Absolutely love these photos!
And the video was awesome!
Absolutely love these photos!
And the video was awesome!
Hi Peter. I'm absolutely loving the report and photos and that video gave me goosebumps, unbelievabley awesome !! Alaska is on our bucket list and something we hope to do in the next 3 or 4 years, so I'm really looking forward to more!
Wow, what an adventure !!
It's great to hear you're enjoying it as much as I am writing it and going through our photos.
Today is scheduled as an A-to-B day. We’re heading north to lodging just outside Denali NP in preparation for tomorrow’s long day in the park. After breakfast at the Roadhouse (a Talkeetna institution, built in 1917 and opened for food and lodging in 1944), we make our way back to the Parks Highway and head north.
The success of tomorrow’s Denali trip has been hanging in the balance in recent days, heavy rains having closed the road into the park, but we’ve heard that it’s now been reopened and the closer we get towards the park, the more promising the signs become. Yesterday’s clouds have disappeared completely and over to our left we catch glimpses of a very large mountain that begins to dominate the western skyline.
Given all we’ve heard ahead of our trip about only one in three visitors getting to see Denali in its full glory, unobscured by clouds, we resist getting too excited at first. After all, there’s more than one high peak in Alaska. But as each mile passes it becomes increasingly clear that we’ve fallen very lucky indeed. This is Denali on a perfect day and the closer we get, the more people we see pulled over at the side of the road capturing the view on their cell phones.
So instead of stopping for lunch and missing what we’re later told is the first clear day in weeks, we drive straight to the park, buy a very expensive sandwich and bottle of water, and jump on the free shuttle that travels between the Visitor Center and Savage River at Mile 14.
This two hour round trip (it’s slow going with numerous stops and a short break before returning) provides a perfect introduction to Denali: as well as views of the mountain we see moose and caribou along the way.
There’s an easy 1.7 mile loop trail at Savage River that takes about an hour but yesterday was a long day so we take the same bus back and head for our accommodation for the next two nights, the Grizzly Bear Resort.
No lodging within spitting distance of Denali can remotely be described as economical and this is no exception, but it did seem to offer the nearest to ‘value for money’ of all the places we looked at. It’s situated a few miles south of the main drag of hotels, restaurants and gift shops clustered directly outside the park entrance but, for us at least, this was part of its appeal. On-site food outlets are limited to a couple of ok looking food trucks in the car park but there’s a good bar and restaurant just over the road at Denali Park Village, a five minute walk away.
Heading north on the George Parks Highway
Denali from Parks Highway
Caribou by Savage River
Last edited by Southwest Dave; 02-12-2020 at 09:07 AM.
We’re booked on the Denali Backcountry Adventure today, an all day (13 hour) guided bus trip taking in the full 92 miles of the park road and back again. We’re picked up at 6:00 am and after collecting passengers from other hotels, enter the park about an hour later.
Our driver guide is Anna and she explains the procedure. Her job is to get us there and back in one piece so it’s best if she keeps at least one eye on the road. Our job is to spot wildlife. If we see anything – or think we see anything – we are to shout “Stop the bus! Bear / Moose / Rabbit (as appropriate) at 11 o’clock!”
As it transpires, both Carole and I prove to be appallingly bad at this; neither of us is the first to spot anything. Fortunately, there are a number of eagle-eyed hunters on board who are able to distinguish a rock from a feeding elk a mile or more away so our day is one of frequent loud shouts and sudden stops. Invariably this is followed by me peering through binoculars and telling Carole that I really can’t see anything until she patiently points out a feature on the landscape that eventually guides my eyes towards the beast that everyone else has been looking for the last 20 seconds.
We see numerous moose, elk, and caribou throughout the morning and Anna keeps up a constant – and entertaining – commentary on what we’re seeing and the park in general. Yesterday, she tells us, was the best view of Denali she’d seen in her seven years at the park, a day so clear and the mountain so sharp, that she’d been moved to tears. And today is just the same, with crystal clear views all the way through until early afternoon when a few wispy clouds begin to develop around the summit.
