“Alaska, Alaska, I guess I'll try Alaska,
she might wait for me, I'll catch up just wait and see
Idaho, Nebraska, I don't know, ‘I'll ask ya’,
I'll try, I guess I'll try Alaska...
I sold my old piano for the rent
I loaded up on bug spray, and I found my daddy's tent
And now I'm in high gear, doin’ 45
Hummin’ a tune, I won't see the moon till sometime in July.
I guess I coulda flown or took a train,
won't see a moose when you're sittin’ on a plane.
And now there's no more road, but I got a light load,
she isn't in Alaska, I'll stay and pan for gold.
In Alaska, Alaska, I guess I'll try Alaska.”
From “Alaska”, by Phish.
For each of the last 10 years, Christy and I have taken a summer trip somewhere out west. It started in 1999, with a one week trip to Wyoming to backpack in the Wind River Range. Since then, we’ve explored the Rockies, toured the Cascades, trekked through the Sierras, and honeymooned in Hawaii. This year brought the tenth anniversary of these trips. For the occasion, I felt that a more exotic trip was in order. So we saved our nickels and dimes, cashed in our frequent flier miles and hotel points, and planned our journey to Alaska.
For years now, I’ve felt Alaska looming out there, pulling at me. I knew we had to go eventually, but planning the trip was daunting. For starters, Alaska is huge, and much of it is hard to get to. Deciding to go to Alaska was only the first step. Where, exactly, should we go?
I brainstormed many of things Alaska is famous for. Here’s a short list of what I came up with:
1) Glaciers. They may be rapidly shrinking (or disappearing altogether) worldwide, but there’s still no better place on Earth to see them. Glaciers, along with ice falls and snowfields, are among Alaska’s most scenic natural features.
2) Active volcanoes. Alaska, part of the Pacific “Rim of Fire”, has by far the most active volcanoes in the country, and among the most in the world. The Alaska Volcano Observatory considers 90 Alaskan volcanoes active or potentially active. The active volcanoes stretch from the Wrangell Mountains in the southeast to the distant Aleutian Islands to the southwest. At any given time, there is typically at least one volcano erupting, or threatening to erupt, along the chain.
3) Wildlife. Why go all the way to Africa for a Safari, when you can experience one in North America? Alaska has a wide array of wildlife, from Whales to Wolves, from Eagles to Sheep, from Seals to Caribou, and from Moose to…
4) Bears. Although part of #3 above, I felt like bears deserved their own listing. After all, bears and Alaska are practically synonymous. Black bears, grizzly bears, and polar bears all live in Alaska. If you want to see a bear, Alaska is a good place to visit.
5) The midnight sun. In northern Alaska, the sun doesn’t set for over a month in the summer. Even in the southern part of the state, it doesn’t really get fully dark for several weeks.
6) The Aurora Borealis. The northern lights are justifiably famous, but they are hard to see in the summer, thanks to #5 above.
7) Sled dogs. Alaska is home to the Iditarod – the most famous sled dog race in the world.
8) Salmon. Fishing in Alaska is world-class, particularly for salmon. We don’t fish much, but we figured we’d at least see some salmon running during our trip.
9) Gold! The glory days of gold mining may be in the past, but many historic artifacts remain.
10) Wilderness. Most of Alaska remains undeveloped. We were looking forward to exploring a tiny piece of it.
My hope was to see as many of these things as possible in 3 weeks. We knew we wouldn’t see the Northern Lights, and Polar Bears leave Alaska in the summer for cooler climates. Otherwise, most everything else on the list seemed reasonably attainable.
When I was still in the early planning stages, I asked Christy what she most wanted to see in Alaska. Her response was, “I want to see the bears”. Well, that was a start, but it was pretty vague. I pressed for more details, and she clarified her request. “I want to see the bears catching salmon”. Ah, now we were getting somewhere. I had seen enough photos and documentaries to know that there was a place in Alaska where such a spectacle could be witnessed. But where in Alaska was it?
