With my recent trip to Alaska, I’ve finally made it to all 50 states. I had reached my 49th state back in 2012, so this was a long time coming. Alaska is so big, it’s going to take several visits to see a much of it, and even this visit will take more than one blog post to cover.
Unlike many of my trips, this really was more about the destination than about the journey. I’ll add a few details about the flight later, but let’s start with the scenery. By the time we reached our hotel, the Fairfield Inn Midtown Anchorage, it was around 2pm (6pm back home), but with so much to see, we set out to explore. About 45 minutes south of the city is the resort town of Girdwood. In winter, skiing is the thing, but in summer, hiking and mountain biking takes over. We took the tram up Mt. Alyeska for some scenic views of the Chugach Mountains and the Turnagain Arm of the Cook Inlet.
Here’s a tip for anyone planning to visit the area. Instead of just paying for the aerial tram ride, pick up a “ride and dine” ticket for an extra $9 a person. The Bore Tide Deli & Bar offers soup and sandwiches (try the salmon chowder). That extra $9 gives you a voucher for $20 in food, which would cover the aforementioned soup and sandwich. Stroll on down to the bar for an Alaskan Amber or another local beer. With views like this, you might want to stick around for more than one before you head back down the mountainside.
The following morning we headed south again along the Seward Highway, this time past Girdwood and out to the Kenai Peninsula. Anyone who has driven this route or taken the train out of Anchorage will remember the scenery. In the late afternoon, the sun shines across the water making photography tricky. In the morning the low clouds and fog sometimes linger. During low tide, the mudflats dominate. When the water level is higher, beluga whales frequent the area. We spotted a few. No matter which way you look, mountains, many covered in snow and ice, are almost close enough to touch.
The primary purpose of this trip was not to visit borough (county) seats in Alaska, but when traveling this far, I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to “collect” a few. Soldotna, the seat of the Kenai Peninsula borough, is a few hours southwest of Anchorage. The drive was spectacular. After rounding the end of the Turnagain Arm and crossing the Twentymile River, the road turned west and began climbing. We’re not talking any serious elevation here, maybe 1,000 feet, but coming from sea level, it’s noticeable. We picked up the Sterling Highway near Tern Lake and continued along the Kenai River, a popular spot for fishing and rafting. We saw quite a few small boats out of the river with tourists or fishermen and even noticed a few salmon heading upstream in the clear water not far from the riverbank.
By lunchtime we reached Soldotna. At the mouth of the Kenai River, there’s a wetland and wildlife viewing area where we saw a few dozen birds and even a couple seals, but for me, the more impressive sight was Mt. Redoubt, an active volcano that last erupted in 2009, on the other side of the Cook Inlet. The mountain is 10,197 feet, but as the surrounding terrain is mostly around 1,000 feet, Mt Redoubt looks taller. It also didn’t hurt that from our perspective, there were no other mountains nearby. After lunch, we got a slightly closer look from the eastern shore of the Cook Inlet just south of town. While standing on a bluff maybe fifty feet above the water, a bald eagle zipped past. He probably flew within fifteen feet of us, but disappeared behind a stand of trees before we could get a good photograph. Oh well. Over the course of the trip, we probably spotted one or two eagles every day, though none closer than that one.
From Soldotna, the road continues on to Homer, where much of the Alaska fishing industry is based. We decided not to drive the extra 75 miles, instead choosing to visit the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge on the edge of town. The refuge is enormous (almost 2 million acres), meaning we only got to see a very small part of it. We hiked from the visitor center through the woods and down to Headquarters Lake (someone clearly put a lot of thought into naming it ). At one point along the trail we were surrounded by absolute silence. No birdsong, no insects buzzing, no wind rustling through the trees, no sound from a nearby stream, nor even a hint of any man-made noise. It was eerie. I don’t recall ever being somewhere so completely devoid of sound. The silence didn’t last. Before long, we began to hear a few bird calls, and a short time later the wail of siren far off in the distance. Turns out, we weren’t quite so removed from civilization as it seemed during the moments when every sound in world seemed to have been switched off.
It was mid-afternoon by the time we headed back. The return trip to Anchorage took less time than the drive out, mainly because we made fewer photograph stops even though the scenery was just as spectacular. We just enjoyed it from the car. The FFI Midtown Anchorage is a perfectly serviceable hotel sitting between a Motel 6 and a Crowne Plaza a few miles south of downtown. While it was a great use of a couple soon-to-expire free night certificates, there’s nothing special or unique about the property. Stay at the downtown Marriott (like we did our last night in town). You’ll find far more to do within a few blocks than at the FFI.
Near the beginning of this post, I promised a few comments about the flight between ORD and ANC. Gate to gate was about 6½ hours, mostly over the wilderness regions of northwestern Canada. Signs of civilization were sparse, though occasionally a town or city along a lakeshore would pop into view. Things really got interesting once we reached Alaska and crossed the Chugach Mountains north of Valdez and Whittier. I snagged a few cellphone photos of the mountains and glaciers out the window as we made the approach to ANC. The last one is for all my aviation geek friends.
So that was just the first day and a half of a week-long trip. I don’t want to shortchange the glacier cruise out of Whittier or the full day tour into Denali National Park, so look for those posts in the coming days.