Alaska > Anchorage and the Wilderness

[To catch up with the other stories in this Alaska Series, please CLICK HERE.]

Autumn of 2015, and we embarked on another epic journey — a self-drive tour of Alaska, doing the Anchorage-Denali-Fairbanks-Glenallen-Seward-Anchorage loop, via Routes 1, 2, 3, 4 and 9 (not necessarily in that order) for a total distance of 1700km. The first part of the journey was the very scenic 400km leg from Anchorage (1) to Denali National Park (2).

We begin our journey at Philadelphia Airport PHL on the east coast of the continent.

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Quite a nice and pleasant airport, though it’s a long walk from terminal to terminal, and there are seven of them, all in a row!

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Typical American airside — full of stuff, not always looking pretty but practical, such as this Philly one, said to be 15th busiest in the world in term of aircraft movements. 🙂

Soon we are in the air, in an ancient Piedmont’s Dash-8 with 36 seats, for a short 30-min bumpy ride to Newark to catch another plane. And now landing at Newark Airport EWR, with downtown Newark to our right. 

Waiting for our next flight, a nonstop 5.5-hour journey to Seattle on the west coast, en route to Anchorage. Only a 2-hour layover here in Newark, phew!

Just arrived Seattle Airport SEA for connecting flight to Anchorage. That nice new plane on the left, a Boeing 737-900, took us here from Newark on the east coast. Pleasant flight, good seat and service. Alaska Airlines is top notch!

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We are ready to depart Seattle for Anchorage with another Alaska Airlines B737-900. Flight time is 3.5 hours.

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Finally at Anchorage Airport ANC, some 14 hours after leaving Philadelphia, and the oil companies are prominent. It’s past midnight, what a long day it has been for us.

A fine cold autumn morning in Anchorage and we have just arrived from Philadelphia past midnight, a long trans-continental journey. A budget inn close to the airport and a nearby car rental depot are all we need.

Breakfast is served and I have this tasty salmon-laden porridge to contend with. Eat with bread, wash down with fine coffee, and that’s a wholesome local breakfast. Pity Sabariah — not a fan of salmon.

We duly picked up our rental SUV, a Kia Sorento 3.3 petrol — quite a mean machine and very comfortable too, especially for five people on a cross-country drive. Love the number plate!

Awesome V6 power!

With just 3682 miles on the meter, this puppy is virtually brand new. Great start to our road-trip.

We deftly maneuvered out of downtown Anchorage and fantastic autumn foliage suddenly surrounds us as we push northwards. We are so far north, that autumn colours have arrived in mid-September. But first on the agenda, a quick detour from Route 1 to get to Lake Eklutna in the Chugach Mountains.

We are not disappointed. Beautiful Lake Eklutna is inside Chugach State Park — at about 11km long, it’s a typical elongated glacial lake carved out by a huge glacier which once flowed in this gigantic valley.

The lake is photogenically framed by the Chugach Mountains and glaciers, and you are supposed to be able to spot its famous Twin Peaks somewhere, weather permitting.

The autumn foliage is in full glory, but the trees are pretty much homogeneous, hence the uniformity in colours. I think there are just two types of spruce trees here. Nafis the photographer is loving this.

I still can’t spot the famous Twin Peaks, or maybe is in another direction, or maybe bad weather.

But a glacier can be seen in the distance. The trail along the shore runs for some 16km which should bring trekkers very close to this glacier. Unfortunately we don’t have time for such pleasure.

Eklutna has been inhabited by local Athabascan people from time immemorial, but the first outsiders here were Russian Orthodox missionaries who arrived in the early 1800s. They must have crossed the Bering Strait from eastern Siberia!

But anyway, in the middle of nowhere, next to the lake, there is an ice-cream parlour. This is an American thingy — local ice-creams. Even in the cold freezing Alaskan weather, they still sell them, and people will buy.

The mandatory flag pole for these proud people. Their flags are always in good condition, no dirty or tattered ones.

Interesting slogan, great for ice-cream marketing no doubt.

Ice-creams done, we soon rejoin Route 1 for our journey northwards. We go to the right at this junction.

Route 1 has morphed into Route 3, and we are right inside the Alaskan wilderness. The highway is quiet, the occasional wildlife fleeting before us. We are on the famous Route 3 aka George Parks Highway. Completed in 1972, it’s a very important road in Alaska, connecting Anchorage and Fairbanks. By the way, that sign is in miles, not kilometers.

Everywhere we stop, the ubiquitous bear warnings greet us, with explicit tips too. We have to memorise them!

Parks Highway provides the main access to the iconic Denali National Park, where North America’s highest peak Denali (formerly known as Mt McKinley, 6200m) stands. ‘Denali’ means ‘The Tall One’ in the local Athabascan language, obviously the preferred name by the original people.

We pass by the village of Denali at the junction to Denali National Park HQ — which exists solely to serve visitors to this top nature site. We’ll come this way again tomorrow for our Denali NP visit, but the task now is to find our hotel in Healy, a few kilometres further up the highway.

Well, we stop for a quick early dinner. Obviously I choose salmon, I mean the famous Alaskan salmon fillet.

And Sabariah, a non-salmon person, opts for good old shrimps. She does not know what she’s missing.

A bit of winding road as the final leg to get to the village of Healy for our night stay, a warm comfy room I hope.

Our hotel finally, and reception is an old Alaskan Railroad coach. How quaint.

I notice they have a couple more old coaches on display. The Alaskan Railroad is another icon, about 100 years old, with almost 800km of tracks connecting Seward in the southern coast of Alaska to Fairbanks, via Anchorage. For train buffs, it is a must-ride, so I’m a bit upset for not including it on this trip.

In freezing temperature, a cup of hot coffee is always welcomed, especially if it is gratis.

This is more like a motel, but it looks quite comfortable and well-presented. We are at the very tail end of tourist season, hence the place is a bit deserted, which we like. I can’t imagine how busy it must have been in summer.

Behind our block, the wilderness of Denali beckons, but that has to wait till tomorrow.

What a warm cosy room we have, complete with the obligatory moose and spruce.

It’s dusk, and the temperature falls further to just above freezing. From the verandah of the block, the forest is just a hundred metres away, and I can imagine a grizzly appearing at any time. But alas that is not so, the critter is probably more afraid of us than anything else.

We are almost asleep, when suddenly there is excitement! Our first sighting of the aurora borealis on this trip. Just a faint one, but this is freaking good omen.

~ THE END (09/15) ~


#alaskaseries

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