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  • Elaine Philbrick

Alaska


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It lives up to its name as “The Last Frontier,” spectacular scenery, some incredible wildlife viewing, lots of varied and exciting adventure activities.






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- 01 -

The Wildlife. The Alaskan fantasy is that you will see wild animals like moose and bear every day, and that there are certain places you can go where they are almost guaranteed to be seen. The reality is that even in Alaska it is hard to find wild animals, and places where sightings are guaranteed are rare. Brooks Lodge in Katmai during salmon season is one of those rare places. You will be guaranteed to see more large brown bears there, and close up, than the rest of your trip combined or several trips combined. We highly recommend it as a not-to-be-missed bucket list experience, and worth the cost and possible stress of taking small planes to get there.


Bears on a waterfall
Brooks Lodge waterfall


- 02 -

Glacier Bay National Park. If you join a cruise, make sure it includes Glacier Bay National Park. The quantity and quality of sea life in that bay is much greater than elsewhere. It’s possible to take an Alaskan week cruise and see almost no sea life, but by including Glacier Bay you’ll be sure to fill your camera with amazing sea life photos.


Man on a boat in front of a glacier
Just hangin’ out with a glacier



Your itinerary

THURSDAY Arrive in Anchorage and on the cab ride from the airport to the hotel look for moose – quite often you can see a moose within an hour of landing! Anchorage is one of the best places to see a moose, with 1,500 of them in and around the city. The best time is in the morning or evening, and a likely spot and short drive from the airport is Point Woronzof along the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail. Next stop on the way to the hotel is to drive by Star the reindeer, who is free to view in her enclosure at 10th Avenue and I Street. Final stop in salmon season is the Ship Creek Dam to see the rare King Salmon. If you stand on the bridge you can look down through the clear shallow water and see them swimming against the very fast current. Arrive at your hotel and relax, having dinner at the hotel or nearby. We chose the Embassy Suites Hilton due to its location, a short walk to restaurants, Walmart (for shampoo, sunscreen, and bug spray that we couldn’t have in our carry-ons), and REI across the street for any last minute gear.

FRIDAY In the morning check out of your hotel but store bags there. Head to Pablo’s Bike Rental which is only one block from the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, a beautiful and scenic paved 11-mile bike path along the Cook Inlet. The entire trail is well worth it, so if you’re pressed for time rent one of their e-bikes so you can go all the way to the terminus at Kincaid Park. It is common to see moose and even black bears while biking on the trail, and on a clear day you can see Denali. Near Kincaid Park the trail is next to the international airport and is lined up with the end of a runway, and you’ll see bikers stopped on the grass beside the trail waiting for the next plane to take off. Join them and experience the thrill of a large cargo or commercial airplane flying very, very low directly over your head! When returning the bikes, try a reindeer dog at the locally famous International House of Hot Dogs food truck with picnic tables just next door. Their hot dog menu is truly impressive! Save room though, because it’s a short walk to the Glacier Brewhouse which has great food, atmosphere, and of course their extensive line of craft beers. After lunch, walk the half mile to the Anchorage Museum which has some fascinating exhibits on the culture, clothing, and language of Alaska’s indigenous people. Then head back to your hotel to grab your bags and go to the airport for your evening flight to Sitka and the centrally located Aspen Suites Hotel.

SATURDAY

Enjoy breakfast at the Mean Queen with its great food and large glass windows overlooking Sitka’s beautiful harbor. If beautiful St. Michael’s Orthodox Cathedral is open, be sure to stop in and view their 17th century icons, and to learn the moving and miraculous story of their most prized icon which washed up on the shore in perfect condition from a shipwreck. Walk to Sitka National Historical Park which is commonly known as ‘Totem Park,’ and explore the haunting totems looking out to sea set in a forest of extremely tall towering pines, and stop by the adjacent museum. Take one of the many sightseeing tour buses to the Alaska Raptor Center, which has numerous bald eagles and other large raptors, and don’t miss its entertaining live bald eagle presentation. (Southeast Alaska alone has more bald eagles than the rest of the U.S. states combined!) Then head to the Fortress of the Bear and enjoy watching their rescue bears (both brown and black bears) play in water, with toys, and with each other from an outdoor raised viewing deck. (In Alaska orphaned bear cubs are required to be killed unless in a zoo.)


