Driving Alaska - Great Road Trip

Anchorage may indeed have a moose problem, but in late May when I strode the streets, the only moose I saw was painted on a shopfront. Armed with binoculars, a rented vehicle, and The Milepost (the Alaskan bible for road travel), it was time to get this road trip started to find some serious Alaskan beasts.  My dream of driving through Alaska was finally happening.

Driving the Seward Highway

Driving down the Seward Highway it is difficult to keep my eyes on the road as I am craning my neck to try to find a Dall sheep on the mountains to the left and beluga whales in Cook Inlet to the right. The overwhelming beauty of the snow capped peaks and promise of exotic wild animals are so irresistible that staying on the road and keeping alive is a mere afterthought.

Driving the Seward Highway on an Alaskan Road Trip

Alaska lies only about eighty five kilometres from Russia across the icy cold Bering Strait at its narrowest point. Although it is officially an American State, Alaska is in the unique position of being separated from the rest of America by Canada, and it truly does feel like another world.

We are driving along Turnagain Arm situated between the Chugach Mountains and Kenai Peninsula. The highway explodes with spectacular scenery from every direction. I am utterly besotted. I announce I want to live in Alaska.

Driving Alaska - Driving the Seward Highway past Potter Marsh

Driving Alaska - Driving the Seward Highway past Potter Marsh

Wide eyed, we spot a group of Dall sheep on the mountain. Quickly pulling over, we jump out of the car and gawk in awe.

Standing on an impossibly steep rocky slope perched high on a mountain, the thick curved horns of the rams are unmistakeable. Any other animal might fall off these craggy cliffs, but the sure-footedness of the Dall sheep enables them to navigate the most extreme cliffs, affording them perfect protection from wolves and bears. In the half an hour we spend observing them, tour buses fly by, and I am eternally grateful for the flexibility the rental car provides.

Eagles and Ice at Begich-Boggs Visitor Centre

We pack up our gear and leave the Seward Highway, taking the Portage Glacier Road to the Begich-Boggs Visitor Centre. Sitting at the foot of the Visitor Centre is Portage Lake, an eye catching subtle aqua with sheets of broken ice.  

There is movement in the distance.  I take out my small binoculars. A bald eagle is pecking away at a carcass and a bird of prey with golden brown plumage is circling overhead.

With an impressive wingspan, the Golden Eagle glides effortlessly and confidently surveys the scene.  The bald eagle departs and the Golden one flies down to attend to and inspect the carcass.

These are the moments that can make a road trip so satisfying. Being able to stop on a whim and spend unlimited time searching for and observing animals without any crowds is a precious thing. 

Golden Eagle inspecting a carcass at Portage Lake, Alaska.

Golden Eagle inspecting a carcass at Portage Lake, Alaska.

Rafting down the Kenai River at Cooper Landing

Cooper Landing is on my ‘must do’ list for the color of its river. We hit the Sterling Highway and make tracks to the rushing emerald waters of the Kenai River.

With class two to three plus rapids and wildlife strewn along its shores, the Kenai river is a magical place for rafting, fishing and observing.  It is shoulder season, and we are the only ones going out on the full day Kenai Canyon Rafting trip with Alaska Wildland Adventures. Being alone on a raft with just our guide gives us plenty of space and quiet.

As we glide down the Kenai River, I am mesmerised by its deep glacial green tint and occasionally distracted by Bald Eagles in the trees along the shore. Grinning like Cheshire Cats, we are lifted with the raw and powerful beauty of untouched nature.  

The next morning we head back out on the Sterling Highway and wonder what the next chapter of this road trip will bring. This is Alaska and I am quickly learning that you just never know what’s around the corner.

Driving Alaska : Cooper Landing, Alaska. View of Kenai River from the huge deck at the Kenai Princess Wilderness Lodge.   

Driving Alaska : Cooper Landing, Alaska. View of Kenai River from the huge deck at the Kenai Princess Wilderness Lodge.   

I slam on the breaks as a moose and her long legged calf scuttle onto the road in front of the car. They come to an abrupt halt for a moment. The mother runs across the road and goes scampering up an embankment, turning to watch her baby in obvious concern. The calf takes a few quick steps forward then stops dead, full of fear and uncertainty. I am in the driver’s seat staring in disbelief at this unexpected event - my first moose and with a calf too.

My first instinct is to grab my camera, but I am paralysed and cannot take my eyes off the scene before me, not even for a second. This is what an Alaskan road trip is all about, front seat at one of the most breathtaking and wildest shows on earth.

The Little Susitna River begins from Mint Glacier.

The Little Susitna River begins from Mint Glacier.

Things to do in Palmer, Alaska

After a glorious two nights in Cooper Landing, we drive through Anchorage and down the Glenn Highway to the town of Palmer.  The stunning drive provides a backdrop of endless snow capped mountains and spectacular scenery. Stopping over at the Hatcher Pass Bed & Breakfast log cabins for a few nights enables us to explore the area more fully.

