Traveling from the eastern US to Alaska takes the better part of a day. I woke up at 4:00 a. m. and was at the airport before 5:30 a. m. I have never been so glad to have TSA PreCheck in my life. The security screening line was extremely long, but the PreCheck line had fewer than 10 people in it – lucky me! I had plenty of time to get to my gate.
My flight connected through Denver, which is a nice airport with plenty of dining options and lots of places to charge electronic devices. John Hall's Alaska's travel documents mentioned the limited space for carry-on bags on the tour bus, so my Eagle Creek zip-top tote bag seemed like a good carry-on bag option for this trip. Most of the people on my flight had wheeled suitcases or duffel bags and the overhead bin space filled very quickly. My carry-on fit under the seat in front of me. I chose a window seat so I could take photos as we flew over British Columbia and Alaska, and it was nice to be able to reach my book, e-reader and other items without disturbing the other passengers in my row.
When I arrived at the airport in Anchorage, it was easy to find Tara, the John Hall's Alaska representative assigned to greet incoming flights. My bag arrived quickly, and Tara and I headed off to find the other tour participants who would be riding to the hotel with us. It took only a few minutes to locate them and head out to the curb, where the Crowne Plaza Midtown shuttle picked us up and whisked us to the hotel.
The Crowne Plaza Midtown is on the main road between the airport and downtown Anchorage. John Hall's Alaska arranged for a shuttle driver to be available at specific times so that any arriving tour participants who wanted to go downtown could do so. I was tired from all of my travels – I was not yet over jet lag from my trip the previous week to the West Coast – so I decided to unpack and deal with some work-related emails rather than go into Anchorage.
John Hall's Alaska gave all the tour participants vouchers for dinner at the hotel's restaurant. We could order any meal on the menu, from a sandwich to rib eye steak. My salmon was tasty and I had more than enough to eat.
After dinner, I headed back to my room to relax and get a good night's sleep.
Day 2 – Alaska Railroad, Meares Glacier, Prince William Sound, Valdez
Today was a fun but long day. We had breakfast at 7:00 at the hotel. Offerings included scrambled eggs, omelets cooked to order, bacon, sausage, fruit, pastries, yogurt, oatmeal, potatoes and salmon. We traveled to the Alaska Railroad train depot by motorcoach. The depot was jammed because people were waiting to board special trains that were running from Anchorage to the state fair. Our train, the Glacier Express, ran from Anchorage south to Whittier. After the state fair train left the station, our train arrived and we boarded.
Our two-hour train ride took us through some very beautiful areas, particularly the Turnagain Arm. The Seward Highway runs parallel to the train route, and we could see many RVs, trailers and campers on the highway as we traveled. We saw glaciers and amazingly beautiful mountains. Although this trip took place in late August, some of the trees had already turned yellow.
When we arrived at the train station in Whittier, we walked across the street to the Inn, where we had a nice lunch. I had salmon with asparagus and lemon sorbet for dessert. Sadly, after lunch, one of the ladies I ate with fell and fractured her pelvis. John Hall's Alaska sent a driver to take her to the hospital in Anchorage. One of her friends stayed with her for a couple of days, and then rejoined the tour.
After lunch we took a seven-hour boat trip from Whittier to Valdez via the Meares Glacier. It was a beautiful trip, with the highlight being the 20 minutes or so we spent at the glacier. Glaciers make sounds! They crack and pop even when ice falls aren't happening. We saw a couple of large ice falls (talk about noise!) and a couple of smaller ones. Our boat got about ¼ mile from the glacier – way closer than my Holland America Line cruise ship could do in Glacier Bay five years ago. Even with the wind and engine noise, it was easy to hear the glacier's sounds.
We saw sea otters, kittiwakes, two types of puffins, harbor seals, sea lions, and one humpback whale that wanted very little to do with us. I enjoyed watching an otter clutch a giant salmon while seagulls flew toward this tasty meal. The otter would watch the proceedings, then suddenly dive underwater to trick the gulls.
We had dinner on the boat – halibut, steamed vegetables, rice, a roll and oreos.
