Driving Alaska: Forget the cruise

By Steve Scauzillo, Los Angeles News Group


1. Judy’s Touch of Class B&B: This bed and breakfast is on a residential street in Anchorage. Not much to look at, but the value grows when you enter and meet Judy and Jim Powell. They are hospitality squared. Enjoy popcorn and conversation with guests and the Powells in the common living room after a day of fishing, hiking or sightseeing. The added advantage: Jim is a pilot and gives plane rides to guests who want to get a different perspective on Alaska’s natural treasures. Ask them anything about Alaska and they’ll know. 2143 Churchill Drive, Anchorage. www.judystouchofclassbnb.com

2.The Grande Denali Lodge: Perched on Sugarloaf Mountain above the Denali wilderness, the lodge offers great views, clean rooms, a fantastic bar but a pricey restaurant. A free shuttle brings guests down the steep driveway to the village below. The shopping area, a retail strip that grew haphazardly, is not the most appealing. However, it’s good for fast food and an ice cream or frozen yogurt. Check out the sister location, the Denali Bluffs Hotel if this one is booked. 866-683-8500 (reservations); www.denalialaska.com/grande-denali-lodge

3. The Van Gilder Hotel: Just off a side road but in the town, the three-story, reinforced concrete hotel, built in 1916, is on the National Register of Historical Places. Rooms are small but charming. Front room’s stained glass windows and old-fashioned upright piano add to its Victorian charm. Some rooms have shared baths. Most have three-quarter baths with pedestal sinks. Very close to the Alaska Sealife Center and the Seward Museum. 308 Adams St., Seward. 800-478-0400; www.vangilderhotel.com

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“So, you went to Alaska,” the friend at the party says to me. “Did you take a cruise?”

After I answer “no,” she looks strangely disappointed. Then, when I say “We saw Alaska by car” I really have her.

Flying to — then driving around — our nation’s 49th state easily became my favorite vacation. At the very least, the experience is guaranteed to provide you party banter for x-number of years. At best, it may change your life.

But don’t get me wrong. This is a trip anybody can do. You don’t need to camp, hike or hang glide. You just need to open your eyes to some of the most glorious spots in God’s country and perhaps bite down on a crispy reindeer sausage to receive the complete Alaskan immersion.

Here’s how we did it:

Following the midnight sun

My wife, Karen, and I had some frequent flier mileage on Alaska Airlines, so we flew to Anchorage from LAX nonstop, rented a car, toured the former gold-rush city and then drove Highway 3 to Denali National Park, then back south along the Turnagain Arm stopping at marshes, bird sanctuaries, impromptu waterfalls and ice-blue glaciers before our destination on the Kenai Peninsula.

I’m a guy who gets antsy during lengthy car rides, but, hands down, this was the most fulfilling road trip I’ve ever taken. I’d do it again.

The best time to see Alaska is between May and September. We visited at the end of June and early July, when the land of the midnight sun shines 24/7.

We arrived in Anchorage after midnight and walked up the path to our bed and breakfast. The neighborhood was veiled by a glowing light of suspended sunset. Our hosts left us a key to our room which came equipped with blackout shades. The 24-hour days took some getting used to but made for some efficient sight-seeing squeezed into a week’s time.

Driving is safer and more rewarding in a state where it never becomes night. The better to see every curve and critter. Alaska’s green conifer forests filled the windshield like paint on a Monet canvas. At one point during the drive along the Seward Highway, an adult bald eagle swooped from the treetops and presented in full wing span, shimmying our rented Nissan Versa like leaves in a stiff breeze.

After visiting the Anchorage Museum and the Alaska Native Heritage Center — a bargain on a double-bill admission ticket — we stopped for dinner and didn’t realize it was after 10 p.m. It was still light out.

Anchorage highlights

Anchorage’s museums became trip highlights.

The Heritage Center offered a guided tour from a young man whose descendants once lived in similar underground structures as those we toured in the 26-acre outdoor museum near Lake Tiulana. Inside the cramped hut representative of the Yup’ik and Cup’ik peoples, he was asked how many made a typical family. “Well, my grandmother was one of 11,” he answered. Our guide’s intimate, first-hand knowledge of the indigenous people of Alaska made our museum visit memorable.

The next day, we strolled through Anchorage’s downtown, filled with eclectic cafes and pubs, but frankly, there was nothing that great. Ironically, finding a place with fresh seafood is a tough task. Finally, we ate at Simon & Seaforts, an excellent seafood and steak place located near the statue of Capt. Cook, the British explorer, which overlooks picturesque Cook Inlet.

