|With a single day to explore the vastness of Alaska, Megan Edwards skipped the package tours and picked up a rental car. Her solitary road trip along Alaska's Highway 1 reveals America's last great frontier in all its autumn glory -- birch trees, glaciers, moose and all.|
It's difficult to talk about Alaska without overusing superlatives. Of all the states, it has the tallest mountains, the longest coastline and the biggest bears. It's the largest and the wildest, the darkest in winter and the lightest in summer. I was in Alaska recently for a conference, but I had only one day free to experience this vast, majestic and awe-inspiring place; for the rest of my five-day stay, I'd be holed up in a hotel in Anchorage. What would be the best way, I wondered, to spend a single autumnal Wednesday in America's "last frontier"?
Surfing the Web for ideas, I discovered an appealing array of one-day package tours departing from Anchorage. I could tour Kenai Fjords National Park by boat, catch a plane to Fairbanks, or take a train trip into the mountains. In the end, though, it was a single ribbon of asphalt that won me over.
Alaska has fewer miles of paved road per square mile than anywhere in America, but the roads it does have are legendary. Alaska's Highway 1 (Route 9 for the last 37 miles) is a prime example. Heralded as a National Forest Scenic Byway, an Alaska Scenic Byway and an All-American Road, the highway passes through fabulous examples of Alaska's signature scenery on its 127-mile run south from Anchorage to the port town of Seward. It parallels the tracks of the Alaska Railroad most of the way and crosses the Kenai Peninsula before heading down to the coast and Resurrection Bay. As tempting as the package tours were with their offers to pick me up at my hotel and provide me with a lovely lunch, I couldn't resist the siren call of a rental car and a tank of gas.
Although it was fall, I had nearly 12 hours of daylight to enjoy my one-day Alaskan road trip. I set out around 8 a.m. and found I had timed my departure to coincide with the daily rounds of buses delivering children to elementary schools. The buses matched the leaves on the birch trees lining the streets -- bright yellow against an otherwise gray morning.
I headed south out of Anchorage on the Seward Highway, which runs due south to the shore of Turnagain Arm, an offshoot of Cook Inlet. Captain Cook called it the Turnagain River during his quest for the Northwest Passage in 1778 because he was forced to "turn again" in the shallow waters. Captain Vancouver later renamed it -- for accuracy's sake -- Turnagain Arm. It looked like a placid lake the day I was there, but the Arm is famous for its unusual "bore tide," which can cause 10-foot waves and a 33-foot rise in water level as the incoming tide is funneled into the narrow arm of the inlet.
Right where the road meets Turnagain Arm, a sign pointed the way to Potter Point State Game Refuge, and just past that another sign announced that I had entered Chugach State Park. I paused at a view point along the Alaska Railroad tracks to marvel at a huge old railroad snowplow, then continued southeast along the shore past the turnoff for the gold rush town of Girdwood and the Alyeska ski resort.
Spectacular mountains rise both on the far side of Turnagain Arm and on the east side of the highway. The gold of changing leaves covered the lower slopes, and rugged snowcapped peaks soared above. The views were so distracting that I pulled over often to get out of my car and stare. Fortunately, the road has plenty of parking areas, view points, and pull outs -- important because traffic on this route can be a challenge at the height of summer. Signs make it clear that if five cars pile up behind you and you don't pull over to let them pass, you're breaking the law. But on this early October weekday, I doubt that five cars would have piled up even if I'd stopped in the road for an hour. Whether the views are more arresting when you see them in solitude, I can't say. I can say I felt very small.
Just past Portage Glacier, the Alaska Railroad veers away from the highway to head due south along the Placer River as it makes its way across the Kenai Peninsula. The highway takes a slightly more circuitous route along Canyon Creek past Lower Summit and Summit lakes. I moseyed along through intermittent rain showers that would have been depressing if it hadn't been for the multiple rainbows that appeared in their wake. One rainbow would have been lovely, but as the clouds shifted and the sun broke through, I saw double and even triple arcs in the sky. The rain and subsequent sunlight also turned the autumn leaves an even more startling shade of gold. By the time I got to Seward, I felt as though I'd watched a feature-length film about spectacular scenery. "No," I had to remind myself. "It's not a movie. It's real."
After a quick tour of Seward's vintage downtown area and a look at the docks where the cruise ships pull in, I joined a group of construction workers in a grocery store to buy a sandwich and coffee. If there were other tourists on the Seward Highway that day, I didn't see them. Workers, on the other hand, were everywhere, taking advantage of the last few weeks of temperate weather and sunlit days.
As I headed back up the Seward Highway, I realized that I had enough daylight left for one side trip. Three good possibilities were Portage Glacier, Potter Point State Game Refuge and the Alyeska Resort. I think I would have picked the glacier if I hadn't chatted with some locals the night before in the bar at my hotel.
"The Alyeska Tramway is great," a woman had told me. "It's like being on top of the world."
I was wondering, given the dearth of tourists on the road, whether the tramway would be operating. But when I arrived at the resort, it was not only open, but a shuttle bus was waiting to transport me from a parking area to the tramway's depot. Mine was the only car in the parking lot, and I was the only person in the shuttle, but the driver assured me that I'd get a ride up the mountain.
"We're open all year," he said. "Hikers and sightseers in the summer, and skiers in the winter."
And one solo road tripper on the Wednesday in between, I thought to myself.
I bought a ticket, climbed into the large, empty car and waited. Eventually, I was joined by the tramway operator and a cook from the Seven Glaciers restaurant in the lodge at the top of the mountain. Both gave me suggestions about where to stand to see the best views, but it would have been difficult to find a bad one. The tram climbed up the face of Mount Aleyeska, reaching the lodge at 2,300 feet. Turnagain Arm stretched to the west, glittering in the late-afternoon sunlight. Mountains and glaciers were visible in all other directions, and again I had to remind myself I wasn't looking at a fantastic scene from "The Lord of the Rings."
Apparently, I'm not the only person to have this sensation. A hand-lettered sign near a trail heading to a glacier read, "Remember, you are on a mountain in Alaska. Take it seriously." Other signs warned of unexploded ordnance in the area left over from "avalanche mitigation," and I can't say I was sorry I didn't have time for a hike.
Back on the road to Anchorage, I was surprised to find myself slowing behind red taillights. After a day of solitude, I'd actually hit some traffic? But then I saw the antlers. A moose had decided to stand in the road. Eventually he strolled on across, almost managing to avoid getting his picture taken by timing his movements to coincide with those of my car's windshield wipers.
I was back in Anchorage in time for dinner, and the next day my conference began. On Friday, the weather was sunny and perfect, and I couldn't help wishing I had another day and another tank of gas. Not only did I long for more dazzling views of otherworldly scenery, it would have been really nice to get a decent picture of a moose.