Alaska – Anchorage, Seward and Denali
It was becoming more and more evident that the most ideal time to travel was not going to appear but with enough planning and preparation, perhaps we could pull off a bigger trip in 2020. After previously venturing to Acadia National Park and the Finger Lakes, we learned the COVID measures that made us feel safest as well as keeping others around us safe. I had made a rough draft itinerary for Alaska and had done even more research to make a one week ready to go trip – just in case. And after a ton of planning and preparation (read all about that in this post – coming soon!), we pulled the trigger just nine days before the trip in hopes of taking back a little of what 2020 stole – adventure.
Since this was our first experience flying with COVID changes, I made an entire post dedicated to all the details. If you are interested, here are tips and tricks for flying during the pandemic as well as must have COVID items for your carry on bag.
Ok, now that we have those details out of the way, let us explore Alaska, The Last Frontier.
We arrived in Anchorage International Airport very late – 11PM local time and our bodies were still four hours ahead on EST. We immediately made our way to the car rental counters and picked up and deep cleaned our Ford Focus hatchback. We always compare Turo and the traditional car rental companies – this time, Avis was significantly cheaper and super convenient with direct airport access. The Airbnb for the night was only five minutes from the airport and while we just needed a place to crash for the night, we loved this Airbnb! If we were staying closer to downtown Anchorage on this trip we would have definitely loved to stay here longer.
After much needed sleep, we got out early to make the drive down to our first portion of the trip to Seward. And my oh my, what a scenic drive! Every turn transported us into a Bob Ross painting – how is this place real?! We could not get over how vast the landscape is in Alaska.
While I took way to many photos along the drive, we made our first time for breakfast in Girdwood at The Bake Shop. When we got out of the car, we could smell the freshly made bread The Bake Shop is known for.
COVID was easy to navigate here – no indoor dining, all take out orders, and there were ample picnic tables socially distanced outside for those that wanted to eat there. I ordered scrambled eggs with mushrooms, spinach, grilled tomato with sourdough toast and Kevin ordered the Farmer’s Breakfast – an omelet with potatoes, bacon, onions, parsley with sourdough toast.
Now this is a way to start the morning! Everything was delicious, freshly made, and for the love of bread the sourdough – the toast was perfect. Before leaving, we bought a loaf of sourdough for the trip and continued our way to Seward.
There are so many places to stop along this drive so you can take it as long as you want and a generous amount of pull off locations specifically for photo opportunities. We made a stop at Tern Lake which was a good place to stretch our legs, grab a photo, and watch the fish jump out of the water to catch flies.
After an easy and beautiful two hour drive, we arrived in Seward and parked ourselves at the lot right at Resurrection Bay. The view reminded us instantly of Queenstown, NZ – just wonderful!
Our first stop was the Alaska Sealife Center! While it may appear as simply a “zoo”, this facility is the only permanent marine animal rescue / rehabilitation in the state. It gives visitors the opportunity to learn more and get a closer look at these marine animals alongside of research and rehab efforts. There are a wide variety of exhibits including all sorts of fish including salmon, harbor seals, seal lions, and much more.
I think our favorite part was the seabird habitat that showcased many different birds but most importantly, puffins! After failed attempts in Maine, this was our first time seeing puffin. The two story glass viewing area give visitors to chance to view the birds dive deep down into the water below the surface. Puffins can dive over 100 feet!
And yes, this stop was COVID friendly requiring reservations to ensure the capacity never exceeded the max, mandating face mask use, and having plenty of hand sanitizer around the facility.
We needed a snack before our afternoon excursion so we headed across the street to Zudy’s Cafe and split an enormous berry spinach salad. You can get lots of cafe favorites like soups and sandwiches here – delicious!
Our first time on the water was upon us! Medicated with my handy meclizine, we headed to our afternoon tour with JDock Fishing Company.
Read about our fishing experience here!
With our fish in hand, it was time to get some food shopping done. Because of COVID and the executive orders in Anchorage, we really did not know what to expect from a food scene so we made the decision to book Airbnb’s with kitchens and prepare/cook all of our food. This was our first time doing this so I wrote up our approach and how we thought it worked. For that, a full shopping list, and list of meals, check out that post here .
