Seward to Denali

Prince William Sound

It was more than ten years back when I first came to the United States. I stepped out of the airport. The first thing that caught my eye once I hit the road was the state nicknames listed on car license plates. Some are tongue-in-cheek tagline like “Taxation without representation” for the District of Columbia; some celebrate the state icon like “the grand canyon state” for Arizona. But one that I found most fascinating was Alaska - “The Last Frontier”; it rang a mystical tone. Shows marveling the Alaskan wilderness were frequent in National Geographic channel. But, there is something more than just wildlife, which makes Alaska a magical place. Perhaps, it was Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia that made me drawn to this enchanting land. How does it feel when it is daylight for more than 20 hours of the day? Since then, it was always on the top of my “to-go” list! Here is a story of our journey through the magical last frontier.

Planning your Alaska trip:

• Air, land, or water? First thing you need to decide while planning your Alaska vacation. Each has its pros and cons.

• Water, aka Alaskan Cruise, is trendy among travel enthusiasts. Not only does it offer views of the beautiful glaciers and fjords from the comfort of your room, but it also enables you to visit islands such as Juneau, which is not accessible by road from either Anchorage or Fairbanks. Alaskan cruises leave from San Francisco, Seattle, and Vancouver.

• Smaller islands such as Sitka or Kodiak are accessible only by flights. But be prepared to break your bank for flight tickets.

• Alaska has fantastic railroad service. This is an excellent option for people who don’t want to drive but reluctant to pass up all the breathtaking vistas the road offers. Anchorage is connected with Seward, Fairbanks, and Whittier - all the prime tourist destinations by train. Usually, train tickets are costly, but you have the luxury to stretch your legs and enjoy the beautiful scenery.

• A combination of land and air is the most economical choice. All the US major cities are connected to Anchorage or Fairbanks. Anchorage is an excellent base for summer excursions. For winter visits, such as northern lights sightseeing, Fairbanks is a preferable option due to its proximity to the Arctic circle. Both of these airports house all major car rental companies.

Our journey started in Anchorage. We drove southeast to Seward via Turnagain arm. From Seward, we went north to Whittier, then further north to Denali and looped back to Anchorage. Unfortunately, due to lack of time, we missed out on Fairbanks and the Arctic circle. The Arctic circle is a long and arduous drive from Fairbanks. Dalton Highway, the road connecting Fairbanks and Arctic circle, is a gravel road worn down by the extreme weather of this area. Rentals cars are usually not permitted on unpaved roads leaving private tours the only option.

Portage glacier

Day 1:

The drive from Anchorage to Seward along the Seward highway is otherworldly; it offers spectacular views of Turnagain arms shorelines in the backdrop of Chugach mountains. A quick cautionary note - Seward highway has no gas stations, only a couple of food joints and fewer restrooms. Though it was only two hours’ drive, we made almost a full day out of it.

Portage Valley was the highlight of our journey, but there were several lookout points along the sprawling flats of Turnagain arm that are worth stopping by.

McHugh Creek recreation area was our first stop on our trip from Anchorage to Portage Valley. It is a day-use area where a short walk from the parking lot took us to a viewing deck that offers a stunning view of the dramatic coastline of Turnagain arm on one side and that of a beautiful waterfall on other side. It was a perfect introduction to the last frontier!

Next, we did a quick stopover at Beluga point, which provided yet more panoramic views of Turnagain Arm. Beluga point gets its name from the “Beluga”(Russian for white) whale, which visits the Turnagain arm from mid-July to August to molt. While we were not lucky to catch a glimpse of these uniquely white colored whales with melon shaped heads, this is the best place to spot them.

Further east of Beluga point, Bird point park is another excellent spot to spend some time. Popular among locals for Silver Salmon fishing, it also has campgrounds, hiking trails, and viewing platforms that allowed us to be stunningly close to the shoreline.

Portage Valley, our last stop of the drive was the highlight of Seward Highway. Begich Boggs Visitor Center, located on the northwestern shore of Portage Lake, is the gateway to the Portage Valley. Short trails behind the visitor center offer beautiful views of the lake. Portage glacier cruise is the most popular activity here. Though, I must say that “Cruise" is a kind of hyperbole! A forty-five-minute ride in an unadorned vessel is far from the definition of the cruise I had in my mind. Tickets are available at Portage Glacier Day Lodge, a couple of minutes’ drive from the visitor center. This day lodge also houses a cafe that serves continental breakfast items and hot beverages. A US Forest Service officer explained the geology and ecology of this place as we had our first encounter with icebergs and famous glaciers of Alaska. While the boat navigated around floating icebergs and cruised towards the towering wall of Portage Glacier, we marveled at the view of mountains, waterfalls, and streams from the top deck of the MV Ptarmigan.