Grizzly cub popping his head out from the bush
Grizzly cub Jack-in-the-Box!

The final stop should be the salmon hatchery at the Sitka Sound Science Center, which is a small aquarium with a large touch tank, and where you will learn the fascinating story of how they got different kinds of salmon to spawn in new places and to increase their adult survival success rate. The entire commercial salmon industry in Alaska is dependent on hatcheries like this one. In the late afternoon it will be time to board your cruise ship.

SUNDAY - FRIDAY We looked for the smallest cruise ship we could book, and can highly recommend the Admiralty Dream by Alaskan Dream Cruises (Allen Marine). Our small cruise ship took us to various islands throughout the Inside Passage where we kayaked and hiked through the pristine natural forests.


People on a boat looking at a glacier
Glacier spotting on the Alaskan Dream

When we kayaked in Takatz Bay we saw a bear fishing from the shore! The temperate rainforests of southeast Alaska are filled with 100-foot trees, moss, and lush greenery. Walking through it we felt we were in an enchanted forest. We did hikes on Baranoff Island and a few other places, but everyone’s favorite was the Cascade Creek Trail for its hiking intensity and constant views and sound of a whitewater stream and a big waterfall.


Bear in the water with mountain and trees in the background
Bear enjoying the view at Brooks Lodge

On one sunny day we went through Ford’s Terror (at low tide it becomes a waterfall closing off the fiord) to Tracy Arms Fiord and viewed Dawes Glacier. It’s an incredibly dramatic fiord due to it being so narrow and having towering cliffs on both sides that are 7,000 feet above sea level. The cliffs are taller than the Grand Canyon at its deepest point by 1,600 feet! It’s truly a jaw-dropping sight. The fiord is a seal pup nursery as they are safely out of the reach of orcas and whales due to its many small iceberg “rafts”. The only predators there are bald eagles who can snatch the pups until they weigh more than 10 lbs. Protected from the waves of the open sea, the fiord is completely silent except for the echoing cries of hungry pups calling to their mothers. The highlight of the cruise was Glacier Bay National Park, where we saw more animals than the rest of the cruise days combined. In one day we saw hundreds of stellar sea lions, a dozen sea otters, puffins, arctic terns, mountain goats, seals, and humpback whales.


humpback whale breaching the water
Humpback breaching off Orca Point

SATURDAY Upon a morning arrival in Juneau, drop your bags off at the centrally located and quintessential Juneau hotel the Baranof, and walk to the clean and efficient Harbor Wash Board at 1111 F Street to do laundry. For lunch a great choice is Pel’meni which is the best deal in Alaska – only $7 for a delicious hearty bowl of Russian dumplings (little meat raviolis) with your choice of toppings. It’s located in the Historic Merchants Wharf (also known as “The Hangar”) which is central to everything and has a number of great restaurants. After lunch, it’s a short walk to the tramway which will take you near the top of 3,800 foot Mt. Roberts in minutes.


Man with his back turned looking at Mount Robers
Mount Roberts in Juneau


Man on a mountain pass with a wooden cross behind him
Father Brown’s Cross on Mount Roberts, Juneau

Behind the restaurant and gift shop are trails leading even further up the mountain to Father Brown’s Cross at the snow line, and the trail will give you spectacular views all along the way on three sides. For dinner a great choice is Tracy’s Fish Fry (more casual) or Hangar on the Wharf (great food), both in The Hangar. Sit outside to enjoy the dramatic fiord views as well as people in the park and along the promenade. The two top tourist places that are worth a stop for a drink if not too crowded are Tracy’s King Crab Shack and the Red Dog Saloon with its memorabilia-covered walls (though the framed pistol was never Wyatt Earp’s). Walking through the shopping district back to the hotel is really great window shopping as there are many interesting boutiques.