We arrived in Valdez about 9:00 and were told that we had to have our suitcases outside our room doors and be downstairs at 6:00 a. m. the next morning. After a long day of travel, this was not welcome news. Best Western Valdez Harbor Inn is clean and comfortable, but it does not have air conditioning or elevators.
Day 3 – Valdez to Fairbanks
We all made it downstairs by 6:00 a. m., and Tour Director Bill led us across the street to The Fat Mermaid, a restaurant and bar that looked like something straight out of Northern Exposure. Breakfast included scrambled eggs, eggs and omelets made to order, bacon, sausage, fruit, French toast pecan casserole, toast, English muffins and juice. We watched the sun create a glow behind the mountains as we boarded the coach and headed out of Valdez.
Our drive today was very long; we arrived in Fairbanks at about 6:30 p. m. We had several adventures along the way. We stopped twice in Keystone Canyon to photograph waterfalls. I really enjoyed the scenery in the Thompson Pass. At the Wrangell – St. Elias National Park and Preserve Visitor Center, we discovered that a rock had struck our coach's radiator and caused a leak. Tour Director Bill called John Hall's Alaska's office right away, and together they came up with a plan to get us safely to Fairbanks. While at the Visitor Center, I walked the half-mile loop trail, which is advertised as wheelchair-accessible. It's definitely flat, but there are tree roots and forest debris in the way, so it would be good to have someone else along if you plan to explore this trail via wheelchair.
After our 45-minute stop, we hit the road. At the first gas station we saw, Bill bought a large quantity of Stop Leak and poured it into the radiator. He checked fluid levels a couple of times along the Richardson Highway, but the Stop Leak did its job and we had no further issues. John Hall's Alaska sent another motorcoach to Fairbanks for our group to use.
We ate lunch at Gakona Lodge's Carriage House Restaurant. Gakona Lodge was built in the early 1900s and is currently Alaska's oldest operating roadhouse. The Carriage House used to be a carriage repair shop, back in the days when people used horses and buggies to get from place to place in Alaska. Its log walls, quirky antiques and tasty food made our lunch experience feel very Alaskan. It was fun to see my traveling companions run around taking photos like a bunch of travel writers.
After we resumed our day-long drive to Fairbanks, we stopped a couple of times to view the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, which appears to be an engineering marvel that has been built to withstand huge earthquakes. I say "appears" because the pipeline's innovations are relatively untested. Our group was immensely interested in the pipeline and nearly everyone got off the bus to take photos at each of our pipeline stops.
We stopped at Delta Junction to stretch our legs and take photos of the mile marker at the end of the Alaska (Alcan) Highway. By this time it was later in the afternoon and all of us were quite tired of being on the coach, but we still had two hours to go. Bill did his best to tell us about life in Fairbanks, his childhood, Fairbanks winters and anything else he could think of to pass the time, but in the end it was still an 11.5 hour day on a motorcoach.
The Bear Lodge in Fairbanks is very nice and is home to a wonderful museum filled with pristine vintage cars and equally well-preserved ladies' and childrens' clothing from the late 1890s through the 1940s. The collection is immaculately preserved and contains many rare vehicles. It's well worth a stop or even a detour through Fairbanks. We ate dinner at our hotel. Portions were huge, service was beyond friendly and I felt inspired to go on as many hikes as possible in order to burn off some calories.
We were able to request a Northern Lights wake-up call – apparently this is a normal hotel service in Alaska.
Day 4 – Fairbanks
I got the Northern Lights call at 2:45 a. m., threw on some clothes and walked outside as quickly as I could. I knew the lights would be less than spectacular. Our Tour Director had told us about a website that predicts the intensity of the Northern Lights in Alaska, and last night's prediction was for intensity level 2, with 10 being maximum intensity. Still, I saw them! They were hard to see because of all the lights around the Bear Lodge, so I could not take photos, but I will try again tonight.
