Girl Getaway to Alaska
Visiting Alaska was always on my bucket list, so when my friend Diana said that's where she wanted to go for her 50th birthday, we booked our flights immediately. Diana is a breast cancer survivor who was paralyzed on one side of her body for two years. At 50, she is cancer free and one very active lady! We had a lot to celebrate! We arrived in Anchorage ready to see as much of The Last Frontier as we could fit in one week. On our first morning, we were picked up at our hotel, the Inlet Tower Hotel and Suites, by Rust's Flying Service who took us to our float plane. From there, we departed for Redoubt Bay Lodge, which is located 70 miles southwest of Anchorage. Redoubt Bay is home to one of the most concentrated and viewable bear populations in Alaska. Our float plane pilot, Curtis, set the mood for a great day by pointing out interesting sites during the flight. We even caught a glimpse of a Beluga Whale while over Cook Bay. We arrived at Redoubt and were greeted by Amy, the lodge manager. With a bubbly personality and genuine excitement, we couldn't help but like her immediately. After coffee and muffins in the lodge and a brief overview of the area and plans for the day, we boarded a pontoon boat with Amy and went in search of bears through the chain of Big River Lakes.
There were several fishing boats on the water and in action as this area is home to sockeye and coho salmon. While we were watching the salmon getting ready to make a run up the river (it was absolutely amazing and looked like a shark feeding frenzy), Amy spotted a black bear walking along the waters edge right next to us. It was incredible to see this bear in its natural environment in search of food (as long as we weren't it). After seeing two more black bears, we headed back to the lodge for lunch. Redoubt has two chefs on staff and they did not disappoint with a beautiful lunch anchored by a delicious salmon burger.
Dinner that night was in Anchorage at Ginger Restaurant. Our favorite dish was the Baked Sea Scallops "Mac & Cheese," which is seared and oven-finished jumbo Alaskan scallops served over penne pasta with three-cheese cream sauce drizzled with truffle oil. Amazing! After dinner we went to the hotel's Mixx Grill Bar (think Cheers but in Alaska) where we met locals and visitors and made new friends. If there, ask for Happy Harold.
The next morning we took the hotel shuttle to the railroad station and boarded the Alaska Railroad for Denali. The eight-hour train ride provides a fantastic view of the Alaskan countryside (it was even better with the Bloody Marys). Once we arrived at Denali, we were shuttled to our new home for the next two nights, the McKinley Chalet Resort. Located just across the street from shopping, stores and activities, the resort had everything you could want, including the Nenana View Grill & Bar that features a gorgeous view of the Nenana River (and a great place to enjoy a bottle of wine and a reindeer sausage, artichoke & mushroom pizza like we did).
The next morning was an early one as we boarded the bus for the Tundra Wilderness Tour at 6:20 AM en route to Denali. Our guide for the day, Lisa Frederic, has been in Alaska for 30 years and is an active dog musher who has participated in the Iditarod Dog Sled competition. During the day, she shared so much fascinating information about Denali, Mt McKinley and Alaska....what an amazing tour guide! The 7.5 hour bus ride explored just a portion of the 6 million acre state park (bigger than the state of Massachusetts). We had a very lucky day as we saw about 10 Grizzley bears, Dall Sheep, falcons and the tallest point in North America....Mt McKinley that provided an incredible view the day we visited.
After the bus ride, we went on an evening ATV ride with Denali ATV Adventures into an old coal mining area near the park border where we got an aerial view of Lake Otto and the town of Healy. After we worked up an appetite, we made our way to the famous Denali Salmon Bake Restaurant where Dani greeted us with pink heart-shaped sunglasses....we loved her right away! We feasted on elk sliders (my fave), halibut tacos and a yak-a-dilla (yes, yak meat). It was great with apricot beer!