SUNDAY The Alaska State Museum opens at 9:00 am and you can see interesting exhibits like a 5,500 year old wood basket, parkas made from puffin skins with feathers intact, and pre-contact art. Take a cab to the Mendenhall Glacier while keeping a sharp lookout along the way, as there’s a good chance to see black bear from that highway.

two people waiting for bears to move off the path
People have to wait for bears to move at Brooks Lodge

The hike to Nugget Falls is very popular as it’s flat, easy, and just 2 miles roundtrip to a great view of the falls and glacier. For lunch choose one of the restaurants you haven’t done yet at The Hangar, and then grab your bags and catch your flight to Fairbanks. Upon arrival pick up your SUV and stop by Pike’s Landing next to the airport for dinner or just drinks. A Fairbank’s institution, it’s the start of the 1,000 mile annual Iron Dog (snowmobile) race and in some years the iconic Iditarod, and has a charming location beside a river. Pike’s even has a tee and will provide a bucket of balls for you to hit over the river aiming at a ‘pin’ (flag) under a “Love Alaska” sign! On the drive to Chena Hot Springs Resort, keep an eye out for moose who are virtually guaranteed to be spotted, as they love to graze beside Chena Hot Springs Road.

MONDAY Enjoy a dip in the historic and charming hot springs, and a tour of the Aurora Ice Museum if open, and then drive to Running Reindeer Ranch for their daily session at 1:00 pm. About 20 reindeer run free around the guests during the engaging presentation and the walk through the woods. The reindeer are unusually friendly and enjoy being petted, and it is so enjoyable to see them freely interact with each other and the guests, and run around with no barriers at all – they could take off for the Arctic Circle if they wanted.


woman posing with reindeer
Relaxing with the herd after our walk at the Running Reindeer Ranch

Bring bug spray, though they offer it also. It will take almost an hour, and then immediately head to the Large Animal Research Station at the University of Alaska. They run late, so arriving 15 minutes after their 2:00 pm tour is fine, you can just join the back of the crowd at the first enclosure which is for the short but mighty musk ox. In addition to their own animals, on the day we visited there were wild sand cranes and a fox also visiting!

TUESDAY Head to the Cookie Jar Restaurant for breakfast, and then the Morris Thompson Visitor Center which is free and informative and has centrally located free parking. Only a tenth of a mile away is the iconic moose antler arch for a photo op, and a short walk away is the Fairbanks Ice Museum which is cheesy fun. They play a short movie and then let you into the refrigerated room to pose beside ice sculptures and take turns on a modest ice slide that is surprisingly fast! For dinner try Fushimi or Irashai Japanese Restaurant before heading back to Chena Hot Springs.

WEDNESDAY In the morning at Chena try an ATV ride or horseback ride on their beautiful trails, or just hike them and enjoy the expansive quiet scenery. A great spot for lunch is The Pump House in Fairbanks which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and besides its great food and Victorian-era frontier décor, it has expansive views of a beautiful river. On the way back there’s a convenient pull over on the road at Milepost F 8.4 on the Steese Highway to view an above-ground section of the famous Trans-Alaska pipeline which runs from Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic Ocean to Valdez, the northern most ice-free harbor in North America. You’ll notice many otherwise blank maps of Alaska include a line showing the pipeline. The last stop before heading home is the Hilltop Truck Stop (next gas in 100 miles!) featured on Ice Road Truckers which has a variety of justly-famous pies. Edith, the pie-maker, is often on site, and their soups and other food are surprisingly good.

THURSDAY If you haven’t done the ATV or horseback ride yet, both are worth fitting into the morning before leaving peaceful Chena Hot Springs Resort and starting the drive to Denali National Park. To break up the 7-hour drive we recommend you stay in Healy just outside the park. We can recommend the Denali Totem Inn as a modern, clean and convenient place to stay.


FRIDAY The Inn offers a free breakfast, but you’d be better off stopping at a café along the way which you will find even “in” the park (one side of the road is not the park and does have some restaurants). Unfortunately, Denali is only visible 30% of the time in Denali National Park, and signage is extremely poor so you won’t know even at “Denali lookout” parking lots which mountain peak it is, so try to find a park ranger if possible to point it out (GPS is not helpful as you’d think). On the way through Wasilla make a memorable stop at the Iditarod Museum, and if you’re not too tired the Musk Ox Farm in Palmer. There are lots of good places to eat in Wasilla, and we can recommend the Cadillac Café which has very good pizza and a large menu of Alaskan specialties. After the long drive you will be happy to arrive at the wonderful Alyeska Resort, and it’s a good night to reward yourselves with a special dinner at The Seven Glacier Restaurant. The night we went we were seated next to a Red Sox Hall of Famer!