If the mountain is the main attraction, spotting a grizzly runs it a very close second and a few hours into the journey we hear our first “Stop the bus – bears at 3 o’clock!” They’re some way off, scrabbling for food under rocks on a steep hillside, but sure enough, there are our first grizzlies of the day. Other follow but, it has to be said, always a little too far away to engender anything more than a buzz of satisfaction.
Lunch is a buffet at the end of the road and we then have an hour in the fresh air with a choice of activities. I go gold panning while Carole opts for a short guided hike; each activity proves about as successful as the other. All I find is dirt, while Carole’s walk doesn’t take place at all due to a medical emergency requiring the attention of the guide.
The return journey is just as interesting as the outbound leg, possibly more so as, while assisting with the emergency, Anna manages to acquire a deep gash to her hand. This requires constant re-bandaging by passengers concerned for her welfare (and also I suspect, out of self preservation: the last thing you want is a blood-slippy interface between bus and driver as she negotiates scarily tight switchbacks with almost sheer drop-offs).
Despite very obviously requiring medical attention herself, Anna continues to respond to any animal sightings although, as the afternoon progresses, we agree to keep moving for elk and caribou. Only when the cry comes up “Stop the bus! Grizzly at 4 o’clock!” do we once again pull over and sure enough, there he is, no more than maybe 50-60 yards away, turning over logs in search of protein-rich insects.
It’s the icing on the cake of a great day out – what everyone was hoping for – and we spend the next 10 minutes engrossed as we watch him forage on the low hillside, seemingly oblivious to our presence.
Then slowly we make our way back out of the park, tired and ready for a beer but satisfied that all the boxes have been ticked (we didn’t see wolves but hadn’t expected to anyway). It’s nearly 8:00 before we reach our hotel (first pick-up, last drop-off), but Anna still has to go to the emergency room before returning home, cleaning the bus and getting it ready to collect tomorrow’s adventurers. It can’t be a bad life, getting paid to spend every day looking for wildlife in Denali National Park, but she sure earns her money!
Early morning, Denali National Park
Denali from Stony Hill Overlook
The end of the road
Tight curves on the way back
Stop the bus, griz at 4 o'clock
Last edited by Southwest Dave; 02-12-2020 at 09:08 AM.
From the moment we landed in Alaska almost a week ago, we’ve enjoyed almost unbroken sunshine, usually warm enough to sit outside for lunch and dinner. Today though, we wake up to rain, set off in rain, and arrive in rain. As this a primarily a driving day it’s not a major problem and the experience somehow feels very ‘Alaskan’.
The same can be said of our breakfast venue, Rose’s Café, heading north out of Healy on the (George) Parks Highway. Its presence is announced on a hand-painted old trailer unit by the side of the road and the battered cars and deep-looking puddles in the parking area out front do little to alter the impression of this being something of a rough and ready operation, but inside it’s clean, warm and welcoming, with good food and coffee.
This sense of being somewhere that’s just been nailed together, where a culture of ‘make do and mend’ applies as much to buildings and vehicles as it does to clothes, becomes a familiar theme over the coming weeks, and it’s apparent just how different Alaska is from much of the Lower 48. So many places feel as if people have either only just arrived and haven’t had time to put down proper roots yet, or don’t plan on staying for long anyway, so have decided that it’s not worth investing in something more permanent. Maybe it’s the remoteness. Maybe it’s because Alaskans don’t feel the need for the frills and fripperies the rest of us have grown used to. Whatever it is, it’s for good reason that the state added the slogan ‘The Last Frontier’ to its license plates in 1981.
Our destination is a cabin in North Pole, just outside Fairbanks, about 130 miles north and there’s little to tempt the traveller off the main highway until you reach the town of Nenana. (Na is a common suffix on Alaska place names and means ‘river’.)