We had some extra time and decided to hike Byron Glacier Trail that starts from the visitor center area. This is a mostly flat trail alongside Byron Creek, which originates from the Byron glacier. As we got closer to the glacier, the forest thinned out, the ruggedness of the terrain was more apparent, and we encountered this big sheet of ice with a beautiful gradient of white and blue from top to bottom. The top layer of the Glacier was white from the fresh snowfall. The lower part had this beautiful blue hue due to compressed snow that squeezes out air bubbles and thus does not interfere with the passage of light.

We grabbed lunch at the cafe and headed out to Seward before making one quick stop at Turnagain Pass, the highest point in the Seward highway. Turnagain Pass has parking areas on either side of the roads. Several hiking trails go through the surrounding green lush meadows full of wildflowers. We reached our final destination at Seward, the Kenai Fjords National Park in the late afternoon.

This is a vast national park, mostly accessible by water only. A small part of the park, Exit Glacier area, is accessible by car. This national park is home to the Harding ice field, one of the largest ice fields in the USA. Harding ice field trail is a popular hike in the park, but it needs at least half a day. Though this part of the world has daylight till midnight, being a bear country and the misfortunes of Hugh Glass still fresh in my memory, this was no place for heroics! Instead, we decided to hike the glacier loop trail, which starts from the visitor center. It is a well-maintained trail that provides excellent panoramic views of Exit Glacier emerging from the Harding Ice field. We wanted to explore the area a bit more after finishing the trail, but the national bird of Alaska, aka “Mosquitoes,” forced us to call it a day!

  • Bird point - Turnagain arm
  • Portage Lake

Day 2:

Cruise is the only choice for exploring the Kenai Fjords National Park. Kenai Fjords tour company offers different day trips - “Kenai fjords national park tour” and “Fox island tour” are two of their best-sellers. We had a reservation for Northwestern Fjord tour, an offbeat but the most expansive trip offered by them. It took us to the remote northwestern part of the Kenai Fjords, which is home to three tidewater glaciers: northwestern, anchor, and ogive glacier.

We started our journey from the Seward harbor, cruised through Resurrection bay, had a quick stop at Fox Island, and navigated through rugged bluffs, alpine glacier, and marine wildlife to Northwestern Fjord area. We didn’t have time, but a day trip to Fox Island looked very enticing. You can either relax at the Fox island day lodge and marvel at the beauty of the fjords or go for a walk at the beach of Halibut Cove. The Fox island trip also includes a mouth-watering lunch buffet of Alaskan salmon and prime rib. Once the boat left Fox island harbor, breakfast was served; cinnamon rolls and a fruit cup, quite a contrast to the sumptuous meal offered on the other tour. However, our sad-looking breakfast was compensated by the visual buffet of wildlife outside. Tufted puffins and seagulls were everywhere. Puffins are migratory birds; they fly to Japan or California during winter. But, in the summertime, their home is in Alaska. We also saw plenty of marine animals - Whales, Stellar sea lions, harbor seals, and otters. Seward was bright and shiny but as we navigated deeper into oceans, it quickly became dark, frosty, and foggy. Not ideal for photography, but it complemented the landscape well! Bad weather caused rough water, which invariably led to seasickness. Luckily, we had an excellent crew. They advised me to sit outside on the deck, get some fresh air, and take small sips of Ginger Ale. That worked like magic! Around the afternoon, we reached Northwestern glacier. where the Captain turned off the engine. Our boat stood still in the middle of icebergs with pin-drop silence. The only sound was that of the crackling icebergs and loud thumps of avalanche high up in the mountain. Otters added some comical relief, they kept playing hide and seek in the icy water. I saw them relaxing on the icebergs in a “sunbathing” mode, with no sight of the sun at all. Fascinating to see how these animals adapt to their environment and make the most out of it! On our way back, the crew had the tradition of making iceberg drink. They hauled a piece of ice from the ocean and made margaritas with them. Being a teetotaler, I didn’t have to wonder what phytoplankton and zooplankton I am consuming with the drink! Coming back to Seward was uneventful. The adrenaline rush was over, and most of the people decided to take a quick nap. We were Back to Seward by evening.

There was still plenty of daylight, and we decided to head towards the Alaska Sea-life Center, an aquarium focused on Alaskan marine animals. A moderately sized facility, but thoroughly enjoyable and educational. The puffin enclave warrants an honorable mention. They were left in an open place, and we watched those tufted puffins real up close. They also had an exhibit where visitors can hold different varieties of sea stars, which was pretty fun! The center also rescues and rehabilitates wildlife and visitors can watch these animals recuperating. The day we visited, there was a cute sea lion undergoing a rehabilitation procedure. Since it started raining after our aquarium visit, we decided to call it a day.

