Sunday, July 21, 2019

Amazing Alaska Vacation

Bill and I have wanted to go to Alaska our entire married life.  We actually planned a trip to Anchorage and Denali 32 years ago but I came down on orders to move to Massachusetts during the time that we had planned our vacation so Bill helped me move across country instead.  After 33 years of marriage, we finally made it.  And oh what a wonderful trip it was.  It met all my expectations and then some.  Living in Washington State, I believe we have one of the most beautiful states in the nation but the beauty of Alaska just blew me away.  I don't think I could live there-especially in the winter-but it certainly is a beautiful place to go visit in the summer.  This is a long blog post but we just did and saw so much, it was hard to limit what I talked about.  We learned a few things along the way that might be helpful to those planning a cruise and/or land tour to our 49th state.  I will sprinkle those in along the way as I describe our journey.

Vancouver, BC

Our cruise started in the other Vancouver-Vancouver, B.C.  We decided to fly there the day before the cruise which turned out to be a very smart decision.  When we arrived at the airport, it took two hours to clear customs.  There were a lot of anxious people in line who had connecting flights and appointments to get to.  Thankfully we only needed to get to our hotel and not anything that was time sensitive.  We might not have made it if we had tried to fly there the morning of the cruise though.  Definitely recommend anyone going on a cruise to get there the day before.

It is very expensive to stay in downtown Vancouver.  I didn't investigate how much it would be to stay further out and taxi in to get to the cruise ship terminal as I wanted to stay in the city.  Many hotels are $500 a night or more so definitely be prepared to spend a lot of money on a hotel.  I found a cute 120 year old hotel near the Gas Town district for $250 (American) plus tax called the Victorian Hotel and it was only about half a mile from Canada Place so I booked that.  We took the Skytrain from the airport to the waterfront station.  It takes about 30 minutes to make the trip.  Because the hotel was only a few blocks from the train station, we decided to walk.  That was a bit of a challenge for me dragging my 40 plus pound suitcase up a steep hill to get there.  Also--for anyone who is challenged with stairs--this isn't the place for you.  There is a full flight of stairs to get into the lobby and no elevators to get to the various levels.  Stairs normally aren't a problem for me but getting my suitcase in and out of the hotel was.  Luckily Bill was able to do the heavy lifting for me.

The Victorian Hotel was built in 1898.  It has been updated recently but has maintained much of the same beautiful architectural features of that time period.  We wandered about Gas Town a little bit and saw the Steam Clock but for the most part we were content to relax in our room.  They serve a continental breakfast in the morning as well and had some delicious pastries.

Bill and I got engaged in Vancouver in 1986 when we attended EXPO86.  We took the Skytrain to Canada Place from the main exposition grounds and have fond memories of seeing the Goose and Beaver show there.  It is now a cruise ship terminal.  Bill was disappointed that Goose and Beaver aren't there anymore.  We got there around 11:00 to get signed in and clear customs and only had to wait a short time before they let us board our ship, the Norwegian Jewel, at noon.  We enjoyed lunch and wandering the ship while we waited to take off at 4:00 p.m.

Leaving Vancouver and Traveling the Inside Passage

We decided to go to the Spinnaker Lounge to enjoy a drink while we left Vancouver.  Beautiful day to see Lions Gate Bridge, a beautiful lighthouse and the mountains of British Columbia.  We also used one of our specialty dining package dinners at Cagney's Steakhouse that night.

We had one whole day at sea without any ports of call.  Very pretty seeing all the different islands and mountains as we sailed.  I got up with the sunrise to take photos and just enjoy a cup of coffee and the quietness before most people got out of bed.  I did that almost every morning as well as staying up until sunset to take photos.  That was no small feat given that there were only a few hours between sunset and sunrise and it never truly got dark.  I took a yoga class that first day (and two other days during the cruise).  That evening we went to the "Velvet" show in the Stardust Theater.  It was a '70's discotheque music show which was very high energy and good.


I had been to Ketchikan a few years ago for work but was only there about 36 hours and didn't get to see much because it was November.  I was either working or it was dark.  I was excited to go back and Bill was excited to take his first step on Alaskan soil.

We arrived in Ketchikan about 7:00 in the morning.  I didn't plan any excursions in Ketchikan.  We just planned to wander around town on our own.  Our first stop was Creek Street.  I had seen photos of it but didn't get to see it while I was there for work.  Very cool historical location.  It was where the brothels used to be and it is built on wooden pilings because it would have been too much work and too expensive to blast the mountain to build a street along the creek.  We walked on Married Man's Trail which was the way the married men made their way to partake in what Creek Street had to offer.  The salmon weren't running but that would have been really cool to see.