We enter town knowing literally nothing about the place, really just delaying our arrival in Fairbanks until it’s time for lunch, so it’s a pleasant surprise to discover that it’s home to not one but two museums: the Alaska State Railroad Museum, housed in the 1923 train station; and the Alfred Starr Cultural Center and Museum, an impressive facility packed with information and exhibits on the local Athabascan culture.
There’s also a sign highlighting the town’s place on the Iditarod map. The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is an annual endurance event that runs from Anchorage to Nome on the western Bering Sea coast. Mushers, both men and women, drive teams of between 12 and 16 dogs, and the winner will complete the 1000 mile course in around eight or nine days It captures the imagination and attention of the state like perhaps no other sporting event in the world. The only thing I can think of that comes close is the Tour de France. To its obvious pride, Nenana was the 1st checkpoint in 2003, 2015, and 2017.
The fourth and probably most famous attraction in town is the Nenana Ice Classic. Every winter, when the Tanana River freezes, the official wooden tripod (something of a misnomer as it actually has four ‘legs’) is placed on the ice and connected to an on-shore clocktower. In spring, when the ice starts to melt and the tripod moves 100 feet downriver, the line breaks and the clock stops. People pay a couple of dollars to guess the date and time when the clock stops and the closest tickets wins. The event began as a wager between railroad men in 1917; today it attracts global interest and the pot will top $300,000.
Our interest in Nenana satisfied, we head into Fairbanks for lunch. Now, I know no city looks its best in the pouring rain and we almost certainly fell unlucky with our choice of diners (yes, multiple; the food in the first was so bad so we leave it almost untouched), but our very brief experience of Alaska’s second largest city fails to engage us. So instead of exploring, we drive on to North Pole, 15 miles away, and the beautiful cabin we’ve booked on the bank of Chena Slough.
We did have time over the next couple of day to come back and have another look around but there always seemed to be something more interesting to do. Our loss, I’m sure.
Rose’s Café, Healy
North on Parks Highway
Nenana Ice Classic 'tripod'
Coffee stop at Gold Hill Express, just south of Fairbanks
Last edited by Southwest Dave; 02-12-2020 at 09:08 AM.
This is wonderful! We did it the easy way, an Alaskan cruise with land package that started in Fairbanks then went to Denali for several nights before heading down to Whittier to catch the ship. I remember seeing some of these places along the way. Great to see up close pictures.
Our base for the next two days is the cutesily-named North Pole, famous for its Santa Claus House and festive street names such as Snowman Lane, Holiday Road, and Kris Kringle Drive. Even the law enforcement officers drive around with cartoon snow graphics applied to the top of the POLICE lettering on their patrol cars.
You might well imagine – as I did – that it had taken its name from the Santa Claus House, developing as a town to service what is certainly its No.1 visitor attraction, but it was actually the other way around. The area was first homesteaded in 1944 by Bon and Bernice Davis, and initially took on their family name. Within a few years though, the Davis’s moved on and the new owners renamed the place North Pole in the seemingly optimistic hope that a toy manufacturer might want to open a factory and advertise its products as ‘Made in North Pole’. Or, even more ambitiously, that someone might be inspired to create a Santa Land, a chilly, snowier version of Disneyland.
The fact that Santa Claus himself decided to relocate here in 1952 and has attracted visitors – and letters – from across the world ever since, would seem to have confounded any sceptics and, in doing so, confirmed their business nous.
Deciding to delay the excitement of sitting on Santa’s knee in August until the next day, we drive out to Chena Hot Springs, a scenic 60 mile journey through dense woodland which every now and then opens up to reveal picturesque lakes. Every single one of them raises a frisson of excitement at the prospect of spotting a moose, its head deep in the water browsing for pondweed and other aquatic vegetation, but there’s nothing doing. I guess if you’ve got hundreds of square miles of wilderness at your disposal, why would you choose to stand near a road?