Day 3:

We headed to Whittier, a quiet port town tucked between picturesque mountains . Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel—the longest (2.5 miles) combined vehicle-railroad tunnel in North America, is a one-way underpass that connects Whittier and Portage. Cars leave on the half-hour TO Whittier and go on the hour FROM Whittier. Careful timing is needed so that you are not stranded for an hour by missing the window.

We pre-booked a cruise trip from Whittier. It was a bright sunny day; our boat left Whittier and cruised through the passage canal and reached Prince William sound. True to its nickname, the “land of the glaciers,” Prince William Sound is home of towering glaciers along with dense spruce forests teeming with wildlife - sea otters, harbor seals, stellar sea lion, and dolphins. But the star of the show were the playful Dall’s porpoises jumping alongside our boat and sights of an orca. We cruised through Esther’s passage, a narrow passage lined with lush green walls, and ended up in the Harriman Fjord to see Surprise glacier. Surprise glacier is the most active tidewater glacier in Prince William Sound. Hearing nothing but the echoes of ice calving (breaking of ice chunks from the edge of a glacier), was truly a transcendental experience.

We were back to Whittier port by late afternoon. Whitter is a small fishing town, one you can walk from end to end in 15 minutes. I entered the address of our hotel into my GPS, which took us to a bar cum restaurant. Perplexed, I decided to go to the bar and asked for directions to the hotel. Turned out that that the bar is the reception for the hotel. Our hotel room was in the ONLY residential building in the town - a 14-story building called Begich Towers. The entire village lives under one roof, and the top 3 floors of the building are rented to travelers! The lobby had photographs chronicling the history of the building from world war II to current day. This building served as army barracks. Just behind the building and visible from our hotel room was a euphonious waterfall splaying onto the rocks.

After dinner, we went for a short walk to the waterfall. As always, the abundance of mosquitoes deterred us from staying any longer, but the sound of the cascading water lulled me into one of the deepest slumbers I have had in a long time.

Day 4:

We had a long day of drive ahead of us - 300 miles north to Denali national park. The landscape was monotonous once we left Whittier, reminding me of the American Midwest.

Our only stop on the road was Talkeetna - the hub of glacier flights. Glacier flights are great for a birds-eye view of the awe-inspiring landscape of icefalls, glaciers and icy peaks of the Denali range. Some trips (costs extra of course!) even land on the glaciers and let travelers explore for half an hour or so. There are different flight routes. “Summit” flight is the best where the plane will fly above 20,000 feet over Mt. Denali. We climbed onto a 10-passenger de Havilland Canada DHC-3. These bush planes are not technologically advanced and require immaculate flying conditions. As the weather started turning bad, our pilot decided on a different route which was no less impressive with endless glaciers and massive peaks. It was, indeed, a surreal experience!

Day 5:

Denali national park centers around the tallest mountain peak of North America, Mt. Denali, which in the native Athabaskan language, means “the tall one” referring to this towering peak.

This park is connected by 92-mile long Denali Park Road, which travels through low valleys and high mountain passes running parallel the Alaska range. The Denali Park road begins at Parks highway and ends at Kantishna. Only the first 15 miles of Denali Park road is paved and accessible by private vehicles. The rest is open only to Denali national park shuttle buses. There are two kinds of shuttles buses that are available - narrated bus tours and hop-on-hop-off transit buses. Narrated tour buses, as the name suggests, provide drivers chronicling the journey along the park road describing the wildlife and landscapes. It also includes lunch. Transit buses are significantly cheaper and do not provide food. However, in my experience, drivers in transit buses are also very knowledgeable about the Alaskan wildlife and point out interesting plants and animals to watch for. They also make several stops during the drive to enable the tourists to observe wildlife closely. We saw Grizzly bears, Caribou, moose, doll sheep, coyote, marmots, pika, and arctic ground squirrel - to name a few. Grizzly was the main attraction, and I didn’t know that Grizzly bears could be blonde! We purchased transit bus ticket up to Wonder lake, the penultimate stop on the Denali Park road. During summer, high season for the park, purchasing the bus ticket in advance is highly recommended. Buses depart from Denali bus depot.

The first 15 miles up to Savage river is surrounded by thick spruce and taiga forest. On a clear day, Denali is visible from Mile 9. Unfortunately, Denali was hidden under clouds for the entire day we were there.

The first couple of stops, Sanctuary River, and Teklanika rest stop offer panoramic views of the wide riverbed. As the elevation increased, changes in the landscape were noticeable - tundra started replacing taiga.

The next break was Polychrome overlook which, true to its name, offered a stunning kaleidoscope of colors formed by volcanic rocks.

The road crossed the Toklat river at mile 52, an excellent place for wildlife viewing.

