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  1. #1

    Default Alaskan Adventure: August 2019

    (Planning thread that led to this Trip Report)

    Once again, thanks to everyone who offered advice and suggestions relating to this trip and helped to ensure a truly memorable three and a half weeks. It’s a special place, one that presents challenges as well as rewards – it is most definitely frontier country in places – but a state that (finances permitting!) we will return to in the not too distant future.

    Despite being pretty seasoned road-trippers (this was our 48th state), I confess that I found the whole concept of planning this visit more than a little daunting. Alaska was completely unknown to us and while this lack of familiarity was part of its appeal, it also meant that we started out with a blank canvas other than the fact that we knew we wanted to see Denali.

    So, by way of thanks to those who helped us develop and route and pick out some highlights along the way, and more importantly to create a record of our experiences in case this helps other travellers, I have pulled together a day-by-day diary of our 2019 Alaska Adventure.

    One thing to point out first: This trip was planned and executed on the basis of it being a once in a lifetime visit. We were fortunate enough to have built up sufficient cash to do everything we wanted within reason so it ended up being expensive. Very expensive.

    It’s certainly possible to do things more economically but be under no illusion. Alaska is not cheap. If you want to be able to travel some of the less well-paved highways, you will need an SUV and you will need permission from your rental company to travel these roads. Most of the usual names do not permit their vehicles to be used on the Denali Highway, the McCarthy Road, the Dalton Highway etc.

    As we wanted to visit McCarthy (which can only be reached via a 60 mile gravel road), we booked a Jeep Wrangler 4x4 for three weeks from specialists Alaska 4x4 Rentals and it came to over $4000 (of which nearly $1000 was taxes etc.). You then need to allow for CDW and SLI coverage on top; we arranged ours in the UK through a company called Insurance4carhire .

    You can of course forget these roads and do the trip in something standard but a quick look at the Hertz site suggests three weeks in a standard vehicle would have cost us $2600 for a Compact or $3600 for an Intermediate SUV. If it’s going to cost that much anyway, you may feel, as we did, that a few hundred dollars more is a price worth paying for the flexibility to go further afield. As I say, it’s possible to make savings but you’re unlikely ever to think you’ve got a bargain in Alaska.
    Last edited by Mark Sedenquist; 01-28-2020 at 05:40 PM. Reason: added link to the original thread

  2. #2

    Default Day 1 (Wednesday Aug 8)From the UK to Alaska

    This is essentially just a self-indulgent vent about the arrogance of international carriers so feel free to skip straight to Day 2.

    We booked our flights with Icelandair back in December 2018 – a full 8 months ahead of our trip – and reserved extra legroom on the long haul legs (Iceland > Anchorage > Iceland).

    A week before we’re due to fly, Icelandair inform us that they are using a different plane so we need to rebook our seats. Can we transfer our extra legroom bookings? “Sorry, no.” What about a refund? “Sorry, no. You’ll have to claim that after your flights have been completed”.

    A day before we’re due to fly, Icelandair inform us that our flights have been cancelled completely and they are rebooking us via New York and Minneapolis so our arrival in Anchorage will be in the small hours of the day after we’re due to arrive, not the civilised 16:20 arrival we’d expected.

    An hour later we receive a request to check-in and download boarding passes … for the flights that have just been cancelled. Another call: Hello Icelandair, WTF is going on? “Sorry, I don’t know. But if you have boarding passes you should be fine for your booked flights. Please turn up at the airport as planned.”

    On the day of the flight, check-in / bag drop appears to be some kind of lottery, with certain passengers being bumped and others checking in as normal. We’re among the lucky ones but are advised that, as the aircraft have once again changed, our seat reservations are no longer valid.

    That’s okay on the relative short (<3 hrs) leg from Manchester to Keflavik but more than a little frustrating for the 2nd part of the journey given that we’ve already paid twice for the privilege of a few extra inches. However, here our luck finally changes. As we board in Iceland, it’s apparent that my seat is broken and, yes!, the only spare seats are over the wing … with extra legroom. So we get to stretch at no extra charge and – eventually – manage to wring a refund out of Icelandair (this took until January, a full five months later!).

