If ever you’ve had the thought: “I’d like to go to Alaska someday”…make that someday, today! I think a lot of people overlook a vacation in Alaska because of the expense, or the limited warmer weather, or maybe they think that an Alaskan cruise is the only way one can see enough of the state to make the trip worth it. Well…I am here to tell you that road tripping is the way to go. I won’t sit here and tell you it will be less expensive, or that it will be easy to plan and execute, but what I will tell you is that IT WILL BE WORTH IT.
When my best friend Ashlee and I first sat down to start planning our Alaska trip, the sheer size of the state was overwhelming. We wanted to see so much while we were there, and yet, it seemed as though we would have to choose only a small portion of the state to see, as the landmass is so large, it would require a month’s long vacation to cover it all. In total, I believe it took us over 6 months to plan the entire trip.
After much research and careful consideration, we settled on a road trip style vacation where we could go at our own pace and not have limitations on our travels. Looking back, this was the best decision we could have made. We saw nearly half of the state, saw almost ALL of the wildlife that we had hoped to see, and got to make unscheduled stops in places like Whiskey Gulch Beach where we had a picnic lunch on the beach, overlooking a volcano, bird watching the PUFFINS and having the entire ocean beach to ourselves. Absolutely spectacular. But more about this later….
Our trip started with a non-stop flight from Boston’s Logan airport to Seattle Washington. We stayed in Seattle for 3 days, exploring the city(You can read about our time in Seattle HERE )before catching our flight to Anchorage, Alaska.
DAY 1: Anchorage
After arriving in Anchorage at roughly 10:30am, we picked up our rental SUV, a Dodge Journey, and headed to find some lunch and a grocery store. Road tripping requires food preparations as a way to save time and money. Pack a small cooler with some peanut butter, jelly and bread and hit the road!
Since all 4 of us (Jeremiah, Sean, Ashlee and I) are fans of breweries, we settled on Midnight Sun Brewing for our lunch stop. We were happy with the choice once we settled in for a few cold brews and warm grub. Midnight Sun Brewery had some interestingly named brews: Panty Peeler, Monk’s Mistress, and Pleasure Town just to name a few. The brews were splendid. The food was also a treat. It would end up being the only warm food we ate all day until we pulled in Homer, AK around 9pm and ordered the worlds largest pizza(more on this later).
After a quick bite at the brewery, we stopped into the local Wal-Mart (I know, I know…but we needed Bear Spray) to grab a few essentials: Bear Spray-NOT CHEAP! $38 if I remember correctly, a large styrofoam cooler, a few groceries for snacking during the road trip, and surprisingly enough, a rain coat, as Jeremiah forgot his.
Finally, after a few hours in the bustling city of Anchorage, we were out on the open road, heading South towards Homer, Alaska (approx. 4.5 hours drive from Anchorage) where our first cabin rental was waiting.
We had planned on the drive taking far more than the 4.5 hours expected, because we wanted to feel like we could stop at any point and wander around looking for wildlife. It wasn’t 15 minutes into the drive when we decided to pull off the side of the road onto an old abandoned logging road, park the car, and get out and wander around. The four of us walked approx. 100 yards down the logging road when we stumbled upon a very fresh moose track. It was at this point, that Sean looked around at all of us and said: “Guys, where’s the bear spray?”
What a bunch of knuckleheads we were. We had left the one thing that we really might need to save our lives, back in the car. We had a good laugh about it, but decided to push on anyhow. You gotta live a little, ya know.
As we were getting ready to turn around and head back to the car, Ashlee, using her trusty binoculars, says: “Ummmmmm…..goldilocks???”.
Earlier in the day we had decided as a group that our cue word for the road trip (cue word meaning-STOP THE VEHICLE NOW, I SEE SOMETHING!!) was going to be “Goldilocks”.
And sure enough, up on the mountainside that we were standing on the foothills of, there was a mamma black bear and two cubs meandering down the mountain, stopping to nibble on berries. They were visible with the naked eye, but much more impressive with the zoom of the binoculars. And so just like that, not even a half hour into our road trip we were seeing wildlife. We were pumped up…high on the excitement of nature and Alaska’s unbelievable vastness. We had no idea what was in store for us in the coming days.
