Alaska Vacation Part 1
For 2010 my family and I decided to take our annual "big vacation" to Alaska. This was mostly at my prodding, because I greatly enjoyed my last two trips there. The state is so big that one could make several trips there and still never see the same place twice, except for the major airports or common highways. The first trip that my wife and I took was a one-way cruise from Vancouver to Anchorage, with some time spent in Anchorage and Seward afterward. The second trip was a cruise with the whole family of the southern panhandle of Alaska. I became tired of the regimented nature of cruising, so, for this years' trip, we flew to Anchorage, rented a car, and made a triangular trip between Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Valdez. This newsletter will cover our first two stops, Anchorage and Talkeetna.
June 11-13 — Anchorage
Anchorage seems to me like a nice place to live, but I would not make it a priority to visit there. However, if you have to begin and/or end an Alaskan vacation in Anchorage, you may as well spend a day or two.
After arriving we settled into our hotel, the Microtel Inn near the airport. This was one of the fancier places we stayed during our trip, and I would recommend it if the location near the airport suits you.
Our first order of business after checking in was a visit to a pizza restaurant I discovered my last trip, the Moose's Tooth. Unfortunately, I'm evidently not the only one to discover the place, and there was a 70 minute wait when we arrived. We were all tired and hungry, so chose to eat elsewhere. Alaska seems to have a gigantic ratio of pizza restaurants to capita, so it was not difficult find another one. However, the place we stumbled upon was drab, both the atmosphere and the pizza. So our first evening in Alaska was a bust.
While jogging the following morning I discovered Spenard Beach Park, which is along Spenard Lake, the busiest seaplane airport in Alaska (I was told that on a tour my first trip to Anchorage). This was an enjoyable place to watch the seaplanes taxiing into position and then taking off.
The next day I continued to follow in my footsteps of my last Anchorage visit in 2004 and re-climb Flattop Mountain. This is a fun 3-mile round-trip hike up into the mountains along the edge of Anchorage. The hike starts out pretty leisurely but the last mile or so is steep and rocky and you'll need to use your hands in places. My 8-year old son and 12-year old daughter accompanied me this time, while my wife and 3-year old daughter did the nearby Anchorage zoo. All three of us made it easily. One thing you'll learn from this hike is that Anchorage people love dogs. Almost everybody else had at least one, and not little things like my own Havanese, but big manly dogs like labs, huskies, and lots of similar sized dogs that were likely mixed breeds.
After that we went to downtown Anchorage, which I hate to say is unimpressive. Maybe I didn't look carefully enough, but it seemed like mostly souvenir stores and government buildings. Fortunately we were there on a weekend, when they have an outdoor swap meet, which is very tourist oriented, but worth doing if you're downtown on a day that it is open. We picked up lots of tasty food, which we ate for days afterward. I also was saddened that a wonderful antique store run by an old lady named Mattie (I think) is no more. She had a great collection of license plates and highway signs, both of which I collect. Another shop owner said she retired to Skagway and the location now sells skateboarding stuff.
July 13-14 — Talkeetna
On our way to our next stop, Talkeetna, the highway took us through Wasilla, the hometown of Sarah Palin. She spoke so eloquently about the place in her vice-presidential acceptance speech, that I had to see what was so great about it. Over three trips to Alaska I can easily say that Wasilla is the most boring city in Alaska I've ever seen. Judging just from a quick look, and a meal at Señor Taco, I would say that Wasilla is to Anchorage what Pahrump is to Las Vegas, or Riverside to Los Angeles. Maybe it is a nice place to raise a family, but there didn't seem to be any reason for a visitor to get out off the highway.
After an unimpressive lunch I was in a hurry to hit the road for Talkeetna. I've wanted to go there for years. Fan sites for my favorite television program, Northern Exposure, claim it is loosely based on Talkeetna, although it was actually taped in Washington State. My mother, who has been almost everywhere in Alaska, warned me that I would be disappointed. So I wasn't sure what to expect.
Mom was pretty much right. Maybe the town used to be different, but in 2010 Talkeetna is about as opposite from the Cicely of Northern Exposure as you can get. It is one of just two major stops on the Alaska Railroad between Anchorage and Fairbanks. From what I can tell, the railroad is primarily for the benefit of tourists, and when the train comes through town, hoards of them overrun the town. Add to that an endless supply of tour busses I saw going up and down the road leading into town.
Like most tourists, I'm a hypocrite and loathe other tourists, and seek out "undiscovered" places to go, that still have fun things to do. Talkeetna is not one of those places, at least in the throws of tourist season. It is like Skagway, a nice, small and scenic town, but you feel like you're at Disneyland when you're one of hundreds of tourists gawking about.
