31 May – 5 June
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Moving through British Columbia as quickly as we did meant that we had more days to explore Alaska than originally planned. Given our love of coastal areas and based on feedback from other travelers, we decided to check out Whittier and Seward. Both of which are south of Anchorage and situated on the western side of the Kenai Peninsula.
From Valdez, we drove north back up the Richardson Highway (4). It’s always nice to drive both directions on scenic roads. And since we weren’t in a hurry to snag a campsite, we took our time and stopped at some of the more beautiful spots along the way. Once we got to Glenallen, we had to stop and have the front tires of the truck checked out due to an intermittent rock grinding sound that we’d been hearing. They checked everything out but couldn’t find any problems. Since the noise hadn’t returned, we figured a rock or some gravel had gotten stuck somewhere and had worked itself out. From Glenallen, we headed west on the Glen Highway (1) towards Anchorage stopping that night at Nichina River Campground, which used to be a state-run campground, but now is un-serviced but available for boondocking. We had the entire campground to ourselves with a sweet little spot, complete with free firewood, next to the roaring river.
The next days journey took us up and over the Eureka Summit, which at 3322 ft will be the highest summit we will encounter in Alaska. Prior to the summit, we passed through the town of Glacier View, which overlooks the Nelchina Glacier located on the northern side of the Chugach Mountains. It was nice to have such a good view of an inland glacier and its surrounding mountains. We were quickly becoming accustomed to the expectation that we’d see stunning mountains and views every day here in Alaska.
Once over the Eureka Summit you drop down into the Mat-Su region of Alaska. Stretching from the Alaska Range in the north to the Talkeetna and Chugach ranges in the east and south. It’s named for the two main rivers draining these peaks, the Matanuska and the Susitna. It’s also the main agricultural center of Alaska. We were advised to stock up on supplies in the town of Palmer as costs go up in Anchorage and even more once you get onto the Kenia Peninsula. So we camped at the Matanuska River Park Campground which was in town and on the flight path of the Palmer airport. It was a busy airport, but the planes are small and therefore quiet, so we enjoyed watching them come into land just over our heads. After completing our shopping, we took a short hike out to the river hoping to give Lola a swim. But it was not meant to be as it was another raging river and even if it hadn’t been, we were on a bluff high above it. This was also the first campground where we started to encounter the famed Alaska mosquitos in more numbers, but not enough to stop us from spending the evening with a nice campfire.
The following day we drove south through Anchorage, which was much smaller than I expected given its population is around 250,000. I’m guessing that number must include all the ‘suburbs’ of the Mat-Su region. Just after Anchorage we came to an inlet called the Turnagain Arm, which branches off Cook Inlet and is very long, narrow and shallow. It is the only place in the US where you can see a bore tide, the most dramatic ones creating a 10-foot wave with speeds of 10-15 mph when the tidal difference gets to 27 feet. Of course, that only happens when all the conditions are right and as we were just passing through, we had only the stunning scenery to enjoy.
Our destination for the day was Whittier located on the western side of the Prince William Sound. It is another very small coastal town surrounded by glaciers and majestic mountains. You must go through a 2- ½ mile single lane tunnel to get to Whittier. The tunnel was built in 1942 by the US Amy as a railway connection between Whittier and Anchorage. It wasn’t until 2000 that the State of Alaska transformed the tunnel into a one-lane combination highway and railway tunnel which opened the town up for more tourism. It was really cool to travel through the tunnel and the view when you arrive in Whittier was stunning. We were hoping to do some boondocking in a spot on the opposite side of the town from the tunnel, but there was still a lot of snow on that road, so we headed back to towards the municipal campground. As we drove through the town, it gave off more of a working port vibe, than a touristy vibe, even though it’s a port of call for a lot of cruise ships and there are a number of tour boats that run out of there. Besides the beauty of the place, we were also drawn to the bike path that ran from the campground through town hoping that we could finally make good use of our bikes and Lola’s carriage.
