The last major stop for us was Chena Hot Spring. This is just north of Fairbanks and worth the 30 mile drive on the bumpy, dirt road. We rested under the trees, dined on their greenhouse grown tomatoes, and soaked in the hotspring! The water was extremely hot and we especially enjoyed the soaks after the rain storms because it was just a touch cooler. The area is beautiful and wild. We watched a moose wander across the small airstrip one afternoon and we saw bear scat on our hikes.
The official Alaska Highway begins just outside Fairbanks, and so we didn’t drive all of it until the end of our trip as we drove back from Fairbanks to Toc. The highway was built during wartime as a way to defend North America and I’m glad it was so there was a route for us to get to Alaska with our home on wheels.
We planned to take a different route home so that we could see more of Canada and so Andrew could get specific gas cans from a US Army surplus store in Vancouver. We left Alaska, knowing we’d be back one day soon, and drove south on a very narrow and windy road. We backtracked to Highway 37 in the Yukon and drove south into BC. All was well for a couple days, the rivers, mountains, etc were fantastic. We found amazing places along the highway to camp and enjoyed the drive.
Then we noticed some smoke and learned there were many fires in this area of Canada this year. We eventually discovered there were many fires in Montana and most of the west of the US as well. At one point we were detoured back about three hours to then discover our route to Vancouver was about 5 hours longer than initially planned. An opportunity to see more of BC! We did feel very badly for the people that were displaced and the smoke in the air made my eyes itch for a couple days as we made our way through.
Final Border Crossing
This was a difficult experience. Our previous three crossings, twice into Canada and once into Alaska were as expected. Many questions, a serious tone for the most part, just what one would expect for a couple with all their paperwork in order including the special paperwork for the pets traveling. We crossed back into the lower 48 into a more populated area; maybe this was the difference? We waited for about 15 minutes in line (we expected this). We got to the booth and saw an angry, huffing and puffing man that did not speak to us. He stripped his gloves from his hands angrily and threw them, snatched our IDs from Andrew’s hand, then nastily asked what we had in the RV rattling off the items we would need to declare. We answered that we had some veggies and a bottle of gin. This seemed to really set him off and he scribbled onto a sticky and slapped it on the front of our window and barked at us to go over and park for inspection. We did as we were told to be yelled and screamed at about where and how to park, to stop looking at him and look where he was pointing, etc. We ended up having to put Mica, the cat, into her crate, put out all the slides on the RV, lock our dogs in the hot sun in a kennel on the side of the garage in the lot with no water, and wait inside for a man to inspect the interior of our home. I have to say I was unnerved even though the actual inspector, and our final human interaction here, was very kind and told us he loved cats and wanted to know the name of ours so he could chat with her while inside. He was quick and we were happy to retrieve our barking, panicked dogs from the kennel. We will cross in a more rural area next time. I have no problem with an inspection of the inside of our RV (there are laws and they do need to be enforced), but the over the top nasty interactions for acting and doing exactly as we were told were unnecessary.
One month off the Internet and news grid, which is how we experienced most of this trip, was the best part of the experience and all should try it… even if it is not all the way up to Alaska! We didn’t know what the political acts of the day were; we didn’t worry about email; Andrew didn’t worry about work. We simply lived day to day, moment to moment. When we were back on the grid we were changed; we were calmer. I really think checking out for a week, or a month is probably the best medicine for stress. Despite the re-entry experience, the broken motorcycle lift, the fire forced backtracking, and the other mishaps we LOVED this experience! We loved our trip!
We went on from Kenai Fjords west to Homer. We were told by a couple people this was the place we needed to see so we made sure we did. Homer is a cute, fishing, tourist small town with the main attraction being the spit. This is a 4 1/2 mile sandbar that sticks out into Kachemak Bay. We read that it is the result of a moraine (stones and debris moved as the glacier moves) or from water currents in the bay. Either way, it is a sandy and rocky strip with almost no plants and was extremely busy with fishing vessels, and tourists staying in the campgrounds to visit the shops, restaurants, and tour boats. We enjoyed our meal there as it has spectacular views and the fish was fresh. The highlight of this trip though was the drive above the city.
We continued through Homer to see what was on the other side. We were drawn by the stunning views of the mountains across the bay in Kachemak Bay State Park wondering what other views there might be. We discovered a long road along the ridge that had spectacular views across the bay of mountains, glaciers and undeveloped wilderness. At that moment we decided to start looking for property where we could live, part time. We know it is dark in the winter like it is light in the summer, but we are totally in love with this state and in particular, this area. We shall see!
We camped near Soldotna at a free campground on the river. We loved this quiet spot!
Denali National Park
This part of the trip could have been a huge bummer… but luck was on our side! We didn’t have a plan for our Alaska adventure. Honestly, we wanted to just drive and see what we could get to see and do without reservations and deadlines.