And if all of these adventures were not enough, we woke up early the next morning for some fun on the water.....the white water of Nenana River. We checked in for Denali Raft Adventure Canyon Run at 7:30 AM. With barely enough coffee in me, we were stuffed into dry suits and outfitted with rubber gloves and hats for the 11-mile trip to Healy. After "worst case scenario" instructions from Peacock (one of our guides), we boarded our inflatable raft and braved the rapids. How bad was it? We got soaked! In fact, it was so rough I got water up my nose during one rapid. But it was a complete blast and we enjoyed making new friends with guides Peacock and Bacon, as well as our raftmates Dony, Ehli, Mark and Janice! What a great group!! After white water rafting, we went back to the railroad station and boarded the train back to Anchorage.
The next morning we drove to Alyeska Resort in Girdwood, checked in to the beautiful resort and met Molly at the Ascending Path Yurt for departure on the Glacier Hike. The Spencer Glacier is located just South of Portage Valley and the Turnagain Arm in the Kenai Mountains and the Chugach National Forest. It is entirely off the road system, so we rode a train from Girdwood to the Spencer Whistle Stop (hello Ted Nugent). From the Spencer Whistle Stop, our group of three hiked to an overlook to enjoy outstanding views of the glacier and icebergs floating in the Spencer terminal lake. The total distance from the train to the edge of the glacier is more than three miles of flat Forest Service maintained trails. The last half mile is rugged moraine (think huge black dirt piles) walking. The five hours of hiking included tons of photos and stops to learn about interesting local wildlife, history and glaciology. At the glacier's edge we geared up with helmets and crampons, ate lunch on a the glacier itself and then traveled out onto the glacier ice to explore the amazing ice features (blue ice, crevasses, ice caves, moulins, etc) with Molly as our guide. Words cannot describe how incredible this experience was...a "must do" in Alaska! On the way back, we saw a moose alongside the road; they really do roam the streets in Alaska!
The next morning we checked out of the Alyeska Resort and continued driving south to Seward for the Kenai Fjords National Park Cruise. We opted for the four-hour Resurrection Bay Cruise that included a lunch stop at Fox Island for a salmon and prime rib lunch. During the boat ride, we saw otters, sea lions (my favorite), horned puffins, bald eagles and tons of birds. As the boat arrived back at the dock, we saw fishermen unloading their daily fishing catch of silver salmon into wheelbarrows. We checked into the Seward Windsong Lodge, a charming lodge with several out buildings scattered around the property. It's award-winning Resurrection Roadhouse Restaurant and the Goliath Bar & Grill was the perfect dining choice as they offered an ample list of local beer and had a great wine and cocktail selection....very important after a tough day of sightseeing :).
Our last morning in Alaska was spent with the Seavey family at their Ididaride Sled Dog Tour. Mitch Seavey, 2004 Iditarod Champion, and his family have about 200 working sled dogs. The intrigue of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, also known as Alaska's Super Bowl, came alive as we met competitors and heard their stories. The Iditarod race covers over 1,150 miles of the roughest, most beautiful terrain Mother Nature has to offer with jagged mountain ranges, frozen river, dense forest, desolate tundra and miles of windswept coast at the mushers and their dog teams. Add temperatures far below zero, winds that can cause a complete loss of visibility, the hazards of overflow, long hours of darkness and treacherous climbs and side hills, and you have the Iditarod.
After a brief introduction to the family and business, we walked back to where the dogs live. I was expecting covered kennels, and was shocked to find tons of dogs each equipped with their own, private kennel. As the staff started hooking up the sled, the dogs became more and more excited, almost saying "pick me; I want to go." It was incredible feel how powerful, excited and smart these dogs are. Since we were there in the summer, we rode in a wheeled cart that they use to train the dogs with when there's no snow on the ground. We rode behind 16 dogs for two miles mushing through the Alaskan wilderness to the base of Resurrection Mountain and along Box Canyon Creek. After our ride, we toured the kennel facilities, saw what the mushers wear during the Iditarod race, and met future sled dogs that were only a few months old. This tour was chosen as one of Alaska's Top Twenty Attractions, and is certainly one I will never forget.
We had an unbelievable trip to The Last Frontier. Visiting Alaska should be on everyone's bucket list. This vast land is a reminder of how magnificent nature really is. Thank you State of Alaska Tourism and Thompson & Co. for setting up this amazing and unforgettable Girls Getaway to Alaska!