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Alaska trip 2019


travel

Earlier this year we traveled to Alaska and were gone for about two and a half months. I’ve been struggling with how to best summarize the trip – we went too many places, did too many things, and saw too many amazing sights to describe everything without it turning into a (long, boring) book. So, I figured I’d keep things simple and do a (somewhat) quick-and-dirty recap of the route but also dive into Denali in a bit more detail. I was going to limit myself and only post 10 photos from the trip, but I can’t – there’s too many good ones. So I’m going to pull together some favorites and will put them up in another post. In the meantime, if you want to see some pics from the trip, check out my Instagram page here.

Warmup

We left San Diego on July 7 and spent the first month of our trip in California, Oregon, and Washington, mainly mountain biking and hiking. In the past we had never really spent any time in the Mt Shasta area so we did some exploring there and got in some good riding. We then went to Oregon and spent a week in both Ashland and Bend. We love camping up on Mt Ashland and mountain biking on Bend’s amazing trail network so those spots are always a must-stop for us. We also did a re-do at Crater Lake since we had bad weather last year. Not this year, though – blue skies and blue water!

After quick stops at Mt Hood and Leavenworth (Washington) we spent some time in the North Cascades National Park and absolutely loved it. I had been through there on a motorcycle trip with my dad last year, but it was really smokey so we didn’t get the full experience. We had great weather this year, though. We did a pretty epic bike ride up to Slate Peak and then the next day hiked the jaw-droppingly beautiful Maple Pass Loop. There are lots of hikes and routes to explore in Cascades National Park, especially if you get off the beaten path. Highly, highly recommended.

Canada

We then met my parents in Seedro-Woolley, figured out how to get their forgotten passports shipped from Idaho to Washington, and then proceeded north into Canada. We went through Vancouver, Squamish, and Whistler on Highway 99 and, after going through Prince George, ended up on the Cassiar Highway just outside of Smithers. Meziadin Lake Provincial Park is a favorite stop for my parents (and now us!) so we stayed there and also made a day trip to Hyder, AK to try to get a glipse of some spawning salmon and hungry bears at Fish Creek. We only saw one black bear at Fish Creek, but did see a lot of salmon. The scenery from Meziadin Junction to Steward/Hyder is worth the side trip even if you get skunked at Fish Creek.

Quick aside: perhaps one of the best things, if not the best thing, about driving/riding to Alaska is going through British Columbia. I’ve been to Alaska via ground transport twice now (once on a motorcycle, once in an RV) and really most of the trip is spent in Canada. Which is a good thing because British Columbia is absolutely amazing and Canadians are some of the friendliest people in the world (unless they try to steal your mountain bikes in the middle of the night, but we won’t hold that against them). If you don’t have the time to make it all the way to Alaska, it’s still worth it to go up into BC and spend as much time there as you can – the sights you see will rival those in Alaska.

Anyway, we finished the Cassiar and got on the Alaska Highway near Watson Lake, Yukon. We stayed on 1 West all the way to the Alaska border, going through Teslin, Whitehorse, Haines Junction, Burwash Landing, and Beaver Creek. Unfortunately most of the this part of the trip was driving – we probably averaged around 400 miles a day so it wasn’t exactly a punishing schedule, but it’s a lot of driving day after day (after day). The Yukon has a different feel than BC (to me it feels more open and remote), but it’s still quite pretty – Kluane Lake is one of my favorite areas.

Alaska

My sister, her husband, and kids live in Soldotna so that was our destination after crossing the Alaska border. We went through Tok and took Highway 1 all the way to Anchorage. The Palmer/Matanuska Valley area northeast of Anchorage has some really spectacular scenery and every time I’ve been through there I’ve seen a moose or two. After Anchorage we continued south down to the Kenai Penninsula where we stayed with my sister for a week. It was fun catching up with family and friends in Soldotna.

We had plans to go see one of my nephew’s football games in Fairbanks so we decided to incorporate a trip to Denali National Park on the way up to Fairbanks. Unfortunately we were already at Denali when we found out the game was cancelled due to wildfires on the Penninsula (the highways were constantly being closed and bus travel for the kids was deemed too dangerous). Since we were already in the park we decided to stay a few days and even did an overnight bikepacking trip, which was a definite highlight.

Denali

Heidi and I both fell in love with Denali. The park itself is over 6 million acres and there’s really only one road. Unless you have some type of special permit, you can only drive your own vehicle the first 15 miles, which is nice for both the wildlife and folks visiting the park. (I wish all National Parks would restrict auto traffic and require people to use buses/bikes.) Anyway, if you want to go beyond mile 15 you need to ride the bus (or a bike).

On our first day in the park we took an all-day bus tour to Wonder Lake, which is near the end of the road at mile 82. The views and vast landscapes throughout the park are gorgeous – it’s so remote and wild you can’t help but get inspired. It really feels more like a preserve than a national park. As for wildlife, we saw countless moose and caribou and I think 5 grizzly bears. It was absolutely fantastic.