The Tongass Historical Museum is near Creek Street.  We decided to check it out.  There was a lot about the logging and fishing industry as well as Tlingit artwork.  It is a fairly small museum but if you want to learn more about the history of the town, it is worth a short stop.  We didn't go into too many shops but did look at a little bit of artwork and furs.

A friend recommended that we take the tram up to the Cape Fox Lodge to have lunch there.  There was a fairly decent view of the downtown from there and they also had history and Tlingit art on display.  I had caribou meat for the first time--in sliders.  It tasted like game meat but was very good.  Bill had an ahi tuna salad but made the mistake of putting too much wasabi in his salad so he didn't enjoy it very much.  Way too hot.

We had pretty much exhausted the downtown area before lunch time and sort of regretted that we didn't sign up for a tour of some sort but I saw a "short" 1.3 mile hiking trail that was supposedly easy so I asked Bill if he wanted to do that.  I soon regretted that decision but only because I am not in good enough shape to climb hills easily.  We had about a mile of uphill climb to get to the trailhead.  The trail itself had some up and down in it but not too bad.  I wouldn't have considered it an easy trail and asked my trail expert, Bill, what he thought and even he would have considered it a moderate hike.  The footing isn't great in some places and a lot of exposed roots.  The scenery on the trail isn't unlike what we see here in the Pacific Northwest rain forests but was very pleasant.  We got to see our cruise ship from the trail so I stopped to take a picture.  We ended up at the University of Alaska-Ketchikan campus and still had two miles to hike back to the ship.  I was hoping to make a stop at Peacehealth Ketchikan Medical Center to see my customers there but by the time we got to where we would make the turn to walk there, we were still a half a mile away.  Too tired from all the walking we had already done in the morning and the extra walk on a challenging hike in the afternoon, I decided it wasn't worth the extra mile.  I had to be content to see the hospital from the ship as we cruised past it on the way to Juneau.

I get excited to see bald eagles and Ketchikan was where I saw the most on our whole trip.  A couple flew right over my head on the ship.  I saw several fly past as we were eating lunch at Cape Fox Lodge.  I was so disappointed that I wasn't able to get any decent photos despite all my sightings there.

Back on the ship, we took advantage of another specialty dining package dinner at La Cucina.  The show that night was a comedian-Lucas Bohn.  He was very funny.  We looked forward to the "adult" show that he mentioned that night all week long.  I went out on deck to see the sunset and saw my first humpback whale spray when it came to the surface.


We didn't arrive in Juneau until late in the morning.  I took another yoga class that morning as we were still sailing.

The only excursion I signed up for was to spend two and a half hours at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitors Center.  I had read that it wasn't worth going on the top of Mt. Roberts if the weather was cloudy and rainy so I decided to wait and see what the weather would be like once we got there.

The Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center is very nice and has a fabulous view of the glacier, exhibits and a 15 minute video that is worth seeing.  There are several trails of various length and challenge.  We took the Photo Point Trail which is just a 1/3 mile from the visitor center and then continued on Nugget Falls Trail which is two miles round trip to get the closest view of the glacier and to see the falls.  Bill was disappointed.  He was hoping that he would be able to get close enough to touch the glacier.  Helicopter and airplane tours are pretty expensive so we had decided not to sign up for any of them but Bill would like to do an aerial glacier tour some place in Alaska if we ever go back.  While we were waiting for the bus to come back we also walked on the Steep Creek Trail which is a 1/4 mile loop. There were bear sightings that day and someone on our tour actually got photos of them while they were walking on the Steep Creek Trail.  I was keeping my eyes out but never saw them.  They don't allow any food or drinks other than water at this location because of the bears.   I enjoyed seeing the lupine which grows almost everywhere that we went in Alaska.

Because the weather was so nice and warm, we decided we were going to take the tram up to the top of Mt. Roberts once we got back into town.  Wouldn't you know, it started raining just as we were heading back into town.  We got to the tramway and make a quick decision not to spend $35 a ticket to go up there in the rain.  We went to the Red Dog Saloon for a couple drinks and a snack instead.  The Red Dog Saloon dates back to the gold rush days although it has moved several times over the years since its original location in a tent on the beach.  It had a really fun atmosphere with sawdust on the floor, bartenders and servers in period costumes and musical entertainment.  They claim that they have a gun that Wyatt Earp checked in at the door but never picked up going out.

