Advice on first trip to Alaska

Discussion in 'Travel' started by jackie_mccully, Aug 2, 2020.

  1. Greetings!
    We are finally ready to plan our trip to Alaska. The timing totally depends on the best time for shooting bears during the salmon run. We can probably schedule two weeks. We'd like to see as many National Parks while there as possible, Please provide any advise about lodging and road trips. We're not big fans of tours, but realize some may be necessary, like for Denali, We hope to go next year, if things settle down and if it's not too late to make reservations. What are the recommended lodges near the run? It'll be two of us and hiking is not part of our plans. Thanks in advance for any and all tips!!
  2. SCL


    Hi Jackie - It has been quite some time since I was there. The train ride from Fairbanks to Denali can be an eye opener depending on the weather. You really get a sense of remoteness as you go thru small villages and vast landscapes. I loved the helicopter tour where we did catch sight of bears and other wildlife in the vast regions of the park. I don't know your did mention no hiking, but realize some places may require a short hike from whether you are landing by plane, boat, or automobile. IMHO Ketchikan is worth visiting, especially old Creek Street, as is the Mendenhall glacier outside of Juneau. You can get to its base by driving, but a much more exciting way is to take a helicopter down the 13 mile backside of glaciers, landing atop Mendenhall and (carefully, with a guide) walking among the top of its 1000 foot crevices, hoping they don't open up while you're up there.
    jackie_mccully likes this.
  3. I've answered quite a few requests for Alaska info over the years, and I started keeping a copy of the text of my responses. This is a pasted-together compilation of many of those responses.

    June into July is prime time for mosquitoes in Alaska - take a good repellent with you, but avoid DEET - it harms plastic, and camera gear has lots of plastic these days. The Alaska mosquitoes can bite through the hide of a caribou - they hurt!

    Get the latest copy of Milepost - a large book with astonishing detail about every inch of the state roads. It will be a huge help traveling by car or RV. On some of those roads, how far it is to the next gas station can have life-changing implications! Search online for it.

    Bears: photographing bears is a cottage industry in Alaska. There are places where you can stay at significant expense like the Brooks River falls, and there are single day, out-and-back flights available to get you to Brooks or a similar location and back again in a single day. Search online for details like locations, schedules, and prices. If you choose to do the day-flight option, pat attention to the flights weight restrictions - it can/will affect what gear you can take.

    Kenai Peninusula: Check online for which rivers will have salmon running at the time of your visit. Expect the Kenai River to be elbow-to-elbow with salmon fishing during that salmon run. Kachemak Bay at Homer is good for photos, and crossing the bay by boat (or plane) leads to more remote scenery. At Seward you can get a day-long cruise to the Kenai Fjords National Park - glaciers, eagles, probably a whale or 2, otters, puffins - very worthwhile. Make sure you book a day long trip and not the short 3 hour version that never leaves the bay at Seward. Book on a catamaran if motion sickness might be a problem - a cat is better than a single hull boat for this.

    Denali: there's Denali State Park on the south side of the mountain. It offers a view of more of the mountain (from 400 ft to 20,000 ft) than the national park on the north side (3,000 ft to 20,000 ft). In the national park, they have tour buses and shuttle uses. Tour buses each have a theme to the tour and are generally shorter than the shuttle routes and cost more. A ride on the Kantishna Shuttle will take you all the way (~90 miles) from the visitor center to the other end of the road at Kantishna and back, all in one long day. You'll see the park end to end and the driver will stop pretty much whenever someone wants. Check the park's website for details, schedules, and prices. You need to take a lunch with you - ask at the visitor center for places near the park that will make you lunches to take (if you don't make your own). The shuttle bus drivers know the park, explain things as they drive, and stop any time a rider sees an animal. You shoot from the bus through the open school-bus style windows.

    You can drive a private vehicle on the first 15 miles of road (all paved) in the national park. You have to turn around at the Savage River. The road is gravel from there on and only traveled by park vehicles and campers with reservations farther in. Watch for animals along the paved part. The animals there are built to survive -50 degree winters, so they won't be out frolicking on a warm, sunny day - they'll be hiding in the deepest shade they can find. But when it's overcast and raining or drizzling, they'll be out feeding.

    On the road north of Palmer toward Denali, watch for moose grazing in any of the many glacial ponds. They love the grass that grows on the bottom.

    About a mile north of the entrance to Denali National Park is a collection of hotels and other businesses that the locals call the Gulch. Hotels are on the west side of the road (belong to the cruise lines), and everything else is on the east side. This includes a restaurant/bar with entertainment that was pretty good a few years ago, a general store that caters to RV/campers, and the best fish and chips I've ever had (better than in Waterford, Ireland). The sign on the place just said Fish and Chips - they use fresh halibut, and it's sensational.

    Be prepared for rain. Rain covers for camera gear will be needed - either the expensive, custom fit types or the Optec disposable clear plastic ones (I use these).

    Ketchikan - we did a flightseeing tour into the Misty Fjords - expensive but worth every penny. Great views from the air, landed on a mountain lake and stood out on one of the plane's pontoons, took off over the waterfall that drains the lake. Ketchikan is an entertaining walk-around town, too - some good shooting there.

