We really loved Seward, but after spending four nights there, we were ready to start heading north to see what other areas of Alaska had to offer.
Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center – Day 5
Our only plan was to be in Anchorage by dinner time; other than that, our schedule was wide open to drive as slowly or quickly as we wanted. Similar to the drive down to Seward, we decided to break it up with a hike, this time it was around the Girdwood area. On our way up, we passed by the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center.
Normally, I’m not super stoked to go see animals in a conservation and would rather see them in the wild. However, we heard really good things about this particular center from locals, so we decided to check it out. It was actually quite cool and I would recommend stopping if you have an hour or so to spare. We saw a lot of these animals in nature from a distance. The center gave us the chance to see them up close without worrying about our safety.
Winner Creek Trail – Day 5 (cont.)
After our visit at the conservation center, we resumed our drive up north and stopped in Girdwood for the Winner Creek Trail hike. This is a beautiful, fun, relatively short and easy hike if you have a couple of hours. Part of the trail includes crossing a ravine via a hand-tram! It was actually quite tiring to pull yourself across the ravine; luckily there were people on both ends that helped pull people across so you could get across the ravine quickly.
Once on the other side of the ravine, we hiked a little further and came across some beautiful waterfalls. The color of the water was unreal.
After spending some time enjoying the scenery it was time to get back on the road and head back to Anchorage for the night before driving up to Denali.
There was a woman that we met at The Cookery in Seward, she mentioned that we had to go to Fire Island Rustic Bakeshop when we were in Anchorage. We stopped by picked up some breakfast and a couple of sandwiches to go and hit the road. We loved it just as much as the Snow City Cafe – if you are in a rush and/or don’t want a big sit down breakfast, head to Fire Island, you won’t be disappointed.
Denali National Park
Denali Entrance Area – Day 6 & 7
DENALI, DENALI, DENALI! This drive was very different from the drive to Seward. First, it was 4.5 hours from Anchorage. Secondly, you aren’t driving along the coast. However, it was just as beautiful and awe-inspiring. It took a little bit longer than 4.5 hours because we made a couple stops here and there to take pictures. When we arrived in Denali around 4:30, we stretched our legs with an quick and easy hike around Horseshoe Lake to acquaint ourselves with the park. Armed with our bear spray, we were prepared for what nature had in store for us – a beaver.
Afterwards, we had dinner at the Grand Denali Lodge. The food was good there and the views were even better.
The next morning, we woke up, grabbed some coffee and breakfast from a coffeeshop on the boardwalk. We continued to patronize this coffee shop every morning we were in Denali.
We stayed at the Denali Bluffs Hotel – which I highly recommend. They have a really cute lunch bag special – if you submit your order by 8PM the night before, they’ll pack a sandwich, fruit, granola bar, water bottle, a small happy meal toy, and an Andes chocolate mint, all in an insulated green lunch box that you can take on hikes.
Once we got into the park, we stopped at the main center to get an idea of what we should do the next couple of days. We learned very quickly that you need to ask VERY specific questions in order to get a helpful answer. After lots of Q&A, the first full day was spent exploring the first 15 miles of the park. We also bought two Denali National Park bus tickets to Toklat Station for the next day – more on this later.
Tip – You can drive a car into the first 15 miles of the park; after that you need to have a ticket for the bus. You can get off the bus at any stop, but it is recommended you go all the way to the stop you bought a ticket for, because another outbound bus with a seat is not immediately guaranteed. If your stop is sold out, then buy a ticket for the next stop out and get off early. Buses heading back to the park entrance usually have room – or at least we didn’t have any trouble getting a bus ride back.
Our two hikes in the entrance area took the entire day – the first was the Savage Alpine trail which is about 4 miles one way. The Savage Alpine trail gains about 1500 feet over the course of the trail. For the first 10 minutes or so the trail passes through a wooded area, then there are a series of switchbacks before you reach a ridge with sweeping views. It is a relatively easy hike and you can see Denali from it on a clear day. Unfortunately for us, we just missed the top of the famous mountain.
