This is a recap of 8 amazing days spent exploring Alaska. I traveled to Anchorage and other parts of Alaska with 6 college friends from May 28 — June 4, 2022, on a trip that turned out to be one of the most memorable weeks of my life.
Day 1 — Travel Day
3 of us flew from SFO to Anchorage on a ~5-hour direct flight, picked up one of the rental cars from Hertz, and made our way to the hotel. We grabbed a pizza dinner at Moose’s Tooth Pub & Pizzeria (a restaurant with 7.8K+glowing Google Reviews!) after a 1+ hour wait which was well worth it and stuffed ourselves with tasty pizzas. The New York and Boston crew arrived later past midnight after picking up the second car, and we ate leftover pizza takeout and heard about their rocky layovers on the long journey to Anchorage.
Day 2 — Drive to Denali
After we all got some rest, we grabbed some coffee at Black Cup and drove about an hour to meet a friend of a friend named Dylan, a graduate student and outdoor education teacher in a town called Palmer. We got some lovely and super refreshing acai bowls at The Fern, and started to hear about her recommendations and tips for encountering bears and other wildlife in Denali.
We also did a massive grocery run at Fred Meyers for pasta, sandwich ingredients, breakfast fixings, and road snacks before driving 3 hours north to our Airbnb in Denali. Once we go to the beautiful cabin, we made a pasta dinner and started to soak in the beauty of the snowy capped mountains, abundant trees, and vast expanse of land around us.
After dinner, a couple of us decided to drive to a viewpoint nearby and maybe do a small hike. One thing led to another (including the question “how down are we to go to the North Pole?!” verbatim), and the next thing I knew, we were about 2 hours north in a town known as the North Pole, exploring Safeway and McDonalds for snacks! It was midnight by this point, and we had a 2-hour drive ahead of us back to the Airbnb. The North Pole is such a cute town since all the street lights have candy cane themes light posts, and there are a ton of Christmas-y themed things everywhere. We also stopped by the town’s gift shop, and the Santa Claus statue (the largest in the world, at 42 feet tall and 900 pounds in weight!). It requires 3, 5, and 10 gallons respectively of black, white, and red paint to give it even coloring.
One of the most unique things about summer in Alaska is the excessive amount of sunlight (22 hours). For that reason, we weren’t concerned about coming back before it got dark out, because well, it never really got dark. The drive back to the Airbnb from the North Pole was such a pretty and scenic drive, with a pink and purple streaked sky providing an artistic backlight to the horizon. By this point, we were so tired it felt some sort of fever dream where the car was driving back on its own. I’m not going to tell you that I sped, but somehow I managed to turn what would have been a 2.5-hour journey back into an hour and 45-minute one. We made our way back to the cabin and promptly passed out.
Day 3 — Flight Tour in Denali
The next day, we had booked an exciting flightseeing tour departing from a town called Talkeetna, through the Denali mountain range through a small plane. Our pilot, Connor, gave us a thorough safety briefing and a large amount of background information about the aircraft we’d be flying in, to help make us more comfortable. Our group and 3 other visitors would fly in a 10-seater “de Havilland Beaver” flight, a high-winged aircraft with nonretractable hydraulic wheel-skis for versatile landings. This exact plane (and other similar aircrafts) were built in 1958 and used in World War II and the Vietnam War since they are so reliable. In fact, they are still actively used by the U.S. military.
Alaska is so vast that only ~20% of the state is easily accessible by car, which is why so many people opt to take flight or bus tours around the glaciers, ocean, wildlife, and mountains to experience nature in different ways. Flightseeing is quite common, and about one in every 10 Alaskan residents is a licensed pilot. To provide some perspective, Denali National Park and Preserve encompasses 6 million acres of land, which is larger than the entire state of Massachusetts. Alaska as a whole is about two-thirds the size of the continental United States.
We ascended into the sky and cruised around 5 to 6 thousand above the forest and mountain foothills, as we encroached the peaks. Connor took the plane all around the various mountains and peaks, getting as close as 30–40 feet to the mountains. Flying through a mountain range like that is something I’ve never had the opportunity to do before so it felt like a real privilege. There’s no feeling like it, to be sandwiched in between beautiful, endless snowy peaks on all sides of you, as you try to soak it all in. We descended into a glacier valley onto a soft bed of snow, walked around, and took pictures of the view.
After spending 20 minutes walking around the glacier, we made our way back onto the plane and glided around the mountain peaks for a few more minutes before heading back to the K2 Aviation center.
We got a quick lunch at Shirley’s Burger Barn (as recommended by Connor) after the flight tour, drove back to our Airbnb, and relaxed for a couple of hours. After this, we drove to the Horseshoe Lake trail in Denali National Park and took a small hike down to the lake and beaver dam. This was extremely beautiful since we were physically walking through the forest and trees. The expansive lake and trees in the surroundings were so peaceful and quiet. We also spotted the first moose of the trip, snacking on some plants only about 40–50 feet away.