After a jam packed first day, we were ready to crash. We made our way out of town about fifteen minutes to our Airbnb – a cabin in the woods. Since we booked the trip so last minute, the selection of Airbnbs that were reasonably priced with a kitchen was limited so we were so lucky this one was available. And we also found that we enjoyed being removed from the downtown area as this was more remote and more connected to nature.
A few minutes deep cleaning, unpacking, and loading up all our food in the kitchen – we were exhausted from a long and full day! Kevin cooked up some of the rockfish with rice and asparagus, and off to bed we went. I do not think I mentioned but I purchased a sleeping bag liner that we used for the beds. On previous driving trips, I brought bedding and pillows since we had a car at the time – so I thought if I can cover those with the liner, it is better than nothing!
Today was a very active day with kayaking and hiking so I was looking forward to being on the water without being sea sick. On our way into town, we stopped at a literal coffee cup on the highway where we were greeted by a rather grumpy man where Kevin got a basic, mediocre coffee (he was grumpy because he advertised accepting credit cards but did not put a minimum – change your rules then, don’t be mad at us about it!).
Also note, the Lowell Creek Waterfall is a popular stop but it is not something you need to allocate time for – you can drive right past it without getting out of the car!
*You can go ahead and skip this part if you do not want a COVID rant* The day was both energizing and and exhausting. Having been comfortable with COVID interactions so far, we decided to try and have a meal at a restaurant. I had read that salmon bakes are like the lobster pounds of Maine so we decided to visit Exit Glacier Salmon Bake. The lot was empty and so was the restaurant – there were only a few people outside but that was it. There was a sign outside explaining their COVID precautions which all sounded very reasonable. When we walked in, we noticed none of the staff with face masks and this should have been the first sign to just leave. Kevin did not want to sit outside (sun burn risk / no shade) and there was no one in the large, ventilated room so we sat inside. Kevin enjoyed his beer and we both ordered our meals (Kevin ate the salmon dinner and I ordered shrimp). Luckily we were done eating before the place exploded with people being seated on top of eat other and the bar around the corner was full of people. This is clearly a local spot but even just the time we sat waiting for our checks I feel like the COVID was everywhere. UGH. We both were kicking ourselves because 1) we should have just turned around from the beginning 2) we said we wouldn’t eat out 3) the meal was not worth the COVID risk – it was ok but over priced. Too bad, so sad – should have followed our gut. This place had such a nicely written sign on the door so super disappointing.
Later in the trip, all everyone recommended was The Cookery so I can safely say go there for a meal (apparently they have the best ice cream too) and we will definitely go there in the future. I can’t speak to their COVID precautions but it could not be worse than what we experienced at the Exit Glacier Salmon Bake. Moving on (cause I will COVID rant forever)!
Well, we woke up a bite sore after a long and active day! Today I had slated for us to go on a traditional boat tour of Resurrection Bay but honestly we saw so much of it on the fishing and kayaking days, I thought this would be redundant (though if you think a traditional boat tour is for you, we were going to book with Major Marine Tours). Since Tuesday was slated to be a bad weather day, we moved up visiting Exit Glacier to today – another very physical day ahead.
Exit Glacier is something you should not miss when visiting Seward. Read all about this epic hike here!
Wow, to say that exceeded all expectations is an understatement – worth every step! Emma from our kayaking trip had recommended nearby Resurrection River Trail as an easy walk with high likelihood of seeing moose. I really wanted to see wildlife on this trip so seeing a moose would be so cool. We walked to awhile – as much as our tired legs would permit – and no moose. Doesn’t this look like a perfect place to see a moose? We sat on the bridge for awhile but alas, no moose.
Deserving some treat-yo-self treats, we returned downtown to grab coffee and ice cream. Kevin had been wanting to try Resurrect Art Coffeehouse (another Emma recommendation) so we stopped there first. The coffeehouse in in a converted church (hence the name) serving up some amazing coffee. Kevin discovered a new favorite – the Alaska sludge – a shot of espresso with coffee. Apparently this place has house made pastries by a very talented pastry chef but they sell out very quickly – we would have to return!
