The Great Alaskan Wilderness: By Land and Sea

The Denali Star (photo courtesy of Alaska Railroad)
The Denali Star (photo courtesy of Alaska Railroad)
Riding the Coastal Trail in Anchorage
Riding the Coastal Trail in Anchorage

By Shelley Seale

Alaska: it’s the last great frontier. At two-and-a-half times bigger than my own large home state of Texas, the size of our 50th state is massive; yet it has a population of just around 700,000 people and most of it is unpopulated — even unexplored.

Come with us on a journey over this untamed, breathtaking place, overland and on a sea voyage.

Overland by Rail

Traveling by train conjures images of early explorers, riding the rails and having grand adventures as they discovered new places in the frontier lands of old. In Alaska, tracks were laid beginning in 1903, in the only ice-free coastal town there was in the state: Seward. Eleven years later, the U.S. Congress authorized construction of 470 miles of railway line from Seward north to Fairbanks.

Today, the Alaska Railroad still provides travelers with a fun, informative and exciting adventure overland — and with some of the most stunning views you’re ever likely to see from a train.

My partner, Keith, and I landed in Anchorage, where we spent a day of incredibly gorgeous weather riding rented bikes along the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail. One of the most beautiful walking or biking paths in the nation, this trail winds gently along the coast from downtown Anchorage for 11 miles, ending at a chalet in Kincaid Park. It is by far Alaska’s most popular trail. The weather was so atypically perfect that we could even see Mount Denali from Anchorage — a rare sighting indeed.

The next day we boarded the Denali Star, one of five routes on the Alaska Railroad. This is their flagship train, departing each day in summer for a 12-hour journey between Fairbanks and Anchorage, with several stops along the way.

We took the train first for about an 8 hour ride up to Denali National Park, enjoying breakfast and lunch on the train en route. Views were, as promised, incredible — but a really nice surprise was the tour guide on each voyage who fills you in on what you’re seeing along the way. The guides were knowledgeable, sharing everything from facts about the nature and wildlife all around us, to stories of Alaska and its history and people.

For example, I had no idea how the great sled dog race, the Iditarod, started. Initially, the dogs were used as a mail and supply transport in these icy areas where no other vehicle could access. In 1925, the city of Nome experienced a devastating diptheria epidemic. These dogs and their mushers raced to take in the life-saving serums, and thus began what is called “The Last Great Race on Earth.”

Other stories were told of intrepid pioneer families who did, and still do, make their homes deep in the Alaskan woods. The weather was still holding, and as we rounded one corner, open of trees because of a marshy lake, suddenly there was Mt. Denali, rising above everything in its majestic splendor.

This clear sighting was such a rarity that the conductor stopped the train for a few minutes so that everyone had a chance to view, and photograph, the mighty snowcapped mountain.

Mount Denali rising above the land (Photo by Shelley Seale)
Mount Denali rising above the land  Shelley Seale photos below.

Denali National Park

At six million acres in Alaska’s interior, Denali is the third-largest national park in the country (the first two, Wrangell-St. Elias and Gates of the Arctic, are also in Alaska). This vast wilderness is accessed via only one road, through a low-elevation forest to the high alpine tundra that culminates in North America’s highest peak, Mt. Denali. The park turned 100 a mere few days before our arrival.

Grand Denali Lodge (Photo by Keith Hajovsky)
Grand Denali Lodge (Photo by Keith Hajovsky)

Our accommodations, one of the private cabins at the Grande Denali Lodge, proved the perfect location for exploring the park. From our deck we had amazing views from atop the ridge across Denali, and the park entrance was only a few miles away. To make it even easier, the lodge provides regular, complimentary shuttle service to both Denali gateways to the park — the main visitor center and the wilderness access center — as well as to the town for dining and shopping options, and their sister property, the Denali Bluffs Hotel.

We elected to start our first day in the park by taking one of their shuttle buses, which traverse the 92-mile park road with stops along the various lookout points, trailheads and rest areas. The bus drivers also give a great deal of information during the drive, and stop whenever there is a wildlife sighting so that passengers can get a good observation of the animals.

One draw of these shuttle buses is that, unlike Denali’s fully guided tour buses, they are hop-on and hop-off. So, if you want to take off down a trailhead for a while and then flag down the next bus, that option is available. Sit on the left side of the bus leaving the center for the best views.

The Polychrome Overlook at mile 46 in Denali National Park (Photo by Shelley Seale)
The Polychrome Overlook at mile 46 in Denali National Park (Photo by Shelley Seale)

On our second day we gathered more information about the park at the exhibits of the main visitor’s center, and then did some exploring on our own around the various shorter trailheads close to the entrance.

TIP: We arrived on the day we wanted to take a bus or hike, planning to purchase our tickets then and there. But we found out that many of the shuttles (whether for a tour or to a specific trail or ranger guided hike) were already sold out. This was Labor Day weekend and the last weekend of the season, but I would advise to purchase tickets for your activities the day before if possible, especially during prime visitation periods.

Taking to Water

Even if you’re not really much of a cruise person, like me, Alaska is one of those places in the world where you simply can’t see much of its magnificence without getting on the water. There are the huge cruise ships with Alaskan itineraries, but to me the perfect way to cruise Alaska is on a small ship.

UnCruise Adventures in Alaska (Photo by Shelley Seale)
UnCruise Adventures in Alaska.

