Alaska: On the Bucket List – Glaciers, Denali, and Bears, Oh My! Did Someone Say Fishing?
Part 1 of 4 in our Alaska Series – Bringing Alaska to You
With all the travel bans, I know that many of you are missing your trips to Alaska this summer. Whether it was going to be your first visit or you come every year, it’s still a bummer. We’re just as sad as you are – we love meeting people from across the globe who come to check out our awesome state. I thought it would be fun to take a minute and share a little bit of Alaska with you, since you can’t come to us. I’ve put together a guide as well so you can remain with us from afar. It will come out in four parts – this week is part one. We have some classic Alaskan adventures which are on everyone’s bucket list: glaciers, Denali, bears and fishing. I’ve included some of my favorites from each of these categories for all ages and ability levels to (hopefully) get you excited to reschedule your visit for 2021!
The Magnificent Melting Giants: Glaciers
One of the coolest things (pun intended) to see in Alaska, in my opinion, is a glacier. To be completely honest, if I wasn’t running a soap shop, I’d be spending my days studying their icy, jagged curves. I tried to compile a few facts and tips to help you choose the glacier adventure that’s right for you – I apologize in advance if the little glacier nerd inside of me takes over.
Within a few hours of Anchorage we have some great opportunities to see glaciers up close and personal – Matanuska, Portage and Exit Glaciers are all doable as day trips from the city if you have a vehicle. Matanuska has a special place in my heart. There are 4 mountain ranges which touch this glacier, giving its’ silt a unique, nutrient-rich blend – the reason why we use this silt in our Glacier Glow Soap! The glacier is 26 miles long and 3 miles wide at its widest point. You can see the glacier from the highway (there is a pullout at mile 101 – it makes a fantastic photo) but if you’d like a closer look, drive one more mile and take a bumpy dirt road to a homestead and visit Bill at Matanuska Glacier Park. They do charge a small fee, but you can walk on the glacier by yourself or organize a tour to explore the deeper depths of Matanuska. My favorite time to visit this area is in the fall. As you drive to the glacier, you follow the winding Matanuska River and the colors of autumn against the grey glacial rocks is breathtaking.
Portage Glacier is a little more accessible – you can drive right up to the visitor’s center which has information about the glacier and the surrounding area. The glacier used to touch the lake below and was visible from the visitor’s center when I was growing up, but over the years it has receded into the mountain. I used to love listening to the glacier calve (when the giant pieces of ice break off and splash into the glacial lake below) as a kid, but now you need to take a boat tour to really be able to see the glacier. A five-minute drive from the visitor’s center, there is also a short hike to Byron Glacier if you have the time. This glacier is what’s called a cascading glacier, as it “waterfalls” down the mountainside. Due to the angle of the glacier and avalanche danger, be sure not to get too close.
Another glacier with lots of touring options is Exit Glacier, about 20 miles outside of Seward and part of Kenai Fjords National Park. This glacier flows from the Harding Ice Field, which is 700 square miles of ancient ice. As you drive down the road to Exit Glacier, there are signs marking where the glacier used to be years ago. Most of my friends have childhood pictures in front of the glacier and it’s amazing to see the change, even just over my lifetime. It’s a little over a mile hike, round-trip, to the glacier overlook from the visitor’s center. For the more adventurous traveler, I highly recommend the hike up to Harding Ice Field – it’s just under 10 miles round-trip – it’s a great but challenging day hike. You will walk along Exit Glacier until you reach the Ice Field. There is ice as far as the eye can see with tiny mountain tops peaking up from the ice. The expanse is nothing short of impressive. If you’d rather have a guide there are many companies within Seward that offer touring services.
Of course, there are plenty of glaciers spread throughout the state and you can find many other options, wherever your trip takes you. If you pass through Juneau, one of their most famous glaciers is Mendenhall. Our friends at Gastineau Guiding Company have awesome guided trips via boat and foot to explore the glacier. Or, if you’re looking for something a little more off-the-beaten-path, Worthington Glacier at milepost 28.7 on the Richardson Highway comes highly recommended. You can see it from the road or you can visit via a State Recreation Area – a quick and easy walk will take you to the foot of the glacier.
I Know You Can Bear-ly Contain Your Excitement About Bears
While we know seeing a bear is at the top of most Alaskan bucket lists, Alaskans generally try not to see them. Bears are a pretty common sight throughout Alaska, and Anchorage is no exception. This spring, my parents found a hungry bear who had just woken up from his winter nap destroy their bird feeder and look in the window, as if to say “Seeds? That’s all you’ve got?” The dogs, trapped in the house and acting very tough, were quite displeased.
Though they’re cute and fuzzy, bears are no joke. Whenever you’re hiking, be sure your group has bear spray. April through October, I don’t step onto a trail without it…even if I’m just hiking on trails in town. Practicing bear safety and being “bear aware” is important, too. Make sure to keep all food in a bear box if you’re camping and always be aware of your surroundings…especially if you’re by a stream during salmon season.
