Alaska

A mid afternoon flight from Seattle arrives in Anchorage 3 and a half hours later. Having lost another hour by moving timezones (now 9 hours behind the U.K.), it was around 7.30pm before I arrived at the hotel. After checking in I decided to stretch my legs with a walk around downtown Anchorage. Not a whole lot to see to be honest, and I didn’t really expect there to be. For the most part, Anchorage is a way into the state. The most striking thing for me was the daylight. I headed back to the hotel around 9pm and it could have been the middle of the afternoon.

Trek America trips start at 7.30am in the morning (which differs to G Adventures which generally start in the evening). After meeting the group (6 other travellers plus Sam, our tour guide) we did the usual admin and introductions before heading south to Seward.

The drive down from Anchorage to Seward is a couple of hours, and is insanely scenic. It reminded me of Fiordland in New Zealand. There were lakes on one side of us and hills/mountains on the other side. We arrived in Seward around 11am and after grabbing some (very expensive) lunch from the local supermarket, we then got on board a boat for an afternoon of cruising around the Kenai Fjords. We were so, so lucky with the weather, even in summer blue sky and warm temperatures are relatively rare in these parts.

Aside from the epic scenery, we were also hoping to see lots of wildlife. We saw lots of birds (I have entirely forgotten what most of them were), as well as sealions and then eventually we saw a humpback whale. Money shot:

We stayed in a hostel in Seward where I managed to choose a bunk with a particularly saggy mattress. We went out in the evening for out first group dinner, followed by a couple of drinks in the first of many bars on the trip which had dollar bills covering the ceiling.

The next day we went to the nearby Exit Glacier. I did a guided ranger walk for a couple of hours to a viewing point at the face of the glacier, whilst some of the others did a more strenuous hike up towards the Harding Ice Field.

In the afternoon we headed back to Seward and along with a couple of the group, I did a short hike around the 2 Lakes Trail and then I went to the aquarium. In the evening we did our own thing for dinner before having a few/lots of drinks in a couple of bars, chatting to the locals and stumbling back just before 1am…and it was still light!!

I had a slightly bleary-eyed start the next day and we were up early and on the road at 7am for the long drive day to Denali – around 375 miles. The weather, however, was perfect.

This picture was taken at the lunch stop in the town of Talkeetna, pretty epic view with Mount Denali on the right (tallest mountain in North America at 20,310ft, and it has a higher vertical rise than Everest from its base, as Everest rises from a plateau). On 2 out of 3 days you can’t see Denali because of the weather. Sam also said that though this was her 3rd trip to Denali this year, it was the first time she’d seen it, so I definitely feel that we were super-lucky.

We rolled into Healy around 5.30pm, where I had booked onto a scenic flight which would also land on a glacier. It was not a cheap excursion but it was totally worth the money.

There were 8 passengers and the pilot on the plane, pretty cosy. I was right at the back but had a bonus with views out of both sides of the plane. The plane itself had skis on it so it could land on the glacier, which was an awesome experience.

After that we met with the rest of the group for a late dinner at 49th State Brewing. They definitely like their beers in this part of the world, there seemed to be quite a few local breweries around, though I had a nice glass of vino.

The next day (4th July!) we had a full day bus tour into Denali National Park. I think this is probably one of the most authentic wilderness areas I’ve been to. There is basically 1 road into Denali (at least from where we were staying), which is only paved for 20 miles, and private vehicles aren’t allowed beyond the first 20 miles. There are very few maintained trails and you are encouraged to go and wander (what the Americans term ‘backpacking’, though you’ve gotta be aware of the wildlife).

The bus took us out 66 miles to the Eielson Visitor Center and it took about 4 hours to get there. We made rest stops as well as stops for wildlife spottings. On the way out we saw caribou and some grizzlies.

This is the amazing 4th of July view from the Eielson Visitor Center

We did the Alpine View hike at the Visitor Center, where I was lucky enough to see another sow and her cubs coming down the hill. More epic views at the top:

On the bus back we saw loads of sows and cubs, we seemed to be stopping every 20 minutes for sightings, which was really amazing. In contrast to the bears I’ve previously seen in Yellowstone, we seemed to be closer to the bears in Yellowstone. I have a whole heap of photos on my camera which at first glance are just photos of green hillside, but if you zoom in the bears are there – somewhere! In Yellowstone, with a less good camera, I have clearer photos of bears. But it is still really exhilarating to see bears in the wild.

We also saw a moose right at the end of the trip back. Moose are enormous!! The next day back at the park entrance there was a moose and her baby moose casually wandering in the car park! We essentially had a free day on the second full day in Denali. I decided to do some of the shorter trail hikes near to the park entrance Visitor Center. The weather was a bit rainy in the morning and I was glad for my full wet weather gear! Some of the group went rafting instead, not really my cup of tea.

The next morning we had a sled dog demo in the park. Denali is one of the few places where huskies work in the winter, to patrol the park and carry supplies on sleds. I can hardly imagine what this place is like in winter, covered in snow and blanketed in darkness. It would certainly be a different experience to be there in the winter!

After the demo, it was time to head off to our next stop. We were heading east down the (unpaved) Denali Highway to Maclaren River Lodge in the Alaskan Range. It was another long drive, but with more great scenery. Canoeing was an option here, but I was the only one who decided against it, and instead I enjoyed a couple of glasses of vino.

Once the rest of the group made it back (not all of them dry…) we had dinner and then had a bonfire and made s’mores. S’mores are classic American campfire snacks, toasted marshmallows, and a slab of Hershey’s chocolate sandwiched between 2 Golden Graham crackers – a proper sugar hit!

