May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds.
I bought my ticket to Alaska less than a month before my trip on a total whim. Gabriel Amadeus, one of the guys behind Limberlost posted on Facebook a heads up that flights on JetBlue were insanely cheap from Portland to Anchorage. Another friend chimed in that flights to Seattle were also stupid cheap. Seizing the opportunity with a hefty dose of spontaneity and a bit of stupidity I impulsively bought a round trip ticket for $150.
Original plans included bringing my bicycle and exploring the Anchorage area by bike, but that plan quickly dissolved after realizing just how little land I’d be able to cover in the short time I was planning to stay. I instead booked a cheap rental car, borrowed a backpack from a coworker and was off!
Back in the day, I used to be meticulous about vacation logistics planning. I would have the schedule for each day nailed down, as close to the hour as possible, researching in advance everything I could about my destination.
Whether it’s laziness, a desire for the unexpected, or just a change in personality, for this trip the only things I really secured in advance for this trip was a rental car, lodging for my first night, and a rough outline of a few things I wanted to see. Other than that, I asked Facebook for advice, threw caution to the wind, and set out for the adventure of a lifetime.
My flight left Seattle at 8:45pm and arrived in Alaska at 11:30pm. Because it’s pretty close to the summer solstice, the sun was just going down as we landed.
My lodging for Friday night was the Alaska Backpackers Inn, a highly ranked hostel near downtown Anchorage. Clean, fine, and uneventful, I ended up with a private room even though I booked a shared room because they didn’t save enough space for the number of women who had arrived. Their mistake was my win! A fitful night of sleep later (hostels are loud!), I woke up early and hit the road to drive the Kenai Peninsula.
Nearly everybody recommended that I skip my intended camping spot at Eklutna Lake and instead head down the Kenai Peninsula toward Seward. Heeding their advice, I made a quick stop at REI for stove fuel and bear spray and was on the road.
Within the first 10 miles of the drive, I knew I had made the right decision. Steep, jagged peaks loomed on both sides of me, dark blue water on my right, and clear, open road ahead of me. I turned up the stereo to TacoCat and drove on. My plan for the day included hiking, driving, and doing whatever cool shit I came across.
Whoever built the Seward Highway clearly recognized the jaw dropping scenery of the drive, with purposeful parking areas every few miles, marked stopping areas for scenic views, and stunning views every direction you look. The drive from Anchorage to Seward along Turnagain Arm has been named an All-American Road by the US Government and a Drive of a Lifetime by National Geographic. Seriously a cool drive.
For the first 20 miles of the drive, I couldn’t get enough of it. I stopped at every chance I got, even making #coffeeoutside at one stop and savoring it in the sunshine for an extended break from driving. This is what I came to Alaska for!
About 45 minutes outside of Anchorage I stopped for my first hike, Winner Creek. I’m admittedly not much of a hiker, much preferring to bike when possible. I had researched this specific hike, googling “Easy hikes in Alaska”- because I’m seriously that much of a non-hiker. I’d read that it was supposedly family-friendly, pretty easy, and well worth the 6 miles because of a unique hand tram across a canyon 3 miles in. Seemed easy enough, right?
Sure enough this hike was VERY family friendly, with tons of 3 year olds, grandmas, and dogs hiking this gorgeous, easily accessible trail that was actually part of the Iditarod race! Meandering in and out of the woods, through mountain valleys, and across streams this trail actually made me appreciate hiking a bit more.
I had lots of time to think, make up songs to the bear bell jangling off my backpack, and take photos. The hand tram at the end was just as cool as I imagined, I only wish I had been there on a less crowded day to be able to spend more time on it and not have 15 people lined up behind me to cross the river.
Also, it turns out 6 miles of hiking is pretty far- by the end I was super crazy hungry. One granola bar is not enough for that long! Thankfully, I had some weird S’mores flavored oreos in the car to hold me over until lunch.
Now, forgive me for a moment while I digress, but some of my favorite interactions and people have been people I’ve met while traveling. I intentionally went on this trip by myself because I believe that you make yourself more open to others and experiences when you’re vulnerable. It was with this mindset that I stopped to pick up two hitchhikers 30 miles outside of Seward.
I’m a pretty savvy traveler and have a good head on my shoulders. If something didn’t feel right or unsafe, I wouldn’t have done it. But seeing the broad smiles that Andrejs and Jens had on the side of the road while waiting for a ride gave me a good feeling, so I pulled over and offered a ride to Seward. They are backpacking through Alaska for the summer and were hoping for a ride to Seward to camp overnight.
As they climbed in the car, we immediately hit it off as fellow travelers do, sharing stories and the S’mores oreos that I had in the car. As hungry as I was earlier after my hike, they were equally so now and were grateful for the sugar rush.
We drove together into Seward, making a plan for where I should drop them off, and said goodbye over beers at Seward Brewing Company. I then drove them to their trailhead, turning down their offer to camp and hike with them. While I sincerely appreciated their easy going nature and European inquisitiveness about American culture, I came on this trip to spend time alone. So I turned it down and said goodbye as they hiked away.
It was now my turn to find my campsite for the night, as it had been a long day and I was tired by this point. I pointed the car north on the Seward Highway and quickly found the turn for Kenai Fjords National Park and Exit Glacier. As I drove into the park, I saw a number of people pulled off the road for dispersed parking in the National Forest area. I knew the campground I was going to only had 12 no-reservation, free tent sites, so coming back for wild camping might need to happen.
