Back in the 1990ies there was a TV-show on CBS, called “Northern Exposure.” Although filmed almost entirely in Washington state, in a small town called Roslyn (if you’ve seen the show, you might remember a mural saying, “Roslyn’s Café,” which in reality marks the location of the “Roslyn Café”—the mural itself is still there), the show takes place in a fictional Alaskan town called Cicely, located somewhere in the wilderness of Alaska, at least a two-hour flight from the state’s largest city, Anchorage.
Even though Cicely doesn’t really exist and the show’s producers never really explained their source of inspiration, according to some websites, it could be a mixture of many real Alaskan towns and cities. For example, Talkeetna, an old mining town 100 miles north of Anchorage, a real all-American small town with charming little houses, cafes and restaurants lined up on Main Street, and the place where many flightseeing tours to the Denali National Park and Preserve take off.
Or Seward, 127 miles south from Anchorage, that can be truly called “the Alaskan Riviera,” a characterization used for Cicely on the show’s pilot episode, located right next to the Kenai Fjords National Park and offering beautiful views to the nearby snow-topped mountains, itself having a charming old fishing village feel and look, especially in the historic downtown area.
Alaska is huge
Or it could be some other smaller or a bigger cities (let’s face it, Alaska doesn’t really have big cities; Anchorage has the population of 300,000 and the entire population of Alaska is about 738,000 with the density of 1.26 people per square mile), but that is really not that important. What’s important is, to experience the real Alaska, places like Talkeetna and Seward, and national parks like Denali and Kenai Fjords, are exactly the places you need to visit.
The thing with Alaska is, it looks quite reasonably small on the map, but if you’d hypothetically put the state onto the map of the lower 48, it would cover most of Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Missouri, Iowa and Kansas, and considerable parts of Nebraska and the Dakotas. The fact is, it’s huge. So don’t let the tiny population thrown you off—if you want to experience everything in the Great Land, you will need weeks and weeks of time.
That all is to say, the week we spent in the second-remotest state of the U.S. wasn’t clearly enough. And that’s why we did the most essential things we could—Anchorage, where you’d normally land; Talkeetna, where you take a flightseeing tour to Denali; the Denali National Park and Preserve itself; Seward in the south; and Homer on the other side of the Kenai Peninsula.
Alaska is expensive
Also, it’s important to note there are no freeways in Alaska. Most of the time you have two-lane roads (and by two-lane I mean one lane goes your way, and the other one the opposite way) and in places quite heavy traffic (I mean, there aren’t that many people in Alaska, where do they all come from?), and even though the distances between the cities aren’t that remarkable, the above-mentioned factors tend to make your drive times frustratingly long. Imagine, the 127-mile journey from Anchorage to Seward takes close to three hours; longer if you stop on the way. The Denali village is 240 miles from the state’s largest city—be prepared for a four to five-hour journey; more if you have traffic (fortunately, in the north the traffic is quite scarce). Homer, 221 miles south, is also four to five hours away from Anchorage. And if you’re crazy enough to drive from Denali to Seward in one go (365 miles), it’s going to take you the best part of the day.
Another noteworthy thing to mention about Alaska is, it’s relatively expensive. Be prepared to pay $150+ for a night of lodging (albeit, if you plan and book ahead, it may be cheaper), $15 for breakfast and $45 for steak dinner. Gas is cheaper in Anchorage (at the time we went, about $2.40 per gallon), but more expensive in the remote areas ($2.80 per gallon or so in Homer).
Alaska is totally worth it
But here’s the thing. If you want to experience exceptional beauty, great northern charm, friendly bearded people (I swear, all Alaskan males have beards!), cool weather (that, of course, is relative; in May, the temperatures in Anchorage ranged from 50…75°F; in Talkeetna and Denali they can get as low as 34°F in the morning, but as high as 75°F during the day), snowy mountains and reindeer burgers (or meat loaf, or pretty much any other meat dish), then you will go to Alaska and enjoy every bit of it.
So what if you have to drive five hours to get somewhere. So what if you have to wear a warmer jacket in what most Alaskans would call “summer.” Because when you get there, you will enjoy gorgeous views over a beautiful lake with mountain reflections; or see the highest peak in North America from an airplane; see moose, bears and whales up close in the wilderness; enjoy good food and, quite surprisingly for me, really good beer (Alaskan white and blonde ales are really, really good, even APAs brewed there are real tasty and I am saying this as someone who has never liked ales!); and see the sun at 12 o’clock in the night (and the further north you go, the more chance you have to see the sun throughout the night—that is in the summer, of course).
