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Glaciers, Whales, and Country Inns
The relatively undiscovered village of Gustavus, at the north end of southeast Alaska's Inside Passage and accessible only by ferry or aircraft, makes a good base for exploring one of the richest wild areas in Alaska. Gustavus is so quiet you often feel as if you're the only visitor, but the headquarters of Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, one of Alaska's most visited attractions, lies just ten miles down the road.
In Glacier Bay, a 65-mile-long set of fjords, you'll find a few short hiking trails and a campground at the park headquarters. The outfitter Alaska Discovery offers sea-kayaking day trips ($119 per person; ten percent discount under age 18; minimum age 12; 800-586-1911). Its eight-day paddle into the park proper ($1,890 per person; ten percent off under age 18) is only for fit older teens and adults. To get to the many immense glaciers and the whales and other wildlife deep in the bay, take the park concessionaire's tour boat ($150, half price for kids 12 and under; 800-451-5952).
There's at least as much to do in and around Gustavus itself. Icy Strait, just south of Gustavus off Point Adolphus, is one of the most reliable places in Alaska to see humpback whales and to catch halibut ranging into the hundreds of pounds. You can charter a small boat with any of several local skippers (around $200 per person, slightly less without the fishing). Or, take the daily excursion boat, the Auk Nu, run by the park concessionaire (three-hour cruise, $78 per person), which also functions as the passenger ferry linking Gustavus to Juneau ($85 round-trip). Kayakers obviously can get closest of all to the whales; Alaska Discovery leads a three-day kayaking trip off Point Adolphus from a base camp for $550 per person (there's a ten-percent discount for kids under 18).
There are four country inns in Gustavus, and a number of cabin rentals and B&Bs. The Gustavus Inn ( $135 per adult, half price under age 12, all meals included; 800-649-5220), an old farmhouse, has bicycles for guests to use, and makes arrangements for sea kayaking, whale-watching, and fishing. Puffin's Bed and Breakfast offers simply furnished one-room cabins with baths ($85 per night for two; $20 each additional person; $10 kids 2 to 11; 907-697-2260).
Hiking the Kenai Peninsula
There are several excellent multi-day hikes suitable for families in the spectacular virgin country of the Chugach National Forest. The most famous of these hikes is the Resurrection Pass Trail, a 39-mile National Recreation Trail linking the villages of Hope and Cooper Landing that takes three to five days for good hikers. It's also suitable for mountain biking and horseback riding after July 1.
The starting point is four miles south of Hope, a tiny seaside town of white clapboard Gold Rush buildings and so few people that Polaroids of all the residents are posted on the wall of the bar. The trail climbs from here through coastal forest into the Chugach Mountains.
At about the halfway mark along the hike you reach the pass, well above treeline in a valley of alpine tundra and wildflowers. On the downhill stretch to Cooper Landing, a series of three lovely fish-filled lakes nestle in the mountains' shoulders, and there are four Forest Service cabins available to rent ($25 per night plus a $8.25 reservation fee; call 800-280-2267). Along the way you have an excellent chance of seeing plenty of wildlife–moose, bear, wolves, Dall sheep, and mountain goats.
The riverside sportfishing town of Cooper Landing has many good places to stay, ranging from rustic cabins to motel rooms to a luxury hotel operated by Princess Cruise Lines. Take a float trip down the Kenai River with a company such as Alaska Wildland Adventures (day trips, $95; ages 7 to 11, $55; 800-334-8730). This is among some of the best places in Alaska for king and red salmon fishing.
A Trip through the Klondike
The Klondike Gold Rush of 1896-97 was the ultimate adventure travel tour. You can visit the towns the stampeders left behind and the wilderness they crossed, all essentially unchanged; along the way stop to hike, canoe, bike, and sea kayak. But don't go unless your kids can handle long hauls; the trip can take as long as 12 days and cover 1,200 miles, with drives covering up to 240 miles in a single day.
The route goes from the port of Skagway over White Pass into the Yukon Territory to Dawson City, the site of the Klondike strike in 1896. Then the loop continues west, back into Alaska and back to the ocean in Haines.
Fly by way of Juneau or take the Alaska Marine Highway ferry to Skagway, where the National Park Service has preserved the historic Gold Rush district. Here you can ride the spectacular narrow-gauge railway built over White Pass around 1900 (adults, $75; 12 and under, half price; call 800-343-7373).
The Wind Valley Lodge (983-2236) is a good standard motel; the Golden North Hotel is a wonderfully funky old place little changed in a hundred years (983-2294); both places charge about $75 for a double room.
From Skagway, drive along the Klondike Highway to Dawson City, 426 miles north. (Avis in Skagway charges about $50 per day/$349 per week for a midsize car; call 800-331-1212.) There are a number of Yukon Territory campgrounds all along the route; a good stop is Tatchun Creek, about halfway, just north of the town of Carmacks, for a day hike down to Five Fingers Rapids on the Yukon River. Plan to spend two full days seeing the historic sights in Dawson City. During the Gold Rush, this was the second-largest city on the West Coast, after San Francisco. Dawson City also is a good place to start a float trip on the Yukon, Klondike, or Stewart rivers. A provincial campground is located just across the Yukon from town (you can take the free ferry). The Triple J Hotel has rooms (doubles, $85-$115; 403-993-5323) and cabins ($107) right in town.
