Autumn of 2015, and we embark 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 is the very scenic 400km leg from Anchorage (1) to Denali National Park (2).
A fine cold autumn morning in Anchorage and we have just arrived from Philadelphia (via Seattle) past midnight, a long trans-continental flight. A budget inn close to the airport and car rental depot is 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.
We duly pick up our rental SUV, a Kia Sorento 3.3 V6 petrol, quite a mean machine and very comfortable too, especially for five people on a cross-country drive. Love the number plate!
With just 3682 miles on the meter, this puppy is virtually brand new. Great start.
We deftly maneuver out of downtown Anchorage and fantastic autumn foliage suddenly surrounds us. 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.
I still can’t spot the famous Twin Peaks, or maybe is in another direction.
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 was 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 cold freezing Alaskan weather.
The mandatory flag pole for these proud people. Their flags are always in good condition, no dirty or tattered ones.
Not really a fan of ice cream in cold weather, I just sit to enjoy the ambience.
Ice cream done, we soon rejoin Route 1 for our journey northwards.
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.
Parks Highway provides the main access to 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 township 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 visit, but the task now is find our hotel in Healy, a few kilometres further up the highway.
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 connection Seward in southern 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 desolate. I can’t imagine how busy it must have been in summer.
Behind our hotel 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. From the verandah of the block, the forest is just a hundred metres away, and I imagine a grizzly appearing at any time. But alas that is not so, the critter is more afraid of us than us of them.
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.
(This is Part 1 of the Alaska series, please CLICK HERE for Part 2.)