It took me a while to fall asleep after viewing the Lights, so I was a bit groggy when my alarm went off. Still, I had plenty of time to get dressed and have breakfast. It was served buffet-style in the hotel restaurant and included eggs, French toast, potatoes, bacon, sausage, fruit, pastries. Next, we took a steamboat tour of the Chena River on the sternwheeler Discovery III. Along the way, we watched a float plane take off and land and saw a sled dog musher take her team for a training run. We also watched a Native Alaskan fish camp demonstration. The river cruise narrator interviewed the pilot, dog musher and fish preparer, using television cameras and microphones, so we could see and hear each demonstration clearly wherever we were on the boat.
The Discovery III tied up at the Chena Indian Village, where we spent an agreeable hour touring three different sites with college-age Native Alaskans who told us about Athabascan life before and after Anglo explorers and trappers arrived in Alaska. We had free time to walk around and ask questions. Laura Allaway, the dog musher we had watched earlier, was also there with some of her dogs.
At the conclusion of our trip, we went by motorcoach to Trail Breaker Kennel, where Laura Allaway gave us a tour and told us how she came to Alaska and competed in the 2015 Iditarod. We learned about the dogs' training program and about the Alaskan Husky dogs. After a buffet lunch, we were allowed to hold Trail Breaker Kennel' newest pups, Phelps, Ledecky, Simone, Farah, Bolt and Felix. The puppies were adorable, of course!
After our Tour Director tore us away from the pups, he took us on a quick drive through downtown Fairbanks so we could see the downtown area. We had the option to spend a couple of hours there before dinner, but we were all so tired that we chose to go back to the hotel. I spent some time packing for our Denali stop. John Hall's Alaska gave all of us tour participants a small red duffel bag at the start of the trip for use at the Denali Backcountry Lodge. I needed to make sure everything I really and truly needed would fit, and it did.
We regrouped at 5:00 and headed to the Alaskan Salmon Bake at Pioneer Park. This meal is an all-you-can-eat affair featuring salmon, prime rib, beer battered cod and "crab clusters," which are Alaskan king crab legs. Sides included green, pasta and potato salads, baked beans, rolls and butter. Four kinds of cake were served for dessert. Needless to say, no one left hungry! Although many tourists come to the Salmon Bake, there were several local families waiting to pay for their meals as we left the restaurant.
We walked to the Palace Saloon and Theater in Pioneer Park to see the early performance of the Golden Heart Review, a lighthearted look at Fairbanks' history through the eyes of its early pioneers. We were back at the Bear Lodge by 8:00.
Day 5 - Fairbanks to Kantishna and Denali National Park
We left Bear Lodge at 7:30 a. m. after a breakfast that was identical to yesterday's buffet. We drove south to the entrance of Denali National Park and had some free time at the Visitor Center before and after lunch. We ate lunch at the Morino Grill; we ordered off the regular menu, which included burgers, sandwiches, soups, panini and salads.
After lunch, we boarded the Denali Backcountry Lodge bus, carrying our red duffel bags and our purses, camera bags and other small carry-on items. The bus strongly resembled a school bus. It had no air conditioning, but the windows worked and there was a bit more seat room than a typical school bus. Our trip to the Denali Backcountry Lodge in Kantishna took about six and a half hours, much of it at 20 miles per hour on a packed gravel road. The scenery was beautiful, and we had a clear weather day – this is somewhat unusual, apparently – which gave us spectacular views of Denali. We also saw five grizzly bears, one caribou, four swans and a couple of Dall sheep along the way. Our driver told us about the park's history and wildlife during the drive and pulled over each time we saw an animal so we could take photographs. He also made four scheduled stops for snacks, restroom breaks and photography. Although the drive was very long and the road was a bit scary at times (there are no guardrails), our driver and Tour Director did their best to help pass the time and teach us about Denali National Park.
The mountain (in Denali National Park, there is only one mountain worth mentioning) was beyond amazing. 20,320 feet high, covered in ice and snow, Denali looms above all the other peaks in the Alaska Range. We knew we were fortunate to have such perfect weather for our drive, and we took plenty of photos, just in case the weather on our return drive turned out to be less than stellar.
