Colorful Counties

Cruise the open highways to truly appreciate the beauty of our 49th state.
By Katherine Jacob

In the setting sun, a mountain peak deepens to indigo. On the edge of a stream, a 200-pound cinnamon bear pounces into the water and catches a salmon. After a brief encounter, a fisherman hands you a jar of smoked salmon from his private stack. These are moments that can permanently alter the way you see the world.

RV and Fishing

Alaska’s open highways offer countless opportunities to enjoy a quiet moment surrounded by breathtaking natural beauty. Alaska Travel Adventures photo

Although you experience parts of Alaska from a cruise ship, you really get a sense of its grandeur when you tour the open highways that pass through a terrain so expansive, it will leave you speechless. From the road, you can watch a moose in the distance, take side streets that lead to off-beat towns, meet unconventional people in local bars. To get the feel for the real Alaska, you have to travel without a schedule, linger in places that speak to you, wait for a storm to clear, go where friendly locals point you.

Once you’ve cruised the Inside Passage, trade the comforts of buffet meals, guided tours and scheduled port calls for a road trip through south-central Alaska. You will exchange the stampede of tourists in busy ports for a highway lookout where it’s you and a horizon of mountain peaks.

You can journey in comfort and convenience by driving in an RV (reserve well in advance). There are certain places in North America that lend themselves to this mode of travel and Alaska is one of them, where long stretches between towns and limited accommodations along the way mean you can pull over anywhere and have lunch or take in the view without concern of making a check-in time.

Many cruises disembark in Seward or Whittier. Now it’s time to tour Alaska. Travel via rail, bus or plane to Anchorage where you can visit the Alaska Native Heritage Center to set the stage for your trip. Walk through outdoor reconstructed buildings from various aboriginal cultures and visit with docents who will answer questions, then browse indoor exhibits on traditional arts and culture. Ask about the AAA discount for admission.

Rent an RV in Anchorage and drive 240 miles on Parks Highway (state Route 3) to Denali National Park and Preserve. Be prepared to spend a number of days here if you want to see Mount McKinley, North America’s tallest mountain, as it’s shrouded in clouds most of the time. If stormy weather is hiding the 20,320-foot peak, you can always visit the town of Talkeetna, the mountain climber’s starting point.

The remote city of Fairbanks is the next destination, 125 miles north on the Parks Highway. In Fairbanks, take a 3 1/2-hour cruise on the Chena River in a historical sternwheeler, Riverboat Discovery. You will see a bush plane take off and stop at a reconstructed ancient Indian village where native guides take you on a personalized tour. Make sure you also visit the University of Alaska Museum of the North for a geological, cultural and natural history overview of Alaska.

It’s a long drive to the next attraction, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. From Fairbanks, drive approximately 300 miles to Chitina and catch a Copper Valley Air prop plane to McCarthy. It’s possible to drive into town, but the gravel road is pretty rough. Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, the country’s largest, has nine of the 16 highest peaks in the United States. Take a glacier day hike. Walk along an old wagon road before strapping crampons onto your boots to hike alongside glacial streams cut into deep ice ravines, shimmering azure blue pools and waterfalls cascading deep into the glacier.

Return to Chitina and continue the circuitous drive for 120 miles to Valdez. The trans-Alaska oil pipeline becomes more visible now. It is worth this drive to see how well the area has recovered from the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Once in Valdez, take a seven-hour Columbia Glacier cruise with Stan Stephens Glacier & Wildlife Cruises.The journey through Prince William Sound takes you to the second-largest tidewater glacier in North America. Columbia Glacier rises 300 feet from the waterline at the base of the Chugach Mountains. One of the many glaciers that is retreating, the waters close to its face are sprinkled with icebergs, and the boat can only take you so far to be within a safe distance. On this trip, you’ll see whales, sea otters, and harbor seals, but nothing compares to seeing an iceberg up close, the bright blue streams exposed in the layers. It’s a 700-mile drive to Haines from Valdez on state Routes 1 and 2, and you will enter and exit a corner of Canada. Haines is nestled along North America’s deepest fjord, and you will get a feel for what Alaska is really about and that is its people. In this community, most businesses are locally owned and operated. Linger in a coffee shop early mornings or take the Klukwan Tribal Tour close to the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, and you’ll get a feeling for Alaska that you won’t find on cruise ship stopovers. Haines has a vibrant local community and the longer you stay, the more you’ll meet interesting Alaskans, from mountaineers and wilderness guides to artists, such as renowned Tlingit carver and director of Silver Cloud Art Center, Wayne Price.

If you want to keep this community feeling before flying out of Juneau, opt to stay on Douglas Island, where the beach is filled with locals and you’re sure to spot a berry picker on one of the coastal trails.

Katherine Jacob is a contributor from Toronto, Ontario.

 

Nov/Dec 2009 Issue

BEFORE YOU GO

To visit Alaska, first stop by your nearest AAA service office for maps, reservations, TripTiks® and TourBook® guides. AAA Travel can assist you with Alaska cruise or tour vacations. List of offices to serve you.

Links to Anchorage-area RV rental companies are at www.anchorage.net; type “RV rental” in the search box. The Recreational Vehicle Industry Association’s Web site, www.gorving.com, has more RV vacation ideas and tips. For state of Alaska travel and vacation information, www.TravelAlaska.com.

Order free information about Arkansas through the Reader Service Card, found online at http://southern.ai-dsg.com.

State Turns 50

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