Despite the train-wreck Coronavirus brought to everyone’s life, we were grateful we got to take a vacation this year. My original plan was to go to Ireland and see my friend Ms. Bakes-A-Lot but Ireland closed their borders for most of 2020 so we decided to stay within the U.S. and go to Alaska.
I planned this trip to be around the fall equinox because I wanted to have the best chance to see the aurora borealis. It turns out the aurora is not all that picky with dates. I’ll get into the details below.
Three biggest things we did in Alaska: Denali National Park, the aurora, and Seward.
Denali is a huge park, so if it’s your first time, I’d recommend:
1) take the transit bus ($43 a person in 2020) one of the days you are there, and visit the Eielson Visitor Center about 66 miles into the park. I know, who wants to ride on a bus after a 4-hour drive from Anchorage? But believe me, you want to do this. Since a giant portion of the park is only accessible by national park buses, you can see a LOT more wildlife on this bus than with your own vehicles.
We lucked out getting onto the bus as we did not buy the tickets ahead of time. Apparently in COVID times, the bus has limited seating (only 1/3 capacity) and there are only 2 drivers a day. Check out the COVID page of the transit bus company for update information if you would like to go. We showed up at 6 a.m. that morning and purchased standby tickets and hoped someone wouldn’t show up (and two of them didn’t!). It was a long wait (2 hours+) with uncertainties. I would get the tickets ahead of time next time I go to Denali.
2) hike around the park visitor center (right next to the gate) and mile 15 Savage River (the farthest a private car can go).
There is a list of hikes from the national park website (with a map here) and my favorites are Mt. Healy Overlook (4.5 miles), Horseshoe Lake Trail (2 miles), Triple Lakes trail (8.6 miles), Savage River Loop (2 miles). Don’t fret on which trail to pick because every trail in Denali is amazing! Do wear your bear bells and have a bear spray handy. Respect the bear country since we are the visitors to their homes. We encountered a grizzly on the Mt. Healy Overlook which was terrifying and also mesmerizing.
Pro-tip for saving money: get groceries in Anchorage. Groceries in Denali are hard to get, much more expensive, and less variety. We didn’t stocked up enough food from Fred Meyer’s in Anchorage and still had to go grocery shopping in Denali. The biggest grocery nearest to Denali is in Healy (about 10 miles north of Denali entrance) and it’s called Three Bears (248.5 Parks Hwy, Healy, AK 99743). They had the most amazing dried mango and beef jerky; I HIGHLY recommend it!
We stayed 5 days (4 nights) in Denali but we would love to go back and do a wilderness hike from Eielson Visitor Center. This will probably take a lot more planning than showing up at the national park and hope everything works. When we took a bus into the park, we met a hiker who spotted the Northern Light the night before camping not too far from Eielson Visitor Center (September 15, 2020 for reference).
Another novelty is they also have various stamps at the rangers station. The ones I’ve found are Eielson Visitor Center, Denali National Park (at the park visitor center), and Toklat Visitor Center. I am sure there are more that I didn’t discover (such as Wonder Lake).
The Aurora Chasing
We stayed in Fairbanks for three days to see the aurora. It is the perfect amount of time for people like us who don’t enjoy driving and love to sleep. We booked the last-minute aurora tour and stayed up all night to see the aurora. For someone who doesn’t have 3 days to spend in Fairbanks, you can definitely do it in less time (perhaps 2 days 1 night).
Theoretically, if you lived in a place somewhere around Fairbanks vicinity that:
- has a clear horizon of the north
- outside of city light pollution
- you are visiting around the time from September to April timeframe, and
- with some clear night sky (weather-wise)
you can see the northern light. No tour is required.
But if any of those above basic requirements cannot be met, I’d say spend the money and let the tour guide drive you somewhere where you can see the aurora.
The tour itself was $195 per person which was quite pricy but since we don’t know much about where to go see the aurora other than internet research, I decided to fork over the money and give it to the professionals. It turned out to be well worth the money! Not only did we learn a ton about the aurora, being driven around and get your photos professionally taken is worth the $195.
