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Alaskan Adventures: Whittier

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Before visiting Alaska,I imagined Alaska as teeming with icebergs, calving glaciers, bears, vast open lands, snow clad mountains,caribous and bald eagles and salmon. We got to see all of the above in Kenai and Denali -more than I ever imagined. But thanks to Discovery channel, we wanted to see the spectacular glacier calving. The one where the entire cliff seems to collapse rocking everything below with thundering echoes.

One of our friends wisely pointed out that the calving is result of global warming and wanting to see more glaciers calve is not good for the health of the planet. But the glaciers would calve whether we were there to watch it or not. So we decided to skip Native Alaskan Heritage Center and instead drove down back south to Whittier – which is gateway to Prince William Sound.

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Although not a national park like Kenai Fjord and Denali, PWS is the place to watch glaciers up close. There isn’t much wildlife here to be seen (other than the salmon hatchery,sea puffs and occasional otter). So if you decide to fly into anchorage instead of taking the cruise, and want to spent an afternoon watching glaciers and ice-bergs then go to Whittier. Also the water here is calm so this is a great alternative to Kenai Fjord cruises if sea sickness is a concern.

To reach Whittier you have to cross a tunnel that is shared with rail road tracks and hence the tunnel is open only at specific times. I have heard that the wait can be longer in peak season but we crossed over in 10 -15 minutes.

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Once there we went an eco-friendly cruise.The cruise was boring as we ferried across the water. The only interesting part was when we reached the glaciers and saw them calve.There is truly nothing else to see on this cruise. But the glaciers and ice-bergs made it worth its while.

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On the way back from Whittier, we stopped at Alaskan Wildlife Conservation Center in Girdwood, to watch Moose, Elk, Bears and other animals that are rescued and provided a shelter till they can be released into the wild again. Awesome concept and a great way to see all the big animals together. So if you didn’t get to see them enough in the wild or didn’t get closeup shots of them in the wild,this is a great spot.We lingered here for an hour or so before we had to drive back to Anchorage.

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We were all flying out that evening from Anchorage on different flights. We wanted to have spare time to return the car, grab dinner and then check in/security.

It was a refreshing 5 day trip.A teaser, tantalizing our appetite for more.The vast open landscape of Alaska and the unhurried pace of life was welcoming. Its the place to go with a  RV and drive around. Nature here exceeds expectations. Stunning views vie for your attention at every turn.

This is one place I hope to return for a longer time ,a month or so at least. Preferably in fall. And visit Homer, Katmai and Denali again!

Alaskan Adventures: Denali National Park

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After our day trip to Kenai Fjord National Park, we walked back to the RV parking lot and started driving up towards Denali National Park. After seeing whales, porpoises, sea-lions and bald eagles, it was time to now see the land animals – bears, caribou, dall sheep etc. We started driving north from Seward to Denali. As this is a 8+  hour drive, we broke it up with an overnight stop in Anchorage.

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On the way we stopped at Portage glacier. By then the sun was out and we had beautiful views of the glacier and the Turnagain Arm on the drive back. We stayed at RV park very close to the city centre. The RV parks in the city were smaller and noisier than in Seward (naturally!) and a couple of them looked a bit shady. Again, I can’t remember the names but its all in Milepost magazine – a handy guide to everything in Alaska mile by mile. Don’t forget to pick up a copy in Wal-Mart along with other supplies.

The following morning we showered in the RV camp, had breakfast and then made our way to Denali National Park. We had almost all day to drive up and make it to a 6:00 pm White water rafting trip. En-route we planned to do the short trail of Thunderbird  falls and then an airplane ride around Mt McKinley near Talkeetna. The air plane ride was a bit expensive so we thought we will do it only if Mt. McKinley was visible.

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This day was better than the previous day on boat cruise and we had a ball of time – fantastic company, stunning scenery, few RV’s on the open road. We pulled over at one of the many pit stops to have lunch while enjoying the views. We met another couple who had driven their RV all the way up from Iowa and were planning to spend their Spring and Summer in Alaska.  And here we were on a 5 day road trip trying to see as much of this gorgeous state. Something better than nothing, eh?

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Although it was sunny, Mt McKinley generates its own weather system, similar to Mt. Rainier in Seattle area. So while we enjoyed the plains and low mountains, the top of Mt. McKinley was covered in clouds. We decided to skip the air plane ride and instead continued onwards to Denali.

Once at Healy, the town closest to Denali National Park, we checked into the RV park, picked up our bus tickets for the trip inside Denali National Park which we had pre-booked online and then went White water rafting. According to our raft guide, the water level is much higher in August, making it the best time to white water in Denali. White water rafting was a great way to end the day after the long drive. Dinner was in one of the many restaurants in Healy which were all open at 11:00 pm and had some great music. What a mesmerizing journey so far!

