The border formalities to enter Alaska between Dawson City, Canada, and Chicken, USA, went smooth. It was the first time customs asked me whether I am importing Bear Bangers. That are devices which make a heck of a noise to chase bears away.
Soon after the border crossing I reached Chicken. A little town which is well known by gold diggers or those who are following the TV series Gold Rush. There is not much to do in Chicken and therefore the journey continued in heavy rain fall on the Top of the World Highway towards Tok. After a meal in the only decent restaurant in town the camp was set during rain fall on the campground in short distance from the restaurant. During the night the rain stopped and the day greeted again with blue skies.
The weather was made for a perfect ride to Delta Junction where I camped direct at one of the lakes around the town. Apart from me there was nobody not even an army of Mosquitos. Around Delta Junction and then on the way to Paxon there are good views onto the Trans Alaska Pipeline which transports the crude oil from Prudhoe Bay to the port of Valdez.
In Paxon I left the paved highway #4 and entered the Denali Highway #8. Although the weather was quite nice the deep hanging clouds over the Alaska Range did not allow for a good view onto Mount Hayes (13832 ft) and Mount Deborah (12267 ft). However, frequent wildlife sightings made up for the missing landscape views.
Denali National Park
The Denali Highway ends in Cantwell where I turned North for the Denali National Park. The Denali NP is the protected habitat for Grizzly Bears, Wolves, Caribous, Moos and other wildlife. Other than in other US national parks there is only one road going in and out of the national park and only the first 20miles are open for private vehicles. If you want to visit the park you must book a bus. The busses stop at certain bus stops and make intermediate stops when wildlife is spotted. That sounds great in the brochure, however, the busses are running on a schedule with only a little buffer time between their regular bus stops. Therefore a grizzly bear or caribou sighting might end in a less than 60sec stop to meet the timetable. For me that was very disappointing and the park authorities should reconsider their approach to collect as much money as possible from tourists while transporting as many of them possible into the park. Hence the holiday season had started all campgrounds accessible by private car and those in the national park were fully booked. But I found a nice camping space just 10miles North of Denali NP for free.
From Denali NP I followed highway #3 South and then at a junction turned North again to find myself in Talkeetna. This little town Talkeetna has a lot of charm and you can spend as much as 350$ or just 18$ for a night. Obviously I have chosen the latter on a campground at the end of the main street direct at the Talkeetna River. I stayed for three nights and met fantastic people on the campground and in town. And since the weather was superb I booked a scenic flight including glacier landing with Talkeetna Air Taxi. Wow, I must admit that was the best flight I ever had with fantastic views onto the Alaska Range and an undisturbed view on Mount Denali (20310 ft) with its twin peaks.
On my way from Talkeetna to Homer I took the small detour via the Hatcher Pass between Willow and Palmer. Close to the peak of the Hatcher Pass you will find the old Independence Gold Mine which was established around 1906 and then abandoned in 1956 (do not quote me on the exact dates). The mine had a significant impact for the development of that area. Today, only the ruins can be visited.
East to West travers completed
Following the highway #1 I made a stop-over south of Anchorage at one of the state-run campgrounds close to the highway. This was by far the most dirtiest and smelliest campground of my entire trip. Although it is bear country with all the fancy warning signs the huge trash containers were not emptied for weeks and people had no choice to put their trash just in front of the container. That is an open invitation for any bear. I was especially disappointed hence this stop-over marked the completion of the East to West travers to the Pacific Ocean.
Anyways, the next day I continued towards Homer. On my way to the capitol of Salmon and Halibut fishing I faced significant delays on the highway caused by smoke from a forest fire close to Swan Lake. Firefighters closed once in a while the highway because of the reduced visibility. Once I arrived in Homer I managed to get a campsite at the end of the Homer Spit in walking distance to shops, bars and restaurants.
I am not an angler, a fisherman or what so ever. The main reason for people to visit Homer is to fish for Salmon or Halibut. However, I was more interested to see the Grizzly Bears competing with the fisherman for the Salmon. Because I completed the East to West traverse I wanted to treat myself with a flight into the Katmai National Park.
I needed to wait for two days to enter the plane for Katmai NP so I decided to take a boat tour to Seldovia on the other side of the bay on the Kenai Peninsula. What a spectacle to reach Seldovia. Among thousands of sea birds, including the funny Puffins, the boat was suddenly surrounded by at least a dozen of Orcas feeding on Salmon. At that point my camera got wild while I tried to get a decent shot of the Orcas. The captain used the full 30min viewing allowance before the boat ride continued.
