North to Alaska–and the Yukon

Have you toured Alaska or the Yukon? From our recent experience this summer we highly recommend it. We were excited about going north to the Land of the Midnight Sun. There to see Denali in all its glory and abundant wildlife. To take a cruise through Glacier Bay. Not to mention traveling to the Yukon–Canada’s far north. The experience turned into one of our most memorable and rewarding vacations. We have gone on many wonderful vacations across America’s National Parks and Monuments, as well as enjoying plenty of state and local attractions as well. What we have never done before is taken a package tour with guides or been on a cruise ship–until this year. Why now? Alaska is bigger than all but 18 sovereign nations and more than twice the size of Texas.  You can go all outdoors–hunting, fishing, hiking, biking, wilderness camping and exploring, glacier viewing or walking. You can do simple sightseeing, museums, shopping, and more. You can take in the sights via boats and ships of all sizes, “flightseeing” via plane or helicopter, on your own via car, RV, etc. There are so many things to see and do and so many ways to go about it that we finally let someone else show us the sights by picking a land/sea tour package. More on the pros and cons of self-directed versus guided touring as we go along. For now, we should note that during the entire land portion of our trip, we were accompanied by a tour guide who kept us informed of daily activities, offered suggestions on restaurants, told us what times our luggage had to be out, etc. She did a fine job of answering questions and more. Also, we’ll add some notes on what you might expect on your trip and alternatives to what we did or how we did it, with links on where to get more information. Here’s one example, with the bracketed information after the summary.

We had exceptional weather, with only a few sprinkles here and there. Most days were in the mid-50s at the low end and as high as 70, although if you were out early enough it could be chillier and the wind could be brisk on occasion. We arrived in Anchorage June 5th and departed from Vancouver on June 18. [Most people visit Alaska from June through August, but depending on whether you are going far north, along the coast known as the Inside Passage or to other areas, you might vacation in May or September and beat the crowds. See the climate information on TravelAlaska.com for weather charts by region. The site has a wealth of other information and will send you a free planning guide.]

We booked our trip on Holland America including a land/sea tour, via a travel agent at AAA. [Holland America is one of six cruise lines operating under the Carnival umbrella, along with Princess, Costa, Cunard and Seabourn] Holland America offered plenty of shore excursions at port stops as well as a number of great activities included in the land portion of the the tour package. (More land excursions are also available but timing is tight given the schedule.) Air travel went through the cruise line, with transfers to and from airports included and providing some protections against flight/ship coordination. Still, as noted below, we arrived in Anchorage the day before the land-based portion of our tour was to start. [If you’re starting first on a cruise, it’s good to arrive a day early and spend a night in a hotel to avoid the risk of missed or cancelled flights that won’t have you boarding your ship before its departure]. So here’s our itinerary.

  • June 5/6–Anchorage. Cool with some rain; an umbrella or hooded, waterproof jacket is something you always want to have handy. With our extra day, we explored the Anchorage Museum, which should not be missed. It includes the Alaska History Gallery, Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center, science exhibits, shop and full-service restaurant. The Visit Anchorage site notes that: “Displays in the Alaska History Gallery delve into Russian era, the gold rush, the Exxon Valdez oil spill and more. The Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center gives visitors a glimpse of the diverse culture of the Alaska Native peoples, while the Imaginarium Discovery Center will ignite the child in everyone with hands-on science exhibits.” Admission is $15, with discounts for seniors/students/military and for children 3-12.  [From Anchorage or points further south you could consider going on a boat tour or flightseeing Kenai Fjords National Park. It’s one of many places you should expect to see Bald Eagles, whales (before you get there, more likely) and other sights. For the boat, allow most of a day and make sure you have a raincoat. For more on the park, go to the NPS website. We didn’t go there this time; maybe we will on another visit.] Here’s one sample of contemporary native Alaskan art on display at the Anchorage museum. Word piece from Anchorage Museum
  • June 7–On to Denali, via the McKinley Explorer, a domed rail car with great food and views of the scenery between Anchorage and the national park. They have a bar in each car with drinks (soft and alcoholic) for purchase on a running tab. The rail line is owned by Holland America’s parent, Carnival; Princess Cruise Lines has its own cars running on this train as well. We left about 9 am and got to the depot near Denali about 5 pm after a brief stop at Talkeetna. [You don’t have to be booked on either Princess or Holland America tours to ride this train, provided space is available. There are other rail systems you can ride to other locations in Alaska; here’s a link to one site about that option].