Day 4 — Wildlife bus tour in Denali with Bill
We then took a 5-hour bus tour through much of Denali National Park with Bill, our seasoned tour guide. This was a lot of fun, and we got to see so many cute moose, caribou, fluffy white Dall sheep at the top of mountains, and even a grizzly bear walking through a stream. We also learned a lot about the wolf population in Denali vs. that of Yellowstone National Park, and some of the grim history of how humans have long hunted wolves in both parks to the point of only having fewer than 100 left. Wolves are exquisite creatures who bring in about ~500–650K in dollar revenue per single wolf, which means they should be highly valued and respected. Wolves are also extremely beneficial for these kinds of forest-y ecosystems since they prey on injured or sick members of their prey, essentially eliminating weaker members and promoting healthier, stronger ecosystems.
<insert brief Ted Talk on Denali National Park history and National Parks in general>
Denali National Park was signed into law in 1980 by President Jimmy Carter. Most of Denali is actually only accessible by tour buses run by the Park rangers since it reduces roadside disturbances and enables people to better view wildlife in their habitats. More than half a million visitors travel to Denali every year to experience the park, wildlife, glaciers, mountains, etc. That being said, there will always be a good economic argument to overcrowd an experience until we redefine what a good economy is.
As the number of visitors grows, it’s important to preserve the environment and “leave no trace”, leaving ecosystems in better conditions than the ones we found them in. In my opinion, instituting National Parks is one of the United States’ best decisions, since it demonstrates a tremendous amount of respect for our natural surroundings. Our government invests time and money into preserving these landscapes, creating research and environmental education opportunities, and offering experiences that bring people from all walks of life together to appreciate nature in an intimate way.
Day 5 — Drive from Denali to Anchorage
This was a big driving day since we had to drive 4+ hours back from Denali to Anchorage. We had a lazy morning and slept in a bit more compared to other days, had a quick breakfast of leftovers and avocado toast, cleaned up the Airbnb, and packed up. We left around 11 in the morning and drove 2 hours south to Talkeetna for lunch at Denali Brewpub including burgers, curly fries, vegan nachos, and some tasty drinks. After this, we roamed around Talkeetna a bit, hopped in and out of stores, and bought some souvenirs. We continued the drive down to our Airbnb just outside of Anchorage and had a relaxing night.
Day 6 — Seward boat tour in Kenai Fjords National Park
We drove 2 hours south of Anchorage to a small town on the waterfront called Seward. This drive was so picturesque that we joked that it felt like we were driving inside a Poland Springs water bottle wrapper. It was a peaceful, curvy drive along the coast with a snowy mountainous backdrop on multiple sides, and the ocean expanse with forests filling in the gaps.
At Seward, we grabbed a quick coffee and boarded our boat. Taking boat tours is so much fun, we got to see many Pacific humpback whales, black killer whales (which are actually part of the dolphin family), a sea otter, and a couple of puffins. The tour stopped at Fox Island for a quick lunch, after which we skipped a few rocks into the ocean and headed back onto the boat.
We made friends with a school teacher named Elizabeth on the boat, and a couple celebrating their honeymoon on an RV trip through Alaska. :) The boat ride wrapped up after speeding by some glaciers and icebergs, and many more killer whales. The crew ended the trip with a fun surprise of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies.
Day 7 — Chill day in Anchorage
We got a tasty brunch at Snow City Cafe in downtown Anchorage and took a trip to Lake Eklutna which was a couple of hours' drive away. This lake was beautiful and we even saw a couple of loons swimming in the water.
We grabbed some food and filled gas in the cars on the journey back, and had takeout from Moose’s tooth for dinner, followed by a few hours of relaxing in our Airbnb hot tub while admiring the pink and purple sky.
Day 8 — Alaska Botanical Gardens and travel day
With a few hours to kill before our flights back to our respective home locations, we spent a couple of hours visiting the Alaska Botanical Gardens in the morning. After this, we picked up a quick soup & bread lunch at Fire Island Rustic Bakeshop before returning our rental cars at the airport and flying back home.
Alaska is one of the most beautiful states I’ve been fortunate to visit. I had little to no preconceived notions about what it would be like, aside from expecting it to be snowy and mountainous. It completely blew away my expectations and I would love to have the opportunity to spend more time there, maybe even during a colder month to see it in a snowier environment. It was so much fun to travel with a large group of friends and experience Alaska in a very road-trippy way.
Having spent close to 8 days there, I felt pretty well acquainted with various towns and parts of the geography. Across both cars combined, we covered a total of ~3200+ miles driven, (with about 500+ unique miles of Southcentral Alaska if you measure from the North Pole all the way down to Seward).
Thank you for reading and letting me share a sliver of this Alaskan experience with you. :’)