We walked back to the ship and the weather improved.  We didn't want to go back out though.  That night the entertainment was a classic rock music show.


Skagway was hands down my favorite town that we visited during both our cruise and land tours.  All the building downtown are historic including the first homestead that was built in 1887 and all the other buildings that date back to the gold rush in 1898.  They embrace their very rich history there.

I got up at 4:30 just in time to watch as we got into Skagway at 5:00.

We took the White Pass and Yukon Route train up to White Pass, went into Canada briefly and then came back to Skagway.   I think it is the most beautiful train ride I have ever been on.  The views of the mountains and valleys were spectacular.  We also learned a lot about the Klondike Gold Rush and the hardships that the miners had to endure.  There were places that we could see the original trail that the miners used to get up and down the mountain to get to White Pass where they each had to  bring 1000 lbs of supplies in multiple trips before the Canadian government would let them in.  So hard to imagine how so many men and horses going up and down that trail passed each other as it is so narrow.

I spent some time out on the back of our railroad car to get photos.  

There were sculptures in town to commemorate the gold rush history as well.

When we got back to Skagway, we were in the mood for some lunch.  We ate at the Sweet Tooth Cafe.  The staff there were all dressed in period costumes although from different eras.  One waitress was dressed like it was 1900 and the other from the '30's or '40's.  It looked like they had some great desserts but between sandwiches and fries, we had more than enough food.

I took lots of photos of the buildings there but only scrapped a few of them.  The Arctic Brotherhood Lodge building was fascinating.  It was the first of the Arctic Brotherhood lodges and the fascade was decorated with driftwood.  A few years ago they took all the pieces down to restore them.  What an amazing feat that must have been to piece that puzzle back together again.   The Red Onion Saloon dates back to the gold rush days and gives a brothel tour.  It was fun seeing the "madams" walking their groups down the street with such enthusiastic theatrics.

We didn't go but there was a Cancan show that had street hawkers and girls hanging out of windows in their fishnet stockings harassing every man on the street to come to the show.  At first, I couldn't tell where all the yelling was coming from but finally saw the girls hanging out of the second story windows.

Back on the ship, we ate dinner at the French restaurant, Le Bistro, and went to the Luminescence show which was a Cirque du Soleil type show performed by two acrobats.

Glacier Bay

Several National Park Service rangers boated out to our cruise ship to give commentary while we were in Glacier Bay.  It was great that we had them to explain what we were seeing.  My only negative comment was that it got to be too much commentary and a lot of repeat when it would have been nice to just enjoy the beauty of the place quietly.

Bill was feeling the lack of not being able to get off the ship and exercise so he decided to do 30 laps around the promenade deck which turns out to be 11.3 miles while we were in Glacier Bay.  I had to stop him so we could get our pictures taken in front of a glacier.

My exciting wildlife moments were seeing a brown bear swimming and a seal jump off an iceberg into the bay right next to the ship.  So disappointed I couldn't get photos of them.

It was a cloudy, misty day.  The rangers called it a glacier making day and that in some ways, it is more beautiful on a cloudy day than a sunny day.  I am not sure I agree with that but no matter what, it was pretty spectacular.  Margerie Glacier was the first one that we saw and probably the one that we were able to get the closest to.  We saw a calving while we were there.  Lamplugh was next and was very interesting.  Those were my favorites of the ones we saw.  We saw Johns Hopkins Glacier from a long distance away.  The cruise ships aren't allowed to go close to it.  We also saw Reid Glacier.  The blue ice was pretty amazing to see.  As we were leaving, we saw some humpback whales.

I am so glad I took my winter coat.  I debated not taking space in my suitcase for it and was going to try to just do a lot of layers.  I was so happy I had it along though.  I was really cold in both Glacier Bay and at Hubbard Glacier.

That evening, we went to Chin Chin for dinner and to the Cirque Bijou show-a French themed circus show.  I knew of the two acrobatic performers from the show on the first night of the cruise and the Luminescence show but I didn't realize that nearly all the performers on the ship did circus type acrobatics as well.

