A year ago today (March 1st, 2012), Steve and I made the final move into our RV and began our adventures on the road. Wow, how time flies! One of our goals is to continue to be active and exercise whenever we can. As you might guess, in this lifestyle it can be easy to just sit, blog, eat, blog, read, blog and fail to get our blood flowing and pumping. To commemorate our first year of full-timing, we thought it would be fun to share our favorite hiking and biking trails. Who knows, you might find yourself in the neighborhood of one of these locales and decide to give it a try. Continue reading
Exploring Alaska on our first year of full-timing was considered ambitious and brave by some of our friends. But we’re so glad we did it! The experience taught us so much in a very short time. We learned to navigate tight spaces, deal with rough roads, make due with minimal utilities and live in remote campgrounds with like-minded adventurers. We have synchronized to perfection our tasks of moving in and out of tight sites and hooking and unhooking the tow. We feel more than ready to live on the road full time from now on.
The road to Alaska via British Columbia and the Yukon Territory in Canada can not be taken lightly. No matter how many long hours and hundreds of miles of driving, you will never get tired of the endless views of incredible scenery. Coupled with the scenic drive are unavoidable road hazards; unending road repairs with lovely female road workers waving at you, frost heaves, dips, gravel breaks and so on. These hazards were realities that we were prepared for and dealt with as part of the experience.
As much as we tried to cover most of Alaska, it is just not possible. Alaska is immense and super-sized; we covered only a fourth of it. Mountains are higher (Mt. Mckinley aka Denali) and parks larger (Wrangell-Elias National Park). Check these stats: Alaska is 2.3 times larger than Texas and the size of Texas, California and Montana combined. It’s home to the biggest this, the highest that and the most of these – with less than a million residents (about 700,000) enjoying all of it.
And the fishing – oh yeah! To all my fishermen/women friends, this is the place to be excited about the fish. I don’t fish, but I hooked a Halibut here. As long as you know how to navigate the complicated fishing regulations, you’re in for the tastiest and freshest Salmon and Halibut you’ve ever had. Fishing is well managed here, and its monitored to support subsistence living for Alaskan residents.
Glaciers, glaciers everywhere! There are approximately 100,000 glaciers here, with only about 600 named. We never got tired of gawking at them, hiking to them (Portage and Exit Glaciers), driving to them (Mendenhall Glacier), flying over them (Kennicott, Root Glaciers, Grewingk Glacier), landing on them (Mt. Mckinley) and sailing to them (Knik, Aialik, Holgate, Meares glaciers). Many time we just drove by them while enjoying their beauty (Matanuska Glacier). They were always unbelievably pristine and beautiful.
Wildlife, yes. Alaska is where the wild things are! Wildflowers adorned highways, mountains and homes, wild animals roamed around and across roads. Birds chirped and/or just hung around, tart but tasty wild berries grew everywhere. We never got tired of enjoying all of these things in their natural habitats.
Hiking and biking trails galore. They were all there for the taking, with scenic views and often some wild animals along the route.
Alaskans live in a different frame of mind. They are relaxed, hardworking, resourceful and rugged. They are surrounded by such beauty, yet they thrive in the harsh nature of their environment. We hung out with two couples – Wilma/Randy and Gemma/Steve – who had lived there for two decades. Amazing people! Are we planning to go back to Alaska? We can’t wait!
Our trip stats:
Arrival in Canada, start of trip = 5/30/12
Departure from Canada, end of trip = 9/17/12
Miles traveled (including 410 on inland passage ferry) = 5,722
Miles driven in Alaska = 1949
Miles driven in Canada = 3773
Days of trip = 110
Days in Alaska = 73
Days in Canada = 37
Gallons of diesel burned = 648
Border crossings between U.S. and Canada = 8
Campgrounds/RV parks visited = 37
Animals squashed while driving = 1 squirrel and 2 birds of unknown species (obviously not fast enough flyers). We had some close road encounters with moose, deer and a couple of bears, but fortunately they didn’t get together with Betsy.
For those planning a driving adventure into Alaska, here are some must-haves:
- Milepost – it beats a GPS hands-down. Order one in March for the latest version.
Passports- you are going in and out of Canada, whether by ferry or driving.
Be prepared for sticker shock; e.g. Halibut and Chips $16-$21 (but worth it), lemons $1.79 each.
For RV’rs, the campground /RV parks are just that, nothing fancy – live with it.
A spirit of adventure and plenty of patience. You don’t want to rush this trip!
A word of advice and caution to be given those intending to visit Alaska…If you are old, go by all means, but if you are young, wait. The scenery of Alaska is much grander than anything else of its kind in the world, and it is not wise to dull one’s capacity for enjoyment by seeing the finest first. –Henry Gannet, Harriman Alaska Expedition 1899.
While roaming around Denali National Park, we hoped that we would not be one of the 30% of visitors who won’t see Denali. It turns out all we had to do was move on to the next destination, and viola! Her magnificent beauty appeared behind the clouds.