Now it was my turn. Any guesses? Ice cream! We asked the ladies at Resurrect Art where we can get the best ice cream – they looked at each other, smiled and asked if gelato was ok. Ummmmm YES. Down the street is Sweet Darlings Candy Shop and tucked away in the back is a case of freshly made gelato. As we waited in our socially distanced line, we noticed a picture of Obama on the wall – ice cream suitable for a president? Works for us.
We took our ice cream and sat on the waterfront – we were leaving beautiful Seward tomorrow and wanted to soak it all in, despite being cold!
Back to the cabin, we ate some left overs and started packing up for the next leg of the trip.
Woke up to a rainy day so a huge shy of relief in moving up our Exit Glacier adventure. August is the month that can get the most rainfall so unfortunately an expected occurrence. Since so much of our trip was relying on outdoor activities, today was a bit improvised.
While the rain held off in the morning, we headed to a popular hiking trail at Mt Marathon – as if we did not do enough hiking the day before.
As the rain began to fall, we took refuge at the nearby Resurrect Art Coffeehouse once more but this time arriving for freshly baked goods. Kevin ordered his new favorite sludge coffee and we got a cinnamon bun and a savory pastry tart (veggies and cheese). We inhaled these so fast that this was the only picture I took!
We loved the savory pastry tart so much that we got another… and again I did not take a photo because we ate it so fast!!! That never happens. Highly recommend!
With one final stop at the Airbnb to pack up, we left Seward extremely satisfied with the first part of our trip.
The rain started to pick up as we drive north to our next Airbnb in Girdwood. Since the hike to Mt Marathon did not take us as long as I had thought, we had a lot of time time burn before check in. Rain activities were limited as it was, even without COVID so this became a tad tricky.
Our first stop was the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. This center focuses on rehabbing injured or orphaned animals and preserving the Alaskan native wildlife. It is made up of a two mile loop that can be walked or driven. Even though it was raining, we had so much time that we decided to pull out the rain gear and walk. We observed moose, reindeer, elk, bears, musox and even learned about the Wood Bison Restoration initiative post extinction. Definitely worth a stop on your drive!
When we arrived in Girdwood, we still had over two hours before our Airbnb was ready. Nearby we found a brewery and took at look at their COVID precautions. We pulled up to plenty of outdoor seating protected from the rain and a food truck stationed – loving it already! Upon entering, there was a barcode to check in virtually for contact tracing – even more thumbs up! Girdwood Brewing became a go to stop for the rest of the trip. Kevin loved all their beers, especially there New England styled IPA that competes with the Vermont powerhouses. This place became such a haven on this trip.
We enjoyed our time so much at the brewery that it was almost time to check into the Airbnb! But first, the rain stopped so we continued into the neighborhood to visit the short trail to Virgin Creek Falls.
Read about our short walk turned climbing adventure of Virgin Creek Falls here!
I was so excited to check into the Airbnb and it was perfect! Large space with living area, full kitchen, bedroom, bathroom, and the best… washer and dryer! We did laundry right away which was so necessary – we packed well but packed with the assumption we would need to do a round of laundry about half way through. Our kitchen was fully stocked with everything we needed and we treated ourselves to ribs – yum! Even though it was a rainy day, it ended up being fully of fun. We had a very early morning ahead so another early bed time in the sunlight for us.
Today was our day exploring Prince William Sound and we were so excited to see a new part of Alaska. We had to travel to the town of Whittier which required driving through a one way Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel that alternated directions on the hour and on the half hour so it was important to time everything so we did not miss the boat departure.
On the other side of the tunnel is also another popular trail, Portage Pass, that I thought we could knock out before the boat departure at 10AM. May have been a bit aggressive. Working backwards, if we had to be at the dock at 9:30AM, be done the trail by 9AM (being very generous), the 4.2 mile trail would take us 2 hours to complete, so that is a 7AM start, which means we needed a 6:30AM tunnel entrance time, and they recommend getting to the tunnel 20-30 minutes before the tunnel time, so that is 6AM, and we were about 30 minutes away in Girdwood = 5:30AM departure time! Good old vacation math.
