We went to Alaska last summer for a couple of days, from June 30th to July 4th - I finally got around to writing up the TR.
Fair warning: It's long
Click on any picture to see it in high resolution.Planning and preparing:
The first thing we discovered while planning this trip is that Alaska is incomprehensibly large - there is absolutely no way to 'see it all'. You have to choose a region or two, and leave the rest of the state for a different time. We decided to focus on the Kenai Peninsula, which offered a tremendous variation of activities and sights, without involving crazy amounts of driving time. Even so, we weren't able to see all of the Kenai - even this tiny portion of Alaska is huge.
This map put the sheer size in perspective. The Kenai Peninsula is the little thing sticking out from the mainland in the south (directly above the "A" of Alaska):(Source)
The second thing we discovered was that the weather, no matter the season, is simply nuts. No matter what the forecast calls for, the weather will change in a matter of minutes. Our mindset was that we could expect to be cold and wet during the entire trip; if we weren't, it'll be a bonus. (We ended up with two days of pretty miserable weather and three which were quite nice.)
We also learned very fast that this is tourist country. Prices are insane all over - cars, hotels, activities. Cars especially - unless you book 6-12 months out, you could expect to pay an obscene $100-150/day for a compact, and that's with after status, codes, and all that. Want an SUV? Good luck with that.
Hotels presented a problem for us. Outside of Anchorage and Fairbanks there are hardly any big chains hotels. Everything is a small, private operation. The prices were not that
horrible - they're around what you'd expect in a touristy area during the high season. However, Alaska being the size that it is, it's silly to be based in one spot, since you'd be driving hours every day to get where you want to go. We also hate switching hotels in the middle of a trip, so a different place every night or two was not the answer either.
After puzzling over this issue, and considering the cost of a car, we decided to rent an RV instead. The market there is dominated by one company - Great Alaskan Holidays. There's a Cruise America location there too, but not only were they more expensive, but they were closed on Sunday too. There are a couple of smaller rental places, but I found far too many horror stories online about them.
Even though Great Alaskan Holidays was the most expensive per day, it turned out that after taking into account all the fees the others were tacking on that GAH was actually the cheapest. We got a 25' Winnebago (sleeps 6) for $243 a day. The price included 400 miles (for all 5 days), with unused miles being refunded @ $0.20/mile (we got about $35 back in the end). Even including gas, this was still much cheaper that a car+hotel.
The RV was fantastic. We were able to go where we wanted, when we wanted. Every night we camped somewhere else, so we didn't waste time driving back and forth to the hotel. Tired? Just stop on the side of the road and get into bed for an hour. Hungry? Microwave leftovers from last night's dinner in the middle of nowhere. Covered in dirt and dust after ATVing for 5 hours? Take a shower in the parking lot! The sense of freedom you have is incredible.
This was our first time in one, but we're definitely hooked.
Most activities in Alaska are also quite expensive. While we usually like to do things on our own and shun tours and the like, Alaska is a wild place. Many places are either inaccessible by yourself (such as most glaciers), or unwise without a guide (ATVing in remote grizzly country). There are tons of outfitters available for just about any activity, but they'll cost you dearly. I scoured Groupon for months beforehand and was able to get some really nice discounts. The Alaska Toursaver
coupon book is worth it's weight in gold and paid for itself with the first deal. At 100 bucks it's not cheap, but it saved us far
more than that. Even better, I bought it together with YehudaS who was going two weeks after me, so it was only $50. You could also sometimes find them on ebay, just make sure to see which coupons were already used.
