Seward is a beautiful 125 mile (~2 hour) drive south from Anchorage. As you leave Anchorage, the road runs along the Cook Inlet and Chugach State Park providing both mountain and sea views.
Seward is a beautiful little sea town on Resurrection Bay. During our stay, there was a heavy smoke cloud hanging over the area from the Swan Lake Fire. While we couldn’t see much definition in the mountains across the bay, the smoke lent itself to some interesting lighting for photos.
We stayed in an AirBNB on the main drag, just a few blocks from Resurrection Bay. The first night there we walked along the bay and spent some time watching the otters swimming around. We also grabbed some pizza and beer at Seward Brewing Company. Decent selection of beer, solid pizza, and amazing views over the water.
Water Taxi from Seward to Alkai Glacier
The main reason we headed to Seward was to do some kayaking in the glaciers. We booked a trip with Kayak Adventures Worldwide and they outfitted us with kayaks and gear along with a water taxi ride to the put-in site. We took a cold, leisurely ride from Seward to Aialik Bay and got to see some sights along the way.
Wildlife along the way
There were plenty of seals sunning themselves along the shoreline. Reminded us a bit of the sea lions at Pier 39 in San Francisco. The guides told us these were adolescents who were testing the waters before returning to the pack.
There were so many otters in the bay! They were so fun to watch since they spend most of their time lying on their backs at the surface.
On the return trip, the taxi took a detour to spot some whales. Seward is a great place to view Orca whales, and there are plenty of options for whale watching tours. We got to see a few groups of Orcas putting on a show.
Kayaking to the Aialik Glacier
We had a gorgeous, sunny, and unusually calm day for our boat ride and kayak adventure. We kayaked about 3 miles to the Aialik Glacier – one of the most active calving glaciers! The glacier was so blue and we could see the lines from where it had moved over the years. What you see in photos is just a small piece; it’s 17 square miles! Fun fact: the glaciers really are as blue as you see in photos. The older the ice, the bluer it looks because it had become so compacted and reflects all other light on the spectrum.
When we got about a half mile from the glacier, we grouped up with the other two kayaks in our group and enjoyed lunch. It was truly an experience to just sit in our kayaks and watch the glacier calve while noshing on a sandwich.
Afterwards we got the chance to kayak around a small island, enjoying the serene landscape. Since our group was pretty strong and fast, we had the opportunity to explore some areas that not many other groups get to see. We kayaked through some islands and into an inlet since the water was high.
We had such a great time in both Seward and Denali. It was definitely a trip for the books, and as we were coming home we were already talking about how we could get back to explore more of the Last Frontier.
This is the second part to our Alaska adventure, read the first post! Here we take you through the land-locked hikes in the Denali National Wilderness.
Discovery hikes are ranger-led, off-trail hikes through the park. These hikes range from moderate to strenuous and can start from anywhere on the park road at the ranger’s discretion. You’ll start with a bus ride ranging from 1-4 hours, hike for 2-3 hours, and then take a similar bus ride back. You have to sign up in person at the visitor’s center a day or two before the hike, and make sure that you have the appropriate gear outlined on their website.
We opted for a strenuous hike with Ranger Emily that started around mile 30 on the park road. The bus dropped us off on the side of the road, we got a rundown of safety and how to hike off-trail, the ranger picked a point to meet, and we all took off on separate paths to meet there. One main takeaway about off-trail hiking is to not make new trails. Rangers encourage leave no tracepractices including not stepping in another person’s tracks to avoid creating social trails and much more.
Ranger Emily had us climb to a peak on the Igloo Mountain range. We encountered various terrain including tundra and rocky scree. There were a couple of points where we ended up taking different routes after the original path appeared too steep…all part of the fun of off-trail hiking!
