Thursday, June 14, 2012

Great Alaskan Road Trip: Photos and a Recap

Now that we are have spent a few days resting and catching up at home, it's time to finally share our trip photos!  I put them in flickr albums for easier access, rather than inserting a ton into the blog format.

Denali National Park Photos
Fairbanks Photos
Talkeetna Photos (this is where we have the best views of Mt. McKinley (Denali)!

Now for a few musings and tips from the trip:

-The entry area to Denali National Park is VERY touristy and geared toward the bus-loads of cruise ship passengers who are on land excursions into the park.  While it's great that those visitors get a chance to see the park, as an independent traveler I felt like a second- class citizen in the eateries and especially the Denali Princess hotel.  I highly recommend staying in the surrounding areas (like the McKinley Creekside Cabins) and driving the extra 15 miles to the park.  We will be taking the train back up in August, and will be without our own vehicle, so I'm sure we'll learn some more tips then for avoiding the cruise ship masses.

-We drove our own car into Denali, just the 13 miles to Savage River that personal vehicles are allowed.  With small kids, it was perfect for seeing enough of the park, even providing a spot for a glimpse of the mountain if the clouds are cooperating, while still being in control of our own schedule.  When we return, we'll try taking the shuttle bus further into the park.  I think the furthest we will attempt is the Eielson Visitor's center, which is 66 miles each way but a 5-6 hour roundtrip.

-Fairbanks was my least favorite destination out of the three because I'm not much for city traffic and driving, but it was the favorite stop of my kids.  They loved Pioneer Park and the Riverboat Discovery. I would spend an extra day in the area if we go back so we cold check out the Chena Lakes recreation area and go on a hike at Angel Rocks, toward Chena Hot Springs.

-Mosquitoes in the Interior are ginormous! No amount of OFF could protect us.  I even have a photo of one biting Little Man right in the middle of the forehead (not staged, of course, just crazy timing of the shutter.)

-Talkeetna is awesome.  It has a great mix of locals and travelers from around the globe.  It's like Homer, only even more laid back (who knew that was possible?!).  We already have another reservation at the Roadhouse for Labor Day weekend, after a visit to the Alaska State Fair.

Would I do that trip alone with the kids again? Absolutely!  The driving was easy, with a 2-lane highway most of the way, and plenty of pit stop locations.  The only thing I would change is my planned driving times.  I did not take into account that Little Man still likes his afternoon naps.  We drove in the mornings and adventured in the afternoons.  Next time, we will be sure to flip that plan.  By Thursday his patience (and mine) was running thin!

Kids doing what they do best!

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Great Alaskan Road Trip: Home!

We are back home in Homer.  I can't believe I actually did that trip...1,200 miles, on my own with the kids in the mountains of Alaska.  Wow.  We are all glad to be back to our own beds tonight, but both kids want to move to Fairbanks and live on the riverboat.  Photos to come tomorrow after I download and edit them.

Great Alaskan Road Trip: Day 6

This morning we left Fairbanks under a quadruple rainbow and headed south to Talkeetna, detouring back into Denali one last time to stretch our legs. There were other people at the Mountain Vista trail this time, so we were able to go for a short walk. The mountain was again hiding all of itself but a sliver, but we did see another bull moose on the way out. The whole drive took us about 7 hours, but we took our time and made several stops.

Talkeetna is our new favorite getaway spot. Main Street is lined with shops and restaurants, and biking, walking, and riding ATVs are all acceptable ways to get around town. We checked into the Talkeetna Roadhouse and are staying at their Trapper John's cabin about a quarter of a mile off the main drag (and on the same property as the roadhouse owner's home). A true trapper's cabin, it comes complete with pelts on the walls and a kitchen with all vintage appliances.

We walked down to the community-built playground (which was further than we thought), designed by the same company that just did ours in Homer. It was similar yet very different, and felt much more Alaskan-themed than Homer's, but I don't think I could choose one over the other.

We headed to Mountain High Pizza Pie for dinner and intentionally ordered too much so we have leftovers for tomorrow. Then it was back to the cabin for jackets to help keep the killer mosquitoes at bay before heading on a short walk.

The roadhouse proprietor told us to head down the street from the cabin and around the end of the village airstrip to pick up a trail through the woods by the river. I felt like I was back in Kodiak, where we would cut between the airstrip and the float plane lake to get to the diner. As soon as we got to the end of the airstrip, a plane started taxiing for takeoff. To say the kids were surprised as it flew right over our heads is an understatement.

