It wasn’t Alaska’s close proximity to Russia or my desire for foreign policy experience, or to check up on former Governor Sarah Palin that I chose Alaska as our vacation destination. Perhaps it was Shah Rukh Khan, working on a NASA project in the cool confines of his Recreational Vehicle (RV) in the heart of rural India, and the popularity of Alaska as an RV destination that tipped me towards the idea.
My wife and I weighed an Alaskan RV tour against the package cruise. A cruise could potentially cover a lot more ground, but we really wanted to be on land, soaking in Alaska’s beauty that we had only seen in pictures and documentaries thus far. We were told, rather emphatically, by many sources, that Alaska was custom built for RV vacations.
The RV will definitely slow you down. You will not hit all the spots, and you will definitely not find a fakir to sing along and entertain you on the way. But what you may likely find is an Alaskan brown bear by the highway, thumbs up, looking to hitch a ride; or tiny white dots of Dall sheep dotting the landscape; or an eagle emerging from the water with a fish in its beak or perhaps a fish doing the Alaskan dance trapped between the jaws of a bear. You will be able to leisurely lose yourself in the spell binding mountain scenery, the Glacier’s stark landscape and the incredible views of glacier capped peaks.
In Denali National Park around the summer solstice, the sun rises around 3:30 a.m. and sets after midnight. We visited Alaska in August and dusk set in a little after 11p.m. We loved the longer daylight. Anchorage has an average high of 65 ° F and an average low of 52 ° F in July—which is presumably the warmest month. It rains almost three times more in August compared to June. And if you are interested to check out the Northern Lights, and willing to brave the freezing temperatures and snow, October and later might be the time frame to consider.
We booked our flight tickets to Anchorage and made RV rental reservations along with the Denali Park bus ride reservations. The Teklanika passes for the Denali bus ride is a critical planning aspect as they do get sold out very early. Having taken care of these details months in advance, we leisurely built the rest of the agenda. It isn’t too difficult getting reservations for RV camps, which means you may wait to make those when your plans are truly finalized. Most RV camps have cable/water/electric hookup but we always checked prior to making the reservation. We also got our kids engaged in the process with a bit of Alaskan history, Blu-Ray documentaries, Ice Age, Glaciers and more—to help set the mood and expectations. We got the latest Milepost from the local library, the intention being to read the book as we drove. The Lonely Planet and the AAA Alaska Handbook were excellent references in planning our agenda.
Our RV, a Ford Winnebago, worked out very well, giving the kids room to relax within the confines of the vehicle. There were times when they did not want to step out especially when faced with inclement weather conditions. For us Silicon Valley residents, given to planning vacations to the very last detail, it makes sense to take some time to relax. A true test of a vacation is when you go back to work and someone comments “You look so relaxed, what have you been doing.” That tells you that you got some bang for the buck.
For those of us watching the bottom line, the economics of renting an RV maybe the same as that of hotel rooms, but the intangible benefits include the convenience of not packing/unpacking every (other) day, a built in restroom, home cooked hot meals and transporting a bedroom. The shower area is a bit cramped. We preferred using the RV park showers, which were clean and well maintained. Do carry some good water proof gloves for the dump. Is it easy to dump the waste? I did it twice and it takes about five minutes. It isn’t that bad, seriously.
Day 1—San Francisco to Anchorage
Make sure you seat yourself on the right/starboard side—that way you get some great views of the glaciers in the southern part of Alaska.
Picking up our RV, we cautiously drove to the nearest Fred Meyer grocery store. My wife, with commendable foresight, already had a shopping list prepared that included milk, yoghurt, water, drinks, fruits, cooking oil, paper products, juice, bread, dishwasher liquid a.m.ong other essentials. We had planned our meal before our trip and it just needed execution. Being vegetarian does impose constraints, and planning ahead made sense. The tour saver coupon book saves a bundle, too. You can get the coupons in most stores in Anchorage and on eBay.
We had reservations at the Anchorage RV Park that night. It is an excellent facility, clean, wonderful staff, nice lots that provide privacy along with wireless internet access.
Day 2—Anchorage to Denali National Park
The next day, we began early. It drizzled all through the beautiful scenic drive. The portion of Route 1 from Anchorage to Willow is at least two lanes—and pretty much carefree driving. Beyond that, Willow to Denali is one lane. I found it hard to go beyond 55 mph. Some sections have tire grooves dug into the freeway, and it felt like we were losing control of the RV as the tires rode those grooves, but they are probably very useful during the winter months. We made sure that we were fueled and stocked before we entered Denali. There aren’t any paved roads inside and driving an RV was a slow process. I highly recommend that you refill at the Riley Wilderness Access Center and use the dump before entering Denali.