Seldovia is by no means a tourist trap. There are maybe three restaurants a gift shop and a tourist information center. The main attraction is the “old” town which is a replica of the old Seldovia before it was destroyed by water and newly built on higher grounds.
Katmai National Park
Totally exited I showed-up at Homer sea plane airport at 08:00 where Bald Mountain Sea Services should fly us with their Otter sea plane into the Katmai NP. There were in total only four tourists boarding the 10 seat plane and I got the co-pilot seat with a great view out of the captain’s office. After a briefing instruction we took off at 09:00 and crossed the bay which leads to Anchorage. The flight time was 1.5h before we reached Brooks in Katmai NP. Although this place is very remote more than 10 other seaplanes were already moored at the shore line.
First thing to do was a mandatory briefing at the ranger station hence close encounters on foot with Grizzly’s are unavoidable. What I did not know in advance, there is a well maintained gravel foot path which leads to a bear safe viewing platform close to a waterfall. This waterfall is the first barrier which the salmons need to overcome and the bears take full advantage of it. The viewing platform has a capacity of 40 people and at least 2 rangers make sure that this number is not exceeded. They regard this as people management.
In fact there are bears all over the place. There are bears at the falls, at the rapids, close to the mouth of the river, on the foot path and on the beach. You can see anglers with their fly fishing gear and next to them are Grizzly’s fishing old school with their paws.
If you do not surprise a bear and keep a minimum distance you are all fine. Humans are not on their menu and at this time of the year their only thought is how to get the next salmon without coming close to the big male Grizzly. Grizzly’s salmon fishing follows a visual stacking order. Prime locations are reserved for the big males, females with cubs get shitty places the others fight for the rest.
In summary is it worth to make such an expensive trip, NO. In fact you might get the same views for free at the Russian River if your timing is right and the so called Salmon Run is in full swing.
Being back in Homer after the trip to the Grizzlies the smoke from the wild forest fires around Swan Lake were closing into Homer. Hence the visibility decreased and we got this unpleasant fire smell I decided to travel a little further North. Hmm, other people had the same idea therefore campgrounds and free campsites were already taken or the firefighters had closed an entire area for camping. Finally I got a campsite at the Russian River, an Eldorado for Salmon fishing. Generally fishermen are not very talkative and therefore I only stayed for a night before continuing to Kenai Lake.
At Kenai Lake I found by chance a very nice campsite direct at the lake. The visibility due to the smoke had improved only a little. However, locals suggested that the wind direction will change the next day. Right they were. Now I could see that the lake had a turquoise color and that the surrounding mountains were covered with glaciers. Pretty enough to stay for two nights before heading to the next destination Portage Glacier.
The Portage Glacier can be reached on the way to Seward. You have the option to take a cruise ship from the glacier’s visitor center or drive through a tunnel (13 USD) towards Seward and take a 3 miles hike to the glacier. Since the weather was nice I took the hike. Unfortunately, due to the smoke the blueish colors of the glacier lake and glacier itself did not show well.
On my way to Seward I could see the smoke clouds. When I arrived in Seward it was even getting worse. The wind had turned again and thick smoke was hanging over the town. No way that I wanted to stay again in the smoke and after only 15min I left Seward with destination Hope City.
A quick decision was made in Seward in the hope that in Hope there is no smoke. Lucky me that was the case. Hope is an old gold mining village. Around 300 people are still living in Hope. All buildings from the early 19-hundreds are well preserved and people are living in these old houses. Downtown has a groceries store, a bar and an antiques shop. From first-hand experience I can report that the bar has a decent collection of fine cold beers. The other good news is, that Hope has only very few mosquitos. However, that said the annoying thing is that Hope has a lot of horse flies.
Leaving Hope behind I passed Anchorage and stopped at the first Walmart I could find. Pictures were quickly uploaded with Walmart’s super fast free WiFi and my Blog was updated while I was sitting in the supermarket on a bench close to cashiers. Since I was in the store I stocked-up my food supplies and continued my journey towards McCarthy.
The night I spent in the tundra close to Eureka at highway #1. The next day I stopped about 20km before reaching McCarthy and setup camp direct at the Kennecott River. The best free campsite on my journey so far. The glacier water was very cold but well appreciated at temperatures of blistering 35° during the day.
Today, around 150 people live in McCarthy. The town was built in the early 19-hundreds as red light district for the copper miners of Kennecott.
