Seward is a small, picturesque city on Resurrection Bay at the base of Marathon Mountain at yet another Alaskan road’s end. It’s totally surrounded by tall, steep mountains wearing a shawl of glaciers that make up Kenai Fjords National Park. Seward is predominantly a commercial fishing town, also a destination and embarkation point for tourists in the summer. It’s the northern terminus of many cruise ship lines as well as the southern terminus (aka Mile 0) of the Seward Highway to Anchorage, the Alaska Railroad to Fairbanks, and the original Iditarod dog sled trail to Nome. Heavily damaged by the 1964 earthquake, the rail yards and fish processing plants directly on the bay were not rebuilt where they’d stood; the land was instead converted to parks with hundreds of campsites, enabling travelers to soak in the views and get to the mountains.
We left Whittier to drive straight through the Kenai Mountains and across the Kenai River Valley to get to Salmonfest on time, which allowed none of our usual poking around to see what there is to see. No worries, though. There’s but one road through central western Kenai Peninsula, and we knew we’d have to drive back that way, so poking around could wait for the return trip.
So we poked our way up the Kenai River. The Kenai River captures the glacial meltwater from the Kenai Mountains in eastern Kenai Peninsula, creating the screaming bright aquamarine colored Kenai Lake. From the lake, the river meanders through lowland lakes and forests which evolve to predominantly flat wetlands, enroute to Cook Inlet and the Pacific Ocean.
D’oh! No, not that Homer – Homer, AK. It’s a small town in a stunning location at the road’s end on the west side of the Kenai Peninsula. It’s situated where the Kachemak Bay empties into Cook Inlet, feeling cozy and protected by the Kenai Mountains interspersed with glaciers to the south and east, and the Alaska Range with its four towering volcanoes to the west. A key geological feature of the town is the Homer Spit, a terminal moraine left by the glacier that filled and carved out the Kachemak Bay 15,000 years ago. The Spit is a long, narrow, natural gravel bar that sticks out 4.5 miles into bay, now dotted with campsites and shops and people fishing.
Après Salmonfest, we needed a chill day. Nonstop music and activity, rock-star hours – we were tired! After the last day of the festival, we decided to drive a whole 20 minutes south from Ninilchik to Anchor Point. This town boasts a campground at the beach and, significantly, the beach is the westernmost point in North America that you can drive to via highway. Cool!
In August 1969, almost exactly fifty years ago, three days of music, peace & love in upstate New York defined a generation and became a legend against which every future music festival would be judged. For us, the Woodstock anniversary thus brings significance to our stay in the tiny Cook Inlet town of Ninilchik, site of the annual Salmonfest music festival – “three days of fish, love & music at the cosmic center of the salmonverse.”
We went to Whittier, AK for only one reason – and a really good one. Stan and Cyndee‘s daughter Carolyn and her husband Jay named their son Whit. As the story goes, the couple first met in Whittier and thought it was one of the prettiest places they’d ever seen. Wouldn’t you check it out, too?
Knowing how much Carolyn and Jay love to hike, we knew better than to just drive into town. We planned to hike the town’s signature trail – Portage Pass.
Chugach State Park is the third largest State Park in the country. It features 6000-foot peaks within sight of sea level. And it’s right outside Anchorage, where the population is 300,000 fortunate souls. Although there are access points to hiking trails and other recreation opportunities all around the park perimeter, including within the Anchorage city limits, there are three main access areas to explore – Eklutna Lake, Eagle River and Girdwood and we’d been given suggestions for great hikes in all three.
We made some good decisions, and we were lucky. What remained for us to explore in Alaska was the the Kenai Peninsula and Chugach Mountains south and east of Anchorage and a small area north of there that includes Denali State Park. The forecast for north of Anchorage was slightly better, so we headed that way.
Denali National Park protects the wilderness area around Denali, at 20,308 feet, the tallest mountain in North America. The smaller Denali State Park is just south of the National Park. There are three major attractions within the State Park – the Parks Highway with strategically situated view points, campgrounds and trailheads, the wide, braided, glacial Chulitna River, and the 37-mile long, open K’esugi Ridge – boasting views of Denali* from all three.
*But only on rare, clear days. We had two of them!
Have you ever heard of Hatcher Pass? Neither had we. It’s the old (and only) mining road in the Talkeetna Mountains which are between the bigger and more well-known Alaska Range to the north and the Chugach Range to the south. It’s become a secret backcountry recreation area for outdoor enthusiasts of all kinds. Helen and Mike and Nick and JS thought we’d love it. Reason enough to head that way.
Valdez is a commercial fishing and shipping port with a history that is both colorful and tragic. It’s also a fun town to visit in a stunning location.
Recall that Mount Saint Elias, at 18,009 feet the second highest peak in the US, is only 10 miles from the ocean’s edge as the eagle flies (yes, we confirmed that this is the expression to use in Alaska). That means our relatively short drive to Valdez would cross yet another mountain range – the Chugach Mountains, the tallest, steepest mountains we’ve seen yet – before dropping into the city. Valdez is near the end of a narrow arm of the Prince William Sound where glacial rivers dropping down from tall, steep, glaciated mountains on 3-1/2 sides of the city turn the water a distinctive aquamarine color.