We were also able to enjoy the bounty of blueberries, cranberries, crow berries, and other tasty treats for our personal enjoyment and sustenance. In fact, we spent a good portion of the hike bent over filling our bellies. We saw plenty of recent evidence of bears doing the same…
During our hike we were able to stop to enjoy some of the gorgeous scenery. Every few hundred feet we climbed, we could enjoy more of the glory around us! We hiked to a peak where we stopped for about an hour to eat lunch and just enjoy the view – we even did a little coloring while we were there. The hike down took a different route with a lot less scree and a lot more brush. We found ourselves doing a bit of bushwhacking and creek crossing to make it back to the road.
Highly, highly recommend the Discovery Hike.
Savage Alpine Trail
The Savage Alpine Trail is a strenuous, 4.5 mile trail that connects the Savage River Campground to Savage River Day Use Area in Denali National Park. Take the free shuttle bus either from the visitor’s center or the bus depot to the trailhead. We hiked this on a cool, rainy morning and there were very few people on the trail.
The trail gains 1,400 feet of elevation culminating at a lookout point over the valley. We recommend starting at the Savage River Campground since the climb is much more gradual.
The trail winds its way through alpine fields before coming to a rocky tundra. Once you get to the top, the trail descends steeply via a series of stairs to the Savage River. While a bit more grueling than some of the other on-trail hikes in the park, we loved getting up high and looking over the wilderness.
After a strenuous hike, the only thing left to do is head towards the only road in the Wilderness and wait for a bus with available seats. The scenery, even on a cloudy day, makes it a quick wait.
Horseshoe Lake Trail
The Horseshoe Lake Trail is an easy, 2 mile loop in Denali’s front country. We started from the bus depot, which added an additional 3/4 mile along a bike trail, but the bus can drop you off right at the trailhead. The trail descends roughly 400 feet from the trailhead and then it’s an easy jaunt around the lake.
The scenery of this hike was very different than the previous two hikes we did in Denali – it was through pine forest rather than alpine tundra. The coolest thing about this hike is the beaver activity along the trail. There are active beaver dams and we heard that you can often see those busy beavers at work. We did this in the afternoon after we hiked the Savage Alpine Trail and the weather couldn’t have been better.
The sun came out and we had bluebird skies. The lake was so still it was like glass, perfectly mirroring the landscape.
What is an Alaska adventure without a moose??
We have one more Alaska post coming at this. This time we take to the water in the Kenai Fjords!
Alaska offers an abundance of wilderness experiences and a chance for us to get away from the monotonous modern business life. It is a quick, cheap flight from Portland to Anchorage, directly up the Pacific coast.
From Portland into Anchorage
On a clear day looking East you are able to enjoy the splendor of the coastline, ancient volcanoes, islands, mountains, and once further north, glaciers. However, thick smoke hung over most our trip, caused mostly by the large Swan Lake Fire.
We spent the rest of our day and evening in Anchorage which was still under some gorgeous low-70 degree F weather at this time. Save the smoke in the air, it was a perfect time to walk around the city and enjoy the last bit summer. We moseyed over to a highly rated pizza joint, Moose’s Tooth Pub & Pizzeria. It definitely did the trick–good stuff!
Alaska Railroad 8-hours North from Anchorage to Denali
First thing the next morning we headed to the Alaska Railroad station to catch the 8am train. Driving a vehicle the 5+-hours to Denali is another viable option–in fact the railroad runs parallel to the highway for nearly the entire trip; however, the train does offer a hands-free and scenic perspective to the landscape that we did enjoy. A vehicle does not give you any extra capabilities in Denali anyway since the town is small and shuttles are provided to and from the hotels to the Denali Visitor Center and National Park buses inside the Wilderness area.
There are two different options when booking the train: the Goldstar Service or Adventure Class. We actually rode in both classes and would definitely recommend upgrading to Goldstar if your budget allows. The Adventure Class ticket includes spacious seats, food for purchase, and second floor open seating with domed windows. You are free to move about the train and explore other cars. The Goldstar Class is more expensive but includes amenities that were worth the upgrade for us. The ticket includes larger seats with footrests, glass domed ceilings, open air deck, two meals, two alcoholic drinks, and upgraded facilities. Either way, you can’t go wrong; riding the train was such a great experience.