Another thing we were totally unprepared for was the midnight sun. In the summer, the sun hardly sets. Further north the sun doesn't set for weeks at a time, but even south in Anchorage and Seward it never really gets dark. The Sun sets around 11:30 and rises again around 3 - the "night" is really a perpetual twilight, never quite getting dark. We of course knew all this, but we weren't aware of the effect this would have on us. Since it's always light, your body thinks is time to run around non stop. We found ourselves getting exhausted and wondering why, before we figured out that we've been doing stuff for 15 hours straight. It's quite disconcerting to feel like it's 7, but knowing that it's actually 11 at night. It was quite the experience, although waking up on vacation at 2am every night for Maariv was quite annoying
Midnight in Alaska (it didn't get much darker than this):
As far as clothing the trick is to bring layers - there's no real need for specialized clothing during the summer. I also picked up a raincoat and rainpants set in Walmart for $25. The raincoat split after two days, so it was obviously really crappy quality, but it was definitely good enough. Waterproof boots/hiking shoes are vital to keep you warm and happy. We also got these phenomenal rain hats in the general store across from the Seward harbor for $35 a pop - they were worth their weight in gold.Day 1:
Sunday morning we flew United LGA-ORD-ANC. We landed at about 2PM, and caught the shuttle to Great Alaskan Holidays to pick up our RV. The process was painless, if not exactly quick. Before you take the RV, you have to sit through a 45-minute video giong over the systems (water, electric, generator, etc.), as well as learning how to deal with some driving issues unique to RVs (tailswing, leveling, backing up, etc.).
Eventually we were given the keys and did a walk around, with the attendant giving us a complete tour. We spent some time unpacking our stuff and getting settled. Our 25' Winnebago officially slept 6, so there was plenty of room and storage space. In addition to the closets and cabinets in the cabin, there were plenty of large outside compartments to keep our suitcases, lawn chairs, and whatnot.
The largest vehicle I had driven up until that point was a 15-passenger van, so the first couple of minutes driving such a large truck was a challenge, to say the least. It took a few miles for me to get comfortable, but a while longer for my wife to become convinced that we're not going to die just yet and put her tehillim down
We stopped in Walmart in Anchorage to stock up on paper goods, rain gear, and bear spray. The only kosher food I saw was some Sabra hummus; there may have been more, but I wasn't really looking.
As soon as we were done we headed south on the Seward Highway
. This is considered one of the most beautiful and scenic highways in the US. It's only about 125 miles long, but it could take a full day to do it properly; there are countless pullouts and amazing places to stop on the way. We had about 5 hours of full daylight left, so we had to take a bit faster than we had wanted to. The weather was pretty lousy, cloudy and windy most of the time, and raining and cold otherwise, but that didn't diminish the beauty of the road at all.
The highway winds alongside bays, rivers, and lakes. Huge mountain ranges, their snow-capped peaks hidden in the clouds and glaciers hanging precariously on are visible throughout. Every now and then a turnout leads to amazing views. It is absolutely spectacular.
I had a GoPro mounted inside the windshield - here are some of the highway highlights:
Alongside the Turnagain Arm:
Alaska Railroad tracks:
The Chugatch Mountains:
The first night we didn't have any campground reservations, figuring we'll stay in one of the 6 Seward municipal campgrounds on the bay. However, since we got into Seward relatively late, all campgrounds were full, so we camped in their overflow campground (basically a big parking lot). There were no hookups, but the RV had plenty of electricity and water to last the night (and longer). The picture of the "night" sky above was taken from this campground.Day 2:
On Monday we had booked a cruise to Kenai Fjords National Park
with Major Marine. Using the Toursaver book we got 2-for-1 tickets, saving about $160. When we were planning the trip we had to decide if we want to take a cruise out of Seward, or rather out of Whittier (which is a bit further north). After lots of research it seemed that the Whittier cruises focused mostly on glaciers, while the Seward ones saw much more wildlife in addition to the glaciers.
Most of the national park is only accessible by water, and is extremely remote. The six-hour cruise would sail out of Seaward and through Resurrection Bay, into the Gulf of Alaska, round Cape Aialik, and up Aialik Bay to the immense Aialik Glacier. Along the way we'd search for humpback whales, orcas (killer whales), sea otters, and bald eagles, as well as visit sea lion colonies and bird rookeries.
We woke up in the morning to freezing cold and pouring rain - perfect cruise weather
. We bundled up in 3 jackets each, plus raincoats, rainpants, hats, and boots, and headed down to the Major Marine office by the Seward harbor. According to their website they would cancel the cruise in horrible weather, but they claimed that today wan't horrible enough.
Off we sailed...
