united-states alaska wildlife hiking
I’ve spent two summers in Alaska, and a week on the Inside Passage, but I still jump at any opportunity to return to the state. The early summer of 2021 was an unusual time to visit, as much of the state had reopened after the COVID-19 pandemic, but the cruise ships that bring most of the state’s tourists still weren’t permitted to sail.
We arrived in Skagway on a Wednesday evening and checked into the Black Bear Inn. Strolling around downtown Ketchikan, we noticed that many of the shops—several which are owned and operated by the cruise ship companies—were shuttered. We got some beers at the Bawden Street Brewing Company and then ate a tasty dinner at the Heen Kahidi Dining Room which, perched in the Cape Fox Lodge on the hills above town, also offers excellent views.
In the morning, we drove to a seaplane dock operated by Island Wings Air Service. Our pilot took off and flew us east over Revillagigedo Island and into Misty Fjords National Monument. Misty Fjords is incredibly beautiful, but it’s also remote, and can only be reached by sea or air. We flew over the monument’s lakes, fjords, and waterfalls, and landed on Punchbowl Lake. Taking from the water, we flew back to Ketchikan, and we grabbed lunch at 180 Tap House & Burger Bar.
We spent the afternoon touring Ketchikan with local Tlingit guide Lisa Edenshaw-Krieger. Lisa took us to look for wildlife in Herring Cove and Mountain Point, while telling us about the natural and human history of the area. She also took us to the Totem Heritage Center and Totem Bight State Historical Park to see the impressive collection of native Alaskan totem poles.
Following the tour, we drove back to Herring Cove, where we spotted a black bear among the rushes and a few bald eagles. After dinner in town, we grabbed drinks at Asylum, a dive bar with a local vibe, an impressive list of local drafts, and very low prices.
Early the next morning, we boarded ferry on Alaska’s Marine Highway System. With routes stretching 3,500 miles from Bellingham, Washington to Unalaska in the Aleutian Islands. Because of the islands and rugged terrain that dominate Alaska’s Inside Passage, the ferry is the only way to transport a car among many of the region’s towns.
We boarded the boat early Friday morning, stopped briefly at Wrangell, Petersburg, Juneau, and Haines, arriving at our ultimate destination—Skagway—early Saturday afternoon. Along the way, we saw a humpack whale and miles and miles of beautiful coastline, and watched our boat impressively navigate the Wrangell Narrows. But if we did this trip again, I’d fly rather than take the ferry. The genuine Alaskan experience and the scenery weren’t worth losing a day and a half from our trip.
Skagway is a picturesque town that looks like it hasn’t changed much since the Klondike Gold Rush. It caters heavily to cruise ships, so when we arrived, it was eerily deserted. We ate an excellent lunch at the Red Onion Saloon, a converted gold rush-era bordello that serves the best pizza in town. Then Lauren and I embarked on a bike tour with the Sockeye Cycle Company.
Our guide, Ryan, drove us up the Klondike Highway to a point near White Pass at 3,292 feet of elevation. The we rode our bikes all the way back into town, past waterfalls and beautiful vistas. Along the way, Ryan told us about the history of the gold rush and the railroad that parallels the road.
Returning to town, we ate a tasty dinner at the Skagway Brewing Company. The we returned to our lodgings, the delightful Historic Skagway Inn, also a converted brothel, that retains its turn-of-the-century charm and serves delicious breakfasts.
The next day, Lauren and I took a beautiful hike up to Lower Dewey Lake. We also visited the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park Visitor Center, which houses an informative museum about gold rush history. On the way out of town we visited the Gold Rush Cemetery, the site of the graves of legends like conman Soapy Smith and his killer, Frank Reid. Then we boarded a small plane for the short flight to Juneau.
Once in Juneau, we checked into the Alaska’s Capital Inn. We drove downtown to the Mt. Roberts Tram, which rises from sea level to about 1,800 feet up Mount Roberts. The Mountain House at the top of the tram has a restaurant and gift shop, and on clear days offers incredible views of Juneau and the Gastineau Channel. There are also hiking trails around and above the Mountain House. We rode the tram on a cloudy day—much more common in Juneau than sun—so the views were limited, but we still had a good time. Back on the ground, we enjoyed some beer at the Devil’s Club Brewing Company. Then we crossed the channel to the Island Pub in Douglas, my favorite restaurant in Juneau, for a delicious pizza dinner.
We checked out of the inn the next day and drove out to the Mendenhall Glacier, one of Alaska’s most accessible glaciers. We hiked along the west side of the glacier to Nugget Falls, an impressive waterfall that crashes into Mendenhall Lake.
In the afternoon we boarded a flight to Gustavus, a small town close to Glacier Bay National Park. The flight is only about twenty minutes in the air, but when reached Gustavus, it was covered in a dense fog. The rudimentary airport isn’t resilient to adverse weather conditions, and the low visibility meant we couldn’t land. The pilots tried twice, but had to abort the landing at the last minute. After the two failed attempts, we flew back to Juneau.
After about forty minutes waiting in the Juneau airport, we boarded the plane and tried the flight again. Once more, our pilots called off the landing at the last minute and returned us to Juneau. We made-minutes plans to spen the night in Juneau and got rebooked to the next day’s flight.
One of the advantages to an extra day in Juneau was an opportunity to go whale watching. We were able to book a tour with The Local Guy, who took us on a fantastic trip. We saw several humpback whales, including a calf who swam up very close to the boat. We also got to see some Steller sea lions. And our guide knew one of the bald eagles’ favorite spots, giving us an opportunity to see the magnificent birds up close.
