By car (Auburn to Seattle). By train (Seattle to Vancouver). By boat (Vancouver to Seward). By RV (Seward to Anchorage). By train (Anchorage to Denali). By bus (Denali to Wonder Lake and back). By train (Denali to Anchorage). By plane (Anchorage to Auburn). The scenery in Alaska is like nothing else as you stare up at incredible peaks lost in the clouds where you can see fresh snow dusting the mountains. From where you stand, you are knee-deep in the greenest ferns surrounded by a temperate rain forest. Parts reminded me of Lake Tahoe or Colorado but so many areas are like places you’ve seen in pictures but never actually been. I was surprised at how much of it is like a rain forest surrounded by towering, snow-capped mountains. We would pass the shores and visits the towns and just admire the beauty of the land. But there is no doubt that when you are in this part of the world, you are far from the rest of the world. So much of it is incredible to see yet so much of it is void of human existence. That’s a summary of our Alaska adventure. Toss in a 2 ½ year old surrounded by a ship full of senior citizens and you can see the other part of the picture.
I had been working some long days the weeks leading up to our vacation and I paid the price the first 5 days of the trip. Plus, registering for the Auburn Triathlon or “World’s Toughest Half” the day before the event with minimal training didn’t help the immune system. After coding up to the minute we needed to leave on Friday, I ran over and picked up our rental car for the drive to Seattle. We left home around 6 PM on Friday and drove to Medford, Oregon where we stopped for the night around midnight. Saturday we drove the rest of the way to Seattle, dropped the car off at the airport and then took a shuttle to the hotel in Renton. By this time I was coughing and feverish so we decided to skip going downtown and I just stayed in bed. Not a good sign for the first day of vacation.
However, one of the unexpected things that happened on the drive to Seattle, was Dylan started telling us when we needed to stop the car so he could use the bathroom. It was like a switch flipped in his brain and from that point forward he started using the bathroom without us pestering him to sit on the toilet for long periods of time until one of us cracked under the pressure. Plus, now that he is now sleeping through the night means you have some happy parents.
Seattle to Vancouver, BC
One of the highlights of the trip was the train ride from Seattle to Vancouver, BC. For under $30 each, we bought tickets for the Amtrak Cascades route. This was a perfect way to travel from Seattle to Vancouver. Our train left around 8 AM from the station right next to Qwest Field. The train followed the coast for much of the way up to Vancouver. Along the way we had great views of Puget Sound and had a front row seat to watch some bald eagles flying along the coast. Dylan chatted the entire 4 hours with the passengers sitting around us and was on a first name basis with many of the passengers in the car.
We had been to Vancouver once before when Nicole and I drove up the coast probably 11 years ago. So when we got off the train, we dropped our luggage off at the ship and then had a couple of hours to walk along downtown and the Sea Wall before our ship, The Statendam, left Vancouver at 5 PM. We both enjoyed the lively and active Vancouver atmosphere. People were out playing music in the Gaslight District. A lot of folks just strolled up and down the tree-lined sidewalks. The city had bike and running paths both in downtown and along the waterfront. As we walked along the Sea Wall, we would watch one sea plane after another take off from the bay. If it wasn’t for all the rain, it would be a fun place to live for a while.
We sailed from Vancouver and spent the entire next day at sea, working our way up to Ketchikan. We’ve been on a few cruises and have always had an inside, windowless room but Holland America really surprised us with the size of our inside room. The room had enough space for a couch so the 3 of us had a little extra room for bedtime pillow fights.
We got off the boat in Ketchikan with no plans. We asked one of the locals about places to see and he recommended Creek Street (a part of town built entirely on stilts) and the Salmon Fish Hatchery. So after 2 hours, we had seen most of Ketchikan and still had a few hours left. Another local recommended taking a city bus to Totem Bight State Park about 30 minutes outside of town. For $1 each way, we were able to see a lot more of the area and saw some of the most amazing totem poles.
The next morning we arrived in Juneau. Again we had no plans when we got off the ship in Juneau. The skies were pretty clear and we were going to visit some of the museums in town when we saw a number of booths selling bus rides to Mendenhall Glacier for $7. Nicole had heard that Mendenhall Glacier was a “must see” stop so we decided to buy tickets. What a find! The bus driver gave an entertaining narrative bus ride out to the park. We spent a few hours walking along the shores of the lake and taking lots of pictures. The park is free and has a 5 story waterfall to which you can hike. There are also lots of sights with the glacier, waterfalls, icebergs and wildlife. One highlight was Nicole noticing a beaver and the 3 of us watching him build his dam for about 20 minutes. If you go to Juneau, make sure to visit this park.
