It was hard to believe that a week had gone by, and this was our last day in Denali National Park with Hector’s “golden pass”. We were out for 13 hours the day before, and Angel and I were pretty tired, but Hector was on a photographers’ adrenaline high.
It was very cloudy so we left just after 6 a.m. Hector really wanted to make the most of this day, and his plan was to “get down low”, closer to the earth as much as possible.
We tried to take all of the scenery in as if we would never be back again. The beautiful fireweed with the mountains as backdrop, the braided rivers, the meadows, the glittering ponds. Continue reading →
The forecast for this morning was for partly sunny weather. Sunny meant that it would be brighter earlier so we set out at 5 a.m., although we wondered if the smoke/haze would still be around. It was not very sunny, but also not hazy, and there were puffy clouds in the sky.
The mountains on Polychrome Pass had some very interesting clouds around them. And the sunrise over the pass was quite pretty. Hector was really pleased with this morning light, and with the variety of days that we had in the park so far.
With the mudslide delay, our previous day was over 14 hours again. We were sleep deprived, but somehow still had lots of energy. So we headed out shortly after 6 a.m. The morning was cloudy, which was forecast, but there was also a strange haze in the air, making it tougher for photography. So this day was presenting Hector with a different type of challenge.
The Teklanika River was still lovely, though, and we got a glimpse of a soft, pretty, smoky sunrise.
There are several opportunities to see Denali, the high one, from the road that runs across Denali National Park and Preserve. As the road rises from forest and woodland habitat in the lowlands to the subalpine meadow and open woodland, the mountain can sometimes be seen just peeking behind a closer mountain range.
Then, as the first two of four passes rise up to and down from the alpine area of low tundra, there are two places that offer a full view of the mountain (when she wants to be seen): Stony Creek and the Eilson Visitor Center.
We set out at 5:00 A.M. in order to catch the beautiful morning light and also to be ahead of the first morning buses. Since we began our drive at mile 29 by the Teklanika River where our campground was located, we had a large head start on the park buses that leave from the visitor center at mile 1. We saw almost no-one early in the mornings, only the very occasional other car (park employees and service vehicles). It was truly special to be the only ones out on the road. Absolute solitude.
We took Angel with us on all of the morning drives, as we never knew how long we were going to be out. National Parks do not allow dogs outside of the roads, visitor centers, turnoffs and other developed areas so it was a bit restrictive but we made it work.
Our second day driving in Denali was full of promise. The forecast was for a clear, sunny day, and we were excited about seeing the mountain for the first time.
That morning we encountered a dense fog as we went over the first pass, Sable Pass. Weather changes quickly in this area so we were a bit concerned about whether Denali was going to be visible.
But fog has a unique beauty. We came across a caribou feeding, silhouetted against the fog. It was a quiet and serene scene and a sweet encounter.
The fog continued as we drove on, covering the landscape. Usually when the “mountain is out” as they say around here, she is first visible up close from the Stony Point overlook.
And there is a dramatic moment when you come over the pass and the giant mountain appears. But alas, when we got to Stony Point all was still white with fog. Rats.
Eight years ago, when we made an all too brief stop at Denali National Park and Preserve, Denali, the mountain never revealed herself to us. That was a sign that we would have to return someday. Returning to Denali was one of the first things we planned for our trip to Alaska this summer. And our experience in the park has been much richer than we ever imagined possible.
To preserve the wilderness in 1972, the 92 mile park road was closed to automobile traffic at mile 15 and a bus shuttle system was instituted. There was much controversy around this but the restriction has remained with some very limited exceptions.
Earlier this year when we planned our stay in Denali, I discovered that professional photographers have an opportunity to enter a lottery for a one-week permit to drive into the restricted area of the park.
Hector entered the photographers’ lottery, and about a month later found out that he won one of the permits. This type of access to the park is extremely rare, and we were flabbergasted and ecstatic.
Denali and the surrounding area were inhabited by Athabascans more than 11,000 years ago. Because of its remoteness, only a few Europeans came to the area; a few prospectors around 1898, climbers who began attempts to climb the mountain in 1903, then game hunters.
Our excitement was building as we headed on to Denali. On our drive here we drove through some funky places – classic Alaska. One was an old hotel that was built in the shape of an Igloo, Igloo City, that has now been abandoned. Its parking lot seems to have been taking over by RVers.
Alaska Day driving day 8 recap:
Road Name: Denali Highway
Road Type: 2-lane
Road Conditions: Generally excellent but with some construction just south of the national park, we lucked out as we did not have to wait long for the pilot cars, but there can be some longer delays
It has been pretty rainy these first few days which we are hoping means that the weather will clear and we will have some sunny days as we enter deeper into the park. We have not yet seen the mountain.