This tour is run by one guy named Aaron and you can text him from the number he left on the website to get in contact with him for last-minute aurora tours if the website shows no availability. Aaron is also the driver, the weather forecast, the aurora chasing expert, and the photographer. It is just a one-man show so I totally respect it. This $195 is definitely hard-earned money.
Just for comparison/level setting, the night we went to see the aurora, the Kp level was 2 (which is pretty low) and the activities were average, but with a professional camera and long exposure shots, it came out amazing. In real life, the aurora seemed more like a band of slightly yellow/white smoke (way less impressive in person than on photograph!). We were told that 2020 is actually the year of solar-minimum, which means there are very few solar activities that create the aurora. As we go out of solar minimum and climb to solar maximum (predicted 2025), there will be more opportunities to see a more vibrant aurora when you visit!
Bonus to seeing the aurora, you also get to see the Milky Way since there is no light pollution 🙂
Being a museum geek, I also went to the Museum of the North in Fairbanks. For a museum, it was on the smaller size, but for a school museum, this is HUGE! The museum itself (and the University of Alaska in Fairbanks) is on a beautiful hill where you can see miles and miles of the Alaska Range. The museum hosted many specimens including polar bears, grizzlies, Alaska’s unique dinosaurs, Inuit heritage, Russian heritage, etc.
The most fascinating part, aside from the animals and dinosaurs, is the WWII history in Alaska and the memorial for the Japanese Internment. Alaska was the only land battlefield of WWII in North America. NPS has a summary of WWII in Alaska here. Of course, talking about WWII on American soil, it is important to acknowledge and learn more about the Japanese Internment that followed where the U.S. government forced relocation and incarcerations of Japanese Americans living on the west coast. Needless to say, I got emotional while looking through this exhibit with loads of handwritten letters from the Japanese Americans writing to their relatives wanting to know that they are well and when they can reunite again. George Takei gave a powerful TedTalk giving his experience on the Japanese Internment in 2014.
The Magic of Seward
Seward is apparently pronounced “sewer-d” according to the locals. The city is named after William H. Seward, the guy who negotiated the purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867.
Seward is about two hours from Anchorage and the drive itself is beautiful.
There are many more hikes here to explore, such as the Mt. Marathon Hiker’s Trail (4.1 miles) and the Lost Lake Trail (14 miles). You can also go kayaking to the glacier (the season ended before we arrived 🙁 but we’d love to try it next time).
Just walking around downtown Seward, you can see so many wildlife. We saw two bald eagles (and they look just like the Great Seal of the United States), seals bopping up and down in the Fjords, a sea lion catching a salmon just strolling around the boardwalk.
The food in Seward was amazing. We went to this cute taco place called the Lone Chicharron downtown and they are connected to the Seward Alehouse so you can sit at the bar and eat your food while having a beer after a long day of strenuous hiking. We also met lovely locals who almost convinced us to sell everything and move here!
Here’s the thing about sled dogs: They never know how far they are going to run.
As a musher — the human driver of a dog sled team — this is one of my main challenges. There are many ways in which my dogs know more than me. They know if a storm is coming, or if a moose crossed the trail days before. They know how ice shifts under their paws. They know if we’re being followed and by what kind of animal. They know their own power — that they’re stronger than me, much stronger, and if they turn or stop when I ask them to, it’s because they’re choosing to listen and trust me. Running together is a gift they give me every day.
Even though Alaska is within the United States, it feels like a different country. The topography is strenuous, harsh, and unyielding. The wildlife is incomparable to anywhere else I have been, including the safari in South Africa (though those are different animals there). The wildlife in Alaska seems to be much less accustomed to human interactions, no doubt through the efforts of the tireless Alaskans and conservationists. The last frontier is a well-deserved title for this place of majestic beauty.
*COVID19 side note: All non-residents of Alaska are required to present a COVID test 72 hours prior to flying. We got our negative results back before we flew from our local urgent care 3 days prior. Be sure to submit this Travel Declaration form as well before you land to save some time.