The drive South from Anchorage to Homer on Alaska’s AK-1 highway, has long been considered one of the most beautiful drives in all of the United States. Now, having been there, driven the highway and seen the views…I couldn’t agree more! The Kenai Peninsula is awe-inspiring, filled with jaw-dropping views and abundant wildlife. You have coastal views, mountain passes, and turquoise rivers. Seriously, not making this up. I was brought to tears nearly 3 times in the first 3 hours of the drive.
Roughly 2 hours into our drive South, we started winding along this gorgeously green and blue colored river. Kenai River, to be exact. We were passing over a small bridge when Jeremiah yelled from the front seat: “Goldilocks”.
Sean, being our driver for the week, slammed on the brakes, pulled to the side of the road and all four of us jumped out. Following swiftly behind Jeremiah as he crossed the road, jumped over the guard rail and followed a small overgrown trail leading to the river bank, we all saw what he had seen from the road….a Grizzly Bear.
It was a small-medium sized Grizzly Bear casually grabbing and tossing a salmon on the opposite side of the river from where we stood. The bear was playing with the salmon almost kid like. He would grab it in his mouth and toss the 40lb-ish fish into the air and grab it again. What a site to be seen. We were so close that we didn’t need the binoculars. We were all bearing witness to the amazement(no pun intended). Tears of joy streaked across my face, heart-racing, I COULD NOT believe what I was seeing. Is this real life?
After staring at the grizzly for quite some time, we decided to push on. Now that we had gotten a taste of what Alaska had to offer, we wanted to see more.
Kenai Lake was our next impromptu stop. We were driving along down AK-1 when we noticed a body of water with an unbelievable color. We found the nearest, safe place to pull off and we again ventured down a weathered trail which led us to Kenai Lake. A turquoise blue/green lake situated at the base of a few mountains, with breathtaking views. We took a few dozen photos (pictures do not do the color of the water justice) and then headed back out on the road.
About 30 minutes before arriving in Homer, AK, we realized that the options for dinner might be slim as it was nearly 9pm and many local restaurants were closed for the night. Frantically, I searched through my trip-advisor app for some grub that was still available and found Fat Olives
It was late and we were exhausted, so we settled on ordering a pizza to-go and planned on picking it up on our way to the cabin. We had no clue when we ordered our pizza from the menu: “The Really Large Pizza-Take Out ONLY”, that when we picked the pizza up, it was going to be REALLY LARGE, like REALLLLLLLLLY LARGE. The pizza was so big that we almost could not fit the box into our SUV. It was enormous….we had so much left over that I packed it all up and put it into our styrofoam cooler for the rest of the trip to serve as snacks. We ate that pizza for 3 days. Yummmm!
Our first Cabin Rental (Beachside Cabins) was by far our favorite accommodation of the trip. It was quiet, cozy, extremely clean and comfortable. Not to mention that it was situated right on Kachemak Bay across from a glacier. I mean, really! It was spectacular. Donna, the owner, was super accommodating and kind. What a great welcoming to the Halibut Fishing Capital of the World.
After settling in, unpacking the car, putting the luggage in our respective rooms and stuffing our faces with the worlds largest pizza, we decided to take a walk down Kachemak Bay and explore.
Kachemak Bay is a very dark, coal covered, sandy bay with massive tides. When we arrived, the tide was out and so there was endless sand/salt flats to walk out on. One of the first bits of wildlife we saw from our beachside cabin was a pair of coyotes wandering around out on the sand flats, presumably looking for food. Ashlee was diligently using her binoculars to scan the bay from side to side and spotted the young pups playfully strutting along. Sadly, we also saw a sea otter (cutest thing ever!!) but it was not alive and the tide had pushed its corpse to find its final resting place at the base of our beachside staircase. Perspective at its finest.
Day 1 of our Alaska road trip in the bag, with full bellies and warm hearts, we laid our heads down on soft, fresh pillows and dreamt of tomorrows adventures to come.
Day 2: Homer, AK to Eagle River, AK
After a restful nights sleep and some homemade breakfast at the cabin, we decided to pay a visit to the Homer Spit before we headed North towards our 2nd cabin rental.