Our hike through the beautiful birch forest was short lived thanks to the mosquitoes. We are all tired anyway, so the kids are tucked in bed while the Alaskan summer sun streams in the cabin's kitchen window and the resident roosters crow at 8:30pm.

Tomorrow it's breakfast at the roadhouse and then back to Anchorage with stops for groceries and running shoes, and then on home to our much-missed Dad, dog, and beds. Adventure Girl says she wants to keep traveling around, and Little Man wants to play in his own room with his own toys.

Photos: quadruple rainbow leaving Fairbanks, one last glimpse of hidden Denali, Talkeetna, playground in Talkeetna, Mountain High Pizza Pie, Trapper John's Cabin

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Great Alaskan Road Trip: Day 5

We began our day with a cruise on the Riverboat Discovery on the Chena River. We were accompanied by six bus loads of cruise ship passengers, but the boat was massive, with plenty of room for everyone. The tour company really has this trip well thought out. A float plane pilot performed two take-offs and landings right alongside the boat in the river.

The boat passed by the kennels of late Iditarod champion Susan Butcher, and her husband, Yukon Quest champion Dave Monson, showed off new puppies and demonstrated the power of a dog team as they pull him in an ATV around a pond. He then let them outbid their harnesses and into the river for a cool-down swim. We have seen a few other sled dog kennels, and this one outshines them all in dog yard living quarters, at least from what we could see from the boat. Note: sit on the left side of the boat from the beginning, as that is where most of the action is.

The trip included an hour-long stop at a replica Athabascan village, where we learned about the native lifestyle. Even better, the guides in the village were mostly college students who are from native villages themselves. I wasn't sure if the kids enjoyed this part until my little guy asked his dad on the phone if he would build us a fish wheel to catch salmon when we get home. He also remembered the floatplane pilot's name, who spoke with the boat captain over the loudspeaker.

Lance Mackey was even waiting at the dock when we returned, available to talk with tourists about his multiple Iditarod and Yukon Quest wins. The kids really wanted to talk to him, but the cruisers were top fast and too many for us to wait at lunchtime. All in all, a very impressive range of info from this family-run business!

We finally had time and hotel room for an afternoon nap, so we rested up before heading to North Pole. Not the actual north pole, but a town by that name about 15 miles from Fairbanks. I was debating whether it was a worthwhile stop to include, but several locals recommended a Chinese restaurant there. We have no Chinese restaurant in Homer and really miss it, so I can now say that I drove to North Pole just for the fried rice. The restaurant, Pagoda, was featured on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives awhile back.

As an added bonus, the Christmas cheer in North Pole was so over the top (candy cane streetlamp posts on Santa Claus Lane!) that we couldn't resist a stop at the Santa Claus House for our moment to act like tourists. We met four of Santa's reindeer, and the kids spent a good amount of time calling to them through the fence to see if any of them would answer to "Prancer" or "Blitzen." They didn't. Inside, we met Santa and bought ourselves a North Pole, Alaska float plane ornament to add to our collection before escaping the store filled with expensive breakables placed on low shelves. This place was not actually set up with kids in mind, which struck me as pretty funny.

Everyone is now tucked in their beds with bellies full of lo mein, ready to start our journey back south tomorrow. Destination: Talkeetna, Mountain High Pizza Pie, and the Talkeetna Roadhouse.

Photos: the pups at the sled dog kennel, waves made by the paddle wheel (there's some math in there somewhere...sine waves, perhaps?), watching the river go by, Santa Claus House, and a ridiculously huge Santa with a teeny tiny sleigh-can you even see the kids in it?

Friday, June 8, 2012

Great Alaskan Road Trip: Day 4

Day 4? Really? That's it? Seems like we have been on the road much longer, with all we have seen already this week!

Today we drove just over 2 hours to Fairbanks. The drive was peaceful and beautiful, with a two-lane highway and nearly no other traffic. My favorite was the Skyline Drive portion of the Parks Hwy. right outside of the city, with enormous views of rolling green hills and snowy mountains in the background. No photos, since I kept missing the viewpoint turnoffs. Being driver and navigator at the same time is not my normal road-trip method.

We fit in a lot today, starting with a visit to Pioneer Park, complete with playground time, carousel ride, and train trip around the park grounds. We left because we were HOT. It is in the mid-70s here, the warmest day of the year.

Then it was off to run around on the trails at Creamer's Field, which was the perfect place to expend some extra energy. The field was full of sand hill cranes (and the forest was full of mosquitoes). The helpful woman in the Visitor's building set me up with a map and directions to cooler activities for the kids, should we need more indoor ideas.

