A Brief Tour of Alaska
A Brief Tour of Alaska

August 16-31, 2000

(click on any picture to enlarge it)

Margerie Glacier
Tarr Inlet of Glacier Bay

Glacier Bay

Glacier Bay is a "must see" for southeastern Alaska. Go to Glacier Bay to see pods of gray whales and orcas playing, while in the background icebergs break off the tidewater glaciers and thunder into the sea. Book a packaged tour through the Glacier Bay website We signed up for a package tour that included transportation, lodging, whale watching and a glacier tour plus an added night at the lodge. It was good value. Although there are some B&Bs in Gustavus, the most convenient and comfortable place to stay is the lodge itself. Plan to stay at least two nights in Glacier Bay. After you've spent a full day seeing glaciers and whales aboard a tour boat, take off on your own the next day by renting a kayak on the beach in front of the lodge.

It's not always sunny and clear
in southeastern Alaska.


In order to get to Glacier Bay, you'll probably have to pass through Juneau at least once. There are lots of great B&Bs in Juneau. Our favorite is the Aurora View Inn. Sean Connery stays there, too.

From the Juneau airport, rent a car so that you can explore Alaska's capital and its beautiful surroundings. The Alaska State Museum is excellent. Take the Mount Roberts Tramway up to 2000 feet above Juneau where you can take a pleasant hike through the rainforests of Mt. Roberts. When you're done, enjoy the cozy bar and restaurant at the top of the tram. You should also drive out to Gold Creek, pan for gold and visit the mining museum. And be sure to drive out to the Mendenhall Glacier. Go here for more information about Juneau.

Walk about a mile up Gold Creek
to see this waterfall.

Cruising up the Lynn Canal into Skagway

Lynn Canal

From Juneau's Auke Bay, take a ferry to Skagway. This is a six hour trip. You'll be treated to beautiful scenery and comfort for a very reasonable price. Book a 4-berth sitting room (with a window) if you're travelling with kids.


Skagway is a colorful gold rush town made famous by the stampede of 1898 and the narrow gauge White Pass and Yukon Railroad. The entire town is an historic park. Take the 3-hour White Pass Summit Rail Excursion featuring conductors in period costumes and a cheerful historical narration of all that took place on the trail over White Pass into the Yukon. Book your railroad tickets in advance so that you can be sure of a seat. You won't need any transportation in Skagway besides your feet. It's a tiny town, so you'll walk everywhere. The best place to stay is At the White House. The best dinners are at the Stowaway Café. Be sure to take the bordello tour at the Red Onion Saloon. One evening, take in The Days of '98 Show. There are some nice hiking trails in and around Skagway. We borrowed a car and went over to the nearby ghost town of Dyea and hiked a couple of miles along the Chilkoot Trail. Very pretty!

White Pass & Yukon Railroad snow blower

Skagway Air's motto is We Can Can Can

Getting around

After you've toured Skagway, you have two choices: Travel north overland through endless miles of Canadian tundra and spruce forests or return to Juneau. We flew back to Juneau via a small prop plane. It was a fun adventure! The Skagway airport is hardly more than an extension of one of the town's streets. The airplanes are all six-seaters. The planes don't have much in the way of instrumentation so they only fly in the daytime in clear weather. Consequently, when you do fly, you'll be skimming over mountains, glaciers and islands en route back to Juneau.

Many folks include Sitka and Ketchikan in their tours of Alaska. If you have time, you can get out to these two towns from Juneau via ferry. We opted not to visit these towns because we only had 16 days for our vacation. Instead, we flew Alaska Air directly from Juneau to Anchorage. Try to get a window seat on the right side of the airplane for this flight. We rented a car at the Anchorage airport.

The Chugach Mountains
from 30,000 feet


Anchorage has a good zoo. It's a safe place for a close-up view of a grizzly bear or a polar bear. We liked this zoo because the animals here aren't imprisoned for life; rather they are orphans who have been separated from their herds or flocks due to accident, injury or environmental factors. Whenever possible, these Anchorage zoo inmates are returned to the wild as soon as possible.