The Homer Spit is a small, narrow patch of earth that juts out into Kachemak Bay where quite a few shops and eateries have set up shop for tourists to stop in and buy some local trinkets/gifts. Depending on the time of day, there may be a cruise ship docked and allowing its thousands of passengers off for a pit stop, so if you don’t want to wait in long lines, try to time your arrival to the Homer Spit accordingly.
After a quick browse at the local shops, we piled back in the Dodge Journey and headed North. We knew that we had at least a 4 hour drive to get to our next cabin rental, but we alloted the entire day in order make the trek North, as we knew that we wanted to make stops along the way.
One of the first stops we made was roughly 1 hour into our drive north, as Ashlee yelled “Goldilocks” from the back seat. She had seen a female moose feeding in a patch of tall underbrush roughly 60 yards from the side of the highway. It was our first Moose sighting in Alaska, and none of us could believe how large of an animal they really are. We were quite a distance away, so our pictures aren’t the best, but you get the idea. There will be many more moose sightings along our trip that will allow you a much closer look at the majestic beasts.
After gazing at the moose for about 10 minutes, we decided to push on. We had seen a glimpse of a gorgeous beach on the drive down the night before and so we knew we wanted to make a pit stop there and see what the beach had to offer.
It just so happened to be lunchtime when we pulled into the Whiskey Gulch Beach parking lot and so we decided to pull out the cooler and grab a bite to eat while taking in the beach views.
The beach was desolate with the exception of 2 other living souls wandering a few hundred yards down the beach. Ashlee got out her trusty binoculars and within minutes spotted a group of Puffins out in the surf. Puffins were a “Must See” on our list of Alaskan wildlife and so we were happy to check them off the list, although they were quite a distance away.
While munching on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, left over pizza, and cheese and crackers, we realized that across the ocean from where we were sitting, there was a volcano poking out of the clouds. A snow-covered peak that we all assumed was a mountain, was actually a volcano. What a treat!
With our bellies full, and our heads filled with ocean views, we piled back in to the car and North we went.
Rabbit Creek was where our 2nd Moose sighting of the day took place. Again, it was a lone, female moose, out for a nibble. My body trembled with excitement whenever we stopped for wildlife. It never got old. The excitement was palpable.
Another location that Ashlee and I knew that we wanted to stop at was a viewpoint called Beluga Point. There was a large parking area that we had noticed on our drive South from the previous day, and the amount of cars parked in the parking area made us realize that it must be worth stopping for. Of course, with a name like Beluga Point, we were hoping to see a few whales, and although we saw no whales, we did see some breathtaking views. A photograph that was taken of Jeremiah and I at this location, went on to become our 2017 Christmas card.
In the drive between Beluga Point and the Kenai River, we saw 2 bald eagles flying overhead. We were unable to snap a picture as we were on the move, but we saw the majestic birds, none the less.
The Kenai River was where we saw our first grizzly bear on day one. We decided that the river was worth a second stop on the way North and so we parked in the same parking area, walked down the same path as the previous day and again, we saw a grizzly eating salmon. We have no way to know if it was the same bear from before, but its size and location were extremely similar.
This time, when we stopped at the Kenai River, we decided to take off our socks and shoes and dip our toes into the freezing cold, glacier water. The salmon were near dead in their spawning cycle and so they swam eerily close to our feet as we waded into the cold water. Zombie fish is how I refer to the salmon in the Kenai River.
By the time we rolled into Anchorage, it was nearly 6pm and the four of us were famished. We decided to stop and have a sit down meal while we were in the city, before heading onto Eagle River where our 2nd cabin rental was located.
The Rustic Goat was a fairly new eatery that had a packed parking lot. A sure sign that the food is probably pretty good.
The restaurant was packed with people and as we waited for a table, we were surprised to see they had rooftop patio seating, which Ashlee immediately requested. The sun was shining, which it hadn’t done for the first 1.5 days that we were in Alaska, and so we jumped on the opportunity to eat under the evening glow of sun.
The food ended up being spectacular and the brews were also delightful. We ordered the Hummus Platter and Buffalo Cauliflower as apps and took photos of its beauty..but by the time our main entrée’s came, we were so hungry that we forgot to take photos. If ever in Anchorage, do yourself the favor and stop at the Rustic Goat for some good grub.
Once again, with full bellies, we headed North to our 2nd nights rental, Eagle River.