The next morning we had a short hike quite near to the lodge, and then continued along the Denali Highway towards Wrangell-St-Elias National Park. This is the largest national park in North America. It’s the size of Switzerland, and the main town within the park, McCarthy, is accessed via a 60 mile dirt road. It’s quite hard to imagine the isolation of these communities, especially outside of the tourist season. We arrived at 6.30pm on a Saturday evening, and after a quick shower we headed out to sample the local nightlife. There was live music in the Saloon to enjoy, as well as some interesting people-watching.

The next day the only thing to do was to get out onto the glacier. The options were a full day glacier hike or ice climbing. I opted for the glacier hike and after being fitted out with crampons which we would wear once on the ice, we headed off on the 2 mile hike to the face of the glacier. In contrast to other glacier hikes I’ve done which have largely followed set routes, this one felt much more like we could roam free (within reason, i.e. avoiding any precipitous drops!). And by ‘roam free’, I mean that I felt that our guide wasn’t following a pre-determined path, but was taking us to look a interesting features on the glacier.

We hiked about 6 miles on the ice, and because we were constantly moving, it didn’t feel as cold as you might expect.

The blues that you see on the glacier are so intensely blue, the photos don’t really do it justice.

We returned in the late afternoon, and on the drive back to McCarthy from Kennicott, as we turned a corner in the road, a black bear was right in front of us! It looked at us for a few moments before disappearing into the bush. Really cool to see up close!

The next day was the last day of the trip, and a long drive back to Anchorage. Firstly back down the 60 mile dirt road through the park, and eventually onto the paved highways. We rolled into Anchorage at 6pm and said our goodbyes as we weren’t all staying in the same hotel.

A reasonably early night followed for me as I had a 4am alarm for the long journey back to the U.K.

So, what were my overall impressions of Alaska? First off it is beautiful. The scenery and wildlife are out-of-this-world. The locals are friendly, and in the summer there is near-constant daylight which means plenty of time (if you can hack it) for exploring. Pack for all seasons, it’s unlikely to be hot and the weather can change pretty quickly. Things to be aware of, firstly the prices – it’s expensive in Alaska, naturally because it’s pretty remote up there. On the plus side, there is no sales tax so at least you know that price you’ll pay once you get to the till. Secondly the nightlife is very low-key. You definitely don’t come to Alaska to party. And thirdly, the sheer size of Alaska – it’s huge. It’s 82 times larger than Wales. The furthest north we got was the Denali region, but there is another near-600 miles of Alaska before you hit the Arctic Ocean, and you’ll be lucky if those roads are anything more than a dirt track. It’s difficult to appreciate the remoteness of some of these places, and I can barely imagine what it’s like to be there in the constant darkness of winter. But all in all, definitely worth visiting.

Aoraki Mount Cook

I’ve just spent 2 and a half glorious days in Aoraki Mount Cook village and national park. The weather could not have been more perfect.

We left Queenstown early on Friday morning. The Remarkables mountain range had a dusting of snow overnight – it’s definitely Autumn now! After a stop in Cromwell for supplies (there are no shops in Mt Cook village), we stopped for lunch overlooking Lake Pukaki. The blueness of the lake is amazing.

 
We arrived at our accommodation in Aoraki Mount Cook village at around 2pm. Aoraki is the Maori name for Mount Cook, and means ‘cloud piercer’. In the afternoon we went for a walk along the Hooker Valley Track, which is a walk I’d done when I was here back in 2014. The weather was much better this time, and we got some awesome views of Mt Cook on the walk, which we couldn’t even see in 2014.

   

 

As the sky was so clear, we were treated to a fabulous view of the night sky in the evening. It’s probably the clearest I’ve ever seen the Milky Way, and we could also see Jupiter and Mars really clearly. The views of the night sky that I’ve seen on my travels really have been something else.
On Saturday I took a 4WD ‘Argo’ trip to the terminal of the Tasman Glacier.

  
I have to say that this was one of the most uncomfortable journeys I’ve ever had, 5km up a boulder-strewn gravel track, but it was an awesome view when we got to the glacier.

  
I then spent the rest of the afternoon at the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre, learning about the first people to ascend various peaks in the Southern Alps, along with watching a 3D short film on Mount Cook, and an interesting documentary on Sir Edmund Hillary’s ascent of Everest in 1953.

In the evening i had a vastly overpriced pint of cider from the bar at the backpackers. It was $11 – ¬£5.50 – basically London prices. I won’t be making that mistake again!!

Today (Sunday) was another beautiful day. I walked up the Sealy Tarns track. This was quite challenging. Roughly 90 minutes of walking up steps, though I suspect fitter people could do it in around an hour. The views on the way up, and at Sealy Tarns lookout, were amazing.

   
 
It only took me 45 minutes to get back down, and even with about half an hour for lunch at the top, I was still within the suggested 3 hour time frame for the walk.

I also walked to Kea Point, which was 10 minutes from the start/end of the Sealy Tarns track, and gave another great view of Aoraki Mount Cook.

  
After my long walk, I treated myself to a bath. Yes, that’s right, this hostel has baths! I love a bath, and it feels like forever since I had one, though in reality it was about 5 weeks ago in Rotorua.

Tomorrow we move on to Rangitata, where I will not be partaking in white water rafting (which is basically the only thing to do in Rangitata). The day after that we head to Christchurch where I will be renting a car for a little road trip…