But we have had some great omens: we saw our first caribou since we entered Alaska, and also saw our first bull moose.
And the rain also gave us a gift: a bright, beautiful double rainbow. We stood in awe in the middle of the road for a long time staring at (and photographing) the rainbows, which seemed to last an eternity. Breathtaking.
There is more to come, but we are headed to a campground 29 miles inside the park where there is no cell signal whatsoever. We will be there for seven days and are super excited!
After our fabulous time in Homer, we prepared to drive towards Denali National Park & Preserve. The plan was to resupply in Anchorage and then spend a day in funky Talkeetna along the way. But we almost did not get going as planned, because I had a horrible night with what I believe must have been food poisoning. Hector and I both ate pork chops, and he did not get sick, so I am not sure what did me in.
In any case, I was exhausted by morning, not having slept much. But we decided that I would sleep and Hector would get everything ready and drive to Anchorage. It was the first time that I did not help with setting up for a travel day and I felt terrible about it. But I had stowed a lot of the inside stuff the previous night so it was not too bad for Hector.
So, indeed, I slept while Hector drove. By the late afternoon, I was feeling much better and was able to help out with a couple of chores in Anchorage. We dry camped at Cabelas once again; easy in easy out.
The next day we got a bit of a late start as both of us were pretty tired. But we made it to Talkeetna in the late afternoon. This time we just dry camped in a gravel pullout on the side road that leads to Talkeetna (yes, we are so glamorous sometimes).
Alaska Day driving days 6 and 7 recap:
Homer to Anchorage
Road Name: Sterling Highway to Seward Highway
Road Type: 2-lane
Driving Time: 5:00
Anchorage to Talkeetna
Road Name: Glenn Highway to Parks Highway
Road Type: Mostly 2-lane with some 4-lane sections near Wasilla
Road Conditions: Very good throughout, some construction. This is a very heavily travelled road connecting Anchorage to Fairbanks so it is kept up as far as we have travelled.
“Mommy there’s a whale spouting rainbows”! Overheard from a little girl on a Rainbow Tours boat cruise to Seldovia last week.
We set out on the Rainbow Connection, one of two vessels owned by Rainbow Tours, little did we know these names were an omen for something astounding that would happen later. Our research on weather paid off again, and it was another glorious morning, quite warm even, although at times it got quite breezy on the water.
We heard about this tour from some folks on our last boat tour out of Seward. It is part wildlife tour and part ferry transportation to Seldovia, a town that is across the water from Homer on Kachemak Bay and accessible only by boat or plane. We had heard about Seldovia from our friend Dan.
But the clincher was that both this tour and the ferry to Seldovia accepts dogs. So Angel could come along.
As it turned out, both our friends Karen and Jack had reserved this same date for the tour, and Dan and Amanda joined the boat tour with us as well.
The boat’s first stop was Gull Island, a seabird rookery owned by Seldovia Native Corporation. There we spotted pigeon guillemots, common murres and more horned puffins.
We had great views of Mount Redoubt, an active volcano, and at 10,197 feet, the highest peak in the Aleutian range.
As we reached the Eldredge Passage, we spotted otters. We are always excited to see them. There were quite a few otters, a group of them is called a “raft” of otters.
Camera & Bloody Mary … heaven
Next we spotted some bald eagles and also an eaglet in a nest. Kachemak Bay is not as well known as the Gulf of Alaska for wildlife viewing but this was turning out to be a great wildlife cruise.
One interesting fact we learned from one of the naturalists on board was that the eaglets’ wingspan will be as large as or larger than the adults when they leave the nest at between 9 and 13 weeks old.
As we continued we spotted some more otters, these were mamas with babies. We did not stop so it was tough to capture photos, but we could see that one had a baby that she was carrying face down – usually the babies are face up on top of the mama’s belly. But we could see the pup’s furry back and at one point he turned his head to look at us. The otters are really enchanting.
Next we saw some humpbacks. They were feeding from the nutrient rich top layer of these waters, and so were not diving, simply surfacing for air. I had not expected to see whales on this cruise, so was pretty excited.
Unfortunately, we also found the remains of a dead whale. There have been several dead whales found in the general area around Alaska and scientists are still puzzled as to the cause.
Then we reached our destination, Seldovia, one of the oldest settlements of the Cook Inlet area. Seldovia’s first residents were the Alutiiq about 2,000 years ago then in 1800 Russian settlers arrived and named it “Zaliv Seldevoy” – Herring Bay.