It was nearly 9pm when we got to the cabin, still light outside as the sun doesn’t set until 10:30pm that time of year, and as we pulled into the driveway, adorable bunnies began bounding down the path, dispersing in fear of the humans arriving. As we began to unpack the luggage from the car, a small drone came up over the cliff that was situated in front of the cabin. An unwelcome site, to say the least, we were not impressed. Just as fast as the drone appeared, it disappeared back over the cliff from where it came.
After unpacking the car, and getting settled in, I noticed that the sun was beginning to set and so I sat outside with the mosquitos and snapped a few pics of the gorgeous sunset from the cliff side. After watching the sun set, the four of us played a few hands of cards and popped in the movie Frozen, to which we all promptly fell asleep to. Day 2 complete.
Day 3: Eagle River, AK – Healy, AK
After a restful nights sleep and a quick, homemade breakfast, we were back on the road for wildlife viewing and making our way to our 3rd and final cabin rental, located in Healy, Alaska. Roughly 12 miles from Denali National Park, which was where we intended to spend our entire 4th day in Alaska.
On our drive from Eagle River to Healy, at approx. mile marker 138 on the Parks Highway, we spotted our first Bull Moose. What a LARGE, majestic, animal.
At mile marker 222, we came face to face with a family of 5, that’s right, FIVE moose. 2 cow and 3 babies (even the babies are huge).
Other than the couple of moose sightings, the drive to Healy was pretty uneventful. It was interesting to watch the landscape change as we drove North though, because as we did, the types of trees changed, the landscape became more flat and tundra-ish and it was a nice change in scenery.
We arrived at our last cabin, called Caribou Acres, and were surprised by the overwhelming smell of fish once we stepped inside. The previous renters must have been visiting Alaska for a fishing trip, because the smell was OVERWHELMING. We quickly opened every window and door and lit a few candles to try and alleviate the stench. While we waited for the smell to subside, the guys decided to take a spin on the 2 motor bikes that came with the cabin rental. With the click of the bike helmets, and the roar of the one motor bike which was missing its muffler, they were off exploring the area.
While the men were out exploring and having a hoot of a time on the bikes, Ashlee and I slipped into our bathing suits and took a nice, long, deserving soak in the hot tub on the front deck while sipping cocktails.
After a few hours of relaxing and settling into the cabin, we put our hiking boots back on and headed into Healy(our cabin was located about 3 miles from the village) for a drink and meal at 49th State Brewing. After parking the car in the crowded parking lot, we headed towards the front door to request a table when Jeremiah pointed to our left and said: “Hey, isn’t that the “INTO THE WILD” magic bus?”
Now, I know that you all don’t know me on a personal level, but if you do, by chance, you will understand the level of excitement that ensued, as I realized that indeed, the INTO THE WILD bus was staring back at me in all its glory.
One of my all-time favorite movies, Into The Wild, was taped in Healy, AK and therefore all over town there are references to the movie. In the parking lot of 49th State Brewing, the movie prop bus that they used in the taping of the movie, was on display for all to see. You could walk into the bus and read about Chris McCandless A.K.A. Alexander Supertramp, the main character in the movie, which was based on his life. I took a seat in the famous fold-up chair with which he took his most famous self-portrait, before his untimely death.
When we booked the trip to Alaska, I had no idea that I would be standing in the INTO THE WILD bus. I also had no idea that our Healy cabin was located on Stampede Rd. which makes an appearance in the movie as well. And lastly, our cabin was located less than 5 miles from where they taped a large portion of the movie, which we visited using the motor scooters later.
Okay, okay…back to the brewery. The food was delicious, the brews were cold and delightful and with full bellies, we piled back into the car to head home for some much-needed sleep. But before we could pull out of the brewery parking lot, we noticed a commotion on the left hand side of the entrance and to our surprise, there was a large cow moose munching away on the bushes right next to the road. This was the closest we would come to a moose on the entire trip. Once we pulled up to the side of the road, we were approx. 7 feet away from the animal as it ate, not seeming to care one iota about us watching and snapping pictures.
After watching the moose eat for about 5 minutes, we decided to head home and as we pulled out on the highway from the parking lot, across the street from the brewery, there was a cow and calf galloping down the side of the highway. Moose are everywhere in Alaska. It’s almost unbelievable. It is unbelievable.
