I don’t even know where to begin about Alaska. This place is incredibly magical, WILD, remote and possibly one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. There were a lot of things we witnessed and experienced in this incredible place, while spending a couple weeks between Fairbanks, Denali National Forest, Anchorage, Seward and the cherry on top, Hatcher’s Pass. I knew that in order to really comprehend the vastness of this place, we needed more time. Unfortunately, as you probably know, late September isn’t the most ideal time to be in a place that is known for brutal weather and its winters. We were averaging high forties to low fifties fahrenheit during the day, and high twenties and low thirties at night, and the idea of having to sleep in the van in even colder weather sounded really unpleasant (we do not have a heater), so we explored what we could and decided that we would be back for another round of venturing in the near future.
Luckily, we had another pleasant border crossing from Canada to Alaska and we were grateful for it. The hours and hours driving through the rest of the Yukon Territory without cell service were great because not only did we learn A LOT from the podcasts that we downloaded prior, but it also helped us enjoy the views throughout the drive without distraction as our journey continued into the Northern wilderness. Here is a list of some of the podcasts that we really enjoyed learning from:
- Coffee break Spanish (language learner)
- Dirtbag Diaries (Incredible and inspiring outdoor adventure stories)
- Lore (Stories of Folklore and the dark sides of history)
- Revisionist History (Amazing eye-opening stories that have been overlooked or forgotten)
- Philosophize This (philosophy)
- Outside/In (about the natural world and how we use it)
Once we gained access into the state, we arrived in Fairbanks and visited the Morris Visitor’s Center where we learned that there were huts in the back countries of Alaska that are maintained by MCA (Mountaineering Club of Alaska). This is important information that will be relevant in the later part of this post. We also read about a hot spring destination called Chena Hot springs, but as soon as we realized it was a resort, we decided against it and headed to our next destination, Denali National Park.
Once we entered Denali and made a quick stop to the Visitors Center, we learned that Denali is a very very remote National Park that only allows a certain number of vehicles in per season to maintain the park’s fragile ecosystem. The season begins in May, when the park holds a lottery for visitors that applied to take their own vehicles into the park. If you are chosen, you have access to the park at the end of the season once the shuttles stop running (Mid September). Since we didn’t know about the lottery and we arrived in Denali the last open week of the season, we lucked out, but we also missed out on the opportunity to explore further into the park because we were unprepared. They have daily shuttles that take hikers/backpackers into the park, but those also stopped running for the season by the time we arrived. There was some good news though; there was a sled dog demonstration going on that afternoon, and we both love animals, so if there is an opportunity to spend quality time with them, we will.
There have been sled dogs working in Denali NP for over 100 years, and they still use them today because during the winter months, the sled dogs are more reliable than motorized vehicles. The pups are trained early on and become full fledged sled dogs by the time they reach two years of age. They serve the park until they reach 9 years old and then get adopted to new homes. After they park rangers gave the sled dog demonstration, we visited the main training facility building and it was covered with the name tags of all the previous dogs that have served in the park over the last century. Here are some fascinating facts we learned that day about these brilliant animals:
- Sled dogs ideal environmental temperature is -20° F………..
- They have big fluffy tails that they use to cover their nose when they sleep so they can keep the heat close to their bodies
- Each dog on a sled team pulls an average weight of 60 lbs, but they can carry a lot more
- They seriously LOVE their job.
- Each dog in the sled line has a very specific role based on where they are placed in the sled line.
- Front Leaders (most experienced with good environment instincts & listen to commands)
- Swing dogs (learning from the leads, helps turn and keep pace)
- Team dogs (horsepower of the sled)
- Wheel dogs (strongest)
- And basically everything else that you read about in the last paragraph
We hiked back to the van after the demonstration/dog cuddles and decided that since the park was still accessible for the first 15 miles from the entrance, we would explore and hike Savage River the next day. We found a quiet spot along the road to settle in for the night in Chugach National Forest and we were very grateful for the views.