Along the route we got our first view of the great Mt. Denali peak. The mountain range is over 60 miles away and from this distance it is a rare site (visible less than 20% of the time). However, on this day it was visible in all its glory standing at over 20,000 ft above sea level, which is about 16,000 ft above surrounding base! Also visible on the left are the lower peaks of Mt. Russel and Mt. Foraker.
The smoke from the Alaska wildfires followed us everywhere. We got a very up-close experience with the 3,000 acre McKinley Fire (50 times smaller than the 160,000 acre Swan Lake Fire mentioned earlier) that ran along the Alaska Railroad for several miles. The train slowed to a crawl to give way for the forest firefighters who were containing the still-smoldering areas that we captured.
As we approached Denali National Park we come to Hurricane Gulch which spans 914 ft and stands 296 feet above the valley floor. This bridge is among the oldest in the area, built in 1921.
Denali National Park
We spent a little time near the hotels, getting to know our surroundings. There are plenty of hotel options near Denali National Park. Be aware that you may pay a bit more, especially during the summer season. We booked a hotel as part of a package with the railroad. It was a good deal, but we wouldn’t recommend that particular hotel. If you have a large budget, there are also lodges in Kantishna – the center of the park.
If you choose to take the train, chances are you’ll need some way to get around. Luckily there are plenty of free shuttles that run to and from the park and town. “Downtown” is really just a short strip of road with a few restaurants and shops – it’s a very short walk to many hotels from there.
Even if you have a car, you’ll need to ride a bus in the park. There is one road that runs 92 miles through the park. In order to keep the land as wild as possible, vehicles have been limited on park roads since the 1970s. Personal vehicles are allowed in the first 16 miles of the National Park Road, but if you want to go further you have to purchase a ticket. There are also free shuttle buses that will go to mile 16 (Savage River) if you don’t have a car.
There are two types of buses running through the park: green Denali park buses and white tour buses. The green buses are non-narrated while the white busses are narrated. The price of a ticket varies based on whether or not you choose a narrated bus as well as the distance you want to go into the park. These trips usually range from 5.5-12 hours round-trip if you don’t get off the bus. The buses make stops every hour or two for bathroom breaks, but be sure to take your own food and water.
Visitors are encouraged to get off the buses and explore the park. Be aware of wildlife and follow the safety precautions. When you’re done hiking and ready to go back, simply flag down a green bus and hop on.
For the Ranger Discovery Hike we took the disco bus to nowhere
Denali National Park offers a boundless many activities, but most of them are centered around very wilderness-oriented activities. We opted for the Ranger-led Discovery Hike as our first introduction into the Denali Wilderness. It gave us the confidence to explore the back country with an experienced guide, so we could get our bearings.
Sightseeing on the disco bus before the hike
We started the trip on the disco bus, 1.5-hours (about 30 miles) into the park early in the morning. On that early trip, we were able to catch some wildlife along the way. There are over 150 species of birds in the park as well as plenty of mammals and even one amphibian (it literally freezes solid in the winter!). These caribou are a common site, but these large males had particularly impressive racks. We were also able to spot some brown bears (grizzly bears), from a safe distance. They were digging for roots along a river bed. It was moose rutting season while we were there, and we got to see quite a few moose.
Further up the road we were able to get some fantastic shots of Mt. Denali. This for the second time in 2 days–a rare treat!! Even near the end of summer those peaks are completely snow-covered and frigid. So many people visit Denali and never get off the bus. The scenery and wildlife is so amazing that you don’t have to, but we highly recommend hopping off the bus for some hiking.
There is so much to do in Denali and Alaska; this was just the start of our adventure. Our favorite part in Denali had to be the off-trail hike we did – stay tuned for a recap of that! And in Part 2 (?) we venture south to Seward and the Kenai Fjords.