A bit of research revealed the secret land of grizzlies fishing for salmon – Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), Katmai isn’t easy to get to. No roads lead to the park. The closest town, King Salmon, is only reachable by air. From there, a float plane or a chartered boat can get you into the park. As you might imagine, visiting Katmai isn’t cheap.
We discussed our options and our finances, but Katmai is where Christy really wanted to go. So, I searched for ways to save money through the remainder of the trip. Somehow, I came up with enough money saving ideas to completely fund the trip to Katmai. Here are some of the tips I used:
1) We cashed in our frequent flier miles with Delta for our flights to Anchorage. As a result, getting to Alaska and back was mostly free (with the exception of all of those absurd baggage charges).
2) For $100 we purchased the Alaska TourSaver coupon book (http://www.toursaver.com/index.php/home/?SGLSESSID=d928ffae05abc73c908c8fc9e1018125&/1/). The book contains over a hundred coupons, and most of them are buy one get one free. Included in the book were two activities we were already planning on doing. Without the book, those activities would’ve cost us $250 each. The book saved us a net of $150.
3) Car rentals in Alaska are outrageous. For a long trip, it might actually be advantageous to buy a used car and sell it at the end. The standard rate with Avis for a compact car for a bit more than 2 weeks was about $1800. Thrifty was slightly less ridiculous, at $1400. We were lucky here. A co-worker of mine shared with me a super special secret corporate discount code for a company that shall remain unidentified. Technically, we occasionally do work for them as subcontractors. This was nice, but I was skeptical that a corporate discount could save us a significant amount of money. That was until I made a reservation with it. The total cost – brace yourself – was around $700. That little 6-digit number saved us $1100 over the regular Avis rates! And no, I didn’t feel the least bit guilty about taking a discount I wasn’t really entitled to. If a corporate discount saves that much money, it only underscores how much of a rip off the standard rates are.
All of this saved us enough to cover the trip to Katmai, with quite a bit to spare. Katmai was suddenly affordable, but there was still one hitch – I wasn’t going to spend that kind of money for a day or two watching bears fishing. We needed another reason to go there.
A bit more research on Katmai revealed a pair of interesting backcountry trips. One was a long canoeing trip. The problem with that was that most of the likely camping areas would be infested with some of the largest grizzly bears on the planet. We wouldn’t be allowed to bring bear spray with us on the plane, so we’d be defenseless. I knew Christy would never be comfortable with that.
The other option was a backpacking trip in the Valley of 10,000 Smokes. Back in 1912, the largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century occurred in what is now Katmai National Park. The eruption caused Mount Katmai to collapse, and ash from the blast spread across the globe. For reference, the eruption was ten times more powerful than the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens.
In 1916 Robert Griggs led a National Geographic Expedition into the area. The members of his team were the first to view The Valley of 10,000 Smokes. From Katmai Pass, they gazed out over a swath of destruction. The valley was buried under hundreds of feet of ash, but thousands of fumaroles spewed steam into the sky. The discovery of the valley directly led to the creation of Katmai National Monument in 1918.
The valley is a bit different these days. Almost all of the 10,000 smokes are gone. What’s left is a desert-like valley covered with ash and pumice. Rivers, fed by glaciers, cut deep slot canyons through the ash. Surrounding the valley is a series of glaciated volcanoes, most of which are still very much active.
The valley also features some evocative names. Names like Knife Creek, The River Lethe, The Mageik Lakes, Trident Volcano, Cerebus, and Novarupta inspire thoughts of adventure, excitement, and yes, even danger.
These days, the valley is most known for frequent foul weather, including high winds that spawn massive dust storms. In addition, there are almost no official trails there. Despite these charming features, it was a place I felt compelled to visit. Ultimately we planned a 6 day trip to Katmai, with 4 days backpacking in the valley, and 2 days watching the bears at Brooks Falls.
With that key piece of the trip in place, we were left with a little more than 2 weeks to explore the rest of Alaska. Obviously we needed to establish priorities. Denali National Park was at the top of the list. The park is the very definition of wilderness, and backpacking there is a dream for hikers worldwide. We decided to save it for the end of the trip.
