Arrive in Anchorage. This modern city is the gateway to thousands of miles of wilderness, overlooked by giant snow-capped peaks and flanked by the icy waters of the Cook Inlet.
Due to the number of evening flights into Anchorage, your Leader plans to do the welcome meeting on the morning of day two, and will leave a message in reception with details on timings and everything else that you'll need for the day. There are no activities planned today, so you are free to arrive at any time. Our hotel in Anchorage provides a free shuttle service to and from Anchorage International airport, which is about a 15 minute drive away, and we will give you instructions on how to take this shuttle in your final documents.
If your flight arrives earlier in the day, a visit to the Alaska Native Heritage Centre will really set the scene and provide a great introduction to the many native cultures in this vast state. Alternatively, try the local beer at one of the city's many micro-breweries.
Departing Anchorage this morning, our itinerary is dependent on the ferry schedules to Valdez, which are only published in February each year. If the ferries are operating on the day of our planned itinerary, we will drive to Whittier, at the western end of Prince William Sound, via the Portage Glacier Visitors Centre. After a short stop at the centre and a view of the dramatic scenery of the Byron Glacier Creek, we continue to Whittier and board a ferry to Valdez.
If the ferry schedule does not depart on the day of our itinerary, we will take the beautiful drive to Valdez instead, passing high mountains, waterfalls, roads winding through a rock-cut canyon and a view of the Matanuska Glacier. You may spot moose along the way.
Valdez is the terminus of the 800 mile Trans-Alaska Pipeline which begins in Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic Ocean. This astounding feat of engineering traverses the Brooks Range, crossing rivers and valleys, above and below ground, before finally feeding its oil into the waiting tankers. The economy of the town depends very much on the oil industry and salmon fisheries, and is our base for tonight.
Our route today takes us through some of the most spectacular scenery in Alaska, as we drive through forested hills and past cascading rivers, fed by small glaciers on the Chugach Mountains. The views are dramatic as we reach Keystone Canyon, where sheer cliff walls covered in lime green moss present cascades of crystal water tumbling over the edge to the river below. 'Bridal Veil' and 'Horsetail' Falls evocatively describe the scene. The canyon is steeped in history from the gold rush period and this was once the scene of a bloody gun battle, whilst the remains of the sled trail used in the early days are still visible.
Crossing Thompson Pass we head towards the Worthington Glacier, heading east through Chitina and onto the McCarthy road. Stopping at the Copper River, we then cross the Kuskulana River on a narrow railroad bridge high above the water and continue through a vast expanse of untouched wilderness, following an unpaved road through the remote forests. At the end of the road we reach the small town of McCarthy (population 42), which grew to serve the Copper mine at Kennicott, located 4.5 miles up the valley.
Set amongst the wild landscapes of the Wrangell St. Elias National Park, McCarthy presents us with an ideal base from which to explore this stunning setting further. Less accessible than Denali, Wrangell St Elias contains the largest concentration of glaciers on the continent and nine of the 16 highest peaks in the United States. Some 13.2 million acres of the park system have been declared a UNESCO World Heritage area. Mountain goats and Dall sheep with long curly horns can be found on the upper slopes while wolves, black bears, coyotes, bison and caribou range through the interior of the park. Note that wildlife spottings, as always, are never guaranteed, particularly given the sheer size and scale of this national park - it's the same size as Yellowstone, Yosemite and the entirety of Switzerland combined!
Today we aim to walk the Root Glacier trail, which starts from Kennicott and is a straightforward but slightly strenuous walk that takes in the magnificent panoramas of the Chugach Mountains and the Kennicott and Root Glaciers. It's a fantastic introduction to the grandeur of this area. The hike begins easily with a path of gradual undulations, and the last section towards the glacier is a steep set of switchbacks with loose gravel and scree underfoot. Views over the glacier at the end are stunning.