Yes, Alaska is totally worth it.
If you want to experience the mainland of Alaska, you will fly to Anchorage and rent a car. If you fly to Juneau, the state capital, or Skagway or Ketchikan, you will have to drive through Canada to reach the mainland, and that is going to be a very, very long drive. Of course, depending on where you want to go, you can also fly to Fairbanks, which is about 360 miles north from Anchorage. We didn’t drive up there, so I can offer no insight.
Anchorage itself is a small city that is more like an administrative center of mainland Alaska, so there’s not much to do there. In a clear weather, you can see Mount McKinley (or Denali, as it’s now called) from Earthquake Park; or you can walk around the downtown area, have a bite to eat and visit some souvenir shops. Other than that, you’ll get bored quite easily. You can also go for a little hike in Kincaid Park, but if you plan to go elsewhere, there are much better hiking spots.
We planned our route so that first we’d drive up north with Denali being the final destination, and then back south, past Anchorage to Seward and Homer; and then back to Anchorage. We had seven days altogether, and tried to fit as much as we humanly could into that very short time.
This was our entire route, altogether 1,331 miles.
On the way to Talkeetna
Little ways northeast from Anchorage lay Eklutna Lake. It’s about 15 miles off the main highway, but the views from the lakeshore are astonishing. There’s a mountain right behind the lake, so in a calm weather you could see the reflection of the mountain on the lake. Or, if you have more time, you can do a little hike around the lake. It’s in the Chugach State Park, so be prepared to pay a $5 entrance fee.
When you get back to the highway, about a mile from where you turned off to Eklutna, get off the highway again, onto Old Glenn Highway that is a little longer route, but more scenic. Stop along the way for views, but continue on towards Palmer and from there a little north until you again turn off of the highway and continue northwest to Hatcher Pass. When we went there, the pass itself was closed to traffic, so even if you wanted to drive on the gravel road (and you can’t, legally, by a rental car) through the pass, before they’ve cleaned up all the snow, the pass remains closed to traffic. You can park near the pass and do a little hike, see an old mine and enjoy astonishing views of snowy mountains while being right in the middle of them. The weather there is cold in May, but you can see definite signs of the approaching spring—the snow is melting and the road is soaking wet with mountain rivers flowing on both sides and sometimes on it.
I’m sure in the summer the pass is open, so you can, at least theoretically, drive straight through it and arrive on the other side of the mountain range, cutting your driving distance considerably, albeit it might take more time than the main highway. When we went, as I said, the pass was closed, so we drove back towards Palmer and then turned off south towards Wasilla. That road took us back on highway 3 (Parks Highway) that goes on to Denali and onwards to Fairbanks.
There’s not much to see on the road, apart from some elusive moose, or, if you’re real lucky, bears. Indeed, some moose were just by the road, eating grass, and didn’t seem to scare easily, but I wouldn’t advise approaching them as they are wild animals and can, when they’re spooked, or when they’re with calves, attack humans.
Talkeetna is about 14 miles from Parks Highway, so use a GPS or look out for the sign that tells you Talkeetna is on your right. The road that goes from highway 3 to Talkeetna is called Talkeetna Spur Road.
And then you arrive.
It’s a really small town, and the more charming it is. With nice little restaurants and cafes lining Main Street, that pretty much is the town. There are a few hotels and motels in Talkeetna, but as this is the main starting and finishing point for most of the Denali climbers, it can get really busy at times and you might be better off finding lodging a little farther away from the town.
Why go to Talkeetna? Well, depending on what you’re planning to do, this is the closest airport where you can take a flightseeing tour to the Denali National Park and Mount McKinley. We used Talkeetna Air Taxi that took us up in the air on a De Havilland Otter DHC-3 aircraft, flew us close to the mountains and also landed on the glacier inside the park. That is expensive entertainment, but totally worth it. The views were amazing as it was a reasonably clear day, and landing on pure snow and ice an experience in itself. I posted a short video of the tour, feel free to get a glimpse before you go yourself.
Another highlight is the Denali Brewing Company that has a little restaurant on Main Street. They offer reindeer meat loaf, and, more importantly, some swell brew, especially the seasonal Agave Gold.
Onwards to the north
The next day we started driving again towards Denali—another lengthy drive. But the closer you get to the mountains and the national park, the better the views get. First, you will drive through the Denali State Park where a couple of viewing areas offer amazing looks at the mountains and Denali itself—provided it’s a clear day. At times you drive right between mountain ranges where you can breathe the cool and clean mountain air and just enjoy the view.
