I live my life by YOLO, so when my buddy Robert approached me about going to Alaska, I said why not! The plan was to rent a minivan and journey around Alaska, doing a lot of hiking and trying to spend the least amount of money as possible (we returned our sleeping bags to WalMart…) – what could go wrong with that kinda plan.
Places We Visited
While it’s not a complete map of places we visited (due to the spotty cell service), I was able to get some of the places mapped on Google Maps Timeline…
Day 1: Arrival and Whittier
The original plan was to head down to Seward and work our way up, however during the drive out of Anchorage we realized that wasn’t going to work with the weather. At the point when we made a decision to stop in the area, watch the weather, and make the plans in the morning.
One of the goals of the trip was to not stay in a hotel, so we looked on the map for somewhere to stay the night outside of Anchorage. While doing that, we discovered the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel, a 2.5 mile long tunnel that takes you under a mountain and into Whittier, so of course we wanted to head out that way.
The tunnel is one lane, with a railroad track that you drive on, and is one way. You have to wait for the direction you are going to open up, which I believe rotates every 30 minutes.
In Whittier, it’s pretty much a dock with warehouses and one giant apartment/condo building that houses the majority of the people there. What the town lacks in everything it makes up in nature tho – as its surrounded by mountains and water. We parked the minivan on an overlook that gave a great view of the water and a nearby glacier.
Day 2: To Denali and up Baldy
With the weather holding up north of Anchorage, we woke up early and headed north, with the end goal being Denali National Park. On the way up, by chance I noticed a trail on Google Maps on our route, so we pulled over to hike Mt. Baldy, a mountain just outside Anchorage. We expected an easier hike, but once you get to the summit of Mt. Baldy, you’ll notice there is actually a much taller mountain behind it, which of course we hiked.
Most of the day was spent hiking and we arrived in Denali at nightfall. There were some lessons from the hike, such as we needed bear balls, Robert’s expensive boots might have issues, and the minivan can’t handle being pushed thru turns up a mountain.
Day 3: Denali
Denali is an interesting setup, with a little tourist town setup near the entrance of the park and a lot of touristy-hikes near the entrance. Beyond that, there is a road that travels deep into the park, topping off at 92 miles long. You are limited though to how far you can go, stopping at the Savage River, at mile 15. Beyond that you have to take a bus or be apart of a tour group.
Even with that, there are a ton of things to see and places to hike within that 15 mile limit. We hiked three trails in one day and visited different parks of the park, seeing mooses, beavers, and a coyote (in addition to some amazing views).
If you are ever visiting Denali, a little tip is there is a RV campside just outside Denali (probably 20 minutes) that offers hot showers.
Day 4: Fairbanks and the Hot Spring
From Denali we made our way to Fairbanks. In an attempt to see the Northern Lights, we drove out to the middle of nowhere in what turned out to be a US Airforce Installation – unfortunately we didn’t see the lights. In the morning, we visited downtown Fairbanks and then made way to the Chena Hot Springs, which is two hours north of Fairbanks. The hot springs was setup with hot tubs and a pool indoors and the hot springs outdoors. The water in the springs was pretty hot and it lived up to what I expected.
After the visit to the springs, the drive to Wrangell National Park was started.
Day 5 / 6 / 7 : Wrangell
Wrangell National Park, which is the largest national park in the United States, is divided into two sections (or at least from what I understand it). The first section is the Nebesna Road, a 41 mile gravel road that goes in the flatter section of the park. The minivan made it to about mile 19 before we had to head back, due to a creek I wasn’t so sure about crossing. One hike was attempted, but the bugs go to us about a mile in.
That night we found Uncle Nicolai’s Inn, a bar/inn located right outside the park. Uncle Nicolai (or who I’m assuming was him) let us park the minivan on the property that night.
To get to the other side of the park, in particular, McCarthy and Kennecott, you have to travel down the McCarthy Road, a 60-mile gravel road. It starts from the town of Chitina and goes to just outside McCarthy (there is a river and about mile that separates the road and the town). To travel the road it takes about 2 hours and takes you across a single lane bridge and deep into a valley. There are no gas stations or stop offs during this time.
When we arrived at the end, which is basically a gravel parking lot next to a river, we were pretty confused, not expecting to just have the road end at a river. There is a pedatrian bridge however that you can take and then walk into town, which we did and grabbed some food. There was a slight problem with the food however, as we got it to go and then realized that walking thru the woods at night with hamburgers in the middle of bear country probably isn’t the best idea. Also that there is a restaurant that serves great hamburgers in the middle of no where – that was interesting.
The next day Robert went ice climbing – I’m not as adventurous, being hours from civilization, so I stayed in “town” for the day. The town of McCarthy is basically a few restaurants and a hotel or two, all of it kinda feeling like a hipster camp. It did however have free public wifi, which was a blessing (for me).
During his ice climb, Robert met a guy named Brian from Boston. Brian hung out with us for the rest of our stay in McCarthy and went on our big hike.
By far the worst night of the trip was the second night in McCarthy, with the temperature getting pretty low in the minivan. Unfortunately we didn’t have enough gas to run the minivan at all and make it out back out to the near gas station, so it was stuck in the cold for us. I would compare it to the time I was in NYC for New Year’s Eve in a blizzard.
The next day was our Kennecott Copper Mine tour and then a hike up to a bunkhouse located in the mountains. Long story short on Kennecott, it was a copper mine ran in the early 1900s that was its own town in the Alaskan frontier. Over its time, it generated over $200 million in revenue and had some of the highest efficiency rates of all time.
After the tour, we hiked up to the Bonanza Bunkhouse, which was a bunkhouse located outside the Bonanza Mine at the top of a nearby mountain. A good amount of the trail was straight up incline, which was a little difficult. The views were amazing however and it was mind-blowing that people brought up all the supplies to build the bunkhouse and the mine.
Based on the night before, we made the call to drive out of the valley and the national park instead of doing it in the morning – no way we could stay in the minivan in the cold again. The drive was a little sketchy, driving in the dark on a gravel road for two hours and all. We did manage to get gas in Chitina and made the journey back to Anchorage.
Day 8 / 9 : Seward and Kenai Fjords
Seward is a little beach (Alaskan beach) town locates south of Anchorage. It sits right next to the Kenai Fjords National Park, which is known for its glaciers. We arrived to Seward a little late, as a pitstop in Anchorage had to be made for pizza and new hiking boots, so our hike to a glacier was cut a little short, but we did manage to get some views in. That night we made camp outside of a city campground on the beach. I managed to wake everyone up in the campground at around 1AM attempting to exit the minivan to use the bathroom – the alarm went off and we couldn’t find the keys.
In the morning we took a six-hour boat tour out to a glacier. At the glacier, the crew was able to get ice that had fallen off and made everyone margaritas with the ice in it. While that was pretty cool, the trip back was extremely choppy and the margaritas did not help. On the trip back, there were orcas that swam around the boat.
- Alaska is truly the last frontier
- Be sure to use bear bells, they are worth just the peace of mind (vs if they actually work)
- Alaska is huge – we put almost 2,000 miles on the minivan
- The Alaskans we met referred to us as either outsides or lower 48ers
- Go ahead and switch cell providers – T-Mobile was pretty bad, had to grab a AT&T prepaid SIM card
- Always stop for gas, even if you don’t need it
- The prices of goods in Anchorage is relatively the same amount to the rest of the US from as far as I could tell – once you leave the metro however prices skyrocket