There are two choices while staying at Denali—The Teklanika (Tek) Campground and the Riley Creek facility. The advantage of staying at Tek was that we could catch the later 7:25 a.m. bus, as against the 6:15 a.m. bus if we had stayed in the Riley Creek facility. We had reservations at the Tek, a beautiful location in the midst of amazing foliage; you can distinctly hear the flow of the Teklanika river from this camp ground. What’s the catch? It does not have water/electrical hookups/shower facilities. The restrooms have flush toilets and running water (weather dependent). In retrospect, camping at the Tek didn’t work out for us, as we really missed the electrical and water connections and clean showers. Tek has a three night minimum, but we checked-out after the first night and luckily found a spot in Riley.
We got the Tek pass at the Wilderness Access Center. This pass allows the use of the park shuttle buses throughout the stay at the Tek Campground. This helped us avoid a slow RV trip back—which we would have discovered only after getting to the Savage River checkpoint. The pass cannot be used to re-enter Denali National Park. If you go toward the park entrance beyond mile 20, you will need to purchase another shuttle ticket to reenter the park.
Day 3—Inside Denali
The next morning, we were at the Tek campground bus stop at 7:20 a.m. to catch the Shuttle to Wonder Lake. Ideally, get into the earliest shuttle (starting at 5:15 a.m.) for your wild life viewing pleasure. This was the only vacation day that mandated an early start; a long 86 mile/10-12 hour Tundra tour. Be prepared to board 15 minutes prior to departure. No food or water is available in the park on the shuttle route, so carry a back pack. Also, try to sit on the left/port side of the bus for the Mount McKinley viewing. Wild life can pop out from any and every direction. Sharp eyes are well respected in the bus. Riley Creek Mercantile across from the Wilderness Access Center sells food items.
We were quite keen to check out Mount McKinley, having been to Mount Whitney a couple years back. Statistics indicate that only 14% of the visitors get to peek at the peak. We were lucky. We had been warned that wild life viewing was not as good as at Yellowstone—and it lived up to its reputation. We saw a few Dall sheep, a grizzly bear that crossed our bus’s path and some Caribou. We saw a grizzly bear—it was completely blond and unlike any bear we had seen so far. After spotting it, the driver immediately turned the engine off. A hush descended on the bus as everyone peered into the vegetation to spot the bear, cameras clicking, kids focusing their binoculars, while some folks squinted at the landscape trying to spot it. The bear looked agitated, and kept moving as if in a drunken stupor. Suddenly we saw the bear cross the dirt road right in front of us. The bus crowd gasped, some in delight, some in surprise. But then just as quickly, the grizzly bear, the king of Denali, disappeared into the dense jungle.
Some would say Denali is over-hyped. We were constantly comparing it to the African Safari and Yellowstone. We had allocated three days for our Denali trip, and in retrospect, it may not have been worth that much time. You may want to consider rail tours that are conducted from Anchorage to Denali and back, which might be more time efficient.
Day 4—Drive back to Anchorage
The day we drove back to Anchorage, it was drizzling throughout the day. Having an overcast sky was a welcome change, providing a different water drenched perspective. As usual, there were frequent RV stops. It was a two lane highway, and the best we could manage was 50 mph. Suddenly, we see this black bear starting to cross the highway. By the time I hit the brakes, it had crossed over and disappeared into the Chugach State Forest. What immaculate timing!
At Anchorage, we visited the Alaska Zoo to see other Alaskan wildlife. Back in Anchorage, we took the opportunity to refill our pantry and visit the Anchorage museum, which provided a good overview of the Alaska Pipeline and the Great Earthquake of 1964 that measured 9.2 on the Richter scale.
Day 5—Drive to Seward
The next morning, we explored the Alaskan Native Heritage Center, right next door to the Anchorage RV park. The tickets were a bit expensive, even with the AAA discount. We took the 45 minute walking tour around the lake. Live actors demonstrated how native Alaskans used to live in the bygone eras.
We continued on our drive to Seward. Seward is named after the Secretary of State, William Seward, who bought Alaska from the Russians for two cents an acre. Alaska, twice the size of Texas, was called “Seward’s folly” until gold and subsequently petroleum was discovered, and then Seward was anointed a genius. Due to time constraints, Seward was our final destination in Alaska. We headed to the Kenai Fjords National Park for the Alaskan glacier experience. The park is capped by the Harding Ice field, a relic from past ice-ages and the largest ice field within United States borders.
