Alaska: The Last Frontier

Alaska was an obvious choice when we decided to take a long vacation in July. Normally, we are not the planning type. If we have a place to stay, we usually swing the rest. However, Alaska, during peak season, is not as manageable. After we bought our tickets ($380 round-trip) and decided that we would just live out of a rental car for two weeks, we were quickly brought back to reality with a $2,000 car rental quote (over $130/day for a basic car). We simply could not afford it, so the planning began! We recommend planning your trip at least 6 months in advance.

Denali National Park was the first on our list. Other than that, we really just wanted to check out Alaska and all its glory. So we decided we were going to spend 1 week in Denali and 1 week driving around the Kenai Peninsula.

We landed late in Anchorage and spent two nights there. That allowed us to spend one day checking out the city. Honestly, one day was plenty, but I’m glad we didn’t skip it. They have stores there where you can purchase a knife with Sarah Palin’s face on it. It really puts you in the Alaskan mood.

The following morning, we started our way towards Denali National Park via the awesome Alaskan Railroad train! The train left Anchorage early in the morning and it took us straight to the park. Before the trip, we purchased an Alaska TourSaver book, which is a book with 2 for the price of 1 coupons on a lot of great tourist attractions (check the dates though!). We used it for our train tickets and right away the book paid for itself. The train was something I was really looking forward to, but the prices were kind of high so we purchased the basic seats. Even with the basic seats though, you get a seating area with 360-degree views! It was a great experience and I highly recommend it.

After we got to the Denali National Park entrance, we found our campsite and checked out the local mercantile on the grounds. The following morning we hopped on our bus ride to head inside the park. Denali does not allow any cars in the park (another reason not to rent a crazy expensive car!) and the park is huge. We reserved a campsite in the farthest part of the park, Wonder Lake Campground, which is a 5-hour bus ride. The bus ride, despite being long, is a lot of fun. We got to see two bears fighting, moose, porcupine, and caribou (so. many. caribou). It took a lot to just get to the campground, but, boy, was it worth it.

Our first “night” (22 hours of sunlight during July, fyi) at Wonder Lake, we couldn’t tell which mountain was Denali. “Ah, it must be covered by the clouds,” we thought. The next morning, BAM! The mountain was right in front of us the whole time. The first time you see it, all you can think is “how the hell did I miss that!” According to the park rangers though, only 1 in 5 who enter the park sees a portion of the Denali. And only 1 in 3 actually sees the mountain in its entirety! As you can see from our photos, we got very lucky.

For three days we camped, hiked, and basked in Denali’s glory. As long as you are caring bear spray, you’ll have a good time.

Then after another 5-hour bus ride out of the park, followed by another 2.5-hour bus ride, we landed in Talkeetna. And the second half of our trip began….

Talkeetna’s Mayor is a cat named Stubbs. Naturally, we had to make a stop. While we did not get a chance to meet Stubbs (he has “retired” from the public), Talkeetna did not disappoint. It’s widely known for its small planes that take off and land there for serious climbers who summit Denali. But if you decide not to climb the highest mountain in the United States, it is also a great town for seafood, ice cream, beer, live music, and an awesome yurt we found off Airbnb. Since we were living out of backpacks, we could not pick up very many souvenirs, but, as I sit here sipping out of my mug with Stubb’s beautiful face on it, I have absolutely zero regrets about my purchase.

After Talkeetna, we grabbed a bus back to Anchorage and picked up our campervan. The campervan was great because we found off Outdoorsy for $100/day and it gave us a place to sleep while we roamed. We had the van for a total of 6 days.

Our first night was in Seward, the gateway to the Kenai Fjords National Park. Basically, it is a small town that is on the ocean, surrounded by mountains that are covered in snow. It was breathtaking. We hiked up to Exit Glacier in the Fjords National Park, where I danced on the green hills with the mountains in the background and sang “the hills are alive”. No one, I repeat, no one got my reference. I even asked the hikers who were right behind us and I got no response. But let me tell you….it was spot on.

After two nights in Seward, we headed to Homer. When we asked around, no one mentioned Homer as a place to visit. Which was very surprising to me, because it ended up being the place that we loved the most. The Homer Spit is a narrow 4.5-mile piece of land that is the most southern tip of the Kenai Peninsula. We camped off the narrow strip and had the best views. When we weren’t checking out the cute shops and eating great seafood, we were at our campsite having Reese’s peanut butter cup smores and drinking wine in front of a fire. We probably could have stayed there forever, but on our second day there, while we were trying to fish off of the pier, we ran into some people who told us something that changed everything, “the salmon are here!”

Personally, we don’t fish. My only experience fishing up until Alaska was a deep sea fishing boat with a few co-workers and I spent most of the time throwing up off the side of the boat and feeling like I might die. But when you are in Alaska and someone tells you that some of the best salmon fishing in the world is just a short drive away, you have to go. We woke up in Homer that day thinking that we would just hang around the city, but by 4pm, we were in Soldotna renting out some fishing poles, waders and getting some pointers from the salesman before we hit the water.

You can pay for a fishing trip, guided by a few experts, but it is expensive. Even with our Alaskan Toursaver book, it would have cost a few hundred each. So instead, we figured we have just as much fun renting out some equipment (<$100 + fishing license ~$25) and figuring it out as we went. The gentlemen at our rental shop were very kind, told us where to fish and gave us a few tips. But what really saved the day were these incredibly kind Texans who helped us out on the water.

When there are a lot of people, shoulder to shoulder on the water, it is called combat fishing. Standing that close to someone with a sharp hook, fighting for the same dinner can cause some tension. We knew that going in, so after we found a spot, we immediately turned to the guys next to us and told them that we had no idea what we were doing and if we were in their way to just simply tell us. After we said that, they made us feel like family. They gave us a few pointers and within 10 mins, we had our first fish! They helped us catch it with their nets and even did some of the dirty work for us (ummm…that bat looking thing hanging off my waders is not for chasing off bears). We had so much fun thanks to those guys helping us out and we even managed to catch four sockeye salmon before we left at 9pm. Those guys took us back to their summer rental (we, like, really trusted them) and showed us how to gut and package our salmon. We couldn’t thank them enough, they really made our entire fishing experience a memorable one. And we still keep in touch! Turns out, they hunt hogs as well and they even mailed us some jerky. Like I said, they were way too nice.

 

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Unfortunately, the day after fishing was our last. So we hopped back in the van and headed back to Anchorage. We stayed in a cheap Airbnb and took a much-needed shower before catching our flight home (with the fish as a carry-on item). All around, we had a fantastic trip. Going home was difficult, but we always know that Alaska will be waiting for us again.

 

UPDATE: It turns out Stubbs, the Mayor of Talkeetna, passed away the first night we were in Talkeetna. 20 years is a long life but we will miss you, Stubbs!!

 

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