Previously published in AAA Colorado's EnCompass, Jan/Feb. 2009
You’re not sure you’re doing it right.
You grasp the rusty pan in both hands and swirl
the dirt and water until they’re mixed. Tilting the pan
at a precarious angle, you pull and push it through
a trough of water and watch as sand and pebbles
wash away. You think half the treasure is going too,
but when only a tiny amount of sand is left, little
golden flecks magically appear. A few more passes
through the water and the sand is gone, leaving five
to 10 bits of gold sitting proudly in your pan.
It’s a surprisingly exciting moment.
Even more surprising is that this extremely clichéd tourist activity actually lends insight into what a self-drive trip in Alaska is like: Amid the vast distances and majestic scenery, you find golden moments that will take your breath away.
While the majority of visitors see Alaska via cruise ship—and that’s a great way to do so—fewer tackle America’s largest state by car. Logistically, Alaska is daunting because it’s on such a massive scale: More than twice the size of Texas, it has only the same amount of roads as tiny Rhode Island. Fifteen national parks and more than 100 state parks don’t even come close to containing the 100,000 glaciers, 3 million lakes and 571,000 square miles of mostly wilderness. Living in such a trackless territory is some of America’s largest populations of grizzlies, bald eagles and moose. They share their home with approximately 680,000 people (less than the population of Austin, Texas).
In such a vast wilderness, where do you begin?
A good seven- to 10-day road trip through the south central
part of the state uses Anchorage as the start/end and
includes Seward, Fairbanks and Denali National Park.
Highlights—both expected and unexpected—include
massive glaciers that boom as they “calve,” breaching
humpback whales, the quirky little village that inspired the
hit TV show, “Northern Exposure,” a musk ox farm, and a
well-presented heritage center and museum that put
everything into context.
Anchorage, the largest city in the state, is worth at least a day and has a compact, easy to explore downtown. Bookended by the Cook Inlet to the west and the Chugach Mountains to the east, it’s a friendly, laid back place.
“It’s Seattle without the angst,” says Matt Hayes, owner of Alaska Ivory Exchange gift shop. In laid-back fashion, savor a coffee at the local and funky Kaladi Brothers Coffee, or soak in the views and bright sunshine on the rooftop of Snow Goose Brewery. As you reach for
your sunglasses, you’re startled to realize it’s 10 p.m.—Alaska
definitely knows how to do summer!
A must see is the Alaska Native Heritage Center, located a few miles
outside the city (and included in Gray Line’s Anchorage Highlights
Tour). Situated on 26 lush acres, the center tells the story of the
state’s 11 major native cultures through song, dance, five
representative village sites, and a friendly and knowledgeable staff
of native Americans.
To fully experience Alaska’s dramatic meeting of land and sea, head
south on the Seward Highway to the village of Seward, the jumping
off point for many glacier and fjord boat tours.
The 127-mile drive is startling in its beauty and holds three U.S. scenic designations. It’s common to see eagles, Dall sheep and even beluga whales along the route. The most spectacular portion hugs a thin strip of land that snakes between the shore of Turnagain Arm and the foot of the Chugach Mountains. You think you’ve grasped the size of the mountains until you notice cars a few miles ahead looking like motorized ants—your sense of perspective is constantly being jarred in larger-than-life Alaska.
In the picturesque fishing village of Seward (which is well worth a wander through the harbor and the old downtown), the mountains once again put your sense of proportion to the test as they make a harbor full of multi-storied private yachts and 200-passenger tour boats look like bathtub toys.
Out on the water, a five-hour glacier and wildlife cruise into Kenai Fjords National Park is just as stunning for the scenery and the wildlife seen. In the chilly waters of Resurrection Bay, pods of killer whales hunt for fish while humpback whales breach as if
trying to get a better view of the tree-covered fjords.
Colorful little tufted puffin birds bob on the waves like miniature
buoys, sea otters float serenely on their backs, while blubbery
stellar sea lions hold animated conversations atop rock
outcroppings. A highlight is a drift in front of Aialik Glacier,
where craggy spires of ice seem to wait until you’ve looked
away before “calving” (crumbling) with startling booms into the
The drive north from Seward back through Anchorage and on toward famous Denali National Park is a long one (240 miles), but the scenery never lets you down. A good overnight stop is at Talkeetna, a village of only 873 people. The postage-sized town square, the homespun café, the handful of unique gift shops and the genuinely local Saturday outdoor market all create a funky feeling that was the inspiration for TV’s “Northern Exposure.”
The town is a center for river rafting, fishing, aerial flights, as well as
where all climbers register to scale Mt. McKinley (aka Mt. Denali, “the
great one”), North America’s highest peak at 20,320 feet. Some of the
finest McKinley views are around Talkeetna, although the mountain only
emerges from its cloud cover about 20% of the time.
“If you’re wondering if you’re seeing Mt. McKinley, you aren’t,” says Liam
Neeley-Brown. “The peak is so massive, you’ll never be in doubt. It
dwarfs the surrounding mountains.”
Back on the road, the entrance to Denail National Park is 135 miles north. A strong recommendation is to initially bypass the park and continue 125 miles up to Fairbanks (31,000 people). The town’s worth a day or two stay because of surrounding attractions such as:
•Museum of the North—Excellent exhibits give context to Alaska’s geological, animal and human history. Check out Blue Babe, the 36,000-year-old bison mummy, as well as the intriguing stories of Gold Rush women. •Musk ox farm—The wool is eight times thicker than lamb’s
wool and feels incredibly soft. A daily tour explains all about these
cute, surprisingly small creatures.
•Gold dredger #8—The five-story mass of metal was the first
transformer: It used to lift its “legs” and “walk” to areas where its wheelbarrow-sized buckets scooped up mud and let its cavernous interior sift and wash away the dirt until all that remained was “slurry” (a mix of gold and mercury). A fascinating tour ends with gold panning.
When it’s time to head back south to see Denali and return to Anchorage, self drivers have a major option to consider: turn in the rental car in Fairbanks and take the McKinley Explorer train to Denali, overnight in Denali, then re-board the train for Anchorage. While the train is a considerable expense, and you’ll probably have to pay a drop-off fee for the car, all that fades as you take your assigned seat in one of the specially built Holland-America Line observation train cars.
Many believe there is no finer, easier way to see this portion of Alaska. The upper level seating and huge windows ensure everyone has a good view, while a train car manager provides interesting commentary. A lower-level open platform offers a chance to feel the rush of the outdoors.
Denali National Park is one of the state’s crown jewels. Its 6 million acres of wilderness is larger than Massachusetts and boast abundant wildlife. Desertlike tundra helps to heighten the dramatic impact of the jagged mountains, even when Mt. McKinley isn’t out. Visitors are allowed to drive vehicles into the park’s first 15 miles, but past that point only established day tours are allowed, most of which are conducted in old school buses.
On the five-hour tour my wife and I took, there was a stop on top of a hill where Gabe Sam, an elder of the local tribe, entertained and informed us with tribal stories. Later, as the tour wound down and the bus turned back for home, people were dozing or just reflecting on the numerous animals we had seen—although the elusive grizzly had evaded us, as it does on most Denali tours.
Suddenly, a shout rang out: “Bear!”
The bus driver slammed on the brakes and
we all watched as a grizzly bolted up the side
of the hill next to the road. Not far up, in a small
clearing, the bear suddenly stopped, turned
and stared at us. It was a memorable moment
looking at a truly magnificent creature. After the
bear rambled away, the group burst into excited
It was the perfect golden moment for the end
Jeff Miller is a Denver-based freelance travel writer and former editor of EnCompass.