To enter McCarthy by car you need to park your car at a pedestrian bridge close to town and walk the remaining 500m. Downtown McCarthy offers a gift shop, a restaurant and trekking/adventure shops.
Kennecott was around 1900 the world largest copper mine with around 550 miners. However, the copper ore only lasted for 40 years. Since then only a handful of people are living there. Kennecott can be reached from McCarthy via a shuttle bus. The US national park administration saw some value in the ghost town. The old red mining buildings are currently partially restored and some are open to the public.
From Kennecott you can take numerous hiking trails into the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. Since I was not prepared for serious hiking (no hiking boots, no water, no sun blocker, but a camera) I chose an easy trail to the Root Glacier. A massive glacier which is accessible for everyone without special gear.
From McCarthy/Kennecott I went on the Richardson Highway (Hwy #4) to Valdez. The last miles on the Richardson Highway you pass the Worthington Glacier. Unfortunately deep hanging clouds did not allow for a glimpse of the glacier. Just before reaching the valley of Valdez you are driving through the Keystone Canyon with its many waterfalls.
While I stayed in Valdez I undertook a one day kayak tour to the nearby glaciers. Our tour went to the back of the famous Columbia glacier into a fjord where five glaciers reach the sea. The fjord was covered with ice fields and once a while paddling was not as easy while navigating through the ice. However, there were plenty of seals which enjoyed sunbathing on the ice. What impressed me most was the sound which the moving glaciers made. It sounded like a big thunderstorm and the steep fjord mountains nicely amplified that sound.
Since one tour is not enough, the next day I went on a glacier and wildlife tour. Again a one day tour to the Meares Glacier. On our way we could observe plenty of Sea Otters, Steller Sea Lions, Humpback whales and the very fast swimming Dall’s Porpoise.
Overall Valdez with its wildlife and beautiful scenery is impressive and I enjoyed it very much. What left a somewhat bitter taste is that all of the glaciers are retreating due to global warming. The Columbia Glacier was the last of Alaska’s tidewater glaciers to go into retreat. The retreat began in 1978 and by 1983 it had moved off its terminal moraine, losing an increasing amount of ice. In 2016, it had retreated for a distance of 13 miles, leaving approximately 6 miles to go before reaching bedrock on shore.
Manley Hot Springs
The gravel road to Manley branches off from the Dalton Highway #2. After 112 miles you will reach Manley Hot Springs. Well, the addition Hot Springs caught my attention in the first place why I went there. A self-painted sign at the entrance of the hot springs said “Closed until further notice”. That indicates that the springs are out of service for a long time. Ok, then there is this Road House in town, one of the oldest in Alaska. From the outside it looks beautiful, but there is another sign at the entrance door “We are closed on Tue & Wed”. Bummer, that were exactly the two days I was visiting this town with its approx. 90 souls. What was left for me was a free campsite next to the bridge.
On my way back to Fairbanks I stopped a few miles north of Olnes at the Dalton Highway #2 next to a creek for the night. The next day I was ready to pick-up my package which was meant to arrive from New York on that day. When I checked my email I was shocked to read that it was not shipped yet. A few emails with B&H and a phone call cleared the security concerns they had. This time I did not leave Fairbanks until I had a tracking number and a confirmation that the package will arrive the coming Monday.
Central, Circle Hot Springs, Circle
I needed to kill some days to wait until my package arrives in Fairbank. So I went from Fairbanks via Highway #2 to Circle at the end of Highway #6 direct at the Yukon. Since I had plenty of time I stopped half way to Circle at small creek for the night. The weather was still beautiful and the campsite had almost no mosquitos. The next day I continued to Central one of the important landmarks during the Whitehorse to Fairbanks sledge dog races. Apart from a bar/restaurant and a museum there is nothing important to see.
So I made a right turn at the junction to Circle Hot Springs. The expectation was to have a warm bath in the hot springs. However, here again I was welcomed by signs “Closed” and “Keep Out”.
Well there was nothing else to do than to turn around and to drive to Circle at the Yukon. I do not know what I was expecting but obviously something else than that what I saw. In short Circle is a run down little village at the Yukon. Some investors tried to build a chalet type house direct at the waterfront. But the guys got bankrupted before it was finished. Now the unfinished house is given to the elements like the other old log houses in town.