The next day we hiked the 2 mile Savage River loop trail just before the rain moved into the area and since the rain decided to stay, we headed out of the park towards our next destination. Denali, we fudged up and didn’t get the chance to explore the way we wanted, so I vow that we will be back to experience more of your great wilderness very very soon.
The longest part of our visit took place in Anchorage. Our first adventure was a hike in Winner Creek. It wasn’t a difficult hike, but there was a very fun hand tram that took hikers across the gorge in a 2 person metal cage that was hung from one side to another on a pulley system that we used to get ourselves across. The hike itself was about 6 miles long and had some of the most lush green forests we have ever seen.
We also had friends that lived in town, so after the hike, they introduced us to Kincaid Park and then to the best pizza joint in town (Moose Tooth Pizza), which was followed by “IT” at the local cinema during $5.75 movie nights! While spending 5 days in Anchorage, this is what we learned about the 49th state:
- Internet is still metered in a lot of places in Alaska, and because of this Blockbuster still exists
- There is NO sales tax in Anchorage
- Food costs more because everything is shipped, but if you have a Costco card, all the prices are the same as the lower 48.
- There is a fresh water spring that flows from a spigot on the Seward highway by mile marker 109 1/2, where locals come to fill up water containers with clean natural water.
- From the Seward 1 HWY, you can see the Bore tide in the Turnagain Arm Bay. A bore tide happens when a rush of water comes into an inlet after an extreme low tide during a new or full moon. The low tide is so extreme that the bay looks just a smooth and glossy mud flat for miles between the mountains before the tide comes back in.
- During the summer, they do experience temperatures in the 80-90 degrees F
- The Aurora Borealis is visible under the right circumstances and isn’t always easy to catch. During the fall, the lights are a greener hue and other colors appear later on in the winter. Get away from the city lights on a clear night for best viewing. It also helps if its a new moon. During our stay they said the best time to see it is around 2-3am, but we were lucky enough to catch it around 10:30-11:30pm.
Thanks to our dear friends Bruce and Alexx, we learned a lot about Anchorage and what it has to offer, so the following day we decided to go back to Kincaid Park for some mountain biking. We went on a 8.8 mile ride picking our route on the following trails: Middle Earth Trail > Mighty Bike > Toilet Bowl > Boiling Alley > Tower Power > Change of Pace. The trails were very well maintained and because there was only 790 ft of elevation gain throughout, the rolling trails were a blast to ride in such a lush environment. On the last mile or so though, on the Change of Pace trail, Szymon and Izzy rode ahead and took a left turn that was surrounded by tall brush. I was picking up the rear about 5 seconds behind them and approached the same turn as I saw Szymon whiz by. While preparing to lean into the corner, a big black bear popped its head out of the bushes onto the trail. I yelled BEAR as I hit the breaks in a panic slowing out of the turn, too afraid to look back behind me. I knew not to run, but every part of my being told me to (that fight or flight response happens very quickly), but I got off my bike and saw Szymon coming towards me with the bear spray in hand and he watched the bear just saunter across the trail and back into the bush. Here was the problem.. The bike path on that portion of the trail are switch backs and the bear was cutting right through it, so we didn’t know if we should ride or walk until we knew the coast was clear. I have NEVER in my entire life encountered a wild animal of that size in its natural habitat. When people told me about bear encounters, I brushed it off thinking it would never happen to me, but never again will I underestimate bear country. They share the land with people up there and their habitat is shrinking as our population grows. It is important for us to do all that we can to make this world a safe place for all of its inhabitants, so if you want to explore the Alaskan wilderness, ALWAYS CARRY BEAR SPRAY, and bring bear bells.
The following couple of days consisted of home cooked meals with our friends, visiting the Anchorage Museum, working out of cafes, some indoor climbing at Alaska Rock Gym and learning that if we don’t close the freezer door all the way, we will have an ice melt in our van.