We then checked into our most luxurious lodgings of the trip, Pike's Waterfront. My Alaska TourSaver book coupon got us a deluxe riverfront room, two nights for the price of one. Cushy beds, PBS on the flat screen for a little kid downtime, and a tiny balcony overlooking the Chena.

We drove around downtown Fairbanks after dinner and came back to Pike's to trade in our wooden coins (for Alaskans only!) for free ice cream cones in the lobby.

Tomorrow we're using another TourSaver deal to ride the Riverboat Discovery, three hours on the Chena River with a stop at Susan Butcher's sled dog kennel and a tour of an old native village. After that, naps are in order, followed by a visit to North Pole (a real town, 15 miles away) to visit the reindeer and the Pagoda Chinese restaurant for dinner takeout on the recommendation of a few locals today.

As for the 600 miles from "the end of the road" to Fairbanks, travel has been very easy. We must be just a bit earlier than the RV invasion, because we haven't had much company headed north since leaving the Wasilla area (and we did not see Russia from there). The highway is mostly one lane each way, with plenty of stopping places, both scenic and for gas and food. I wish I had a copilot so I could enjoy the scenery a bit more, but we are taking the Alaska Railroad from Anchorage to Denali in August (another TourSaver buy one get one; getting much more than out money's worth from that book!), so I'll get to enjoy more mountain views and wildlife then.

Photos: Pioneer Park (formerly Alaskaland), swings you would only find in Alaska, Creamer's Field, free ice cream meets overtired boy

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Great Alaskan Road Trip: Day 3

Today we spent exploring the front portion of Denali National Park. We knew rain was in the forecast, so we drove into the park after breakfast (Black Bear Coffeehouse, pretty good) to see if we could catch a glimpse of the mountain before the cloud cover came in. We were just in time to see the middle third (photos to come when we return home). About 20 minutes later, after giving up on the Mountain Vista trail because we we're the only car in the parking lot, the clouds rolled in and Denali was hidden. You hear all the time how quickly the weather can change up here, but it's crazy to see in person.

After returning to the Visitor's Center, we set out on the McKinley Station Trail, headed for the two bridge crossings of Riley Creek on the Three Lakes Trail. The path led through a very peaceful forest with just the right amount of fellow hikers to help ward off any bears. The creek is very swift right now due to recent rain storms, so the kids weren't able to toss in as many rocks as they had hoped. The second creek crossing is a wooden and cable suspension bridge. We made it about halfway across and decided to turn back as it wasn't quite wide enough for one mom gripping two kids by the back of the sweatshirt to traverse together, and the railing was just thin metal cable. The kids spent time building rock structures along the creek's bank for awhile before heading back.

After a picnic lunch, we visited the science center and learned about different animal bones. Then it was on to the sled dog kennel, where we got to meet and pet several park "canine rangers" and listen to a presentation about how they helped establish the park as a wildlife refuge.

Shew, I'm tired all over again just thinking about what we did today! We are in need of a day of rest. We moved to different accommodations for tonight simply because it was less expensive, so we are at the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge. Rooms here usually aren't cheap, but we are just on the edge of shoulder season and got a deal. Aside from last night's place being about 15 miles from the park entrance, we much prefer it to where we are now. The only gas station in town is charging $5.19/gallon, so I'm glad to have enough left to make it up the road to Healy in hope of finding cheaper prices. This lodge is owned by Princess Cruises, and it is set up for cruisers on land excursions. There is only one small parking area for vehicles at the front, and the property is huge. We had to carry our bags quite a distance, and we weren't told about the distance, parking, or the property trolley shuttle when we checked in. We weren't told much at all, actually. Not very helpful for a mom and two young kids. The room itself is okay, but certainly not worth the $269/night they charge in high season. I chose this place thinking it would be nice to stay in "glitter gulch," as they call it, for ease of walking to restaurants rather than more driving. Now that we have tried both options, we'll opt for the smaller local-owned lodging rather than more touristy lodges. But it's right on the Nenana River canyon with a great view!

We took an easy out with dinner and had pizza and ice cream to combat the road weariness. Tomorrow it's just 120 miles to Fairbanks, where we plan to take it slow and enjoy the warmth.

Photos: suspension bridge, making friends with peanut butter on our hands from lunch, view behind the Denali Princess, ice cream to top off the day

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Great Alaskan Road Trip: Day 2

Pardon the short entries and weird photo format- I went light on tech for this trip and am blogging from my iPhone with just the photos on it. I'll upload lots of amazing pics when we return home.

Today we left Anchorage around 7:30am (thanks to kids who were up at 6!) and headed north. We were lucky enough to get a few views of the top of Denali before it clouded in for the day. We stopped several times along the way and still made it to the park at noon.

