Help us plan an active Alaska vacation
July 21, 2019 8:47 PM   Subscribe

My father, brother, and I are going to Alaska for the first two weeks of September. We like hiking and the outdoors, unique experiences, and avoiding crowds. I have a rough itinerary; can you help me fill it out?

My dad and I will fly into Anchorage, rent a car, and go to Denali for a couple days. I think I want to hike the Little Coal Creek Trail en route but otherwise don't have any plans besides reserving space on the Denali bus. Then, the plan is to meet my brother in Fairbanks a few days later, drive down to Chitina (or welcome your suggestions) to park the rental car and get to Kennicott for a couple days (how many days? and I know about the ice caves - anything better/else to do there?), then drive to Valdez and kayak to Colombia Glacier. Next, we'd head to Seward for one day of hiking the Lost Lake Trail and another of taking the cruise up the fjords (welcome suggestions?), then a couple more days in Homer (again suggestions welcome, thinking a day on a charter fishing excursion and another (coming or going) on Portage Pass Trail). Then back to Anchorage to fly out.

We're willing to spend money where it's worth it but looking for value, not luxury; and inclined to undertake the physical effort rather than flightseeing anywhere it makes sense - for example, we're planning to hike to (hopefully) see vistas of Denali rather than taking a plane to try to catch views. My only bush plane experience I'd penciled in was the flight from Kennicott back to civilization, because it seemed to offer a unique experience while also being functional and relatively affordable. But I'd welcome arguments in contrast to this way of thinking. Also I especially welcome lodging recommendations (airbnbs?) that would accommodate the three of us. We're debating whether to bring camping gear - we have the equipment and enjoy camping in general, but not sure if it's worth it to haul all the stuff through the air for a few nights of camping, when it's getting colder and we're transiting places fairly quickly, or where the best camping sites might be.

Thanks in advance for all your help.
posted by exutima to Travel & Transportation (5 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
This is a tremendous amount of driving. Are you driving from Valdez to Seward? That’s not a short drive. Neither is Fairbanks to Chitina. Honestly my main recommendation is to maybe scale this back a bit. Homer is really nice. You could spend a lot of time there. You could go across Kachemak Bay. Same thing with Denali. If you really want to see the mountain you may want to stay a while. And there are good hikes that start at the bus stops. And so on. If you go to Kennicott you have to take the mine tour. Have fun!
posted by kerf at 11:45 PM on July 21, 2019

God, was typing as just kerf commented that that just sounds exhausting and like *so* much time in the car. If I were being honest, as a very active Alaskan I would seriously recommend you cut out the Kennicott/Valdez part of the trip; that's more of a deep cut that I think you could save for a second trip.

Talkeetna is worth a stop on the way up to stretch your legs; if you end up bagging some of the other driving maybe even stay the night there or at Sheep Creek Lodge nearby on your way up to Denali. You could drive up to Hatcher's Pass on the way and do some of a buffet of absolutely spectacular hiking if you do (Reed Lakes, for example, is one of my top 10 Alaska hikes) and then have a shower and a warm bed not quite as far away as Healy. There's a good brewery and a great local coffee/bakery/pizza shop and some fun artsy stuff. If it is a nice day, the flightseeing from there is *very* different than looking at the range from a hike far away, and it's one of the few big-ticket Alaska tourist items that I do really think is worth it if it's pretty out. I was skeptical until I did it, but it is truly spectacular.

Some amount of Kesugi Ridge from Little Coal Creek is a *lovely* hike. It's great on a crisp fall day when it's clear and the whole Alaska Range is in view once you pop out of the trees and man, good call. Buuuuut- it's not really worth it if it is rainy and gross and you can't see anything warned it's often rainy and gross in September.

If 229 Parks is still open for the season, make a reservation for a nice locally sourced dinner near the Denali entrance.

Make earlyish bus reservations. The green camper buses are cheaper and you can hop off anytime you want and just catch the next one with available seats. The best thing you can do is get. off. the. bus. and wander around- just head up a river or pick a ridge that looks nice. I like from Igloo Creek up parts of Cathedral Mountain, around Stony Hill, Primrose Ridge, up any glacial river , around Polychrome Pass and around the visitor center at Eielson, but just pick some stuff that looks pretty and wander (safely). Going all the way out to Wonder Lake and back in a day is a LONG WAY on the bus and the most spectacular parts of the park and all the best views of the mountain happen by Eielson; the last 30 miles of the road do not add much in my opinion unless it's a gorgeous clear day when you might see the mountain through the bugs at Wonder Lake (the first chance to do so since Eielson).

Seward- the boat cruise is worth it, although you're at the very tail end of the season (fewer if any whales) and the boats might not be running daily at that point so check in advance. They're all about the same, honestly, you're just choosing between lunch options etc. I always recommend a full-day cruise, because the longer you are out on the water the more likely it is you'll see stuff. Bring all your layers, including a hat and gloves and long underwear, so you can comfortably be outside and not trapped inside fogging up the windows. Lost Lake is worth it. If you're game for even more of a steep challenge, the Harding Ice Field is also worth it, even if you just go to Marmot Meadows (although I haven't tried that particular hike in that time of year). The hike out the beach to Caines Head is lovely but tide-dependent, and the kayaking in Seward is nice too. The Sea Life Center does good work and is a nice way to be inside for 1/2 a day, and their seabirds are particularly cool. The Cookery in Seward is expensive but is probably my favorite restaurant in Alaska right now.

Homer is a fun town! You could easily spend a couple days there. The hiking and kayaking is best across in Kachemak Bay, although there's no place to stay there but yurts (you'd need your camping gear). My two favorite hikes there are the Grace Ridge Trail and the Grewingk Glacier trails. You can do guided kayak tours from a couple different places on the spit or rent kayaks from a water taxi like Mako's if you are experienced. I love wandering down Bishop's Beach or down the trail to the beach Diamond Gulch (also in town). I'm a big fan of snacks at Two Sisters Bakery/coffeeshop, breakfast or lunch at La Baleine on the spit and slices of pizza at Fat Olive's. Lots of good arts/culture available as well.

Other thoughts- you could do really, really well base-camping out of Anchorage for a couple days if you nix another part and end up with a couple days you're not sure what to do with (and again, I'd think really really hard about those Kennicott/Valdez legs, oy). The hiking/biking is awesome (it'll be the beginning of the moose rut, you'd likely get good wildlife close to town), and day trips to Whittier/Portage (Portage Pass! Byron Glacier! fishing! the Wildlife Conservation Center!) and Girdwood (rainforest hiking! Crow Pass! a great dinner!), or even as far out as Matanuska Glacier (a haul, but absolutely worth it if you want to hang out relatively safely on top of a glacier) are easy. Plus there are some good inside and city options if you need a break or if the weather is oppressively grim for a stretch.
posted by charmedimsure at 1:11 AM on July 22, 2019 [7 favorites]

Wow charmedimsure, thanks so much for the incredible detail! And thanks to both for the advice: I'm going to take it and cut the Fairbanks/Kennicott/Valdez part of the trip. Welcome any more input but I have a lot to go with here.
posted by exutima at 7:51 PM on July 22, 2019

Glad it was helpful! If you come up with any other specific questions let me know; happy to spitball if I can. Hope you have a great trip.
posted by charmedimsure at 12:14 AM on July 23, 2019

bring strong bug spray. I'm not even kidding. the mosquitoes are the size of birds.
posted by evilmonk at 9:47 AM on July 23, 2019

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