Alaska Road Trip: Denali-Valdez (7 days)
What do you do when you fall in love with a place? You go there again and again. And that's what we did! This was our third time to Alaska. For a beauty like that, it may not even be our last time. After lots of planning around the dates and routes, we came up with an itinerary that allowed us enough time to leisurely explore and capture the place. At the same time, there was lots of driving involved but we covered quite a lot on this 7 day trip.
Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center
Our trip started with flying from LA to Anchorage on a midnight flight, followed by a drive to Denali National Park, then a trip to Valdez with a stop over at Palmer and finally back to Anchorage.
Day 1 (Anchorage-Denali): We woke up at a hotel in Anchorage, quickly had our breakfast and hit the road. It was a long and hot drive to Denali. Yes HOT! The weather in Alaska was unexpectedly hot at the time (summer 2015), quite opposite to the last time we were there (pretty much rainy, windy and cold the whole time). There were also road constructions and multiple traffic control stops throughout Parks Highway. So obviously it took more time to reach Denali than we had anticipated. We drove straight into Denali National Park and made our first stop at mile-15 Savage River loop trail.
Savage river loop trail - Denali national park
Ground squirrel eating flowers / Caribous in Denali
It was an easy 2 mile hike with beautiful views. The trail looped around flowing savage river with tiny wildflowers to spot all along the trail. We crossed paths with few caribous and somewhat social ground squirrels that were busily munching on those wildflowers. The slightly cooler weather and serene atmosphere was so relaxing and much needed after the long drive.
Wildflowers in Denali
We booked our stay at Earthsong Lodge in Healy, which is only 10miles north of Denali. We dropped our bags in the room, rested for a bit and drove back to Denali entrance area to grab a bite.
No matter how many times we visit Alaska, it is always a pleasant surprise and joy to experience the midnight sun. We sat outside our cabin in the little patio area and completely lost track of time. Time stands still in Alaska.
Day 2 (Denali National Park): On this fresh morning we spent some time exploring this charming lodge which itself was a site to see in my opinion. It is a family run lodge, very tastefully decorated and well maintained with their own husky kennels. After having a warm toasted bagel at the cafe, we head out to spend our day at Denali National Park.
Earthsong Lodge in Healy
Earthsong lodge cafe area / Earthsong lodge boardwalk
We picked up sandwiches from Morino Grill at the entrance of Denali park and hopped on our tour bus that took us to Eielson visitor center (mile 66) and back. Our bus driver/guide shared some interesting information about the park, stopped at few spots to click pictures and even helped us spot wildlife. It was a very slow drive, but it only allowed us to really feel and take in every inch of the parks beauty. We came across couple of bears, few dall sheeps and a caribou, not as many as we had expected but it is always exciting to see one in the wild.
Polychrome Pass - Denali national park
We spent a good amount of time at Eielson visitor center taking short hikes and lots of photographs. We found ourselves a good spot to have our lunch while enjoying the views.
The highest mountain peak in North America, Mount Mckinley, was completely tucked under the clouds that day. Even though we couldn't catch a glimpse of the mountain, we did see a lot more than we had imagined. After a while, we took a bus back to the entrance just in time for dinner. There were many gift shops and places to eat close to the Denali entrance.
Eielson visitor center area / Denali national park
Day 3 (Denali-Palmer): We were so sad to leave the lodge but we had to keep moving. We checked out and drove to the Husky Kennels inside Denali National Park. We had fun petting the dogs and were also lucky to see some puppies lazing around. After some real puppy love, it was time for yet another long drive. We were headed to Palmer which was our pit stop for the night.
Husky kennels in Denali national park / Summit Lake - Hatcher Pass
On our way we took a detour on to Hatcher Pass Scenic drive. As the name suggests the drive was so beautiful and scenic with plenty of photo opportunities. Independence mine state historic park, a popular attraction, was closed at the time, so we drove our way up to Summit Lake. It was a good spot for short hikes and to witness incredible panoramic views.