Everything went on schedule for our 6:30AM tunnel time. The round trip toll through the bridge is $13 that is paid on your way to Whittier. The tunnel built for access to the harbor for World War II – before to get to Whittier required a boat ride. It is just big enough the the train to make it through which frequents the town routinely so yes, you have to drive over train tracks. Very cool!
As soon as you make it through the tunnel, the turn to access the Portage Pass is there – we drove over the train tracks and then head to stop and evaluate our options to continue on.
What caused us to stop? The wildlife I was finally waiting for? Read about this and our time on the Portage Pass Trail here!
Back in the car, we were only a short drive away for Whittier. We checked in for our boat tour at the Lazy Otter Cafe. Highly recommend this spot if you find yourself in Whittier – Kevin loved his sludge coffee and our sandwiches for lunch on the boat were amazing. I had my fingers crossed that I would not regret a long day on a boat even with the meclizine. We met our captain, boarded our small boat, and spotted a bald eagle soaring overhead. It was going to be a good day.
Read about this incredible boat tour of Prince William Sound here!
I have to say, we were still kind of in awe at the day we just had – absolutely incredible. We made it through the 4PM tunnel time and decided while we were down in Portage to squeeze in one more hike of the day. Byron Glacier Trail is an easy 3 mile loop with an entrance right before the tunnel going towards Whittier. This was the first time we had been in a parking lot with other cars and hiked with other people. We made it right before the rock mound and decided to stop, take a few photos, and head on home.
What a day – this definitely was another memorable day on this Alaska adventure. One thing I cannot forget to comment on is the number of day light hours even into August. I had expectations of seeing beautiful night skies on this trip and we saw no stars! The left photo is bedtime around 9PM and the right photo is at 5AM – just an incredible amount of sun!
Today we were going to explore all around Anchorage, a little bit of everything. First stop was the Potter Marsh Wildlife Viewing Boardwalk for bird watching. It was so peaceful in the morning as the sun was coming up and while the gulls were especially loud, I will still mark it under peaceful. One thing we were not expecting is all the salmon – both dead and alive – we were able to spot throughout the entire boardwalk! Gulls were enjoying their morning lox while other salmon just would not stop swimming.
While I read reports of moose sightings and there were even signs to be on the look out for moose, we say no moose. It was almost the end of our trip and I could not believe we have not have any animal spottings!
Our next stop was Eklutna Lake north of Anchorage. Beware that visiting the lake requires a half hour drive from the highway. I originally had plans for us to rent a kayak and explore the lake that way but I think we were just physically beat. The lake though is quite beautiful and the stillness of the water would make for a lovely kayak. Another popular thing is to rent bikes for the trail loop around the lake. There are plenty of hiking trails as well. We considered the Twin Peaks Trail but I read some discrepancies in the trail length – the sign said 2.5 miles but comments online reported it is more like 4 miles which adds a considerable amount of time. If we had more time, I think we would have tried this trail because it is well rated and challenging with rewarding views.
Nearby is the popular Thunderbird Falls and the parking lot definitely confirmed the popularity. It is a very short hike at 1.8 miles round trip and relatively flat. But I have to say, this waterfall was pretty lackluster in comparison to the ones we have seen on this trip. This is a great option if you are not into hiking for a long period of time or have small children but if you are doing some of the bigger stuff, this can be skipped.
Another suggested stop in this area is Mirror Lake and when we drove by, I have to admit we were kind of confused so maybe we went to the wrong place? Another skippable stop in our opinion.
I think we were spoiled by our time in Seward, Girdwood, and Whittier. We decided to cut our loses and head back south of Anchorage. A hike I had seen repeatedly was the Flattop Mountain Trail so we added that to our list. We arrived to another crowded parking lot. We could see locals gearing up for their afternoon workout running up and down the trail, as well as many casual hikers and dogs.
