Alaska Trip, Northbound
July 28 to August 15, 2013
This was the big trip of 2014, for both me and my wife Nora. We spent three weeks together, heading north by road and ferry as far as Denali National Park. Then she flew home to resume work and I drove back alone. There was a tremendous lot of driving in both directions, undeniably, but the camping was comfortable and the scenery spectacular.
We spent fifteen nights in campgrounds, one night parked in line for the ferry at Prince Rupert, one night in a berth on the Alaska ferry to Juneau, one night at Glacier Bay Lodge, and the last two nights in a motel in Anchorage.
The north-bound part of the trip took 20 days and I created 147 panoramas.
(Click any picture to open a larger version.)
A fast smooth day heading north on Interstate 5. We stopped at the Ide Adobe in Red Bluff.
We had a camping reservation at Valley of the Rogue State Park, but when we got there it was unbearably hot and we decided to keep on driving. We just happened to notice a camping symbol at the Coburg exit and got a nice campsite in their community park on the Willamette River.
I-5 is so fast and easy that we were at the Columbia River before lunch and enjoyed a brief stop at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site. Nora had never seen Mount Saint Helens, so we drove the long road out to the Johnston Ridge viewpoint and back, then continued north. Despite inevitable congestion through Seattle we made it to camp just at sunset.
After an easy border crossing at Camas I tried to get Nora to have a cup of coffee and a donut at Tim Hortons's, but she insisted on a turkey sandwich and Diet Coke. We proceded northwards up the Fraser River Canyon and interior dry belt until late afternoon, with stops at Hope, the Alexandra Bridge, and Hells Gate.
There was a provincial park shown on the map at Loon Lake, and an encouraging sign at the turnoff, so we took a minor road up into the hills. We drove all the way to the far end of the 8 mile long lake, but no park. So we asked, and were told "Oh they closed that campground fifteen years ago - they should take the sign down!"
We continued due north on what is called the Goldrush Trail, roughly the route of the Cariboo wagon road to Barkersvile.
We stopped at Williams Lake for gas, and my VISA card was declined. We tried Nora's card, same result. We went to an ATM for cash and both of our (VISA) debit cards were declined. This began to look like a serious problem, since the only remaining credit card was my American Express, which seldom works at gas pumps, and is not accepted by many businesses, especially in Canada.
We parked on a side street and started making phone calls. After a lot of confusion and run-around, the Bank of America VISA people determined that a hold had been automatically put on our account because it was showing a pattern of use that varied from our norm. Apparently they were afraid that someone had stolen all our cards and was joy-riding across British Columbia. We assured them that it was actually us, and pointed out that we had indeed notified them of our travel plans in advance. No apology, and they offered to send us new cards, to our home address - what idiots! Eventually they agreed to re-activate them all, so we filled up on gas and resumed our journey.Two long days of driving though had taken their toll, and we stopped early, at Ten Mile Lake Provincial Park near Quesnel.
Just past Prince George, the big city of northern BC, we stopped at historic Fort St James, a restored Hudson Bay Company trading post. I enjoyed an hour shooting panos of the buildings and the interpreters in period costume.
It was British Columbia Day, a holiday, which usually means trouble getting into campgrounds, but we were far enough from cities I wasn't too worried. We pulled into camp simultaneously with just about everyone else on the road, but got a site and enjoyed an amazing purple and red sunset on the lakeshore.
Smithers is where northbound travellers really begins to feel they are somewhere different and exciting. We hiked to the twin waterfalls on Hudson Bay Mountain, watched First Nations men dip-netting salmon at Moricetown Rapids, and admired totem poles and other native art at Ksan and other villages along the Skeena River.
The day ended at Prince Rupert, where we checked in for the next morning's ferry, then enjoyed a long drawn out dinner with a view from high above the harbor.
There was a sign that said "No Camping", but the ferry terminal staff assured us that we would be "waiting" not "camping", so we spent the night parked in line. By the time the ferry began to load at 4:15 am we were surrounded by other vehicles.
The ferry was underway at dawn and steamed smoothly and slowly north all day and all night, through the beautiful scenery of the Inside Passage. There was a brief stop at Ketchikan, which we had visited before on a cruise ship in 2000.
So we rented a cabin with bunk beds, porthole, bathroom with shower, even wi-fi. We enjoyed a morning nap after our early start, three meals, a few drinks at the bar, walks around the decks, great scenery, and a good nights rest. The pervasive sound and vibration of the engines was strangely soothing.
We got to Juneau in late morning and went straight to the Mendenhall Glacier. It was cold and raining heavily, but we hiked to the waterfall anyway. We drove across to Douglas Island and back, then made a major resupply stop at Safeway, and early camp across the lake from the glacier.