Hatcher Pass / Susitna river
There is no saying how long drives take in Alaska, because there is always something around that will make you want to stop and gaze.
By the end of the day, we arrived in Palmer, checked-in to Alaska Garden Gate B&B and called it a night.
Day 4 (Palmer-Valdez): We were up for yet another long drive. We headed to Valdez. Matanuska glacier is one of the must stop spots on Glenn highway among many others. Since we visited the glacier on our previous trip, as tempting as it was to go again, we did not stop this time.
Restaurants on this highway were scarce and widely spread out. At the end of the freeway, at Glenallen junction (where we had to take a right onto Richardson highway-4), we spotted few food trucks that served different cuisines. We had our lunch from one of those trucks before heading further.
Read more about our Matanuska Glacier experience
Worthington Glacier / Rainy in Valdez
25 miles away from Valdez is Worthington Glacier. Just a short hike up on a rocky mountain we were able to touch the tip of the glacier and saw water from the melting ice gushing our of the glacier. As we drove by Keystone Canyon it started to rain quite heavily, making it a pleasant, refreshing, lush green drive rest of the way. We checked in at Best western Harbor Inn which was a convenient location for activities planned for the next day.
Day 5 (Valdez Kayaking): Here comes the best part about this trip - Sea kayaking at Columbia Glacier. Early before 8am, we picked our lunch from The Roadside Potatohead and reported at Pangaea Adventures - our tour organizers for the day. After a quick briefing, we were on a 2 hour boat ride into Prince William Sound. We kayaked for nearly 4 hours with an hours rest in between, and then sailed back out to Valdez for another 2 hours. It was a wonderful day trip and an unbelievable experience. The scenery was simply WOW with waterfalls, wildlife and icebergs.
Read more about our Sea Kayaking at Columbia Glacier experience.
Port of Valdez / Kayaking among icebergs
Sea kayaking at Columbia glacier
After a quick refreshing shower we headed out to have dinner at Mike's Place. The ambience was great with live music and the food was delicious.
Day 6 (Valdez-Anchorage): Now the sad truth, it was time to leave Valdez.
It was a long drive to and from Valdez, but a stroll by the harbor watching plenty of cute otters in the water, our kayaking experience and the incredible landscape were completely worth it.
On our way out we made few stops along Keystone Canyon to check out the waterfalls and click pictures. There were many lookouts with hiking trails through out the drive where we could just park and wander about.
Hike on Richardson highway / View near Keystone Canyon
Unlike our hot drive in, it was raining along Glenn highway which was pleasant and also a great photo opportunity. Fireweed and black spruce were a sight to look at. By the end of the day, we checked-in to a hotel in Wasilla for our last night in Alaska.
Day 7 (Anchorage): Our return flight to LA wasn't until midnight, so we decided to spend this day around Anchorage visiting some of the places we visited during our previous trip. Our first stop was Beluga Point. We did not see any whales (not even on our previous trip) but enjoyed some quiet time watching the spectacular beauty of Turnagain Arm.
Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center
A bear in the wildlife center / A deer with her newborn
Then we headed to Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. This is not just a place to see cubs, calves and other wildlife but also a place to capture stunning views. Our next stop was Portage lake visitor center. From the parking lot a short dense hiking trail led us to a calm and absolutely serene mossy forest, where a wider trail ran deeper into Chugach National Forest. Time constraint did not allow us a boat ride to Portage Glacier, which once had covered the entire landscape.
Our last stop for the trip was Byron Glacier. An easy scenic hiking trail beside glacial rapids led us to a mountain of rocks. We climbed up the boulders only to discover the glacier had retreated quite a lot. Nonetheless it was a good finish to our trip.
Portage Lake - Trail at visitor center
We hope you enjoyed reading about our experiences in Alaska and plan your own trip some day. Please do take all necessary precautions while traveling in bear country. Enjoy!