More pre-trip research revealed numerous hiking options near Anchorage and on the Kenai Peninsula to the south. In fact, we easily could’ve spent the full 3 weeks there without running out of places to hike. Ultimately we only spent a few days there though, which wasn’t nearly enough time. Of course, now we have a compelling reason to return.
The more I read about the Chugach National Forest outside of Cordova, the more I grew intrigued. The area features a massive coastal wetland, rugged mountains, and an impressive array of glaciers. One of them, Childs Glacier, regularly calves during the summer. The chance to see massive chunks of ice breaking off a glacier 300’ high was compelling. Cordova isn’t easy to get to either, as area roads do not connect with the rest of the state. The Alaska State Ferry stops in Cordova though, so it’s a bit more affordable than places that are only accessible by air. Fortunately, we had enough left in the budget to include this area in our trip.
Most of the rest of the trip would involve driving between all of these wonderful places. If time I allowed, I hoped that we might make a brief visit to Wrangell St. Elias National Park. Here’s how my grand plan worked out:
Part 1 Kenai: We’d spend 1 day traveling to Anchorage, and 3 days on the Kenai Peninsula.
Part 2 Katmai: From Anchorage, we’d fly to King Salmon and on to Katmai National Park. We’d spend 6 days there before returning to Anchorage.
3 Chugach: From Anchorage, we’d drive to
Whittier, and then take the ferry to Cordova.
We’d spend 3 full days in Cordova, before taking another ferry to
Part 4 Wrangell / St. Elias: From Valdez, we’d drive to McCarthy. The drive would include 60 miles of rough dirt roads. We’d spend a day or so there, before heading for Denali.
Part 5 Denali: We’d spend a full day driving, first returning from McCarthy, and then following the Alaska Range along the Denali Highway (which would include another 100 miles of dirt road). Then we’d spend 5 days in Denali National Park. That would leave us 1 day to return to Anchorage for our flight home.
Here’s a Google Map showing the first 3 parts:
And here’s a Google Map showing the rest:
The months leading up to our trip were a little stressful, thanks to Mount Redoubt. Redoubt, an active volcano, is located in Lake Clark National Park west of Anchorage. Volcanoes are beautiful, but the problem with them is that they occasionally erupt. Mount Redoubt did just that in March, spewing ash all over the Anchorage area. The eruptions wrecked havoc at the Anchorage airport, as flights were delayed and cancelled. In the following months, Mount Redoubt continued to rumble. The threat of a subsequent eruption seemed imminent. I was afraid that we’d have trouble getting to Alaska, or that we’d get stuck once we were there.
The week before our trip was filled with the usual chaos. Aside from final preparations and packing, we had the house to attend to. We had hired one of Christy’s former students to house and dog sit for us while we were gone. On top of that, she was also going to install tile in a good portion of the house. We were a little nervous about all of this, mainly because we’d never left Boone for more than a day or two. After all, he was a rescue puppy. How would he react?
By Thursday afternoon, all semblance of organization broke down, and it was time to start stuffing gear into our luggage. The evening ended as it usually does – with takeout Chinese food and beer. Luckily, our flight didn’t depart until mid-day. Despite this, I slept horribly, and woke on Friday with a massive crick in my neck. Unfortunately it didn’t subside until sometime on Sunday.
Our flights were pleasantly uneventful. Mount Redoubt remained quiet, and our flights left on time. The 7 ½ hour flight from Atlanta to Anchorage seemed like an eternity, but we were fortunate to be on a plane with individual video screens. We passed the time reading, watching movies, and playing video games. The “personal entertainment system” even had some decent music, which was a surprise. The last hour of the flight provided its own entertainment though. At that point, we were low enough to take in the scenery below us. Our approach to Anchorage was over Prince William Sound, and my choice of seats on the right side of the plane proved to be strategic. We were treated to a constant view of jagged peaks, icefields, and glaciers as we dropped down into Anchorage.
