Planes, Trains, Rental Cars, and a Cruise Ship: Our Trip to Alaska

We look a lovely long summer trip to Alaska. We flew to Anchorage and rented a car for the first week. During that leg, we saw Anchorage, Homer, Talkeetna, and lots of beauty in between. After a train ride to Seward, we spent a day there before boarding Royal Caribbean‘s Radiance of the Seas for the second leg of the trip. On the ship, we cruised for a week to Vancouver, seeing glaciers, Juneau, Icy Strait, Skagway, and Ketchikan along the way. Finally, we spent a day exploring Vancouver before heading back to the Midwest.

This trip was very similar in structure to a trip we took with my parents in 2004: both started with driving around on our own for a week followed by a week on a cruise ship. But we saw a few different towns, spent more time in Anchorage, Talkeetna, Seward, and Vancouver to see more of the cities. Most importantly, this time we took along the children and Jenny’s mom, “Oma”.

June 27 – Anchorage
We started the morning in Minneapolis, to which we had flown the night before (thanks for the place to stay, Aunt Annell). At the airport, we had the good luck to see Air Force One on the tarmac!

Air Force One

Air Force One

We had a long flight to Anchorage, but those of us with window seats were treated with beautiful views of the mountains, glaciers, and fjords of Southeast Alaska.

Glacier Bay from the air

Glacier Bay from the air

Once we landed, we initiated our stay in Alaska by visiting a free Alaska Heritage Museum, at which the boys learned a lot about local culture.

Douglas and Oma learning at the Museum

Douglas and Oma learning at the Museum

Then we went to the Alaska Zoo, a small private zoo focused on Northern wildlife. Besides the bears and moose, the highlight was a porcupine that played with us as it climbed the edges of its cage.

June 28 – Anchorage to Homer
We woke up in Anchorage at a very creatively-decorated B&B (lots of local artifacts and bear skins all over). Before we left Anchorage, we visited the Alaska Native Medical Center, which had a very impressive collection of native crafts and clothes from across the state.

Native crafts at the Medical Center

Native crafts at the Medical Center

From there, we drove South to Homer. Along the way, we saw a lot of beautiful scenery along Turnagain Arm and throughout Kenai Peninsula. We stopped at Portage Glacier and then made a small hike to Byron Glacier to play on the snow.

Matthew at Turnagain Arm

Matthew at Turnagain Arm

Climbing on Byron Glacier

Climbing on Byron Glacier

From there, we had a short stop in Ninilchik to see the Russian Orthodox Church and Cemetery before arriving at Homer.

Orthodox Church in Ninilchik w/ Volcano in Background

Orthodox Church in Ninilchik w/ Volcano in Background

I had been to Homer once before, in 1999, but the weather was cloudy on the visit, so the mountains across Kachemak Bay were hidden. We had much better weather this time, and the views from our hotel at the end of Homer Spit in the middle of the bay were stunning.

Homer Spit and the Mountains of Kachemak

Homer Spit and the Mountains of Kachemak

June 29 – Homer
We could have spent the whole day at our hotel watching Kachemak Bay and the water around it because they were so beautiful. We did spend enough time there to see rainbows and a sailing regatta, but we decided to see more of the town, too.

Sailboats racing in Kachemak Bay

Sailboats racing in Kachemak Bay

However, we also went into the town to see the Alaska Oceans and Islands Visitor Center (the gateway for the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, where the boys became official Junior Biologists) and the Pratt Museum.

It was a beautiful day.

On Belgua Slough Trail

On Belgua Slough Trail

June 30 – Homer to Talkeetna
Homer continued to inspire us, waking us up on Kachemak Bay to the sight of a pod of orcas swimming by.

But we had to leave Homer to go to Talkeetna, the gateway to Denali. Along the drive, we stopped at Anchor Point (the western-most point accessible from the North American highway system), saw a moose beside the road near Soldotna, and watched some fishermen trying to get salmon on the Russian River.

Anchor Point - Clouds hide the Volcanoes

Anchor Point – Clouds hide the Volcanoes

Moose!

Moose!

The highlight of the drive, though, was Independence Mine State Historical Park. This used to be a gold mine in the mountains above Wasilla, but it was abandoned in the 1950s. What is left behind is indescribably beautiful. Some of the buildings have been maintained, but others are beautiful ruins above the timberline. It was amazing.

Mountains and decay at Independence Mine

Mountains and decay at Independence Mine

Carrying Matthew through the ruins

Carrying Matthew through the ruins

View down the valley from some of the ruins of the mine

View down the valley from some of the ruins of the mine

Mountains and decay at Independence Mine

Mountains and decay at Independence Mine

Jenny and Matthew walk towards the ruins of the gold mine

Jenny and Matthew walk towards the ruins of the gold mine

Finally, we made it to our cabin outside Talkeetna in the evening and tried to capture some pictures of Denali, though it was too cloudy for anything great.

July 1 – Talkeetna
We spent the day in Talkeetna, the entry point for climbing Denali. We obviously didn’t attempt that (and the video at the National Park Ranger Station made it clear that trying in our condition would be a very expensive form of suicide).