Riding the McKinley Explorer

  • We arrived at our room at Denali (just outside the park, actually; there are NO lodgings within the park itself–only campgrounds) on a motorcoach after a short trip from the train station.  We stayed two nights at the McKinley Chalet Resort, a subsidiary of Holland America Lines. Our room was in one of several two-story log cabin style buildings with perhaps a dozen rooms. These were within walking or shuttle bus distance to a dining/shopping area. The main lodge is up a steep hill that is best reached (if you’re in one of the outbuildings) via the shuttle. Our room was OK for the two nights we stayed there but be forewarned if you were planning a few days at Denali–the rooms in the chalet cabins don’t have refrigerators, microwaves, WiFi or in our case, even a closet or hooks on the wall to hang things. No doubt the main lodge has more amenities [check TripAdvisor for reviews or the Chalet website for more on what’s there]. Still, they did have a flat screen TV. But you don’t go to a place like this for computer or TV watching, do you? The restaurants were fine and the rooms did have comfortable beds and a decent view. The resort has some of those optional land activities, like a dinner/musical, which we took in on night two. (Not Broadway or even off-Broadway quality, but entertaining in a schmaltzy way). [If you’re going on your own and want to consider other accommodations, the National Park Service (NPS) recommends checking the Denali Chamber of Commerce site. The Denali NPS site, like most NPS sites, has everything you need to know about planning your visit there–what to see, what to do, how to get there, when to visit, etc. Note that while you can get to the park in you private vehicle, you can drive only 15 miles into the park from the north entrance and only as far as the visitor center from the south entrance during the summer months. In the limited spring fall shoulder season you can go as far as 30 miles in (unless you win the right to drive the distance on the annual 4-day road lottery; read the hilarious details on the Denali NPS site). The rest of the way you must ride a concession operated bus(ses); one is the tour bus and the other just takes you through the park and allows you to get on or off along the route and board the next one that comes along]. No rain, but chilly in the AM. You can, if so inclined and with proper permits, climb the mountain. Or you can meet the sled dogs (they have working dogs there), including holding the annual litter of puppies (they need to get used to people).

Young sled dog pups

  • June 8th–we went on the Tundra Wilderness Tour (7 hours or so; reserved by Holland America but available to everyone visiting the park for a fee) on basically a large school bus operated by Aramark–the predominant vendor of food and services at most of America’s national parks. [Here’s a pro for tours, even the NPS concession variety; you will see, hear and learn way more than going your own way–which in Denali means bicycling, hiking or riding the regular NPS bus without the guide. The only con–it really is like a school bus; far from a luxury motorcoach, but you won’t go wrong riding it]. We were fortunate to have a driver with 24 years of experience at the park who could tell us about its history, its flora and fauna, its ecology and more. Don’t count on getting a good view of the mountain that gives the park its name; the guide said most people see only 30% due to clouds–which is what we saw, but we had some sun and no rain. We saw the many snow capped peaks during the ride along the narrow dirt road. We also saw caribou, moose, a nesting gyrfalcon AND a mama grizzly with two cubs–just 150 feet from the road. Here’s mama by herself. Take the tour, you will be glad you did

adult female grizzly bear

  • June 9th–traveled to Fairbanks via motorcoach. [Tour con–you must place your luggage outside your door at a prescribed time for transfer, typically separate from the bus you’re riding on]. Great views along the way. Upon arrival we got lunch at a local restaurant (the dining in Fairbanks is not haut cuisine). After lunch we got on another tour bus (motorcoach quality) for a visit to Gold Dredge 8, an historic site with a monster machine that floated in a pond it kept enlarging as it gobbled dirt at one end and pushed out processed ore from the other end. There we tried our hand at gold panning, learned how miners in the 19th and early 20th century dug 50 feet or more into the permafrost to extract gold-bearing ore (in 50 below zero winter) which they waited to process the following summer. Also saw a segment of the Trans Alaska Pipeline which currently carries an average of about 535,000 barrels of oil per day the 800 miles from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez. It’s about 5 feet in diameter on the outside with lots of insulation; it has 11 pumps along its span to keep the oil moving lest it clog up. Dinner at the Westmark Fairbanks was challenging due to waitresses having some difficulty keeping track of whose orders went in first. The room was tolerable but had no AC and it could have used it. During the night and into the predawn hours we got some rain that made opening the window a bit dicey. We had our first encounter with the Midnight Sun. Sunset at 12:30 AM; sunrise at 3 AM. Room darkening shades are essential this far north.