These first settlers came to mine coal, but the town later became a center for fur hunting and trading, and later yet for processing salmon, crab and herring.
Before roads provided better access within Alaska, Seldovia became an important first stop for ships from Seward and other areas in the Cook Inlet. The town built a wooden boardwalk along the waterfront and businesses whose structures were built on stilts grew around the boardwalk. In its heyday, it became known throughout South central Alaska as the boardwalk town.
The Good Friday earthquake of 1964 caused the town to sink four feet, and subsequent floods destroyed most of the boardwalk and structures around it. But its “new old boardwalk” is still a prominent feature in town, after being rebuilt along with new structures on stilts for businesses and residences alongside it.
People come for the day as we did, or to stay at one of its hotels or bed & breakfasts. You can hike, enjoy its beach, shop and eat at one of its shops and restaurants, fish, or kayak.
A popular stop is The Russian Orthodox Church, St. Nicholas, built in 1891. It is still “an active religious facility in the community”, with a visiting priest offering Sunday services and performing baptisms, weddings and funerals.
We had a leisurely lunch by the water – made more leisurely by the restaurant’s being understaffed. But what we enjoyed most was the boardwalk and the colorful structures alongside of it. There are lots of flowers everywhere, and many artsy touches.
Our almost three hours in the town flew by and it was time to return.
And there they were; the otters, one was sleepy and holding a seashell from a recent meal.
As we crossed the bay back towards Homer we spotted several humpback whales, they were on both sides of the boat. Most were not diving nor showing their flukes, but apparently feeding as the ones we had spotted earlier. But one of them, apparently a calf, breached – Amanda I think was the only one who saw it.
And then an amazing thing happened. As we were following along behind a humpback, because of the sun’s position relative to the boat, a rainbow appeared in the whale’s blow! Not once but three times! Something we had never seen before, and frankly I missed it because I was behind others. Hector saw it and captured two of the three.
Nature is so awesome.
This boat trip could not have been any better. The rocking boat lulled Angel to sleep, thankfully. But she also got to walk around the boat a bit and “socialize” and several people commented on what a nice dog she is. In fact, one couple let her sleep under their feet for a while.
One last whale sighting, this one dove and showed its fluke, “waving” good-bye.
Because of all of the wildlife sightings, the tour took more than its scheduled seven hours, but noone complained.
When we arrived back in Homer, we were all happy campers.
We said our good-byes to Jack and Karen, who were leaving that evening, we hope to catch up with them again in Alaska. And we have plans to see Dan and Amanda again down in Seattle.
Our stay in Homer exceeded all expectations, a campsite on a great beach, some rest and relaxation, good friends and socializing, and a beautiful cruise on the water.
Homer is a popular spot on the Kenai Peninsula, and we had heard very good things about it. But frankly we did not know very much and had no specific plans prior to arriving there. But we did know we wanted to try to stay on the Homer spit. A long skinny peninsula where the town’s boat harbor and many tourist activities are centered.
We drove over to Homer on the Sterling Highway, a beautiful road that we had driven earlier in our travels. The Kenai River, super popular for fishing, runs alongside part of the road. There are a number of towns along the way, including Ninilchik, where we made a brief stop at the Transfiguration of our Lord Church, a Russian Orthodox church founded in 1846. The church and its cemetery are quite picturesque and are one of many examples of Russia’s historical influence on Alaska.
Alaska Day driving day 5 recap:
Road Name: Seward Highway (a short section) to Sterling Highway
Road Type: 2-lane
Road Conditions: Seward Highway is generally good, Sterling Highway is good but quite narrow for a bit after Cooper Landing, including a mercifully not too long windy section with no shoulder and a guardrail on both sides where a motorhome like ours barely fit with another large vehicle on the oncoming lane.
Miles Today: 173
Driving Time: 4:15
Total Miles in Alaska: 1228
Total Miles since entering Canada: 3222
The road ends at Homer. Beyond Homer lies more of the roadless Kenai Peninsula, Kodiak Island and the Aleutian Archipelago. Alaska is both our westernmost and easternmost state. How can that be? The end of the Aleutian chain lies over the international dateline. And just north of Homer on the Sterling Highway is the westernmost section of paved road in the entire USA.
The rain that began on the afternoon of our last cruise intensified and continued for two more days. During those days, we moved from our inland campground to the water. The ocean is my favorite place in the whole world and with a view framed by snow-capped mountains, it is beautiful rain or shine. And we extended our stay in Seward so we could see more of Kenai Fjords National Park.
We stayed in the Resurrection South RV Parking section of the Waterfront Campground (City of Seward). Read my review of the campground here.