Summer 2022 Itinerary and Trip Notes
Overview: Anchorage (1 day) > Kenai Peninsula (5 days) > Valdez (1 day) > Glacier View (1 day) > Denali Front Country (3 days) > Kantishna/Denali Backcountry (4 days) > Talkeetna (2 days)
Bottom Line: This was our first trip to Alaska, the 49th State, and we needed to keep the total duration under three weeks. The Kenai Peninsula and Denali were at the top of our list and did not disappoint. We also opted to “go big” with top shelf, remote wilderness lodges in both national parks, which came with significant scheduling constraints. After booking those, we had a week to kill in between the two, thus the circuitous road trip across the Prince William Sound to one night stops that gave us a different glimpse of off-the-beaten-track Alaska.
With our time constraints, this itinerary worked great — though another alternative (and likely saving some money on rental car, which are hard to find and very expensive) would be to fly in or out of Fairbanks on one end and Anchorage on the other and make the whole trip by train — the Alaskan Railroad has a great reputation.
|Dates||Destination||Where We Stayed|
|Day 1||Anchorage||Copper Whale Inn|
We took the 4-hour, nonstop afternoon flight from SFO to Anchorage and caught a taxi into downtown through light rain. Gray skies and rain are not unusual in July — I heard May and June tend to be drier. Anchorage is home to 40% of Alaskan residents and isn’t much to look at, a drab version of Reno minus the casinos, but this was just a place to hunker down for the evening before heading off on the real adventure. There are a few very large, casino-like brewpubs that attract a fair amount of visitors, with packed tables and factory-like service, but we skipped those and opted for what was surely the best dive bar in town, Darwin’s Theory, and a pretty nice (if not pricey) dinner at the Haute Quarter Grille.
Our innkeeper thanked us for patronizing a small, woman-owned boutique business instead of the big chain hotels. I’m glad we did.
|Day 2||Anchorage to Seward||Exit Glacier Lodge|
After a good night’s sleep, we got up, got our rental car (Enterprise via Expedia was the only thing I could find after a long search!), and got out of town. We headed south on Route 1, the Seward Highway, en route to the Kenai Peninsula. With the Chugach Mountains rising dramatically on our left and the Turnagain Arm of the Cook Inlet appearing ahead to the right, the awesome natural beauty of Alaska began to reveal itself quickly as we left Anchorage behind.
We stopped for lunch at the Girdwood Brewery (excellent beer and decent Japanese food truck), near the popular Alyeska Resort, and a 2-mile, out and back hike on the Winner Creek Trail. Back on the road, we crossed over to Kenai and in 90 minutes of easy mountain highway driving we arrived in Seward, gateway to the Kenai Fjords National Park. Highlights:
- The Winner Creek Trail is an easily accessible and relatively easy, short hike, well-known to locals for its lush beauty. If you do this, be sure to access the trailhead from the Alyeska Resort, not the other end like we did. That way, you get to cross the footbridge over the roaring Glacier Creek gorge on the way to the famous hand tram. (Unfortunately, the hand tram was out of service when we arrived, so starting at the other end meant a shorter hike and no gorge.)
- Exit Glacier is a must-see if you are in Seward, the only drive-to glacier in the Kenai Fjords National Park. It has receded tremendously in the past 15 years and that trend is only going to continue. It’s about an hour round trip hike to the closest point to the glacier.
- The Salmon Bake, right next door to our lodge, was an excellent dinner and drinks spot.
- Exit Glacier Lodge was a funky, very rustic, but inexpensive place to stay and super convenient both to the harbor and Exit Glacier. There were nicer looking places just up Exit Glacier Road, but I didn’t check them out.
- Local dive bars in Seward that we enjoyed included the Pit Bar, near Exit Glacier Road, and the Yukon Bar in town.
|Days 3-6||Kenai Fjords National Park||Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge|
Now we get to what we came for: Wild Alaska! At 9:15am, we met our boat in Seward (after grabbing coffee and breakfast to go from the Porthole) for the journey into the heart of the Kenai Fjords National Park, where we were treated to 4 days and 3 nights of huge and sublime, remote natural beauty, memorable and fun excursions on water and land, and stellar wildlife viewing. And that was with rain and overcast 3 out of 4 days! While the price tag ain’t cheap, if you can swing this it’s absolutely worth the price — bucket list for sure! Highlights:
- The four hour boat trip from Seward through Resurrection Bay and into Aialik Bay was a marine wildlife extravaganza. We saw mountain goats, puffins, bald eagles, seals, sea lions and a humpback whale heading out; on the return trip, we saw three pods of humpbacks, including breeching and tail waving, and a pod of six orcas!