From Anchorage our next destination was Seward. It was a difficult decision to make because we heard that Seward is always raining this time of year, but while we were on the way there we were able to visit the Animal Conservation Center and the Exit Glacier that is located in the Kenai Fjord National Park with light rain. Our visit to the Exit Glacier was a real eye opener because there were markers along the road that showed where the glacier used to sit during different periods of time. Within just 1 century we saw that the glacier has receded over a mile into the mountain pass.
Seward is a small port city located in the Kenai peninsula and its landscape is surrounded by mountains. The clear crisp air was filled with the salt of the sea and even though a lot of the town has shut down for the coming winter, the stillness of the town was a beautiful sight. Since we haven’t had seafood on our trip so far, we decided to stop into a local spot that serves a “Bucket of Butts”, which is their spin on fish and chips and it is done right with hand breaded halibut and fries. We highly recommend it, along with a bowl of seafood chowder. Afterwards we grabbed a coffee and headed down to the beach and took some time staring out into the infinite views of mountains that meet the sea.
Finally, after all that, our last destination was awaiting us. Remember how I mentioned the MCA manages huts in the back country and Hatcher’s Pass trail? Well, that was our last hoorah before leaving Alaska and it took place in a small town just an hour and a half outside of Anchorage called Palmer. We prepared our backpacking gear (Izzy too) and headed to the trail head just 15 miles outside of Palmer; the Gold Mint Trail that leads you to the Mint Hut and Glacier. The hike is a 9.3 mile hike with 2500 ft of elevation gain. We started the hike mid day and the first 4 miles were beautiful and well maintained with wide open views of the mountains surround the pass. The following 4 miles were a bit muddier because of the rains and we had to break brush a bit more to get to the base of the mountain with, so far, a total elevation gain of around 800 ft. We were also in deep bear country so we had to yell “Hey bear” every few minutes or play music to let them know we were around. Then came the final ascent. In the ratings we read that the hike was easy, and we learned later that it was considered easy on the mountaineering scale, but if you’re just an average hiker from LA, this can be a pretty big challenge. If you choose to take this on, be prepared. Once we got to the base we look up to see a mountain of boulders that we had to climb to get to the top. Since they were boulders and not dirt, there was no trail at that point and we had to follow the cairns to know that we were headed in the right direction. The final 1700 ft of elevation gain happened in the last mile as we headed straight up the mountain (I will never complain about switch backs ever again). Once we reached the top and turned the last corner, we saw the little hut, and it was the most glorious thing we had ever seen.
It is a small hut that sleeps 9 with gas lanterns, a toboggan, an outhouse just for poo, sleeping bags/pads, a dining table with cards and board games and last but not least a journal. The journal was filled with entries from previous hikers that have visited the hut and they had some amazing stories to share. Backpackers from all over the world came to this place and shared their experiences and some of the stories dated all the way into the 1970’s when the hut was first built. We spent the night reading other people stories and realized how much world there was to experience. People are capable of seeing and doing so much in a lifetime, I wonder sometimes if we even have the time to see it all, but these people have taught me that if you want it bad enough, anything is possible.
The next day we woke bright and early surrounded by the cold air of the mountains. We repacked our bags, warmed up the last of our water for tea and began our hike back to the van. A side note: There is an opportunity to hike up a bit higher from the hut to see the Mint Glacier and also another route which leads you to a traverse that takes you to the Bomber hut. This Mint Bomber traverse is used when people wish to take a multiple day hike through the pass. The Bomber hut gets its name from a B-29 bomber that crash landed in the pass in 1959 and is still there for adventure seekers to see. If we had a few extra days, we would have loved to have hiked the whole pass, but that will also have to wait until next time. Remember that these huts are managed and maintained by the MCA and the contributions matter. If you visit and you are not a member, apply beforehand on their website and leave the hut in better condition then you found it for others to enjoy.
Once we got down the mountain and made it back into town, we hobbled into a thai restaurant with major hunger pains. Then the realization came… The views and hike are incredible, but I hike for the food reward after an adventure. Thank you Alaska for all that is your wondrous glory and the memories made. We will be back to explore more very soon. With love, K & S.