Another reason Denali feels so remote, in addition to its sheer size and limited roads/auto traffic, is that there are very few official hiking trails, as the emphasis is on a trail-less wilderness. So most hiking is done off-trail, which is quite the opposite of most other state or national parks where travel off-trail is mostly restricted. Backcountry camping is also possible, but a permit is required, along with a consultation with a park ranger to ensure you know what you’re getting into.

The whole time we were on the bus tour we kept saying how fun it would be to bikepack into one of the remote campgrounds or even all the way to Wonder Lake. We got the news about the cancelled football game when we got back from the bus ride and, since we now had extra time, decided to book a spot in a remote campground 22 miles into the park. We were a little nervous given the level of wildlife we had just seen on the bus trip, along with the remoteness – there’s no cell service and very little, if any, traffic once the buses stop running for the day. But we had the time and most of the bikepacking gear we needed; we knew we’d be kicking ourselves if we didn’t get out of our comfort zone a bit and make the most of our time in Denali.

We spent the evening and the early part of the next morning packing and getting our bikes ready and then took off for the Sanctuary River Campground. The first part of the road is paved and goes through an area that’s mostly moose habitat. (The road turns to gravel after mile 15.) There were some warning signs about not venturing off the road due to moose rutting season so we were on high alert. We didn’t see any moose, but did have our closest grizzly sighting around mile 20.

An oncoming tour bus stopped and the driver told us there was a grizzly bear right near the road, around a slight bend about 1/8 mile ahead. There was another bus up ahead that had stopped so we rode up and talked to that driver. There was no way our bikes and gear would fit on the bus’s small bike rack so hitching a ride wasn’t really an option. While we were talking to the second bus driver a ranger pulled up in a pickup and said we could ride next to her in order to get by the bear. That way if it “got curious” (her words) we could quickly hop in the truck. Thankfully the bear was busy digging up roots and didn’t pay much attention to us as we rode by. I was happy we didn’t get mauled, but was bummed we didn’t get a picture. LOL

The campground was wooded and right next to the Sanctuary River. There was only one other person camping so it felt remote. We had a good time getting to know our neighbor, who was a photographer trying to get some pictures of a Lynx that was in the area. It was a cold night, but, as you’d expect, very quiet. We got up early the next morning and, thanks to clear skies, were finally about to see Denali for the first time on our trip. The ride back to the park entrance was nice, but uneventful – only caribou and a moose this time.

Final days in Alaska

We were hoping to go back to Soldotna and spend some more time with family, but there was still heavy smoke and periodic road closures. Consequently, we stayed on the Turnagain Arm for a few days, hiking some trails and exploring Girdwood and Whittier. We were also waiting to see if we’d be able to catch one more football game in Anchorage before we hit the road. We got lucky and the game took place so we went to that before leaving for Canada. It was really great to spend some time with my sister and her family, but were bummed the wildfires prevented us for being together longer.

Heading home

We decided to drive the Alaska Highway back through the Yukon and British Columbia rather than take the Cassiar again. We spent a night at Liard River Hot Springs Provincial Park, which was a must since the hot springs there are so nice. Even though it was only early September the fall colors were in full effect in the Yukon and northern BC so that made the trip extra scenic on the way back. We saw a lot of black bears in BC on the Alaska Highway, which was also a highlight.

After four days of solid driving we spent the night in Prince George, BC. Heidi and I found a nice place to get in a much-needed workout and then joined my parents in the parking lot of the Treasure Cove Casino. There were a few other RVers in the lot, which was lit up and fairly full of other cars and the usual parking lot traffic. Thankfully Heidi was having a hard time sleeping and around 5am heard some strange noises outside our rig. She looked out the back window and saw two guys trying to steal our mountain bikes. She pounded on the window and scared them off, just as they were about to free her bike from the rack. They had cut through a pretty substantial cable lock, but got tripped up trying to get the rack’s wheel strap undone! Being able to cut through any type of cable lock isn’t that surprising, but what is a bit surprising is doing it in a well-lit parking lot with a bunch of other vehicles around. I, of course, slept through pretty much the entire event so Heidi was the definite hero of the day. From here on out our every mountain bike ride on the Co-ops is a bonus ride!

We crossed the border into Washington and said goodbye to my parents as they headed back to Idaho. It was such a great time caravaning with them and being able to experience the trip together. They have done the drive multiple times and know all the good camp spots so it was like being on a trip with our own tour guides.

Heidi and I made our way back to Bend for some more mountain biking. We then went to Lake Tahoe for a couple days before heading south on 395 through the Sierra Nevadas. We stumbled upon Alabama Hills near Lone Pine, which was the perfect place for our last night out. We were sad to be done with our trip, but were looking forward to unlimited running water and daily showers.

Stats

  • Left: 07/07/2019
  • Returned: 09/17/2019
  • Total trip days: 73
  • Total trip distance: 9,388 miles
  • Total RV fuel cost: $2,194.79
  • Total nights stayed in RV: 71
  • Total RV lodging costs: $503.00
  • Average RV lodging cost per night: $7.08
  • Total food cost (groceries+dining out): $1,925.32
  • Total trip cost (fuel and lodging): $2,712.79