We landed at the south terminal and gathered our baggage. Inconveniently, the car rental center is at the north terminal. After a brief debate, we decided that it would be easier to walk there than to shuffle all of our luggage on and off the shuttle bus. We rented a luggage cart, and eventually found the secret passage leading to the other terminal. After a 10 minute walk, we reached the Avis counter. The walk to the north terminal was so smooth, Christy suggested that we keep the luggage cart for the entire trip. Instead of carrying backpacks, we could just roll our gear around through the wilds of Alaska! It was a pretty good idea, and I’m not sure why I didn’t take her up on it. After all, we rented the cart for $2, but there wasn’t any time stipulation on the rental. I didn’t see any reason why we couldn’t bring it back in 3 weeks.
We picked up our first rental car of the trip from Avis. It was a pretty generic rental car – in fact, I can’t even remember what it was. The only thing memorable about it was nearly wrecking it at 80+ mph on the way back from Seward. I was passing an RV when the gas paddle got stuck all the way down. I’d never experienced this before, but somehow I remembered what to do from 10th grade Driver’s Ed class. I gave the pedal a good kick, and it released. I’m still stunned that I remembered what to do. After all, I certainly don’t remember much else I “learned” in high school. My only recollection from Sex Ed is that if it burns when you pee, it’s time to see the doctor.
We only spent a couple of minutes at the Avis counter. I had gone to the trouble to print up business cards declaring that I was an employee of The Company That Shall Remain Nameless. (I’m not). I was almost disappointed when the Avis clerk failed to request identification to support my use of said Company’s corporate discount. Well, ok, I wasn’t that disappointed. But what am I going to do with all of these business cards?
Our flight was a little late, and when we arrived at REI, it was 10 minutes before closing time. We raced through the store, grabbing stove fuel, bear spray, energy bars, and freeze dried food. Somehow we reached the cash register with 3 minutes to spare. I’m not much of an athlete, but I’ll take 7 minutes to outfit a 3-week Alaskan expedition as my personal best!
From there we headed downtown for dinner. Downtown Anchorage is pretty cool. Actually, I liked the whole city. It’s a pretty big place – in fact, the population is nearly 300,000. Believe it or not, that’s almost half of the entire state! Despite this, it doesn’t feel like a big city at all. It actually reminded me a bit of Missoula, Montana, which is one of my all-time favorite towns. Of course, Anchorage is rather different from the rest of the state. The running joke about Anchorage is that it’s great, because from there, you’re only an hour’s drive from Alaska!
We attempted to dine at the Glacier Brewhouse (good marketing there, combining two things I like, glaciers and brew). It was an hour wait though, and it was already midnight Eastern Time. (8PM in Alaska). We were starving, so we shuffled next door to Orzo. Orzo is owned by the same people, but it’s a bit more expensive. We settled for spaghetti and meatballs, which were excellent. From there, we headed to the hotel. We really needed to do some grocery shopping, but we were exhausted. We decided we’d find groceries somewhere later on.
We went to bed at 10pm, which of course felt like 2am. The only problem was that it wasn’t even close to dark at 10. We closed the blinds and cranked up the air conditioner (yes, they have air conditioning in Alaska), but despite our exhaustion it still took as awhile to fall asleep.
We were up at 6am on Saturday. This seems early, but it felt like 10am to us! We took advantage of the free breakfast at the Hampton Inn before starting the drive to Seward. We had reservations for a one-day glacier cruise departing from Seward at 11:30. Everything I read suggested that the drive would take between 3 to 4 hours, and we needed to get there early. Traffic was quite light at that early hour, and our only challenge was counting all of the Bald Eagles we spotted on the way. We left at 7am, and somehow made it all the way into Seward by 9:15.
I made a few mistakes in my planning for this trip, but the biggest was probably going to Seward for the 4th of July weekend. Apparently everyone on the Kenai Peninsula, along with most of the residents of Anchorage, go there for the holiday. Seward has a fireworks display (at midnight, when it’s sort of dark), a parade, and a race. The race up Marathon Mountain above town is legendary. These days, it’s even televised. The race itself is pretty intense. The roundtrip is only 3.1 miles, but the elevation gain is over 3,000 feet! These days, there’s a men’s race, a women’s race, a senior’s race, and even a kid’s race. The event is so popular, hopeful participants have to enter a lottery to participate. I’m really glad this is the case, as I might’ve been tempted to have a go at it. The Marathon Mountain race is certainly hazardous, as every year dramatic falls and serious injuries occur. Here’s more info on the race:
We were lucky we left so early on Saturday morning. Our first stop in Seward was at Safeway, which was packed. It seemed like the whole town was overflowing with people. In fact, on the typical Independence Day Weekend, the population there swells from 2,500 to over 40,000! Of course, I was aware of none of this when I planned our trip.