Instead, we walked around town, met some climbers who had successfully summited, took a few other pictures of the mountain (though none were very clear, unfortunately), ate enormous pancakes at the Roadhouse, and saw lots and lots of wooden moose through town that were painted by stores in anticipation of the Independence Day festivities.

Probably our best picture of Denali, looming over the Susitna River

Probably our best picture of Denali, looming over the Susitna River

A moose painted for July 4th

A moose painted for July 4th

Also, the boys learned a lot about Denali National Park and became Junior Rangers.

Denali Junior Rangers

Denali Junior Rangers

July 2 – Anchorage
We returned to Anchorage to return the rental car and prepare for our train trip to Seward the next day.

In Anchorage, we walked the Anchorage Lightspeed Planet Walk (well, the inner planets part) and then visited the Anchorage Museum. It was a very impressive museum with well-designed exhibits on Alaska history, the Good Friday Earthquake, Native Culture, and a fun science exploratorium.

Boiling in the heat of the model of the Sun in Anchorage's Lightspeed Planet Walk

Boiling in the heat of the model of the Sun in Anchorage’s Lightspeed Planet Walk

July 3 – Anchorage to Seward
In the morning, we took the train from Anchorage to Seward.

This isn’t a normal commuter train – we had a glass bubble dome for full views, and tour guides pointed out sights and wildlife along the route (they were high school students – quite the summer job!). The route started out duplicating our earlier drive along Turnagain Arm, though it was very nice for me to be able to look at the scenery instead of focusing on the road. After passing Portage, the route diverged from the road, taking us deep into the mountains of the Kenai Peninsula. We saw some wildlife (moose, mountain goats, and eagles), but also saw beautiful glaciers, mountains, rivers, and lakes.

Ready to board the train to Seward

Ready to board the train to Seward

Bald eagle soaring above us as we rode the train along Turnagain Arm

Bald eagle soaring above us as we rode the train along Turnagain Arm

The train passing under a glacier on the way to Seward

The train passing under a glacier on the way to Seward

Once in Seward, we visited the Alaska SeaLife Center, an aquarium paid for by the Exxon Valdez cleanup that focuses on the sealife around Alaska.

July 4 – Seward
Happy Independence Day! Unintentionally, our day in Seward coincided with our National birthday, which Seward commemorates with Alaska’s biggest party and a footrace to the top of a local mountain.

Mt Marathon - would you race up that?

Mt Marathon – would you race up that?

We avoided that, though, to take a half-day cruise into Kenai Fjords National Park with Kenai Fjords Tours. During our cruise, we got very close to Holgate Glacier and saw just a bit of calving. We also saw a lot of wildlife: otters, sea lions, puffins, murres, seals, eagles, pods of playful porpoises, and even a few humpback whales (though we didn’t see any breeches, we were fortunate to see a couple flukes).

It was our biggest photo day of the trip, and it was a lot of fun.

Matthew and an otter

Matthew and an otter

A humpback whale shows its fluke in front of Bear Glacier

A humpback whale shows its fluke in front of Bear Glacier

Holgate Glacier

Holgate Glacier

Puffins on the Chiswell Islands

Puffins on the Chiswell Islands

Lazy sea lions

Lazy sea lions

A happy Douglas

A happy Douglas

Douglas, Matthew, and Oma really enjoyed the tour

Douglas, Matthew, and Oma really enjoyed the tour

Our day ship and our cruise ship

Our day ship and our cruise ship

After leaving the small boat (and getting Junior Ranger badges for the boys for Kenai Fjords National Park), we boarded the Radiance of the Seas for the more relaxing half of our trip. They celebrated the 4th on board, too.

Royal Caribbean celebrated July 4th with dessert

Royal Caribbean celebrated July 4th with dessert

July 5 – Hubbard Glacier
Our first full day on the cruise didn’t include a port day. Instead, we sailed into Yakutat Bay to see the immense Hubbard Glacier. It’s truly an impressive block of ice – much larger than Holgate Glacer, which we saw the previous day (though we were able to get much closer to Hubbard Glacier on the smaller boat). It was also fun watching workers from the boat try to wrestle an iceberg onto the ship from a smaller boat – unfortunately, they didn’t succeed.

Approaching the six-mile wide face of Hubbard Glacier

Approaching the six-mile wide face of Hubbard Glacier

In front of Hubbard Glacier, the small boat in the front was trying to bring back an iceberg to the cruise ship for ice carving.

In front of Hubbard Glacier, the small boat in the front was trying to bring back an iceberg to the cruise ship for ice carving.

Other than watching the glacier, we enjoyed relaxing on the ship and dressing up for the first formal night.

July 6 – Juneau
Our first port of call on the cruise was to Alaska’s capital, Juneau. We didn’t do any excursions, but we instead walked around town on our own. We visited the State Capitol, watched the sea planes taking off from the harbor to show nearby glaciers to our shipmates, and did a little shopping.

Scary bears in Juneau

Scary bears in Juneau

July 7 – Skagway
Our next stop was to the gold rush town of Skagway. It’s mostly a tourist town now, with cute historic clapboard buildings throughout downtown.

