Contents
  1. 1. The Dilemma Before Departure
  2. 2. Day 0: Car Rental and Flight
  3. 3. Day 1
    1. 3.1. Cruise Cancellation
    2. 3.2. Harding Icefield Trail Hike
  4. 4. Day 2
    1. 4.1. Whittier Town
    2. 4.2. Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center
    3. 4.3. Poor Service in Denali NP
  5. 5. Day 3
    1. 5.1. Denali National Park Shuttle Bus
    2. 5.2. Savage Apline Trail Hike

This content was automatically generated by gpt-4-turbo-preview (No human review). The original post is in Chinese.

The Dilemma Before Departure

The initial desire to travel to Alaska came after reading an article by Yuan Xia on the Road titled “Alaska is Calling: Travel Unrestricted, Auroras Return | 2021 New Aurora Borealis Guide”. The thought of seeing the Northern Lights in Alaska piqued my interest. Originally, my goal was to undertake two road trips annually, one during the winter holidays of Christmas/New Year and another during the summer break. This year, we traveled to the Grand Canyon in the winter and Yosemite in the summer, so ideally, we should have stayed home afterward. However, driven by encouragement from a friend who travels frequently and the fact that we had a week free in mid-September, we decided to embark on a trip to Alaska.

The so-called week of free time was the week after we moved from San Diego to Irvine. Cuihao had just finished his summer internship, and the fall semester had yet to begin. In early August, after receiving an offer from a company and thus being freed from job hunting, I was particularly eager to travel again. So, by mid-August, I started planning our Alaska trip – I read many articles by Yuan Xia on the Road, booked some tickets and accommodation in advance, and purchased some gear from REI. By early September, we got busy with moving, packing furniture, selling secondhand items, scheduling U-Haul, etc., and I no longer had time to focus on the Alaska trip. On moving day, we were frantically busy, and it wasn’t until the evening of the next day, around 6 pm, that we finally had time to pack our luggage and further arrange our itinerary for the next morning. At this point, we deeply felt that this trip to Alaska was a mistake. Why did we think a week after moving would be “free time,” when we were clearly overwhelmed and exhausted?! By then, I had been sleeping only 7 hours a day for over ten days, without any time for naps or exercise, as indicated by my Garmin watch, showing my daily body energy dropping to 5/100. Now, going on a trip felt like regret, thinking we should have canceled the itinerary 10 days earlier to avoid this. But it was too late to back out now, as canceling would result in a huge financial loss (cancellation fee).

Regarding the pre-trip dilemma, actually, in early September, we did consider canceling the trip. The main reason was the weather forecast for our destinations indicated rain, and the aurora forecast was only at level 1-2. Our trip to Alaska in September was primarily to see the Northern lights and autumn colors. If it rained, we most likely wouldn’t be able to see the Northern lights, and the autumn colors would be diminished. Additionally, my roommate, upon hearing we were going to Alaska, expressed interest in joining us. However, she too was very indecisive about going or not. Fortunately, in the end, all three of us decided to go anyway.

Cuihao, on the night before departure, checked my previously made travel arrangements and discovered that the Denali Eielson Transit Bus schedule had changed due to a landslide in the park, closing a large area to visitors (Eielson Visitor Center was now unreachable). This year’s lottery was refunded, and starting from 9/17, all visitors could drive their private vehicles up to the 30-mile marker in the park (previously, this was limited to the 15-mile marker). Had we known earlier, we would have canceled our 9/16 Denali bus tickets, allowing us to spend more time in Kenai Fjords NP initially. Unfortunately, by the time we learned of this info, Denali National Park no longer permitted ticket refunds (the service in Denali NP is genuinely poor, as we’ll discuss later). This shows that planning a trip too early can have its drawbacks, or it might be said that one should keep a close eye on the latest updates from your destination before departure.

Day 0: Car Rental and Flight

This trip differed from past road trips as Alaska is too far to drive; we had to fly and thus needed to rent a car. Luckily, through Cuihao’s UCI campus rental platform discount, we rented a car for 7 days at only $316, which was a great deal. Our flight tickets were redeemed using Delta miles, flying first to Anchorage, then from Anchorage to Fairbanks, and finally back home from Fairbanks. Speaking of flight prices, the earlier you buy, the cheaper. Initially, when we were still deciding, one-way tickets were only $70/person. By the time we decided to purchase, the price had risen to $133, and later to over $200.

