Planning Alaska : The Before & The After

Don’t be fooled. Attempting to plan a trip to Alaska can truly leave your head spinning. The sheer size of the state, which I did not fully realize, should have been my first indicator to the amount of ground to cover and options at my fingertips. Just to support my point, Denali National Park is a staggering 6 million acres! With that size, there is a lot of beauty to behold in Alaska. Typically, this makes me want to over plan wanting to see every last possible thing. I do fear missing out on something spectacular. Probably the best way to simplify the planning process is dividing Alaska into five separate regions. Everyone has them labeled a little differently, but it helps to get the general idea of all the areas. For my purposes, I will label them as follows: arctic, inside passage, interior, southcentral, and southwest. My curated itinerary served to afford a fantastic sample of the interior and southcentral regions of the state. Here is the itinerary I used.

Day One: Arrival in evening. Spend one night in Anchorage proper.

Day Two: Leave in AM for Fairbanks stopping at North Pole and Chena Hot Springs. Evening in Fairbanks at Taste of Alaska Lodge.

Day Three: Drive to Denali to meet bus for two night stay at Denali Backcountry Lodge.

Day Four: Day and evening at Denali Backcountry Lodge.

Day Five: Leave Denali for lunch in Talkeetna and drive through Hatcher Pass. Evening stay at Sheep Mountain Lodge.

Day Six: Leave AM for drive to Valdez. Evening in Valdez staying at Toteum Inn & Suites.

Day Seven. Leave Valdez for stop at Matanuska Glacier and continue into Palmer for dinner. Evening stay at Knik River Lodge.

Day Eight. Leave Knik River for Seward along the Seward Highway with stop in Girdwood. Evening at Seward Windsong Lodge.

Day Nine. Drive to Homer for day trip. Second Evening at Seward Windsong Lodge.

Day Ten. Drive back to Anchorage with stops in Hope and Girdwood. Flight back to lower 48.

I wanted to come up with a list of advisory points to help guide and provide insight while you are in the planning process. Below are ten things that I learned! Also, in other posts, you will see how each of the ten days of my trip played out.