Supposedly there are gigantic snow-capped mountains all around us... Yeah right
It didn't take us long to start seeing wildlife - and lots of it:
Far-off bald eagle:
Cute little sea otters:"Hey, look! Tourists!""I think it's Something Fishy""Hi!"
Passing Pederson Glacier in the fog:
The weather was getting progressively worse. As we approached the Gulf of Alaska the captain ordered everyone into their seats, and as soon as we headed into open ocean the ship started jumping like a bucking bronco in the high seas. After a few minutes we rounded the cape and headed into the much calmer Aialik Bay.
A while later we approached the absolutely immense Aialik glacier
50-foot icebergs were floating all around:
Every 2-3 minutes, house-sized chunks of ice would break off and fall into the water with deafening noise (it sounded just like thunder):
The size of this glacier is incomprehensible: the face (the wall entering the water) is more than a mile across and over 600 feet tall - imagine a 50-story building stretching halfway across Manhattan
. The chunks breaking off every few minutes are as large as houses - big houses.
The scale really hit me when I was getting frustrated trying to shoot the calving (that's what the ice breaking off is called) - by the time I heard the crash, the event had long ended. It took about 5 seconds passed from when the ice hit the water until I heard the sound. I had thought we were at most a couple hundred feet away from the glacier - turns out that the boat was almost a mile
away from it, and the sound simply had to travel all the way over. That's when I realized how tremendous the thing I was looking at was - from a mile away it still looked like I was right beside it.
The crew lowered a bucket and scooped up some mini icebergs ("bergy bits" they call it in Alaska), and chopped it up and gave it to the kids on board, which was cute.
After hanging around the glacier for a while we turned around and headed back down the bay and around the cape, passing Three Hole Point:
As we headed into the the ocean ocean in the Gulf Of Alaska, the captain got a call that a family or orcas (killer whales) had been spotted not far from where we were. Orcas being somewhat rare around here, we headed straight over. By the time we got there, the weather had reached it's worst point. 70mph winds (!) were driving pouring freezing rain nearly horizontal, and 10-foot seas were tossing the boat violently up and down. Everyone was sitting in the relatively warm cabin trying to keep their lunches down, not exactly being interested in what's going on outside. I was the only person outside, crawling across the upper deck on all fours. One arm was wrapped around a chain for dear life, the other holding a camera and shooting madly
. Luckily a $5k+ camera and lens combination is built to take abuse, as both were deluged with icy water. They continued working just fine, although the viewfinder was completely blocked by water the water that had gotten inside.
All the tour companies cooperate with each other (in fact it was a competitor who called in the orcas in the first place) - as soon as we arrived other boats started showing up too:
After a bit we headed back into Resurrection Bay. This time we went along the other coast as the way out, and headed to an area called the Eldorado Narrows
. 1000-foot cliffs tower above the ocean. Thousands upon thousands of seabirds nest in every tiny crevice, flying back and forth and feeding their chicks. Dozens of sea lion lie lazily on the rocks below, while puffins swim and fish all around them. Every now and then a humpback whale blows a spout of water high in the air. It is truly and amazing (and loud!) spectacle to watch. At this point the weather had turned almost nice - the rain and wind had died down, and the waves relaxed.
We then headed back to Seward. We spent some time in the RV warming up and drying out, then headed towards Lowell Point
, where we were going to camp that night. It's only about 2 miles down the road from Seward, but gosh what a "road". Only a bit wider than one lane, with cliffs on one side and the ocean on the other. More potholes than asphalt, rocks all over, and pouring rain. All this in a huge RV, having to pull over for oncoming traffic, as well as anyone behind me... Oddly enough, I thoroughly enjoyed driving it. Go figure.
That night we camped at Miller's Landing campground. We had a beautiful spot right on the beach, with water and electric hookups.
Whenever an RV is parked for longer than half and hour, it has to be perfectly level, or the refrigeration system could break down. High-end RVs have a self-leveling jack system, but for most regular RVs you have to use leveling blocks. I discovered that night that attempting to level an RV on blocks on a pebbly beach, in the rain, with only inches of clearance to the water hookup post, is no fun at all
To be continued...