Traveling in Alaska involves many admission fees, like the Seward cruise, Denali Bus, Matanuska Glacier, making the trip not cheap overall. Therefore, we decided to bring our tent to save on lodging. This was our first time flying with camping gear, and we carried quite a bit of equipment along with hiking essentials. The night before, it took quite an effort to pack everything into our luggage: 1 x 28-inch suitcase (checked), 1 x 20-inch suitcase (carry-on), and two hiking backpacks.

Our flight sequence was from SAN to SEA, then SEA to ANC. This was my first flight post-pandemic. For safety, we wore double masks (an inner layer of N95 with a breathing valve and an outer layer of disposable mask). Most of the flight, we rested or slept. After landing and collecting our luggage, the first thing was to pick up our rental car, which took quite some time (mainly due to waiting in line). Originally, we had rented a Midsize Sedan (Toyota Corolla or similar). Still, the rental company informed us that they didn’t have our car model available, offering us a minivan at the same price instead. Thinking a minivan would offer more space and comfort for sleeping, we gladly accepted. It wasn’t until we got into the car that we realized we had hit the jackpot – a 2019 Dodge Grand Caravan, practically new and spacious, though a bit too high-end for us, requiring a Google search for some operations. This vehicle would be our companion for the week.

After familiarizing ourselves with the basic operations, we rushed to REI before closing to pick up two bear sprays and a can of camping fuel (since we couldn’t bring it on the plane), then headed to Costco to buy food for the week (mineral water, bread, instant noodles, biscuits, apples, soy milk, beef jerky, celery, carrots, etc.), followed by a late dinner at McDonald’s, and finally a stop at Walmart for bananas, wet wipes, tissues, and hand sanitizer. By then, it was around 10 pm. Having rented a large vehicle, we decided to sleep in the car that night. The car, with 3 rows and 7 seats, offered ample space when the back 5 seats were folded flat, providing a comfortable sleeping arrangement. So, we washed up in the well-lit and comfortable Walmart restroom, then drove along Seward Highway for a while, looking for a suitable parking spot to sleep. Eventually, after about 20 minutes of driving in the rain, we parked at Beluga Point Site for the night, planning to continue our journey to Seward the next day.

Sleeping in the car was excellent – I might even consider buying this model for my next vehicle. With the last 2 rows of seats folded down, there was more space than in our tent (REI Passage 2 Tent), enough for 2 sleeping mats plus some luggage (like suitcases/food) at the front and back. There was also space next to the side doors. The area was dark at night with few cars coming and going. Once the windows were closed, we could hardly hear any road noise.

Note: After arriving in Anchorage, my phone somehow lost signal, as did my housemate’s. Thankfully, I had another phone that still had service, and Cuihao’s Google Fi also had a signal. Otherwise, this trip would have been challenging to enjoy.

Day 1

Cruise Cancellation

We got up around 7 am when it was just getting light. Seward Highway is a scenic route with many picturesque stopovers. Our plan for the day was to take a cruise in Seward for 6 hours, which included wildlife viewing and tidewater glacier sightseeing, with check-in at 10:30 am. Considering it was a 2-hour drive, we allowed almost 3 hours to get there. Unfortunately, due to construction delays along the way, we were slightly behind schedule. While the scenes en route were not particularly stunning, mainly because the trees along the road were still green and the weather was somewhat cloudy, we only stopped for photos at a few points.

Upon arriving at the cruise company’s office, we were informed that due to high sea waves that day, the cruise might need to return early, preventing us from seeing the tidewater glacier. If returned early, they would refund part of the fee (charging us for a 3-hour cruise instead), or we could choose to cancel the trip for a full refund. Considering my susceptibility to seasickness, and also learning that September was already the “shoulder season” for wildlife (meaning less activity and fewer sightings), we decided to cancel our cruise tickets, saving us a significant sum (over $300). With the cruise canceled, we decided to bring forward our hiking plan initially set for tomorrow.