On the way to Seward, we stopped to board the cruise to Portage Glacier. The Visitor’s Center there has an informative movie on glaciers, which is mandatory to watch prior to the cruise. Talking to the Ranger at the Visitor’s Center, I got some interesting tidbits on life in Alaska. Apparently, last winter they were so snowed in, they had to send a Ranger through the dome of the rather tall Visitor’s Center to get inside the building. The river next to the Visitor’s Center freezes every winter—five feet deep, hard as a rock, with folks camping out on the ice.
We got the 50% discount deal for the last cruise of the day to Portage Glacier. This was our first glacier sighting. It got very cold in the upper deck and we were glad to have our gloves and jackets on.
At Seward, we stayed at the Stoney Creek RV Park, which had clean restrooms along with water, wi-fi, cable and electric hookups. It is surrounded by thick forests and in the night we could distinctly hear the sounds of animal life. We looked forward to the Kenjai Ford cruise the next day.
Day 6—Kenjai Ford Cruise
We had booked this cruise a couple of days before our flight from California. The cruise ship is actually a catamaran, but very comfortable with heated cabins. The lunch and dinner were quite good, prepared and loaded from their restaurant at Fox island, where the catamaran had made a brief stop for the pickup. This island offers excellent cabin accommodations. The cruise covers wildlife and glaciers as advertised. The captain of the ship patiently answered all our questions. The cruise ship took us to the base of the Aialik Glacier. This was like being at the IMAX movies, an unforgettable experience traveling through icy water and listening to the crunching of ice chunks. Intermittently, the cruise ship would shut off the engine. A hush would descend upon the shivering crowd on the deck, as we heard the rumble of the glacier pieces breaking off and falling into the ocean. It was at the time when whales were heading towards Hawaii to spend the winter there, and we did see a couple of humpback whales. We also saw sea otters, sea lions and lots of different bird species. The boat does rock quite a bit in free float mode after the engines are turned off. If you are prone to sea-sickness, remain seated in the heated cabin.
Day 7—Exit Glacier and Hardinge Ice Trail
We got up to hear the rain beating down hard and reluctantly left the campground to check out the Exit Glacier and to do the trek to the Hardinge Ice Field. There are three trails, one leading up close to the glacier, another (center trail path) giving you a top view of the glacier, and the 3rd Hardinge Trail, which is a 7.7 mile strenuous trail that apparently goes above the tree line. There was a bear family that most hikers were “bumping into” on this trail. Due to the prevailing damp and cold conditions we turned back fairly quickly. As we walked towards the Exit Glacier, there were signs showing how the glacier had receded over the years starting from the year 1917. The base of the glacier is starkly barren with no sign of vegetation. It clearly demonstrated to us the power of the glacier as it eroded and cut through everything in its path, leaving the dark brooding landscape filled with tiny rocks. We did procure a chunk of the glacier ice (hundreds of year old ice) and it sat in our refrigerator for a few months.
Day 8—Drive to Anchorage Airport via the Wildlife Conservation Center
As we left Seward, the scenery was quite awe inspiring; the calm lake waters and overcast skies making it quite serene and peaceful—and then we see this bald eagle flying by against the dark overcast sky. What an amazing sight! We decided to stop by at the Wild Life Conservation Center which is a few hundred yards away from the Portage Glacier exit. We got up close to the wildlife and also got some great pictures.
Sadly that brought us to the end of our vacation. We parted ways with our faithful RV to board our flight back home. A memorable trip indeed—with gigabytes of pictures and videos as proof. What you may want to additionally consider are: Iditarod National Historic Trail, the cruise to the Glacier Bay National Park, driving the Deathly Dalton Highway, catching Sight of the Northern Lights (after October), taking the helicopter ride to Katmai National Park/Brook falls for the world famous bear viewing, scenic drive from Anchorage to Homer, driving up to Fairbanks, the Arctic circle, Juneau or Valdez. As we took the flight back, we could not help but reflect on how Alaska is ideally suited for an RV vacation. We took the plunge, albeit with some trepidations—but RVing across the broad landscape of Alaska became the highlight of our vacation. If we did it, you can too.
Rishi Kumar lives in the Silicon Valley with his wife Seema and two boys. Rishi’s day job is in the Tech industry selling software. In his spare time, Rishi volunteers for charities, is involved in local politics, and produces the community TV show, “Saratoga’s Got Talent.”
Rishi also loves blogging on varied and myriad topics as “The Silicon Valley Rishi.”
This article was first published in June 2012.