“North to Alaska!” was originally published in the March, 2018 issue of MotorHome Magazine. The featured photo of Denali was taken by Bernie Craft on a “flightseeing” tour out of Talkeetna. Unless otherwise specified, all other photos were taken by Mary and Jim Zalmanek.
North to Alaska! From motorhome to cruise ship to railcar, exploring the picturesque 49th State by land and sea
Alaska had held the top spot on my bucket list for years. When our granddaughter took a temporary job in Anchorage, we knew the time had come. The only question was how. As avid RVers, a motorhome trip was appealing, but would likely be too long. We’d heard wonderful reports from friends who had taken Alaskan cruises. We decided to do both.
Here’s the agenda in a nutshell. We drove our own motorhome from Colorado to Blaine, Washington, just south of Vancouver, British Colombia, and left it in Pantec Mini-Storage, a fenced, secure storage unit. We left our car at the Vancouver airport and flew to Anchorage, where we rented a motorhome for six days. Then we took a 10-day land and sea Princess Cruisetour, which disembarked in Vancouver. We took a leisurely seven weeks to get back to Colorado in our motorhome, enjoying sights in the Lower 48 along the way.
Arriving in Anchorage
Upon our arrival in Anchorage, ABC Motorhome Rentals picked us up at the airport. Austin, the man who handled our paperwork and showed us our 2017 22-foot Class C Sunseeker motorhome, was friendly and efficient. As we were doing the walkthrough, we noticed a problem with a drawer latch. A technician did the repair, and we were on our way within 30 minutes. The motorhome was equipped with dishes, cookware, kitchen utensils, linens and towels. This was our first time renting an RV or using a Class C. I’m happy to report we enjoyed the entire experience. There was enough room for our granddaughter, Brynn, and her boyfriend, Jared, to join us for a few days. I liked driving this motorhome; I’m embarrassed to admit what a wimp I am about driving our own Class A.
After buying food and essentials, we checked into Ship Creek RV Park in Anchorage for two days. The busyness of travel left us longing to relax on our first full day in Anchorage. We played golf at Moose Run Golf Course. Our rented clubs worked fine, which meant about the same ratio of good shots to regrettable ones as with our own clubs. We bought eight “experienced balls,” and at the rate we were losing balls on the front nine, I was hoping we’d have enough to finish the game. Recent bear sightings and bear scat on the golf path kept us from going too far into the woods in search of lost balls. We finished the round with a few balls to spare.
Exploring the Kenai Peninsula
Brynn and Jared followed us down the Kenai Peninsula to Seward where we checked in at the Stoney Creek RV Park. On the first afternoon, we drove to Kenai Fjords National Park. The park, which is over 1,000 square miles, is extensively glaciated, with more than half of it covered by ice. At least 38 glaciers originate from the massive Harding Icefield. The Exit Glacier is the only one accessible by road. We walked along the “Edge of the Glacier Trail.” Markers showed how the glacier has receded over the past 120 years. Also known as the Lower Trail, it’s less than a 20-minute walk along a flat path from the parking lot.
In Seward we passed a dock with fishermen posing beside their impressive catches, which made me wish we’d included fishing on our itinerary. Not only did the fishermen enjoy the day’s adventure, but they also looked forward to sharing their catch with friends and family back home. Fishing outfitters offers services that include filleting, wrapping and freezing the fish, then shipping them overnight on a convenient date to your home.
Biking in Seward
The next day we rented bikes from the Seward Bike Shop to explore the town. After owner Ron Shurman outfitted us with bikes, he recommended biking trails. We started on the Two Lakes Trail. It’s at the base of Mount Marathon, where the city borders the wilderness. We rode through spruce and hemlock rainforests, then followed the Iditarod National Historic Trail, a paved trail that runs along Resurrection Bay. Originally known as the Seward-to-Nome Trail, the 2,300-mile network of trails was used in the winter by dog mushers carrying more than 1,000 pounds on large sleds.
