|Destination:||United States of America|
A wildlife trip to awaken the senses. Alaska is pure pristine wilderness – discover unspoilt views of snow-capped mountains, sparkling rivers and emerald-green glacial lakes, searching for whale, grizzly bear, moose and caribou on the way. The glaciers of Kenai Fjords National Park and the spectacular peak of Denali are just two highlights of Alaska’s great outdoors.
Denali National Park – A truly inspiring wilderness areas containing Denali, the highest mountain in North America, spectacular hiking trails and abundant wildlife
Seward – Gateway to the spectacular landscapes of Kenai Fjords National Park
Valdez – Fabulous ferry ride across Prince William Sound
Day 1 Join tour in Anchorage
Arrive in Anchorage. This modern city is the gateway to thousands of miles of wilderness, overlooked by giant snow-capped peaks and flanked by the icy waters of the Cook Inlet.
Due to the number of evening flights into Anchorage, your Leader plans to do the welcome meeting on the morning of day two, and will leave a message in reception with details on timings and everything else that you’ll need for the day. There are no activities planned today, so you are free to arrive at any time. Our hotel in Anchorage provides a free shuttle service to and from Anchorage International airport, which is about a 15 minute drive away, and we will give you instructions on how to take this shuttle in your final documents.
If your flight arrives earlier in the day, a visit to the Alaska Native Heritage Centre will really set the scene and provide a great introduction to the many native cultures in this vast state. Alternatively, try the local beer at one of the city’s many micro-breweries.
Day 2 Drive to Portage Valley for guided hike, continue to Seward
Leaving Anchorage this morning we turn south taking the Seward Highway and following the coastline of Turnagain Arm, through the Chugach and Kenai Mountains. This stunning setting affords us an opportunity to take a short, guided hike that takes in the dramatic scenery of the Byron Glacier Creek and ends in a permanent snowfield under a hanging glacier. From here we continue south to the town of Seward, a picturesque port ringed by a stunning landscape of mountains and glaciers, lying alongside the rich waters of Resurrection Bay. Founded at the turn of the 20th century by engineers building the railroad to the interior, it benefited from its status as an ice-free port, prospering during the early years of the Nome gold rush and going on to become the gateway port for cruises into the spectacular Kenai Fjords National Park. On arrival we will make our way to our hotel, where we will spend the next three nights amidst this majestic landscape.
Day 3 Discover Kenai Fjords National Park
This morning we drive to Exit Glacier in the Kenai Fjords National Park. The park is the site of the immense Harding Icefield, a gigantic expanse of nearly 500sq km that feeds some 40 glaciers, making it the largest icefield within the territories of the United States. The fjords have been created by the retreat of these mighty glaciers, leaving behind an awe-inspiring vista of dramatic cliffs covered in nesting seabirds, whilst the tidewater glaciers on the coast regularly calve huge icebergs into the icy waters. Depending upon the interests of the group there may be a possibility to enjoy a walk at the glacier, or perhaps even make a day of it by exploring something of the Icefield. Those not wishing to partake in the walks today may like to check out Seward’s impressive SeaLife Centre, a remarkable project partially funded by the Exxon Valdez disaster that combines a unique mix of research and education and affords an opportunity to watch stellar sea lions, harbour seals and puffins in their natural underwater environments.
Day 4 Free day; optional sea kayaking or cruise to National Park
Today has been left free for you to enjoy as you see fit, and there are a number of awe-inspiring optional excursions to choose from. A cruise within the Kenai Fjords National Park is an unbeatable wildlife experience – this 580,000-acre wonderland of towering peaks, glaciers and coastline is home to a rich diversity of marine wildlife, including puffins, sea otters, stellar sea lions, orcas, humpbacks and dall porpoises. Here over 30 named glaciers plunge directly into the salt water along the coast. Sea kayaking is also available here. Alternatively, for those with some real adventure in mind, you could have the unforgettable experience of a glacier dog-sledding tour, which involves a scenic helicopter flight over Godwin Glacier, and 30 minutes of sledding in the stunning snowy landscape on the glacier.
Day 5 Drive and ferry to Valdez via Portage Glacier and Whittier
Departing Seward this morning we follow the railway through the Chugach forest and through Moose Pass, so named because in 1903 a mail carrier driving a team of dogs had considerable trouble gaining right of way from a giant moose! Heading for Portage Glacier Visitors Centre, we then continue through the old mountain tunnel to Whittier, at the western end of Prince William Sound. From here we board a ferry to take us to Valdez, the northernmost ice-free port in the western hemisphere, ringed by the snow-capped peaks at the end of the Valdez Narrows. This ferry crossing takes approximately 7 hours, and during the journey you may be able to catch a glimpse of the Columbia Glacier. Valdez is the terminus of the 800 mile Trans-Alaska Pipeline which begins in Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic Ocean. This astounding feat of engineering traverses the Brooks Range, crossing rivers and valleys, above and below ground, before finally feeding its oil into the waiting tankers. The economy of the town depends very much on the oil industry and salmon fisheries, and is our base for tonight.
