On our last trip to Alaska we cruised the Inside Passage and Glacier Bay but had not explored Alaska's vast interior. On this visit, my husband, Dave, and I wanted to see wildlife and photograph Mount Denali, America's highest peak. Escorted tours did not offer enough freedom, so we hired a rental car for drives to Seward, Valdez, Denali and Kennicott. We also made reservations for Camp Denali and Brooks Glacier Lodge. These extremely popular, remote lodges require three- or seven-day packages with advance reservations.
The early Alaskan light had us up early on our first day, in Anchorage. After a delicious breakfast at Summerset B&B we drove south. The Seward Highway is a Top 10 American Byway. Leaving Anchorage, the road follows the Turnagain Arm of the Cook Inlet, where beluga whales can be seen from shore. We stopped to view Dall sheep on the rocks beside the road. The road parallels the scenic Alaska Railroad, which is an alternative to the drive.
On our drive to Valdez, the Alaska Pipeline was glimpsed often through the pink fireweed along the road. The Richardson Highway is Alaska's oldest inland route to the gold fields. When you think the scenery can't get any more spectacular, Worthington Glacier looms into view. Glaciers don't get much closer or better than this. The parking area and visitor center allows easy walking or wheelchair access to get on the glacier.
Prince William Sound is the terminus of the Alaska Pipeline. Exhibits explain permafrost and the engineering required to complete the pipeline. In a land of beautiful vistas, Valdez was breathtaking. Perhaps this is why the world was so stunned by the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989. From Valdez harbor there are whale-watching trips to Columbia Glacier and sportfishing charters.
Kennicott Glacier Lodge
We had reservations at Kennicott, the copper mining community abandoned by J.P. Morgan in 1939. The mine closed and the company town was evacuated in two days, leaving the mine building intact. Kennicott is located inside the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. The size of six Yellowstones, this is the United States' largest park. The Wrangell Mountain Range has so many major peaks, still snow-capped in summer, that you stop trying to figure out their individual names and just enjoy the view. Kennicott is as much fun to get to as it is to visit. You leave the Richardson Highway at the ghost town of Chitnia and follow the McCarthy Road over the old Copper River and Northwestern Railway bed. You can see the ties across the road in places and feel them in others.
A slow speed and two spare tires are recommended, as old railroad spikes sometimes work their way to the surface. You should allow four hours for the 60-mile drive. This road is not covered in a rental car contract. Oversized RV's should think twice about attempting this narrow winding route, especially at the heart-stopping, narrow one-lane former railroad bridge 300 feet above the Kuskulana River. The road ends at the Kennicott River. A 200-foot long footbridge is the only way over the river in the summer. On the McCarthy side a van from the Kennicott Glacier Lodge brings you to the Kennicott National Historic Site.
The abandoned mine site is shared by the National Park Service and private individuals. The lodge has large rooms with shared baths and family style meals. Being on site allows you to experience Root Glacier, Kennicott glacial field and the mine buildings in the best photographic light. From the lodge it is a short hike to the active Root glacier, and guides provide tours of the well-preserved mine buildings. Tourists can roam all over the site. The unofficial campsite has no facilities but campers may use lodge facilities.
Mount Denali is generally shrouded in mist and people on one-day tours often do not experience the grandeur of North America's tallest mountain. We planned three full days at Camp Denali, which is past Wonder Lake and shares the Denali Park Border. I was glad we did because on day three of our stay, the views of the mountain from our cabin were magnificent.
No private cars are allowed in Denali. RV campers may drive to the campground and must stay parked. Cars must park at the entrance and tours are given by the National Park Service, in a school bus. All photos must be taken from the bus. The oldest concession in the park, Camp Denali is allowed to drive its guests throughout the park for photography and hiking. We were there when fall was turning the foliage purple and gold and the blueberries were ripe. Grizzlies were down from high pastures and there were no biting insects.
The cabins have wood stoves and propane lanterns. Each outhouse is equipped with a book of Far Side cartoons. There is a large dining hall and bathhouse with electricity and modern facilities close to the cabins. I did keep looking for grizzlies, as the blueberries were ripe, but the only visitor was a moose on the pond by our cabin. The camp also operates a full service motel just down the hill that has modern baths in each room. Camp Denali offers three different guided programs daily. I was able to go on a van ride with another photographer to look for grizzlies and caribou. Dave hiked to Camp Denali's Moose Creek and caught Arctic grayling.
Katmai National Park
To get to Katmai National Park you first fly to King Salmon on the Katmai Peninsula and then take a float plane or boat. Katmai National Park is the size of Massachusetts and has the largest concentration of brown bears in North America. We stayed at Brooks Lodge, where a famous photo of a salmon jumping into a waiting bear's mouth was taken at Brooks Falls. Hundreds of photographers, waiting on the bear-safe platforms in 30 minute shifts, try to reproduce that photo every July.
In August it is harder to spot bears, but they are still feeding on dying salmon in the lakes and rivers. Upon alighting from the float plane, we were immediately led to park headquarters to view a bear safety video and cautioned never to approach any bear closer than 50 yards. A federal fine and banishment from the park will occur if park rangers observe you close to a brown bear.
We managed to break the 50 yard rule. I was on a bear-safe platform watching Dave fish and suddenly noticed a bear on the other side of my platform, about 30 feet away from Dave. I called to Dave to get out of the water and move onto the platform through the closest gate. The bear was already standing in the exact spot where Dave had been fishing before he had the gate to the platform latched behind him.
Later, I was on the beach to photograph fresh bear foot prints. A huge brown bear walked out of the campground trail not 40 feet from me. As he walked purposefully toward me, I did all the things learned from the park service video. I waved my arms, shouted and walked backward away from the bear. As he advanced, I zigged toward the bordering treeline and made a backward scramble up a slope near the dining hall. The bear was momentarily distract by people farther up the beach. As I stood on the dining hall porch, with others that came from the beach for safety, the bear walked unconcernedly past. I was too shaken to take a photo. The bears do not understand the 50 yard rule.
There are more than 30 park rangers assigned to Brooks during the season and to their credit, there has never been a death by a bear in the Brooks Lodge area. Brooks Lodge works with the National Park Service to provide facilities and guides for anglers, bear photographers, hikers and campers. Each cabin with bath and shower sleeps four and provides an alternative to the campsite just down the bear trail. Meals are served in the dining hall and no food is allowed outside any building or in the campground. Campers store food in a special cache area. Anglers cannot carry snacks in their pack and even their bait is artificial. It is an offense to set down and walk away from a backpack. A metal bear-inhibiting food container is given to backcountry campers.
Katmai is a national park because of Mount Novarupta volcano. In 1912 Mount Novarupta volcano erupted spewing ash and lava 600 feet deep over 50 square miles. The eruption was heard and seen 800 miles away. In 1916 Robert Griggs of the National Geographic Society was sent to explore the area and saw hot gas escaping through thousands of holes. He dubbed this area the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes and pressed congress for preservation. A flight over the valley was impressive, with unbelievable color and starkness. A National Park Service van trip to the valley allowed us to hike into the area and see the moonlike landscape and devastation compared the surrounding forested area.
As the float plane took us back toward Anchorage, we knew that we would return again and again to Alaska. There is so much more to experience in this incredibly beautiful state.