Ten Perfect Days

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

1999 Family Vacation Guide, Alaska, One Humongous Zoo

Ten Perfect Days

Day 1: After your arrival in Anchorage, settle in downtown at the Copper Whale Inn (877-267-7371), an old-fashioned-looking clapboard house with 15 rooms overlooking the ocean. Kids love the playground at water's edge in nearby Elderberry Park, which has a sandbox they can excavate with diggers that hoist up on pulleys. A large ocean-view room with a private bath at the Copper Whale costs $155; rooms with shared bath are $110; breakfast is included.

Borrow bikes from the inn for a ride on the city's Coastal Trail, starting near Elderberry, or rent better models in the park for $15 per half day, $25 full day. The paved 11-mile trail traces the shore (where you might see beluga whales); passes through tunnels; rounds Westchester Lagoon, full of ducks and geese; and leads into a relatively wild forest, where moose are a common sight.

Day 2: Spend the day in Chugach State Park, a high country that looks similar to the sharp mountains and tundra valleys of Rocky Mountain National Park but is almost twice as large and, despite having several entrances within an hour of downtown Anchorage, still is lightly used. Flattop Mountain (3,550 feet) will challenge preteen climbers with a 1,300-foot elevation gain over 1.5 miles (one way) and a slightly scary bit of rock scrambling at the top. Families with older children can try for The Ramp (5,240 feet), a route of 12.5 miles round-trip with a 3,000-foot gain — much of it on open tundra without a trail. Both routes start at the Glen Alps trailhead and stay above tree line all the way, providing staggering views. Get maps from the Alaska Public Lands Information Center, at Fourth Avenue and F Street in Anchorage (907-271-2737).

Day 3: Drive the Seward Highway 127 miles south of Anchorage to the town of Seward. The road follows mountain cliffs at the edge of Turnagain Arm, where beluga whales chase salmon on the rising tide, and mountain goats and Dall sheep perch on the rocks above the road. There are pull-outs and hiking trails into the mountains all along the drive, but be sure to stop at the Chugach National Forest visitor center, 50 miles from Anchorage, with its nature trails (you can hike to two glaciers), ranger programs, museum, and film on glaciers.

Seward is the jumping-off point for Kenai Fjords National Park. Don't miss Exit Glacier, a 12-mile drive from town. If you have the time, hike the steep four miles up to the vast Harding Icefield, a place of eternal winter (park entrance fee, $5 per car). Right in town, check out the Alaska SeaLife Center (800-224-2525), a major marine biology research lab with impressive exhibits, including tanks in which you can see seabirds such as puffins flapping both in the air and underwater. To make the most of the expensive admission tickets ($12.50 adults, $10 ages 4-16) check on the times of talks and activities for children before you go.

Camp at Miller's Landing (tents, $15 per night; RVs, $20; 907-224-5739), south of town, where a good tide-pooling beach is a short walk from the 50 thickly wooded or shoreside campsites. Guided all-day sea-kayaking excursions leave from the campground ($90 per person, including lunch); you'll paddle along the shore of Resurrection Bay south to Caines Head State Recreation Area to see bald eagles, porpoises, and sea otters.

Day 4: To see the glaciers and mile-deep fjords of Kenai Fjords National Park along with the wildlife that lives there — orcas, humpbacks, gray whales, sea otters, sea lions, and puffins — sign on for an all-day boat ride from Seward. (You can also take a half-day tour, which doesn't go into the park proper. You'll see less scenery but will probably encounter most of the same wildlife, and the boat stays in smoother waters, where kids are less likely to get seasick.) Major Marine Tours (full day, about $100 per person; half day, $64; 907-274-7300) has a park ranger on board every trip and offers seating around tables, where families can deploy coloring books and card games.

Day 5: The route to Valdez is an adventure in itself. From Seward, drive north to Portage and navigate your car onto an Alaska Railroad flatcar. The train passes through a pair of mountains in total darkness that seems to last forever — deliciously scary. At the other end, in Whittier, put your car on the Alaska Marine Highway ferry, another novelty. On the seven-hour ride to Valdez, you'll weave through the dark-green timbered islands of Prince William Sound, passing enormous Columbia Glacier. A Chugach National Forest ranger gives talks and sometimes hands out coloring books, and you can eat in a restaurant on board. The boat runs five days a week, and the fare from Portage to Valdez is $132-$145 per car, $58 for the driver, $70 per adult passenger, and $36 per kid. To reserve the train and boat, call 800-642-0066.