Soon the ascent will level out and there will be plenty of rocks to rest on, have some lunch and take in the views. The north-end of the trail ends at the beginning of the Savage River Loop, which is a much easier loop (i.e. flat) and a little less than 2 miles round-trip.
After the hike, we jumped on the bus to head back to our car which was parked by the Savage Campground. This area has more parking than the Savage River Loop Trailhead. We also noticed that the ascent from the north-end of the trail was steeper and more challenging (near the Savage River Loop Trailhead). Every person we encountered along our way asked us “how much further”, so I recommend starting the hike on the south-end and work your way north.
We took a short break at the Denali Visitor Center before hike number two – the Mount Healy Overlook trail. I’m not sure if it is because we already hiked 4 miles that day but, this hike was considerably more challenging than the Savage Alpine trail. It is about 2.7 miles each way and gains about 1700 feet in elevation over the course of a mind-numbing number of switchbacks. Very quickly though, you are rewarded with views, views and more views. It can get really windy up at the top, so make sure you wear layers and have a jacket.
After a long day of hiking, we were ready for dinner and more importantly, a beer or two. We went to 49th State Brewery in the neighboring town of Healy. There was a wait but, you can entertain yourself with horseshoes and darts while waiting. We left with full bellies and tired bodies ready to hit the sack before one last day of hiking in Denali.
ATVs & Denali Interior Hiking – Day 8
After we got our breakfast, it was time to kick the dust up with some ATVs. We took a 2 hour ATV tour with Denali ATV Adventures. It is illegal to ATV in the park, but we road on trails to spots that looked out to some of the points we hiked the day before. It was my first time on an ATV and I was pretty bummed when it was over because I was finally comfortable driving it.
After some lunch, we went back to the park and tried our luck hiking in the interior of the park away from the crowds. We took a park bus to the Toklat River stop (~53 miles into the park). The bus ride is about 3 hours because of frequent stops to spot wildlife. On our ride we saw a mother grizzly with her cubs, owls and deer. Seeing the bears in the wild away from the crowds made me pretty tentative about our hike this far into the park.
There are only designated trails in the first 15 miles of the park; after that you are literally forging your own path. When we arrived at the Toklat River stop, the bus driver said “Oh it’s only two of you? Ok, well…have fun…good luck!” – his tone did not inspire any confidence. Armed with our bear spray, we set out for our hike along the Sheep Hill Ridge just up from the Toklat River contact station.
We crossed the river and scrambled up a sand and rock chute (we later realized there was a much easier way to get up). From there we walked toward the edge of one of the cliffs and then hiked about two miles before encountering a Dall sheep. We watched it quietly, hoping that it wouldn’t notice us. It eventually noticed us and ran away but, after some time, his curiosity got the best of him and he came back our way. At that point, it was raining pretty hard (it was drizzling on and off the entire day), and we decided it was best we head back to the station and catch the next bus heading back to the entrance area.
We weren’t as tired as the nights before, so we stayed up a little later – we were curious to know if it ever gets fully dark during the summer. Sunset was at 12:45AM; we didn’t stay up through sunrise which was 3:45AM. From the results of an attempted time lapse that went through 2AM, it never gets completely dark – we went 9 days without actually seeing night time.
The next day we waved goodbye to Denali and drove to Talkeetna. We spent a couple hours in this neat little hippy town on our way back to Anchorage. We forgot to refill on gas before leaving Denali, so we literally just barely made it to Talkeetna. If you have time, stop in and check it out. We had lunch at the Wildflower Cafe – the Thai veggie wrap was out of this world! Also make sure you stop and get some spinach bread from this gem…and seriously, don’t forget to fill up on gas.
There you have it, apologies that this post was quite lengthy, hopefully you are still with me; there is so much to share about our trip in Alaska. As always, below is a map of all of the places we slept, kayaked, hiked and ate at.
If you haven’t visited it yet, I hope you get the chance to explore the state and all that it has to offer one day. It’s a little unnerving being so removed at first but, we quickly found a sense of calm in the wild and loved every moment of it. I’m confident you will as well.