Today has been left free for you to enjoy at your leisure. You may like to try some of the other spectacular walks through the park, perhaps taking an optional hike along the Kennicott Glacier, or undertaking some optional ice-climbing (accompanied by professional guides). Also the powerful rivers present some exhilarating rafting opportunities, which offer breathtaking scenery.
Among the huge amount of adrenaline-filled excursions available here (including scenic overflights, with some of the most striking scenery in Alaska), if you'd prefer a more sedate alternative then you may like to explore the old mining town of Kennicott. Designated as a National Historic landmark and considered the finest remaining example of an early 20th century copper mine anywhere, the town remains a fascinating monument to a long forgotten era of America's pioneering past. For those looking for a break from Alaska's epic landscapes, the tour of the mill offers an excellent shot of history and is well worth the time spent exploring.
Heading north today we take the Denali Highway towards Tangle Lakes, stopping en route to see the remarkable fish wheels on the Copper River, an ingenious method of catching the abundant salmon that follow the river to spawn. Stopping at the Wrangell St. Elias Visitors Centre for a short visit, we then continue on to Glenallen, our gateway into the beautiful setting of the Tangle lakes, one of the most accessible of Alaska's wild and pristine wilderness areas. This is a region of open tundra, glacial lakes and mountain ridges, blessed with an abundance natural beauty, cultural traditions and spectacular wildlife. It will be a day of driving on a (largely) unsealed road, and on arrival we should have time to enjoy a short walk in the alpine tundra.
Continuing northwest, the highway takes us over a rugged landscape, where the views are breath taking and, weather permitting, we may get a glimpse of Denali (formerly Mt McKinley), the highest mountain in North America (6188m). The Athabascan people called it 'Denali' meaning 'the high one' and this towering pyramid of rock, ice and snow is often shrouded in a blanket of mist and cloud. Denali National Park represents one of the world's last intact ecosystems, over 6 million acres of tundra, glaciers and mountains that present a unique opportunity to observe the natural behaviour of wild animals still unaffected by the often destructive influence of man. The park provides a haven for bears, caribou, Dall sheep, wolves, moose, red foxes, wolverine and over 160 species of birds, and is without doubt one of the highlights of our remarkable journey.
We'll get an introduction to the park today, and depending on timings, we may be able to see a demonstration of the park's sled dogs, which are used for patrolling in the winter season and are an integral part of the cultural traditions of Denali. They remain the only sled dogs in the entire U.S. who help directly in the preservation of the park and its wildlife.
This morning we will drive to the entrance of Denali National Park and transfer to a shuttle bus for our journey into the park itself. Established as a national park in 1917, the area was designated as an international biosphere reserve in 1976 and contains everything from 1200 pound moose to 1.5 gram shrews. In order to ensure the preservation of this wilderness, vehicle access is restricted, so these shuttle buses are the only way that visitors can enter the park. We embark on a round-trip journey through this natural treasure trove, driving along the primitive road and taking opportunities to observe and photograph the abundant wildlife, as well as having the chance to walk on some of Denali's many front country trails. The itinerary will be quite flexible today as the shuttle buses operate as 'hop-on, hop-off' style buses, giving our Tour Leader the opportunity to decide our explorations on the day, depending on the weather.
Returning to the visitors centre at the park entrance, we jump into our maxiwagon to return to the hotel. (Please note guiding is not allowed in the park - walks will be unescorted).
We drive to the town of Talkeetna, an old mining supply station and riverboat port, that since the early 1950s has seen itself become a focus for mountaineers attempting to scale the heights of Denali. Many believe that the best views of the mountain can be seen from here and this afternoon there will be time to enjoy some exhilarating optional excursions from the town. Rafting is available here, as well as numerous scenic overflights, which take in the majestic views of Alaska's most famous summit.