Hubbard Glacier

We entered Yakatut Bay early in the morning so I wrestled with going to yoga class or not.  In the end, I didn't want to miss anything and it was a spectacular sunny day.  Having been unlucky in getting any wildlife photos yet including those that were relatively close, I was determined to be on the lookout for wildlife.  I did see a seal pop up its head right next to the ship but otherwise there was nothing close by.  At this point, I would definitely want to point out that it is very important to take binoculars with you on a trip to Alaska-both on cruise and land tours-if you want to be able to see the wildlife.  We forgot ours and didn't want to buy any on the ship as we have so many at home that we rarely use.

Although I couldn't see any wildlife with my naked eye, I would search out any dark spots on the ice in the water with the hope of maybe getting a photo of a seal on ice.  After I downloaded my photos onto my tablet, I found that I had actually captured several bears, a seal and even an eagle on the ice floats.  Oh how I wish I had been able to see them with binoculars at the time.  And that I had a camera that could have better captured animals as such a long distance away.

The reflections on the bay and the glacier were just spectacular.  We spent a few hours there, saw several calvings and it was just magical.  Bill did his 30 lap hike the whole time we were there and managed to see a pod of orca whales while he was walking.  I didn't see them there or anywhere while we were cruising.  Would have loved to see them as they are so beautiful.

The views of the mountains along the Gulf of Alaska were spectacular as we headed toward Seward to end the cruise portion of our trip. 

We ate dinner in the Tsar's Palace that last night of the cruise.  We went to two shows.  One of the main singers, Lexi Rhoades, did a solo show of love songs.  Lucas Bohn did his more adult comedy show later that night.

Miscellaneous Cruise Photos and Thoughts

I always knew that there are a lot of cruise lines that go to Alaska but it was amazing to me how many ships are in port at a time.  The most we saw were four in Ketchikan but each place had several ships there at the same time.  We almost never ran into the same ship twice.  I'm not sure how they manage the schedules of who get to go into what ports on which days but it must be a challenge.  We would also run into them as we were sailing.

Bill enjoyed getting his exercise in on the promenade deck each day as did I.  We didn't see the sled dogs until we got to our land tour but he really liked seeing the dogs.  Our favorite bar was the Spinnaker Lounge as the views were great.  Our only complaint was we wished there was a space other than the library that one could enjoy quiet time to read and enjoy a beverage and the scenery as often times there would be bingo, Cruise Next presentations, game shows, music, etc. going on which we didn't want to hear.   It made us wish that we had splurged on a stateroom with a balcony.  Although we had a window, it wasn't easy to see anything through it and we didn't have any chairs in our room.  It wasn't as big a deal when we cruised in Hawaii as the weather was nice enough that we could go to various places out on deck but it was really cold most of the time so being outside wasn't a fun option on an Alaska cruise.

After going to the specialty dining restaurants so much on our last cruise, I was glad that we took the specialty dining option as one of our extras this time.  Three of our meals were at the specialty restaurants and were included in the price of our cruise.  We also chose 250 minutes of WiFi but it only included one device and Bill needed it to do work so I was mostly "unplugged" while we were on the cruise.  Probably a good thing.  I was glad that I went to 3 out of the 4 yoga classes that I paid to go to as I had only previously went to one class just before we went on the cruise and enjoyed seeing what it was like from another instructor.

I love my camera but there were times that I wished I had a more capable one to take better wildlife photos.  I am not sure that my skill and quickness would have been there either but at least I have the memories of seeing such wonderful things while I was on the cruise.

The Land Tour

Since we were going to Alaska and not sure if we would ever go back again, we decided to add a week long land tour extension to our cruise.  We chose the Norwegian Cruise Line Denali-Valdez Explorer tour and I have to say that we were completely satisfied that we did.  Norwegian contracts with Premier Alaska Tours.  I don't know if we were just lucky with the tour director and bus driver that we had or if they are all as fabulous but I can't say enough good things about the experience we had with them.  They both have been living in Alaska for many years, giving tours for a long time and were very knowledgeable.  We didn't have to lug our suitcases from the time we put it out in the hall the night before we landed in Seward until we got to the airport in Anchorage.  Our bags were delivered to our room--most of the time before we even got there-and we just had to have them outside our room at the appropriate time in the morning for the motel staff to get them out to the bus for us.

We lucked out with only having 18 people on our tour so we had the ability to spread out on the bus for the long driving days that we had.  It was a good group as well.

Seward to Valdez

Our first stop was the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center where they have rescued and orphaned Alaska wildlife.  It was especially fun to see the bears and the moose.

