The Last Frontier
Written By: Grant Cappy
Two weeks after visiting Hawaii it was time to explore the other noncontiguous US state, Alaska! Our 49th and 50th states were key players in my decision to move west so when I came across cheap flights in May I jumped on both! Having the ability to work from anywhere and having PTO saved up certainly made it easier. Hawaii was incredible as you can imagine but it was always Alaska that kept me lying awake at night wondering.
“The mountains are calling and I must go.” -John Muir
Little cheesy but I really wanted to see those mountains! Only 3 of the 8 National Parks in Alaska are accessible by car so our first trip would be to those 3: Wrangell St. Elias, Kenai Fjords and Denali! Here’s the 1,500 mile route:
I was stoked but even more so that I’d be sharing the experience with my adventurous girlfriend! I also bought a camera (Sony Alpha a6300 with 16-50mm and 55-210mm lenses) so expect my pictures to take a pleasant upgrade! Here’s a sneak peak of ‘The High One’.
We flew into Anchorage Thursday May 25th and were in awe of the mountain ranges from take off to landing. It was late but there was still light. These days we’d have about 18 hours of daylight with the other 6 hours still lit up in what’s called a civil twilight. That just means the Sun doesn’t drop more than 6 degrees below the horizon. I enjoyed the extra daylight just needed an eye mask for sleeping. That night we actually stayed in an Airbnb but before we nodded off we watched planes fly over us at Point Woronzof Park and saw a baby moose!
That morning we did a little work from a cafe before heading towards the largest US National Park at over 13.2 million acres, Wrangell St. Elias. That’s bigger than 6 Yellowstones! To get there we’d first take the Glenn Highway (Hwy 1) 3 hours until it dead ended in Glennallen. That drive is absolutely spectacular! The Chugach Mountains follow the entire southern coastline and to this day may be my favorite mountain range!
We made approximately 1 million stops for photo ops. There are turnouts everywhere in Alaska and for good reason.
A few of the best stops had inspiring views of the largest glacier that’s accessible by car in the US, Matanuska Glacier! 27 miles long and 4 miles wide. You can hike on the glacier but we had another glacier waiting for us.
Along with the mountains you’ll pass a billion larch and black spruce trees that line the highway. Around every turn was a scene I could only dream of.
Scenes of all varieties like this poly chrome mountain.
It’s easy to tell when you are approaching Glennallen as you’ll see Mt. Drum (12,011ft) and Mt. Sanford (16,237ft) welcoming you.
After getting gas in Glennallen we’d stop at the main visitor center for Wrangell St. Elias in Copper Center to get up to date info on McCarthy Road. That is one of only 2 gravel roads that go into the park so to really experience the monstrous park you’ll need a plane. We’ll certainly come back for a flight tour but I’d suggest a road trip to Kennecott first!
I’m obsessed with maps and these terrain maps are always my favorite. If you can’t tell there are some big mountains here. Four different ranges collide in the park: Chugach, Wrangell, Saint Elias and Alaska. They include 9 of the 16 highest peaks in the US! Many of which are volcanic but only one is active and that is the massive Mount Wrangell (14,163 ft).
This was taken near Chitina which is where the McCarthy Road begins. 60 miles of graded gravel would lead us to McCarthy where a whopping 28 people call home. It was a slow ride but that was okay as the views were fascinating.
Another interesting thing about Alaska is it’s covered with braided rivers and they all stem from a receding, advancing, or tidewater glacier. In Wrangell St. Elias alone there are 150 glaciers! The park harbors more than 60% of this huge states glacial ice and that also means there’s a ton of sweet braided rivers.
We decided to break for the night around mile 55 at 11pm after one last stop at Long Lake. The sky had a beautiful pink hue until it turned back blue.
We started early that next day ready to get up in it! That was the slogan for the trip! After 5 short miles we parked at the Kennicott River and walked half a mile to McCarthy. From there you can walk the 5 miles to Kennecott or pay $10 for a shuttle. We choose to walk!
Within Kennecott lies the Kennecott Mines National Historic Landmark which is considered the best remaining example of early 20th Century copper mining. It was fascinating learning about the town’s history of discovery, perseverance and ingenuity. The ominous 14 story wooden building in the heart of the town still stands!
The Chugach range always seems to stay in view!