The Denali National Park and Preserve is maintained, like all national parks, by the National Park Service (NPS), otherwise called as the most idiotic, bureaucratic and annoying government agency in the world. In all my experience with the NPS, I honestly believe no other government agency, the IRS included, is even close when it comes to all the rules and regulations that the NPS is capable of inventing.
So, if you want to experience the national park properly, first pray for good weather. When we went, it was pouring rain, so apart from a short hike we couldn’t really do anything there. But it does have the potential of providing you with a great day—or days—of hiking, wildlife and beautiful nature scenery.
Since we had already taken the flightseeing trip, we weren’t too disappointed that we couldn’t properly enjoy the park. However, if you arrive there on a good day and you have plenty of time to explore, let me explain a bit why I call the NPS the most idiotic of government agencies.
To explore the park, you can either walk, or you can take an NPS-maintained bus (which looks like an old prison bus, to be honest) that takes you inside the park. On your own, you can drive 15 miles inside the park, then from there onwards, the bus is the only option.
But bear in mind, you can’t take the bus from the 15-mile trailhead. You have to drive back to the visitor center, and purchase a bus ticket, which wasn’t exactly cheap (I don’t remember the exact price). Then, you have to board the bus from the visitor center area (it’s close by to the actual visitor center, not right at it), because if you drive the 15 miles yourself, the bus won’t pick you up from there. Other than that, when you’re already inside the park (and past the 15-mile marker), the bus is hop-on-hop-off, all you’ve got to do, is wave to the driver and they will stop.
Due to the extremely low speed limits, the buses (and the cars on the 15-mile stretch) drive real slow and thus it takes enormous amounts of time to get to places. For example, the bus takes three hours to drive 50 miles inside the park (one way!), so bear in mind that if you’re willing to put yourself through this misery, it is going to take you an entire day—or more—to get to see anything. In theory, the buses go up to 90 miles inside the park, but when we were there, the road was still closed after 53 miles.
Of course, if you have unlimited amounts of time, feel free to explore the entire park by foot. Considering that depending on the NPS eats more of your nerves than anyone deserves, it might actually be your best option. I swear, when Ronald Reagan said the phrase, “I’m from the government, I’m here to help” was the scariest in the English language, he could’ve just as well meant the NPS. This agency is the epitome of government ineffectiveness.
For lodging, there are hotels and motels about a mile north on Parks Highway, but be aware, many of them are affiliated with cruise lines, so you might find yourself in a place where the average age of guests is 73 (honest, that’s an actual average age of guests at one of those places).
We didn’t drive farther north from the Denali National Park, so I can’t comment on what comes next. Parks Highway, or highway 3, will take you all the way to Fairbanks, where you can take highway 2 (Richardson Highway) to the east. From there, you can either drive to Canada, or take highway 1 back to Anchorage.
If you take highway 2 to the north from Fairbanks, only God knows where you’re going to end up. From the map it seems the paved road ends at some point and all that’s left is gravel, but it does seem to go farther north, all the way to Prudhoe Bay on the northern coast of Alaska.
We decided to drive back south, and set aside a full day of driving with the goal of reaching Seward by nightfall (and I use that term very liberally as the night doesn’t really fall in Alaska in the summer).
Seward Highway, or highway 1 south, goes from Anchorage to the Kenai Peninsula where both Seward and Homer are located, one on each side of the peninsula. Our first destination was Seward, but there’s plenty to see on the way, too.
Part of the highway lay on the coast of Turnagain Arm, a small bay that is part of Cook Inlet, and it’s a truly scenic route with views of the nearby mountains. There are plenty of spots beside the road where you can stop and take photos, but most of these are on the right side of the road when you’re heading to Seward, so be sure to stop then and not on the way back as you may not be able to stop on the other side of the road.
Right when Turnagain Arm ends, there’s a small village of Portage where you can visit the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. We went there on our way back, but if you’re interested in bears (both brown and black), be sure to pop in. They have other animals, too, like bison, moose and elk, and even foxes.
Around the conservation center, a small road goes eastward to Portage Glacier and Whittier. There’s no point in driving to the latter, probably, but Portage Glacier again offers spectacular views of mountains around a glacier lake, and if you have time, you can take an hour-long boat ride to see the glacier up close. However, if you plan to do a boat tour in Seward, you may skip that part and continue your journey.
