Discover wild Alaska

The supersize grandeur of the far north ― its glaciers, its mountains, its wildlife ― is more accessible than ever
Steven R. Lorton

Barely a dozen miles out of Anchorage, the electric sense of impending adventure hits. My wife, Anna Lou, and I are driving along the edge of Turnagain Arm, where great jagged peaks capped with ice cut into the deep blue sky across the inlet. The air is chilly and clean and smells faintly of cedar.

In a land where the summer sun hardly sets and distances are better measured in travel time than miles, outside perceptions are easily challenged. Alaska certainly is big, yet a trip here can be easily managed and affordable. Some of the state's most dramatic scenery, including Kenai Fjords and Mt. McKinley, is on our 10-day, 878-mile driving itinerary.

This vast subcontinent that burns into the imagination doesn't wait long to reveal itself. Our first stop is because of a moose.

Anchorage to Seward

We see this particular moose from the boardwalk at the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge. After logging a few more miles along Turnagain Arm, we pull over to break out the binoculars again. The blurry spots of white out on the water turn out to be beluga whales, and we watch as they cruise the receding tide.

With the number of times we stop to sightsee, we're lucky it's only 60 miles to the coastal-mountain resort town of Girdwood. Built around a ski area tucked into a stunning glacial valley, Girdwood is the kind of low-key town that makes us think of moving here.

At Alyeska Resort, an aerial tramway climbs 2,028 feet up to hiking trails and a top-of-the-world view stretching back down the valley to Turnagain Arm. There we stand, encircled by snowy mountains and counting seven blue-iced glaciers wedged between peaks.

Later, the cacophony around the bar at the Double Musky is nearly deafening. Locals flock here because the restaurant's smallest steak weighs in at a pound. But it isn't the beef that draws us, it's the heavenly halibut ceviche and house specialties such as étouffée and crawfish pie. The menu makes sense when you meet Bob Persons, who moved here from Alabama with wife Deanna and opened the restaurant in 1979. The adventuresome food complements the local lifestyle.

The sun's still up when we climb into bed at 10, and it's up when we rise at 6 the next morning to head south to Seward and catch a boat tour of Kenai Fjords National Park. This overlooked park is a don't-miss experience. Even when the clouds are low and occasionally spitting rain, the steep-walled inlets where grumbling glaciers plow into the ocean are spectacular. In places, the boat gets so close to the rocky cliffs that we expect to hear an agonizing scrape. Sea otters are everywhere.

Heading back to Seward, I notice that my tongue is still tingling from the glacier ice the crew brought aboard for us to taste. Exhilarated and exhausted, I turn in for the night.

Next: Seward to Gakona

 

Seward to Gakona

The brisk air that comes off the water at Whittier is redolent of salt water, creosote, and fish. As the E. L. Bartlett pulls from the dock with our car safely aboard, we see hundreds of fishing vessels in the harbor. Thousands of seagulls flap into flight, squawking and swooping as they escort the boat away from the second-largest rookery on Prince William Sound.

Captain John Klabo brings the ferry close to shore at Bull's Head Point, where hundreds of barking sea lions lollygag in the sun, some nursing month-old pups. We take cups of coffee onto the deck to view humpback whales and pods of orcas. The ferry pauses only when it passes the Columbia Glacier. As we watch, the distant, towering wall of ice groans; then, with a horrendous splitting sound, an enormous vertical slice of ice pulls away and crashes into the sea.

The ferry revs back to life and later passes Bligh Reef, where the Exxon Valdez ran aground in 1989, spilling 11 million gallons of oil into the sound.

Driving off the ferry, we head into Valdez ― rebuilt after it was hit by a tidal wave caused by the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake. It's now the terminus of the 800-mile Trans-Alaska Pipeline and portal into the vast, unpopulated Alaskan interior.

Heading north on Richardson Highway (State 4), we speculate about how little Alaska has changed in the last century. This road is so lightly traveled that, while paved, it's dusty where we pass the massive ice falls of the Worthington Glacier State Recreation Site. About 65 miles north of Valdez, we pull over at Pump Station 12 for a good view of the pipeline, which slips silently through the brush like a metallic anaconda.