When we arrived at the visitor check in for the campgrounds we discovered there were no spaces inside the park for us and so we headed back to the RV to start calling around. I had a list of places from the very nice woman at the desk and I called the closest park. The man was quite dramatic and said there were probably no places left in any of the campgrounds for the whole week. So, we drove back along the highway to a pull off where we could stay the night and decide what to do. We normally dry camp where ever but we wanted to take a day long hike with a ranger while here as well as a day long bus tour. The temperature was too warm during the day for the pets to not have fans and possibly AC and the solar panels don’t generate enough energy for the AC.
I found a campground 8 miles from the park and submitted a request online to reserve a spot. We went to bed resolute whatever was meant to happen would. Next day, we got a call asking about the size of our rig and we were set for four nights in the very last spot in their campground! Not sure if the accommodations in the area were full because this is one of the main destinations in Alaska or if it was now high tourist season being around July 4th. Either way, if you come to Alaska this park is not to be missed and is probably worth a little pre planning.
Denali Discovery Tour
The first trip into the park was to sign up for the DISCO tour with a ranger. This is a day long hike with a ranger and only ten people can participate. To sign up a visitor must show up in person so the ranger can gauge what you can handle and go over all that a participant should expect on the hike. We met with the ranger at the visitor center and we were sure we wanted the intermediate level hike. He assured us we could handle the strenuous one. So, we signed up for a discovery hike two days later (it is not possible to sign up for that day because the bus leaves before the visitor center even opens).
Two days later we were in line at the bus stop at 7:30 in the morning. We boarded the bus as did a ranger and several other hikers for the day. We started off. Once getting to the bridge, where cars are not allowed to drive past without special permission, we picked up two other rangers who we joining us as participants on the hike on their day off. The 11 of us were dropped by the bus near mile marker 30 and we started the journey. We were warned there could be streams to cross, we could get wet, we would be hiking through thick brush, through forest area and would climb 1500 feet. We did all of this, for 7 hours on the most amazing hike of my life. I never had opportunity to hike off trail like this before and it was FUN! It was hard, we literally walked on top of bushes, moss so thick we sunk in a foot or more, pushed low tree branches out of our face to continue the climb. On this walk we were instructed not to step on the same spot as someone else. There would be no trace of us after we passed and the plants would spring back and be fine because no one has stepped on them, well, possibly ever before and likely never would again. The summit, spectacular views, the decent gave me the opportunity to fall, not gracefully but without injury twice. Once sliding down thin slabs of shale like skiing with the only way not to crash into trees in my path was to fall backwards. The second fall was a sideways, bouncing roll through a meadow area that bounced me off my knees and hands, onto my bottom to repeat three times before I was able to stop. I had no injuries and the exhilaration and joy I had playing as a kid! After our 7 hours of hiking we were back at the road waiting for a bus to pick us up and get us back!
If you are at this park, take this hike!! It is free (well, you pay for the bus ticket, but the ranger led hike is free) and an unforgettable experience! That is, unless you’re someone who already goes into the backcountry on your own.
I would not normally share so much detail about a two mile stroll around the visitor center with a ranger learning about the history of the park but this one was eventful. We started with around 15 people, adults and children. We were told about the rules of keeping your distance from BMWs (bears, moose and wolves) and then we were off. About 30 yards down the trail was a cow (moose) and her two calves. We all stopped and watched and took photos and then carefully got some distance between us and them. The ranger had to continuously interrupt her talk to help other visitors get around the family carefully. She told us moose are the least predictable and they cause more injuries than bears in the park.
As she was helping a group pass, a family with 6 kids, the youngest being two went past our tour group playing and not really paying attention. The mother complaining she was ready to leave and didn’t want to spend so much time at Denali. Two minutes later we hear a loud, strange animal noise, feet scurrying on the path, screams, and yelps. The family, paying no attention to the fact that this is not a park in their neighborhood, allowed the children of all ages to run and play and trape off path. Evidently, a cow was near the path in the wooded area, became uncomfortable with their presence and charged them. The mother now crying hysterically was yelling that her baby was trapped. All had run back on the path when the moose charged and left the two year old on the ground to fend for himself. Luckily for him he used animal instincts and crawled behind trees where he was out of the view of the moose. She, the moose, continued her snacking standing in the middle of the path as the ranger snuck into the treed area to rescue the kid. He was scared, but uninjured. Needless to say, the tour was over and the ranger radioed to get someone out on the trail to help visitors behave in a smart way near the moose. This is a park full of WILD animals and precautions should be taken!
Denali, the actual mountain, is often behind clouds as it is so tall it creates its own weather. We were lucky to see it on our drive in for the Discovery Tour!