Our flight to Gustavus this time was uneventful. The weather was beautiful, and we landed in Gustavus without any drama. A short bus ride took us to the Glacier Bay Lodge, spectacularly situated on Bartlet Cove. After checking in, we took advantage of the beautiful weather to walk some of the surrounding trails, and then we ate dinner at the lodge restaurant. As we ate, the sky continued to clear, giving us a rare—and breathtaking—view of the Fairweather Mountains and 15,325-foot Mount Fairweather.
The next day we rose early and boarded a boat for a tour of Glacier Bay. It was one of the best national park tours I’ve ever taken. Even though the weather was lousy, we saw an incredible variety of wildlife, from cormorants, puffins, and bald eagles to humpback whales and grizzly bears. A ranger on the boat told us about the landscape, wildlife, and humand and natural history of the region.
We cruised out to the Margerie Glacier and ate lunch in the bay as the glacier cracked and calved. The bar on board sold glacier-itas, blue margaritas with glacial ice, definitely a gimmick, but a good one. We also paused by the equally stunning Lamplugh Glacier. As we sailed back toward Bartlet Cove, we got a text message from Alaska Airlines informing us that our flight back to Juneau from Gustavus had been canceled due to mechanical issues. Wrestling with spotty service on the boat, I managed to book the last few seats on an Alaska Seaplanes flight insted. As soon as we got off the boat, we rushed to the airport in time for our flight.
During a three hour layover in Juneau we grabbed some beers and dinner at Forbidden Peak Brewery. Then we flew to Anchorage and checked into the lovely Susitna Place Bed & Breakfast.
After a tasty breakfast, we drove north about two hours to Talkeetna. We’d booked a flightseeing tour of Mount Denali, but the weather was cloudy, and the mountain wasn’t visible. We explored Talkeetna while waiting for the weather to clear. We had some delicious snacks and coffee at Conscious Coffee, though the place was clearly popular, so our food took a while. We also checked out a few of Talkeetna’s artisan shops.
We got word that the weather was still bad, so we rescheduled our flight. We ate lunch at the Denali Brewpub. Then we kept driving north to the amazing Tonglen Lake Lodge. At the lodge, we took a pre-dinner nature hike with a naturalist, and then had an outstanding dinner at 299 Parks Restaurant & Tavern.
Very early in the morning we drove into Denali National Park and boarded a tour bus. It’s hard to see Denali National Park because the terrain is so severe and inaccessible. There’s only one road through the park, and (with a few limited exceptions) private vehicles aren’t permitted. Unless you have time for an extended backpacking trip, the only way to see a significant portion of the park is the daylong bus tour, which can be a slog.
We were lucky because the wildlife was active. We saw Dall sheep, caribou, grizzly bears, and moose. The tour also showed us some of Denali’s best vistas, like Polychrome Pass. Because the tour started so early in the morning, we returned to the visitor center in the midafternoon. Most of our group hiked the Horseshoe Lake Trail, but I hiked the Mount Healy Overlook Trail, a challenging hike that rises about 1,700 over 2.7 miles but offers great views of the park.
When we returned to Tonglen Lake Lodge, we enjoyed a delightful happy hour around a fire. The lodge’s owner’s dog had just had a litter, so we sipped our drinks while we played with the adorable puppies. We ate dinner at 229 Parks again, because we’d enjoyed it the night before, and because a missed delivery meant they’d had a limited menu the night before.
Reluctantly, we checked out of the lodge in the morning. The day had dawned clear, and we were hoping desperately for our first views of Mount Denali. We drove south along Highway 3 and were rewarded with some incredible views of the mountain.
When we reached Talkeetna, we tried again for our flightseeing trip. This time the weather was perfect we flew up and around Mount Denali, getting incredible views of the mountain and its surrounding glaciers. We even landed on the Ruth Glacier, only about 10 miles from Denali’s summit.
Driving back to Anchorage, we stopped by the Anchorage Museum, which has a great exhibit on Alaskan history. We checked into the Copper Whale Inn, then ate dinner at the Glacier Brewhouse and grabbed dessert from Wild Scoops.
In the morning we drove south to Seward, stopping on the way to hike part of the Winner Creek Gorge. Normally the trail involves a trip on a hand tram across Glacier Creek. Unfortunately, the tram was closed, so we could only do part of the hike. We tried some beers at the Girdwood Brewing Company and ate lunch at the food trucks parked outside.
We also stopped at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, a sanctuary that preserves Alaskan wildlife. We saw wolves, black bears, brown bears, moose, caribou, wood bison, coyotes, and much more. Then we pressed on to Seward where we visited the Exit Glacier. We bought some halibut at a fish market on the docks and grilled a delicious dinner at our lodgings, the Box Canyon Cabins.
The next day we boarded a boat for a tour of Kenai Fjords National Park. The boat took us through Ressurection Bay. We got great views of the Chiswell Islands, a group of rugged rocky towers that rise dramatically from the sea. We also saw orca whales cavorting the surf, puffins, sea lions, and bald eagles.
Rounding a point, we sailed into Aialik Bay and stopped at a beach. Unloading kayaks from the water taxi, we paddled out in to the bay. We cruised throug the icebergs and up to Aialik Glacier. Eating lunch in our boats, we watched the glacier calve. Then we paddled back to the beach to catch the water taxi to Seward.
Back on the mainland, we ate our last dinner in Alaska at the Ressurrection Roadhouse. We returned to the Box Canyon Cabins for a campfire before bed. In the morning we drove back to Anchorage and flew home, ending a fantastic adventure.