Alaska Trip Recommendations:
Alaska recommendations and other thoughts
While my recommendations are what my wife and I enjoy doing on our trips, to/from Alaska, others will have different preferences.
For a first or second time trip to the Great Land, I consider it to be a “get acquainted” venture. Alaska is so large, covering so much territory, that it is best looked at and thought about as being at least five different areas to visit.
It has been written that if a person drives on all the paved highways of Alaska they will see approximately 5% of the state, add the gravel roads and the total seen goes up to about 10%. To many people, visitors and residents alike, this is what constitutes Alaska to them.
The vast interior of the state, centered around the Fairbanks area, is the Alaska of Jack London, of the gold miners of ’98, of the severe winter weather and the hot dry summers. It is the area of the state, in most parts, under laid with permafrost which brings large boggy areas, stunted tree growth and many rivers and creeks. Gold was what made this part of the state famous and the remnants of this mining activity are still visible today. This is the area of numerous hot springs, Chena, Manley, and Circle to name three. Most of the rivers in this area are slow moving, some very large and long such as the Yukon.
The old miners claimed that to really understand Alaska you had to spend a winter, living on the banks of the Yukon, and if you did survive, you would never be able to leave Alaska ever again, at least not in your mind.
South Central, the Railbelt, the Banana Belt are all names used for referring to the area of the state around the Mat Su Valley, Anchorage and the Kenai Peninsula. Anchorage developed as a service center to the military build up during WWII, the Mat Su was a planned farming, homesteading community and the Kenai came about more as a commercial fishing area and later as a playground for Anchorage. In my opinion Anchorage is just another large city that could be anywhere and fit in fine. The similarities to Seattle are great IMHO. It is just smaller in size, has about the same climate due to the Japanese ocean current and is dominated by the military presence. A strange situation is that Anchorage is the largest Alaska Native village in the state. More indigenous people live there than any other town or village in the state.
Even though during my working years in Alaska I had to spend a great deal of time in Anchorage, to me it is so un-Alaskan that I never grew to like or enjoy it. People living in other parts of the state tend to make fun of Anchorage residents for thinking they are living the Alaska life style. The standard comment about Anchorage is that the best thing about it is that it is only a 20 minute flight to Alaska from there. LOL
In Anchorage a visit to the Alaska Cultural Center is a must. Palmer is a good place to stay to make day trips to the Mat Su Valley, including Independence Mine State Park north of Palmer.
We like to watch the float planes land and take off at Lake Hood and at Merrill Field, where my wife got her pilot’s license. Anchorage has some beautiful bike/jogging trails, nice parks scattered throughout town, shops and several campgrounds. Night life is abundant, everything a person could want I would say. A club, for every taste or lack there of, is open somewhere in town. There are two universities located here in town, U of A, Anchorage and Alaska Pacific U, a private school.
South East, the panhandle, is the coastal region from Ketchikan up to about Haines/Skagway. A land of giant trees, fiords, rain forest, fish and lots of wildlife. Last summer, 2004, we took the ferry trip, for the first time from Skagway to Bellingham Washington. What a great experience. Somewhat costly with the RV along, but well worth the cost to us. Since it is public transportation and not a cruise ship, it is somewhat plain in décor but very comfortable. Our cabin was fine and the food served on the ship was good and reasonably priced. Highly recommended trip, at some time, for visitors.
West Central is best known as a commercial fishing area, both sport and commercial exists here. This is the area around Dillingham up toward Bethel. Over all this is a region that very few people ever visit as tourists. Very few Alaska residents will ever venture out this way either. Alaska residents, as a group, really don’t travel much in their state. Many will claim they do but what they mean is that they drive around all the road systems in the central part of the state. Some might even venture off the roads in a boat for short trips, while others, especially bush pilots will wander the state. It has been my experience that to find an Alaska resident that has been to Barrow, to Kotzebue, Nome, Bethel, Dillingham is virtually impossible. When Alaska residents get vacation time, most head outside to where they have family or head to Hawaii.
Most Alaska residents live in the Banana Belt region of the state and Alaska’s population is the most mobile of any state. According the US Census data between 1995 and 2000, the last official census date, over 56% of the population moved either into or out of the state. A politician’s dream come true. The state’s population is much like a parade. The section of the population that considers themselves to be Alaska Native don’t fit into this movement in and out so the non-native group would actually be much higher on moving. Much of this is due to the movement in and out of military personnel as well as those up for a couple of years of adventure.