- The Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge, one of three wilderness lodges operated by Alaskan Wildland Adventures, consists of a main lodge and fewer than 20 private cabins nestled in the trees along the shore of Pederson Lagoon, tucked deep in Aialik Bay. Accessible only by boat, it’s the only wilderness lodge in the park. The staff and all amenities were outstanding. Highly recommend!
- Guided canoe & hike trips from the lodge to nearby lakes and Pederson Glacier were fun and educational, and also produced more sightings of sea otters, black bear, salmon and numerous birds.
- Self-guided, two mile nature walk around Pederson Point through forest, tundra and shoreline was peaceful and beautiful. Don’t forget the bear spray!
- Our six hour, guided sea kayak trip up Aialik Bay to Aialik Glacier and back was a big highlight. We paddled to within a half mile of the glacier’s 400′ foot and watched a half dozen calving events with huge chunks of ice breaking off into the sea.
|Days 7-12||Kenai to Denali Road Trip||See lodging details below|
With a week to kill between Kenai and Denali, we did a little road tripping from Seward to Whitter, across the Prince William Sound (by car ferry) to Valdez, Glacier View, Talkeetna and finally two nights just outside Denali National Park. The ferry requires advance reservations and carefully timing your arrival to the one-way tunnel through the mountains at Portage Pass to Whittier. The less traveled interior is massive and beautiful, and we continue to be amazed by the sights and sounds we’ve encountered.
Another alternative to this itinerary would be cut the last four days of this journey to one day and substitute a few days in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, the largest in the U.S. and directly on the route (more or less) between Valdez and Glacier View. While that almost-Grand Slam on national parks is romantically appealing, it would have meant some very long driving days, and with this route — which was perfectly enjoyable — we had no more than three hours driving between stops. Here’s a more detailed, chronological breakdown of each place we stayed and visited:
|Duration||Where We Stayed||Lodging|
|1 day||Moose Pass (Kenai)||Summit Lake Lodge|
|1 day||Valdez||Totem Hotel & Suites|
|1 day||Glacier View||Sheep Mountain Lodge|
|1 day||Talkeetna||Denali Overlook Inn|
|2 days||Denali Highway||Denali Cabins|
- Summit Lake Lodge was a great overnight just an hour out of Seward, after returning by boat from the Kenai right around dinner time. While the bar was already closing when we finished dinner, they stayed open longer just for us.
- While we had a mostly overcast and rainy day for our six-hour ferry ride across Prince William Sound, we still enjoyed incredible views of countless waterfalls seemingly plummeting straight from glaciers a thousand feet high or more straight into the sea, and the seiners (salmon fishing boats) working the Valdez Arm of the sound were a cool sight as well.
- Valdez is a working fishing town and had an interesting waterfront scene but is mostly a place to enter or exit Prince William Sound on the way to… anywhere else. Arriving on Monday, most restaurants closed early — we couldn’t get into Valdez Brewing or the Fat Mermaid — so we settled for decent Thai food at Fu Kung (massive servings – two people can easily split one dish and still not finish) and drinks at the Boardroom, a classic dive bar popular with the locals.
- Before leaving Valdez, we stopped at the Solomon Gulch fish hatchery across the inlet, where we watched sea lions feasting on some of the millions of salmon returning to spawn. That was quite a spectacle. Later in the evening, brown bears (Grizzlies) come down to feed.
- Driving north from Valdez on the Richardson Highway takes you through Keystone Canyon, a steep, narrow and lush gorge with several impressive roadside waterfalls. Great hiking here, too. I’m told.
- Sheep Mountain Lodge, in the middle of nowhere on the Glenn Highway, was the perfect stop between Valdez and Talkeetna. No real town there, just this wonderful collection of rustic but comfortable cabins with killer views, a good restaurant and bar, nice hiking trails, opportunities to see Dall sheep (we didn’t), and its own helicopter for glacier tours. Be sure to visit the moose in the greenhouse.