Luckily we were able to avoid the crowds. We spent most of the day on the cruise, and that evening we camped 20 miles up the road at a National Forest Campground (where we had reservations). There are many areas around Seward available to public camping, but the morning of July 5th was a day I’ll never forget. On that morning, we drove up along the Resurrection River to Kenai Fjords National Park. Along the way, we must’ve passed a thousand tents strewn about along the riverbank and the sandbars. I’d never seen anything like it. It was like Seward threw a giant block party, and all of Alaska was invited.
Safeway was a zoo, so we limited our shopping to a 30-minute wait for the toilet and the purchase of a cooler. The cooler was a pretty good one, and it was on sale. Usually I don’t like to spend $23 on a cooler that I’m going to abandon at the end of the trip, but the regular price was $38. Plus, I knew from previous experience that money saved by purchasing cheap coolers is ultimately lost buying ice.
We found one of the last available spots in a $5 / day public parking lot near the waterfront. After a short walk, we checked in with Renown Tours for our glacier cruise. At that point, we had a lot of time to kill. We stopped at the Kenai Fjords National Park Visitor’s Center before dropping in on a local bakery. We really didn’t need to go in there, but it was already 2pm Eastern Time, and our bodies told us that it was time to eat. We indulged on cinnamon buns before waddling back over to the harbor. From there, we took in the spectacular scenery surrounding Seward. The town is located in a narrow fjord surrounded by impossibly green mountains. Glaciers cap many of those peaks. If the scenery was this nice here, I couldn’t wait for the cruise through Kenai Fjords National Park.
We boarded our cruise ship around 11am. The boat featured three decks, including enclosed seating on the first two. We headed straight for the upper deck and selected seats outside in the sunshine. From there, we had a nice view of Marathon Mountain. In fact, we were able to watch the first part of the women’s race from the ship with our binoculars.
We departed shortly after 11:30, but quickly decided that our choice of seats was questionable. Although it was unusually sunny and warm, the wind out on the water was fierce. We enjoyed the scenery for awhile before shuffling inside for lunch. The meal featured a bagel, cream cheese, and smoked salmon. I thought it was pretty good, if rather unusual, but Christy didn’t care for it.
That afternoon we cruised out of Resurrection Bay and into the Pacific Ocean. The trip was narrated at times by a National Park Ranger. The presence of the ranger was one of the main reasons we had selected Renown Tours for our cruise, as we felt that it lended a degree of credibility to the whole affair. We chatted with the ranger for a bit, and were surprised to find that he was from Murphy, North Carolina. After working in the Smokies for years, he had relocated to Alaska for a change in scenery.
The cruise was extremely scenic. We passed among a series of small islands, and were treated to a distant view of spectacular Bear Glacier. However, the highlight of this part of the cruise was the marine wildlife. Along the way, we spotted Dall Porpoise, Harbor Seals, Bald Eagles, Steller Sea Lions, Sea Otters, Puffins, a Humpback Whale, and 4 Orcas (Killer Whales). The Dall Porpoise were fun, as they swam alongside the boat. The Orcas were the most exciting wildlife sighting of the trip though. They surfaced several times, and eventually I was able to jostle for position to get a few photos.
The trip ended with an intimate visit with the Holgate Glacier. The glacier is a massive tumble of ice that spills down from the Harding Icefield into the Pacific Ocean. Our approach was exciting, as we plowed through hundreds of tiny icebergs. When we reached the base of the glacier, I really had no idea how big it was. Then I noticed another cruise ship ahead of us. It was another 3-story ship, but it looked like a fishing boat in front of that massive glacier.
