“Why are we only taking six weeks to travel?”
Jeff came home one day from work and said this to me. We knew transitioning from the UK to the US would impact our future traveling significantly, so Jeff’s words were not unreasonable. “What’s one more week?” With everything to this point booked and squared away, we opened our laptops and scanned Google maps for another destination to follow our Hawaiian getaway.
Then, it became perfectly clear.
The Klondike. The gold rush. “Twice the size of Texas.” Not the final frontier, but the last one. Alaska was it.
August is high travel time to the northern-most state, and prices were already climbing, so between our indecisiveness of a city to visit (Fairbanks, Anchorage, or Juneau), cost of a hotel and a car, and already sold out excursions, we were pulling out our hair. Then, Jeff said, “What about an RV?”
We’d have our hotel and car all in one, and we didn’t have to pick a city to stay in. The state was our campground!
ABC Motorhomes based in Anchorage had a deal we couldn’t refuse, and the last part of our trip was sorted.
After leaving warm and sunny Hawaii, the cool, crisp air of Alaska was very welcome. We were picked up by ABC and were shown our 22′ chariot. And after a brief orientation and a few scares in navigating the massive truck out of the tight parking lot, we were on our way to Seward; our first port of call.
Notes about the RV: I’ll sprinkle these thoughts throughout, but driving an RV is not nearly as intimidating as we first thought. Yes, there are massive blindspots, but it’s no different than driving a moving truck, and once you get the hang of it, it’ll be second nature.
When we set off from Anchorage, I assumed it would take us a bit to find some picturesque landscapes, but I was dead wrong. Within minutes, we were skirting the Chugach State Park with mountain views to the left and views of the Turnagain Arm River and mudflats on our right. It was all I could do to not have Jeff pull over at every turnout for photos. Instead, I remained glued to the glass and barely took a moment to blink.
Notes about the RV: There is a law in Alaska that says you cannot have more than 5 people tailing you on the highway, so “turnouts” are very common along the road. If you have more than 5 people behind you, pull into one of these and let them pass.
Driving through towns called Moose Pass and Bear Creek, we were in Seward in just two hours, and found the Waterfront RV Park. We got a spot facing the bay and pulled in gently between two other massive RVs. We looked like complete rookies as I guided Jeff like a stewardess. “Turn left — no, LEFT!”
Notes about the RV: What we didn’t know was that most camp sites give you two parking spots for the price of one. As our elderly and tipsy neighbor, Fred, told us, the second spot is for your car if you are trailing one on your RV.
It was only $20 to park in the campsite for the night, and the views were breathtaking. Water gently lapped at the rocks and sand on the beach, and fishing boats came and went in the bay with the sun setting behind the mountains.
We woke early the next day, rested from our jetlag, to board the Tanaina for our Kenai Fjords tour of wildlife and glaciers. And wouldn’t you know it, the very first thing we saw as we walked down the long plank was an otter enjoying a massive fish in the harbor. We got our first nature viewing.
The tour was $336 for the two of us, but it was a full six hours through many fingers of the fjords and up close and personal to some gorgeous glaciers and wildlife. Our tour guide was remarkable as he drove us very close to see seals, puffins, and killer whales. I have never, ever, in my life, seen an orca besides in Sea World when I was a kid. To see a pod(!) in the wild, swimming around freely, and even coming right up to the boat, was in a word: remarkable. I could have gone back to the dock that moment and said I got my money’s worth.
We did get a glimpse of a blue whale way off in the distance, and there was a pair of bald eagles mounted high on a cliff’s edge, but our tour promised glaciers, and glaciers did we see. Our little boat traveled to the Holegate Glacier that flows from the Harding Icefield, which spans over 300 square miles. To hear the rushing water and to feel the intense cold coming off the ice was awesome.
We made our way back to Resurrection Bay and docked at Seward. This was a tour and a company I would highly recommend. The views alone out in the ocean were worth the trip.
Back in the RV, we started on our way toward Glacier View, a tiny town along the road. Our idea was to create our own “ring road” in homage to Iceland and drive from Seward to Tok turning toward Fairbanks and heading back to Anchorage by way of Denali National Park. And our next stop was in about 230 miles from Seward on Highway 1.
Grand View RV Park is where I would like to retire. This tiny little park sits perched high on some of the most gorgeous and scenic mountains I’ve ever seen. We drove right past the famous Matanuska Glacier and parked our truck facing Lion’s Head Mountain. This RV park had full hook ups, so we didn’t have to use our reserve water and generator.
Notes on the RV: When looking for an RV park, gauge if you need city water and electric. Cheaper camps will not have these available. But if you can find one, it’s good to save your generator. We like early morning coffee, but most camps frown upon early morning generator use. At Grand View, we paid $38 for the night, but we had city water (not our reserve) and as much coffee brewed as we wanted thanks to city electric.
Alaska is built for outdoorsy activities like fishing, hunting, and camping, so that means there isn’t a lot to do town to town. And because we booked this portion of the trip so late in the summer, a lot of the fishing tours and hunting guides had already been sold out. We had hoped that driving around the state in our little “ring road” would offer more things to do, but we found that was not necessarily the case. We didn’t do a glacier walking tour at Matanuska, and in retrospect, we should have to give us a road trip excursion.