The Kenai Peninsula gives me mixed feeling. As Anchorage has grown in population over the last 49 years that I have been going there, more and more of this population growth uses the Kenai as a playground. On summer weekends, the roads and campgrounds can resemble a Los Angeles freeway and I find the crowds are not what I love about the state. The Kenai has some of the most beautiful rivers, lakes, glaciers, forests and mountains anywhere on the road system. For many years we owned property on the Kenai River, just up stream from Soldotna and finally sold it because of the crowded conditions both on the roads, in the stores and on the river. Some visitors feel that the Kenai was the high light of their trip, so again different strokes. The boat tours, the fishing and photo ops are outstanding. A visit to the Kenai is mandatory for a first time visitor though to check it out for themselves. Some people fall in love with a town or spot and go back repeatedly on future trips. Homer is our favorite place on the peninsula, especially camping on the Spit. Combat fishing at the Russian River is one of those experiences that some fisherman enjoy and others are appalled. The fish caught there are fine eating and not too hard to catch a few red salmon.
The last and most diverse part of the state, to me, is the Arctic and the Bering Sea coastal areas. Much of this area has not changed for time gone by. People still hunt and fish, gather wild plants and berries, speak an ancient language that isn’t European in origin. The land of the Eskimos, the polar bears, seals, whale hunting still takes place, for food in the homes and many others that come to mind when one thinks of Alaska. Very few tourists or residents ever visit this part of Alaska. I am always surprised at people that will visit Alaska 3, 4, or 5 or more times and never travel to see the north and western parts of Alaska. To even come close to understanding what Alaska is all about, a trip to the Arctic/Bering Sea region is mandatory at some time in ones life.
All routes to and from Alaska are long. The majority of the roads you will be on are paved two lanes that I would rate from good to very good, with some areas of road construction. Just slow down in the construction areas and where the frost heaves have damaged the roadway. Some folks try to drive at Interstate speeds and damage their RVs, which always seems to come as a surprise to them and they try to blame it on the roads. Most of our trips on the Alaska Highway have been round trips from Alaska outside to the lower 48 and back. Most of our trips ended up going through Oklahoma to visit my parents and then on to Florida to visit with my wife’s folks. We have used the East Coast route, up through New York, over into Canada and across, we have used the West Coast route through California but most of our trips have been through the central parts of the US. We have family in Bellingham so when we go see them we use the western Canadian highways to get to Dawson Creek but other wise we normally swing over to Colorado and north crossing the border at Coutts/Sweetgrass. We have never had much of a delay there as we have run into north of Bellingham trying to cross the border.
Things to see and do on the way, excluding the lower 48 places.
Drumheller, AB has one of the finest dinosaur museums that I have ever visited. It is located just west of Calgary and worth a visit. In Calgary, sort of a cowboy town in many ways, there are lots of places to visit, such as the former winter Olympic site, etc. In Edmonton you have the “mall” which on one trip we spent 3 days there as our daughters loved the water park, and all the other things to do. Not like any other mall I have visited as I read it is the number one visited tourists attraction in Alberta.
To the west are the national parks of Banff and Jasper, just spectacular. Sharp jagged mountains, many glaciers to view and photograph, lots of wildlife to view. Just south of there is the Waterton Peace Park which is the Canadian part of Glacier Park. Radium Hot Springs is worth a visit. (I enjoy hot springs) Then on north to Dawson Creek and the start of the Alaska Highway. The Rocky Mountains are off to the west the entire trip until you get into Alaska. Very low elevations and no bad passes to have to cross. We like to stop in Liard Hot Springs for a day, Watson Lake and the other towns along the way. Whitehorse is fun and lots to do there with great campgrounds available. Last year, 2004, we found the campgrounds filling up by 4:00 PM and I plan to make reservations this coming summer the day before. Some people claim you don’t need reservations anywhere but I differ in opinion after the 2004 summer. Prior to that I might have agreed with them. It was so hot that summer in the Yukon and Alaska. It was 94 degrees F when we stopped in Whitehorse and the same when we pulled into Fairbanks. Lots of RV air conditioners going.
In Fairbanks ride the riverboat Discovery, drive out to Chena Hot Springs, Photograph the oil pipeline, visit an old gold dredge north of town, pan for gold, visit the Ester area west of town, tour Alaska land (now called pioneer land) spend some time at the museum located at the University of Alaska. Just enjoy the frontier atmosphere and attitudes of the locals here.