If you're adventurous and have some extra time, a good day trip from Anchorage is to visit the Matanuska Glacier. Drive north on the Parks Highway, then turn east at Palmer onto the Glen Highway. Go about 50 miles. You'll see the glacier on your right. The access to the glacier is privately controlled. Pay $6.50 per adult ($3.50 for kids) to drive up to the glacier's face. You can hire a local guide along with crampons, helmets and ice axes ... or you can venture out onto the ice on your own as we did. But please be careful. Here's are some good photos and a story about how things can go very wrong on this glacier.

Carefully negotiating a crevasse
on the Matanuska Glacier


Besides Glacier Bay, the other "must see" in Alaska is Denali National Park. The drive from Anchorage is very scenic. If you're lucky and the weather is clear, you'll see Mount McKinley. The Alaska Railroad also provides very good service from Anchorage to Denali. Once at the park, you'll need someplace to stay. We were not impressed by the Denali National Park Hotel. The hotel has serious problems with its plumbing, electricity, phones, heating, personnel and food. (The hotel was torn down in 2001.) The place to stay is the McKinley Chalet Resort. Try to get a room in the Cottonwood Lodge, on the banks of the Nenana River. A good value is to book a package deal that includes accommodations, meals, the Tundra Wildlife Tour and the Alaska Cabin Nite Dinner Theatre. Be sure to do the tour and the dinner show. If you forget to pack your binoculars, rent them from the Chalet gift shop before you go on the Wildlife Tour.

Like most national parks, there's lots more to do than take tours and see shows. We enjoyed rafting on the Nenana River and hiking to Horseshoe Lake. Wait until you get to Denali to plan these things because you'll want to see what the weather is doing.

Grizzly foraging for food in the fresh snow,
viewed from our tour bus

Rafting on the Nenana River

Horseshoe Lake
If you're blessed with clear weather, consider doing some flightseeing of Denali by helicopter or airplane. We flew the Denali Excursion with Era Helicopters and were extremely impressed. The 50 minutes we spent hovering above the shoulders of Mount McKinley were the highlight of our entire Alaska trip. Pricey, yes, but incredible. We took off from a helicopter pad on the west side of the Parks Highway about an hour south of the park.
Don Sheldon Amphitheater,
on the south slopes of Denali

Turnagain Arm

We spent the final three days of our Alaska vacation in the Kenai Penninsula. From Denali, we drove south through Anchorage, stopping briefly for the helicopter ride mentioned above. After Anchorage, the Seward Highway turns east following the Turnagain Arm, a long narrow inlet noted for its extremely high and low tides. There are scenic vistas on the right side of the highway every quarter mile. If you're there in late summer, you're sure to see Beluga whales. Try to time your trip along the Turnagain Arm about an hour after low tide at Anchorage. If your timing is right, you'll see -- and hear -- a wall of water 2 to 6 feet high rush past you into the inlet. This wave is called a tidal bore. It is the second largest tidal bore in the world (after the Bay of Fundy in eastern Canada). The tidal bore is best seen between miles 32 and 37 on the Seward Highway.

At the end of Turnagain Arm is the Portage Glacier. If you have time, I hear it's worth a visit. We passed on by and continued south to Seward.

Watching for beluga whales


The place to stay in Seward is the Windsong Lodge, which is just north of Seward on the road to the Exit Glacier. What to do in Seward depends on the weather. If it's raining, spend a day at the Alaska SeaLife Center in downtown Seward. The center has some wonderful exhibits. If you have good weather, you can choose from countless kayak rental concessions (1, 2, 3) boat tours of the fjords (1, 2) and charter fishing trips (1, 2). The entire Kenai Fjords National Park region is worth a week of travel and exploration. If we do a return trip to Alaska someday, we'll spend half our time in the Kenai.
We had good weather in Seward so we chose to hike up the Exit Glacier to the Harding Ice Field. It was a challenging but rewarding hike. We came within 50 feet of a mother black bear and two cubs. Later on the trail, a moose crossed our path. The panorama from the top of the trail was magnificent.

The Harding Ice Field panoramic view
One more note about Seward: Be sure to have dinner at the Crab Pot Restaurant. Reservations are recommended (907-224-2200). The best king crab I've ever had!

If you have any questions about our trip, feel free to contact me at nick@zoa.com.
If this trip looks like fun, you might want to read about our other adventures.