As the rain beat tirelessly against the windshield mere moments after arriving in Anchorage, I could not help but ask myself “why do I keep coming here?” The world is wide, with so many places to explore, yet Alaska calls to me again and again. This trip would be my fourth time in Alaska since 2005. The first visit, I joined my grandpa as he searched for the island where he spent the first five years of his life near Homer, traveling through the Kenai. Then, three weeks near Dillingham in college to learn about the sockeye salmon fishery, and a weekend in Fairbanks in January to learn about being cold. Each trip brought something new to my understanding of this massive place, but more significantly, each trip taught me how little I know.
Alaska is huge and wild. It feels like home but on steroids. Do you like seeing glaciers in Washington? Well, here are thousands. Wildlife? Alaska provided more wildlife in a week than I usually see in a summer in Washington. Shockingly delicious food? Everywhere we turned. More rain than you could imagine? The Kenai Peninsula provided that and more. It gave me a chance to slow down and notice the spaces around me, in a way we are not always able to do when we attempting to squeeze backpacking in on weekends.
Even as we worked to enjoy and soak in everything Alaska threw at us, I knew this was the first trip of many for us. The Alaska call has been answered for now, but I know in about four years, it will come calling again. I will pack a raincoat and as many layers as my suitcase can fit and jump on a plane, ready to spend a little more time on the last frontier.
This post covers the first leg of our 9-day trip, 4 days on the Kenai Peninsula.
Some Alaska themed music to get you in the zone…
Day One: Arrival, Hope, Seward
Bleary eyed and tired from a night too excited to sleep, we made our way to the airport and departed Seattle–Anchorage bound. After getting through baggage claim faster than expected, we picked up our car rental–a Nissan Xterra with a pop-tent on the roof! Alaska Adventure Rentals were so lovely and let us pick up our rig three hours early so we could get moving. When we arrived, the car was fully stocked with camping gear and gas, so we hit the road!
First, a quick stop to Fred Meyer for groceries was required. As we shopped for basic provisions, the sun that was holding on when our flight landed gave away to heavy rains. That was the last glimmer of sun we saw until reaching Denali National Park. Not to be deterred, we set out for Hope.
The route to Hope began down the Turnagain Arm. Fog hung heavy on the mountains of Chugach State Park, obscuring the peaks, but adding to the mystery. Waves rolled into whitecaps and wind pushed our car. Even when only glimpsing bits of the scenery, it was easy to see how this section of highway is considered one of the most beautiful in the country. And coming from someone who spends time on highway 20–that is a true compliment.
Eventually we reached the turnoff to Hope. We had seen the Northern shore of Turnaigan Arm, but looked forward to completing the cycle, by finding a campsite where we could see the southern end of the Turnaigan Arm.
At least, that was the plan. We arrived to Hope at about 3:00 pm, in pouring down rain. The kind of rain where if you step out of the car for more than a moment, everything is soaked. We found our campsite for the night, determined it was perfect and decided to pop onto Main Street to grab food, as we had last eaten at the airport that morning. Unfortunately, all of the restaurants were closed and we resorted to eating a cliff bar in the car.
Unable to leave our car due to the excessive rain, without access to food and stuck in our campsite until bedtime, we were not looking at the most exciting first evening of our trip. After weighing our options and despite the fact that I absolutely loved our little campsite off the side of the road, with all of my van life goals coming true, we decided to give up Hope (ha!) and continue down the Kenai Peninsula to tomorrow’s destination: Seward.
Back on the highway we wound down the spectacular drive through the Kenai Peninsula. Mountains came in and out of view as rainstorms blew through the area. After a few hours, we arrived to the little town of Seward. Compared to Hope it was a bustling metropolis, and most importantly, had an open restaurant.
We were shown to a perfect seat overlooking the marina and gorged on seafood at Chinooks. Coming from Seattle, and working as a marine biologist, I can be a bit picky about seafood, especially in places that I fear are tourists traps. The seafood linguine I consumed with gusto met my approval and beyond. As we ate, we watched sea otters float in the water below us. I embraced my inner tourist, pulling my camera out, taking a bunch of photos through the window.
We finished up dinner, took a walk around the marina and then headed up the road to Exit Glacier to find a campsite for the night. The campground at the end of the road looked wonderful, but was a walk-in tent campground and we were hoping to find a spot to park our car and sleep in the pop-tent. We found a pull-out on the forest road that looked out over the river bank. It appeared to be a popular spot and we were joined by a couple other campers before the night was through, despite the pouring rain. We quickly set up the tent and fell asleep immediately, despite the bright sun that didn’t set until hours after we fell asleep.
Day Two: Wildlife Tour And Aialak Glacier
In the morning, we woke to heavy mists but dry skies. We hopped out of the tent and walked the riverbank, enjoying the chance to be dry outside. After getting our fill of the river, peaks along the valley and extra glimpse of Exit Glacier from the viewpoint along the road, we headed back into town.
We headed towards Seward for breakfast at the Smoke Shack—an awesome breakfast joint inside a train car. We stuffed ourselves with benedicts, crab cake for me, veggie for Michael. Then we went to the marina to join Major Marine Tours on a wildlife and glacier cruise to Resurrection Bay and Kenai Fjords National Park.