Going back on Hwy #6 towards Fairbanks I went up into the White Mountains. There are some established campgrounds, which I neglected, and some good hiking trails. The area was once a gold digger Eldorado. All the mines are abandoned but people are allowed to do some gold panning along the Nome Creek where I setup camp for the night. Since the blueberry season had just started I was not the only guy in the mountains. I picked a few blueberries but the skin was still a bit hard and some sweetness was still missing.
Dalton Highway #11 to Deadhorse
In my blog about the Dempster Highway in Canada I mentioned that I did not consider to take the Dalton Highway up to the Artic Ocean. However, fellow travelers reported that currently there is a herd of Muskoxen and a herd of Caribous very close to the highway to be seen. Since the weather forecast was great for the upcoming days I fueled up my vehicle and went up north.
At Mile Post (MP) 56 the Yukon River crossing was waiting. Athabascan people first traveled this river in birch bark canoes. During the gold-rush, wood-fired sternwheelers ferried gold seekers and supplies for trading posts. Today, Yukon River residents use motorboats in summer and snow machines in winter to travel this natural highway.
From MP75 to MP132 several steep hills have to be mastered. Truckers use names for those hills: Sand Hill (MP73), Roller Coater (MP75), Mackey Hill (MP87), Beaver Slide (MP110) and Gobblers Knob (MP132).
The Finger Mountain will be reached at MP98. A huge rock on top of the hill with a shape of a middle finger. Soon after the Arctic Circle will be crossed at MP115.
With excellent weather conditions there were great views of the Brooks Range to the north of Gobblers Knob (MP132). At MP150 I stopped at the Grayling Lake. An ancient glacier carved this U-shaped valley and left a shallow lake. I had the luck to observe a moose feeding on the nutrient-rich aquatic plants.
In Coldfoot (MP175) I topped-up my fuel for safety matters. The diesel price was a whopping 2 USD/gallon above prices in Fairbanks.
With sufficient fuel onboard I reached the Sukakpak Mountain at MP204. This mountain is a massive wall (1338m) that glows in the afternoon sun. Soon later the headwaters of the Dietrich River are approached. From MP235 trees grow scarce until they disappear altogether. The last tall spruce, approximately 273 years old, was killed by vandals in 2004.
At MP244 I crossed the Continental Divide at Atigun Pass (1422m). Rivers south of here flow into the Pacific Ocean or Bering Sea, while rivers to the north flow into the Arctic Ocean.
For the night I setup camp at the Galbraith Lake (MP275). This is all that remains of a large glacier lake that once occupied the entire Atigun Valley. As soon I stopped the engine at the campsite black clouds closed-in and heavy rain and hail was pouring down. Diner needed to wait for another two hours before the rain stopped.
The next morning thick fog was hanging in the valley and I continued my way to Deadhorse. At MP284 I passed Toolik Lake where the University of Alaska Fairbanks established a research station and conducts studies on arctic ecosystems and global climate change.
Happy Valley is reached at MP334. Originally the site of a pipeline construction camp, Happy Valley offers easy access to the Sagavanirktok River. The best overlook of the “Sag” River is at MP348.
From MP383 the Franklin Bluffs are passed. Iron-rich soils on the far bank of the river give the bluffs their vivid colors.
At MP414 Deadhorse is reached. Deadhorse is not a town but an industrial camp that supports the Prudhoe Bay oil fields. There are few amenities for visitors. Lodging is extremely limited and there are no grocery stores, public outhouses or camping areas. The public highway ends about eight miles from the Arctic Ocean. You must be on an authorized tour to visit the Arctic Ocean. That said, I booked an Arctic Ocean tour for the next day at 08:15 from Deadhorse Camp.
The night I spent at the banks of the Sag River close to Deadhorse. After a good night sleep I got up at 06:00 in the morning. When I opened my door I could not believe what I was seeing. A herd of Muskoxen was just 300m away and was trotting in direction of my car. I quickly repositioned my car to give the herd enough space between the river banks and their feeding grounds. Only minutes later the whole herd, lead by a big male, passed the car behind which I was hiding and taking pictures. An amazing sighting and one of the reason I went all the way to Deadhorse.
After a quick breakfast the Arctic Ocean Tour began. The tour lead through the oil fields of Prudhoe Bay before reaching the beach of the Arctic Ocean. Mike, our driver, explained in easy words the 1to1 of petroleum engineering before offloading the crowd at the beach. Since everyone got undressed I did the same and we took a bath in the icy waters of the Arctic Ocean. I am now a proud member of the Polar Bear Club which is testified by a certificate officially signed by Mike our driver.