Chena Hot Springs is very much a resort destination, so if you’re a fan of soaking in remote, undeveloped locations, this is not for you. As well as the outdoor hot springs (18+ only) and pool house, there’s lodging, a reasonable restaurant, and a fairly basic café / gift shop. Other activities include massages, sled dog tours, snowmobiling, aurora viewing, and the like. There’s also an icehouse which features a year round display of impressive ice sculptures.
One tip: if you’re planning to visit both the hot springs and the ice house, do the ice house first; that way you’ll leave Chena with a warm glow inside rather than chilled extremities.
For the rest of the day we sit back and enjoy the comfort and views provided by our riverside lodging, Moose Walk Cabin. A privately owned rental property, this two-story log home combines rustic charm with real comfort and a view over Chena Slough. Sadly the moose that feed in the stream (and give the cabin its name) fail to make an appearance, and the constant rain means the front yard fire ring remains essentially unused throughout our stay (one attempt as soon doused) but I would still recommend Moose Walk unreservedly as a base from which to explore the area.
City of North Pole Police
Chena Hot Springs
Cocktails in the icehouse
Beer - and an about-to-fail fire - at Moose Walk Cabin
Last edited by Southwest Dave; 02-12-2020 at 09:09 AM.
Today has been set aside as a take it easy, no pressure day, time to kick back a little after the excitement of the last few days and take a breath ahead what will be our longest drive of the trip tomorrow.
Unfortunately the rain shows little sign of abating so outdoor playtime is curtailed but this doesn’t get in the way of our first port of call, North Pole’s famous Santa Claus House.
It’s as cheesy and commercial as you’d imagine – outside there’s a 42 foot tall statue of the man himself, the building looks like it made of gingerbread, and inside it’s a mini mall of all things Christmassy – but it makes no claims to the contrary. This is the Santa Claus House: if you’re going to visit, take it for what it is and enjoy it. If you don’t like this kind of thing, go do something else instead.
We enter expecting to take a quick look around for 20 minutes before leaving, maybe picking up a small gift or two. We end up spending an hour or more inspecting trinkets, ornaments and baubles before attempting – without tremendous success – to persuade one another that, however cute that tree decoration might be, it’s unlikely to survive the rest of our journey. Carole even goes as far as to have a photo taken sitting on Santa’s knee, something I’m relieved to look back upon and say is the point at which I draw the line.
The whole experience proves highly addictive; you end up like a kid in a candy store, encountering ever more imaginative ways in which the festive season can be tied to unnecessary but – at that moment – desirable consumer goods. So when I tell the lady who bags up our purchases that I imagine this to be the retail equivalent of crack cocaine, I mean it in a positive way, a compliment to their retail skills, but her expression suggests that maybe I could have expressed it better.
Our second destination of the morning is The Knotty Shop, located about 15 miles south on the Richardson Highway
This is a store dedicated to all things wood, leather and feather and, if you like this kind of thing (we do), you’ll love it. There are carved animals, ornaments made out of antlers, knives, the obligatory dream catchers, native arts, ceramics, and jewelry … in other words a range of typical Alaskan gifts. Some are probably the same as you’d find in cheaper stores but in the main they’re interesting handmade crafts.
There’s also an impressive collection of taxidermy. Most if not all are trophies bagged by members of the family that run the place who, if they’re not overly busy at the time, will be more than happy to tell the tale behind each specimen. And if dead animals aren’t your thing, The Knotty Shop is also famed for its ice cream.
And then it’s back to Moose Walk, our cabin by the river for an afternoon of catching up, tidying bags, preparing dinner, watching a little TV and gazing outside wishing the rain would stop so we could at least enjoy tonight’s first beer outside. The downpour does actually break for an hour in the middle of the afternoon, enough time for me to jump into one of the canoes that come with the cabin and paddle a way upstream before allowing myself to drift back down again on the slow moving current. And as I pull the canoe out of the river, back comes the rain.