- The entire Glenn Highway drive from Glenallen to Palmer was gorgeous — massive, unspoiled wilderness as far as the eye can see, popping with mountains, forests, and wildflowers. Never saw a moose though! (It has a rich history in Alaska as well that you can learn about in the fascinating Prince William Sound Museum in Whittier while waiting for the ferry.)
- The Denali Overlook Inn was a fantastic layover just outside the town of Talkeetna. The innkeeper, Tim, was a terrific host and the views of Denali — when the sky is clear, as it was for us — are spectacular. Cocktails and s’mores at sunset (11:45pm) by the campfire overlooking the Alaska range were the perfect end to the day. Highly recommend this place. We spent our last two nights in Talkeetna at the end of this trip, so I’ll save highlights on the town for later.
- Heading up the Parks Highway, about an hour north of Talkeetna, we stopped to hike the Curry Ridge Trail at the recommendation of our hosts at the Denali Overlook Inn. This was a fantastic hike – 1000′ of elevation gain (and descent) over 6.5 miles (long, moderate switchbacks, not very difficult) with the most spectacular views of Denali and the Alaska Range we had the entire trip.
- Denali Cabins, just nine miles short of the Denali National Park entrance, was a very nice place to chill for a couple days after all the driving and one-night stops. On site restaurant and bar, a nice firepit, hot tubs and comfortable cabins were all good. Being next door to Denali Air’s airstrip — our eventual transportation into the park — was a bonus.
- The Perch restaurant at mile 224 on the George Parks Highway, very close to our cabin, was nothing short of outstanding. Great deck for outdoor dining on a nice day (like ours). Get the salmon tartare hors d’oervres.
- We spent a day driving into Denali NP to see what we would not during our extended stay coming up. That included the very worthwhile Vistor Center, a visit to the dog kennels to meet the famous mushing huskies that park rangers still use to this day to patrol the park in winter, and a drive to the end of the road for private vehicles (Mile 16 of 92), where we hiked the two mile, out-and-back Savage River loop trail. It was a great day. You can take the bus as far as Mile 43 for best opportunity to see wildlife, but plan on a six-hour roundtrip.
|Days 13-16||Kantishna / Denali Backcountry||Kantishna Roadhouse|
The home stretch of our 2+ week road trip across the 49th State included 4 days and 3 nights in the Denali National Park backcountry, accessible only by bush plane – which was a thrilling experience in itself – and two more nights in Talkeetna. Kantishna Roadhouse is one of three all-inclusive backcountry lodges in the entire park, all in this neighborhood, and we chose it for its unique history, riverside location, attractive pricing, and in-cabin plumbing (yes, that mattered).
While the wildlife sightings weren’t all we hoped for (no moose or caribou, one beaver) in Denali, we did get one, unforgettable alone-in-the-wilderness-with-on-very-large-Grizzly-bear experience — exhilarating for sure — and the views of The Great One and pristine, massive and unspoiled wilderness we experienced were off the charts. Making it extra special was the fact that, for whatever reason, we had the lodge and wilderness pretty much to ourselves, save two other couples and our five hosts/guides. This was a fairly pricey destination, but as a once in a lifetime bucket-list adventure, it was worth it! Highlights:
- Our 5-seater, bush plane flights in and out of the backcountry — required because the lone park road is closed for repair — got us up close and personal with Denali and her surrounding peaks, passes and glaciers, including the Muldrow Glacier that began a massive surge in 2021. Incredible experience! (Even with the $500/pp price tag.)
- Kantishna Roadhouse is a special place with very cool history. It was the center of activity during the 1905 gold rush and has some historic buildings on the property, including the cabin of Fannie Quigley, a noteworthy pioneer woman, gold miner, hunter and reputed barroom brawler.
- With only six guests at our lodge that normally accommodates 60-80, most of the cabins were empty and the main lodge and dining room were closed… but that meant we had a more intimate “saloon” set up in the cozy “Musher’s Hall”, and we enjoyed intimate meals with, essentially, our own personal chef in a privately owned cabin next door.
- The food was nothing short of outstanding, as Billy, our New Orleans trained, Alaska-transplant chef served up fresh baked salmon with homemade Hollandaise, eggs Florentine, pan-seared scallops in an amazing sauce, fresh halibut in another sauce, and incredible desserts. Billy was quite the storyteller as well, so every meal was truly amazing.