After a quick picnic, we talked with some park rangers to get advice on safe places for just the three of us to hike, got our free national parks pass for military members (this is new and so, so nice!), and off we went. We drove into the park as far as personal vehicles are allowed (mile 15) and stopped at the Savage River Loop trail. There were plenty of other people around, and even some trail workers, so we set out on the two-mile hike along and across the river.

After nearly two days of saying how tired they were of being in the car, the kids finally GOT it. Got why I wanted to trek up here to visit Denali, even though we have mountains out our living room window. Attitudes turned, kids followed our hiking rules intentionally, and a certain 4-year-old even held my hand the whole way because he wanted to. The near-500-mile drive was worth just that one hour of being surrounded by enormous rocky outcroppings, types of wildflowers that we couldn't name (we usually know them all!), and a small but roaring river at our feet. We often joke that Alaskan scenery is like that movie "The Truman Show," in that it seems so perfect that at any moment it could just be rolled away like movie sets The drive here today was just that- huge, picture-perfect views making our car seem tiny in comparison.

We saw a caribou today. We decided he would have made good pepperoni and breakfast sausage. I think we may in fact be official Alaskans. We also saw a bull moose and a cute thing that looked like a prairie dog, although I'm sure it was something else.

We are staying at McKinley Creekside Cabins, which is even nicer than its website depicts. The kids are sleeping inside while I enjoy the view on he deck. Dinner was at the Denali Salmon Bake, which was also better than expected but still definitely a place for tourists.

Tomorrow we plan to hike some more (buying the kids new hiking shows yesterday has certainly helped their eagerness to hit the trails!) and maybe visit the park's sled dog kennel. Hooray for a day without driving very far!

Photos: from the South Denali viewpoint from the Parks Hwy., creek at our night's lodging, us on the Savage River trail, dinner.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Great Alaskan Road Trip: Day 1

Today we started at the beginning of the road (which most others refer to as the end!) and took our time driving to Anchorage. In just two months since we last made that drive, the scenery has gone from snowy with ice falls and avalanche warnings to mostly fresh spring green. We even saw newly-blooming lupine along the side of the road and a mama moose with two babies in the marsh.

We don't particularly enjoy Anchorage, mostly because it is a whole lot of city compared to our 1-stop-light town, but stopping over is a necessary evil for shopping and to avoid an extra long day of driving. We are staying in military lodging at Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson for the first time. What a bargain! $41.50 for two bedrooms and a living room. Before settling in for the night, we ran off some energy at the indoor playground on base and then visited the commissary. We learned last summer to stock up on fruit, breakfast items, bread and pb&j, and snack food, along with a 2.5 gallon jug of drinking water to refill our water bottles to save money and restaurant hassle along the way.

Tomorrow it's off to Denali!! Pics below are Tern Lake at the intersection of the Sterling and Seward Highways, a view entering Turnagin Arm, and the Arctic Oasis playground. On the iPhone, so I can't caption them.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

On the road again...

Wow.  A year ago right now, we were in the middle of our journey from Connecticut to Alaska.  The past year has flown by, and we feel completely at home in Homer.  So much so that I do believe we will be back for good once our Coast Guard ride is over.  Sorry, Mom(s).  But I think you knew this already.  

The past month has been a whirlwind, with the end-of-school activities, playground build, and lots of crazy ship logistics.  Today was our first regular weekend day in longer than we can remember.  The highlight of the past few months for me has definitely been the playground build.  Now we not only have a fantastic new place for the kids to play and spend time with their friends, but we also have lots of new friends of our own, met alongside table saws and paint brushes.  

It started as a forest of posts, 18 of which I helped set myself!

Last day of work

Complete, huge, and awesome.

We are finally greening up around town, with new baby moose wandering around and dandelions everywhere.  Two sets of moose twins were born in our neighborhood.  And after spending a winter's day at minus 26 degrees, 55 is t-shirt weather for sure.

Monday the kids and I are headed north for what we are calling our Great Alaskan Road Trip.  The LT (soon-to-be LTCDR-select!) can't get away from work, so we are going it alone.  We will be spending time in Denali National Park, Fairbanks, and Talkeetna along the way.  We haven't been further north than Anchorage, other than our drive in from Tok, so we are really excited to explore new-to-us parts of the state.  I downloaded the Blogger mobile app, so I should be able to give daily trip highlights along the way, just like we did last year with our drive from CT to here.  If you have been through or to any of the places we are headed, please leave us suggestions of your favorite pit-stops and attractions!