Dream vacations come in all forms.
For some, it’s being pampered at a cloistered spa resort; for others, it’s adventure on the high seas or an exotic journey to a faraway land. For me, it’s experiencing the raw, rugged beauty of Alaska. I’d long dreamed of visiting the remote Wrangell Mountains, of watching brown bears feast on salmon in the Brooks River, and of visiting a native village far north of the Arctic Circle.
I asked myself: In a single vacation, is it possible to capture the essence of a state that’s larger and more geographically diverse than most countries? Once I found out about John Hall’s Alaska, a tour operator that’s all about helping travelers experience the essence of Alaska, I found that the answer is a resounding “yes.” And I found that the perfect way to see Alaska is by visiting its many National Parks.
I hopped on a 12-day “National Parks of Alaska” tour. Along with about 25 other travelers, I experienced the best of five national parks and everything in between via luxury motor coach, bush plane, train and boat. Our guide was born and raised in Alaska; he knew well how to navigate the vast state. He kept us informed, entertained, punctual and well fed. Days proved long, but on a dream vacation, it’s easy to muster the energy to rise early, ready for what the day might present.
Katmai National Park
In Anchorage, we boarded a charter plane to cross Cook Inlet and, at King Salmon, transferred to a fleet of waiting pontoon planes. Our destination? Brooks Camp in Katmai National Park. This is bear country; about 2,200 Alaska brown bears call the park home, and the main buffet is the salmon run on the Brooks River.
As soon as we stepped off the plane, a park ranger greeted us and ushered us into the visitor center for “bear training.” During the presentation, the ranger displayed a backpack a bear had shredded, and I wondered about it’s unfortunate owner. Point taken, no food allowed—not even a Tic Tac—on the trail to the bear viewing platforms. We were told we probably would encounter a bear on the trail—speak softly, no eye contact, slowly back away, don’t run. I was ready to commit my immortal soul to wherever it might end up, but, by God, I was going to see bears fish for salmon.
I did encounter a bear on the trail. It seemed, at the time, about the size of an Airstream trailer. The training tips sprang into action, and they worked. The bear paid me little mind and exited the trail, cutting a path through the woods toward the river.
From the viewing platform, poised beside the river, I watched salmon fling themselves out of the water in attempts to leap up a waterfall. A small gang of brown bears waded at the base of the falls, claws and jaws at the ready. Sometimes a lucky fish would make it over the falls and past the bears. Spectators cheered in whispers. I was witnessing “survival of the fittest” in action.
For decades, the little town of McCarthy, Alaska, had captivated my curiosity. It’s not easy to get to—an endless drive on a gravel road or a thrilling yet bumpy flight in a bush plane are the only options. We boarded a fleet of bush planes for the breathtaking flight from Glennallen at the edge of the park, between some of the continent’s tallest mountains and over vast glaciers to McCarthy’s gravel airstrip.
In its early years, McCarthy, with its saloons and bordellos, was the closest thing to civilization for the workers at the Kennecott Mine, a large-scale operation that mined copper ore from 1911 until 1938. Today, McCarthy and the Kennecott Mine are miniscule dots on the map of the largest national park in the United States.
McCarthy is experiencing a revitalization with small-scale lodging, a saloon, an amazing gourmet restaurant (given its locale), plenty of outdoor adventure outfitters and a hearty community of folks living off the grid. Anyone who has watched Discovery Channel’s reality show, “The Edge of Alaska,” has taken a virtual trip to McCarthy and has met the show’s star and local entrepreneur Neil Darish.
Darish, a man who paradoxically seems intensely focused and a bit scattered, showed us genuine McCarthy hospitality by leading us on a walking tour of the historic town, serving us a multi-course dinner in his restaurant and letting us bed down in his historic Ma Johnson’s Hotel, the town’s finest.
On an excursion to nearby Kennecott Mine, a National Historic Landmark District, I took a guided tour of the 14-story concentration mill and many of the copper mine’s other buildings that are open to the public. From there, while viewing the Kennecott Glacier at the edge of the mining district, I couldn’t wrap my head around the scale of what I was seeing. The glacier runs 27 miles from 16,300-plus-foot Mt. Blackburn to the headwaters of the Kennecott River near McCarthy. Not until I spotted a group of moving dots on the glacier’s surface—park visitors on a glacier trek—could I grasp the enormity of the glacial valley.