    Juneau - Mt Roberts was socked on the day we were there, so we didn't bother with the tram. We took a whale watching cruise that included lunch, reasonably priced, and we had good luck finding whales. Also saw eagles, seals.

    Skagway - we took a boat to Haines for a tour of the Eagle Preserve - waste of time because we were there in May, the wrong time of year. If you are going late in the year (September or later), it should be dramatically better.

    My wife and I took a cruise Anchorage to Vancouver, and enjoyed every bit of it. Of course, I had to go back, so we did a 2-week inland trip a couple of years later. My employer at the time had a contract with a car rental company that got them reduced rates, and it was open to employees to use for personal travel. It saved us quite a bit of money as standard rental car prices in Alaska were quite high at the time. Depending on your situation, it may be worth checking out. Our lodging on the inland trip was cheap - I did a lot online research and made reservations at places I guessed would be adequate without being too shabby. It worked out pretty good. The one compromise was to stay at the Captain Cook Hotel in Anchorage for the night before we flew home (a concession to my wife's idea of "comfortable").

    Do your homework, and have a great time. I envy you.
    jackie_mccully, Roger G and pnomanWV like this.
  4. SCL


    Bob's advice is really great. Other considerations depending on the time of year --- the Iditarod. anywhere along the route, but the start and finish lines provide great photo opportunities. I remember visiting Susan Butcher, the second woman to win the race, at her home and training camp, and seeing how she prepared for the grueling event. My wife was a riding enthusiast and we enjoyed horseback riding when and where we could rent horses...making sure we avoided areas with large bear populations. As far as prepared. My first visit was in June, the end of ice-out, so I assumed cool weather gear was the ticket to comfort. However when I got up to the Univ. of Alaska in Fairbanks it was 96 degrees and I had to find a Walmarts to buy some warm weather gear for part of that trip. A young female guide and hiking enthusiast in Juneau told me that when she was in town, she and her boyfriend would power hike racing each other up the mountain...but always carried pistols, as they occasionally encountered bears encroaching just outside the state capitol. And if you have time in Juneau, stop into the Red Dog Saloon displaying Wyatt Earp's pistol, which he had to check when he entered town, and didn't have time to retrieve next morning when his boat left for Nome. Most of all, see everything you can snd have a great time. The saying about the male/female ratio in Alaska is "Tne odds are good, but the goods are odd"!
    jackie_mccully likes this.
  5. We were stationed in Alaska (Elmendorf AFB / Anchorage) from 1989-1996, and our son was born there. Bob Flood's post (#3 above) was vary accurate and complete.

    We drove back up there in 2007 during the summer before our son's senior year in high school. Our travelogue is divided into 3 parts, and Part 2 is the actual time in Alaska, mostly around the Anchorage and Kenai Peninsula area. You can view Part 2 here: trip07 Part2.htm You might get some ideas.

    As far as the train rides, I think Anchorage to Seward is the best if I only had one day. From Anchorage to Fairbanks, the part through Denali was nice, but then kind of stagnant for several hours before and after.

    Another useful site is the ADVRider motorcycle forum. There is a guy who lives in Alaska and he wrote an excellent "Read This First" primer for those planning to visit. Much of it is motorcycle-specific, but there is a lot of good general information. Link: Alaska Primer

    Above all - Get the Milepost!!!! You can spend months looking through it. It also has ads for every business (bear watching, fishing, etc) in the state..

    Allow plenty of time and don't try to rush through.
    jackie_mccully likes this.
  6. Oh my gosh!! These replies are amazing!!! Lots of homework and planning to do, but very excited!! Thank you all so much!
    pnomanWV likes this.
  7. Good morning!

    It's getting close and everything is nearly set. However, we have a couple days at the end of our trip and can't quite decide which would be best. So far, we are visiting the conervation center, taking two whale watching cruises (one full day, one half) out of Seward, moving on over to Homer for a couple days of wandering and one day scheduled for bear watching. Then on up to Denali for a couple days including a full day tour and another day for a shuttle trip. Shuttle bus tours all the way in are canceled this year which is why we added the full day tour with a private company. We are flying in and out of Anchorage, but could change the departure city if needed.

    The question is for the last two days. Would you suggest Valdez, Juneau, Ketchikan or someplace else? My husband was thinking Juneau and I was thinking another whale watching cruise. Thoughts/suggestions?
  8. Actually, you can do both - Juneau is a great place to get a whale watching cruise. The cruises go out into the channel, and the many cruise operators cooperate on sightings and help each other get to where the whales happen to be. Some cruises are just a couple of hours long, while others are longer and can include lunch. Google/Bing searching should show you your options.
  9. If you can fit it in,...glacier cruise from Whitier (done it twice) being up close (catching the audible) to a calving glacier is a wonderful experience.
    Get on a catamaran (I think they all are now?) so the time getting to and from the glacier is minimized in comparison to time there.
    bob_flood|1 likes this.
  10. Wayne's recommendation of a catamaran has another benefit. If motion sickness can be a problem, the dual hull design of a catamaran rocks less than a single hull boat.

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