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The next morning  was our day trip in the park. Personal vehicles are not allowed in the park (beyond the first 15 miles) and shuttles are the only way to go. We took the 8:00 am shuttle so we could go as far inside and hike around a bit. The ideal way to see this park is to stay overnight in the  Wonderlake  campground. Experience the sunset and sunrise in the park. But this early in the season, the campground was closed and we could go only up to Tolkat River. En-route we saw herds and herds of caribou, grizzlies, Dall sheep, bears and owls amongst other birds. Our initial plan was to hike around Tolkat River, but it was awfully cold and it started snowing at Tolkat. We took the shuttle back to Savage River and then hiked a bit around that area. The ranger recommended a few paths along the Caribou creek and we saw a couple of them just 100 ft away. I was a bit terrified when ne of them looked up and stared at us. They can outrun humans if they choose to. We slowly backtracked on the soft lichen covered trail and headed to the bus stop. It was going to be a while before the bus so we climbed up some rock formations to take in aerial views of the park. We took in some fabulous views of area – the lone bus on the lone track, scree covered mountain bases, different colors of the rock formations and the vastness and silence that is only seen in Denali with miles upon miles of plains set amidst the backdrop of the mountain ranges.

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We hurried down as the next bus came around and we were back to the RV by 6:00 -6:30. AA couple of friends had skipped the hike and headed to the visitor center for seeing movies/information on the area, its natives etc. We all met up in the evening and headed back to Anchorage after some refreshments.

A visit to national par is always refreshing  – the fresh mountain air, relaxed vibe, starry nights, trails and the peace and calm that is hard to get by in the cities. But even more it refreshes the spirit which is re-energized and humbled in the presence of tall conifers, cycle of life and majestic mountains!

Stay tuned on the next post on Whittier – the last of our Alaska series.

Alaskan Adventures: Kenai Fjord National Park

DSC00683 I have several friends who can’t wait for spring to arrive and start doing outdoorsy things: gardening, road Trips, hikes, biking or simply going out for a walk. The topic of road trips turned in to renting a RV and driving around in Alaska. Vipul and I shared our adventure in Alaska a few years ago and then they asked me to send them a trip report. Few others asked about other road trips: Yellowstone, Yosemite, Jasper – Banff in Canadian Rockies and I thought of doing a series on National Parks of US. The ones that we have visited so far.

While Vipul and I have taken most of these trips before Varun, the photos are dated but the information is still valid.

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First up, is our grand RV adventure in Alaska. We visited Kenai Fjord National Park, Denali National Park and Whittier while in Alaska. It’s the most popular itinerary for those who want a taste of Alaska – a bit of wildlife, white water rafting, glaciers and miles upon miles of pristine scenery. Now, Alaska has multitude of places to take in the wildlife, to see glaciers, to see bears in their natural habitat, or even see hump back whales. It’s hard to decide which ones to pick and which ones to   leave out. There are also historic towns from Gold rush era where you can try your hand at panning. Fresh fish to entice you, fishing expeditions to try. It’s hard to narrow down. The best option is to rent a RV for 3 weeks, pick up a Milepost magazine that has details on lodging, restaurants, RV camps, activities and deals mile by mile. But when you don’t have 3 + weeks, choose one or two destinations and get a teaser like we did.

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We flew from Seattle to Anchorage. We were excited to see so much light when the flight landed at 11:00pm, excited about the RV which we rented from Great Alaskan- it was so spacious and brand new,   and generally excited to be on vacation 🙂

Next morning, after completing formalities at the office and a nice breakfast at the café next to Great Alaskan, we drove down to  Wal-Mart for supplies and then were on our way to Seward. The drive was very scenic. We stopped along the way and took lots of pictures.

Seward is the gateway to Kenai Fjord National Park. We chose  Kenai Fjord national park because we all wanted to see a lot of wildlife and  also some glaciers. Day cruise and kayak are the popular ways to go see the fjords and the sea life – seagulls, bald eagles, whales, porpoises, otters, sea lions etc. We went on all day tour with Renown tours .

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The day was cloudy, the water choppy and it even drizzled a bit. But we saw lots of wildlife. And even a glacier calve. The whales were very hard to photograph – they were quick, the boat was moving and it was cold.

While we were enthused for the first half, we were exhausted on the way back and dozed off.

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On hindsight, May was probably a bit too early to go. It was still cold but we encountered fewer tourists and even with a  last-minute we were able to get the RV reservations as well as bus tickets to visit Denali National Park. If you want to go in peak summer, do plan ahead. Book the RV’s upfront to avoid disappointment. Driving around in RV is something I will never forget. Sipping hot tea and eating hot Maggi noodles while enjoying the snow-clad mountains is a sight I will remember all my life.

Next stop on this trip was Denali National Park. Stay tuned for details in the next post.

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