Way Up North To Alaska (Denali & Fairbanks)

It was a hairy bear,
it was a scary bear;
we beat a hasty retreat from its lair…
— Schoolhouse Rock; “Adjectives”
Big scary bears in the lobby of our hotel!

We left Anchorage mid-morning and headed north-ish through the Chugach Mountains toward Denali. It was misty and moisty, with lots of clouds and occasional drizzle. The countryside was still beautiful, though.  

 Passed through Wasilla; nice little town with a pretty backdrop of mountains. The mountains were all towering and craggy and sporting a bit of snow–very different than our soft, rounded Appalachians. The Alaskan mountains looked new and raw compared to the ones at home.  

Stopped for lunch at McKinley View Lodge, which is the former home of homesteader Mary McKinley. It features a stunning view of Mt. McKinley (Denali) on clear days, but it was still drizzly when we got there.  

 Pushed on to Talkeetna, where we’d hoped to take a flight-seeing tour of Denali and the mountains. Lots of flights leave from there (closest town), but it was such rainy weather that we were afraid we wouldn’t be able to see much. Decided to put off flight until there was a better chance of visibility. Talkeetna didn’t offer us much except souvenir shops, so we moved on pretty quickly.  

 Drove on in the rain, through rolling hills covered in a rough red “heather” that ran up the slopes of the mountains. More jagged and serrated mountains with striations of colors–greens, ochres, rusts–and countless scars of old and new rock slides. Reached Denali National Park in the afternoon; still drizzly and chilly.  

Denali National Park
Fireweed (state flower of Alaska)
Denali roadside view

Checked out the Visitor’s Center information and drove on in to the park. You can travel 15 miles in on a regular road; after that, you pretty much have to take a bus tour in order to go any further. It’s about something like a 75-mile round trip, on a school bus, at about 35 miles an hour. Although the park was beautiful, we chose not to go that route.   

Denali rock formation near 15-mile turn-around point
Driving out of Denali

 We planned to spend the night near Denali and go on to Fairbanks the next day (I admit I was the one who pushed for Fairbanks–mostly because of the Johnny Horton song “Springtime in Alaska!”) Most area accommodations were either already full or else uber-expensive (“Glitter Gulch” is a collection of shops, hotels, and restaurants just a few miles from the park entrance, including a lodge for Princess Cruise Lines), so we drove on.   

Got as far as Healy and thought we’d spend the night at The Totem Inn (called ahead*; one room left) The Totem Inn. Went to the registration desk; staff had stepped away for a moment, leaving us to an uneasy contemplation of lobby furniture covered in crushed velvet and a stuffed musk ox in a glass case.  We opted for dinner in the adjoining restaurant, then got back on the road to Fairbanks. (Totem Inn was probably a fine place, just struck the three of us as not quite what we wanted…) The light was waning and it started raining as we drove and drove and drove for several more hours–through miles of darkened country without many signs of habitation–and finally saw the lights of Fairbanks. Found a Comfort Inn with a vacancy, turned up the heat to “feels like home,” and went to bed! (Total of 358+ miles of driving that day on mostly 2-lane roads.)      

*I was truly grateful to have my Blackberry with AT&T coverage; it was the only reliable phone (other networks don’t offer as much coverage in AK) and also had internet, so we could search for things (also used our Alaska Milepost Book) and call ahead. Very helpful!

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