North of Seward, we stopped to examine berries growing in a thicket. A woman who lived nearby asked us if we’d seen the bear that had been recently spotted. She explained that bears love the salmonberries we were examining. While we were hoping to see some of Alaska’s famous bears, we didn’t want them to catch us eating their food. We made it back to Seward without seeing a single bear.
Zip Line Tour
For our last day in Seward, we booked a zip line tour with Stoney Creek Canopy Adventures. A van picked us up at the RV park and took us to the Welcome Center. We successfully completed a “ground school,” where we learned proper zip line riding and braking techniques. The tour was an exciting way to experience the Pacific temperate rainforest: traversing eight zip lines, crossing three suspension bridges, and dropping to the ground on two rappels. The longest zip line was 1,100 feet, giving us time to admire the reflecting pond below and search the sky above for bald eagles. Time flies when we are having fun; our three-hour tour felt like it lasted 30 minutes.
Return to Anchorage
Since we needed to return the RV to ABC Motorhomes by 10:00 a.m., we spent one more night at Ship Creek RV Park in Anchorage. Returning the motorhome was even easier than getting it. As soon as it was checked for damages, the cleaning crew began preparing it for its next occupants. We were off to the Hotel Captain Cook for the first night of our land tour with Princess Cruises. We explored downtown Anchorage and walked the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, a beautiful 11-mile path that winds along the Knik Arm and the Cook Inlet. Just before bedtime, we looked out our window to appreciate the picturesque sunset after more than 17 hours of daylight.
Mt McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge
The next morning, we boarded our assigned bus, one of several taking excited travelers on three-hour drive to the Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge. After settling in, we hiked some of the trails on the property, stopping to look at the cloud bank that hid Denali, the famous mountain all visitors hope to see. We boarded a bus to Talkeetna, a small town big on Alaskan charm. The TV show Northern Exposure was said to be patterned after Talkeetna. Sadly, the town’s mayor, a cat named Stubbs who held the honorary office since 1997, died a mere week before we arrived. Popular tourist activities include salmon fishing, jet boating and “flightseeing” tours. We ended our day back at the Lodge, eating s’mores around a campfire and making new friends.
Denali Princess Lodge
The following day we were bused to the beautiful Denali Princess Lodge two hours away. Our package included a five-hour Natural History Tour, but I couldn’t do another 5 hours on a bus. We opted to take a short bus ride into Denali National Park to see the 30-minute sled dog demonstration. When we arrived, more than 30 Alaskan huskies were sleeping in their kennels or relaxing atop their doghouses. Four dogs were selected to pull a park ranger in a wheeled cart around a short track. A ranger explained the role the sled dogs play in protecting and preserving the park by providing a reliable form of transportation in the extreme conditions of a subarctic winter.
After following a scenic hiking trail back to the Lodge, we enjoyed the Music of Denali Dinner Theater. Servers brought our family-style meal of Alaskan salmon and smokehouse barbecue to our tables. Then this talented crew took to the stage to entertain us with a musical performance telling the story of the first brave men to reach the top of Denali, North America’s tallest peak at 20,310 feet.
The Train with a View
We rose early the next morning to catch the bus to the Denali Depot. Our assigned seats were in the GoldStar Dome car; the large curved windows allowed a 360-degree view. As the train pulled away from the station, a moose munched on leaves a short distance away. The route took us through spectacular scenery: rivers, mountains, forests, and the Turnagain Arm of the Cook Inlet. Passengers were excited to get another glimpse of Denali, although it was still partially obscured by cloud cover. My two favorite places to take photographs were from the GoldStar’s second floor viewing platform and the observation deck at the rear of the train. I had just returned to my seat when a bear was spotted running away from the tracks. I’d missed my only opportunity to photograph a bear.