Harding Icefield Trail Hike

Consequently, we rushed to Kenai Fjords National Park, Exit Glacier Trailhead. After changing into hiking clothes and gear, we started on the Harding Icefield Trail around 12:30 pm. This 14.8km route with an elevation gain of 1100m is considered challenging, and we expected to complete it in 6-8 hours. Equipped with trekking poles, bear spray, rain gear, the 10 essentials, food, and water, we embarked on our hike. Initially, the path led us through forested areas with tall trees. Gradually, the trees turned into shrubs, getting shorter and shorter. The scenery was relatively dull in this section as we were walking within the forest, and the likelihood of encountering bears seemed higher. Consequently, I kept up constant chatter to make noise (a habit of mine while hiking outdoors). As the vegetation continued to diminish, we began to see distant glaciers on the mountains. Surprisingly, despite the cloudy weather earlier, it suddenly started raining, and the rain intensified. We quickly donned our rain gear: GTX Jacket + Rain Pants + GTX gloves + backpack rain cover. Despite the rain, once we reached a viewpoint, it stopped and the clouds dispersed, revealing a broad and unobstructed spectacular view. Surrounding us were meadows, and further ahead, just rocks and snow without any vegetation, making the trail blurred and challenging to follow. We just followed the footsteps of those ahead. As the sky cleared, the temperature became very comfortable. Passing the Emergency Shelter, we could see the vast icefield and snow-capped mountains, a truly breathtaking sight. At the end, unable to clearly discern the trail and considering it was already late afternoon (about 4 pm), we found a scenic spot, rested, and had snacks. We started the return journey around 4:20 pm, aiming to reach the Trailhead before sunset.

The return journey was pleasant, with no encounters with bears. We managed to finish the hike about an hour before sunset, allowing us time to explore the Exit Glacier Overlook Trail. This provided a stunning perspective of the rapid glacier melt. We concluded our hike before sunset. Overall, the day was highly successful, offering diverse and magnificent scenery. Although the hike was challenging, we took it slow and relied heavily on our trekking poles, but it was absolutely worth it. This trail ranks among the top 3 in my hiking experiences (the other trails being in the Grand Canyon and Yosemite, with possibly another in Kings Canyon National Park).

We stayed at the Marina Motel in Seward town for the night. After a day of hiking, it was comforting to take a hot shower, especially since it rained that day, soaking our pants and dampening some gear. Therefore, at times like these, sleeping in the car seemed less appealing. We returned to the motel around 8:30 pm to rest, browse the internet for the next day’s itinerary, and finally, we could wake up naturally the next morning.

Day 2

Whittier Town

In the morning, Seward had sun showers, and the mountains behind the motel were shrouded in mist, even showing a rainbow. Seward is a tiny town, and since the cruise was canceled, freeing up a day, we decided to visit Whittier nearby. Yuan Xia on the Road‘s description of Whittier intrigued us: a quirky place where the entire population lives in one building and has a tunnel that changes traffic direction every half hour. It was only after visiting Whittier that we realized it was even smaller than Seward, resembling a rural village in China. The prominent residential building, possibly due to the pandemic, only had its first floor open to the public. Upon arrival in Whittier in the rain, we crossed an underground passage. We initially planned to follow the tunnel’s map for sightseeing but quickly realized the town was too small to offer much of interest. We explored the famous residential building’s first floor and, in total, spent less than 30 minutes walking around Whittier. Personally, I felt it was not worth the trip.

Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center

Originally, we allocated 2 hours for exploring Whittier, but it only took 30 minutes. With 2 hours to spare before picking up a friend at the Anchorage airport that evening, we visited the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, with an admission fee of $17 per person. The experience was fantastic. The center is not very large, essentially forming a loop, but it’s home to a variety of wildlife. Some animals were rescued, and their backgrounds were detailed on display boards. Most of the animals roamed in large, open-air enclosures, with a few in indoor shelters, but most were outside grazing or playing. Thus, unlike the San Diego Zoo, where animals can be hard to spot in their enclosures, here, we easily saw brown bears, black bears, moose, wolves, foxes, porcupines, and more, making for a highly efficient visit. Moreover, the surrounding scenery was beautiful, encircled by snow-capped mountains, adding to the enjoyment. I highly recommend this wildlife center.