A short climb from the valley and our bus reached Stony hill overlook. On a clear day one can see the entire Denali peak from the summit down to its base from this spot.

Eielson visitor center is the main outpost on this road. It offers breathtaking views of massive peaks of alpine range and glacial rivers. Located in the Eielson Bluffs, this visitor center is partly tucked into the hillside below the level of the park road. Two major trails start from Eielson - Tundra loop trail, which goes downhill through the tundra to McKinley river. The other popular trail is the Thorofare ridge trail, which starts from the other side of the road. It was a steep and moderately strenuous hike that offered a beautiful view of the Alaska range in the backdrop of Denali Park road.

By late afternoon, we reached Wonder lake, another gem of Denali. The Denali bus ride was one of the most splendid experiences that I have ever had in my entire life.

Day 6:

Our penultimate day in Alaska.

We planned to stay at Denali until lunch before heading out for Anchorage. Denali is the only national park with four-legged park-rangers! Sled dogs are an integral part of the machinations of Denali. They work equally hard to protect the wilderness of this park since the 1920s. Dog sled teams assist in patrolling the park during winters. In summer, the kennel is open to the public, and park rangers offer demonstrations with these dogs. Shuttles are available from the visitor center. Presentations are given three times daily -10 AM, 2 PM, and 4 PM. This one-of-a-kind, 30-minute program includes a demonstration of sled driving, and an opportunity to tour the park kennel and interact with the Alaskan huskies. I was surprised at the efficiency of these dogs in getting ready for sleds and at the speed they pull those sled cars. These big, awe-inspiring dogs still loved a good tummy rub, and we obliged!

After lunch, we did a bit of hiking near the Savage River. The savage river loop trail, a 2 mile mostly flat trail travels along either side of Savage River, offers beautiful views of the Alaskan range alongside the river. By the time we finished the hike, it was time to say goodbye to Denali, and we headed to Palmer, 50 miles north of Anchorage.

Untitled photo

Day 7:

Our last day at Alaska. We are supposed to catch the red eye back to San Diego which means we still have an entire day to explore.

The first destination of the day was Independence mine state historic park. The drive from Palmer from Independence mine state historic park was magnificent. The road travels through the fishhook forest area, where it parallels the Little Sustina River. With car windows open, the constant sound of the gurgling river was blissful. We stopped in between, walked along the river, and breathed the fresh morning air.

After 30-45 minutes, Hatcher Pass was visible from the road. The most iconic view of Hatcher Pass is the red huts of Hatcher Pass lodge. Surprisingly, given its location amid the Alaskan wilderness, this lodge was very reasonably priced. The state park is centered around the now-defunct gold mine in a beautiful natural setting. It was part of the famous gold rush in the early 90s. At its peak, they employed 200+ miners and produced more than 30K ounce of gold. After mining nearly 6 million dollars' worth of gold, Independence mine was finally closed as gold mining started being unprofitable. In the late 1970s, it was designated an Alaskan state park. There are several beautiful trails in this area that lead to alpine lakes and spectacular views. Due to limited time, we chose a short 1.5-mile loop trail.

After the hike, we grabbed a cup of coffee from the Hatcher Pass Lodge and headed out to Musk ox farm, our next destination. Musk Ox farm is a non-profitable farm located just outside of Palmer. Started in the 1950s, today it houses more than 50 oxen on the farm. We took an interpretive guided tour that lasted for an hour. The Musk ox is an arctic animal, native of Greenland and Canadian arctic. They are named as such for the musky smell that they release during mating season. They inhabited the Arctic for thousands of years, and their long ruffled hair is well adapted to the freezing climate. They have two layers of hair, the bottom layer, Qiviut, produces fine wool. Harvesting Qiviut is a significant source of income for them. Though they look pretty docile and lethargic by appearance, during our guided tour, one male started charging toward us (no worries, they were within barrier) and the guide told us that they can reach speeds of about 50 km per hour! Turned out, it was one of the hottest days in the history of Alaska, and being an Arctic animal that heat was no fun for them, and they were being a bit temperamental!

Our last stop before heading back to the airport was Eureka. We drove through Glenn highway north, which runs along the Matanuska River. Matanuska Glacier is the largest glacier accessible by car in the United States and feeds the Matanuska River. The glacier is connected to Glenn highway by an unpaved road that crosses private property, and therefore owners of this property charge an entrance fee. There are also several turnouts on the Glenn highway that offers an excellent view of the glacier that does not cost any money. The Glacier viewpoint had the best view. Eureka Lodge, a gas station and a couple of shops sum up the town of Eureka. The restaurant at Eureka Lodge was surprisingly excellent. No frills sandwich and burgers, freshly made and delicious.

We took a final look at the glacier, endless valleys and wildflowers from our way to the airport and whispered a fond adieu to Alaska.

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