midnight Sun

For those who know me well, Alaska seemed like an unlikely destination for spending holidays. I am the type of person who is always freezing, complaining about how cold it is in the office and having a red nose whenever the outside temperature is lower than 15C. But I also love nature, mountains and remote locations, so for this year’s 4th of July weekend, we took some extra days off and headed to Alaska.

A photo posted by Simina (@siminuk) on

Day 1: Anchorage, Byron Glacier and driving north to Denali national park

One thing we learned well since started working in US is that if we wanted to get to travel more, a good management of vacation days was crucial. So we took a late evening flight from Seattle to Anchorage, got few hours of sleep in a hostel in Anchorage, and next morning we were excited to start the Alaskan adventure. We were less excited for the rain outside, but we continued with the plan nevertheless. First destination would be Portage Glacier (close to Whittier), where we took a short hike to Byron Glacier. Among the way, the sky cleared up a bit and got to see the beautiful surroundings.

Byron Glacier
Our first Alaskan Glacier - and a short reminder that the skies are not always blue in Alaska!

We have planned to spend the next night camping next to Denali National Park, so we decided against driving all the way to Whittier through a one way tunnel and instead we turned around and drove back to Anchorage. After a yummy lunch (hint: Glacier Brewhouse), we continued the ride with a small detour to visit Independence Mine State Historical Park, an old gold mine. Unfortunately it was foggy and rainy, and we could only imagine how beautiful the mountains and the road were.

Gold mine, foggy weather
NOT impressed with the weather.

But nature knows its ways and didn’t disappoint us for too long. After passing the mountains, a moose came to say “Welcome to Alaska” when passing in front of our car, and a bit later in the day the weather cleared up and things started to look like the Alaska we knew from pictures and magazines. We spent the night at Riley Creek Campground, and learned that sunsets are late, sunrises early, and during Alaskan summer it would never get fully dark.

Day 2- Denali National Park

Access to Denali National Park can be done only in busses ran by the National Park Service, and we showed up bright and early for the 8.30AM bus (which we booked ahead of time!). It was a long bus ride but so much worth it! Denali NP is known for the abundance of wildlife - and we saw a moose, caribous, grizzlies and even two grizzly cubs! How cute is that?

Denali
It was supposed to be a rainy day, but early in the morning we got to this view!

The final destination of our bus ride was Eielson Point, one of the best places to see Denali (also called Mount McKinley). But not today. Today the mountain was behind a thick layer of clouds, which is the case 90% of the days. Our TODO list for next Alaskan trip started to grow: we have to come to Denali NP again for some proper backcountry hiking.

Denali
Reality vs expectations: Eielson Point as we experienced it, versus at its picture-perfect moments.

The bus tour ended around 4pm and by that time it was pouring rain. Luckily, the visitor center had excellent exhibition so we spent some time away form the rain learning more about the animals and ecosystem in the park.

Later in the afternoon we left Denali National Park and headed east, on Denali Highway. Denali Highway is a dirt road and rated as one of the most spectacular drives in the world. It also turned out to be a popular choice for RVs and campers to spend a night or a few days along the road. The weather got better, and the evening couldn’t be more beautiful. On a side road with a beautiful view over the lakes and mountains around, we found our spot for the night. This would be our first time camping IN the car (and not next to the car), and sleeping in the back of an SUV turned out to be surprisingly comfortable. Bonus points for giving us a bit of extra protection in bear country and having a roof during breakfast on a rainy day, next morning.

A photo posted by Simina (@siminuk) on

Day 3 - Discovering Alaska

We woke up on a heavy rain and after a warm breakfast we continued the drive on Denali highway. We couldn't see much around, but we could guess that it must be amazing. Despite the rainy beginning of the day, the weather improved and this days became one of my favorite days in Alaska. The road west towards Wrangell National Park turned out to be a most picture-perfect highway, the typical Alaskan road I was dreaming about. We stopped at Circle F Ranch, a yak farm where the owner and the family gave us a fascinating tour, teaching us about yaks, hunting, Alaska in general and their culture. Meeting good people makes a trip ten times better, and after meeting these people, that’s how the trip got: ten times better, to say the least. Following their advice, we continued the drive further east to the town of Chitina, where we got a glimpse into the life of local salmon fishermen.

Yaks
Baby yak, mamma Yak, and the ranch owner.

On the way to Valdez, where we would spend the night, we stopped at Worthington Glacier. A really nice hike to the glacier, picture-perfect blue ice and a lot of information about glaciers and their "life".

Worthington Glacier
Blue ice at Worthington Glacier <3

Valdez was rainy and foggy, but the Alaskan experience continued, as we’ve seen a huge bear next to the road, heard the 4th of July fireworks (it was too foggy to see anything) and even tried our luck with Salmon fishing, together with our neighbors from the campground.

Day 4 - More glaciers, ice bergs & kayaking

We celebrated 4th of July with a kayaking & hiking tour at the Valdez Glacier. Kayaking among icebergs is pretty cool, and hiking on the glacier was also nice.

Valdez Glacier
Kayaking in Alaska, quite different compared to kayaking in Hawaii :D

Once the kayaking tour was over, we continued the day with a long and beautiful drive to Anchorage. The road was twisty and in good condition and great for driving, but the views so amazing, it made it difficult to decide whether to drive faster to enjoy the road, or slower to soak in the views.

Valdez
Pretty Valdez Harbor, not pretty Valdez weather

Day 5 - Rain, museum and Good bye Alaska

For the last day, we had in plan to go to Kenai Fjords National Park, but the weather didn’t agree with our plan. Instead, we spent most of the day at the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage. It was eye opening and I am glad I got to learn a bit about the native alaskan people, their lives and culture. Local people are there to tell stories, show dances and answer questions, and spending a few hours was a great ending to our trip.

Valdez
Our itinerary, powered by Google Maps! (http://bit.ly/29zWYBz)

What a great trip this was, I loved every bit of it! (OK, except some of the roads that got me car-sick and a bit too much rain). Can’t wait to go again next summer, discover the backcountry, hopefully get to see Mount McKinsley and trek on some blue glaciers.

And, if you got to read this post all the way to the end, you might ask yourselves the following:

  • How about showers? Campgrounds usually have hot showers, and even when sleeping in the car - there are showers in campgrounds even for non-campers. They cost about $5 and are great!
  • Isn’t sleeping in the car cold and uncomfortable? We had sleeping pads and warm sleeping bags, so no, it was really comfortable - even for somebody 6” tall.
  • How much of driving was the trip? All in all, around 1200 miles over 5 days. However the roads where so nice and the views amazing, so it didn’t feel that much. (http://bit.ly/29zWYBz)
  • Was it cold? Anywhere between 10-20C, (50-70F). Cold for summer days, but overall not super cold, not even for me.

Funny enough, two of my favorite places in USA turn out to be Kauai Island in Hawaii and Alaska. Quite a difference :)

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