We had enough food for the next two days but the lodge in town opened that day so we splurged on some excellent Bison and Copper River Salmon! With full belly’s we walked a mile and a half to the Jumbo Creek camping area. The only amenities were bear boxes, a creek and insane views of Kennicott and Root Glaciers.
After camp was set up we hiked on Root Glacier! We only saw two other people the whole time.
We felt so small next to the massive glaciers and mountains! It was overcast but the mountains close to us stayed clear.
We spent a lot of time exploring Root Glacier. Over every hill was another crazy ice formation with a stunning view.
It felt like we were walking on the moon or something otherworldly.
After a few hours of walking on ice we crawled into our tent and prepared for another early morning!
In the morning we hiked up to the top of the abandoned Kennecott mine via the Bonanza Mine trail.
What a load of silt! The Kennicott Glacier carries a ton of silty sediments that deposit and erode continuously.
After the hike we packed up and headed back towards McCarthy. It was a short stay but we felt like we experienced a lot and we still had 60 miles of gravel road to go. In McCarthy we grabbed breakfast at the Potato before driving westward. We only saw a sliver of Wrangell St. Elias National Park but I can say it’s extremely underrated. I’ll be back for a flight seeing tour and a trip down Nabesna Road!
This crossing of Alaska stayed wet and cloudy so we moved a bit faster. South of Anchorage Hwy 1 becomes Seward Highway. That drive down to Portage was breathtaking. It was also nice to see the Alaskan Railroad a few times. Would love to cruise around in one of those coaches.
8 hours after leaving Kennecott we were at the Williwaw campground. We slept in the car while it rained all night. In the morning we took a drive through the Anton Anderson Memorial tunnel to Whittier. On the other side we took a hike on the Portage Glacier trail. It was very wet with limited visibility but that didn’t stop us.
Portage Glacier was pretty gnarly but we didn’t stay too long. On the way back we quickly ran/fell down the snow. We were miserable and happy!
As the weather started to clear up we drove back through the tunnel to hike in the Chugach State Park. We’d be hiking the Crow Pass Trail which follows a portion of the original Iditarod Trail!
Right when we started a mother and son came running frantically towards us. They told us they saw a bear but we decided to proceed. It helped that another couple was behind us and they happened to be hunters who gave us some tips. Every turn we yelled ‘hey bear’ until we came across a… mountain goat.
The ‘bear’ was our only wildlife sighting outside of a few funny marmots. The rest of the hike our jaws were dragging on the trail. The snow filled mountains were nuts!
As we gained altitude it got colder, whiter and even more magnificent.
Soon darker clouds rolled in so we turned around at the Crow Pass Hut. The Chugach Mountains left us in complete awe. In the parking lot we cooked up lunch then took off towards Seward where we’d car camp bayside! That drive also had some crazy mountains and scenery that just made us continue to love this place more and more.
These beautiful bright blue lakes in Moose Pass are Upper Trail Lake and Kenai Lake. I love the saying the Kenaitze Indian Tribe has for the Kenai Peninsula: “Yaghanen” meaning the good land! I’d argue it’s better than good! Sleeping right next to Resurrection Bay gave us an amazing backdrop.
The highest peak in Seward is Mount Alice which I hear isn’t a bad hike later in the season.
For dinner we grabbed the best fish of the trip at the Salmon Bake then took much needed showers before snoozing on the bay.
In the morning we went over to Kayak Adventures Worldwide to start our full day Kayak tour in the Kenai Fjords National Park! This was our big expenditure and it was worth every penny! We started on an intimate ship named the ‘Weather or Knot’ that took us 2 hours around the Aialik Cape all the way into Aialik Bay.
The captain rocked and was obsessed with spotting wildlife and stopped anytime she did. We saw Orca Whales, puffins and mountain goats!
We also were blessed with blue skies and some incredible sun kissed mountains! Around every turn was another towering peak rising abruptly from the sea.
Best of all we’d pass a number of epic glaciers like the largest in the park, Bear Glacier.
I actually got a little seasick but that didn’t stop me from having the best day ever! When we hit the shore I gathered my wits and got ready to paddle up to the Aialik Glacier. Our guides were fantastic and said it was the nicest day they’ve ever spent on the water here. Note it wasn’t their first season either! It was like paddling on glass surrounded by 50-300 year old icebergs.