While there are the scruffy basics of a town at Glennallen, places like Gakona and Copper Center are barely villages. To the east are the peaks of the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve, some topping 14,000 feet. These stops are among the last places in the state where you'll find a doorway into the early days of the Alaska frontier: the roadhouse.

A rambling collection of old log buildings put together with wood dowels, the Gakona Lodge and Trading Post dates back to 1904 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Barbara Strang greets us with a welcoming Alaska smile.

"When you were out in the middle of nowhere in brutal weather, the roadhouse represented civilization and safety," she explains. "Travelers found a warm place to sleep, buy food and supplies, rest horses, or get attention for frostbite. It was the area hub. There aren't many of them left."

We take our spot in the dining room for Strang's fresh Copper River red salmon, simply grilled in a cookshack out back.

Gakona to Denali National Park

Hoping to see as much wildlife as possible, we get up near sunrise ― about 3 a.m. ― to start across the 134-mile Denali Highway (State 8). Just over the Tangle River, the pavement becomes gravel and the potholes get big. We slow down, pulled along by the majestic scenery. Vast sweeps of marshy valley stretch out before us; the massive mountains to the north change colors by the minute in the cloud-filtered light of an endless day. Streams dammed by beavers form little ponds.

Five hours after starting out, we pass our first car: Everybody waves. We drive into the cloud of dust they've left behind; they drive into ours. Finally we reach Gracious House Lodge and stop for breakfast.

Three hours later, we roll into Cantwell. The car is filthy and both of us are caked with dust, but we feel outrageously courageous. We're ready now for the ultimate Alaskan wilderness, Denali National Park & Preserve.

Ranking right up there with Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon as one of America's premier parks, Denali is about as wild as most people will ever want to experience. Here, just 250 miles south of the Arctic Circle, grizzly bears meander along the roads, caribou feed with calves in tow, and mountain goats and Dall sheep cling to high outcroppings. There's never a question that the 6 million acres of park belong to the wildlife ― despite the well-managed herds of tourists who come to look, all aboard buses.Because of its size and shuttle-bus access, this is a park you can barely see in two days; given the stunning landscape and wildlife, you may want to stay longer. Not once during our visit, however, do the clouds part to reveal the park's most prominent landmark: 20,320-foot Mt. McKinley, which towers above the Alaska Range.

Next: Denali National Park to Anchorage

 
Denali National Park to Anchorage

We take our time heading south on the George Parks Highway (State 3), stopping to hike and pulling out at Denali State Park viewpoints to try to glimpse Mt. McKinley. Still no luck.

Farther south, the bush town of Talkeetna is the staging area for most of the climbers who attempt to summit McKinley each year. Fat-tired planes buzz the nearby airport, taking climbers, guides, and gear to mountain base camps.

Until he retired from working as a guide two years ago, Talkeetna resident Brian Okonek spent most of his summers on Mt. McKinley. Friends say he's summited more than 25 times, but Okonek talks about McKinley with soft-spoken respect. "The mountain is always in control," he says. "You go to it, and it decides what you do and how you fare. It has immense power. The power of life and death, really."

That night, while we sit on the deck of the Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge, the clouds finally lift long enough for us to see the mountain that the Athabascan people still call Denali. Rising majestically above the rest of the range, it embodies what Okonek was talking about.

The drive up the soon-to-be-paved road over Hatcher Pass is one of the great secrets of Alaska. Don't rush it; it's narrow in places and the drops are sheer.

Beyond the pass, we visit Independence Mine State Historical Park and take a hike ― our last taste of the wild before reaching Palmer. As we head back to Anchorage, it doesn't take long to reenter the contemporary world. Gas stations appear at regular intervals, traffic thickens, a huge sign advertising car sales pops up.

Our drive into the heart of Alaska has revealed a diversity of people and complexity of geography that, like views of Mt. McKinley, can be elusive but are there to be discovered. This untamed country can get into your blood. We met one grizzled old-timer who still runs a winter trapline near Cantwell and asked him what holds him here. "You don't claim this land," he replied, "this land claims you." He was right. We'll be back, and next time we'll head beyond the end of the road.

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Next: Alaska Grand Tour trip planner