We elected to go with UnCruise Adventures, a Seattle-based company operating for 20 years with high standards for their staff, guest experiences, cultural appreciation and environmental stewardship. We boarded the Safari Endeavor for the Exploring Muir’s Wilderness trip, a 7-day journey of the Inside Passage with a maximum of 84 guests, visiting spots from Endicott Arm to Glacier Bay National Park, with which John Muir is closely identified.

There are hardly words to describe what the next seven days were like. First, before I even get to what we saw and did, I have to give kudos to the incredible teams that run these small ships. The guides were not only knowledgeable, with degrees in various scientific fields, but also so sincerely passionate about the place, getting excited as children on Christmas morning when we would make a wildlife sighting or an iceberg calved off. The food and inside staff were all equally amazing (I’m now still working off the several pounds I gained from their delicious meals).

Heading to Dawes Glacier (Photo by Shelley Seale)
Heading to Dawes Glacier.

On our first morning, we woke up in Endicott Arm, with the staggering, mesmerizingly blue Dawes Glacier right in front of the boat. In timed groups, skiffs took us up close and personal with the glacier, watching the seals swim and laze on small icebergs and learning more about the glacier. We even did a shot of peppermint schnapps off a piece of glacial ice!

In Port Houghton, early in the morning we could hear excited shouts and footsteps. There were several pods of humpback whales, with a dozen or more whales in each, feeding all around the Safari Endeavor. Their backs would glide up out of the water as they ate — once, twice, maybe three times — until the final dive, when their flukes came up out of the water in a truly awe-inducing sight. Fun fact: did you know that each whale’s fluke is totally unique, much like our fingerprints?

The whales stayed with us the entire day, along with playful sea lions, as we explored the tidal pools onshore with a guide and went kayaking in the bay. In Thomas Bay, we took a three-hour guided kayak tour, where we spotted dozens of Bald Eagles.

Entering Fords Terror (Photo by Shelley Seale)
Entering Fords Terror.

One day the captain made an exciting announcement over loudspeaker: The weather conditions, timing and tides were all in perfect alignment for us to go into a place they rarely had the opportunity to — Fords Terror. So named because of a crewman who rowed into the narrow channel in 1899, only to find that as the tides rose, the currents and rising waters created terrifying conditions that he barely survived. The crew were as excited as the guests to explore this remote, magical, rarely-visited place; it was the first time all season (at the tail end of the season, too) they had been able to go in. Another benefit for small ships: they can get places where the huge cruises cannot.

A Monumental Glacier

Glacier Bay National Park (Photo by Shelley Seale)
Glacier Bay National Park.

The grand finale to all this was Glacier Bay National Park. Covering over three milion acres, the park is home not only to the dynamic, constantly-changing glacier, but also rugged mountains, wild coastlines, fjords and even a temperate rainforest. It’s part of a 25-million acre World Heritage Site, and is one of the worlds first and largest protected natural areas. In fact, when John Muir visited here in 1879 he was so struck by the solitude, remote beauty and purity that he instantly sought its protection — a move that led to the National Park Service we know today.

Park Ranger J.T. McLaughlin boarded the ship to join us for this journey. He said of Glacier Bay, “It is one of the most pristine places on earth, one of the very few that is almost entirely untouched by human development or impact.” Unlike other national parks such as Yellowstone, magnificent as they may be, Glacier Bay has never been affected by logging, fishing, building, poaching or other human activities.

Johns Hopkins Glacier in Glacier Bay National Park (Photo by Shelley Seale)
Johns Hopkins Glacier in Glacier Bay National Park.

After moving down roughly 65 miles from the entrance, passing multiple other glaciers, islands and increasingly bigger icebergs, we arrived in the afternoon at the imposing Johns Hopkins Glacier, a product of the Little Ice Age. This glacier is incredibly active — in the last mere 350 years it has grown and retreated down that entire 65 miles we had just traversed. In fact, the glacier is what created that passage.

Tlingit People

The native Tlingit people were most affected, in the late 1600s when the glacier apparently encroached so rapidly to their lowlands home that they barely had time to pack up their village and escape. Today, a new Tribal House has been built to commemorate the first peoples of this area and preserve their culture.

As our group of passengers and crew stood on the deck in awe, looking up at the mighty and powerful glacier, watching pieces of it calve off into the water below with a thunderous roar — we decended into silence at times, struck by how very small we seemed. It is the moment you realize that you do not inhabit a place — the place inhabits you.

It felt like a cathedral of sorts, this place that John Muir called a “Temple of Nature.” Ranger McLaughlin ended the day by urging us all, when we returned home, to notice the natural world around us — the birds overhead as we drive, the flowers we pass on our errands, the sky above our office windows.

The majestic nature of Alaska
The majestic nature of Alaska

“The natural world is all around us everyday, but we may never see it,” said Ranger McLaughlin. “We come somewhere like this to see these wild places and remember our origins; remember where we came from, and what we belong to. We need to be reminded that there’s so much more. We spent 10,000 years vying over resources and imaginary boundaries, and the national park system reminds us that this belongs to all of us.”

I will end with this quote that inspires us to venture forth into the world:

“May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous,

leading to the most amazing views.

May your mountains rise into and above the clouds.” ~Edward Abbey

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Shelley Seale
Shelley Seale is an Austin, Texas-based freelance journalist who writes about lifestyle, travel, health, education, business, and nonprofit issues. She has written for National Geographic, USA Today, Andrew Harper Traveler magazine, Yahoo, CNN, the Austin Business Journal, Austin Woman, and many others. Her favorite quote is by Helen Keller: “Life is a daring adventure, or nothing at all."