We could only go up to 1/2 mile from Aialik Glacier because it was constantly calving, sending huge chucks of ice into the water which made swells that would make it all the way to us. Every minute we would hear white thunder and find where it was coming from. It was insanely cool!
See the waterfall of ice below.
The size of it all was hard to perceive as most things in Alaska and we were stuck in amazement. We were told the calving was a normal process and not directly related to global warming. What’s feeding this glacier and 40 other glaciers in the Kenai Fjords National Park is the Harding Icefield which I’ll get into later. For now we were licking icebergs and taking in the unique scenery.
The guides were nice enough to snap some pics of us.
We were a great paddling duo and our minds where totally blown. My bladder was also close to blowing so we picked up our speed on the way back to the beach. The only things passing us were cute sea otters, majestic bald eagles and tons of seabirds. Tens of thousands of seabirds migrate to this coastline every summer.
As we waiting for our ship we saw many signs of just how wild this place was.
For the 2 hour trip back I was prepared with Bonine so I could focus on capturing more of the magic we witnessed on our trip in.
Below is the Pedersen Glacier and more mountains of course!
We ended up seeing even more wildlife including Humpback Whales, Stellar Sea Lions, Killer Whales, Bald Eagles and Dall’s Porpoise which are rarely ever seen.
They also had some device that was able to play the sounds the Orcas where making under water and it was really special. The Stellar Sea Lions were just fun to observe.
Some just wanted some space but that was hard to come by.
This was one grand day and one I’ll never ever forget it! We would camp bay side again while thinking about our day over and over again.
In the morning we drove to Exit Glacier which is the most accessible interior glacier within the Kenai Fjords. It also has a nature center highlighting the smallest National Park in Alaska. It’s only considered small by Alaska standards as it’s the 17th largest National Park in the US. There are only a few maintained trails in the park and they’re all near Exit Glacier.
We took the incredible Harding Icefield trail which gains 1,000ft per mile! Once over the tree line we had spectacular views over Exit Glacier and onto the Harding Icefield.
The Harding Icefield aka the mother of all glaciers is a mile high mass of ice that covers more than 300 square miles. Include the 40 glaciers it feeds and the total coverage is 1,100 square miles! It’s the largest icefield in the US and collects as much as 400 inches of snow every year.
There was a lot of fresh snow while we visited so we choose not to hike on the glacier. Instead we took in the views from above and it was nothing short of perfection!
Thanks to all that snow we did some glissading to get down quicker with more excitement. We most certainly did not look silly…
We talked about backpacking here but choose to get a head start on Denali so we went back to Anchorage to stay in the same Airbnb as before even though he was a Michigan fan. Go green! If you’re in Anchorage I highly suggest Moose’s Tooth Pizza. There was a wait but it was well worth it. Come morning we drove north in search for the tallest mountain in North America. It stands at 20,320 ft and is also the 3rd most prominent/most isolated peak in the world so it was easy to spot at Denali View South.
Our luck of good weather only continued and we were wonderstruck by ‘The High One” as the Koyukon Athabaskan people call it.
We were so honored and grateful to join the 30% club. Since Denali creates its own weather it’s only visible 30% of the year on average. As we continued towards the entrance of Denali National Park we were graced with more views like this! The Alaska Range absolutely towers over the landscape.
Close to the entrance we stopped at the Creek Side Cafe for an Alaskan sampler with halibut and reindeer sausage to go along with our favorite Alaskan Brew from Kenai River Brewing, the honeymoon hefe! With everything and everybody fueled up we entered Denali National Park & Preserve. There’s a lot to do in the first five miles including the best National Park Visitor Center I’ve ever seen (25 so far).
We had a reservation to camp at Savage River the next two nights and a reservation to get picked up by the shuttle the following day. You could spend days in the visitor center but once we were signed in we left to take advantage of the clear skies! Savage River is located at mile 13 off Denali Park Road which is the only road that enters the park. If we wanted to go further we’d have to take a shuttle, bike or walk. No other vehicles can go down this road and that’s what keeps this beautiful place wild!
After setting up camp we finally busted out the baseball mitts and played some toss! Then we hiked around Savage River and the Mountain Vista trail.
It was paradise! What made it even better was a view of Denali’s south and north peaks right from the campground.