The municipal campground was right by the tunnel, had an amazing view and was right on the water, so after we got set up, we took Lola down for a swim. Turns out the inlet is very shallow, so she didn’t really get a swim in, but she did get to play in the water for the first time on this trip. One drawback we encountered was that there was some sort of mining operation going on right by the campground. Initially the wind was blowing the dust away from us and the noise wasn’t too bad, so we weren’t too bothered. However, just as Conrad was grilling up dinner, the wind direction changed and the campground became a dust storm. As we really didn’t want to leave, Conrad put on a mask to finish grilling and we closed all the windows. After dinner we walked out and stopped one of the trucks to ask if they were going to be running all night. The answer was yes, they would be running until 4:30 the next morning. So back we went to the campground where we hitched up Two Sheds, located a boondocking spot just a few miles on the other side of the tunnel, then abandoned Whittier. The spot we wound up staying at was on Portage Creek, right where it meets Portage Lake, not as grand as the Whittier view, but still pretty. It was also right next to the Visitor center which we checked out the next morning. We’ve never been run out of a campsite before and it was not the experience we had hoped for at Whittier. But at least we got to see it, the tunnel was interesting and Lola had finally gotten some water time.
The following day we headed for Seward, which is located 127 miles south of Anchorage on the Seward Highway (9). The drive was lovely (as they all have been) and the road much busier as we entered the heart of the Kenai Peninsula and crossed into the Kenai Mountain Range. Seward is one of Alaska’s oldest towns and with its proximity to Anchorage, it is very touristy and a very busy place on a weekend. There are a ton of tour boats that head out to Kenai Fords National Park, which except for a hiking trail up to Exit Glacier, is only accessible by boat or backpacking. There is also a lot of commercial and charter fishing boats that run out of Seward.
We needed to get to there early as it was a Friday, so we knew the competition for the limited boondocking sites would be fierce. Our planning paid off as we scored what I’m just going to call the second-best campsite in Alaska. Just before town and on the quiet Exit Glacier road, we had a roaring creek on one side, the Resurrection River in front and multiple peaks of the Kenai Mountains all around. It was a bit tricky to get Two Sheds down to the flat spot on the gravel pull out, but it was worth it and we pretty much had the place to ourselves.
Saturday morning we drove past Seward out to Lowell Point where there are great views all around, a large campground and lots of private cabins. We saw a lot of construction on the road out there but didn’t think much of it as there is so much road construction everywhere we’ve been. Turns out there had been a major landslide on that road just a few weeks before we got there (https://youtu.be/xKqFKvEv-3E and https://youtu.be/YOlBgHHzsB4) and apparently, the slide hadn’t really stabilized. Ignorance is bliss is the statement that comes to mind.
We then cruised through Seward trying to locate outdoor dining that had some shade and finally found a little place down by the harbor where I enjoyed some fried oysters and Conrad paid too much money for a small portion of over-spiced halibut fish and chips. It was super busy in town, which felt kind of wrong to us after having enjoyed so much peacefulness thus far. So we decided to come back into town early the next day in hopes it wouldn’t be quite so heaving with people.
Sunday morning, we found a nice little café where we could sit outside with Lola and have a great breakfast, it’s been so long since we done that, it felt like such a treat. Afterwards, we walked all along the harbor front and out to the Mariners Memorial. It was nice to see all the boats and ships in the harbor and to get a better feel for the town. Another place we would highly recommend but do try to come during the week if you can.
After leaving Seward, we drove out to the Kenai Fords National Park, which is basically a trailhead for hikes out to Exit Glacier and the only part of the park that is accessible by road. Because of the road access and its proximity to Anchorage, Exit Glacier is the most visited glacier in Alaska. As you go into the park, there are sign posts along the road showing where the glacier used to end, staring in 1815. Since dogs are not allowed on the trail and I had already had a glacier fix in Valdez, Conrad took the hike out to see Exit Glacier. As he got closer to the glacier, the sign posts highlight the reality of how rapidly these glaciers are receding.