We had traveled almost 3000 miles from our home in Oakhurst, CA in an old Toyota 4-Runner, which we had converted into our home on wheels, but we made it! We were officially in Alaska!
We crossed the border at about 10:30 that morning and came into the town of Tok at 1:00 in the afternoon. We stopped at the visitor’s center and learned that this small town had seen a record-setting, 78 degrees below zero in an exceptionally cold streak the previous winter (2009). Also, we had arrived right in the middle of the most beautiful weather they had seen all summer.It was mid-September by this point in our trip, and we had experienced fantastic weather. The days were sunny and warmish, but the nights got below freezing, so the notorious, Alaska mosquitoes were non-existent. For us, it was perfect.
We also had cell service in Tok, so we took the time to make a few calls. Ryan’s parents had flown into Anchorage the day before, and we found out they were only a few hours away. We made plans to meet them that night in Glennallen.
We left the Alaska Highway and headed West on the Tok Cutoff, which skirts around the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. At 13.2 million acres, Wrangell-St Elias is America’s largest National Park. Mt. St. Elias is one of the tallest peaks in North America at over 18,000 feet. Up until we were driving past Mt. Sanford (16,237 feet), I hadn’t even realized this park existed. Since we “only” had a month, and we were already 8 days in, we did not have time to visit the park on this trip. We continued driving and vowed to one day return.
We met up with Ryan’s parents as planned and stayed at a campground in Glennallen. They had rented a motor home for their journey around Alaska. I was more than a little excited to have a heated space that wasn’t our car. The 4-runner had been great, but unless we were sitting up front or laying in the back, we were outside, and the mornings and evenings at camp had been quite chilly. We were also excited for the company. The Alaska Highway in September is a lonely road.
The following morning we had breakfast at a little diner in Glennallen. It was our first, official Alaska meal out. We had a waitress from the Central Valley and a hair in our food.
Despite the interesting breakfast, the fall color on the Glenn Highway was spectacular on the way toward Anchorage. After a week of looking at impossibly beautiful fall color, we were still amazed by the colors. We stopped and marveled at the Matanuska Glacier on the way.
After nine days of beauty and solitude, Anchorage’s sprawling strip malls and chain restaurants were like a slap in the face. It was also a shocking 80 degrees. We made a quick stop for gas and took the Seward Highway in the direction of the Kenai Peninsula.
Twenty minutes later, we were running the heater on the foggy Turnagain Arm. Our Milepost guide book said this was a good place to spot beluga whales, but the tide was out. Way out. The Turnagain Arm is known for some of the highest tidal fluctuation in the world at over 30 feet. Instead, we were rewarded with dramatic, fog-shrouded views of the Kenai Mountains.
We checked into a campground that night on the Portage Glacier Road. After dinner, we drove up to see the Portage Glacier. Although we weren’t able to see that glacier, we saw several hanging glaciers on the sharp cliffs towering above us.
We also visited a salmon viewing platform by our camp. There were several that had spawned. There was also signs that something very big had been eating them there very recently. We decided to go back the next morning hopeful to see a grizzly.
The next morning we carefully crept through the willow bushes and down to the deserted platform, but there were no grizzlies to be seen. We were both disappointed and relieved. I don’t know what we would have done had we actually seen one there.
We did a morning hike through the rain forest at the Alyeska Ski Resort and spotted more varieties of mushrooms than I knew existed. We jokingly dubbed that hike, the “mushroom hike”. On a whim, we decided to take the tram up the mountain to see if we could get above the fog. We did indeed. The mountain and glacier views were fantastic.
We stayed that night at Kenai Lake near Moose Pass. We were just a little inland now on the peninsula with just enough hanging fog to make it feel very “Alaska”. The scenery was perfect, but we had yet to see any big game since entering Alaska.
The following day, we took a nature/glacier cruise out of Seward. The cruise went into the Kenai Fjords National Park, an area where almost 40 glaciers flow into the ocean from the Harding Icefield. We spotted some humpback whales, but the highlight of the tour was the glacial calving at the Aialik Glacier. Our guide said that it was the largest calving he had seen all summer. We saw the house-sized chunk fall, followed by the thunderous roar. A minute later, our boat was bobbing up and down from the giant wake. It was an awesome glimpse of the power of nature.
So far Seward was the first “tourist town” that was actually still open. We had heard a couple of times now at campgrounds, “You are lucky. This is the last night we are open.” We decided on a night out to celebrate. After a mediocre, overpriced dinner, we decided maybe we should stick with camp food. So far we had been much luckier with our weather than we had with our dining experiences. We continued to have day after day of beautiful weather, and every Alaskan we met reminded us how rare this was.
Our first stop after a night camped on the ocean at the public campground in Seward was the Exit Glacier. The sign at the trailhead cautioned us in the event of a brown bear attack, “Play dead unless it starts to eat you, then fight back.” We hiked to the glacier and picnicked by the blue glacial ice with the grizzly warning not far from our minds.
We camped at a remote public campground near the tiny town of Cooper Landing on the way toward Kenai. We set up our camp chairs next to the Kenai River and spent the evening watching bald eagles swoop down to catch the dying salmon.
My expectations of the Homer Spit were low. I pictured a big, empty sand bar that allowed dispersed camping. I was wrong! It was gorgeous. There was ocean, mountain views and even shopping. We spent a relaxing day there walking the beach and sitting by the campfire. That evening, the tide went so far out that we found the rocks we had skipped earlier that day. We also enjoyed the salmon a fisherman had given us in Kenai that morning. By the way, fresh salmon is melt-in-your-mouth, wonderfully good.
We were now at the furthest point on the Kenai Peninsula. It was that melancholy part of the trip where you have to turn around and head back. We did (finally) see our first big wildlife in Alaska on the drive. We saw two moose. We also saw two Alaskan rednecks who pulled their beater car off the road next to ours and ran over to see if either was a bull. Moose season was apparently almost over, and they were getting a little desperate.
We did a short hike out to the Kenai River. There was a lot of dead/dying salmon and a lot of bear poop. We got a little spooked as we headed back to our car and forever dubbed this, the “bear hike”. It is hard to describe the feeling of vulnerability when hiking in such a wild land. You definitely stay on high alert. At every bend in the trail, you peek around the corner hoping you are not walking up on some big, dangerous animal.
We returned to the campground we had stayed at 5 days earlier on the Portage Glacier Road. They told us it would be their last night open. I think by that time, we had closed down half of the campgrounds on the peninsula.
Even with all we had seen, the second visit to the Portage Valley was still no less dramatic. This time, we hiked to the Byron Glacier and took the 13,000 foot tunnel to the tiny seaside town of Whittier. While there, we noticed the headlines on the local newspaper of a bear mauling. We shuddered when we realized it was in the exact same area as our “bear hike” the day before.
We were now on day 16 of our trip. This was the point where we would part ways with Ryan’s parents. They would be heading back to the airport the following day, and we wanted to see Denali while the weather was still good, so we bid adieu and headed North.