We waited there for awhile, hoping that the glacier would calve for us. We only saw a few small pieces break off though, and eventually it was time to head back. The return was relatively uneventful, and our exhaustion eventually caught up to us. Christy and I both took short naps on the way back. Our rest was enhanced by the rhythmic rocking of the boat, as well as the motion-sickness medication we’d taken before departing.
We returned to Seward at 5:20. Then we headed to Safeway, where we picked up groceries for the next few days. The store was still a zoo, but we made it out of there unscathed. We knew we’d never last until midnight for the fireworks, so we headed for the campground. Getting out of town was probably a good move. The Ptarmigan Campground was a nice place to relax. We found our campsite in a clearing among abundant wildflowers. A lovely stream was a short walk away. Unfortunately, the nearest water pump was out of order, so I had to endure a long walk each time we needed water.
We had chicken fajitas for dinner. In keeping with our vacation tradition, we added way too many Jalapeños. They were barely edible, but I wolfed them down anyway. After all, we had a big hike planned the next day, and we couldn’t do it on empty stomachs! The Alaskan Amber we’d picked up helped wash them down, and we went to bed long before dark. The lingering light made it hard to sleep, but the temperature was perfect.
We slept in a bit the next morning even though we had a big hike planned. Of course, when you have 19 hours of daylight to work with, you don’t really have to worry much about getting caught out on the trail after dark. We dined on breakfast burritos before breaking camp and heading back towards Seward.
Our goal for the day was a hike in Kenai Fjords National Park. The vast majority of the park is essentially inaccessible. We’d seen a small portion of the coastal section of the park the previous day on our cruise. Today our goal was a challenging hike to the Harding Icefield. The icefield is massive – in fact, it covers the majority of the park. It’s at a high elevation though (at least compared to Seward), so we had our work cut out for us.
Just before reaching Seward we turned onto the road to the Exit Glacier. This road took us up the Resurrection River Valley and into the park (no fee). From here, the scenery was dominated by the wide, braided river and the surrounding peaks. Before long, we reached a pulloff, where we were treated to our first view of the Exit Glacier spilling down the mountain across from us. It was an impressive sight, but I knew that it would seem insignificant once we got our first view of the icefield. Judging from the park map, if the icefield was the size of my foot, then Exit Glacier would be the equivalent of the nail on my little toe.
From the overlook we drove another couple of miles to the Visitor’s Center at the end of the road. There I was surprised to find a rather crowded parking area. The hike to the icefield has a reputation for being tough. Of course, most of the people there were probably just doing the easy hike to the foot of the Exit Glacier. Plus, it was an unusually sunny day by Alaska standards, and a holiday weekend to boot.
Our luggage was still packed for travel, so it took some time to get everything organized for the hike. By the time we hit the trail, it was already 10:20. That left us with about 13 hours to cover the 8 miles and over 3000’ of elevation gain for the roundtrip to the edge of the icefield and back.
We started out in scrubby forest and climbed switchbacks that were relentless from the start. Although the first part of the trail is wooded, there were plenty of openings revealing the surrounding scenery. I was already busy with the camera, and Christy quickly left me behind. While she was well ahead of me, she spotted the first bear of the trip. It was a black bear, but it was a considerable distance away. By the time I caught up, it was long gone. On the other hand, I did experience an up-close, personal encounter with a Ptarmigan on this part of the trail.
It wasn’t long before we left the trees behind. Soon we were following a narrow ridge, with the Exit Glacier tumbling down through the valley on our left. We were treated to many fine views of the glacier as we climbed. Meanwhile, an impressive array of wildflowers covered the surrounding slopes. This was a pleasant surprise, as I wasn’t really expecting a lot of flowers on this trip. I’m not sure why though. After all, summer in Alaska is short, and most of the wildflowers bloom at about the same time.
I caught up with Christy again at the top of a bench, where we had a spectacular view of the Exit Glacier sprawling out below us. Up above, we were treated to our first glimpse of the icefield. It was a great view, but we knew the best was still to come.