We had to leave in time to make the 1130 time to go through the Whittier Tunnel-a 2.5 mile long one-way tunnel.  We had lunch at the Inn at Whittier before boarding the Lazy Otter Charter cruise boat to make our way across Prince Edward Sound to stay in Valdez for the night.  We saw other boat tours taking off while we were in Whittier.  There are glacier viewing cruises that leave from there.  We didn't see any glaciers up close but our guides pointed out Billings Glacier and College Fjord where all the glaciers are named after colleges from a distance as we were traveling.

If we had taken a bus from Seward to Valdez, it would have taken more than 12 hours.  Taking the boat across Prince Edward Sound on the gorgeous day that we had was fantastic.  It took 4 1/2 hours with stops to see wildlife.  Very close to Whittier is a nesting grounds for kittiwakes-a sea bird.  There are about 8000 of them nesting next to the waterfalls. We raced with dolphins for miles.

We saw some humpback whales from a distance, sea otters, puffins, lots of sea lions, and more.  And beautiful mountains.

The highlight of the trip was seeing a sperm whale--including seeing its tail as it dove.  So exciting!  Our guides were very excited too as they had never seen one before.  Sperm whales aren't supposed to be in Prince Edward Sound.

We stayed in the Best Western motel at the Valdez Harbor.  After we got settled in and got some laundry started, Bill and I took a walk to get some drinks and snacks for the bus ride the next day.  I was still restless so I went out at 10:00 or so and walked along the harbor, chased after an eagle trying to get a photo, saw fisherman coming in with their catches and cleaning them.  And although I had seen a lot of otters already, I saw the first one close enough to take a decent photo of in the harbor the next morning as I took another walk before we left.

Valdez to Fairbanks

It took a full day to drive from Valdez to Fairbanks although we did make several stops at overlooks, visitor centers and roadhouses along the way.

Our first stop wasn't far outside of Valdez.  Keystone Canyon is just a few miles long but very beautiful and has two waterfalls-Horsetail and Bridal Veil.  There is a hand cut tunnel there as there were once plans to build the railroad through there but rival companies had a gunfight there and the railroad was never built.

Normally Thompson Pass in the Chugach Mountain Range is clouded over but as with much of this trip, we were very lucky that it wasn't so we had great views.  Even our tour director and bus driver were taking photos because they don't get to see it when it is clear.  After a brief drive, we stopped again at a point to view Worthington Glacier which is located near the pass.

Another lucky sighting was of Mt. Drum, Mt. Sanfoard and Mt. Wrangle in the St. Elias-Wrangell National Park.  They are also usually clouded over.  There was a great place to see the mountains from Willow Lake just off the highway.  A little further down the road was the visitor center for the park.  We looked at the exhibits a little bit but mostly took a hike on a trail nearby before it was time to get back on the road again.

Although I think they actually do serve lunch items there, the Meier's Lake Roadhouse was advertised as a place that we should get a late morning snack as we would be having a late lunch at the next roadhouse.  The roadhouse isn't much to look at but is in a beautiful location on the lake.   It is off the grid running on a generator.  We were encouraged to get at least something as it is so expensive to run these roadhouses and many have closed over the years.  I got the berry cobbler with homemade blueberry ice cream and Bill got a brownie there.  There is a small community there and  a cute little log cabin church across the highway that was fun to check out.

We stopped at Isabel Pass in the Alaska Range to take photos and took the opportunity to get a group photo there including one with our moose antlers.

We stopped at the Big Delta State Historical Park near Delta Junction for our next meal stop.  This was actually a very interesting spot and I wish I had taken more photos there.  It was first a location for a trading post in 1904.  The Army built a Washington Alaska Military Cable and Telegraph station there not longer after that.  Rika's Roadhouse was built in 1907 and welcomed guests into the 1940's.  It is located on the Tanana River and was a ferry crossing for a time before a bridge was built and it is also where the Alaska Pipeline crosses the river.  There is a new Rika's Roadhouse that has a cafeteria and gift shop.  The original is a museum now.

We passed by Fort Greeley and Eielson Air Force Base on the highway and made one more stop at North Pole to visit a huge Christmas gift shop there before we got to our hotel in Fairbanks.


We had a very full day of touring in Fairbanks.