SATURDAY Get up early to arrive at Anchorage Airport at 7:15 am for a 2-hour flight on a small plane to King Salmon Airport, and then take a 20-minute seaplane ride to Brooks Lodge in Katmai to watch the most famous salmon-catching bears in Alaska.

Tail of small airplaine with a bear in the background
Bears ignore people at Brooks Lodge!

This is likely to be the highlight of the entire trip, but be sure to check when the salmon are spawning. As soon as you land head to the mandatory bear safety video cabin, and then walk briskly to put your name on the list or to receive a buzzer for the viewing platform. Be prepared to wait 2 hours or so until your name comes up. Try to fit in time for your free lunch, because the food is modest but excellent. Time will fly by due to the excitement of watching the bears in the water, under the walking platforms, and along and in the trails!


Man and women by a stream with a bear in the water
Bears are that close at Brooks Lodge

We watched a bear cub hilariously chase and try to catch baby ducks, a huge bear holding everyone up by sunning on the pedestrian trail, bears fighting, fishing, and other bear antics. The plane leaves at 4:00 pm for return at 6:30 pm. You’ll prefer to dine at one of the excellent restaurants at the hotel – either Sakura or The Pond Restaurant.

SUNDAY After breakfast drive just 20 minutes for a 12:00 pm helicopter ride on Alpine Air Alaska to Punchbowl Glacier to go dogsledding with a team that includes some Iditarod champions. The experience of skimming over a mountain pass to the glacier and the views on the way from the helicopter are spectacular. It’s also an opportunity to take the dog team by yourself on a good-sized looping trail. Make sure you have a lunch reservation at Chair 5 Restaurant or Jack Sprat waiting for you when you return, and stop by Girdwood Brewing Company for a well-deserved pint if you can find a parking spot.

Helicopter view to Punchbowl Glacier
Helicopter view to Punchbowl Glacier


MONDAY Enjoy breakfast at the truly great The Bake Shop, a short drive or free shuttle ride on Alyeska property. It has a charming setting of picnic tables set off against a profusion of bright colored exotic plants in many planters. It’s known for its homemade bread and excels at full breakfasts with real maple syrup, and may possibly include a local free-range dog that will patiently visit each table hoping for bacon scraps. Next door is a top gift shop where even anti-shoppers can’t resist buying unique and quality souvenirs. Then get set for your afternoon adrenaline jetboating ride to Spencer Glacier with Alaska Backcountry Access!


Jet boating on the Spencer River
Jet boating on the Spencer River

Jetboats are an incredible experience, they can go an average of 25 mph up to 60 mph through water only 6 inches deep. Only a jetboat can motor through churning whitewater and withstand hitting rocks - at least if it has a special reinforced steel bottom like these. You will speed by the whitewater rafters and the riverbank view will fly by.


At the end will be an impressive sight – fantastical shaped icebergs all around you leading up to a lake headed by the massive glacier that spawned them. The glacier is melting at such a fast pace that even 5 years from now the many icebergs it created may be gone as it retreats to land. If upon your return everywhere is booked for dinner, it’s good to note that Sakura doesn’t take reservations so you can always get in or take out there. Both Sakura and The Pond are restaurants worth repeating.

Blue iceberg in the water
The bluer the iceberg, the older it is.

TUESDAY Stop for breakfast at The Alpine Bakery in Girdwood for their homemade doughnuts and excellent coffee. Drive the short distance to the Alaskan Wildlife Conservation Center in Girdwood which has an amazing collection of animals in a wonderful setting. It’s probably the only place in the world you can feed and pet a moose! (Reservation required.) On the way to the airport, for the best selection of souvenirs park along 4th Avenue (free parking) where there will be a number of large souvenir stores concentrated between 500 and 700 4th Avenue. Have a safe flight home!




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