After a break, we resumed the climb. Before long, we began passing through frequent snowfields. The snow was soft though, and the walking was pretty easy. We were in one of the snowfields when Christy spotted some Dall Sheep lounging below us. It was a large group, with perhaps 15 or 20 sheep including some young. I stopped to switch to the telephoto lens, and once again I fell behind.
The last part of the climb was a bit tedious, as we reached one false summit after another. The trail was busy along here, too, as we caught up to other hikers ascending, and passed those who’d gotten an earlier start heading down. Finally we reached a small emergency shelter, and I knew we were close. From there, it was just a short walk to the top of the ridge.
The view from there is staggering. The Harding Icefield swept out away from us, running to the distant horizon. There was nothing to see except ice, snow, and the occasional Nunatak breaking up the endless expanse of white. We stopped there for a late lunch. Although there were many people in the area, there was plenty of room to spread out, and we didn’t have any trouble finding a spot to ourselves.
We lingered for an hour or so before it was time to head back. The hike down was surprisingly hot, despite all of the ice around us. The bright sun seemed to reflect off every surface as we worked our way slowly down the mountain. At one point, we stopped at a rapidly melting snow cave and filled up our water bottles. Later we spotted the Dall Sheep again, this time traversing a snowfield above the trail.
We returned to the parking area at 5:30, hot and tired but thrilled after a great hike. From there, we drove into Seward for more groceries and ice cream. Ice cream was another thing we weren’t expecting to see a lot of in Alaska, but we were wrong! I don’t know how popular it is in the winter, but there seemed to be ice cream shops everywhere. After that, we made a quick stop at the grocery store before driving back towards Anchorage.
We had reservations at the Williwaw Campground, in Portage Valley near Girdwood. When I planned the trip, I’d selected the campground because 1) they take reservations, 2) it was on the way back towards Anchorage, 3) it was in Portage Valley, which is a place I wanted to see anyway, and 4) it was close to the trailhead for a hike I wanted to do. What I didn’t realize was what traffic would be like on the way back to Anchorage on Sunday evening. It was all smooth sailing until milepost 70, where traffic suddenly stopped. We crawled along for the next 9 miles behind an endless line of cars. Unfortunately, in most of Alaska there just aren’t any alternate routes to take in situations like this. It took us an hour to reach the turn to Portage Valley. We wonder now if the traffic jam stretched all the way back from Anchorage. It was a huge relief that we weren’t going all of the way there.
Driving through Portage Valley was a joy. There was no traffic, and the glaciated mountains surrounding us provided beautiful scenery. The Williwaw Campground was quite nice, although we didn’t arrive until 10pm. The sites were pleasant, but ours was a long walk from the nearest water spigot and it was a bit buggy.
We set up camp quickly upon our arrival and got the charcoal going. We had just started grilling our steaks when we had a surprise visitor. A large black bear crossed the road and wandered into the campsite next to us. We scrambled to gather the bear spray and the cameras. Unfortunately I didn’t have time to locate the tripod. In the dim light, I only managed a few blurry photos of our first up-close bear sighting of the trip.
The bear actually made two passes through our end of the campground, but he kept his distance from us. Fortunately he disappeared before our steaks were ready. We went to bed late that night, around 11:30, although it still wasn’t really dark at that point. We slept well, thanks to ideal temperatures.
THE BEATEN PATH
We were up at 7 the next morning, which was an achievement after our late night. We had breakfast burritos again before breaking camp. From the Williwaw Campground we continued down the road towards the Begich-Boggs Visitors Center. We stopped a bit before it though to do the short hike to the Byron Glacier. This proved to be an easy but scenic hike. We followed a good, wide trail to a roaring creek and followed it upstream. Before long we reached the base of the glacier, where the stream emerges from a snow cave. Here, the Byron Glacier tumbles down an extremely steep slope. The Byron Glacier is more of a hanging glacier, making it completely different from the Exit Glacier and others that are more gradual. Christy and I played in the snow there for a bit before returning to the car and heading over to the Visitors Center.