When we arrived at the Whittier Cruise Ship Terminal around 5:30 p.m., we were among the 2,000 passengers settling into our rooms and exploring the Coral Princess. The ship had two main dining rooms, a buffet restaurant, several specialty restaurants, a theater, numerous shops, a spa and fitness center, a casino, several lounges, and two pools and hot tubs. It would be absolutely impossible to be bored on this ship.
Glacier Bay National Park
The first two days consisted of scenic cruising to see the Hubbard Glacier and Glacier Bay National Park. The Hubbard Glacier is 6 miles wide with a 400-foot-tall face. The ship didn’t get very close to the glacier, but it was impressive even at a distance. Binoculars or a camera with a telephoto lens allowed a closer view. In Glacier Bay, park rangers boarded the ship to give presentations and answer questions. The National Park and Preserve consists of 3.3 million acres of mountain, glaciers, forests and waterways. The ship spent about an hour in front of the Margerie Glacier, an advancing tidewater glacier that calves frequently. We listened to commentary from park rangers on speakers on the open deck. When the ship stopped near the Lamplugh Glacier, we had a perfect view from our stateroom balcony where we could hear the commentary on our TV.
Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve
In Skagway, our first port, we went on a rafting trip through the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve. The 48,000-acre preserve consists of river bottom land of the Chilkat, Kleheni, and Tsirku Rivers. It’s the year-round home for 200 to 400 eagles. In the fall and winter, more than 3,500 eagles flock to the Chilkat River to feast on the late run of chum salmon. As we floated silently down the river aboard inflatable rafts, we saw about 15 eagles.
Mendenhall Glacier Via Helicopter
On August 2, our 42nd wedding anniversary, we boarded a helicopter — another bucket list item — and flew to the Mendenhall Glacier. While en route to Juneau’s star attraction, we saw dense rainforests and snow-covered mountains. As we landed, we got a bird’s-eye view of different textures of the glacier: icy spires, deep crevasses, moraine (rocks and sediment) fields, and meltwater pools. What surprised me most was how blue the ice was. Our guide invited us to drink the clear water flowing down the glacier. He also offered us “glacial facials” with mineral-rich glacial mud.
After we returned to the heliport, we were bused to the Gold Creek Salmon Bake where we enjoyed wild salmon grilled over an open, alder wood fire. We walked to Salmon Creek Waterfall, which was crowded with salmon spawning. In the nearby historic Wagner Mine, the discovery of gold in 1880 sparked the Juneau gold rush.
Totem Poles and Lumberjacks in Ketchikan
Our last port was Ketchikan, the southeastern-most city in Alaska. Since it’s also known as the “Rain Capital of Alaska,” locals were thrilled with the cloudless blue skies.
We boarded a bus to Totem Bight State Park. The hemlock forest contains a colorful collection of native Tlingit and Haida Indian totem poles. Our tour guide entertained us with fascinating tales about each totem pole. Our tour concluded at a lumberjack show in Ketchikan, where champion athletes competed in sawing, log rolling, and a 50-foot tree climb.
While the shore excursions were a highlight of the cruise, time spent aboard the ship in the evenings and days when we were at sea were wonderful too. We enjoyed the entertainment, classes and lectures. A lecture by Libby Riddles, the first woman to win the Iditarod Sled Dog Race in 1985, inspired me to buy her book, Race Across Alaska.
After we returned home, friends asked two questions. How was the trip? If you were to do it again, what would you do differently? Our Alaska adventure was fabulous, a trip of a lifetime. The cruise exceeded my expectations. If I could change anything, I’d spend more time on land. Alaska is a big state; six days in a motorhome and three days for the Princess land tour wasn’t enough. I would visit Fairbanks, Sitka, Valdez and Homer. I’d go fishing, look for wildlife on the Tundra Wilderness Tour in Denali, take a flightseeing tour to Denali, watch bears eating salmon in Katmai National Park, and ride a riverboat in Fairbanks.
It’s too soon to take Alaska off my bucket list.