    And by around 6:00 pm we’re sitting outside the very pleasant Lakefront Anchorage hotel under a baking sun (approx. 80 degrees!), enjoying a beer, and watching the floatplanes take off from the adjacent Lake Spenard. It’s amazing how quickly the trials and tribulations of travel become a distant memory.

    Last edited by Southwest Dave; 02-12-2020 at 09:04 AM.

  3. #3

    Default Day 2 (Thursday Aug 8)Anchorage to Matanuska

    Journey proper starts today. We collect the Jeep from the wonderful Alaska 4x4 rentals (“We know that people choose Jeeps for a reason so don’t worry about minor scratches if you take it down a dirt road. All we look out for are dents and cracked windscreens. Have a great trip.”) and hit the road.

    Our first stopping point is to buy provisions. We pull into a Carrs Quality Center on Gambell Street and, well, all I can say is that it’s the roughest supermarket we’ve ever visited in all our years of USA travel. I ask where the restrooms are and have to be escorted there. The door is unlocked and my guide / warden waits outside, presumably to make sure I’m not shooting up. Cigarettes are kept under lock and key. At the check out desk, another shopper rambles incoherently before walking out.

    This isn’t quite how I’d pictured Alaska. Looking at Govt figures, it would seem that, while on their way up, poverty rates in the Anchorage municipality are actually lower than those of the rest of Alaska, which in turn are lower than the national average. So I guess we just chose the wrong location.

    Leaving Anchorage we head north and stop for a restorative walk along the short nature trail at Eagle River Nature Center. This is more like it. There’s a Beaver Viewing Deck (but no beaver), wonderful scenery, and the reassurance of knowing that if a bear does make an appearance, there are plenty of small children present who would surely represent an easier meal.

    Reaching our destination from here is simply a matter of following the spectacular Glenn Highway north past lakes, through Palmer, alongside the grey glacial water of the Matanuska River, past the spectacular Matanuska Glacier that we will visit tomorrow, to our idyllic cabin – Tundra Rose Cottage at milepost marker 109. Next door is Grand View Café, a fully licensed restaurant owned by the same people, and a great place to end our first day on the road with a brick oven-baked pizza and a few beers.

    Oh yes, the name Grand View. Look out of the window of the café and you do indeed get a grand view of the mountainside opposite, complete with the tiny white dots high up there that are Dall sheep.


    Eagle River




    Glenn Highway



    Matanuska Glacier



    Tundra Rose Cottage
    Last edited by Southwest Dave; 02-12-2020 at 09:05 AM.

  4. #4
    Join Date
    Mar 2016
    Location
    Phoenix, Arizona
    Posts
    384

    Default

    Hey, Peter

    Good show--I've been looking forward to reading about your Alaskan adventures. (Me, and everyone else, I'm sure!) Your report is already bringing back memories. Nice looking Jeep; I'd say you did quite well in your choice of vehicles!

    Rick

  5. #5
    Join Date
    Jan 1998
    Location
    Las Vegas, Nevada
    Posts
    10,366

    Default George gets the well-deserved credit

    Yes, we are looking forward to reading this report.

    George, (glc) provided the impetus and suggestion to move this field report into it's own thread.

    And once it is summer again, Tom will make a trip map and place in this thread.

    Mark

  6. #6
    Join Date
    Dec 2008
    Location
    Melbourne, Australia
    Posts
    7,149

    Default Not only a magic place - Alaska calls you back.

    Peter, you are already bringing back so many memories. I love the Glenn Highway and the Matanuska Glacier region. Must also say, I am so fortunate to have my own vehicle. It goes where I tell it to go, without restriction.

    The first time I went to Alaska (2004) I rented a car in Seattle, and was told I could take it anywhere north of the Mexican border. I'm sure the gentleman did not expect this senior female to take it to Alaska. I never mentioned Alaska to them. No mention of forbidden roads either. I did not learn about that until I got to Alaska. On that first trip I stayed on the main highways, which filled the 18 days I had to make sure I got the car back in time.

