You guys, Alaska!!
Of all the states to visit this entire year, Alaska was the one we were most excited for. Alaska was one of the only states we specifically planned around, since we wanted to be there for the summer solstice, or “the longest day of the year” (it can be light outside for over 20 hours that far north!). Our entire itinerary has been built around it. Since we were coming from Hawaii, it meant that our bags were packed with an unusual mix of swimsuits and coats- but whatever. We regret nothing!
One of the things that we loved about Alaska was that it felt like home to us. It felt just like Minnesota (except with ocean, mountains and bigger areas of wilderness. Damn! Those are the only things our state is really missing!). There’s a huge contingent of Minnesota and Wisconsin expats in Alaska, and the reason is obvious. When picking out photos for this blog, We fell in love with the state all over again. We had SO much fun here.
One of the things on our to-do list was Denali (formerly Mt. Mckinley)- home to the highest point in North America. The National Park that surrounds the mountain is about 4 hours north of Anchorage. We’d been advised to hold off on making plans or reservations to go up to Denali, since weather conditions are crucial as to whether or not the mountain is visible. They say it can be seen (at least partially) about 30% of the time. We kept our Alaska itinerary loose so that we could feel out the weather and go up to the park at a moment’s notice.
When we landed in Anchorage at 5am, the weather was gorgeous- bright and sunny since the sun rises so early in the summer with clear blue skies. The forecast looked good for the next few days, so even though we were exhausted from our overnight flight, we said “screw it, let’s get there ASAP!”
We rented a car on the spot, and (DUH) found that summertime car rentals in Alaska are insanely expensive. Oof-da. We could have taken a bus or train up to the park, but in the end, the rental came out close to the same cost, and we liked the autonomy and flexibility that a car offered us. So, ultimate lesson here: it’s expensive and difficult to get around Alaska! Unless you have a local connection or a car to borrow, it can be hard to do it on the cheap.
We had to make some stops on the way up, including a nap in a Target parking lot (we’re cool like that). We found a campsite outside of the park (the downside to not making reservations ahead of time in peak season), but we found a beautiful spot by a nearby lake.
We spent the next day in the park. Denali is an unusual National Park in that only a small portion is accessible to cars (the first 15 miles of road)- after that, you have to buy a bus ticket if you want to go in any further. They offer a variety of different distances into the park- the longest, Wonder Lake, is over 80 miles in, and it’s the closest you can get to the mountain via the main road. We may have slept in a little longer than we should have (hey! We had an overnight flight, remember?!), so by the time we got into the park, the furthest option was no longer available- the Wonder Lake bus takes a full 13 hours roundtrip. We picked the Eilson bus, which goes about 60 miles into the park to the Eilson visitor center and takes about 8 hours roundtrip.
The bus stops periodically, and you are able to get out and walk around at your leisure. You can catch another bus either direction if it’s early enough in the day. The park was SO expansive and full of wildlife. And, lucky as we were, we got to see the mountain! Hooray! The excitement in the air was palpable; the rangers and bus drivers kept telling us how lucky we were to see it.
49th State Brewing is located up by the park, and we visited it on recommendation from a friend. The beers were good, the bar was cute and they even had the prop bus from “Into the Wild” on their property for patrons to check out. If you aren’t familiar with the film, it’s based on the book by John Krakauer. It details the adventures of Chris McCandless, who lived off the grid for a few years until venturing into the Alaskan wilderness. He lived in the bus this prop is modeled after for a few months, but ended up getting sick and dying before the summer season was over. It’s a sad story, but a fantastic book for anyone disillusioned with society and/or interested in life in the wild.
After Denali, we headed back down to Anchorage for a couple of nights where we stayed with Carl’s cousin Brad. Upon arriving at his house, we were served musk-oxen burgers that he’d hunted, halibut that he’d caught, and salmon that he’d caught and smoked. It was insane, and all so, SO delicious. Alaska seems like a hunting and fishing paradise, if you are into catching your own food (and aren’t too afraid of bear encounters. Eek! We definitely are.) HUGE thanks to Brad for taking us in, serving us food and lending us some camping gear and his Jeep! We are eternally grateful.
We spent the next day in Anchorage, but then moved on to smaller towns on the Kenai Peninsula. Because we wanted our schedule to be flexible for Denali, we didn’t have an exact itinerary to follow once we’d crossed that off of our list. We knew we were going to hit Seward, since it is both a cool small town and the gateway to Kenai Fjords National Park– but a few people recommended the town of Homer to us, which is on the west side of the peninsula across from Seward. Based on the weather forecast, Homer was the only spot with sunshine for a couple of days, so that made our decision for us.
Thank Jesus we went to Homer! It was perhaps the GREATEST and most charming place in existence, no exaggeration. We fell for it hard- it was unbelievably cute. The main town is on the water, but there is a long strip of land jutting out into the bay called the spit. The spit is lined with boardwalks and small businesses. The spit is also where we camped on the beach each night! Homer is a common place for cruise ships to dock for the day, and seems to really thrive in the summer. We thought it was a tiny patch of paradise.
We were lucky to be in Homer for the solstice- the sun went down a couple minutes before midnight, and the moon rose almost immediately, resulting in a giant, purple sky.
We were so smitten with Homer that we were a little heartbroken at the thought of leaving- but up next was Kenai Fjords National Park in Seward! Seward, too, was a cute small town (though it pales in comparison to Homer. Can you tell how much we loved Homer? No? Well WE DID.) But Seward turned out to be pretty cool, too!
Once we were settled in Seward, we were on to Kenai Fjords. It’s another unusual National Park- it’s relatively new (it was designated a National Park in 1980), and is mostly inaccessible except by water or plane. Average folks need to make reservations with a tour company or small cruise to get into and see the park. We had dreams of kayaking next to glaciers, but our limited finances dictated that we do something less ambitious. We opted for a harbor cruise, which is what most visitors to the park do. We saw whales, sea lions, puffins- and, our very favorite- sea otters!! The Fjords are beautiful and are home to dozens of glaciers. Many of the glaciers are up in the mountains, but some are next to the water and can be seen up close by boat.
Alaska totally blew us away. It was such a fun, unique place to visit. We are already scheming ways to get back to Homer- but there are countless other towns and National Parks to visit in the northernmost state. We barely scratched the surface! Now that our trip is almost 2/3 finished, Alaska is still at the very top of the list for favorite states (it’s pretty much tied with Utah and California).