While cruising the Inside Passage or Gulf of Alaska is a great way to see this state, combining the cruise with a road trip in the western interior enhances the experience. You can do this on your own or there are many tour companies that offer an escorted trip.
Most trips to Alaska begin with a flight into Anchorage. Before heading north, a journey south to the Kenai Peninsula is well worth the time. We spent two weeks in Alaska, on both land and sea, and my favorite excursion was to Kenai Fjords National Park. The Seward Highway travels the 125 miles to the Kenai, an area popular for salmon fishing. Although there is a museum and aquarium on Resurrection Bay, the best reason for traveling there is to take one of the many day cruises available. You are sure to see calving glaciers, sea lions, orca and humpback whales, porpoises, leopard seals, sea otters, and a variety of birds including puffins.
Anchorage is the largest city in Alaska and is home to almost half of the state’s population. However, that’s only about 279,000 people! Downtown Anchorage is very walkable and, if you are not taking a cruise, the best place for shopping. There are shops selling Alaska specialties, as well as the centrally located 5th Avenue Mall with some major retailers. From mid May through mid September, there is an outdoor weekend market off of West Third Avenue near the Hilton.
The Anchorage Museum of History and Art and the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts are located downtown. In addition to theater productions andother performances, the Center holds frequent special events. When we visited, we saw a film and exhibit of an artist’s 25 years photographing the Aurora Borealis. There are numerous hotels and B & Bs in Anchorage, as well as a variety of restaurants. A popular one that we enjoyed was the Glacier Brewhouse.
A short drive from downtown Anchorage is the Alaska Native Heritage Center which provides an introduction to the the various native cultures. There are demonstrations and exhibits, including recreations of traditional housing and lifestyles. Other activities in the greater Anchorage area include a botanical garden, small zoo, Elmendorf salmon viewing platform, Chugach State Park, and Turnagain Arm. If you take the trip to Seward, the highway travels through the park and along Turnagain Arm.
Leaving Anchorage and heading north, the road passes through now famous Wasilla, which appears to be a series of strip malls built with no plan in mind. Wasilla is home to the Iditarod Trail Headquarters which has a small museum, videos of race footage and affords the opportunity to see some of the dogs and take a dog sled ride, minus the snow of course!
A good stopping point between Anchorage and Fairbanks is Talkeetna, close to Denali and where 3 rivers come together to provide great fishing. Local legend says that Talkeetna was the inspiration for the television series, “Northern Exposure”. There is a small airport from which there are sightseeing trips over Denali. The town began as a trading post; it is quaint, but does have its fill of tourists. From our room at the Talkeetna Alaska Lodge, we werefortunate to have a gorgeous view of Mt. McKinley and the northern lights; be advised that Mt. Mckinley is often not visible depending on meteorological conditions. I’ve been told that it clouds up 2 out of every 3 days.
Denali National Park and Preserve consists of 6 million acres, about the size of Massachusetts. It is home to forests known as taiga, tundras, the largest mountain in North America, and abundant wildlife. The area right outside of the park entrance, Denali Village, has some hotels and shops. The hotels fill quickly with tour groups. Although it is almost 8 hours in an old school bus, I would highly recommend the Tundra Wildlife Tour. The 8 hours passed quickly as we saw caribou, moose, dall sheep, bears, and wolves. We were fortunate to see the wolves as there are only 7 packs in the park.
On the way to Fairbanks, the road passes through the small historic native village of Nenana, a good place for a quick stop. Although the second largest city in Alaska, I consider Fairbanks more of a pioneer town. The 4 block downtown provides limited choice in hotels and restaurants. Gambardelli’s has good Italian food, but service is spotty. There are some historic homes, including shabby shotgun houses and cabins, some of which served as brothels in Alaska’s early days. Due to the long daylight hours, these houses couldn’t use red lights, so pots of red geraniums signified their use.
From Fairbanks, a Riverboat Discovery cruise on the Chena and Tanana Rivers is commercial and touristy, but interesting. On the cruise, there is a bushpilot demonstration and a stop, but not disembarkation, at Susan Butcher’s home. Susan, a noted winner of the Iditarod, passed away in 2006, but her husband provides an introduction to the world of dog mushing. The cruise culminates in a visit to Chena Village, a recreated Altabascan settlement where indigenous speakers introduce a bit of their culture.
The University of Alaska Museum in Fairbanks has an excellent display of history and animals. Just north of Fairbanks is the Trans Alaska Oil Pipeline Visitors Center where a portion of the pipeline is visible. BIllboards advertising an Alaska Salmon Bake at Pioneer Park litter the highway near Fairbanks. A tourist attraction that recreates a gold rush town and Native American village, the salmon bake consists of long lines, but lots of salmon, cod, haddock, side dishes, and desserts.
An alternative to driving part or all of the trip between Anchorage and Fairbanks is the McKinley Explorer train. The full trip is 12 hours, but that can be shortened by taking it from stops in either Denali or Talkeetna. With domed cars for viewing, on board narration, outside viewing platforms, and a dining car, it is a relaxing way to view the scenery and wildlife.
Vickie is a former member of the Marco Island City Council and Artistic Director of the Marco Island Film Festival, and has been a volunteer for many island organizations. She is presently on the board of the Naples Mac Users Group. Prior to relocating to Marco, Vickie served as a school psychologist, Director of Special Services, and college instructor and also was a consultant to the New Jersey Department of Education.