The gravel Top of the World Highway leads west from Dawson City back to the U.S., traversing treeless mountain peaks. Back on the U.S. side, 79 miles from Dawson City, the road meets the gravel Taylor Highway in the Fortymile country, which to this day remains a wild haven for small-time gold miners. There also are two BLM campgrounds (883-5121) near two of the put-ins for the Fortymile River.
A detour north on the Taylor leads 65 miles to the village of Eagle, a Gold Rush town with five museums but fewer than 200 residents. Getting there takes several hours over dirt roads, 144 miles from Dawson City, but it's worth it to see the wonderful historic buildings. There's a comfortable motel, a cafe, a campground, and a visitor center (547-2233).
From Eagle, you've got about 600 miles to cover to get back to Haines. It's best to do it in three stages: Stop at one of the inexpensive motels or camp out in Tok (173 miles), then stop again at Canada's awe-inspiring Kluane Lake, another 242 miles.
The final stop, Haines (207 miles), is a charming and offbeat seaside town with some of Alaska's best wilderness guides and territory for sea kayaking, rafting, mountain biking, hiking, and climbing. Call the visitor center at 800-458-3579 for referrals. Haines also is the center of Tlingit Native culture. The Halsingland Hotel (doubles, $49-$89; 766-2000), part of an Army fort built at the turn of the century, is a fun, creaky old place to stay.
In Haines, you're back on the ferry system, just 12 miles from Skagway by water. If you rented a car in Skagway, you can drop it off here for a $100 charge or take it back to Skagway yourself on the ferry for $25.
You can get away from the road system in a marine wilderness rich with wildlife across from Homer in Kachemak Bay, which is south of Anchorage on the Kenai Peninsula. Any of the several tiny communities makes a good base, or you can link them together in a backcountry journey, as follows.
Passenger ferries, excursion boats, and water taxis crisscross the bay daily in the summer. Rainbow Tours (235-7272) will take you to Seldovia for $40 round-trip, $25 for ages 12 and under. On the way you'll see otters, eagles, puffins, probably seals, and maybe even whales. Seldovia is a good place to bike on miles of deserted roads, fish for salmon or halibut, hike, or just wander around.
You can get breakfast at The Buzz coffee shop and take the daily van to Jakolof Bay, the only place connected to Seldovia by road. Jakolof Bay makes Seldovia look like a metropolis, but there are a couple of places to stay here. Call Marcia or Tom at the Jakolof Ferry Service for information about cabin rentals ($50-$70; 235-2376).
The Buzz (234-7479) also rents mountain bikes ($20 a day) to ride the old logging roads into the countryside. A good route is the Rocky River Road, which threads 20 miles through the mountains across the tip of the Kenai Peninsula to the remote fjords.
Three outfits guide sea-kayaking trips through Kachemak Bay. True North Kayak Adventures (235-0708) offers all-day guided paddles for $125 per person as well as multiday trips (ask about discounts for parties of four or more). Trips, at the same phone number, is a custom adventure-travel booking service in Homer that can take care of all the details of a Kachemak Bay journey.
The Jakolof Ferry Service can take you back to Homer or to Halibut Cove, a town Dr. Seuss could have invented, with no roads, and docks and boardwalks serving as sidewalks. The town's biggest business is fine art. With fewer than a hundred year-round residents, there are 14 professional artists and three galleries.
Most people come to Halibut Cove on a day trip from Homer aboard the Danny J passenger ferry (235-7847) to eat at the Saltry, an exceptional seafood restaurant. But you could stay overnight at the lovely Quiet Place Lodge, whose five one-room cabins sit on pilings above the floating post office ($150 per person, half price for kids 6 to 12; under six free, all meals included; 296-2212). The lodge also can help you arrange for kayak and boat rentals, or you can go hiking on the 25-mile network of trails in Kachemak Bay State Park. It would be easy to spend an entire summer here, but, eventually you'll have to catch a boat back to reality.
Alaska Wildland Adventures (800-334-8730) offers eight trips this summer (most for kids 12 and older), including a Ten-day Explorer Safari for $3,295 per person. But one trip caters to families with children ages 6 through 11: The Family Safari includes a float trip on the Kenai River and a look at an Iditarod champion's racing kennel, and finishes with two nights at Denali Backcountry Lodge near Mount McKinley. The seven-day trip costs $3,795 for adults and $3,495 for kids, not including airfare to Anchorage.
Nature Expeditions International (800-869-0639) leads a 9- to 15-day trip that covers more of Alaska; you'll go to Glacier Bay, Barlett Cove, and Kenai and Denali national parks, among other places. Recommended for ages ten and up, the trips costs $2,690 for nine days, $3,790 for 15 days, not including airfare.
Alaska Discovery (800-586-1911) takes children as young as 12 on some of its three- to 12-day Southeast Alaska sea kayaking trips ($495-$2,600; ten percent off for kids under 18 and groups of four or more).