Upon arrival at the Denali Backcountry Lodge, we received our room assignments. My room, which smelled delightfully of cedar and redwood, had a small table and two chairs by the window, which looked out on the river. The room also had a futon. The heater worked well, I discovered. We ate dinner in the main lodge; we had a choice of ribs (this turned out to be one large pork rib per person), baked cod or stuffed Portobello mushrooms, served with mashed potatoes, rolls and butter, kale Caesar salad and a mélange of broccoli, carrots and golden beets. We had bread pudding, served cold with rhubarb sauce, for dessert.
We spent some time choosing hikes and other activities for tomorrow and plotting yet another expedition to view the Northern Lights. Then it was time for sleep; 1:15 a. m. (peak Northern Lights time) was just around the corner.
Day 6 – "Free Day" at Denali Backcountry Lodge
The 1:15 a. m. Northern Lights viewing was a bust, but we did have spectacular views of the Milky Way and constellations. Apparently the Northern Lights did not appear until about 2:30 a. m., according to the lodge staff.
Breakfast was served buffet style in the Main Lodge. Scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, hash browns, oatmeal, fruit, coffee and orange juice were on the menu. After breakfast I went on a guided hike to Blueberry Hill. This hike was rated "casual" and it was a fairly easy hike on an improved trail. Our guide did a great job telling us about native plants and their medicinal and nutritional uses. Once again we had sunny weather, which meant Denali and the Alaska Range appeared in practically every photo I took. We saw a caribou grazing on the hillside, and the caribou not only was not afraid of us, he started approaching our group. Park rules required us to move away from the caribou so he could graze in peace, but we really enjoyed viewing him as he munched on lichens. We picked wild blueberries on Blueberry Hill and took plenty of photos of Wonder Lake and Denali.
We made it back to the lodge as lunch service began. Lunch consisted of two soups, chicken and wild rice and vegetarian lentil, as well as sandwiches, turkey wraps, salad and two dessert choices. The food was plentiful and tasty.
After lunch, we had a gold panning session with our Tour Director. Bill made swishing the dirt and water around in the pan look easy, but it was clear early on that gold panning is an acquired skill. Everyone had fun, though, and the lodge staff laminated the gold flakes our "prospectors" found onto little souvenir cards to take home, which was a nice touch.
At 2:30 a group of us met our guide for the afternoon historical walk. Our destination was Fannie Quigley's cabin. Fannie Quigley was legendary in Kantishna, a mining town in what is now Denali National Park, even during her lifetime. She was married to a miner, and when he left her, she stayed on, hunting her own food, looking after herself and providing hospitality to any folks who wandered through the former boomtown. Today the National Park Service and two of the lodges in Denali National Park offer tours to Fannie's cabin, which stands as a symbol not only of Kantishna's gold rush days but also as a memorial to a self-reliant woman.
We had some free time after our hike. I used it read a book next to the river. The Lodge offered a social hour at 5:00; the staff put out an appetizer tray in the bar area for guests, and we could sit inside or out on the deck to enjoy some treats and socialize. Dinner was served at 6:00. We had a choice of either Cornish game hens or beef tips; both were served with a spring mix salad, tiny potatoes and mixed vegetables. Our chocolate mousse dessert was a sweet treat.
The Lodge offers evening programs; tonight's was on mammals of Denali National Park. Our tour group planned to cap the evening with a hot chocolate social, but with a 6:00 a. m. departure looming, I opted to go back to my room, pack and turn in early.
Day 7 – Talkeetna
We were up before dawn, ready to take the bus back through the park to the Alaska Railroad's Denali station, which is a short walk from the Park's Visitor Center. The drive was very enjoyable, if dusty, because we stopped to take photos of Denali at sunrise from Wonder Lake and a couple of other vantage points. You know it's a great shot when your bus driver takes a photo, too.
Our four-hour train trip from Denali to Talkeetna was great fun. We had Goldstar Service tickets, which included lunch and two beverages. It was fun to eat in the dining car. A very well-spoken young lady narrated our tour, pointing out historic sites and telling us about life in the Alaska backcountry. We found out that she is a high school student who works for the Alaska Railroad during the summer. Many students compete for the Alaska Railroad jobs, and it's easy to see why. It would be fun to talk about your home state and see such gorgeous scenery every day.