Bill and I both took walks (separately) around the Wedgewood Wildlife Sanctuary which was on the grounds of the Bear Lodge Hotel.  I got several mosquito bites there.  It was really the only place that I found that there were a lot of mosquitoes even though we were told to expect them.  There was also an antique car museum on the grounds but we were so busy that we didn't have time to go there.

The Alaska Pipeline crosses the property at the Gold Dredge No. 8 so part of our tour described the pipeline.  We had seen the pipeline most of the day from the highway as we were driving between Valdez and Fairbanks but we were able to touch it there.

At Gold Dredge No. 8, we learned how to pan for gold and got $20 in gold flakes between the two of us.  I had a gold pan refrigerator magnet made with our gold instead of jewelry.  Bill held the gold nugget that was worth $75,000 and enjoyed going inside the dredge while I arranged getting our gold weighed and put into the magnet.

We were dropped off at Golden Hearts Plaza for a lunch break and enjoyed seeing some sled dogs there.  Then it was time to go to our afternoon Chena River tour on the Discovery III.

The Discovery III tour was amazing.  Before we got on the boat, we had our photos taken in the 40 Below Room and with a Susan Butcher Iditarod sled. The boat itself had video screens on each level and we could hear our tour guide talking to people along the river that were part of the tour and he would check in with the captain in the pilot house on occasion.  The same family has run the tours and captained the boats over more than three generations.  One of the first things we saw on the tour was a float plane pilot take off and land a few times. A little further down the river, Dave Monson-the husband of four-time Iditarod winner Susan Butcher-gave a sled dog demo.  He later joined us along with some of his staff members and dogs at Chena Village to sign books about Susan's lead dog, Granite.

We got off the boat at Chena Village where our guides were young Athabascans.  There were three different stations to learn about native life and history.  The parka in the photos was amazing.

In the evening, Bill and I were joined by three women on our tour from Minnesota to go to the salmon bake in Pioneer Park and the Golden Hearts Revue show.  The food was great and I only wish we had taken more time to explore the park as we didn't figure out until after the show that there was so much more to see there.  The show was a lot of fun--a vaudeville type show that covered the history of Fairbanks as well as current aspects of living there.  I particularly liked the University of Alaska "professor" and his classes about the various aspects of outhouses.  So funny.


It took a few hours to get to McKinley Village and we made a stop at Nenana to go to a roadhouse and see the Albert Starr Cultural Center and Museum.

We had lunch in the village before it was time to head to Cantwell to see the puppies.  We went to Wolf's Den Kennel for their DogGoneIt tour.  Mike, Caitlin, and Max Santos as well as a couple other employees greeted us with arms full of puppies-enough for each of us to hold our own.  Bill and I got to cuddle two week old puppies from the same litter.  So much fun to hold puppies.

Mike and Caitlin talked about breeding sled dogs and racing in the Iditarod and gave a demo.  Mike has been in the race three times.  The dogs go crazy when they are getting ready to run--even the ones that aren't hooked up to the sled.  They calmed down while the team was out on a couple mile run but started going wild again when they heard them returning.

We stayed at the Denali Bluffs Hotel while we were at Denali.  This was our view from the hotel.  We had dinner at the hotel that first night which was very good.

Early the next morning was our Denali Tundra Wilderness Tour.  The only way to get to see the park beyond the visitors center is to go on a bus tour.  It is a 7-8 hour tour.  There are no guarantees of seeing wildlife or the mountain.  Sometimes people see the mountain and no wildlife.  Sometimes wildlife but no mountain.  We were lucky enough to see both.

We had what they call the Grand Slam--seeing all the major mammals and the mountain.  We even got to see a wolf which most people don't get to see.  We saw several moose and caribou.  Tons of snowshoe hares.  Dall sheep on a hill in the distance but also one close up in the rocks near the road.  We saw falcons and grouse.  And we did see bears although they were really far away so barely visible.  We saw at least five but we saw three together coming back and weren't sure if they were the same three we had seen earlier or a different group.  Fortunately, the bus drivers have video cameras and screens on the bus so they can zoom in on any animals that they come across so that everyone can see them if seated are on the wrong side of the bus or they are really far away.

We stopped a couple of times when the mountain was visible to take photos.  The tour stops at a spot that is the best place to view the mountain but since it often gets clouded over, the driver stopped every time he saw Denali so that we could see it just in case it wasn't visible by the time we got there.  We did see the top at one point but it was clouded over by the time we got to the best viewpoint.  We got to see it though so we joined the 30% club of those they say actually get to see the mountain when they are there.