The trail is 4 miles round trip with the first 2 miles being quite a steep climb – seems to be a trend with Alaska hiking trails. It was a bit foggy when we started which seemed a bit out of the ordinary for the afternoon but nevertheless, we continued.
After the first portion, the next part is a series of stairs but once you get the last portion, it is a climb to the top. We stopped before hand, satisfied at the peak before the summit, and headed back down.
We heard the group behind us exclaim they saw an enormous bull moose – WE MISSED IT! Finally there was a chance of seeing wildlife and we missed it. I could not believe how sad I was that we were not going to see any wildlife while hiking on this trip – we hiked so much! Sigh. We started our drive back down the mountain side and out of no where… Kevin yells… MOOSE!!! He stopped the car and there was a moose on the side of the road in the trees nomming on some plants. The moose crossed the street, turned away from us, and went into the other side of the woods. And just like that, check seeing wildlife off the list. THANK YOU MOOSE for completing my Alaska adventure.
The day was topped off by relaxing at Girdwood Brewery, snacking on the Asian inspired food truck goodies, and soaking in the sun. Great way to end the day!
Due to the weather day on Tuesday, the rearrangement of some itinerary items earlier in the trip, and our efficiency throughout the trip, Friday became an open day. I went back to my two week rough draft to see what areas we had missed. The most obvious hole was visiting Denali National Park but this was eight hours away from Anchorage one way and we only have a day. How did we end up fitting Denali into our one week itinerary? By flying!
This required another very early morning as we had to drive three hours to Talkeetna for a 10AM flight. We stopped at Jitters for coffee and the staff asked what we were doing today – when we told them they were giddy, saying its amazing and worth every penny. We were feeling really good about our decision. As we made it closer the Talkeetna, we would get glimpses of Denali as it stand so prominently in the sky.
Read all about our flight to Denali with glacier landing here!
We drove back to Girdwood and stopped at The Ice Cream Shop on our way – a well deserved treat and one that has been missing from our vacation!
Also snuck in one final pit stop at Girdwood Brewing before grabbing take out at Jack Sprat which cam highlight recommended.
- Caesar Pleaser | romaine hearts | parmigiano reggiano| garlic herb croutons | preserved lemon | classic caesar dressing
- El Gordo | Alaskan Halibut Burrito | rice & black beans | cabbage | tomato | green onion | mojo sauce | flour tortilla | chips & fire roasted salsa
- King Dong Cake | chocolate olive oil cake | mascarpone filling | dark chocolate ganache
Everything was delicious! It certainly reminded us of all the great food we were missing on this trip but a return trip will provide those luxuries. I have to say, we really, really loved Girdwood and could definitely see ourselves doing an extended stay here.
Our final day! We packed up our things and checked out making our final journey back to Anchorage. Since we only have half a day, I left exploring the parks along the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail. The trail itself is 11 miles one way so while it would have been nice to rent bikes and do the entire trail, we did not have enough time for that (though we saw lots of people with their bikes!).
Our first stop was Kincaid Park, then Earthquake Park where we learned more about the impact of the “Good Friday” 1964 earthquake, and finally Point Woronzof Park.
Unfortunately, it was too cloudy and foggy to get a good view of Denali from here but luckily we had our fill yesterday. We also saw no wildlife while on the trail (reviews also promised moose!). But it was a nice way to spend a relaxed morning before our journey home.
To read about the plane ride home, read the post on our experience flying with Alaska Airlines.
Alaska – wow, just wow. From the moment we got on the highway and headed out of the city, we were amazed by how enormous and vast the landscape was, on a scale that we just hand nothing to compare to. We did not know what to expect and that just added to the amazement. It is an outdoor wonderland of endless sunlight in these summer months and it was a perfect way to break out of 2020. Thank you Alaska for allowing us to have such an incredibly memorable and safe adventure. You do not necessarily need a two week span to see some incredible things. If you are thinking of going, just do it.
See our complete itinerary here!
To read more posts about our trip, click here!