Over the past few weeks, I’ve encountered several friends and acquaintances who mentioned they are planning to visit Alaska. It brings back memories of my amazing trip several years ago to this great state. I was fortunate to have two friends move to Alaska and extend an invitation to visit. Never one to turn down the chance to travel and create new adventures, I took them up on the invitation (along with my friend, Marie) to visit our biggest state!
My friends lived in Anchorage so we decided to spend our seven-day trip exploring that area, as well as traveling south to Kenai National Forest and Seward. We weren’t disappointed as this area is breathtaking, full of great places to explore and wonderful people to meet. The natural beauty of Alaska stunned me every time I turned my head.
As the 49th state of the United States, Alaska has the largest coastline (over 6,600 miles) with more than 3,000 rivers and 3 million lakes! Of the 20 highest peaks in the U.S., 17 are in Alaska (Denali is the tallest in the U.S. at 20,320 feet above sea level). Alaska was always the state that I’d love to visit because I love the outdoors but admittedly it wasn’t high on my list (and I can’t remember why!). Until the opportunity to visit arose and I realized what a great experience this would be! Everything kind of fell into place for our trip and soon we were heading to Anchorage. We traveled to Alaska in mid-August when the weather is fairly mild and daylight extends until close to midnight (which was a bit weird to my body that couldn’t figure when it was time to sleep).
There were so many moments that I loved. It’s hard to describe the beauty and respect you feel about the land unless you’re standing in front of the water watching a bald eagle catch a fish or a moose eating alongside the road or looking down into a valley from atop a glacier field. Alaska reminds you that the world is so much grander than what we truly know. It reminds you that nature is awesome and should be respected, and man can appreciate it and live in it.
There is so much to remember about that trip so I thought I’d share some of my favorite things about Alaska:
1. Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center (Portage): This center offers a permanent home to orphaned and injured animals that can’t be released into the wild. You can see animals, such as bears, moose and eagles in up-close, natural environments. Special programs let you watch certain animals be fed (we watched the black bears eat…..definitely don’t want to encounter a hungry bear!). This center provides a great opportunity to learn about a variety of animals.
2. Camping in Kenai Fjords National Park (Seward): Alaska hosts more than half of our national park lands with 17 national parks. Kenai is one of the beauties. We started the day with a boat tour. While we didn’t see the whales we were hoping to, we did see a lot of wildlife and a few glaciers. More than 50 percent of this park is covered in glaciers! We pitched our tent along a river with views of glaciers – certainly don’t get those views in Michigan!
3. Exit Glacier hike (in Kenai Fjords National Park): It was still light at 8pm when we set up camp in Kenai so we started a hike to Exit Glacier, which is part of the Harding Icefield. A series of trails start at the Exit Glacier Nature Center that allow you to check out different views of the glacier. We were able to get close enough to the glacier to hear it shifting. At one point, we saw cracks forming as the ice shifted (we were safely away; it was so cool!). This was an eye-opening hike as there are signs along the trail that mark the glacier’s recession over the past 120 years. It is glaringly obvious that the ice is quickly melting away.
4. Flattop Mountain Trail: It’s no surprise that this is Alaska’s most visited peak – the location near Anchorage makes it easy to access and the beautiful views are addicting. We hiked to the top and it was worth the views. The trails are busy though, with some steep drops down the side, so don’t be in a rush (although in a beautiful place like Alaska, you shouldn’t be in a rush!). Some of the trails had an abundance of blueberries but, while we sampled a few fresh fruits, we left the bulk for the bears to eat. Better to let them eat the food way up high rather than wander into the populated towns.
5. Alaska Native Heritage Center (Anchorage): I love learning about the history of places that I visit so was happy that we found this cultural center and museum focused on Alaska’s indigenous people. There were some great exhibits featuring five different local cultures. We were able to watch some live programs and see hands-on demonstrations.
6. Alaska SeaLife Center (Seward): This is another great opportunity to see Alaska’s animals up close and personal. We saw lots of marine mammals, fish, birds and invertebrates. You also get to learn about the research and conservation being undertaken in the state. When we visited, there was a fascinating, albeit sad, exhibit on the long-term effects of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. We really need to appreciate and protect our natural habitats more than we do.
7. Winner Creek Trail: One of the best parts of this trail in the Chugach Mountains is that you hike through the northernmost rainforest in North America…while in Alaska! The trail begins behind the Hotel Alyeska and is a fun hike because of the cool vegetation and experiences. First, you cross a wooden bridge over the Winner Creek Gorge. Then you get to a hand tram where you get inside a metal cage and pull yourself over Glacier Creek, more than a hundred feet below! I’m not going to lie – this took guts for me to do (I dislike heights, especially in a rickety-feeling metal cage!), but it was awesome (once over!)! This trail is also part of the Iditarod National Historic Trail, Alaska’s only National Historic Trail. At the end of this hike, we stumbled upon a great little coffee and book shop.
8. Seward Highway: This 125-mile highway goes from Anchorage to Seward and is worth noting because the drive is So.Darn.Beautiful. The highway runs through the Kenai Peninsula, Chugach National Forest, Turnagain Arm and the Kenai Mountains, which caused me to turn my head in pretty much every direction, exclaiming, “oh how beautiful” every 90-seconds. Or hang my mouth open in awe over the views!
9. Seafood: I wasn’t a big seafood fan until I visited Alaska. I guess it just wasn’t fresh enough. Our friends welcomed us with a delicious scallops dinner, then we were introduced to several friendly Alaskans at a neighbor’s dinner complete with fresh grilled salmon (and Alaskan craft beer!). I indulged a few more times on fresh seafood during my visit. And I haven’t tasted it that good since the trip.
10. Portage: When the Great Alaska Earthquake occurred in 1964, the ground sank below sea level causing a ‘ghost forest’ of trees. These ghostly looking trees are very eery and amazing. Some of the original buildings can still be seen. Definitely worth a stop to explore the past. The wildlife conservation center and Portage Glacier are popular spots to visit here.
This trip was also a great reminder that the people you travel with can truly make or break a trip. I had an amazing trip, mostly due to the wonderful friends who shared the experience with me. Even when we hit our exhausted phase due to the time change and busy schedule, we spent most of the day laughing and being silly rather than cranky (who likes to be cranky on vacation?!). We giggled while swapping stories every night before falling asleep. When I got frustrated because my titanium rod forced me to turn around on a slippery glacier trail, my friend soon had me laughing and focused on all that I was accomplishing while I reciprocated in her moments of needed humor.
Alaska is one of our country’s treasures and I highly recommend you visit!