  1. You can spend weeks/months here. To say there is a lot to see in Alaska would really be an understatement. It was only once I started planning that I realized all of the options available. Things are rather spread out, and the roadways don’t connect you to all of the cities that you may want to explore. Most of the highways are two lanes. I read about encountering delays while driving. I did encounter a few during my trip. It wasn’t anything that slowed me down significantly, but it is something to mentally prepare for. Do not try to pack too much into one visit. If you are driving, the scenery is incredible. Driving isn’t just from one destination to the next. It is more about stopping along the way to take in all that Alaska has to offer.
  2. There aren’t exactly luxury resorts. This was a little surprising to find out. There are some luxury lodges, but they come at a price that I would nearly say is rather unaffordable. Most of the luxury all inclusive options that I researched cost thousands of dollars per person/day. I thought our stay at Denali Backcountry Lodge was rather pricey, but the actual accommodations didn’t seem to match the price. They seemed to be offering a product that was a commodity, a stay within Denali, and the price reflected that. So, I guess the bottom line is do not go to Alaska for trendy, luxury accommodations. You will be disappointed.
  3. Renting a car will not get you everywhere. Due to the sheer size of the state, driving everywhere you want could eat a lot of time. That being said, many areas do not even have roadways that connect certain cities. For example, you cannot drive to Juneau from Anchorage. You would need to look at what other options are available to access those areas such as a ferry or plane. This is also true for viewing some of the glaciers as well. For those renting a car, the companies do pay very special attention to the rental car when you leave Anchorage. At Avis, the staff did a video upon leaving the airport and our arrival back for any damage to the car. Many of the roads are primitive, and there are some areas that rental car companies do not want their cars, such as the road to McCarthy.
  4. Bring mosquito repellent, sunscreen, lip balm, and bear spray. I will include a more complete list in a separate post. But, here are a few items as a starting point. It is safe for me to say I have never seen more mosquitos than I encountered in Alaska. Repellent does help, and I feel it is necessary. Also important, you should bring loose clothing. I received many bites through my clothes while wearing yoga pants. This was a big mistake that I made! For me, sunscreen is always a must. While spending so much time outside, I recommend bringing plenty of sunscreen for hiking and exploring. I had a lot of trouble with dry hands and lips while on our trip. Throughout the day, I usually needed a refresh on lip balm due to chapping. My hands were very dry, and I did not think to bring hand lotion. Several of the hotels did not provide this, so a travel size hand lotion is beneficial. I did purchase bear spray to bring on the trip and a bell. During hiking, I played music and used the bell. For two hikes, I did bring bear spray. Remember, if you see a bear, speak loudly and wave your hands slowly moving away. Do not run from a bear.
  5. Don’t dress nice. Perhaps many of these tips are me stating the obvious. However, I always like to dress nice for dinner. This is absolutely not necessary in Alaska. Bringing any type of dress for a female is almost silly. The nicest evening outfit I went out in was a pair of leather pants or jeans. Most often, I wore my day clothing or hiking gear out to dinner.
  6. Restaurants & reservations. Restaurants do not stay open late in Alaska. I recommend having an idea of some of the restaurants in the areas you are traveling. I will share my favorites in other posts. The only place I had difficulty getting dinner was Seward. It was actually a complete mess trying to get a meal in Seward. I will warn you now, there is a restaurant there called The Cookery. Apparently, it is fantastic. Don’t you dare try to eat there without a reservation. The 16 year old hostess looked at me like I was trying to get into the hottest restaurant in LA or NYC when I told her no reservation. I then asked about the next night, and she flatly told me no again. She said my only hope was to line up outside the restaurant around 4:30pm (they open at 5), and they could take down my name for a bar seat. But, this would not guarantee a seat anytime that following evening. I was really put off by how they acted. We also tried calling American Express Platinum for a reservation the next evening. Amex spoke with their general manager who said they would never guarantee a bar seat.
  7. Advance planning is needed. Visiting Alaska in the summer is a popular ticket. I planned and booked hotels and car rental for our July trip in March. At that time, I noted several hotels sold out for nights that I was interested in. At Denali Backcountry Lodge, I reserved the last cabin for my dates of interest. I think that if you have specific interests or pursuits in Alaska, the trip needs to be planned well in advance. At the time you book hotels, it is important to also secure a car rental if you will need one.
  8. Think of gas stations and cellular service while you drive. There are definitely a few stretches where you should have a full tank of gas. I noted two portions of the trip where the options for gas were sparse. They were the area right before Hatcher Pass (coming from Denali and the Parks Highway) and the road to Valdez. While driving Hatcher Pass, I had to drive past the turn and into Willow to fill up. Similarly, the last portion of the Richardson freeway before entering Valdez has few options for gas. Just as unpredictable as the next gas station is your cellular service. It really came and went throughout the day. All of the hotels and lodges that I stayed at had Internet service.
  9. Rain is reality. It rained on and off multiple times during our trip. Typically, it was never enough to ruin the day or last a long time. But, I would be shocked if you spent your entire visit without rain. This is why a waterproof jacket is really a great idea.
  10. Bring your camera and/or drone. I thought Alaska was a fantastic place to fly a drone. There are wide open beautiful spaces making it the perfect place to take advantage. Also, if you have an interest in wildlife, this is the place to bring your camera for some great photos. I take the majority of my photos on my iphone. It is so convenient, and the photos typically look fantastic. I have brought along my Nikon in the past to Peru and Amsterdam. This is one place I feel a professional camera would have been beneficial.

Finally, although this is not an advisory point, it is something to mention for those that are a slave to caffeine like myself. Alaska has so many options for your caffeine fix. Along many of the drives, there are small little drive through huts with everything you could want. I do not drink black coffee at all. My preference is an iced latte or chai tea. Some of the things that I tried in Alaska were really phenomenal. My favorite was actually a place in Anchorage. It was called Rush Coffee. The iced vanilla chai tea was unbelievably good. I loved all of the local options and the fact that many were not chains.

Overall, I think that my itinerary worked out well and allowed a little taste of everything. It was heavy in driving. The most time on the road was the first day en route to Fairbanks. Keep in mind that things always take much longer than expected when driving between destinations in Alaska. There are many places to stop and take it all in. I hope this helps to plan accordingly!

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