Shortly into the entrance to the National Park, I found the campground. The setup for the walk-in only camping was the coolest thing. Because it’s deep in bear country and they take bear safety very seriously, there is a central area for cooking and eating, and a big closet for food storage for everybody. This creates a communal aspect to the campground for sharing stories and getting to know your fellow campers. It was a really unique setup and proved to be really helpful.
I entered the campground, did a quick loop through the site and to my dismay, realized that all the sites were full. I made the decision to cook dinner at the campground and then head back out into the national forest area to camp. Lucky for me, there were a number of other campers also preparing their dinners, and as we got to talking, one of them offered to share their tent site with me. I gratefully accepted, finished my dinner, and set up camp in the shadow of Exit Glacier.
Sunday started early as I wanted to get to hike Exit Glacier before the crowds and hit up a few towns on my drive back to Anchorage before my flight back at midnight. I quickly packed up my tent, ate a quick breakfast back at the communal area with the company of my fellow campers, and was shortly on the trail to Exit Glacier.
There are two main trails at Exit Glacier - the "moderately strenuous" (according to the National Park Service) 2 mile Glacier View Trail, and the super, crazy, ridiculously hard 8-10 hour round trip trek to the Harding Ice Field. We've already discussed that I'm not a hiker, so as cool as the Harding Ice Field sounded, I was not prepared to go trekking through ice and snow for a full day. I was down for a 2 mile hike to the toe of a glacier though.
The ranger stopped me as I started down the trail to confirm that I had bear spray, as I was a solo hiker. He also advised me to sing, talk to myself, or otherwise make noise so I didn't scare any bears. In preparing for my trip, I had read all of this advice, but hearing it from a Park Ranger as I was heading in to the woods made it all the more real. Ok, Marley, here we go.
As I hiked, I tried singing all sorts of songs, from Beyonce to Taylor Swift, but I kept coming back to a song from my summer camp days. I had a counselor who would lead the entire camp in a super silly song - "Going on a Squeegie Hunt." It went something like this (each line is repeated in an echo format):
Going on a squeegie hunt
I'm not afraid!
What's that up ahead?
Can't go over it
Can't go under it.
Gotta climb up it.
This song worked perfectly as a I hiked, as I got super silly with it, and changed it from Squeegie to Bear Hunt. The further I went, the sillier it got. In my song, we encountered a stream (we swam through it), a ranger (talked back to him), a downed tree (sawed through it), and a tourist (walk past them.) Thankfully, while singing my silly song, I only passed one group of people, and they just smiled at me as they knew exactly what I was doing. When your life is potentially on the line, nobody cares how dumb you might sound.
After a not strenuous hike at all, the woods opened to the most stunning view. Exit Glacier on my right, river valley below it, and mountains all around. I literally stopped and just looked around for five minutes, soaking in the view. The first photo on this post is from that moment.
I walked closer to the glacier, noticing every little ways a sign with a date on it. Eventually there was this sign:
Since the last Ice Age, Exit Glacier has been retreating. The pace of retreat was pretty slow, until recently, however, when it has rapidly sped up. Until just a few years ago, visitors to the glacier used to be able to go to the toe of the glacier and touch it. Now, it's actively receding so much that it's unsafe for people to get that close. It was astonishing to see the dramatic changes in such a short amount of time.
Day 2 continued with driving back up the Seward Highway, with a few stops in Hope and Whittier.
Hope is a teeny, tiny little town of 200-ish people, with not much more than a history museum, cafe, and campground. I got an excellent tour of the history museum from a local 7th grader who works there as her summer job. She was VERY excited to tell me about the mining history of the town and that there was a new kid joining their grade this year. It was actually really cool. Lunch at the cafe was great- I ate with some local cyclists who were out on a day ride. We chatted all things biking and it made me jealous I couldn't hop on a bike and join them for the rest of their ride.
On the recommendation of a Facebook friend, I also made a stop in Whittier for a bit. I'm glad I did, as Whittier is a place that I'll probably never go again in my life, but I'm glad I went. To access it, you have to drive through a one lane, 2.5 mile long tunnel through a mountain. The $13 toll is well-worth the unique experience, as the tunnel is shared between cars and trains, so beneath the road there are rail tracks.
After you emerge from the darkness of the tunnel, you're greeted by the super cute, weird town of Whittier. It's mainly a fishing town, with some military history. Nearly all of the 214 residents live in ONE BUILDING. I didn't hang out in Whittier long, as honestly, there wasn't much to do. I walked the docks, chatted with some fishermen, ate some smoked salmon that they gave me, and then drove back. Weird place.
Honestly, at this point in the trip, I was tired and dirty. I hadn't showered since Friday morning and it had been in the high 70s all weekend. Busting out the Dr. Bronner's soap, I pulled into a campground, quickly washed my hair and face and immediately felt way better. I got a funny look from a passing family, but eh, whatever.
Wanting to get the most bang for my buck, I headed back into Anchorage to see what trouble I could get into there. I quickly found Midnight Sun Brewing Company, had a taster flight and dinner, and then went for one final hike.
My final hike was at Chugach State Park, my original intended destination for the trip. I drove to the Eagle River Nature Center, about 15 minutes north of Anchorage for this hike. Travel weary and ready to get on the plane, I milled about the nature center, taking photos and not wandering too far from the path. I eventually sat down at a picnic table and read a book for an hour, until about 10:30pm. I tell you what, that midnight sun really is special. I think if I lived in Alaska I'd never sleep in the summer.
Finally, after what felt like the longest weekend ever, I made my way back to the airport, turned in the rental car, and found the gate. Almost exactly 48 hours later, 434 miles driven, and one tank of gas later, I was headed home.
Until next time, Alaska, thank you.