Denali showed its awesome beauty with just a few cloud cover. We were on the Parks highway when it revealed to us and we saw lots of it when we arrived in Talkeetna.
We arrived in Talkeetna, the town which Cicely was modeled after. Cicely is the the town in the tv series “Northern Exposure” and Janine Turner was my favorite actress on this series. Talkeetna is the mountain town of Mt Mckinley where all its climbers begin as a jumping off point.This little town is bustling with climbers and tourists alike wanting to climb Mt Mckinley or just do active stuff such as boat rides, hiking, fishing, biking or glacier landing. With our glacier landing out of the way we ventured around town and checked it out.
On our third day here the sun came out beautifully. Since the highlight of our stay here has been satisfied we followed the town’s biking trail. On this bike ride we met a very nice couple from North Carolina, Joe and Judy. We first met them during our long Arctic Circle tour. Then we encountered them again along the Alpine trail in Denali park, then we crossed paths again on the main street of Talkeetna. Then on this bright sunny morning as we were admiring Denali without any cloud cover, we heard someone calling Steve’s name. And there were the Grubbs’ again, Joe and Judy. We hung out for a while and exchanged stories about the awesome views that we have been experiencing.
We thought we had enough of the mountain views but when we got back to the viewpoint later in the afternoon, we saw another perspective of the mountain with the sun shining on it creating shadows. Obviously when you are here you can never get enough of Mt Mckinley or Denali when the clouds are not hiding it.
We stayed at Talkeetna RV Camper Park, a small but nice campground walking distance to town and near a train station. One interesting note is that they advertise as Full Service RV park yet there was no sewer on any site, just power and water. Our site was wide and we were able to park our CRV next to Betsy.
Next stop: Anchorage
On July 10th we were able to complete the most exciting excursion of our trip so far – flying to Mt. McKinley and landing on a glacier at the base camp. Wow, this was definitely an “e-ticket” ride for us, and we were excited to actually land on that massive mountain that we will probably never climb.
We took off from Talkeetna airport, which was cheaper than flying out of the airport in Denali park. The airplane was a DeHavilland DHC-3 Turbine Otter (for our pilot buddies reading this). Although the weather wasn’t perfect, the pictures show that it was good enough to make for an incredible flight.
We landed at the 7,300 ft. elevation on the glacier, which is where the climbers begin their attempts to reach the summit. The climb takes at least three weeks to complete, and we learned that it’s an amazing journey that’s probably too intense for us to try. But this trip was a close second!
The Grand Denali Tour offered by Talkeetna Air Taxi is a flight to and around Mt. McKinley, with a glacier landing for an extra fee. The trip lasts about 2.5 hours and will likely be the most beautiful mountain flying you’ve ever experienced. Our photos cannot do it justice. There are also other flights around and to the summit of Mt. McKinley, if you are not insistent on the glacier landing as we were.
This was an incredible experience, not to be missed if you are an adventurous person visiting the area. The sense of scale you feel in this place is indefinable, inexplicable and incomparable to any other place. It’s not so much about “the glacier” as it is about the place, the beauty and the sense of scale you begin to comprehend when you’re here.
Anyone traveling into Denali National Park or to the town of Talkeetna should take this flight if at all possible. What an awesome experience!
If you have more than one day of visit to the park, hiking is one way to enjoy and explore it.
Our bus/tour driver commented that summer in Alaska is an illusion and winter is the reality. Having heard that made us smile for that is exactly what we had been experiencing since we arrived here. It is summer yet we have not worn our shorts and tank tops! So when the sun came out we traversed some of the many trailheads that are near the Visitor Center and the ones inside the park. With the sun blazing we chose the trail that is labeled strenuous, the Mt Healy overlook trail which was very rewarding once we arrived at the top. This was a 4.5 miles roundtrip hike that climbs 1,700 feet and up to 25 percent grade. It began easy but steadily kept climbing up and the last third was the toughest where we used our hands for it was rocky and steep. But the reward at the top was well worth the challenge. What we saw at the top was a dramatic view of the valley with the Canyon Village, Nenana river, the visitor center and panoramic views of the mountain ranges. On our way down we encountered a Moose on the wayside busy eating his lunch.
The following day we were scheduled to go back inside the park for another hike. The day started sunny but as we neared the Eielson Visitor center which is at mile 66, four hours later, the clouds gathered and it started to drizzle but we pressed on. We went up to the Alpine trail, a 1010 ft climb gain on a ridge trail and quite steep. There were no bushes or tress but an unobstructed view of the mountain ranges including Denali if there are no cloud cover. This trail is considered a hike on the dry tundra for it is on the higher alpine areas, interspersed with scree (small loose rocks). Oh my, the climb began at the trailhead and just kept on ascending. To catch my breath I made several stops and admired the many spectacular wildflowers along the way. They were beautiful ! The view at the top was again awesome and just incredible. On our way down we got a glimpse of Denali for a few moments and then it was covered with clouds again.