- Our naturalist and guide, Kingsley, led us on great hikes to spectacular backcountry destinations. Blueberries (which we picked for pancakes) were everywhere, cranberries were emerging, and he had encyclopedic knowledge of the native flora and fauna. He also got us our up-close-and-personal grizzly encounter (and got us out alive!). No pictures of the Griz, unfortunately, we were too busy make noise and gathering our stuff.
- Good fly fishing for grayling on Moose Creek, a mere 50 yards from our cabin. Michelle even got her first fly-casting lesson from Kingsley (no charge, it’s included) and next thing you know, she’s in the river fishing!
- No TV, phone or internet for 4 days!!
|Days 16-17||Talkeetna||Susitna River Lodge|
After flying back from Denali, we returned to Talkeetna, the halfway point between Denali and the Anchorage airport. for our last two nights in Alaska. We didn’t want to spend another night in Anchorage and we really enjoyed Talkeetna, so this worked perfectly. Denali Overlook Inn wasn’t available this time, so we stayed at the Susitna River Lodge and it was also top notch — much closer to town, in fact, and right on the beautiful Susitna River. Three days total is definitely more than one needs in Talkeetna, but breaking into two shorter stays and getting to know a couple spots made it fun for us. Highlights:
- Talkeetna is “adventure central” for the Denali Park area, other than visiting the National Park itself. The town is awash in outfitters and services for flightseeing, climbing, rafting, and offroad ATV tours. We skipped these but enjoyed a nice self-guided, 3-mile hike around the Talkeetna Lakes.
- Talkeetna Riverfront Park is a nice casual place to hang out for a bit, or have a picnic lunch like we did (Spinach Bread and a beer), with spectacular views of Denali (when she’s out) and the river.
- Spinach Bread — Wherever we had traveled earlier, when people heard we were heading to Talkeetna, they invariably said we must go to Spinach Bread. They were right, it was delicious! We had it twice.
- We had dinner at several spots — Denali Brewpub was had good BBQ, Kahiltna Bistro was decent but not great — but our favorite spot by far was Mighty High Pizza Pie. Really good pizza, greats beers, live local musicians on the outdoor stage, and a really cool, laidback vibe. We went at least three times. Highly recommend.
- Fairview Inn is the “real” old school bar, where people go to drink. Walls covered in old newspaper stories, photos and old mining and climbing schlock. We enjoyed an outdoor show by Whey Jennings, Waylon’s grandson, along with the hardcore country music fans.
- Sunsets across the Susitna River and Alaska Range from the lawn in front of our cabins were awesome. Just as good as the Denali Overlook Inn.
- As noted earlier, this itinerary was dictated in large part because we had a car the entire trip. If we hadn’t gotten the car, a great alternate involving both of the major attractions — Kenai Fjords and Denali — would be to fly into Fairbanks and make it a train journey on the Alaska Railroad, with stops in Denali, Talkeetna, Girdwood/Whittier, and Kenai Fjords (Seward) before returning to Anchorage on the train.
- Speaking of rental cars, that proved to be an time-consuming, difficult and expensive proposition. No rental locations outside Anchorage and Seward with our destination, and turning in a car in Seward and then renting another 4 days later was not possible. I did learn that Enterprise allows one way pickup and drops between Anchorage and Fairbanks, as long as winter hasn’t set in at the latter.
- If you plan to hike anywhere in the wilderness, or even established trails off the main roads, carrying bear spray is essential. While a grizzly encounter may not be likely, you would not want that without that safeguard. Fortunately, the bigger lodges have plenty to loan you while hiking their locales. Otherwise, it’s easy to find in stores. Better to buy locally than have to check a bag at the airport to bring your own.
- Alaska, of course, is huge. We considered adding some other destinations during this trip, but as the top destinations (at least ours) are quite expensive, we opted to save those for another trip. Top of the list of places we want to visit another time include:
- Southeast Alaska — I am not a cruise ship person, but taking a 7-10 day, small-boat journey like those offered by Pacific Catalyst or Lady of the Sea, between Glacier Bay, Sitka, Juneau, Ketichan, and possibly all the way to Vancouver via the Inside Passage — is at the very top of the list.
- Katmai Peninsula and Brooks Falls, ground zero for watching grizzlies feeding on salmon leaping up the falls on their journey to spawn.
- The rest of the Kenai Peninsula — especially a visit to Homer (possibly for the Salmonfest music festival) and some of the interior for bush plane fly-in fly fishing. It’s going to happen, only a matter of time.