The next morning, after taking a brief hike on the trails behind the Grand View RV Park to see “grand views” of the surrounding mountains and rivers, we packed up the truck, bid adieu to our neighbors, and drove toward Tok (rhymes with “smoke.”) This was where we would be making a hard left turn toward Fairbanks. But again, there is not a lot to do in between cities or even in the small towns.
For example, in the small town of Eureka, the only thing there was a gas station. The views were still stunning no matter where you looked, but as far as tourist activities, we were out of luck.
Notes about the RV: The price of gas gets higher the more remote you get. But if you find yourself closer to a “bigger” town, gas will go down again. In Eureka, gas was $3.90 a gallon, but once we made it to the Glenallen junction, gas was back down to $2.90.
Along Highway 1, we were desperate to get out of the car. The long stretches of empty highway were making us a bit drowsy, and I wanted to stretch my legs. So we pulled off and found ourselves at a trail head for the Chickaloon Knik Nelchina System, an old gold mining trail that is now used for ATV riding. But what made me jump up and down in pure child-like glee was the wild blueberries ripe for the picking.
Jeff and I spent the better part of an hour picking and eating wild blueberries which we enjoyed for the remainder of our trip. We were cautious of bears who were also on the hunt for calories in preparation for the winter, but we never came across one.
We were 18 miles shy of the town of Tok when we stopped at the Eagle Trail State Park for the night. If you stay in a state park, the fee is generally $18-$20 to park your RV, and what made this park even more appealing was the trails that surrounded it. I jumped out of our moving apartment, and we immediately went for a quick mile hike before the sun set. You couldn’t hear a pin drop out there. It was pure silence and stunningly beautiful.
So it was no wonder when we woke up the next morning, I was itching to go on the further hike in the forest. The other trail was 2.5 miles through dense trees and along a beautiful ridge that overlooked the Tok River. We kept thinking we were hearing water rushing, but it was just the wind in the tall, tall Taiga trees. As we walked back to the RV for breakfast, we came across some rather aggressive squirrels who screamed at Jeff. I had no idea squirrels were so antagonistic, but Jeff warded them off with his arm waving and frequent, “Come at me, bro,” shouts.
Notes on the RV: If you’re nervous about “dumping” the RV, don’t be. I was, at first, but if you thread the hose correctly, and you’re careful about which lever you pull first (grey before black), then you’ll have no problems at all. But I would highly suggest making this a two-person task. One person, alone, can find themselves juggling a bit more than they wish.
We drove through Tok and nearly missed it. Aside from a gas station (that serves cheaper gas on Fridays), there was nothing to even stop to see. So, we took a hard left on Highway 2. After another two hours, and nearly missing a renegade moose prancing across the highway, we found ourselves in the small town of Delta Junction, which is mostly known for its Alaskan-Indian heritage and buffalo hunting grounds.
This is also where the Alaskan Highway meets the Richardson Highway where over time, it slowly became paved and populated due to the rising military presence through the world wars and later Cold War.
The Visitor’s Center did have several brochures on what to do in the town, but it was mostly restaurants. But right next to the center was the Sullivan Roadhouse Museum. We ventured into this small cabin that was restored to resemble old roadhouses used during the gold rush. While it wasn’t a big establishment, it was a perfect snapshot into old Americana complete with original beaver, wolf, and buffalo pelts and furniture dating back to the 1800s.
We hopped back in the RV and drove off to where Christmas wishes come true: North Pole, Alaska. This tiny town is decked to the halls with holiday decorations all year ’round. The town was named in 1952 to drive tourism to the barren part of the state. While tourism never really took off, the town still keeps up with the kitch with decorations on lamp posts, signs hung on storefronts, and a massive Santa Claus House right off St. Nicholas Drive.
Even in August, I was so excited to run inside this massive shop to see wall-to-wall ornaments, Christmas decorations, and even Santa, himself, sitting on his red velvet throne.
That night, we pushed on through to Fairbanks and stayed in the Riverview RV Park. I’m here to say that there is very little to do in the town of Fairbanks. We spent most of our time in the Visitor’s Center getting the lay of the land (and using the free wifi), but it resembled an old country town with stores that close early and offer a quiet solitude to locals. I say “to locals” because the RV park was the loudest we had stayed in. Situated next to the highway, and in a time of year where the sun sets close to 11pm, traffic was constant, and people had the excuse to stay up late and party.
Fairbanks was a beautiful little town, but it was not somewhere to stay for multiple days. When Jeff and I were hiking through the Scottish Highlands, we came across a couple on the path to Tyndrum. When we asked where they were from, they said Fairbanks, Alaska. I do think they influenced my thought process for choosing the 49th state, and as we woke the next morning ready to head toward Denali, I understood why they recommended we visit. From the outdoors of Scotland to the outdoors of Alaska, don’t go expecting much to do inside. Go for the outside.
Stay tuned for our final tale in Alaska as we drive through the spirit of Chris McCandless, hike the hills of Denali, and enjoy some delicacies in Anchorage.
A quick note: Groceries are expensive in Alaska. Most of everything is imported from the lower 48 or Canada. What we found was stocking up in Anchorage at the Fred Meyer (Kroger spin-off) was much cheaper than any other store along the road. For $120, we found enough food (including beer and wine) to feed us for the whole week.