Dallas and I were able to take advantage of a deal on a rental car to drive from Skagway to Anchorage, from where we found cheap flights to Seattle. Since it’s so hard to get to Alaska, we figured we should explore some more of the state before leaving entirely. We left Skagway on a Wednesday and made stops in Carcross and Whitehorse before heading Northwest on the ALCAN. Once over the White Pass summit and into Canada, we enjoyed clear skies and roads lined with trees of autumn colors, ranging from dark green to bright yellow and orange. The Yukon is SO beautiful, but that first night of camping was FREEZING!
We drove on through places with names like Destruction Bay and Beaver Creek, and then crossed back into Alaska on Thursday afternoon, stopping in Tok and North Pole en route to Fairbanks. We were never far from a picturesque view of mountains, most of which were topped with snow. It actually started snowing on us while passing through Tok. In Fairbanks, Dallas surprised me and splurged on a hotel so we could sleep well in a warm bed. I had offered numerous times to drive, but he insisted on staying behind the wheel.
We took off from Fairbanks relatively early on Friday morning. Both of us had developed an aversion to big cities after living in Skagway all summer, and we were eager to continue on through this one. The day was mainly cloudy, and the enormous mountains surrounding us were mostly invisible. We really wanted to see Denali, but the road is usually only open to personal vehicle for the first 15 miles. A few days ago, they had opened the road up as far as mile 30 (weather dependent). We were fortunate enough to drive twice as far than most tourists who visit during the height of the summer season. Adding to our good fortune, the sun started peaking out in the distance behind the mountains as we neared the 30-mile mark. We paused at this lookout spot to eat some crackers with tuna and avocado, and by the time we were ready to move on the whole sky had transformed to clear blue, and all of the clouds were gone. At every moment on the way up the road, we were both stopping constantly to take photos. On the way down it was even more awe-inspiring.
The only thing both of us would change next time we visit Denali is our mode of transportation. It was warm and effortless to drive through, but it would have been so much better had we been on bicycles. Throughout our road trip we had to make frequent stops to get out and stretch our legs, run around scenic overlooks, do pushups, yoga, etc. On a bicycle we wouldn’t feel the need to stop to move our bodies, and we could take in all the beautiful scenery without a pane of glass separating us from all of this beauty and fresh air. Another benefit to being on a bike is that we would be permitted to ride the entire 92-mile road through Denali National Park, and not just 15 or 30 miles. The only other option to get that far into the park would be from the seat of a tan-colored school bus filled with other tourists.
Continuing south from Denali as the sun disappeared behind the mountains, we saw two moose playing in one of the creeks off the highway. Eventually, we made our way to Talkeetna, a small town best known for being the launching spot for climbers wishing to summit Mt. McKinley. The only place that was open was the Fairview Inn – an historic pub with accommodations on the second floor. The room we were given was filled with nothing but a bed, dresser, and noise from the bar downstairs, but the price was right. Dallas and I each enjoyed a beer from the Denali Brewing Company (located next door to the Fairview Inn) before heading upstairs to our room and falling sound asleep before last call.
On Saturday, we walked around Talkeetna, sampling coffee and baked goods from several cafes before heading towards Anchorage. We only stopped briefly in Anchorage to have sushi at Ronnie’s at the recommendation of Alex, a native Alaskan who I had worked with at Columbia in Portland. The rolls were so big, we took enough sushi with us for dinner later that night. Also at Alex’s suggestion, we continued on to Homer, instead of Seward, to where we had originally considered driving. Both towns are at the end of opposite roads on the Kenai Peninsula. Shortly after the sun went down it started drizzling, and we decided to stop and pitch our tent at a campground in Ninilchik. Our luck came through again when we woke up on Sunday morning to clear blue skies.
The drive out to Homer was beautiful, with mountain views on the other side of the bay. It was amazing how green the trees still were down here, while they were all yellow and orange up in Fairbanks and the Yukon. We were able to run 5 or 6 miles along the Homestead Trail after lounging at one of the only cafes still open for the winter season.
To be honest, the Homestead Trail left for much to be desired. The parking area was across the street and a block away from where we entered the trail. No big deal, once we found the trail. However, we were running up to our eyeballs in a field of fireweed that had turned to cotton, getting white bits of the plant all over our black shirts. Still, not that much of a problem. But the long grass around the trail covered up the surface, which was muddy and full of divots. Not being able to see our footing, I feared that I would twist an ankle or slip in the mud. Our fears grew worse when we accidentally stumbled upon the bottom half of what appeared to be a horse’s front leg. It looked like the leg had been sawn clean off right below the first joint. In addition to all this, the trail was inconsistent and very ambiguous. There were forks, dead ends, clearings (one of which we interrupted a steamy rendezvous between two ATVers), and eventually we had to take a road for quite a distance to get back to the car. None of our issues with Homestead seemed to bother the two big dogs who took joy in chasing us down parts of the trail, romping carefree circles around us through the muck before disappearing amongst the fireweed.
Any chance we got to move around in between long hours of sitting in the car felt great, and the weather could not have been better for us this time. We had to return the car the next morning, so we couldn’t spend the night on the Kenai. As we drove back up to Anchorage, the setting sun lit the sky behind us with shades of pink and orange. It started raining and snowing as we drove North into the darkness.
We totalled over 1600 miles on our Alaskan road trip adventure, yet we still covered less than half of the state. We could have driven more than halfway across the continental US. Another thing I find interesting is that Rhode Island, being the smallest state in the US, has more residents than Alaska. It is such a vast and wild land, empty when it comes to people, but so full of wildlife, mountains, trees, plants, water, and beauty.
The weekend before we left Skagway, we hiked the historic Chilkoot Trail. This is a 33 mile long trail that was an established trading route for Tlingit natives, but was famously used by thousands of stampeders during the Klondike Gold Rush in 1898-1900. We were lucky enough to get 3 days of dry weather for our hike – probably the only three days without rain for over a month. June and July had been unseasonably warm and dry for Southeast Alaska, but after the first week of August we had started experiencing the more typical mist, rain, fog and cool weather on a daily basis.
The most challenging section of the Chilkoot is a short stretch called the golden staircase, which rises more than 1000 feet in less than half a mile. I was in no way prepared for how rugged the climb would be, and for a few terrifying moments, I thought the weight of my backpack would throw me off balance to my demise. Once over the summit, the Canadian side was beautiful with incredible views of deep blue and turquoise lakes.
My favorite section was hiking along the gorge between Deep Lake and Lindeman City.
On the third day, we made it to Lake Bennett, where the train picks up hikers during the summer season. Since the last train came at the end of August, we had to hike 8 miles along the tracks back to the Klondike Highway, where we tried hitchhiking from Log Cabin. After 20 minutes of waiting at Log Cabin and growing colder in the increasing winds, we started walking towards Fraser, where the Canadian Customs Office is located. Only three cars passed within an hour of walking, including Officer Brown (the strictest of the US Customs officers). The third truck picked us up, but only took us the remaining mile or two to Fraser, where we were able to use a phone and call our friends to pick us up.