     

    • June 10th-11th–We took an hour-long flight to Dawson City, Yukon on an aging 737 charter plane on the 10th. [Dawson is in Canada, meaning if you’re not from there, you now need a passport even if you’re from neighboring America. Same goes for flights in and out of Vancouver or driving up the Alcan Highway. Of course if you’re from neither country you’ll need a passport from wherever you do live]. There we landed on a gravel/hard packed dirt runway (have to contend with permafrost; so no paving). Dawson is a quaint little town with a maximum population of 1,900 year round (probably less). All the streets are dirt (same permafrost issue). In the 1890s it was all about mining the Klondike. Today it’s mostly tourism, although there still is gold mining going on. The main street is separated from the Yukon River by a high berm, atop which is a walkway favored by joggers and dog walkers. Some people drive a long way to visit the Yukon, like the guy who drove an old Vanagon all the way from Chile, according to the license plate. We wandered around on our own the first day there, taking in a Highlands Game–including that ever popular “caber toss,” that just happened to going on during our visit. We made time to tour a museum of a local First Nation (in Canada the original inhabitants are not called Native Americans but members of the First Nation) people. The museum is the Dänojà Zho Cultural Centre of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in. It’s another site worth visiting if you’re in the area. There’s also a city museum worth checking out. On the 11th we  took a trip on the Yukon River via a paddlewheeler and later took in the floor show at Diamond Tooth Gertie’s casino. It’s a period-piece show dedicated to the gold rush days. Both activities were part of shore excursions through Holland America but like others, can be purchased by anyone. [Try TripAdvisor, AAA/CAA, Lonely Planet, your travel agent or multiple other sources for more info on things to do here. For Dawson and the rest of the Yukon, you can also look at this site.] We also passed by the Jack London (Call of the Wild, etc.) and Robert Service (The Cremation of Sam McGee, etc.) cabins. Judge for yourself how import tourism is to Dawson by this picture of a hotel from the 1890s. Those are mannequins in the windows. Probably no longer any “women of negotiable affections” in 21st century Dawson. One mystical happening while in Dawson–at lunch and then breakfast we met a woman we knew from Virginia (where we used to live) who we hadn’t seen in 15 years and who now lives in Holland. She was taking a 21-day land/sea tour on the same cruise line but she was heading to Fairbanks. It’s a small world! Maybe you’ll meet someone you know in the Yukon.

    The Flora Dora Hotel from 1890s

    • June 12th–on the road via motorcoach again, this time to Whitehorse. The town is just a tad larger than Dawson but it’s where most of the people in the Yukon live and is now its capital. On the way we stopped at an overlook of the valley that is Tintina Trench–formed by the shifting of tectonic plates. We also got a glimpse of the Five Finger Rapids. For the adventurous and those with non-arthritic joints there is a very long set of steps (too many to count) down to the river from the overlook on the cliff above. The rapids are on the Yukon River, one of the routes for prospectors to travel north from Bennett Lake to Dawson City during the 1898 Klondike Gold Rush. We stopped for lunch at this tiny place along the way called Minto. It’s where all the tour buses stop so if you’re NOT on a tour, you may want to try somewhere else–except there isn’t much along the route. You’re in the Yukon after all! It’s less than 350 miles from Dawson to Whitehorse so if you buy something in Dawson to eat on the way you’ll be OK. We saw only one eatery listed for Carmacks, which is two-thirds of the way to Whitehorse. Maybe there’s something in Stewart Crossing but that’s only one-third of the way. Since we arrived near dinner time and would leave first thing in the morning, we took in no attractions in Whitehorse. Try TripAdvisor for things to do, where to stay and where to eat. All in all, an interesting excursion into a sparsely populated region along Highway 2.
    View of Five Finger Rapids
    credit: Sights and Sites of the Yukon, government website
    • June 13th, AM–We left Whitehorse in the morning headed for Skagway (Alaska) via the motorcoach. Along the way we stopped at the allegedly First Nation village of Carcross. I say allegedly only because it wasn’t so obvious that the proprietors of the shops there were among that group. It’s a nice stop. It seems that we could have got on the White Pass and Yukon Route train for the trip to Skagway; instead, we went on to Fraser. You can take it north from Skagway, including a spur to the port less than a hundred yards from the cruise ship or heading south like we did. It’s a wonderful train ride along the canyons, passes and a couple tunnels that follow, for a time, the Chilkoot Trail [a treacherous route the “Klondike Stampeders” traversed to get to Dawson; the Canadian authorities of the day required the prospectors to move a year’s supply of food and supplies–a TON. Many died on the way, of cholera or other diseases in a tent city at Dawson]. For more on the trail, check out this site or view images and videos at the various museums and information centers in Alaska and the Yukon. The views from the train were magnificent and the ride smooth on the narrow gauge rail. You really should do this rail trip even if you don’t want to go further into the Yukon.

    White Pass & Yukon train ready to round a bend

    • June 13th, midday–arrival in Skagway, Alaska. We explored a bit of the town on our own in the afternoon. Skagway must have more jewelry stores per block than most other small towns, among other retailers, hawking their wares to the 3-5 cruise ships docking at this town of less than a 1,000 people. Still, Skagway has its virtues and it’s far easier to navigate than the larger Ketchikan. Even with a few thousand people per ship, many are onboard dining, shopping or doing other things. After 6 pm the streets are a ghost town as those who were there return for dinner to their respective cruise ships. As many as four of them may be docked there at a time–each with a couple thousand passengers. So Skagway can resemble the midway of a fairgrounds or a big city mall on the weekend. Here’s our ship.