It is best to cook well away from your tent or camper when in grizzly bear country. I got thoroughly soaked and practically hypothermic cooking a couple of steaks in the steady cold rain. Thank heavens for the camper and its propane heater.
We had a leisurely morning because our flight was delayed by the rainy and cloudy weather. The airline, Wings of Alaska, was a tiny outfit, just like the television series "Wings". Eventually the pilot said we could go. Nora got to ride in the co-pilot's seat! It was a scenic flight, avoiding the mountains (which were still hidden in clouds), over pale green water and dark green forests.
Upon arrival at the little air terminal in Gustavus we realized that the Chinese couple who had been on the plane with us had no reservations for that night and no idea what to do. The airline staff were wonderful, they called the lodge, no luck, then a few B&B's, and ended up arranging with an auntie who put people up when necessary.
We stayed at the Glacier Bay Lodge, the official (and only) accommodation in the national park. The visitor center/museum shares the main building with the restaurant and lobby. The sky had cleared and it was beautiful on the pier and cobblestone beach, and we enjoyed dinner by the big windows in the long twilight.
Glacier Bay was one of our two big destinations on this trip, along with Denali. It can only be viewed from the water, either a cruise ship, or the daily nature cruise run by the park service. We were out all day, the weather was perfect. We saw bears and marine mammals, lots of sea birds including puffins, and so many whales we stopped counting. The naturalist gave an excellent running commentary and several serious birders pointed out the rare species for us.
The main event though was the close approach to tidewater glaciers. They have receded miles, literally miles, back up the fiords since John Muir described them in the nineteenth century, but there are still several that calve icebergs directly into deep water (though many others no longer reach the shore). We steamed up to within a mile or so of the Johns Hopkins Glacier, an awesome sight.
The return journey was by a slightly different route, then a van ride and the short flight back to Juneau. That flight, actually, was one of the highlights of the entire trip. We had dinner at a Mexican restaurant and camped near the ferry terminal, handy for another cruelly-early departure.
An early ferry departure from Juneau, then a slow journey up the inside Passage to Haines. We had lunch in a little cafe overlooking the boat ramp, a quick look around town, and bought groceries, then started driving again. We crossed into Canada then crested the coastal mountains and started downhill into the Yukon. This was our first view of boreal forest and tundra.
This seemed like the longest driving day, 450 miles in about ten hours, from Haines Junction along the Alaska Highway to Tok Junction. There was some mountain scenery and Kluane Lake, but mostly boreal forest and muskeg. Despite the novelty we got thoroughly tired of it, especially since low clouds usually hid the higher mountains.
South through the Alaska Range to Glenallen, but low clouds hid any views. Then we started west on the Denali Highway, just for a few miles until pavement ended. Dark low clouds and sometimes light rain, not a very interesting drive.
First, let's get it straight. Denali highway is, well, not a highway, and it is not how most people get to Denali. It was the original road, west from the Richardson Highway, to reach the park, but was largely obsoleted by construction of the Parks Highway, which connects Denali north to Fairbanks and south to Anchorage. But it is a scenic unpaved route with lots of wild country and mountain views.
Unfortunately, we didn't see it at its best. It rained the entire distance, and it was crowded with local families out to hunt caribou. We got to the park in early afternoon , picked up our bus and campground tickets, then checked into the campground.
In the morning we went to the visitor center, watched the Alaska Railroad train from Fairbanks come in, had lunch and bought souvenirs, enjoyed the sled dog demonstration, then drove to the campground at Teklanika River. The second half of this road is only open to vehicles with a camping reservation and official buses.
Teklanika River Campground, just gravel parking pads in a boreal forest, nothing very interesting. To stay here you must have a hard-sided camping vehicle (we qualified because the pop-up fabric starts above six feet).
All panoramas taken this day (7) (7)
None of our maps showed a campground near Talkeetna, but the visitor information center in town suggested the marina. Sure enough, there was a scattering of campsites in dense forest along the river just outside of town.
In the morning we walked around Talkeetna and bought a few more gifts for folks back home. The town has a certain raffish charm, but is totally touristy.
We could have driven straight into Anchorage from there, but I wanted Nora to see the scenery along the Hatcher Pass Road in the Talkeetna Mountains. It is a slow gravel road that climbs gradually through forest to tundra, then steeply to a lake and the pass. On the other side we stopped at Independence Mine State Park. It was a worthwhile side trip, despite dull gray weather. Nora says it was her favorite Alaska experience.
This was the last day of the trip for Nora. We did laundry at the motel and had dinner next door. I guess we were exhausted.