We traveled to Talkeetna, a town on the other side of the Alaska Range. Because it was on the "easy" climbing side of Denali and had a train station, Talkeetna became the home base for people who want to summit Denali. Today, anyone who wishes to climb the mountain must pre-register and, if approved go to an orientation session at the ranger station in Talkeetna before beginning an expedition to Denali.
Talkeetna is packed with souvenir shops, restaurants and adventure outfitters. Whether you want to take a flightseeing expedition to Denali or rent a kayak, Talkeetna is an excellent place to begin your journey. Our hotel, the Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge, offered spectacular views of Denali and the Alaska Range. The Lodge, with its enormous windows, patio that was perfect for mountain viewing, and large dining room, reminded me of some of the Alpine hotels I have stayed in. I found myself constantly looking at Denali, no matter where I was in the Lodge.
We ate dinner in the hotel's Foraker Restaurant. I ordered the pan-seared halibut, which came with potatoes and braised leeks. It was delicious. Others in our group tried some of the appetizers and salads. The beet salad and KFC (Korean fried cauliflower – spicy!) got rave reviews.
After dinner, I watched the sun set behind the mountains. It was so beautiful I could hardly bear to go inside. Eventually I did, and spent some time packing for my flight home the next day. Of course, I asked for a Northern Lights wake-up call.
Day 8 - Anchorage
I saw the Northern Lights again, and, as before, they were too dim to photograph. My bucket list is very short, but seeing the Northern Lights was the first item on the list, so I was very happy to see the Lights again.
My last breakfast in Alaska included scrambled eggs, bacon and potatoes. Several other items were available, including fruit, oatmeal and pastries. We had some difficulty tracking down our waiter, but he explained that in Alaska, late August is the end of the tourist season and staff rosters begin to shrink, leaving fewer waiters to take care of guests.
After breakfast, we drove to downtown Anchorage. Tour Director Bill drove us around the downtown area so we could get our bearings, as we would be spending the morning on our own. We parked near the Anchorage Museum, which was a great place to begin our exploration of the city. This museum tells the story of Anchorage through art, cultural artifacts, stories and hands-on science. The highlight of my visit was visiting the Alaska Native Cultures exhibit, which contains not only hundreds of artifacts from Alaska Native cultures but also recordings of oral histories. Viewing the artifacts while listening to these stories helped me learn about Alaska Native life.
I left the museum and walked around Anchorage on my own. I spotted a couple of murals, and realized that Anchorage's murals are worth seeking out. I found an Iditarod mural, a moose mural, a whale mural and a public art project created by local youth under the direction of the Anchorage Artists Co-op. Bill later told me that there are other murals in Anchorage; next time I visit, I will look for them. Anchorage has plenty of souvenir shops, and I bought a couple of small items to bring home.
We had lunch at Simon & Seafort's Saloon & Grill. This restaurant specializes in steak and seafood. We ordered off a limited menu that included sandwiches, salads and fish and chips. Portions were quite large, and my open-faced crab sandwich was excellent.
After lunch, I said goodbye to my fellow travelers. They were continuing to Seward for the cruise portion of their John Hall's Alaska Grand Slam Tour, but my journey ended in Anchorage. I'm sure they had a fantastic time. John Hall's Alaska's Cruise Manager was waiting to greet them and look after the group for the next seven days. Tara, who greeted me on my first day, took me to the airport. My flight was delayed, which forced me to change my connecting flight, but I got home with little difficulty. Of course, I left a part of my heart in Alaska.
John Hall's Alaska's impressive attention to detail made this trip as close to perfect as a tour can be. Bill was an excellent Alaska ambassador, tour director, bus driver and problem solver. Our hotels and meals exceeded my expectations, and each day brought a new adventure and expanded my horizons. My fellow travelers also enjoyed their Alaska adventure and were quick to sing the praises of John Hall's Alaska to anyone who asked about our name tags, John Hall's Alaska windbreakers or anything else. There's no higher recommendation than praise from a happy traveler.
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