    Holland America's ship, Nieuw Amsterdam at Skagway

    • June 14th–we checked out of our Westmark Hotel room in Skagway and into our room on board Holland America’s Nieuw Amsterdam (WOW, that’s some boat!), got lunch and headed back into town for a “shore excursion.” The ship wouldn’t leave until 8:30 PM so we had a leisurely day to tour those local sights. We took a “shore excursion” to a tiny museum and an interesting bronze sculpture and flower garden as part of our package tour. [In this instance you could easily do this on your own; the “guide” just drove us to the sites and didn’t add much to the process. The museum is interesting but Dawson’s is better and the one in Anchorage way beyond comparison. Still, if you have spare time, you might consider it]. On another shore excursion we caught a performance of “the Dangerous Days of ’98.” The latter chronicled the escapades of William Jefferson “Soapy” Smith whose goons robbed would-be miners on the Chilkoot Trail and whose saloon took much of what remained. It’s worth checking out. Just a little more about the ship. About 1,900 passengers and half as many crew scattered among 11 decks. We were midships on deck 5, the first of the veranda decks, on the starboard side. That means we had a balcony to sit on. Features included a king sized bed, a small sofa, a 32″ TV on the wall, a mini-bar/fridge and closets for the luggage. The ship had a great selection of places to dine and plenty of activities, had we wanted to participate (for those who like cruises that’s important; we weren’t there for that). More on the ship itself–it consumes 85 gallons per mile from its 780,000 gallon tanks and cruised at an average speed of 15 knots from Skagway to Ketchikan and 16.3 from Ketchikan to Vancouver. You can see more about the ship here and one of many reviews here. Here’s one of the bronzes from the sculpture garden.

    Bear catching a salmon

     

    • June 15th–we arrived in Glacier Bay! Cloudy skies but some sun and 71 degrees with a 20 knot breeze. Not bad! Yes, lots of glaciers. With a ship the size of the one we were on, we stayed a couple miles or so from the nearest one. Still, quite a deal. Rangers from the Park Service board the ship while in the bay to provide information on the park and the glaciers. [If you are on your own, you can take anything from a small boat that holds only a few people or a tour vessel that may hold 100-150 people. For the adventurous, you could even kayak into the bay. Find out more about the options and about the Glacier Bay National Park itself here.] Here’s one of the glaciers in the midst of calving (dropping some ice from the front edge into the bay). If you’re going to Alaska, you really should visit Glacier Bay. Be aware that there are no roads or trails that will give you a view of these glaciers; it’s either a boat trip or by flightseeing. For that, here’s links supplied by the NPS to the many operators offering those tours.

    glacier calving

    • June 16th–we traveled to Ketchikan overnight from Glacier Bay, arriving at around 6:30 AM. Unfortunately for us, a Celebrity cruise ship hit one of four berths at the harbor on June 3rd. Thankfully we weren’t on that ship, which encountered 45 mph winds before doing $2-5 million damage to the dock. The ship got a gouge in the hull which welders repaired and it went on its scheduled way the same night. WE, on the other hand, had to go ashore via a tender–those lifeboats you may have seen in the movie where Tom Hanks played Captain Phillips. Three other ships got a berth; we didn’t. Each tender holds 120-140 people so it worked well enough. Once ashore, we took a nice tour of the famous Creek Street and bought some exceptional photography at one of the shop. We later went to Totem Bight State Park where replicas of famous totems have been erected. There is much to see in Ketchikan, but the walking distances can be a bit long. Also, be aware that there are NO roads to Ketchikan. You can get your vehicle there by the state-operated ferry or you can fly in without a vehicle. For more on visiting, try Travel Alaska.com or your favorite tour/destination site. Here’s one of the totems (as you might expect, the wet weather here is not kind to painted wood). BTW: Tlingit is pronounced as if it were spelled Clinckit.

     

    A totem pole

    • June 17th and 18th–We cruised all day on the 17th, sightseeing on land all done. We had to have our luggage outside the door by 12 midnight on the 17th, making for some logistical complications. We arrived early the morning of the 18th in Vancouver for a series of transfers and passages through Canadian customs, American Customs, airport security, etc. The fun was over; back to the world of airport hassles. Complicated just a bit by a cold caught perhaps in Skagway or Ketchikan–meaning ears remaining unclear on descent for the first stop in Phoenix. 

    We probably are not going to become regular cruisers, despite the good food and comfort on the ship. The next one more likely will be a river cruise or a smaller ship (not on the open ocean, of course; the weight and the stabilizers on the bigger cruise ships make for a smoother ride apparently–at least most of the time). 

    If you found this helpful or informative, we welcome your comments. We will be adding some features on past travel experiences as well from time to time. We’ll let you know when they’re coming.

     

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