That being said, I really hope you get to see some bears while you’re here – they are really magnificent creatures. One of the safest ways to see bears (and other Alaskan animals) while supporting wildlife conservation is at the Alaskan Wildlife Conservation Center, which rescues orphaned and injured animals from Central Alaska. It’s about an hour south of Anchorage and is an excellent stop for all of your bear and Alaskan animal needs.
One of the best places to see bears is in Katmai National Park. The iconic Brooks Falls is full of salmon and it is basically an all-you-can-eat buffet for a hungry bear and a few hundred of his closest friends. Getting here is a bit of a challenge – there are no roads, so travelers must take a guided plane trip to see this memorable feast. There are several tour operators who offer trips at various price points.
Another popular option (which we’ll discuss more in the next section) is a visit to Denali National Park. While the park is definitely worth a visit for many reasons, there is a population of bears that roam wild throughout the park. There is no guarantee they’ll be out and about on the day of your adventure, but there are plenty of other exciting animals as well – you might see a caribou or a wolf instead. Check with the National Park Office to get recommendations from park rangers on the best times and places.
Denali – The Great One
If you’re part of the 30% Club (the people who actually get to see this majestic mountain) – welcome. Many come here, but few actually get to see the highest peak in North America. On a clear day, it can be seen all the way from Anchorage, as well as on the drive up to the park and of course the park itself (mile 9 on the Denali Park Road is the closest). Each place you view it from, it takes on a new look. Words cannot describe this stunning sight that appears out of nowhere on the horizon.
Inside the park, the road is closed to private vehicles at mile 15. If you’d like to get a little more up-close and personal with The Great One, the park offers several bus tours that travel up and down various lengths of the 92-mile road. The busses will also drop you off at your campsite (make sure you make a reservation and get a camping permit ahead of time) or take you to other destinations throughout the park. There are several great hikes within the park and in the surrounding area, especially near Healy. Don’t forget your bear spray and be sure to be Bear Aware! A well-known trail in the area is K’esugi Ridge, with lots of “bailout” options so you can make your camping trip as long or short as you would like.
If you’re running low on time, swing by Talkeetna for some potential Denali views and quaint, small-town charm. They’ve got excellent food and brews, so come hungry (you might even be lucky enough to meet a climber who is about to ascend, or who just came back down look for the very burnt nose). For awesome deck views of the Alaska Range and Denali itself, The Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge has a superb deck and stunning views. Or – just walk through town towards the Susitna River to catch a glimpse of this world wonder.
The Slippery Suckers Everyone Wants to Catch: Salmon
Fishing is one of three pillars of the Alaskan economy, so it’s no surprise that people base their Alaskan vacations around catching one (or many) of these special fish. There are five species of Alaskan salmon: King (Chinook), Red (Sockeye), Silver (Coho), Pink (Humpy) and Dog (Keta). When you visit and where you go will determine the type of salmon that is available to catch.
The Kenai Peninsula is probably one of the most famous places to go fishing in Alaska. The iconic Kenai River is turquoise blue and 82 miles long, and is home to many types of salmon throughout the summer. There are tons of guided trips, and also tons of options to do it yourself and choose your own adventure. Because it is one of the most popular places, it can sometimes get a little packed, and locals frequently refer to fishing on the Kenai as “Combat Fishing” due to the close proximity to others. I would highly recommend a guided trip for a more personal experience on the river. Two companies that are small in size but have fantastic guides and will surely help you find the fish you are looking for are: D Ray Personal Guide Service and Kenai Drift Anglers. You can’t go wrong with either one.
If you’re looking for something bigger than a salmon, you should check out Homer. They are the Alaskan capital for guided deep-sea fishing trips, specifically trips in search of halibut. In addition, you’ll see the Homer Spit on the drive into town, which is a really unique geographical feature on Alaska’s coast. There are so many different options of tours along the Spit, you’re sure to find the perfect match for you. Some of our favorites include: The Fish Connection, O’Fish’ial Charters and Captain Mike’s Charters.
Another must-visit Alaskan fishing town is Seward. A two-hour drive from Anchorage, it’s full of salmon, halibut, and everything in between. Seward is one of my favorite places – it’s a home away from home for me and my family. Not only is Seward a world-class fishing destination, but it is teeming with all kinds of marine life – whales, seabirds, sea lions and otters are common. There are plenty of nearby adventures as well, so you’re sure to delight the entire family with a visit to Seward, even if fishing is all that is on your list.
Finally, catch some famous Copper River Reds in the silty waters of the Copper River. Many debates have started on whether these are the most delicious fish in all of Alaska – I’ll keep my opinion quiet and let you decide for yourself. Most Copper River adventures are a little more remote and will take you to small towns which are and aren’t on the road system – so getting in and out can be a little more expensive. Cordova (off the road system) is right on the Copper River Delta and Chitna (on the road system) sits at the junction of the Copper River and the Chitna River. Both offer excellent options in fishing, and will definitely get you out in the wilderness and off the beaten path.
We hope you have enjoyed Part 1 of our Alaska Series: Bringing Alaska to you. We love talking about Alaska, so if you have any questions about what we’ve written, please feel free to reach out. We want everyone who comes here to enjoy this place as much as we do.
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