Hello, I’m back from the great land of Alaska. (Alaska or Alyeska means ‘the great land’ in Yupik.) If you read my previous post, you’d know how hectic it was to plan a summer trip to Alaska only 2 weeks beforehand. But in the end, everything went all very well, except that we didn’t get to take a flightseeing tour with our B&B host. But that was nothing compared to the richness of experiences we had during the 2-week vacation. Alaska is now simply ranked among my most memorable trips so far.
In this travelogue “Everything Under the Alaskan Sun“, I’ll take you to Denali, Fairbanks, Talkeetna, Whittier, Girdwood, Seward and, of course, Anchorage. So come along and join the ride!
After one stopover and 10+ hours later, we finally arrived Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport at midnight. The time difference between Alaska and the East Coast is 4 hours, so it was basically 4 A.M. for me, and I was dying to go to bed. Outside was raining and cold. After half an hour of waiting, we boarded the shuttle bus to Embassy Suites. The hotel is ranked #1 in Anchorage on TripAdvisor. The room is nice and spacious with a large living room and working space. The breakfast was also very good.
After checking out, we hopped on the shuttle bus to the airport to get the rental car. Then we stopped by the AAA office to get some maps and driving tips before heading to Denali.
We stopped by Wasila to get something to eat. Since we only saw major chain restaurants like McDonald’s and Pizza Hut and didn’t find any place special, we ended up at a local Mexican restaurant, Senor Taco. It was the first time I had chile verde. And it simply became the best Mexican dish I’ve ever had. It was soooo tasty.
Beautiful scenery along Georges Parks Highway
After about 5 hours of driving, we arrived at Denali Salmon Bake Restaurant and Cabins. I read about this place from some traveler. It is a decent budget accommodation, a rare find in Denali.
The private cabin (shack) was adequate with shared bathroom. It was clean and comfortable for the price of a hostel.
The next morning, we woke up early for the big day at Denali National Park and ordered packed lunches from the restaurant.
And headed to Black Bear Coffee House for some caffeine. The latte was soooo good we had to come back each morning.
Denali National Park and Preserve
Welcome to Denali National Park and Preserve! Denali (pronounced de-NA-lee) means the great one.
Here’s the shuttle bus which took us all the way to Eielson Center (Mile 66). These shuttles get booked up early. You MUST book them in advance if you want to take a morning ride. The shuttle service is a concession, operated by an independent operator, not by the National Park Service. So feel free to tip the bus driver if she does a good job.
Some guidebook recommends sitting on the left side of the bus for better viewing. It seemed everybody had been reading the same thing, and by the time we boarded, there was no seat left on the left side. However, from our experience, the opposite was true. More wildlife were seen on the right side (our side). So I think it just depends on luck. And luck had seemed to be on our side during the whole trip. ^^
Our first viewing of the day. State animal of Alaska – the Moose!
66 miles is a long ride in the park (4+ hours). But with beautiful scenery and wildlife, I didn’t get bored.
Sleeping Dall sheep
A red fox
We were extremely lucky to spot a wolf (though not enough time to take a picture) which is quite rare. There are only about 80 wolves in this vast 600-million-acre Denali Park. And we spotted one! Woohoo!
Magnificent view from Eielson Center
After lunch, we took a guided Tundra walk with a park ranger and learned about the flora and fauna of the sub-arctic tundra. We also learned what to do if we encounter a bear (make noise, etc. and if all else fails, pretend to be dead by lying still on your stomach.) But if you see a moose while hiking, the only option is to run. As fast as you can!
The flora of the tundra
On the way back, I thought it would be another 4 hours of long (boring) ride, and everybody would fall asleep. But no, we saw a grizzly bear at close range.
Everyone got so excited with the grizzly.
And a flock of Dall sheep relaxing on the roadside
Up-close and personal with this enigmatic creature with gracefully curved horns
We had seen all the Big Five of Denali which are moose, caribou, Dall sheep, wolf and grizzly bear. So mission accomplished. Only one more thing. Mt. McKinley couldn’t be seen due to the clouds. And from the weather forecast, it was going to be cloudy and rainy every single day during our entire vacation.
Returning from the park, we headed to Prospectors Pizzeria. Since there is a limited number of restaurants in the area to cater for a large number of tourists, the place is busy. There was a long line, more than half-an-hour wait. So I recommend making a reservation if you can.
Of course, being an adventurous/experimental type, I ordered what you can’t normally find in the Lower 48. Pizza with Alaskan reindeer sausage and ground elk! The irony is that it actually looked and tasted just like regular pizza in the Lower 48 with regular sausage and ground beef. It wasn’t bad at all though.
The 30% Club
As we finished our dinner, the cloud disappeared and the sky became clear. It was my husband’s persistence and determination to see the peak of Mt. McKinley, so he suggested we go back to Denali Viewpoint South at Mile 135 for a small chance to get a glimpse of it.
Now it was 9pm, and we were at Mile 237. To go back and forth means a 200-mile drive for a ‘small chance’ to see the peak of Mt. McKinley before the clouds returned and before it got too dark. At 20,156 feet, it is so tall that the peak gets covered in the clouds most of the time. Statistically, only 30% of visitors ever get to see the peak of Mt. McKinley. It was the only chance we had, and we were glad we took it.
Mt. McKinley has been fascinated by aspiring climbers since the early 20th century. It is the highest peak in North America as measured from sea level. However, it is THE world’s tallest mountain on land as measured from base to peak. (Mt. Everest, on the other hand, is not as tall when measured from base to peak. It is considered the world’s highest peak from sea level because its base sits on the highly-elevated Tibetan Plateau.)
Just two days after we came back, a tragedy happened. Four Japanese climbers were killed by an avalanche. May the Spirit of Denali guide their souls to eternal peace. BTW, I was struck by two facts from the news. First, this 5-member team was from the Miyagi Workers Alpine Federation. It was just last year in Miyagi Prefecture that the tsunami which was caused by the 9.0 magnitude earthquake had devastated the whole area as we all had seen in the news. Secondly, the average age of this team was 60! The sole survivor is 69! I mean, what would you plan for your summer vacation when you retire at 60? Cruising the Caribbean with your grandkids or climbing Mt. McKinley with your ex-colleagues from work? Tough choice, huh?
Anyway, I can now claim the membership of the 30% Club :). On the way back to our place, we almost hit a moose crossing the highway!
I was totally exhausted by the time we arrived at our cabin around 1 A.M. (which was like 5 A.M. for me who still couldn’t adjust to the Alaska time zone.) The next morning we were to drive further north to Fairbanks and meet Santa Claus in the North Pole.
So keep posted!
P.S. A friend suggested me to write about HAARP in this post since it is also in Alaska. What?!? This is a travel blog, not a conspiracy theory one. (Perhaps in another blog, starting with my favorite subject: Ancient Aliens.) Lol. Anyway in Fairbanks, I did visit University of Alaska, the co-founder of the HAARP program. :) For those who don’t know what HAARP is, google it. You’ll find interesting stuff, including an accusation that HAARP was behind last year’s Japanese earthquake!
Disclaimer: I’m not a conspiracy theorist. I’m just fascinated by them. ;)