Right where the road splits (highway 1 turns into Sterling Highway and goes towards Homer; Seward Highway changes numbers to 9), there’s a pretty little body of water called Tern Lake. A mountain right behind it offers spectacular reflections on the lake when there is no wind—and there usually isn’t. Another lake—Lower Trail Lake—right after Moose Pass offers similar reflective views of nearby mountains.
And then there comes…
Seward is truly the Alaskan Riviera, as the town of Cicely was called on “Northern Exposure.” The moment you drive into the town, you see a marina on the left hand side and this is where you should find a parking spot. They have vast areas for parking in the middle of the historic downtown area where you can park for free for two hours.
And then, just walk around. Go on the boardwalk right by the marina; spot the sea otters bathing in the calm waters between the boats, walk around and take photos of the stunning views to the east, or go down to the boat ramps and enjoy the charm of the downtown area itself.
The weather in Seward, at least in May, seems to be mellower than up north. And even in the winter, the region gets six hours of daylight, which sound really good, considering the latitude. Some say it can get windy in Seward, but the strongest wind we experienced was when we were on the boat, cruising the waters of the Kenai Fjords national park.
There are plenty of hotels in Seward, some within the downtown area, some little ways farther from the town. Be sure to book ahead, because in high season, this beautiful little town tends to get fully booked quite fast.
If you want to do a little hike and see a glacier up close, go to Exit Glacier, a nine-mile drive from the town. Take Exit Glacier Road in the outskirts of Seward and follow it until the end, and then walk about 0.9 miles to the glacier. It’s located inside the Kenai Fjords National Park, but there is no admission fee, and it’s a nice semi-uphill walk with rewarding views.
We also took a nice six-hour boat tour to the Kenai Fjords National Park by Kenai Fjords Tours. The boat leaves at 11:30 AM and returns at 5:30 PM, and it takes you to the fjords and sounds where you can see whales, puffins, and glaciers. They also offer a rather shitty lunch, consisting of a chicken caesar wrap and some potato chips, and all their cruises are non-smoking (be sure to take your nicotine gum, however bad it tastes!). But we got to see quite a few orcas (yeah, the “Free Willie” orcas); at least two humpback whales, plenty of puffins, and the Holgate Glacier really, really close.
Remember when I said earlier that if you’re planning to take a boat tour in Seward, you don’t need to bother with one in Portage Glacier? The main attraction at Portage Glacier is seeing the ice drop in the water. Well, in Kenai Fjords, you see a lot bigger glacier with the same effect—and when those ice pieces are falling into the sea, it sounds like there’s an earthquake happening. I mean, this is huge, even though the pieces falling might only look like snow. The glacier moves about four feet a day, but if you’re lucky enough and stay at the glacier long enough, you will get a spectacle you will probably never see again.
What else to do in Seward? Well, if you want good food, head to Ray’s, it’s right on the seafront, serving good meat and fish. For breakfast, go to the restaurant at Breeze Inn, right by the parking area. For drinks, Breeze Inn is a bar as good as any. There’s also a Safeway supermarket in the outskirts of the city.
And most importantly—enjoy yourself!
From Seward to Homer
To get from Seward to Homer, you have to drive back about 35 miles to the intersection I described before, right where Tern Lake is. Turn left on highway 1 again, that now bears the name of Sterling Highway, and keep on driving west and then south, as far as the road goes.
You can stop again at Tern Lake if you didn’t get enough photos from the last time, otherwise, just carry on to the west.
Once you’re past Cooper Landing, you will be driving alongside the Kenai River that eventually flows into Skilak Lake. You can catch some views of the lake and the landscape around it, but be aware, you’re looking at an 18-mile stretch on a very dusty and very bumpy gravel road. If you’re up for it, take Skilak Lake Road a few miles past Cooper Landing, and whenever there’s a road going to the left, i.e. towards the lake, take it. Skilak Lake Road is a loop, so you will eventually get back on highway 1 and you don’t have to drive back. Just be prepared for the dust and a relatively slow drive. However, on this road was the only instance we saw a black bear in the nature, so it might be worth your while to endure the painful drive.
If you want to, you can make a little detour from the main road and drive into the city of Kenai. You take the exit to Kenai from Soldotna and drive a few miles, and there you will find an old Russian Orthodox church and a little chapel next to it. As you know, Alaska used to belong to Russia, and there are still descendants of Russians in Alaska.
To exit Kenai and get back on highway 1, you need to take a road that bears the name, Kalifornsky Highway. No idea how that came to be.