Denali Bus Tours
The bus tours are not run by the park itself. Like in Yellowstone and so many other parks it is an outside vender that runs the buses. This is good and bad. Good, because there are services available in the parks that would otherwise probably not exist. Bad because you never know what you’ll get. So, our experience in this park is that the bus drivers are knowledgeable, many live part or all of the year in Alaska, they know the roads, sights, animals, etc. We really had three great drivers on the three buses we were on. That said. In this park it is absolutely worth paying $20 or $30 (depending on whether or not you have a national park pass) for a ride all day ticket. You can use this ticket to get on and off a particular color bus and they stop anywhere at the side of the road to get you. So, you can jump off where something catches your eye, investigate, hike, whatnot and ride back later. There is some uncertainty when the bus will be by, but they come. The waste of money are the longer sight seeing tours which is described as having a lunch provided and stops to see the animals in the park. ALL the drivers stop to see the animals in the park. ALL the drivers know a lot about the park and seem happy to answer questions. So, keep that in mind when you book!
We decided after the drive through Canada that we didn’t want to spend time in the city because we wanted to stick to the smaller towns and wilderness on this trip. We wanted a welder, that we could read a couple google reviews about online and call ahead for an appointment. We spent the night, had the motorcycle lift fixed all day (he really did work on our equipment all day), and were on our way to Moose Pass for the night by 7PM.
After driving separately to and from Valdez then to Anchorage to wait for the repairs we were both tired. Our stay turned into two nights at this free campground next to the lake. The rain made it a perfect excuse to stay inside, listen to our book on audible and chill. We watched planes take off and land in the water and enjoyed coffee sitting under the trees in the early morning between rain storms.
Kenai Fjords National Park
This was a pretty quick stop as we were feeling energized after our break. We found a great free camping area just before the gate at the entrance of the park. From here we enjoyed two evenings in town checking out the shops and restaurants. This area is more developed than Valdez and seems to be a cruise ship stop.
So, Alaska in the summer is known for a couple things that we heard warnings about from many people before the trip. The first is the 20 hours of daylight. I am not sure how this is a problem for people in an RV, trailer, or hotel room… close the blinds! For us the daylight was awesome because we got to start and end out outdoor exploring at any time. We did not use a clock for much other than to keep track of how long we left the girls back at the RV so they would get their bathroom breaks and walks. We got to start a long hike any time we felt ready knowing that we didn’t have to account for the sun setting on us as we hiked back to the car. So, the land of the midnight sun was terrific!
The huge mosquitoes and biting flies were the second warning we received. We were really, really lucky. First, Andrew changed all the screens in the windows of the RV so they were small biting fly-proof. We call the tiny, nasty biting flies no-see-ums in Virginia. They have other names throughout the country. We bought a ton of witch hazel, tree tea oil and a couple other oils suggested for natural bug repellant. We filled our spray bottle and were ready for them. We enjoyed Yukon and Alaska to this point without seeing many at all. We used the spray and that was enough to be bug bite free! This, we were told by locals, was a very strange year. Normally, there would be tons of mosquitoes; I think this is true since it rains a lot in the summers in Alaska. Of the entire trip the worst area for mosquitoes was on our hike to Exit Glacier and even that wasn’t too bad.
We started our hike to Exit Glacier, with a ranger, at the visitor center. The beginning of the trail was closed because a bear had killed an elk on the path and the rangers were keeping the space clear in case the bear returned for another meal. We took the longer detour and chatted our way up the mountain a couple miles learning about the trips of our political leaders to this park including President Obama. We also got to ask all our questions about weather, glaciers, plants, and animals we could think of on this hike. We stopped at the first viewing point on the trail, “lunch rock,” and after a couple photos we continued the hike on our own as the ranger needed to get back to the visitor center.
We ended up in the clouds! It was super wet, breezy, and cold. We continued our climb and because of the clouds we went past the glacier viewing area without realizing it! After a while, seeing the young, fit hikers with huge packs passing us and continuing up the mountain we saw the trail was moving very far away from the glacier. I decided it was just too far for me in the cold rain so we backtracked. As we did we discovered the spot we were looking for was only visible for about a minute between the quickly moving clouds. We were pretty excited to find it!
Anytime you get a chance to spend time with a ranger on any sort of hike or talk in any of the parks, do! These are people that love nature and the parks so much that they work seasonally, have other jobs in other places the rest of the year, yet continue this nomadic and somewhat difficult style of life by choice. The knowledge and experience they have to share is awesome and always adds to our experience! If you’re in a federal campground or even near one in the evening there will likely be a talk given by a ranger on a variety of topics. You don’t have to be sleeping in the campground to attend, although it does make it convenient. Also, at the visitor center and online, you can checkout the schedule of talks and tours and activity level that works for you. We LOVE our parks and the amazing people that work and volunteer there!