Sunday, November 3, 2013

Roads Less Traveled

One of my favorite jobs was working with tourists in Alaska.  They were almost always happy since they were on vacation and I got to spend all day telling people "where to go" and "where they could get off."  Win-win.  Though I was pretty young, I took my job seriously.  The people who came to me needed information to make their "once-in-a-lifetime" trip really memorable.  I listened carefully to all feedback and compiled a mental list of destinations which seemed to get the most accolades.  Though I am a fan of most of the state, there are areas which I am not as fond of as others.  I tried never to express my own opinions about areas and instead rely on the previous visitors' reviews.  Some places got reviews like, "nice town" or "cute place" while others got comments such as, "awe-inspiring", "breath-taking" and "jaw-dropping."  Hey, you know it's good when people start hyphenating words because one word doesn't cut it.  Knowing this, I generally pointed people in the direction of the "jaw-dropping"...ness.

Some of the places which received rave reviews were Seward, Prince William Sound, Denali and Katmai.  The most popular vacations included a wildlife cruise in Kenai Fjords and a railcar tour from Seward to Denali.  These tour companies offer many different packages, so most can find one in their budget.  People want the most bang for their buck, and I wasn't going to tell someone to spend their hard-earned money and vacation time on something less than spectacular.  After a brief interview with the customer, I made suggestions based on their time, travel expenses, car rentals and ability to drive long distances.  A lot of people don't realize how long it takes to drive from Anchorage to Denali.  It's about 5 or 6 hours, by the way, depending on how often you need to find a bush to use the bathroom.  

A rest area near Paxson on the Denali Highway.

Did I mention there are very few rest stops on most Alaska Highways? Please bring toilet paper, and please make it the RV kind that disintegrates if you're not going to take it with you.  I usually pass up the "rest stop" bathrooms for the bush.  Spoiler alert- It's an outhouse.  Some offer scenic views and interpretive signs and the bathrooms are maintained by a local business. Some, are not.  Stuff your pocket full of toilet paper and hike up your pant legs.  I've heard that the shortage of nice toilets is due to permafrost and no running water or electricity.  In any case, you've been warned.  

An old outhouse sits in the background at a private hunting and fishing camp on the Denali Highway.  The Alaska Range is lit by a pink sunset to the north. 

Now I will tell you what I like to do.  Drive to the middle of nowhere, set up camp and listen to the silence.  It doesn't mean I don't love the rail tour or wildlife cruises.  Those are awesome, but also full of people, which I dislike... intensely.  One of my favorite drives are the Edgerton Highway and McCarthy Road.  Edgerton is paved and is located south of  Glennallen off  the Richardson Highway.  The paved portion ends 55 miles later in Chitina, where you can dipnet for Copper River salmon.  The paved section is beautiful and I would recommend it to anyone going that way.  

One of the McCarthy Road views.

Most rental car agencies don't allow driving on gravel roads, so continuing past Chitina is a no-no.  If you aren't restricted by this, then drive to McCarthy.  Well, almost to McCarthy.  The rough McCarthy Road ends at a private bridge after 60 miles.  From here, it's a short walk or a short shuttle ride.  Lodges and other businesses offer a shuttle service once you have crossed the bridge on foot.  Kennicott Glacier and Mine are two of the main attractions.  This area goes through the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve.  It's the largest, most glaciated park in the U.S.  Over 13 million acres and an active volcano make it one of the most unexplored places out there.  Road construction in 2012 apparently greatly improved road conditions and it's fine for passenger cars. 

Another great drive if you have the time or an RV is what I call "The Loop." Anchorage to Fairbanks via the Glenn and Parks Highways, then south on the Richardson to Valdez.  From Valdez, backtrack north to Glennallen and take the Glenn Highway back to Anchorage.   Variations or additions to this trip could include Seward, Kenai or Homer.  The last three locations are not what I consider to be "the road less traveled."  

A fantastic view outside of Fairbanks on the Parks Highway.
Fairbanks offers gold mines, hot springs and the North Pole is nearby.  This is the home of Santa Claus and many people decide to make the trip to Fairbanks just because they have a grandchild or child who will squeal with delight when they receive a personalized letter from Santa himself, postmarked at The Santa Claus House in North Pole.  There are even a few reindeer to feed.  If you aren't particularly interested in driving all the way to Fairbanks for these reasons, take the Denali Highway (gravel road) from Cantwell on the Parks Highway, east to Paxson on the Richardson Highway.

Santa Claus House in North Pole
If you want to skip a crowded bus trip but still want a picture of  20,320' Denali, take Petersville Road, south of Denali on the Parks Highway.  It offers beautiful views, though the broad expanses aren't as impressive as taking the ride into the park.  I don't consider Petersville Road to be a replacement for a ride into the park.  I genuinely love Denali National Park and the wildlife is amazing as well as the views.  Just remember that the mountain makes its own weather and your chances of seeing it from anywhere are fairly low.  You won't know until you get there, so plan accordingly.  The best viewing month is probably June.  If you just want to see wildlife, opt for the park bus ride.  The park road is called "Denali Road" or "Denali Park Road" and is not the same as Denali Highway. 

Denali from Petersville Road

A road I have yet to drive is the Dalton Highway, or "Haul Road."  This road is mainly frequented by truckers going to Prudhoe Bay.  I plan on doing this when I have the time and money, hopefully sometime in the next couple summers.  I've always wanted to spend summer solstice above the Arctic Circle.  This is a daunting trip with some rough roadway and close to 24 hours of driving if you are coming from Anchorage.  The most extreme trip I can think of would be driving all these routes.  It gives me goose bumps just thinking about it.  I'll leave you to ponder the distances of some of these trips.

Anchorage to Fairbanks-  360 miles
Fairbanks to Valdez-  365 miles
Valdez to Glennallen-  120 miles
Glennallen to Anchorage-  180 miles.  
Anchorage to Seward-  128 miles
Anchorage to Deadhorse-  852 miles

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