As we relaxed that evening a Park Ranger greeted us and invited us to a presentation on mountaineering so we went. Along with my goal to visit all 59 National Parks I wanted to summit the highest peak in each of the 50 states until learning about what it takes to hike Denali. It sounds harder than Everest considering there are no Sherpas and in order to hike it once you have to hike it twice because of the hike high camp low strategy. Most people spend 2-3 weeks on the mountain carrying a 40-60lb pack in addition to pulling an 80-100lb sled filled with their literal shit as what goes up must come down. A few dreams were now in question but it was a peaceful night minus the night of course.
In the morning we made our oats before getting picked up by a Denali shuttle bus driven by the all knowing Wayne!
We didn’t pay for the tour bus but Wayne gave us a rundown of everything we saw and he really knew it all. Anytime there was a wildlife sighting he would stop and seemed just as amazed as we were. Not far into the four hour trip down the gravel Denali Park Road we encountered our first Grizzly Bear!
We were ecstatic but stayed quite so we didn’t disturb the amazing creature. Alaska really rolled out the red carpet for us as we ended up seeing 18 Grizzly Bears! I have to thank some people on the bus who were able to spot some far in the distance.
They were all eating roots and berries! We’d also spot Dall’s Sheep, Caribou, Moose, Marmots, Snowshoed Hares, Arctic Ground Squirrels and the State bird of Alaska, the Willow Ptarmigan!
Caribouty! Along with constant wildlife sightings we’d constantly stop for jaw dropping views and the bathroom. Our first stop was glorious!
Even the bathroom stop had mind boggling views.
The 3rd highest mountain range in the world, The Alaska Range was unbelievable.
The 92 mile road ends at Wonder Lake but since it was early in the season we could only go as far as the Eielson Visitor Center (mile 66). Just before Eielson we made one last pit stop for a picture perfect view of the Crown Jewel of North America.
It was certainly beauty at its purest! Once at Eielson we cooked up some food before taking a hike.
Eielsen is actually the closest part of the Denali Park Road to Denali itself at only 30 miles. For the first time we had some cloud coverage but how could we complain after what we’ve experienced. Not to mention the 6 million acres surrounding Denali which are absolutely stunning.
From the Eielson Visitor Center we took the Alpine Trail 1000 ft up to the top of Thorofare Ridge. The views were something special.
Maybe better than the views were the playful Arctic Ground Squirrels! They were so interested in us probably hoping we had food but we planned poorly so we couldn’t even feed ourselves if we wanted to.
Once we came back down we waited in the visitor center for the next shuttle. They weren’t running as many shifts as they normally do so we had some time to kill. We watched a film on climbing Denali and it only made me want to hike it even less. Those people are crazy! At the time 500 people were on the mountain and the summit rate was only 10%. Wicked!
Eventually we were picked up and slowly taken back to Savage River. We’d see more beautiful wildlife and scenery!
Back at camp we went straight to bed and woke up with two happy souls!
It was our last full day so before heading south we took a hike in Denali State Park. We would be hiking up to Kesugi Ridge starting at the Little Coal Creek trailhead. Kesugi is so fun to say!
As we climbed the view of Denali and the Alaska Range got better and better.
There was a bit of cloud coverage but it almost made the roof of North America look even cooler.
Possibly my favorite peak outside of Denali itself is Moose’s Tooth! Toothy AF
Along with the beautiful peaks are powerful glaciers than fan off of Denali like arms of an octopus. They cover 1/6th (1 million acres) of Denali National Park and my favorite is Ruth Glacier aka ‘The Great Gorge’. It’s a mile wide valley glacier with 5,000 ft granite walls surrounding it. If there was no ice the canyon would drop twice as far as the Grand Canyon.
Again blown away we took off towards Anchorage to find camping. About halfway down the George Parks Hwy we stopped at a convenience store that had showers. The showers were actually very clean and nice. Alaska really knows how to accommodate tourists making this great expanse easy to manage! For our last night we could go nowhere else than the Chugach Mountains. We choose to stay at the Ekultna Lake campground in the Chugach State Park and lucked out by finding the last available site! Although our neighbor was blasting Nickleback it was quite pleasant. We took a nice walk to Ekultna Lake to watch the Sun drop below the horizon one last time here in Alaska.
It was the perfect way to end the greatest trip ever! Alaska exceeded every expectation and still keeps me lying awake at night dreaming of my next trip! Coming for you Glacier Bay, Lake Clark, Katmai, Kobuk Valley and Gates of the Arctic National Parks!
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