Then south on the Parks Highway, stopping in Nenana for a short visit and on to Denali Park. Continue on south to the Mat Su and to Anchorage. Then to the Kenai Peninsula, to Soldotna, Homer, Seward, do some fishing, touch glaciers, etc. Then back to Anchorage for a day or so and on to Glennallen and south to Valdez. A stop to visit Chitna, is fun along the way. Valdez has several boat tours if you haven’t already done enough on the Kenai. Not a bad tour in Valdez. You can no longer tour the oil loading facility across the water from town due to security. Valdez is one of the most non-tourist spots on the water IMHO. It can get somewhat crowded during salmon runs from all the fisherman but you don’t get the large crowds of people from Anchorage for the most part as they are all on the Kenai fishing.
Then start heading back north to Tok and back to Whitehorse. A side trip to Dawson City is fun. It gives you a taste of a long gravel road, somewhat like the Alaska Highway was before it was paved. The trip to Skagway is just outstanding for scenery and a visit along the way at Carcross is enjoyable. (good camping available) Ride the train in Skagway, walk the shops and spend a couple of days and head back to the Alaska Highway or take the ferry over to Haines and up the Haines Cutoff to Haines Junction and back down the Alaska Highway or the Cassiar Highway if you want to do the western route back south. Stop and see the bears and salmon at Hyder/Stewart on the way.
Alaska is so large it is impossible to see it all. We owned and tried to wear out 5 airplanes plus numerous RVs and boats trying to see the state. My wife and I are both pilots and have flown, over/to, many places in Alaska. With our jobs we traveled extensively throughout the state. For 17 years I averaged 3 to 5 air flights a week, many with me as the pilot.
Travel guides and books – While the Milepost is still the best book for a mile by mile description of the trip, watch the ads/narrative descriptions, as they are written by the business owners and some have very active imaginations of what they would like to have their business resemble.
Bell’s Travel guide is good, smaller in size. For camping I prefer the Church book of Alaska Camping, very honest reviews of the campgrounds. Anything else you can read about Alaska before you go will help you be prepared for what you see or where to go to see what you want to see. After your first trip you will know what you want to do and see much better. Are you mainly interested in the history of Alaska, the wildlife, bird watching, hiking, boating, mountains, glaciers, fishing, etc.?
As you can tell I love Alaska, after living there for over 25 years, and still consider it to be home, even though I have come to accept that it is doubtful that I will ever return to live there, just to visit in the future. Now if we could take our grandsons with us it might change things. Not much of a chance of that happening.
Campgrounds we like and enjoy:
Jasper NP – Whistlers CG run by Parks Canada – Large and beautiful, rustic setting, lots of wildlife wander through the CG.
Whitehorse YT – Hi Country or Pioneer CGs
Tok – Sourdough CG or Tok Village
Fairbanks – Rivers Edge CG
Anchorage – Anchorage RV Park – Now closed – We now stay in Palmer at the Homestead RV Park.
Homer – Heritage RV on the Spit is nice by has gotten too costly IMHO. Will find somewhere else next trip.
Valdez – Sea Otter CG (now closed by the city) and Bear Paw CG. (they have two parks and the adult one is very nice and on the water)
Seward – Stony Creek CG – Nice, of the large gravel parking lot type campground as are many in the north.
Carcross YT – Montana Services CG – new and in 2004, the rates were $11.60us for full hook ups.
Skagway – We stayed at the Garden City campground – All three in town are OK and are all somewhat crowded during the summer.
Paxson – the forest service or BLM campground just a few miles in on the Denali Highway is one of our favorite places to camp. No services but beautiful and some times full of mosquitoes .
Liard Hot Springs Campground – fills up early in the day during the summer.
White River Campground – YT – great views and an excellent salmon bake on site. – Salmon bake has stopped as have fuel sales. New name as well.
Any of the Provincial or Territory operated campgrounds are good and tend to be in scenic areas. Very few with hook ups but normally not needed in a normal summer. (weather wise)
Any of the campgrounds run by Parks Canada are excellent.
Some recommended books, to read before hand and to take:
The Milepost – Mentioned above.. While it is becoming bloated with advertisements, it is still the most information available on Alaska Highway travel and the approaches to the highway. I currently have 48, yearly editions, of it in my collection. And will be getting the 2012 as soon as published.