Leaving Talkeetna this morning we head for the mountainous landscapes around Hatcher's Pass, where a visit to the gold mine affords us a fascinating glimpse into the pioneering heritage of this great wilderness. Roads up here are not fully tarmacked, so a trip here will depend on how much rain there has been recently in the area. Named after Robert Lee Hatcher, who established the first lode claim in Willow Creek Valley in 1906, the top of the pass is the site of the old Independence Mine, today an Historical State Park, but once the property of the Alaska-Pacific Consolidated Mining Company. At the peak of its production the mine employed over 200 men and produced nearly 35,000 ounces of gold, which at today's rates would equate to over $17 million dollars' worth a year.
We then continue south, passing through Anchorage and following the coastline of Turnagain Arm. Our destination is the town of Seward, a picturesque port ringed by a stunning landscape of mountains and glaciers, lying alongside the rich waters of Resurrection Bay. Founded at the turn of the 20th century by engineers building the railroad to the interior, it benefited from its status as an ice-free port, prospering during the early years of the Nome gold rush and going on to become the gateway port for cruises into the spectacular Kenai Fjords National Park. On arrival we will make our way to our hotel, where we will spend the next three nights amidst this majestic landscape.
This morning we drive to Exit Glacier in the Kenai Fjords National Park. The park is the site of the immense Harding Icefield, a gigantic expanse of nearly 500sq km that feeds some 40 glaciers, making it the largest icefield within the territories of the United States. The fjords have been created by the retreat of these mighty glaciers, leaving behind an awe-inspiring vista of dramatic cliffs covered in nesting seabirds, whilst the tidewater glaciers on the coast regularly calve huge icebergs into the icy waters.
In the morning, we'll take an easy walk to Exit Glacier to get a feel for this fjordland town. We have the option to extend it up to a viewpoint above the glacier, or to the Icefield for the more adventurous. These add-on hikes may take us into the afternoon. For those who are not interested in continuing the walk after Exit Glacier, you may like to explore Seward, or check out the town's impressive SeaLife Centre, a remarkable project partially funded by the Exxon Valdez disaster that combines a unique mix of research and education and affords an opportunity to watch stellar sea lions, harbour seals and puffins in their natural underwater environments.
Today has once again been left free for you to enjoy as you see fit, and there are a number of awe-inspiring optional excursions to choose from, including a variety of wildlife cruises, unforgettable sea kayaking experiences and dog-sledding trips by helicopter.
A cruise within the Kenai Fjords National Park is an unbeatable wildlife experience - this 580,000-acre wonderland of towering peaks, glaciers and coastline is home to a rich diversity of marine wildlife, including puffins, sea otters, stellar sea lions, orcas, humpbacks and dall porpoises. Here over 30 named glaciers plunge directly into the salt water along the coast. Different cruises are available offering half day and full day options. Sea kayaking is also possible here for those who wish to see the magnificent wildlife and glaciers close up, which is highly recommended for those seeking an active excursion filled with wildlife encounters. Alternatively, for those with some real adventure in mind, you could have the unforgettable experience of a glacier dog-sledding tour, which involves a scenic helicopter flight over Godwin Glacier, and 30 minutes of sledding in the stunning snowy landscape on the glacier.
In the peak months of July and August we recommend that these excursions are booked in advance. More information is in the optional excursions section of these trip notes.
Leaving Seward today, we return north through Moose Pass, so named because in 1903 a mail carrier driving a team of dogs had considerable trouble gaining right of way from a giant moose! We retrace our steps back through the Chugach Mountains and follow the railroad tracks through the Chugach Forest. We'll end in Anchorage, where we'll have a little free time to explore. We may also have time to visit the Anchorage Museum, which offers a fantastic overview of Alaskan history, wilderness and indigenous culture. We'll go out for dinner to celebrate our final Alaskan evening.
The trip ends today at our hotel in Anchorage.
There are no activities planned today, so you are free to depart from Anchorage at any time. If your flight is departing later in the day, luggage storage facilities are available at our hotel. Similar to your arrival, there is a free shuttle service back to Anchorage International Airport, approximately a 15 minute drive away, and we will give you instructions on how to take this shuttle in your final documents.