Welcome to Alaska, land of the great outdoors, where acres far outnumber people and miles of untamed wilderness are just ripe for viewing and doing. Breezing along an Alaskan road is a veritable feast for the senses and can include such once-in-a-lifetime experiences as seeing a moose and her calf nibbling on berries or watching the sun shining on Mount McKinley. But to really get a feel for this glorious land of unbeatable beauty and grandeur, get out of the RV and get active.
Don’t let the idea of having to get your home on wheels to Alaska deter you. RVing in Alaska isn’t just for retirees and others with tons of time. Working professionals and families can rent various-sized, squeaky-clean, fully equipped Class C Winnebagos from Great Alaskan Holidays — free shuttle service is offered from Anchorage hotels — and set off to experience all Alaska has to offer, even with only a week or two of vacation time.
Larger than the state of Massachusetts, Denali National Park, about a five-hour drive from Anchorage, boasts the highest mountain on the North American continent, Mount McKinley, and 6 million mostly wild and unspoiled acres of wilderness. Visiting one of Alaska’s most famous and impressive attractions can be done on one of the park’s tour or shuttle buses or on foot. While a bus tour is a great way to get an overview, nothing beats a hike for getting intimately acquainted with the park’s wilderness. And there are hikes for all abilities, from short ranger-led nature walks to self-guided cross-country hikes. Serious climbers can try scaling Mount McKinley or Mount Foraker, but must register 60 days prior to beginning their ascent.
Denali Grizzly Bear Resort (866-583-2696, www.denaligrizzlybear.com), just a few miles from the park’s visitor center, has been family-owned since the 1960s and offers RV sites with water and electrical hookups. It also features a general store, a laundromat and coin-operated showers.
Fairbanks may be Alaska’s second-largest city, but, with only about 80,000 residents, it would be considered pretty small by most states’ standards. The Chena River flows through the city, and is definitely where the action is. Large paddlewheelers glide down the river on the Riverboat Discovery tours, which include a stop at a recreated Chena Indian Village. Here, visitors learn about the native culture from local guides of Athabascan descent and get an introduction to mushing from an Iditarod contender and her dogs. For a more active river experience, rent a kayak or canoe from Alaska Outdoor Rentals & Guides and paddle yourself along the Chena.
Even your overnight stop in Fairbanks can be river-related. River’s Edge RV Park (800-770-3343, www.riversedge.net) is located on the banks of the Chena and is a full-service campground that offers many extras, such as free shuttle service to major attractions, tour information and ticket sales and a Car/RV wash facility. Nice as a river view is, true Christmas enthusiasts may find the urge to spend a night down the road in the town of North Pole at the Santaland RV Park (888-488-9123, www.santalandrv.com) just too hard to resist.
Less visited than Denali, but none the less beautiful, Wrangell-St. Elias is the United States’ largest national park. With mountain peaks, valleys and glaciers galore, this is the perfect place for the unique experience of glacier hiking. While there is a road into the park, it’s not recommended for RVs. Better to park your rig at the Chitina Airstrip and hop into one of Wrangell Mountain Air’s small planes and be treated to spectacular aerial vistas as you fly into the park.
After you land on the McCarthy airstrip, St. Elias Alpine Guides will pick you up and take you to their office to be fitted for crampons, metal spiked contraptions needed for ice-walking. After a two-mile hike out to the glacier, it’s time to strap on the crampons and start walking on the ice. It takes a while to trust that the metal spikes of the crampons will actually be enough to prevent you from sliding around, but they do. And walking on the blue/white ice is a unique experience. Really hardy souls who want to take their glacier experience to another level can opt for the ice-climbing trip.
After a day of hiking and ice walking, a relaxing night at Kenny Lake Mercantile & RV Park (907-822-3313, www.kennylake.com) fits the bill. And, if you’re too tired to consider cooking, stroll over to the park’s diner for a fresh halibut sandwich.
While Valdez conjures up visions of oil spills and tidal waves to some, it is also the gateway to the beautiful Prince William Sound. Stan Stephens Glacier & Wildlife Cruises will take you on seven- to nine-hour-long wildlife and glacier viewing cruises around the sound. Besides the quietly beautiful scenery and stunning glaciers, there’s plenty of wildlife, including breaching orcas, bald eagles, playful sea otters and sunning sea lions. For some whitewater thrills contact Keystone Raft & Kayak Adventures for raft rides through Keystone Canyon, or get a dose of Class IV rapids on the Tsaina or Tonsina rivers.
Eagle’s Rest RV Park (800-553-7275, www.eaglesrestrv.com) is a full-service facility across the street from the harbor, with great views of the Chugach Mountains. A bike path runs near the park, a perfect place for a morning jog, walk or pedal.
On your way back to Anchorage consider a luncheon stop at Sheep Mountain Lodge on the Glenn Highway. In business since the 1940s, the log-cabin restaurant with mountain views serves up home-cooked meals that include delicious soups and sinful cinnamon rolls.
If you still have time after touring the interior, head south from Anchorage for the Kenai Peninsula. While most roads in Alaska are a treat for the senses, the road to Homer is particularly lovely, with plenty of water and mountain scenery.
In the seaside town of Homer on Kachemak Bay artists rub shoulders with commercial anglers, which makes for a community that is arty without being self-conscious. There’s a small downtown area and the Spit, a narrow 4.5-mile-long gravel bar that extends into the bay, which is where the harbor is. The downtown is filled with creatively decorated restaurants and galleries, and the harbor is filled with fishing boats.
Nothing appeals more to fishing aficionados than hooking the big one, and there are fishing charters galore around the harbor that will help you do just that. Even if you don’t care for fishing, it’s worth walking around the back of one of Homer’s most colorful institutions, the Salty Dawg Saloon, to see halibut and salmon being weighed, filleted and photographed open-air at Buttwhackers.
There are several RV parks on the Spit, with one of the newest being Heritage RV Park (800-380-7787, www.alaskaheritage rvpark.com), which has waterfront sites and includes a wealth of amenities, such as satellite TV, wireless Internet access and an espresso stand. From the park it’s a short walk to the harbor, where water taxis and tour companies ferry visitors to bays on the peninsula unreachable by vehicle.
For a day of scenic viewing combined with exercise, sign up for one of the full-day tours offered through the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies on Peterson Bay. The morning starts with a naturalist-led tide-pool walk, while the afternoon is spent kayaking around the bay with St. Augustine’s Kayak & Tours, who will provide roundtrip transportation from the Homer harbor.
Karl at Bay Excursions provides water-taxi service to Halibut Cove, a lovely spot reminiscent of tiny communities on the coast of Maine. If you can spare a night away from your RV, consider bedding down at Lucinda and Kevin Sidelinger’s Alaska’s Ridgewood Wilderness Lodge, an impressive custom-built wooden structure with wraparound porches and stunning bay vistas. The bedrooms have lovely views, and Lucinda’s meals are truly mouthwatering.
Back at the Homer harbor there are plenty of shops and galleries to scour and, for a fresh seafood meal you don’t have catch and cook yourself, head for Captain Patties Fish House. There are ocean views, fish that come right off the boats and crab legs to die for.
The outdoors is what Alaska is all about. And while seeing it out of the windows of your RV is surely a treat, nothing beats getting out and experiencing it up close and personal by foot, bike, kayak, raft or canoe.
Alaska Travel Industry Association, (800) 862-5275, www.travelalaska.com.