At the Visitors Center we viewed Portage Lake and spotted a small iceberg floating there. Unfortunately the Portage Glacier is no longer visible from here, as it has receded behind a nearby mountain. Viewing it requires taking a cruise on the lake, or climbing to Portage Pass above the town of Whittier. We made a brief tour of the Visitors Center before hitting the road back towards Anchorage.
Originally we had planned to hike to Crow Pass, but Christy’s knee was sore from Sunday’s hike to the Harding Icefield. We had a major hike coming up in Katmai National Park, and we didn’t want to aggravate it further. Plus, we had some serious packing to do before our flight to Katmai the next morning. Because of these factors, we decided to limit ourselves to only a short afternoon hike closer to Anchorage.
The drive back to the city was smooth. From Anchorage, we found the way up to the Glen Alps Trailhead in Chugach State Park. The park, at nearly 500,000 acres, is nearly as large as the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee. It’s the 3rd largest state park in the United States, featuring dozens of trails. Due to that network of trails and its proximity to Anchorage, it is quite popular. Still, it was a shock to see 50 or more cars at the trailhead on a Monday at noon. We found a place to stash the rental car, and managed to squeeze our $5 parking fee into a box that was overflowing with envelopes.
Christy and I took a picnic lunch out on the short hike to the Anchorage overlook. From there, we had a nice view of the city below, with the ocean beyond. We enjoyed a quick lunch, before making the short walk back to the parking area. There, we made the mistake of using the bathrooms. Wow! The toilets at the Glen Alps Trailhead win the prize for filthiest bathrooms of the entire trip! There was no toilet paper, but it wasn’t really necessary, as apparently most people just wipe themselves against the walls.
After that was out of the way, I set out on my afternoon hike. My goal was to summit Flattop Mountain, which holds the dubious distinction of being Alaska’s most climbed mountain. Christy decided to skip it, as the route looked steep, and she wanted to rest her knee. She was willing to hang out for a couple of hours though while I hiked.
I headed up the beaten path towards Flattop “solo”. Well, it’s hard to describe this as a solo hike, because there were lots of people around. Despite the crowds, I spotted a Moose only a few minutes from the trailhead. She was grazing just off the trail, seemingly oblivious to the hikers passing by a few yards away.
A bit farther on, I reached a fork in the trail. Here the trail splits, with paths running around each side of Blueberry Knob. I stayed to the right and worked my way around to the base of Flattop. From here, and endless series of steep steps carried me most of the way up the mountain. The last stretch was more interesting though, requiring class II scrambling through scree and boulders. Reaching the summit was actually a bit of a relief. There were lots of people up there, but the summit is broad, and there is plenty of room to roam. I headed to the far end, where I was treated to a fine view up the valley of the South Fork of Campbell Creek. After a long break, I made a circuit around the summit, taking in all the views. The scenery was nice, but the views were somewhat limited due to haze from nearby forest fires.
I didn’t linger very long since Christy was waiting. I headed down carefully until I reached good trail. Back at the base of Blueberry Knoll I took the alternate route, which offered a change in scenery. From there I hurried back, reaching Christy and the car 2 ½ hours after I’d departed.
We made a quick drive into Anchorage and headed to the Holiday Inn Express. After checking in, we made brief trips to the grocery store and REI. Then we headed downtown for dinner at the Glacier Brewhouse. This time we skipped the one-hour wait by finding a table in the bar area. We enjoyed some of the house beer and a pizza, before picking up a Growler of Amber Ale to take back to the hotel with us. We had a major repacking job to, and we knew that some barley and hops would make the task more pleasant.
Back at the room we separated our gear into two piles. The first pile included everything we were taking to Katmai with us. We had to think through these things carefully though, as everything we took we’d have to carry with us for six days (including a challenging 4-day backpacking trip). Everything else was staying in storage at the hotel. The mass of gear staying behind was impressive. It included 4 suitcases, a duffel bag, and a cooler. We hauled all of that stuff into storage with a little time (and beer) left to enjoy the hotel hot tub. We made it to bed by 11, knowing we needed to be up early the next morning for our flight to Katmai National Park.
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