Story and photos by Irwin and Paula Nesoff
As the state’s license plates proudly proclaim, Alaska is the “Last Frontier.” This vast state, one-fifth the size of the continental U.S., is larger than Texas, California and Montana combined. Because of its immense size and vast distances, most people who visit only see a very small portion of the state. With so much to see, Alaska beckons the adventurous traveler to step out of his comfort zone and experience the last frontier up close and personal. For the traveler who is willing to leave the luxuries of cruise ships and high-end lodges behind and go “native,” the rewards of this vast and rugged land are many.
Having spent two weeks, and traveling 1,800 miles exploring south central Alaska, we have returned in awe of the 49th state. Our journey began in Anchorage, a city that sits on the Cook Inlet. Anyplace else this would be the Cook Sea, but in Alaska it is merely an inlet. The first stop on our itinerary was Wrangell St. Elias National Park, a full day’s drive from Anchorage. Before you balk at the idea of so much time in the car, realize that is part of the experience. Seeing glaciers, snow capped mountains, glacial rivers, vast forests and huge valleys around each bend in the road, adds to an unforgettable experience.
Breaking up the ride, the first stop was the Matanuska Lodge in Sutton, a two hour ride from Anchorage through the magical Mat-Su Valley. As you drive, the valley sprawls before you with a mountain tapestry for a backdrop, creating a true feast for the eyes, while below you the Matanuska River gurgles and churns as it races you to the next bend in the road.
Along the way, a short ride to Palmer on the Glenn Highway brings you to the Noisy Goose restaurant, a true Alaska experience and the perfect transition to this quirky land. Stepping onto the front porch, you are greeted by two carved bears, one longingly peering in the window. Once inside you come face to face with a full-size, stuffed grizzly behind glass. The food is refreshingly good, but the main attraction is the hundreds of placards on the walls, with humorous sayings that may prevent you from perusing the menu but remind you that you are in a land like no other.
If the Noisy Goose is the epitome of Alaska quirkiness, the Matanuska Lodge takes quirk one-step further. Owner Brenda Goldberg has filled this beautiful log lodge to the rafters with the works of local artists and craftspeople. Every inch of this spacious B n B is filled with colorful and one of a kind objects. From the hand painted doors, to the expansive outdoor deck, the sumptuous breakfasts and awe inspiring views, the Matanuska Lodge is a must stop on your Alaska road trip.
Brenda is extremely accommodating, providing a separate refrigerator and freezer for guests to store groceries. Another important amenity is the blackout curtains in the large, private rooms. The twenty-two hours of daylight that we experienced at the end of June, made these curtains a necessity, but one that was missing as we stayed in other accommodations.
Brenda has created such a warm and inviting place that leaving was difficult, but we pushed on. Following the West Glenn Highway, the next stop is Wrangell St. Elias National Park; the largest and one of the least visited of the national parks. This wilderness gem is perhaps one of Alaska’s best-kept secrets. Wrangell St Elias sits at the end of a 47-mile long dirt road following an old railroad bed through beautiful scenery. At the end of the road, connected by a footbridge lies a wilderness with all the trappings of Alaskan folklore: an abandoned mine and a ghost town. Once you leave your car behind and cross the foot bridge, you can take a shuttle to McCarthy the former bustling mine town and further up the road is Kennecott, home to the abandoned Kennecott copper mine. Once home to hundreds of people with its own red light district, McCarthy now has twenty-three die-hard residents... and no Red Light District.
There is no shortage of adventures to enjoy while here. There are two outfitters in Kennecott offering a full menu of activities including half day to multi-day hikes, ice climbing and rafting. We went on the half-day glacier hike with Kennecott Wilderness Guides and then joined the Kennecott Mill Town Tour with the St. Elias Alpine Guides. After hiking about two miles to the Root Glacier, we stopped to put on crampons (a traction device attached to boots) for the next leg of the journey on the glacier. Our two guides Chris Brothers and Jack Teague were extremely personable and knowledgeable about the environment, the ecology and the glacier itself. Their ongoing narrative and willingness to share their knowledge and love of the environment helped to make this a special experience. If you have never hiked on a glacier before, this is a must do activity.
While visiting Wrangell St. Elias we stayed at the Currant Ridge Cabins. These are a few miles away from the foot bridge leading to the park. These comfortable yet rustic cabins have a full kitchen and separate bedroom. The views from the decks are inspiring, as are most views in Alaska. The owners, Andy and Cynthia Shinder, are happy to share the bountiful produce they grow in two green houses on the property; an added bonus. If you plan to visit here, stop in Anchorage on your way to do some grocery shopping, because you will be deep in the Alaskan wilderness with no malls or stores to mar the landscape, or to provide necessities.
The next stop, Denali National Park, is a full day’s drive with an overnight stop along the way. If you are skittish about long drives, these are empty roads with beautiful vistas around each turn. Denali is one of the gems in the National Parks system, and not to be missed. Since cars are only allowed a short distance into the park, it pays to make reservations for a park bus to take you in. You can go as far into the park as you wish on the bus, which winds along a narrow mountain road, with steep drop offs that make you hope the driver is having a good day and did not have a fight with his/her partner before coming to work.
If you are one of the lucky thirty percent, you may actually get to see snow covered Mt. McKinley now Mt. Denali) seemingly floating above the surrounding mountain ranges. The view is awe-inspiring, even though the closest you can get by bus is seventy-five miles. They say that only fifty percent of people who attempt to summit Mt. McKinley actually make it and only thirty percent of park visitors see the mountain when it is not cloud enshrouded.