The weather could certainly have been kinder to us but this most northerly stopping point on our trip is pretty much perfect: good food, good wine, amazing scenery and the most wonderful location, all enhanced by the welcome and helpfulness of our host Terri (who lives in the house next door).
The Santa Claus House, North Pole
Carole meets Santa himself
Taking advantage of a short break in the rain
A paddle up Chena Slough
Last edited by Southwest Dave; 02-12-2020 at 09:09 AM.
Today begins as yesterday ended so we load up the car in the pouring rain and set off south in a fairly wet and steamy state. Breakfast is at Salchaket Roadhouse and we press on through the puddles and greyness.
Highlights are few and far between but we stop for coffee and nature break in Delta Junction and take a look around the Sullivan Roadhouse Historical Museum. This wonderfully characterful log cabin – the oldest original roadhouse in Alaska’s interior – was built in 1905 and served as a roadhouse on the Donnelly-Washburn winter cut-off, a part of the newly opened Valdez-Fairbanks Trail. It was abandoned in the 1920s and over the following decades survived fire and the constant threat of obliteration by a poorly targeted shell on the adjacent Oklahoma Bombing Range.
In the 1970s, the Army moved it log by log to where it sits today in Delta Junction and it is now home to a large collection of historical artefacts, furniture, clothing and photographs. Even if you only have 10 minutes to spare, it’s worth it – you certainly come away with an idea of how difficult life was in the days of the early pioneers.
Our journey continues on the Richardson Highway, through the spectacular Delta River valley with walls so steep and tall they disappear into the low cloud. Forty miles south of Delta Junction there’s an excellent view of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, the 800-mile, $8 billion tube that transports oil from a pumping station in Prudhoe Bay to the Valdez Marine Terminal. Seeing it close up – and how it literally cuts through the landscape – brings home what a staggering endeavour this was, and makes the fact that the whole thing was built in just three years even more impressive.
We stop for lunch at Meiers Lake Roadhouse (Mile 170), a friendly, welcoming place with good food, a cool-looking bar, lodging, store and full service gas station.
Our drive south continues and gradually the rain lightens before stopping altogether. Even the clouds begin to disappear, revealing hints of blue sky for the first time in four days.
Finally we see the signs for Alaska Highway 10, the Edgerton Highway, and head east towards tonight’s destination, the little town of Chitina.
While by no means a ghost town – population is around the 120 mark – Chitina has a remote and rugged feel to it. It may describe itself as a “gateway” to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, but aside from Gilpatrick’s Hotel with its restaurant and bar, Uncle Tom’s Tavern over the road, and a small art gallery, there’s not much else in the way of infrastructure to support those passing travelling into the park. (So get your gas and provisions in Kenny Lake, which you’ll pass about 10 minutes after exiting the Richardson Highway.)
The hotel is fairly basic – small rooms, no TV – but perfectly serviceable. The restaurant menu is varied and imaginative, covering everything from steaks, pasta and chicken to halibut and crab dishes. Maybe it’s a little too ambitious – we’re not overly impressed with ours – but on-line reviews are without exception positive so it seems we’re the exception in this respect.
Uncle Tom’s on the other hand, more than lives up to expectations. If ever there was a bar that was going to reflect our preconceived ideas of Alaska, this is it. The pool table is hidden under a massive grizzly hide; the walls are covered floor to ceiling with faded photos, guns, trophies, vintage licence plates, and other Alaskana (think localised Americana); seating is up at the bar, and Tom serves us cold cans out of the fridge. It’s been a 300+ mile driving day, we’ve earned it.
Heading south on Richardson Highway in the rain
Milepoint 562 on the 800 mile Trans-Alaska Pipeline System
Alaska Highway 10, the Edgerton Highway
Gilpatrick's Horel, Chitina
Beer time, Uncle Tom’s Tavern
Last edited by Southwest Dave; 02-12-2020 at 09:10 AM.