Gates of the Arctic National Park
After a motor coach journey, north to Fairbanks, we boarded a charter for the 250-mile flight northwest to Anaktuvuk Pass, a broad piece of tundra in the Brooks Range in the heart of Gates of the Arctic National Park. As we deplaned, passengers pulled bug spray out of bags, and a cloud of insecticide provided relief from the onslaught of thirsty mosquitoes.
A tall fellow approached us from across the airstrip—our Iñupiak host for the day. He told us the history of his people, once nomadic caribou hunters that settled here some 60 years ago, after the caribou population declined. He put the past and present in perspective by explaining that his grandmother, who had lived a nomadic lifestyle in her early years, now prefers staying at home and using Facebook.
We followed our guide a few blocks to the small village’s showplace, the Simon Paneak Memorial Museum, a cultural center established by elders. Exhibits tell the fascinating story of this remote part of Alaska and its people; notable is the museum’s collection of caribou-hide masks with wolf-fur accents.
As we boarded the charter to leave, I realized I had just had a rare glimpse of a people and culture I would never experience anywhere outside of Anaktuvuk Pass.
Next stop: Barrow (a.k.a. Utqiagvik), the northernmost city in the U.S., on the Arctic Ocean. A quick tour of this city of nearly 4,500 reveals a lifestyle closely tied to the region’s two seasons: a very short summer and a long, frigid winter. At the cultural center, scrimshaw artists displayed their art for sale, locals performed traditional dances, and later the most courageous of us took the polar bear plunge in the Arctic.
Denali National Park
Alaska is a land of superlatives: the largest national park, the northernmost city and, now, the tallest mountain in North America. Our guide warned us that the chance of seeing Denali on a clear day is slim. Upon our arrival, it seemed no amount of wishing would coax the mountain from behind a gray shroud.
We made the 90-mile journey on the only park road, with numerous stops along the way to take in the top points of interest—Savage River, Eielson Visitor Center, Wonder Lake—and finally reached our home for a few days: Denali Backcountry Lodge.
The vastness of the Alaskan wilderness takes on new meaning in Denali National Park. Once again, the problems of perspective and scale presented themselves. I gained a new dependence on interpretive signs at visitor centers to figure out if a valley I was viewing was five or 50 miles across.
The variety of Denali ecosystems we passed through, from forest to tundra, was astounding, as was the wildlife. Blondish grizzly bears patrolled trails across the tundra and even used the road as a thoroughfare. Dall sheep navigated sheer cliff faces. Ptarmigans, a ground bird in the grouse family, darted cautiously among the low bush. A small herd of caribou milled about in a lingering snow patch on a hillside to escape the relentless mosquitoes. Arctic ground squirrels (a.k.a. bear burritos) stood their ground, chirping, defending their little swatch of territory from their neighbors.
After two days in the park, we made an early departure on a gloriously blue morning. Not a cloud in the sky. Denali showed herself in full regalia, magnificent and unfathomable. I felt graced by Mother Nature.
Kenai Fjords National Park
From Denali, we boarded the Alaska Railroad to Talkeetna and, from there—after a jaw-dropping flightseeing side trip to the Denali climbers’ basecamp—we boarded the motor coach for Anchorage and farther south to Seward on the Kenai Peninsula. Seward, a fishing port on Resurrection Bay, is the gateway to Kenai Fjords National Park. Here mountains and glaciers meet the sea in a dramatic landscape—and seascape—best accessed by boat.
Aboard the sightseeing vessel, Orca Song, we cruised out of Resurrection Bay and past a complex network of coves and islands on the edge of the Gulf of Alaska. We rounded a point and entered the wide mouth of a bay, which narrowed as we approached the Kenai Mountains. Sharp peaks rose above the 300-square-mile Harding Ice Field. Orca Song approached a massive wall of ice. Even at close range, I couldn’t begin to estimate the height and width of the blue-white wall as it met the sea. Our on-board guide announced Aialik Glacier, its face as tall as a 27-story building, its width spanning a mile.
A thunderous crack reverberated off the mountainsides. A moment later a block of ice the size of an apartment house crashed into the sea; another followed a half-mile away, then another.
On our cruise back to Resurrection Bay, we snaked through an archipelago on the edge of the gulf. The boat slowed to a stop and the guide announced spouts at three o’clock. All heads turned right as a pair of humpback whales surfaced about 100 yards away, spouting. I heard giant lungs exhale like bellows, the sound carried on the wind. Then they dove out of sight.
Orcas and sea lions rounded out our wildlife viewing for the day. Back in Seward, lazy seals lounged on floats, gulls nodded off on posts, and I disembarked, knowing that I just had an intimate glimpse of some of the world’s wildest and most majestic places, each preserved as a national park.