As expected, Steve wants to do more exploring and would like to walk on a gravel bar, the gravel remains of a moving glacier. We did follow the Glacier trail for a while and then there was no more trail. It just suddenly ended and there was no trail towards the glacier. So Steve was feeling adventurous and searching for his own trail. After a few minutes of exploration and discovery, he found himself in the midst of wilderness, tall trees and nowhere to go. He saw a moose trail and upon seeing it he decided that its time for him to come up and get back to the top. On this trek, he found two pair of sunglasses. Yeah that would be a replacement of the sunglasses I lost while also being adventurous on a no-trail hike.
Since we were back inside the park, we rode the green bus again and surely enough we stopped at all wild animal sightings. We found mama bear and cubs resting.
During our seven day stay in Denali we wanted to go biking and water rafting as well. Both activities have to be postponed. The weather did not cooperate, wind with a gust of 35 miles per hour descended and rain came pouring. Oh well, maybe in some other town we can enjoy these activities.
Next stop, Talkeetna.
During the next few days we will be at Healy, which is about 11 miles north of the entrance to Denali National Park. We are spending several days here as there is so much to explore, see and experience. One thing of note though is that every morning is a surprise in terms of weather. We wake up in sunshine one day, rain the next day or windy the next day. We have stopped looking at the weather forecast for it is never correct beyond the current day, if that.
Before going into the park we drove around town and ventured further from the entrance. We noted that the services an the park (e.g.hotels, gas, food and tours) are only open from May through September and go back to “wilderness mode” during the winter.
There is a lot of hustle and bustle in a nearby town where all the tourists go and cruise people stay and hang out. This place is humming and pricey as I had the most expensive fish and chips ever, $21 ! Three pieces of halibut and chips, but was very delicious. We also checked out the local brewery in town, 49th State Brewery where Steve liked the stout so much that he wanted to buy a half-gallon growler of it. Not available until after we leave, though 😦
Denali National Park is run efficiently and managed very well to preserve its wildness. It is six million acres of wild land and unaltered landscape. Although there are thousands of visitors entering every summer, entry is controlled and scheduled by bus system. They are doing this to not only reduce traffic on this one lane, winding gravel road, but also for the preservation and least disturbance to the wild animals.
Green Bus, only shuttle and tour busses are allowed inside the park beyond Mile 15.It is not like Yellowstone National Park where visitors upon seeing an animal, pull over and get noisy and excited to take pictures. Here everyone is instructed to be quiet and if you talk the boss driver won’t hesitate to hush you. By controlling the visitor’s access and behavior toward wildlife, they have avoided any human deaths by bears in the park. And unlike Yosemite, the bus maybe full but not crowded as every seat is scheduled and paid for. If it worked well on the 4th of July, it must work well other times. On a side note there were no fireworks here on the fourth of July as it never gets dark here.
We scheduled the longest green bus trip, a twelve hour, 92 mile drive drive round-trip all the way into the park. This is quite a long trip – we stopped for every wildlife sighting. On this tour we had 17 grizzly bear sightings, we saw a herd of caribou, some Dall sheep that looked like white dots on the mountain, a shy Moose, ducks, eagles, and birds.
And as I mentioned earlier, everyone got quiet when we saw wild animals up close with cameras softly clicking. Steve was already sick of seeing moose after almost running one over, and one that came to dinner at our RV park . But we had to respect the rest of the guests who seemed to be awestruck at every sighting.
The bus tour offered not only wildlife but also unparalleled views of an ever changing landscape, and stunning panoramic views of the mountains. And speaking of mountains we also came here to see the centerpiece of the park, the tallest mountain in Northern America – Mt McKinley. The locals call it Denali meaning “the high one.” It stands with a summit elevation of 20,320 ft above sea level. Well, we weren’t able to see the entire mountain on this tour, but we did see a glimpse of the north and south peaks on our way in and out.
We’ll have another chance to see it on Saturday when we go back into the park for some hiking, then another REALLY good chance on the 10th when we are scheduled to land on a McKinley glacier during a flight from Talkeetna. Can’t wait for that!
We did some hiking outside the park, and being adventurous we aimed for a trail that we saw from the highway called Bison Gulch. We didn’t see the beginning of the trailhead so we decided to try a wall of shale rock at the nearest steep hill. Oh my, I had the scariest moment of my life. I was literally crawling for about 15 feet on a 35% grade of loose gravel. I dared not look down for I know I would probably panic. I kept my cool and and prayed that I would get out of this mess. Steve was ahead of me and seemed quite amused as he pulled me to the top. He was very proud of me for “making the grade”. Whew, that was close. Unfortunately, my $10 sunglasses fell off during the struggle and remain somewhere on that hill. The other hikes we did were inside the park with good trails. They were strenuous, but not as scary as the one we did on Thursday.
The McKinley RV Park where we are staying is not one of our favorite. The office workers are disorganized and incompetent, the sites are not level and big potholes on the driveway. The 30 amps did not work and was not fixed during our stay, so instead they gave us a credit back of $15 per day.