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United States

The Vibrant Last Frontier

01 Jan 2021 By Rahuldev Rajguru

Wondering if I am going to write about the famous American reality TV show? Well, this is not about the Kilcher family, it is about the place where they had lived. ALASKA, the largest state (in area) of the United States is nicknamed “The Last Frontier”. Many vehicle plates proudly sport the yellow and gold “Last Frontier”. Alaska is also nicknamed “Land of the Midnight Sun”, which it shares with Norway. As part of bi-yearly family holidays, we planned to visit Alaska. A visit to Alaska suggests a cruise holiday. Our plan started in a similar direction, but after doing my usual ‘research’, we decided to opt for a road trip to explore entire Alaska connected by road. This meant a whole lot of driving, a couple of thousand miles actually but we knew it would be thrilling.

As a travel explorer, I dont like to visit places when it is teeming with tourists. June to August is the tourist season in Alaska, mainly due to ideal weather, longer days and because of the school vacations in the United States. I have heard from travelers who visited during this period that Alaska, which is sparsely populated, is teeming with people everywhere you go. Queues, traffic jams and exorbitant pricing is the norm during this time. Clearly, not what we had in mind for our holiday.

Most of Alaska is extremely cold and rainy even in the months of April and May, it even snows in April. The weather lightens up and roads, hotels, etc. start opening up in mid-May. There is a 15-day window to enjoy the Alaskan summer before the onset of tourists from June onwards. That was when we planned our visit. We flew from Seattle to Anchorage in mid-May and then rented a car to tour.

The usual trend is the go from north to south, but we started our journey from south of Alaska. This was to optimize our time and cover other destinations before heading to Denali National Park, which is about 300 miles north of Anchorage. Denali National Park opens around May 20 and this was one of the reasons we began our journey from the south of Anchorage.


Homer, Cooper Landing, Seward and Whittier

In mid-May, the weather is still cold and cloudy with snow ploughed on the sides of the road, and the sun playing peek-a-boo. The experience driving from Anchorage to Kenai was exhilarating with beautiful snowy mountains as far as the eyes can see. Driving was stress-free as the roads were almost empty and we got ample opportunities to stop and take pictures. Alaska does not have freeways barring Anchorage and adjacent towns. Majority of the highways are single lane on each side without the road divider with a passing lane at almost every 5 miles, restricting driving speed. The highways are perfectly planned with designated photography stops where you can pull up and enjoy the panoramic view as well as capture it on camera. It is one of the most enjoyable drives we have done; open roads, spectacular landscapes, snow-covered beaches, cool wind in our hair and a carefree spirit. Tank up on fuel, both for your car and your tummy before starting out as gas stations and restaurants are few and far between on the highway.

My first drive in Alaska and I am thrilled! Thank you, GoPro.


Homer, a small city in Kenai Peninsula, ending at Sterling Highway, was the first major destination of our Alaska trip. There are a multitude of activities to choose from at Homer depending upon what time of the year you visit. Our first stop was at the Alaska Island and Ocean Visitor Centre that is right on the highway. It is a state-of-the-art centre explaining the history of Alaska and marine life. One can explore their interactive stations and exhibits for a stimulating journey through their wildlife. A fantastic movie on Alaska is also screened. The friendly staff shared loads of information with us about sights and sounds of Alaska. On their recommendation, we did the Skyline drive and it was definitely worth it. It has a breathtaking viewpoint to capture pictures of Homer, Kachemak Bay State Park and the Kenai mountains. There is a small trail that gives a great view of Kachemak Bay. Then we drove to Homer Spit, a 4.5 miles long road in the middle of Kachemak Bay. Another breathtaking drive lined with rows of restaurants and shops on both sides of the road. Some restaurants face the harbor and provide a great view over a scrumptious meal.


Panoramic view of Kachemak Bay with glaciers in the backdrop from Homer Skyline drive.


Seward is a port city on an inlet of Kenai Peninsula and is the gateway to Kenai Fjords National Park. We boarded the day-long Wildlife Cruise from here. Another day well spent with sightings of Humpback who sailed alongside for a magical 10 minutes. We also sighted Sea Otters, Sea Lions and Mountain Goats. It was a rainy day and chilly, hence we could not stay at the dock too long. On a clear day, this would have been a memorable experience.


A group of Sea lions spotted while on the wildlife cruise.


Whittier is the most visited gateway to Prince William Sound. Most cruise lines break journey here and passengers de-board for a day and some end their cruise here and take the train to Anchorage. Whittier is famous for the daylong glacier cruises. It is a once in a lifetime experience to see millions of years old glaciers in close proximity. Glacier calving is a summer activity and is a marvelous sight on a clear, sunny day. Such days are hard to come by as Whittier has the rainforest owing to which it rains almost always.

Reaching Whittier requires some strategic planning and time management as the only way to reach there passes through the Anderson Tunnel. It is the longest one-way rail-road tunnel of North America, 2.5 miles long. It takes about 10 minutes to pass through the tunnel, which opens every half an hour to divert the traffic from each side. Match your cruise timing with the tunnel opening schedule to ensure that you do not miss your cruise.