    It may be expensive, but no-where near as expensive as the true last frontier - Antarctica! Alaska is a magnetic place.... calling you back. It was good to read in your first paragraph that it is not out of the question. After four trips, two in my own vehicle, I long to take another trip, but alas! I doubt it will happen. All good things must come to an end.

    Can't wait to read more of your trip.

    Lifey.
    Last edited by Southwest Dave; 02-05-2020 at 01:41 PM. Reason: Changed typo at posters request.

  7. #7

    Default

    I've only this minute seen that this has its own thread - thanks for the kind words. I have a few 'days' up my sleeve which I'll post soon and then get back to working through my photos / memories and Carole's daily journal.

  8. #8

    Default Day 3 (Friday Aug 9)Matanuska Glacier to Talkeetna

    An early start for me in the hope of spotting wildlife along the Glenn Highway, leaving my wife Carole to enjoy a couple more hours in our wonderfully cosy little cabin. Nothing doing on the animal front but spectacular light as the sun comes up between the towering mountains.

    To Grand View Café next door for breakfast then back west a few miles to pick up our guided tour of Matanuska Glacier with Nova Alaska Guides. The glacier is only accessible via a private road so there’s a fee to enter and – unless you really know what you’re doing and have the necessary gear – you’ll need to book a trip with one the number of outfits who can take you out there safely.

    The glacier itself is 26 miles long and 4 miles wide – the largest in Alaska that can be reached by vehicle – so a two hour guided trip can only show you a tiny fraction of that but it’s a remarkable experience. You’re guided past crevices, between ice walls and down slopes that would have you horizontal in seconds were it not for the spikes attached to your boots. And despite the fact that there are other groups exploring the same miniscule fraction of the overall glacier, the sheer scale of the place means you may only catch occasional glimpses of them. It’s a photographer’s paradise of course but should be a must-do on any visitor’s itinerary: Alaska Magazine rates it as #2 in its ’49 Places To Visit In The 49th State’.

    Heading to tonight’s destination, Talkeetna, requires us to retrace our steps west along the Glenn Highway to Palmer – no great hardship – then head through Wasilla and north on the Parks Highway. I’d assumed that this 323 mile road took its name from the fact that it runs past Denali National and State Parks (yes, they are two different things) but it’s actually named after one George Parks, governor of the Territory of Alaska from 1925 to 1933. However, according to that font of all knowledge Wikipedia, the aptness of the name was not lost on those who chose it.

    It almost goes without saying that it’s a beautiful drive. Slightly less expected is the continuing pleasant weather of sunshine and blue skies. The only cloud on the horizon – literally and metaphorically – is concern over conditions in and around Denali, where weeks of heavy rain have resulted landslides, causing the park service to close public access beyond mile 30. We’re booked onto a bus that’s scheduled to take us the full 92 miles into the park in three days’ time.

    Talkeetna itself is a real highlight of our trip. It has the air of a rugged and outdoorsy place – the bars and cafes are full of people (servers and customers alike) dressed for a life of climbing, kayaking, off-road biking, that kind of thing – but it’s equally geared up to meeting the needs of those planning less challenging adventures, with a excellent range of restaurants, brew pubs, delis, coffee shops and other such essentials.

    Our room – overlooking main street, directly above the Wildflower Café – is disappointing: the TV and Wi-Fi both fail to work throughout our stay (yes, I know we’re in Alaska and should have better things to do with our time but you know, when it’s advertised…); Carole never trusts the cleanliness of dark coloured towels or bedding; the shower is mouldy; and the freezer is frosted shut. But we stroll down Main Street for a couple of beers at the brilliant West Rib Pub & Grill then back to the Wildflower Café for an even more impressive selection of beers, some excellent wine, and a superb meal of sesame scallops followed by halibut and fries. We love it here.

    Early morning, Glenn Highway



    Matanuska Glacier



    Matanuska Glacier



    Wildflower Cafe, Talkeetna
    Last edited by Southwest Dave; 02-12-2020 at 09:06 AM.