Another Russian Orthodox church comes up in the village of Ninilchik, about half-way between Kenai and Homer. This church also has a cemetery attached to it, so it might be interesting to see, especially if you’ve never been to Russia. Or, if you have actually been to Russia and would like to see parts of that culture in what is now the United States. Interestingly, about 80% of the people buried at the cemetery bore the last name, Oskolkoff. Go figure.
After Ninilchik, just keep driving south. Homer is just a short drive away. Well, considering.
The town (or city) of Homer lay at the end of highway 1, or Sterling Highway, and whatever you might have read about it, it’s nothing like that. Homer is a big town with about 5,000 inhabitants and its fishing village days are long gone. It feels like a city with a small downtown area and its main attraction, Homer Spit, that is located in the far end of the town (just drive straight through what you think is the town, and you’ll get there).
Homer Spit has kind of a Seward-like marina, but it’s nothing like Seward. It feels bigger, and it is bigger (over 5,000 people live in Homer; Seward has about half of that). The marina itself is about twice the size of that of Seward’s. It’s also considerably colder and windier in Homer, even though the locals claim it’s Seward that gets windy at times. At the marina, there’s a fair amount of restaurants and shops, a ferry terminal, a bigger hotel/spa, and somewhat a beach where local fishermen, wearing shorts and t-shirts in a 57-degree weather try to catch their dinner. Homer also has its fair share of campers at the sea shore with both RVs and tents. I can’t even imagine what it feels like to sleep in that wind and cold in a thin-walled tent.
Homer and its Spit are nice places to walk around, but if you like that small-town feel you had in Seward, then you best head back there, because you’re not getting it here.
Back to Anchorage
Homer pretty much concluded our road trip in the wilderness of Alaska. But if you have more time, you could catch a ferry to Kodiak, for example, to see what once was the capital of Russian Alaska. I have no idea, though, whether it’s worth the trip. There also are other ferry routes from Homer to elsewhere in Alaska, and if I’m not mistaken, also to Bellingham, WA, but there is no ferry to Anchorage, so you will need to drive back the 221-mile road you used to get there in the first place, if you’re flying out of Anchorage.
Bear in mind that when you’re in Alaska and your home network is T-Mobile, then you have 50 megabytes of data within your billing cycle. T-Mobile hasn’t built any coverage in Alaska and it uses GCI and AT&T networks, and since you’re in domestic roaming, 50MB is all you get. So, if you plan to use Google Maps or Waze, and post photos on Facebook, this 50MB will run out real fast. You’re better off if you have AT&T; I have no idea about Sprint and Verizon.
Depending on where you’re flying to Alaska from, it’s either a long or a very long flight. We flew from Atlanta; that meant six hours to Seattle, a layover there and then three hours to Anchorage. The best airline in the U.S. (generally acknowledged as such; I quite like it and have really no grievances) is Alaska Airlines and even though its hub is Seattle, they fly everywhere in the country. As far as I know, apart from Seattle they also have a direct route to Anchorage from Chicago—and maybe some other cities, too. Several other airlines fly to Anchorage from many cities in the lower 48; if you’re flying from outside the U.S., either check Skyscanner or your local airlines as some only fly seasonally, i.e. in the summer.
As mentioned before, car rental agencies have a clause in the contract that ban you from driving on unpaved roads. However, in Alaska, this is really not an option, because in places, every road leaving the main highway is a gravel road. My rental company didn’t seem to make a problem out of it; it was raining the day we got back to Anchorage and it washed some of the gravel dust off, even though the car was considerably dirty. Use your own best judgment. Especially, what would you do if you book a lodge or a cabin without really knowing where it is, and when you arrive, you realize there’s a two-mile gravel road stretch to reach the place?
Credit cards are widely accepted everywhere in Alaska, as in the lower 48. But do carry some cash, with those long drives you will need coffee, and it’s weird to pay $1 bills with a credit card.
Watch out for wild animals. They roam everywhere, and you don’t want to run them over. For your sake, as some of them are quite big (think about a moose going through your windshield!).
Dress in layers. In some places at certain times it may be a bit nippy; in others at other times it’s like summer in Seattle. Wear hiking boots as you never know where you’re going to end up walking or hiking. You need to feel comfortable in every weather; you’re there to enjoy everything.
And most importantly, relax and take it all in. This might very well be the trip of a lifetime.
(Well, unless you live there. Then you have the life of a lifetime.)
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