Just across the road from our cabins, the wild long haired and tattooed locals sit around an old table outside the ancient looking local take-away, their motorbikes close by.  It is almost like the historical wild-west in a strange way.  I want to take a photo, but looking at the untamed locals, I quickly decide it might not be such a good idea after all.

Driving to Independence State Mine Historical Park, we are disappointed to find our planned walking route is covered in waist deep snow thanks to a late winter. But further down the mountain we discover the accessible Gold Mint Trail and spend a few hours hiking alongside the Little Susitna River framed by snow capped mountains. Alaska is simply beautiful all over. My pace quickens when we spot moose droppings - but alas, the droppings are as close as we get to any sightings today.

Driving Alaska : Talkeetna Roadhouse

Driving Alaska : Talkeetna Roadhouse

Driving the George Parks Highway and visiting Talkeetna

Driving the George Parks Highway we take a short detour to the impossibly cute Talkeetna Roadhouse for breakfast. 

The Roadhouse is a popular place for mountaineers for lodging and food.  Expect to see expert hikers and climbers from all around the globe here.

Full of individual small log cabins operating as homes or stores, Talkeetna is a great place to fill your belly, grab some quality Alaskan souvenirs or just soak in the quaint quirkiness of this unique little town. There is a cabin with a woman working alone like a dedicated bee making quality aprons with little paw prints of Alaskan animals. She doesn’t stop sewing until I stand there with one of her beautiful aprons in my hand waiting to purchase it.

After a few hours at Talkeetna we hit the road on the way to Denali National Park.  The last quarter of the drive down the George Parks Highway to Denali affords fantastic views of the Alaska Range through particular sections. It is an exhilarating feeling of pure freedom to be driving along these roads with the wilderness spread out before us, no time limits, stopping whenever we please - free.

Driving Alaska Road Trip

Driving and Hiking the Park Road at Denali

Denali National Park is a place to get lost in. Driving down the Park Road we spot bears walking across the road, Dall Sheep sitting on the road, moose hiding behind trees and wolves trying to intimidate a bear.  A full day at Eielson Visitor Centre is spent outdoors walking trails and gazing in wonder at the elusive Mt McKinley whose top is covered by swirling clouds.

But after a superb four days in Denali viewing the great Mt McKinley and sweeping Alaska ranges,  it’s time to think about making the drive back to Anchorage for our last night in Alaska.

As we drive out of Denali National Park for the final time and get back on the George Parks Highway we are buzzing with excitement about our animal spotting in Denali.

But this is Alaska, and just when we think we are done and have ended our trip on a final high, we see four moose eating on the other side of a small lake near the road.

Pulling over to observe them, we ditch the car and walk alongside the road very slowly following the moose, but careful to keep our distance. After about fifteen minutes, much to our delight two of the moose stride into the lake and start swimming casually across it toward the road. My husband and I look at each other with bright eyes and just smile - there are no words. 

Driving Alaska :  Moose by the road near the entrance of Denali National Park

Driving Alaska :  Moose by the road near the entrance of Denali National Park

Having a car in Alaska is like being given a gold ticket to the ultimate personalised safari. An Alaskan road trip is an adventure that is always unpredictable and potentially heart-stopping at every turn.

For those who love glaciers, hiking, marine wildlife, the thrill of searching for big exotic animals and white capped mountains, an Alaskan Road trip might just be your wildest dreams come true.

Part of this road trip involved visiting the AWCC which was worthy of its own article at this link: Alaska Wildlife Conservation Centre which includes pictures of a grizzly bear cub playing.

Itinerary

The Itinerary for this particular road trip included accommodation at the following locations: Denali National Park, Palmer, Anchorage, Girdwood, Cooper Landing and Seward, with countless other stops along the way.

Best time to go

This trip was taken late May through early June. Between mid May and mid September is the best time for driving Alaska. Before or after those times will limit road travel, sight-seeing, and hiking opportunities. Schedule the Denali National Park portion of your trip from June onwards when the Park is open to at least Eielson Visitor Centre (opening dates can differ every year so check with the Park before booking).  The views from Eielson Visitor Centre are not to be missed.

 Car Hire

There are a few different rental car providers.  We went with Avis Downtown who allowed us to book online about eight months in advance with no payment required until arrival.  Cars can book out quickly in Alaska and it is wise to book well ahead of time to ensure you get one. Shop around providers to get the best deal and remember insurance is an additional extra in Alaska.

 Essential items

The Milepost (Alaska Travel Planner) is an essential part of every Alaskan road trip and contains detailed maps as well as listing accommodation and attractions at every mile. Cabins and Wilderness Lodges offer significantly cheaper deals in the shoulder season being May to mid June and September.  

Finally, whatever you do, don’t forget a waterproof raincoat, waterproof shoes, warm clothes, beanie, binoculars and a camera with a reasonable zoom lens - you’ll thank me afterwards.

 

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Travel - Alaska, USA