  9. #9

    Default Day 4 (Saturday Aug 10)Denali Flightseeing and the Hurricane Turn Train

    Ever since we’d started planning this trip, I’d been aware that Talkeetna was not only a base for those hardy people who head out to tackle the ascent of nearby Denali by foot / crampon / rope (a challenge that can take as long as 16-17 days – even more if the weather causes delays), but also a center for the slightly softer method of visiting Denali, flightseeing.

    Right up until a couple of weeks ago, I’d hummed and hahhed about the cost before finally convincing myself that we’re only here once. And wow, am I glad I did.

    We booked K2 Aviation’s Denali Flyer with Glacier Landing tour and every single moment from check in and take off to landing back at Talkeetna’s little airport is relaxed, friendly but 100% professional, geared up to making sure everyone feels as relaxed, comfortable, and confident as possible.

    It’s the first time we’ve been in a single engine plane like this – there’s eight of us plus pilot – and any disquiet over clambering into something so small and fragile looking soon evaporates. We are all equipped with headsets and mics so we can hear and communicate with our pilot guide, and after explaining the many and varied safety features of his aircraft – including equipment that will guide rescuers to our location should we happen to go down in the mountains – we’re up and away, heading north towards Denali.

    For the first part of the flight the skies are clear and the views huge but as we near our destination the rain clouds that have been creating so many problems on the ground begin to build and obscure the view. However, as we approach the Alaska Range, we see that far from being hidden, the three peaks of Denali, Mount Foraker and Mount Hunter are breaking majestically through the clouds, appearing to float above a sea of billowing white. The effect is dramatic, moving, and totally unforgettable.

    Our flight takes us between and around them, passing so close to the jagged, snow-covered walls that the peaks themselves disappear out of site far above us. It’s just breathtaking. After assessing the conditions, we’re told that we are going to attempt a glacier landing so we descend into the clouds, trusting our pilot’s skill – and the instruments in front of him – that our next contact with terra firma will be horizontal ice and not vertical granite. Moments later we break through the cloud below, make our landing, and step out onto the glacier. It’s bitterly cold but we all have smiles fixed on our faces. As the clouds are threatening to close in on us, we’re given just a few minutes to take it all in and take our photographs before it’s time to buckle up and take back to the air for the short return flight to Talkeetna.

    It’s a totally exhilarating experience, one that I’d urge anyone to do. It’s not cheap – it’s Alaska – but if you’re there and can find the budget, you won’t regret it. You may not be lucky enough to do it on a cloudy day but I’m sure clear skies are almost as good.

    The second part of our Talkeena adventure takes the form of an afternoon on the Hurricane Turn Train, America’s last flagstop service. Running the 57 miles between Talkeetna and Hurricane Gulch (and back again), it provides access to remote cabins, hiking trails, and hunting destinations. Some stops are scheduled, others are at the request of passengers either on the train on the way out, or standing by the side of tracks looking for a ride into town.

    Truth be told, the majority of passengers are just there for experience and photo ops like us, but it does deliver a sense of how much this part of America remains frontier country to see people unloading the provisions that enable them to live off-grid out here.

    As well as these request stops, the train also pulls over to let faster services pass by, and takes breaks at attractions such as the studio home of children’s illustrator Shannon Cartwright; a salmon spawning river next to a particularly photogenic bridge; and a collection of disused railroad cars at the old town of Curry, at all of which we’re encouraged to disembark and stretch our legs for 10 minutes or so.

    The fact that it’s a slow train with frequent stops (and no buffet service - you bring your own lunch, snacks and - in our case - a couple of cold ones from the the Denali Brewing Co.) makes for a long afternoon – we’re not back in Talkeetna until 7:00 pm – but after the morning’s flight excitement, a bit of slow pleasure provides the perfect contrast.


    Denali from the air



    Glacier landing



    Aboard the Hurricane Turn Train



    Hurricane Turn Train - a rest stop
    Last edited by Southwest Dave; 02-12-2020 at 09:06 AM.

  10. #10

    Default Flightseeing from Talkeetna

    This was our Denali flight ...


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