We when got back to town, it was time for Dylan’s nap so I took this opportunity to do a little trail running and ran up the Mount Roberts trail to the top of the tram. It was only about a 2.5 mile run to the top but it took me 30 minutes. It seems so many of the trees in Alaska have their roots above ground so trail running can require a little more focus. They say you can ride the tram down since they don’t check tickets at the top but I decided to run back down just as it started to rain.
In the afternoon, Nicole and Dylan took the tram and then we walked through downtown and past the capital and the governor’s house. Some Alaskans have tried to move the capital out of Juneau but many fear the city will be ruined if they lose the capital.
In keeping with the theme, we had no plans when we got off the boat in Skagway. The town is tiny with only a few hundred people living there in the winter months. We heard one of the only things to do is the train ride to White Pass Summit and so we thought the train sounded new and different. Let’s do that. It was a 3 hour train ride where we followed one of the original routes towards the Yukon. The ride went up for the first 90 minutes, then we flipped our seat around and the engine connected to the other end of the cars and we went right back down the same way. As we sat there looking out at some fairly harsh terrain, we started to realize just how difficult the conditions many of those people had to endure when chasing their dreams of striking it rich during the gold rush.
After Skagway, we cruised all night and by the next morning we were floating into Glacier Bay. Here we saw a number of whales and even spotted a bear roaming the shore. Also, lots of icebergs floating in the water, some rather large and often drifting only feet from the ship. I had to wonder what size iceberg sunk the Titanic and if we were in any danger. When we reached one of the largest glaciers, the ship turned off all the engines and we just floated a few hundred yards from the glacier and could hear the sounds of the ice cracking and huge chunks of ice falling into the ocean. Then it was off to College Fjords before the cruised reached its final destination in Seward, AK.
My brother Scott and his wife and their 4 kids picked us up in Seward in an RV and took us to Anchorage, where they live. We stopped for lunch at Kenai Lake and spent some time hanging out at their place. The drive from Seward to Anchorage couldn’t have been better. Blue skies with puffs of white clouds. Green valleys with snowy peaks.
One of the things about Alaska in June is that at 11 PM, the sun is still out and it feels like 6 PM and time to go out for a little run. So I headed out to Earthquake Park along Northern Lights Road and then ran along the Coastal Trail to Kincaid Park and then back to the hotel. What I thought would be about an 8 mile run somehow turned into a 17 mile midnight moose encounter.
I didn’t make it back to the hotel until almost 1 AM, just as it was starting to get dark. Trying to sleep meant all the curtains had to be shut tight so we would think it wasn’t late afternoon. With the sun still out, it felt like there was more time left in the day. You are walking around and you feel like it is around 7 PM and look at your watch and realize it is 10:30 PM. That can’t be right. But it is. It’s 10:30 PM and people are out walking, kids are riding their bikes. I wonder if there is just a natural case of insomnia in the summer. It might be a good idea if you need to dedicate a lot of time and focus to a project for a few months, work out of a hotel in Alaska and you could probably put in some very long days. Just make sure to pack that mosquito repellent.
The next morning, Scott picked us up and dropped us off at the downtown train depot and we took the Denali Star, about a 7 hour train ride to Denali. We opted to book the train on our own instead of with the cruise ship. This was a good call. Not only was it less money but the cruise ship cars were packed while the Alaskan Railroad cars had lots of extra room and we could go up to the viewing deck as often as we wanted. Other than incredible scenery and wildlife, there’s not much in Denali besides some hotels, a general store, some supply stores and some restaurants. If you go, try to bring some food with you.
In Denali, we got up early on Tuesday and joined a bus full of other adventure seekers and took the Wonder Lake 12 hour bus ride provided by Denali National Park. We spent most of the day, from 6:45 AM until almost 7 PM, riding a converted green school bus 65 miles into the park on a gravel road that took us to Wonder Lake, one of the best spots to see Mt. McKinley on a good day. On average, you can see the mountain only 1 in 3 days. Unfortunately, the clouds and rain didn’t help us on this day but we did see a lot of wildlife throughout the day. If you see something, you just shout out: “STOP! Bear at 3 o’clock.” Hopefully, it’s not just a big brown bush moving in the wind. We saw bears, caribou, Dall sheep, coyotes, a wolf, foxes, rabbits. Dylan handled the bus ride perfectly and again made lots of new friends on the bus. The very friendly couple sitting behind and heading to the North Pole after Denali promised to send Dylan a postcard from Santa when they get there.
The next day meant one final 7 hour train ride back to Anchorage, spending the evening with Scott and his family before catching a red-eye home and then a full day at work.
If you still have a few minutes, put some popcorn in the microwave, sit back and take a journey to Alaska with my slide show of some of the pictures from our trip.