What a fantastic way to end day 3 in Alaska.
Day 4: Denali National Park
Our last full day in Alaska was reserved for the exploration of Denali National Park.
We signed up for the shortest available tour that the park had to offer, which to our dismay, was a full 8 hours on a bus, winding down the narrow and sometimes perilous dirt road that ends with a visit to the Eielson Visitor Center, located at mile 66 on the Denali Park Road.
As a visitor to Denali you have virtually endless options for exploring, but when it comes to driving yourself into Denali, Pedestrian cars can only drive to mile marker 15 and if you desire to explore further into the park, you must pay a fee and jump on one of the many buses that Denali offers.
After boarding the bus with lots of water and snacks, we set our sights on the vast wilderness that laid out in all directions and hoped to spot wildlife.
Within the first 15 minutes of the tour, I noticed a bull moose galloping along a far off ridge to the left. We told the driver, who then announced it to the entire bus and as people got out their long-range cameras and binoculars, I was overwhelmed with delight.
After the moose, someone spotted a family of 3 bears meandering down a mountain slope, as well as another 2 bears not far from the first 3. All grizzlies. What a sight!
In addition to the many grizzly’s and moose, we also saw a ton of Northern Shripe, Willow Ptarmigan(the official state bird of Alaska), we saw Dahl Sheep on rocky cliffs, Black Billed Magpies, Northern Hairier, Caribou, and a Hawk Owl.
As a matter of fact, the only animal that we did not get a chance to see during our entire trip was the elusive Wolf. That would have been a treat.
The 2nd to last animal that we saw on our Denali Tour was the largest and closest Grizzly Bear that we would see. He was walking roughly 30 feet from the roadway when we first noticed him. The bus driver brought the bus to a stop and asked everyone to remain perfectly silent. To our surprise, the grizzly decided to walk directly up to the bus, meander around the back side and walk up along the left hand side where I was seated. For a brief moment, the only thing separating myself from this extremely large grizzly, was 10 feet and a thin sheet of metal. My body trembled with excitement and fear. Life changing moments happen in Alaska.
The weather was mostly cloudy during our 8 hour bus tour and because of that fact, our tour guide let us know that our chances of catching a glimpse of the tallest mountain in North America, Mt. Denali, were slim. As a matter of fact, he let us know that although hundreds of thousands of visitors make the trek to Denali every year with the hopes of seeing Mt. Denali, only 30% actually get a glimpse annually. Because of the mountain’s height, the summit is almost always masked with clouds. But, like so many times before during our Alaska trip, we got lucky….Twice. For a very brief few moments, about halfway through our 8 hour tour, the clouds broke and sun poured down onto one of the two peaks that Mt. Denali has. Although we did not have time to snap a picture, all 4 of us bore witness to its astonishing size as our jaws dropped to the cold, damp floor of the bus. We were some of the lucky ones.
We completed our Denali tour with a stop at Eielson Visitor Center. A fact filled, newly constructed building with trails, photo-ops and sight-seeing for hundreds of miles.
By the time we got off the tour bus, it was nearly 10pm and we were all exhausted. We headed back to the cabin for our final nights sleep in Alaska, put on some Netflix and ate leftovers from the brewery from the night before.
With day 4 complete and knowing we were due to board a plane out of Alaska in the morning, we all headed to bed.
Day 5: Healy to Fairbanks, AK
After packing up the car with all our luggage, and taking one last laughter filled ride on the motor scooters, we started our drive North to Fairbanks to catch our flight back to the lower 48.
The drive from Healy to Fairbanks was the least thrilling duration of the trip. The landscape was vast and flat and we saw no wildlife in the entire 2 hour drive… and although we were all probably battling our own thoughts of returning to reality and leaving this magical place called Alaska, we reminisced in its glory as we made the final trek to Fairbanks.
With 4.5 days in Alaska, over 1000 miles driven and a lifetime of memories….we boarded our flight to Seattle and said goodbye to the most beautiful place I have ever been.
Alaska, I thank you…for bringing me perspective in life, unmatched beauty in your mountains, rivers and animals, and for reminding me that adventures are the most valuable things I can buy.