Don’t miss the Anchorage Market & Festival if you are in town on a Saturday or Sunday. The colorful swap meet has something for everyone from Alaskan coffee to Native American jewelry. Grab a reindeer sausage from the vendor in front of the U.S. National Parks Service. Also, you may want to check out Portage Glacier and Chugash State Park, all within an easy drive of Anchorage.

Thanks to the talented and gracious Jim Powell, our B and B host and licensed pilot, our view of Alaska rose by several thousand feet. The smooth-as-glass plane ride above the turquoise glaciers towering above Cook Inlet, the Turnagain Arm and the port of Whittier capped an unforgettable eight days in this scenery-rich state.

Highway 3 to Denali

The road to Denali National Park is freeway to Wasilla, home of Sarah Palin, but then becomes a paved two-lane highway north from there to Denali and to Fairbanks. The six-hour drive to Denali flew by. Some make it a two-day trip by stopping to fish or boat at Beyers Lake or hike the trail to the Independence Gold Mine.

Because our time was limited, we drove directly to Denali, where the following day we looked forward to a bus tour with the National Park Service.

At the last minute, we took a two-hour side trip to Talkeetna that was well worth the time. We saw the Alaskan Railroad train pull into the station, met the town’s feline mayor, Stubbs the cat (Yup, they elected the cat as mayor) while we munched on Indian naan and delicious curry cooked fresh from a local food truck.

The charming town, which serves as the base camp for climbers of Mount McKinley, was the inspiration for the TV series “Northern Exposure.”

After Karen got her feet wet in the Susitna River, we got back in the rental car and headed out the 14-mile road to Highway 3.

We arrived in Denali in time to meet the sled dogs of Denali and their trainers. The evening demonstration gave us a taste of what Denali offered.

A wildlife cornucopia

I’d recommend booking a National Park Service tour bus through the park. No need for the more expensive private tour lines. The NPS men and women know this park like a NYC cabbie knows Manhattan. The 92-mile road into the park is the only road in and out and not open to private vehicles. The NPS tour allows you to get out at each stop and linger, then hop the next bus.

Since the tour lasted 14 hours, flexibility mattered. We stretched our legs at Eielson Visitor Center (mile 66) where I took close-up photos of the colorful wildflowers. At Wonder Lake (mile 85), we exited the bus and hit the hiking trails for a few hours. A female moose passed us by about a hundred yards away. The magnificent creature sent tingles down my spine.

On the ride back, the NPS guide/driver stopped to allow us to view a mamma grizzly and her two cubs. For 30 minutes, the mamma hunted for berries, while the two yearlings wrestled in the short grass. Later, they surrounded the bus, oblivious to the tourists inside.

Only the sound of camera shutters clicking could be heard, as transfixed visitors photographed the bears eating, romping and frolicking in the wilderness. It was like something out of a Discovery Channel special. After a half hour, it finally ended when the bear family ambled away.

A short while later, the driver pulled the bus to the side of the road and said: “Everyone look to the right.” There, the clouds parted, revealing a partial view of Mount McKinley, the highest peak in North America at more than 20,000 feet.

On the road again

If Seward, the quirky, historic mining town, wasn’t there, the 127-mile scenic Seward Highway would be a destination in itself. It is one of the most beautiful roadways we’ve ever driven, and we would have missed it if we’d taken a cruise.

Just outside of Seward, we drove to Exit Glacier, an easy hike to an impressive, active, yet receding glacier, part of the Kenai Fjords National Park.

The night before, we ate at the historic Salmon Bake located in a log cabin on Exit Glacier Road.

All along the Seward Highway, known as the All American Road, you could stop to see birds or seals or whales. One of my favorite road stops was Potter Marsh. The natural locale is often filled with birders pointing scopes at raptors high in the trees, or at water birds in the cattails below the boardwalk. Just south of the Anchorage city limits, it was another amazing side trip that helped me formulate a picture of a state that I can’t get out of my head. It was a journey I can summon to my mind when I need a peaceful moment.

Steve Scauzillo
Reach the author at Steve.Scauzillo@sgvn.com or follow Steve on Twitter: @stevscaz.

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About Steve Scauzillo

I love journalism. I've been working in journalism for 32 years. I love communicating and now, that includes writing about environment, transportation and the foothill/Puente Hills communities of Hacienda Heights, Rowland Heights, Walnut and Diamond Bar. I write a couple of columns, one on fridays in Opinion and the other, The Green Way, in the main news section. Send me ideas for stories. Or comments. I was opinion page editor for 12 years so I enjoy a good opinion now and then.

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