We were warned of rough seas, but decided to cross our fingers that we would make it to Aialak Glacier. The cruise was worth it within 15 minutes of leaving the dock when we saw a humpback whale lunge-feeding. It repeatedly broke the surface of the water, taking huge gulps of krill-filled water.
The boat continued on its way around Caines Head where the seas began to pick up. Swells tossed the catamaran too and fro, but I staved off seasickness, perhaps for the first time ever (I get seasick on ferries). We had a bit of a respite when we reached Cheval Island, then it picked up again as we rounded Aialik Cape, where we were exposed to the Gulf of Alaska and some of its fury in a tropical storm.
Before long, we began to see small icebergs floating in the water, and then Aialak Glacier appeared from the mist. The boat edged closer to the towering ice behemoth and the captain cut the engine so we could hear the creaks and groans from a sheet of ice that has lived thousands of years. Sea otters floated near the icebergs and small chunks of the glacier calved off, landing in the milky blue water.
From the back it looks like I was wearing a rainjacket. From the front you can see that I have on about 7 layers on the top. It was chilly!
We sat for a bit, pulling out the camera sparingly as the wind and mist pelted our faces. We watched miniscule movements, listening as car-sized chunks of ice separated from the glacial face. Then a huge chunk of the glacier, hundreds of feet tall, calved off the face of the glacier, making a tremendous splash. Even the resulting waves from its tumble into the sea were impressive, and we turned the bow to face them.
Eventually we left Aialak Glacier and made our return trip to Resurrection Bay. We saw puffins, more humpback whales, and a large haul out of sea lions. I was so excited about all of the wildlife we had seen—I had only seen lunge feeding a few times and never so enthusiastically, and we witnessed a massive calving on a gasp-inducing glacier, but I really hoped we would have a chance to see killer whales.
I spent two years researching the southern resident killer whales in Washington and love seeing them every chance that I get. A chance to whitness another population was a secret but desperate hope. I had made my peace that it was unlikely, but as we were nearly back to the dock the AK6 resident pod’s inky dorsal fins rose from the water. Eldorado, or AK12 was a massive male with an enormous dorsal fin and we also saw some calves playing at the surface.
The sound of a killer whale blow is one of my favorite things in this world. Long after every other passenger went inside, I remained on the bow, happy-crying and listening. I stayed until they were invisible and I was freezing.
We made it back to the dock and looked for dinner. We landed on Thorn’s, which had decent food and an awesome atmosphere. As we ate, the rain and wind picked up, turning into a proper storm. We checked the campgrounds in town, but they were all so close to the road that we opted to head back to the river. Unfortunately, our spot from the night before was already snagged so we continued up the road. After an hour of testing every pull-out, every corner of the road, we accepted that we were exhausted and tired and chose to sleep along the road.
Sleep is a generous term. Between the cars that drove past at 50mph, and wind that ripped through the valley, we spent most of the evening trying to determine if we would survive the night. Before we knew it, however, morning broke to a misty but dry sky.
Day Three: Exit Glacier and Kenai Lake
The break in the weather was the only sign we needed. We quickly packed up our gear and headed towards the Exit Glacier trailhead for our first Alaskan hike. It took a bit to get everything prepped at the trailhead, but before too long we deviated from the paved path and took the riverbank route. There will be a full trip report of Exit Glacier next week, so I won’t go to too many details here, but it was pretty incredible to see. We went to the main viewpoint, then decided to go up to the meadows, part of the way up the Harding Icefield Trail trail. It was completely worth it and oh so beautiful.
While the unending rain was dampening my spirits, I was also battling a rough cold and sleeping in a damp tent wasn’t doing me any favors. The hike cleared my congested head and filled me with optimism as we looked on the glacier. However, by the time we returned to the visitors center I was in pretty rough shape and couldn’t imagine continuing on the Kenai this soggy and sick. We decided to make some lunch, consult the weather and look at our options for the week.
After the hike we swung by the tent campsite on Exit Glacier road and used their cooking station to make some breakfast burritos. After only eating cliff bars for breakfast, it was a welcome meal. There was a smoldering campfire when we arrived that spontaneously burst into a full campfire as we set up. The warmth was lovely but sheesh people. Even when it is a soggy rainy mess, put out the campfires.
Consulting the weather, the rain seemed to continue for the rest of the week in the Kenai–but! We saw a sliver of sun in the Denali region. We opted to leave the Kenai a day early, slowly make our way to Denali and try to snag a backcountry permit for the one sunny day.
Ultimately, we made it to Kenai Lake that evening and found a lovely little campground. Slightly cozier than our other locations, but after the previous night it felt like a 4 star hotel. It was dry when we arrived and we after grabbing some firewood we had our first fire (that we built) of the trip. After a detour to see the lake, we swung by a liquor store and convenience store and stocked up on local beers and Alaska chips, the official food of our road trip. We explored the nearby creek and walked on the trails near the campground before settling into a campfire, beer and early night.
Next up: traveling to Denali, backpacking in Denali National Park, moose, bears, sheep and so many caribou! Plus more details about the Exit Glacier hike.