We saw so many wildflowers during our time in Alaska.  These are just a few that we saw between Juneau, Fairbanks and Denali.

That night we went to the Cabin Nite dinner theater.  This time, no others from our tour group wanted to go.  It was a fun evening with a family style dinner served by the entertainers for the evening.  The show was about the history of Alaskan people who were involved with Mt. McKinley/Denali.  See some of the photos above.  I combined them with the salmon bake and Golden Hearts Revue photos.  Many try to compare the two shows and prefer one to the other.  I thought they were both great.

Before we left Denali to head to our final destination for the day in Anchorage, we went to the Visitors Center at Denali-twice.  The visitors center is not part of the bus tour into the park so you have to see that separately on your own.  Early in the morning, Bill and I walked the three miles from the hotel to the visitors center.  It is very nice.  I didn't really take any photos there but the videos and displays are great.  Since others from our group didn't get a chance to go and wanted to, our tour director took us back there later in the morning so Bill and I had lunch until it was time to hit the road again.

Denali to Anchorage

After leaving Denali, we made one stop before ending up in Talkeetna where we would be catching our train.  We stopped at Mary's McKinley View Lodge-a roadhouse in Trapper Creek.  Bill and I just had dessert since we had already eaten lunch.  Unfortunately there was no view of the mountain because of the wildfire smoke.  We were so lucky to have seen the mountain the day before.

The original itinerary was to only get to Talkeetna in time to catch our train at 5:00 or so but our tour director lives just outside Talkeetna and really wanted us to see her hometown.  I had talked to Claudia a few days earlier about her life living off the grid but she shared her story with the rest of the group on this day.  She has a very small cabin with no electricity or running water but amazingly enough--there is high speed internet service.  She has made improvements to her home over the years to make life a little easier but she makes a point that chooses to live off the grid and not that she has to. She has a root cellar but had to move furniture around to get to it so she bought a propane refrigerator so she doesn't have to do that anymore.  She cooks on a propane stove but can't have the conveniences of a microwave or coffee maker.  She has replaced her wood stove with an oil drip stove.  She doesn't mind cutting and splitting wood but really hated getting up in the middle of the night to stoke the fire.  She recently installed solar panels to supplement her generator to charge her batteries.  She was resistant thinking she didn't need it in the summer when they had sun but she said the reflection off the snow actually helps and she hadn't used her generator since March.  She has an outhouse with a view (no door).  She is thinking her next improvement might be drilling for a well although it is pretty expensive because you have to drill so deep to get to water.  She goes to a friend's home three times a week to shower and do laundry.  I know I couldn't live like that but it was fascinating to hear how she does it.

Talkeetna is a quaint community that also has very historic roots.  Several of the buildings date back to 1916 when the Alaska Railroad decided to have their regional headquarters there.  There is a National Park Service Ranger Station where all the Denali climbers have to sign in and out.  Pilots at the airport take them to a glacier on the mountain to start their journey which last about three to four weeks.  We made sure we stopped at the visitors center to see the video about what it is like to climb the mountain and saw some Russian climbers sign back in.  We stopped them on the street later to talk to them briefly to ask if they had made it to the top and they had.  Otherwise--we just wandered around town a bit until it was time to go to the train station.  Since Bill wants to go on a glacier tour if we ever go back to Alaska, I am thinking this is the best place to take a flightseeing tour to a Denali glacier then he could say he was actually on Denali.

The train was a bit late.  Not totally unexpected.  It is a little like island time only it is Alaska time.  We got to travel in a domed coach and have dinner on the train.  More beautiful views of mountain and rivers from the train as we traveled the three hours between Talkeetna and Anchorage. It was bittersweet as it meant that our time in Alaska was nearly over.

We stayed at the Anchorage Hilton downtown and were surprised to find that we had a suite.  The next morning was Father's Day.  A friend from Alaska recommended we go to Humpy's.  They didn't open as early as we had hoped so we walked around the downtown area during the morning and went back in time to be among the first to have brunch that morning.  We hung out in our room as long as we could until it was time to check out and then headed back to the airport for our flight back home.

The weather, scenery, and wildlife were all amazing.  I don't know if we will ever get back there given it has taken us 32 years from the time we first planned a trip until we actually made it.  There is plenty we haven't seen and may like to see in the future.  But for now, we enjoyed this trip so much that perhaps we might decide to go back and explore the Last Frontier again.