Again, we talked through town, did a little shopping, and got another pair of Junior Ranger badges (for Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park).

Earning Junior Ranger badges at the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park in Skagway. This whole building was devoted to the Junior Ranger program.

Earning Junior Ranger badges at the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park in Skagway. This whole building was devoted to the Junior Ranger program.

Having a little fun at an Alaska-themed playground in Skagway

Having a little fun at an Alaska-themed playground in Skagway

July 8 – Icy Strait Point
Heading into this day, we weren’t sure what was were going to see. The itinerary said “Icy Strait Point,” but we didn’t know what that was.

It turns out that it’s a private cruise port, the only one in North America. Owned by the local natives, it presents Tlingit culture, Alaska’s salmon-fishing history, and some adventures in a way that is respectful to the local culture.

There’s not a whole lot in the port, though there is a small-but-interesting museum in an old salmon cannery, some shopping, and (what they claim to be) the tallest zipline in the world.

Icy Strait Point, with our ship in the background

Icy Strait Point, with our ship in the background

The Cannery at Icy Strait Point

The Cannery at Icy Strait Point

Only I did the zipline, but unfortunately I couldn’t get good pictures during the descent. It was fun, though.

They say this zipline is the tallest in the world. It was certainly fun.

They say this zipline is the tallest in the world. It was certainly fun.

July 9 – Ketchikan
Our final port stop was in Alaska Southernmost city, Ketchikan. As with Skagway and Juneau, we skipped the cruise line’s excursions and instead toured the city. We saw the historical district, learned about totem poles at the Totem Heritage Center (Matthew was obsessed with totems by this point), and did a little shopping.

Chief Johnson Totem in Ketchikan

Chief Johnson Totem in Ketchikan

Creek Street: formerly a red light district, and now tourist shops

Creek Street: formerly a red light district, and now tourist shops

Authentic historical totems at the Totem Heritage Center in Ketchikan

Authentic historical totems at the Totem Heritage Center in Ketchikan

Back on the ship, we played some minigolf and even watched a Cardinals game on the screen above the ship’s pool. At the end of the day, Jenny and I went to the cruise’s only midnight buffet – an orgy of desserts and ice carvings.

July 10 – Inside Passage
Our final day on the ship was at sea, as we sailed through the Inner Passage to Vancouver, BC.

We had fun with various on-board activities, like watching a towel-folding demonstration and watching the Captain make a very boozy Black Forest Cake. Of course, we also enjoyed the scenery as we passed through the islands of British Columbia.

July 11 – Vancouver
The cruise was over. Instead of flying directly home, we decided to take a day to explore the beautiful city of Vancouver, British Columbia.

We started by touring the City Hall, which was very close to our B&B. From there, we went back downtown to tour the city on a hop-on-hop-off trolley. It was a good way to see a lot of the city.

Captain Vancouver in front of his namesake's City Hall

Captain Vancouver in front of his namesake’s City Hall

We stopped in Stanley Park to see more totem poles, and we also got out in Chinatown to see the Sun-Yat Sen Gardens and have lunch. Douglas enjoyed getting to use some of his skills from his Chinese Language Immersion School.

The Totems in Vancouver's Stanley Park. At this point, Matthew was very obsessed with Totems.

The Totems in Vancouver’s Stanley Park. At this point, Matthew was very obsessed with Totems.

Peaceful moments in the Sun-Yat Sen Garden in Vancouver's Chinatown.

Peaceful moments in the Sun-Yat Sen Garden in Vancouver’s Chinatown.

Vancouver's Olympic Cauldron

Vancouver’s Olympic Cauldron

After a walk around Canada Place and some of the Olympic sights, we retired to prepare for our flight home the next day.

July 12 – Flying Home
We planned to fly home through Detroit, and the first leg of our flight was delayed enough that they didn’t think we would make our connection; Delta even double-booked us on flights the next morning and planned for us to sleep in Detroit. It turned out that we were able to hustle in Detroit and make our connection. Overall, the delay was good for us, because most of the passengers found other connections – we had a very empty long flight from Vancouver to Detroit, so we were able to stretch out.

Other than that, it was just a transportation day – nothing special.

Summary

Overall, it was a great trip. We wore ourselves out in the first half to see cities, towns, mountains, and wildlife of Alaska. But then we really enjoyed the cruise ship tour down to Vancouver as a way to see more cities and glaciers, but also a way to relax and be a bit pampered.

This was my third big trip to Alaska (in addition to the trip with my parents in 2004, I spent a week there with a friend in 1999). I don’t know if I’ll ever get to go again, but even with those trips, there’s still so much more to see, particularly Wrangell – St Elias, Katmai, and Lake Clark National Parks. Those trips were too much to consider with small children this time. Maybe we’ll be able to next time. If not, though, I’m really glad we went.

Advertisements

About Lance Finney

Father of two boys, Java developer, Ethical Humanist, and world traveler (when I can sneak it in). Contributor to Grounded Parents.
This entry was posted in Travel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s