Blackstone Glacier calving as the summer nears. Come and getem while they are still here


Denali National Park

It is a long drive from Whittier to Denali after a daylong Glacier Cruise. We drove midway and halted in a quaint town called Talkeetna to rest and shake of the exhaustion of 6 hours of driving and the daylong cruise. We had hired a dry cabin for our stay. The Alaska trip is incomplete without staying at least once in a dry cabin. As it says dry really means dry; there is no water anywhere. Of course, there was a toilet outside the cabin, but no shower, with a signboard reading Scoop after you Whoop. We still laugh at it even today. Rested and rejuvenated, we headed to Denali early next morning reaching before 10 am, which is ideal. It was another spectacular drive from Talkeetna to Denali (highway AK-3) especially the stretch between Cantwell and McKinley Park. The sun-kissed glaciers on both sides of the road against the clear blue sky will be etched in our memory for a very long timewith the desire to repeat this trip several times. Thanks to my GoPro, I relive this drive several times even now. As we were not returning to Anchorage via Route 3, we made most of this drive. The deserted roads were an added advantage. We pulled over even at non-designated stops and took loads of pictures of ourselves and the spellbound landscape of Alaska.

Once in a lifetime drive with snow covered mountains on both sides of the road, sunny day and clear blue skies.


Our next stop was Denali Visitor Center. The roads inside the park are unpaved and narrow, rental car insurance is void if you drive here. The best way to experience the park is through designated Bus Safaris having two options; narrated (you pay more) and non-narrated tours. We went with the non-narrated one but got lucky as the driver explained everything to us through the built-in announcement system inside the bus.


Its rare to sight Grizzly Bears so close from the bus safari. The baby is enjoying a walk with her mother.


There are multiple tour options with the shortest tour being the Denali Natural History tour, which is about 4 hours and the Tundra Wilderness Tour which is about 8 hours. We took this tour and it went only till Toklat River in the month of May. The park road opens in phases so please check details before signing up. These tours are the hop-on and hop-off type, so ensure you know about bus schedules to avoid getting stranded at one place for too long. There is no facility to buy food or water anywhere in the park so stock up, but judiciously; because washrooms are scarce.


It is the beginning of summer; river still frozen and mountains snow covered.


Fairbanks

It is the northernmost city of Alaska, just 12 miles south of the North Pole. Also known as The Land of the Midnight Sun, the Sun never sets from April 22 to August 20. Fairbanks is known to be one of the best places in the world to witness the Northern Lights. The official Aurora season is from August 21 to April 21.

Start your tour of Fairbanks with a visit to Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitor Center. They have beautiful exhibitions displaying life in Alaska and its unique culture and history. They also screen movies on Aurora, explaining the science and theory behind it.

Fairbanks is the golden heart of Alaska known for the famous gold rush in the 1900s. The city is largely built on the Gold Rush fervor. There are many ghost factories on gold mines and gold panning which you may want to visit and experience. There are hot springs in Fairbanks near the Chena River State Recreational area where you can experience them. You can visit University of Alaska and see some animals including Reindeer.


The summer arrives early in Fairbanks where you can witness midnight sun. This picture taken at 10 pm with proper daylight shows trees with fresh green leaves and the lake full of water.


Richardson Highway

Known as Route 4, it is Alaskas first road which is 368 miles long from Fairbanks to Valdez. It is known to be one of the top 10 scenic drives in the United States, one of the hidden gems of Alaska. Most of the tourists return from Fairbanks on Route 3 via Denali National Park. This drive takes you through multiple glaciers, waterfalls, river valleys, and highest elevated lakes. Irrespective of the season, you will not witness traffic on this road. Keep your cameras ready to capture all the beautiful sights. Since we traveled in May we had a totally different experience with the drive. The landscape was white with snow and frozen lakes that had landing marks of seaplanes being parked there. We were fortunate to witness two different seasons. Foggy and intermittent drizzles from Fairbanks to Glennallen and clear and sunny skies from Glennallen to Valdez. The drive to Thompson Pass was stunning with glaciers surrounding us.

Here again, tank up on fuel as gas stations are far spread. Also, be cautious while driving through dense vegetation because wild animals like Moose and Caribou may spring up from nowhere and a collision can be disastrous. Do not get carried away by empty roads and lack of troopers because controlling speed on spotting an animal is difficult.


One of the most picturesque drives of America in snow-covered landscape. Cant believe it is the summer! The driving was an experience with empty roads and intermittent flurries, hope GoPro one day comes out with the wipers.


Matanuska Glacier

It is one of the largest glaciers in Alaska, accessible by car, about 100 miles north of Alaska on Glenn highway. It is famous for glacier hiking, an experience not to be missed on an Alaskan trip. There are guided hike tours available and it does not require prior experience. The tour duration is for 4 hours and they provide all the hiking paraphernalia. Each tour is limited to a group of 10-15 people with a dedicated guide, who explains the history of glaciers and other interesting facts. The glacier hike was one of the best experiences of my Alaska tour.


First ever glacier hike and what an experience? Thought I would need 3-layers of clothing in the glacier temperature but in the end I was fully drenched in sweatnature always protects you!


Anchorage

Our last day was reserved for Anchorage, as that was our exit point to Seattle. It was a relaxed day spent visiting museums and markets. We wandered around, did some shopping and visited an exhibition. We ended the trip on a gastronomic high as we feasted on varieties of food in Anchorage, unlike in the remote areas.


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