In Valdez, camp at the Blueberry Lake state recreation site ($10 per night; 907-745-3975), 24 miles out of town on a high mountain pass. The 15 bare-bones campsites are sheltered by thin stands of brush on alpine tundra, next to a small lake with rainbow trout and grayling.

Day 6: Today you'll drive 350 miles (allow at least eight hours) through a remote region of rugged mountains and wide, wild vistas to Denali National Park. From Valdez, go north on the Richardson Highway through Keystone Canyon and above tree line in Thompson Pass, where you can stop to admire Worthington Glacier. As you continue north past the town of Glennallen, the road climbs past a series of alpine lakes to the intersection with the Denali Highway.

When you reach Denali National Park, set up camp at Teklanika River Campground, where there are 53 backcountry sites on mile 29 of the park road ($12 per night, three-night minimum; call 907-272-7275 several months ahead to reserve). Although most of the park is closed to private vehicles, you can drive to Teklanika if you agree to leave your car parked for three days.

Day 7: Denali's backcountry has only a few trails, but around Teklanika there are numerous options for experienced hikers armed with a topographic map, compass, and proper gear. Probably the best routes for family hiking are along the braided rivers, including the Teklanika River near the campground, which is flanked by taiga forest and the foothills of the Alaska Range. The melt of the last ice age carved these miles-wide gravel riverbeds, but now relatively small rivers wander back and forth in channels like braids of hair, making the level gravel bars a decent walking path. The Teklanika is a fascinating place for kids to play, with adults at hand to make sure no one falls into the fast, silt-laden water.

Day 8: The shuttle-bus system in Denali National Park defeated the tyranny of the car, and now other parks are trying to replicate the feat. The buses drive a 91-mile gravel road toward Mount McKinley along the spine of the park, letting passengers into the wilderness at any point they choose. Bears, caribou, moose, wolves, and mountain sheep either ignore the buses or investigate them with curiosity. If you're lucky, your ride could turn out to be a wildlife-viewing safari. Go as early in the morning as possible (you can catch the bus from Teklanika Campground), and bring your own food and water (ticket prices are $12.50-$31 per person, depending on destination; half price for ages 13-16; free for ages 12 and under). Get off for a hike and catch a later bus back. Some of the best hiking is in the Igloo Mountain area (mile 33), on the Toklat River (mile 53), in Highway Pass (mile 58), or near the Eielson Visitor Center (mile 66).

Day 9: Today you'll head back to Anchorage, 237 miles south on the George Parks Highway. About 140 miles from Denali's park headquarters, stop off in the quirky gold-rush town of Talkeetna, a community with a sixth-grade sense of humor: It named its summer celebration for turds. Children will like the mid-July Talkeetna Moose Dropping Festival for the kids' games, the parade, and the namesake competitions — a moose-dropping toss and a raffle in which the winner is chosen by bombing a target with moose droppings from the air.

Climbers attempting 20,320-foot Mount McKinley leave from Talkeetna by small plane to the Kahiltna Glacier, at 7,200 feet on the mountain's flank. Visit the mountaineering ranger station in town and the Historic Society Museum to learn about past climbs. If you want to get up on the mountain yourself, K2 Aviation ($225 per person; no discount for kids; reservations required; 800-764-2291) will fly you around the mountain and, before the climbing season ends in mid-July, land you on the Ruth Glacier.

Day 10: If you haven't caught enough salmon yet, you can hook a 40-pound king (also called Chinook) in Ship Creek, right in downtown Anchorage. A booth by the creek rents equipment during Salmon Derby (or try Gary King's on Northern Lights Boulevard; 907-272-5401), and various businesses in town will prepare and ship your catch home. Or rent a canoe at REI (907-272-4565) to take on one of the many lakes in Anchorage. Rentals are $22-$28 a day, including gear to put the canoe on top of your car. At undeveloped Little Campbell Lake, in Kincaid Park (907-343-6397) south of the airport, you'll be surrounded by woods where there are walking and mountain-biking trails. At Goose Lake Park, in midtown Anchorage, you can go canoeing and swimming.

Getting There: The flight from Seattle to Anchorage — the most common route — takes about three-and-a-half hours, and a bargain fare runs about $300 round-trip. Pick up a car at the airport, which, like all aspects of a summer trip to Alaska, you should reserve well ahead (the going rate for an intermediate car is $250-$325 a week). You can also rent an RV in Anchorage for $173-$209 a day (Cruise America, 800-327-7799).

— Charles Wohlforth

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