For the 4th year in a row, we have been so lucky to spend a week of our summer with friends who live in Texas. My son, being an only child looks forward to this week with his two buddies as much as I look forward to having adult time while the kids are occupied. Not only is it wonderful to get to travel with our friends and share these summer experiences together, it is so amazing to spend time with a family who has the same love for adventure, travel, the outdoors and photography that we do. For me, it really is a highlight of my year, so I hope we are able to keep it up for many years to come.
Our first year, we took a quick 4 day trip to Yosemite Valley. That trip started my son’s absolute love of the National Park System and even more so, created his obsession with being a park ranger when he grows up. Year 2, we went all in with a 10 day road trip through Arizona and Utah. This was a super fun trip that took in so many different landscapes as well as tested our abilities to travel on an extended basis together. Year 3 took us to Oregon where we traveled to the Central and Southern areas of the state. By our kid’s accounts, that trip had the best accommodation options on any of our trips! And year 4 – a week long (for them, 10 days for us) road trip catching the major sites of Alaska by land.
The one thing all of our summer trips have in common is visiting at least one national park. The kids are all obsessed with collecting their junior ranger badges and upping their totals. We like to think they also really enjoy the hiking, scenery and wildlife opportunities, but who knows it could all be about the badges!
This year’s northerly adventure took us to three national parks in Alaska – Denali National Park to see the big 5, Kenai Fjords National Park to see a glacier up close and Lake Clark National Park to hang with grizzlies in the wild. It was an epic trip with absolutely stunning scenery even with subpar weather conditions!
My family’s Alaska adventure began a day sooner than our friends with our early arrival in Alaska’s largest town of Anchorage. My son’s one wish was to fish for salmon, so we decided to hit the ground running with a visit to a Ship Creek to join the locals in fishing for silver salmon. Unfortunately the Bait Shack located on the river was already out of kids gear for the day, so we had to just watch the action instead. It was pretty spectacular to see the locals reel in the salmon one after the other. We spent some time chatting to Dustin, the owner of the Bait Shack, who showed us how to fillet a salmon, how to tell which was a female and a male and the rules about how many fish each person could take home each day. Given our awesome education session, the day was still deemed a win.
With one more free day before our friends arrived, we started out early with a visit to Earthquake Park to get a beautiful view over Anchorage and to get a better sense of our bearings. We then met up with Alaska family travel expert Erin Brady Kirkland of AKontheGo for a delicious breakfast at the popular Snow City. She loaded us up with information and answered all of our Alaska questions before we headed out for a hike at Flattop Mountain, which also provided excellent views over Anchorage as well as giving us a good introduction to hiking in Alaska amid rainy and windy conditions.
With the afternoon came another opportunity to try our hand at fishing. Two hours later, fully clothed in waders and all, we still hadn’t caught anything. Honestly I was thankful we didn’t catch anything, because I did not want to bang that fish on the head to kill it! Much less fillet it or even transport it anywhere.
Excited to meet up with everyone and get on the road, we made our plans to head out to Denali National Park the following morning. The dreaded 5 hour drive surprisingly went by quickly with various stops along the way. Reflection Lake and Mirror Lake were two favorites for pretty views and a quick leg stretch. After being stuck in rain for several hours we were happy to stop at the Denali North View Point. On a clear day, you get spectacular views of the Denali range, but for us, there was nothing to see except the riverbed below. Regardless it’s was a cute little hike that is worth stopping for.
On our arrival to Denali, we dumped our bags quickly at our adorable cabin, the Denali Grizzly Cabins, before heading to the visitor center to pick up junior ranger booklets and get the lay of the land. Our first hike was to see beavers on Horseshoe Lake Trail, which ended up being one of our favorites.
According to the kids, the absolute best part of exploring Denali National Park was the ability to hike off trail. We are well accustomed to staying on trail having visited so many parks, so this was an unexpected bonus for the kids. After several days of exploring the park on and off trail, by green bus and by car, it was sadly time to move on to our quick one night stop in Talkeetna, a fun eclectic town halfway between Anchorage and Denali.
Our time in Talkeetna was all too short, but enough to know that we need to return. The gamble to stay out of the town at the Denali Overlook Hotel paid off with exceptional sunrise views of Denali. We had hoped to also catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights, but we weren’t so lucky. The hotel was absolutely heavenly, even though it was a surprise B&B.
Our last long travel day was broken up with a stop in Anchorage to get some supplies and collect another junior ranger badge, the Alaska Public Lands badge. We also visited the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center in Portage which is a perfect stopping point between Anchorage and Seward. Try to time your visit with animal feedings. We particularly loved seeing the one winged bald eagle and grizzly bears being fed.
With the end of our trip in sight, we packed in the long days of light in Seward with a visit to Kenai Fjords National Park, including a quick hike to Exit Glacier. The last group day together was spent out on the water with Major Marine Tours in Resurrection Bay searching for wildlife. We didn’t see any orcas or other whales, but we did see harbour seals, sea lions, sea otters, puffins and more.
It was sad to say goodbye to our friends, but we had 2 more days left to get in as much of Alaska as we could. The plan was to spend one day on a flight tour visiting bears in the wild and one day in Seward exploring the Sea Life Aquarium and hiking around the neighboring areas. Unfortunately due to poor weather conditions our tour was cancelled (after traveling 2.5 hours to Anchorage) so our day was mostly spent driving instead of hiking like we had hoped. Alas, that is the travel life!
We can’t complain because our last day more than made up for it with a wonderful day out at Lake Clark National Park surrounded by grizzly bears. This was a highlight and a truly epic opportunity I hope I get to repeat some day. I will write more about that in an upcoming post, but for now, I will just say it was absolutely spectacular to be a visitor to the home turf of grizzly bears and not have them even take notice of us.
Alaska Adventure Highlights:
1. Flight seeing tour to see bears. If you have limited time and money to visit Alaska, but seeing bears in the wild is one of your priorities, skip all the other things we have mentioned and just fly out to see the bears. Stay overnight if you can, but even if you can’t, just soak it all up in the day trip. I could have done just this and been pretty happy with our visit!
2. Hiking off trail in Denali. Denali National Park was absolutely breathtaking. I know people always say this, but even with subpar weather and low visibility, it was spectacular. This is worth the 5 hour drive for sure. Stay as long as you can to really take it all in as it’s a massive park.
3. Taking a wildlife tour with Major Marine. While I was sad we didn’t see orcas, I really enjoyed the trip and seeing some beautiful homes on the water as well as a variety of animals. Seeing a puffin was high on my list, so I was happy to cross that off! But really now I just want to see them again, in Iceland!
Alaska was a spectacular destination, especially for those who love the outdoors. It was like living in our own Nat Geo show. Apart from, well, actually including getting to experience the “real” Alaskan weather of rain and cold, it was stunning in so many ways — including the pocketbook!
Ready to book your own trip? Check out our post on everything you need to know about Alaska before you go.
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