Poor Service in Denali NP

We arrived at the Anchorage airport around 6 pm to pick up a friend, then continued north along Park Highway. The route offered lovely views, especially as we left Anchorage, with many snow-capped mountains in sight. We aimed to camp that night at Denali National Park’s Riley Creek Campground but encountered poor service from Denali National Park. I had reserved a camping spot over the phone that afternoon, assured by customer service that the office was open until 11 pm for check-in or available for self check-in after that time, with campsite numbers indicated in an envelope left by staff. However, we started driving in the dark, faced with heavy fog, making it challenging to use high beams. Thankfully, the road conditions were decent, but night driving was uncomfortable. We finally reached Riley Creek Mercantile for check-in at 10:53 pm to find it closed, with a notice on the door stating it was closed due to computer issues that day and to check-in at Denali Bus Depot instead. But Denali Bus Depot was also closed (they close at 10 pm). We circled the Bus Depot building several times, but all three of us couldn’t locate the supposed mailbox or envelopes. Returning to Mercantile, we also thoroughly checked around the building but found nothing related to self check-in. After about 45 minutes of effort, we reluctantly gave up. Cuihao suggested staying overnight in a highway rest area, but I disagreed, feeling entitled to the camping spot we paid for despite our check-in issues, attributable to the park’s faults. Thus, we chose a campsite near restrooms with flushing toilets and quickly settled in for the night.

Day 3

Due to the failed check-in the previous night, we woke up early, concerned about being discovered for occupying a campsite without proper check-in. Fortunately, the staff at Denali Bus Depot told us our situation was fine and not to worry, despite showing no apology. At least we stayed at the same site for two nights, avoiding the hassle of packing up the tent the next morning.

Denali National Park Shuttle Bus

The Denali shuttle bus was initially priced at $60 per person, but due to shortened routes, the price was reduced to $38.5 each. The website mentioned arriving an hour early for check-in, but we found that arriving 10 minutes prior at Denali Bus Depot to collect tickets and board sufficed. The bus doubled as a tour, with the driver acting as a guide. During the trip, the driver pointed out wildlife and stopped or even reversed for better views. However, we didn’t encounter many animals, spotting only a few moose and birds. We stopped at a viewpoint to glimpse Denali’s peak, but the view was inferior to what we saw from Denali Viewpoints North/South. The driver made frequent stops at locations with restrooms and recommended hiking trails. For hikers, simply inform the driver of your drop-off point and wait roadside upon completion to flag down any passing shuttle heading the same direction for a ride back to the Bus Depot. We rode to the endpoint before setting off on a hike, surprisingly the first passengers to do so on that bus.

Savage Apline Trail Hike

We chose the Savage Alpine Trail, a 4-mile one-way route with different start and end points. Starting from Savage River Trail Parking and finishing at Savage River Campground provided a challenging ascent initially, followed by a lengthy walk along a windy ridge. The wind was so strong our hats buzzed, making progress difficult. On the mountain, we encountered a magnificent sight of 13 dall sheep. At one point, surrounded by six big-horn sheep, I started calling for help, as the sheep moved closer, potentially threatening. The correct action was to reroute, avoiding the herd by trekking off-trail. Fortunately, the sheep moved away after my initial panic.

The descent was less windy, with more vegetation and beautiful autumn colors. Further down, we entered a wooded area and unexpectedly encountered a moose. We were mere hundreds of meters from the trail’s end, near the road, when we heard a low grunt and spotted a brown figure shifting behind trees - presumably the rear of a hoofed animal. I ran, with

Contents
  1. 1. The Dilemma Before Departure
  2. 2. Day 0: Car Rental and Flight
  3. 3. Day 1
    1. 3.1. Cruise Cancellation
    2. 3.2. Harding Icefield Trail Hike
  4. 4. Day 2
    1. 4.1. Whittier Town
    2. 4.2. Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center
    3. 4.3. Poor Service in Denali NP
  5. 5. Day 3
    1. 5.1. Denali National Park Shuttle Bus
    2. 5.2. Savage Apline Trail Hike