However, it isn't all bad. The place we stayed at, the Swiss Alaska Inn, was very homey and peaceful. It was located in the woods, a short drive from the center of town. There was also a shortcut through the woods for a pleasant 5 minute walk to town. Just remember to make noise when you're walking through any woods in Alaska, so any bears will keep a safe distance away. Most of them would prefer to avoid a confrontation too. The mean hungry bear who the last Timothy Treadwell ever met being an obvious exception. I highly recommend the movie Grizzly Man for more that topic.
Getting back on topic, the building in the picture was just the registration desk and the restaurant. There were several other small houses in the back for their guests, which felt more like staying in someone's house than in a hotel. Judging by the climbing gear on the porches, a lot of mountaineers were staying there. A big group speaking a European language I couldn't quite identify, perhaps Swiss, were often seen hanging out in the restaurant passionately watching the World Cup on television.
We had two very good meals in Talkeetna, one at the rustic Roadhouse, and the other at the more modern Wildflower Cafe. If you only have time for one of them, I'd go with the Roadhouse for the simple charm of the place. It has the shortest menu I think I've ever seen, but everything on it is home cooked and tastes wonderful.
Another interesting thing about Talkeetna is it is the staging point for climbing Mt. McKinley, the highest mountain in North America. It seems to be a climbing fad to summit the highest peak in each continent, so all those with that quest pretty much have to pass through Talkeetna. There they wait for weather conditions to allow taking a small plane to the base of the mountain, where they will being what is usually about a three-week quest to reach the summit. They have to kill time there, waiting for a window of good weather to fly to the drop off point.
Don't be surprised if one day I'm among them, as I'm no slouch when it comes to climbing. I've already done Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the lower 48 states, about 200 miles of the Appalachian Trail, and numerous peaks around Vegas I won't bother to list. Not to say that qualifies me, but I'd like to do more challenging mountains when the kids get older.
You'll note that I call it Mt. McKinley, not Mt. Denali. Most Alaskans and mountain climbers call it Mt. Denali. In 1897 the U.S. Board on Geographic Names named the peak McKinely after president William McKinley. This seems to be much to the chagrin of some Alaskins, who resent the federal government's intrusion, not to mention that William McKinley had never even seen the mountain. Still, some in Alaska evidently call it McKinley, as evidenced by various businesses that employ the name. While it seems everybody in my own Las Vegas Mountaineers Club refers to it as Denali, I am sticking with McKinley because:
- It sounds better.
- It is confusing to call it Denali, because it sits in Denali National Park. If one were to just say something like "I'm going to Denali." it would not be clear if he/she meant the park or the mountain.
- Like it or not, federal law trumps state law.
- Any official U.S. map will call it McKinley.
Talkeetna has the most peaceful cemetary I have ever seen this in this country, and second in the world only the place where my grandparents were laid to rest in Germany near Fürstenwalde. Unlike the usual huge expanses or grass with a matrix of tombstones you usually see in this country, this one was forested, with individual modest tombstones scattered around. There was also a monument to those who lost their lives climbling Mt. McKinley.
Another nice thing about Talkeetna is it has the best public playground I have ever seen, Wild Woods Park. I discovered it while I was jogging one morning. It is along the main road leading to town, a couple miles south of the town center. It is not emphasized in guides, so you won't see many fellow tourists there, mostly what look like local children. I forgot to take any pictures of it, but it is a $160,000 community funded park, and built in large part by the local citizens. The playground itself was mostly and appropriately build with wood, as opposed to the usual plastic and metal at other playgrounds. Everything was painted with local themes and there were interesting surprises, like a mountaineering climbing wall and a xylophone made from wood and PVC pipe. Here is a good website about the Talkeetna Community Playground Project. You never see this kind of community spirit in Vegas.
Finally, everybody told me that I should have done a flight seeing trip of Denali National Park out of the town airport. There is no shortage of businesses offering such flights. On our way out of town we stopped at the playground, and a woman from Colorado just raved about it. I considered it, but most members of my family other than me get terribly motion sick, and the air around mountains tends to be unstable. That is a handicap that will keep one from lots of fun things in Alaska. By the way, the only reason I found another tourist at the playground was she said they were planning to build a similar playground in her own hometown in Colorado, and she wanted to see it to get ideas.
Stay tuned for part 2 in my next newsletter when I plan to cover Denali National Park and Chena Hot Springs.