September 17, 2013

Timeless Talkeetna (Our Alaska Adventure Part 4)

I love Talkeetna because it’s an interesting and historic town.   But also because, despite having lots of tourists, it does not feel as touristy as other popular Alaska destinations.    Sure, there are signs hawking souvenirs and sightseeing tours, but most of the buildings haven’t changed for decades, and it’s a hub of activity for bush pilots and mountaineers, as this is the jumping off point for Mt. McKinley treks and flightseeing tours.  (Talkeetna is closer to Mt. McKinley than the Denali National Park entrance, and has spectactular views on clear days.)

Talkeetna, Alaska

Downtown Talkeetna

Our home for 3 nights was the charming Fireweed Station Inn, a historic homestead carefully restored and modernized, and now recognized on the National Register of Historic Places.  We thoroughly enjoyed the company of our hosts, Hobbs and Tom, who shared stories of their life in Alaska, and cooked up delicious breakfasts incorporating fresh vegetables and herbs from their garden.  And they will cook a private dinner on request as well!

Talkeetna Bed & Breakfast
Hobbs & Tom
FIreweed Station Inn, Talkeetna, Alaska
Fireweed Station Inn
The inn is small so it’s imperative to book early.  Two rooms on the main floor are comfortable and spacious, and families will find lots of space in the suite which takes up the whole second floor.  A cabin is also available for guests who want more privacy.

Fireweed Station Inn, Talkeetna, Alaska
Suite at Fireweed Station Inn
Talkeetna is not a large town, but it does offer several other accommodation options,.  They range from the large modern Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge, favored by cruise passengers and escorted tour groups, to rustic cabins along the river.   Princess’s Mt. McKinley Lodge is about an hour away, but it has a spectacular mountainside setting facing the Alaska Range, and they run regular shuttles to Talkeetna.

Alaska Range
Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge back deck view

Though I am not much more than an avid day hiker, I am fascinated with the sport of mountaineering.   So I found the Historical Society Museum especially interesting, as one building is dedicated to the history of Denali climbing.  It contained an impressive scale model of Mt McKinley which filled an entire room, each layer cut by hand, using a topo map for reference.  The museum is worth a visit for anyone, to learn about the history of the area and what life was like for early settlers.

Model of Mt. McKinley
Photos on the wall show the actual view from each angle.
We followed that up with a visit to the NPS station, where all climbers have to register and get briefed on mountain procedures.  They have a very good film that details the route to the summit and the preparation required.   I would imagine this is a fascinating place to be during climbing season (April through June), seeing both the climbers who are heading out, and the ones who’ve just got back.

There are a lot of fun activities available, another good reason to spend a few days here.  Most popular are the flightseeing tours, for close up views of the mountain and optional glacier landings.  Mountain weather is fickle, however, so travelers have to be prepared for last minute cancellations.

Talkeetna is located at the confluence of three rivers:  the Susitna, Chulitna and Talkeetna, so travelers have many opportunities to get out on the water.  Because the rivers are wide and braided, you’ll find float trips rather than whitewater rafting, which is available further north near Denali N.P.  

Float trip on the Big Su
Looking for wildlife on the Susitna River

 Jet boat tours are an option if you aren’t comfortable sitting on the edge of an inflated raft for a few hours, and want more protection from the elements.   And of course, there’s fishing, probably one of the most popular activities in the state.  Off the river, travelers can visit a dog sled kennel, go zip-lining, hiking, or take an ATV tour (note minimum age is 16, per state law).

Jet boat tour
Small jet boat departing the dock.
If you have a car, check out Kahiltna Birchworks.  It's on the Spur Road just off the Parks Hwy, so a quick and easy stop on the drive between Denali and Anchorage.  Every gift shop in the state seems to sell birch syrup products, and this is where they all come from.  The presentation lasts about 10-15 min, and then you get to taste the different grades of syrup which have different uses, some of which can only be purchased here.

Birch syrup processing
Getting to Talkeetna is easy - you can arrive by train, bus, car, or plane.  But once you get there, if you don’t have your own vehicle, you have to rely on shuttles, as there are no rental cars or taxis in town.  If you are independent and like to explore off the beaten path (and if you want to stay at Fireweed Station), then you need a car. 
It’s easy, interesting, and fun to drive through interior Alaska.  I am happy to help other adventurous families plan their own itinerary through the Great Land, just send an email to suzette@family-treks.com.

September 5, 2013

The Anchorage Top Ten List (Our Alaska Adventure Part 3)

We left Juneau via a pretty flight over glaciers for our 2 night stay in Anchorage. Despite the fact that I have traveled all over the state of Alaska, I had never been in downtown Anchorage before.  So I was excited to explore someplace new.

Flying over glaciers in Alaska

The Captain Cook Hotel is by far the favorite of most visitors, whether traveling by car, train, or cruise.  It’s a great hotel run by a longtime Alaska family, and a major hub of activity.  We wanted something quieter, so we stayed in a small B&B a couple blocks away, the Copper Whale Inn.  I really enjoy the bed and breakfast experience, but it’s not for everyone.  And since all inns are different, it’s important to know what to expect to make sure it’s a good fit.

Copper Whale Inn, Anchorage, Alaska
Porch and garden at Copper Whale Inn
Copper Whale Inn, Anchorage, Alaska
Room at The Copper Whale Inn

Captain Cook Hotel, Anchorage, Alaska
Captain Cook Hotel Lobby
Here’s my top ten list of things to do while visiting Anchorage.

1.    Visit the Anchorage Alaska Center located in the historic Old Federal Building.  I highly recommend the movie about the 1964 earthquake.  It’s good to watch at the start of your trip so you can watch for sights mentioned.
2.    Rent bikes for a ride along the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail.   You’ll find Earthquake Park interesting if you watched the movie in the visitor center.

Bicycle trail in Anchorage

3.    Hike to Flat Top Mountain in Chugach State Park for 360 degree views.

4.    Have a cup of coffee at the historic Fur Rondy shop, which is home to the Dog Mushing Hall of Fame.    A statue outside marks the ceremonial starting location for the Iditarod, and on Wednesday afternoons you can meet a musher and his dog.

Iditarod Race ceremonial start
Statue dedicated to dogs & mushers,
often referred to as the "Balto Statue"

5.    Spend a day driving south of Anchorage about 40 miles to visit Girdwood and Alyeska Resort.

6.    Drive 9 miles further south to take the 1 hour Portage Glacier Cruise.
Portage Glacier, Alaska

7.    On the way back to Anchorage, stop at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center to see rescued bears, moose, musk ox, bison, caribou, and brown and black bears.  There are lots of cute babies, too!

Brown bear at Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center
Bison at Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center

8.    Visit the Captain Cook Monument on the waterfront at Resolution Park.

9.    Drive 45 miles north to the Iditarod Race Headquarters in Wasilla. (This is also a good stop on the way to Talkeetna or Denali).   You can see videos and memorabilia about the history of the race, see the actual trophy, and take a dog sled ride.
Sled dog puppy
4 week old puppy

Iditarod trophy
Original Iditarod trophy, retired in 1999
10.  On weekends visit the Anchorage Market and Festival, Alaska’s largest open air market.  You can grab a bite in the Eat Local section, and find souvenirs at good prices.

Anchorage market

If you'd like assistance planning your own custom Alaskan adventure, just drop me a note at suzette@family-treks.com.