Alaska by land: It’s worth the trip

Jane and Marvin Bond

What we’ll probably remember most about Alaska is the color. 

That’s a pretty bold statement about a state that encompasses nearly 600,000 square miles and includes both glaciers and the tallest peak in North America. But our fall trip up north revealed a bouquet of colors, some of which you can only see in this season.

A nearly cloudless sky during our flight along the coastline to Anchorage provided a panorama of pristine white snow on mountaintops and the distinctive white snakelike path of glaciers approaching the sea. A night on an upper floor of the Captain Cook Hotel revealed the blinking lights of “rush hour” in the state’s largest city and a pinkish sunrise over the mountains ringing the city to the east.

Our tour guide for the land portion of our trip entertained us with Alaskan facts and lore as our coach headed inland along one of the state’s few highways. The summer greens began to mix with bright golden hues as aspen and birch trees girded themselves with distinctive colors rarely found in our experience. The farther north we went, the more the landscape turned to gold and orange, dotted with the green of the skinny spruce trees that survive the cold and dark of the Alaskan winter.

Hurricane Gulch blew us away with an explosion of color set against a tumbling river and snow-capped mountains. Our goal for the night was the Mt. McKinley Lodge operated by Princess Cruises, but our first stop was Talkeetna, a small village that was the inspiration for the television series Northern Exposure. From Talkeetna you can take a plane ride to see Denali’s twin peaks if the weather is good enough, explore the river, or even mount an expedition to climb the mountain. 

With rain closing in, we settled for a halibut sandwich and a beer at the Denali Brewing Company before heading out to Sundowner Sled Dogs, where we learned about preparing a team for the famous Iditarod race from a longtime participant. 

Insider tip: There are several sled dog experiences available in different parts of Alaska, but a highlight is always cuddling new pups, important in developing the socialization traits the dogs need along the Iditarod route — and always a hit with visitors.

Talkeetna’s quirkiness is exemplified by Stubbs, the cat who served as the longtime honorary mayor. When we visited, Stubbs had recently died, but his passing was noted nationally in publications such as People.

During two days at the Mt. McKinley Lodge, drizzle and clouds prevented us from seeing the famous mountain, but the huge viewing windows still afforded a visual feast of the initial color change and the deep greens of the Canada and Sitka spruce. It was on our first night at the lodge that we experienced another Alaska phenomenon, one of the 100 or so earthquakes that shake things up in the state each year. No damage; just another part of daily life in the far north.

Insider tip: Besides a full-time tour director, a curated tour like ours provides insights into the numerous excursion opportunities, ranging from hiking, zip lines, and ATV adventures to visits to an actual homestead, river trips, and sport fishing. 

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Reaching Denali

Traveling still father northward we noticed fall foliage changing almost before our eyes and more snow cover in higher elevations. The spindly spruce grew sparser in places as we approached the Denali Lodge, also operated by Princess. Located just outside Denali National Park, the facility’s multiple buildings house a total of 500 guests and are backed by a slate gray river and the ever-present sharp mountain peaks.

One goal here is to venture into the 6 million-acre park on one of the park’s bus tours (no private vehicles are normally allowed) with an eye to spotting wildlife and the elusive twin peaks of Denali itself, which was known as Mt. McKinley until 2015. We were blessed with a crystal clear morning and, as our tan bus rumbled along the park’s only road, the mighty mountain appeared on our left with a bluish tint that separated it from the other scenery.

Elena, our driver/guide in the park, excitedly explained that, because of the rainy summer, only about 10 percent of visitors had actually seen the mountain this season, and proclaimed us among the lucky few. 

Our luck held for about four hours as we drove 30 miles into the park, rising through the taiga where many of the Sitka or Canada spruce trees, nicknamed “drunken spruce,” grow at odd angles because their roots can’t penetrate the permafrost layer. Rising still higher above the tree line we entered the treeless tundra, where low ground cover added a red or yellow hue to the brown earth and bare gray rock.

Still, around many switchbacks, we could clearly see Denali miles in the distance. We crossed braided rivers carved by glaciers in such a way that their multiple channels would never be filled bank to bank. Retracing the route and descending to Inspiration Pont, we met Cheyanne, who explained the principles by which her native tribe lived and the sacred significance of the site to them. 

The large outcropping of rock offered amazing unobstructed views of North America’s tallest mountain, but gathering clouds began covering one of Denali’s peaks, reminding us how lucky we had been that morning. Those clouds forced cancellation of planned flights to view the mountain, but activities like local hikes and a rafting trip provided other options.

The second goal of a stay at the Denali Lodge is seeing the Northern Lights. A 1:15am phone call from our tour director alerted us to the possibility of a viewing on our first night and we were rewarded with a brief show along the river walk. However, the second night provided two extensive performances of the dancing electrons in green and blue and red. In one instance, the colors formed a ring over our heads, an almost religious experience in the cold dark night.

On our sixth day, we boarded Princess Cruises’ special double-decked viewing cars on the Alaska Railroad for the nine-hour trip to the coast. Along the way, the brilliant golds and oranges turned to mottled green as we gazed in wonder at the mountain scenery through our glass-topped rail cars. The onboard staff provided excellent meals and beverage service throughout the trip. 

At last, the train entered a long dark tunnel, emerging into mist on the dock at Whittier. Our cruise ship Star Princess loomed large above us, waiting to carry us on the next portion of our journey in this colorful land.

For more information:

Princess Alaska Tours: www.princess.com/landandsea

About the lodges

Princess operates five lodges in Alaska: Kenai and Copper River in the south, Mt. McKinley and Denali in the interior, and Fairbanks in the north. Denali is the largest, but all have comfortable accommodations, restaurants, bars, opportunities for hikes and local Alaskan experiences, and other amenities. You can book land-only trips at princesslodges.com.

Mt. McKinley Lodge offers a paid shuttle to Talkeetna. Denali Lodge offers a paid shuttle to the park’s visitor center.

While Wi-Fi is available, the networks have the same name but different passwords. If you travel between lodges you may need to get your computer to forget the earlier network before connecting to the new one.

 

 

 

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