The final itinerary is subject to confirmation of the ferry schedules between Seward and Valdez. Ferry schedules are only published in February each year. Occasionally the new timetable may not fit with our planned itinerary and/or ferries are occasionally cancelled. In either event, we shall divert the tour inland and drive from Seward to McCarthy National Park.
Day 6 Journey to McCarthy via Keystone Canyon
Our route today takes us through some of the most spectacular scenery in Alaska, as we drive through forested hills and past cascading rivers, fed by small glaciers on the Chugach Mountains. The numerous rivers in this area are full of fish. Five species of salmon are found in Alaska. The midsummer spawning season is a major event for all the animals, with bears and birds waiting to catch the weakened fish, exhausted from their spawning runs. The views are even more dramatic as we reach Keystone Canyon, where sheer cliff walls covered in lime green moss present cascades of crystal water tumbling over the edge to the river below. ‘Bridal Veil’ and ‘Horsetail’ Falls evocatively describe the scene. The canyon is steeped in history from the gold rush period and this was once the scene of a bloody gun battle, whilst the remains of the sled trail used in the early days are still visible. Crossing Thompson Pass we head towards the Worthington Glacier, heading east through Chitina and onto the McCarthy road. Stopping at the Copper River, we then cross the Kuskulana River on a narrow railroad bridge high above the water and continue through a vast expanse of untouched wilderness, following an unpaved road through the remote forests. At the end of the road we reach the small town of McCarthy (pop 42), which grew to serve the Copper mine at Kennicott, located 4.5 miles up the valley.
Day 7 Walk in Wrangell St Elias National Park
Nestling amongst the wild landscapes of the Wrangell St. Elias National Park, McCarthy presents us with an ideal base from which to explore this stunning setting further. Less accessible than Denali, Wrangell St Elias contains the largest concentration of glaciers on the continent and some 13.2 million acres of the park system have been declared a UNESCO World Heritage area. Shaped by volcanoes and ice, the park has nine of the 16 highest peaks in the United States, including Mount St Elias, the second highest in the US. Mount Wrangell (4318m) erupted as recently as 1930 and its thermal mud springs are evidence of continued volcanic activity. Mountain goats and Dall sheep with long curly horns can be found on the upper slopes while wolves, black bears, coyotes, bison and caribou range through the interior of the park. There will be an opportunity today to walk the Bonanza Mine trail, a 16km, straightforward, but fairly strenuous walk that follows the ridges and tram lines to the old mine, taking in the magnificent panoramas of the Chugach Mountains, Mount Blackburn and the Kennicott Glacier along the way. The road is steep, climbing to an elevation of some 1200m as the path negotiates the trail from the mill town to the old mine, affording a unique glimpse of part of this country’s fascinating history, as well as its breathtaking landscapes. From the ridge above the mine there are some spectacular views across to the University Range in the St Elias Mountains. Return to Kennicott via the same path and head back to the hotel.
Day 8 Free day; optional hike along the Kennicott Glacier or rafting
Today has once again been left free for you to enjoy at your leisure. You may like to try some of the other spectacular walks through the park, perhaps taking an optional hike along the Kennicott Glacier, or undertaking some optional ice-climbing (accompanied by professional guides). Scenic flights over the park are also available – without doubt one of the most spectacular outings to be had in Alaska. Also the powerful rivers present some exhilarating rafting opportunities, which offer breathtaking scenery. Those looking for some more sedate activities might like to explore the old mining town of Kennicott. Designated as a National Historic landmark and considered the finest remaining example of an early 20th century copper mine anywhere, the town remains a fascinating monument to a long forgotten era of America’s pioneering past.
Day 9 Travel along the Denali Highway to Tangle Lakes
Heading north today we take the Denali Highway towards Tangle Lakes, stopping en route to see the remarkable fish wheels on the Copper River, an ingenious method of catching the abundant salmon that follow the river to spawn. Stopping at the Wrangell St. Elias Visitors Centre for a short visit, we then continue on to Glenallen, our gateway into the beautiful setting of the Tangle lakes, one of the most accessible of Alaska’s wild and pristine wilderness areas. This is a region of open tundra, glacial lakes and mountain ridges, blessed with an abundance natural beauty, cultural traditions and spectacular wildlife. On arrival we should have time to enjoy a short walk in the alpine tundra, a haven for caribou, wolves and grizzlies and soon to be the site of controversial platinum strip mining operation. The area is also home to the remnants of ancient nomadic peoples and contains some of the richest concentrations of archaeological remains in the sub-arctic regions of North America.
Day 10 Continue to Denali National Park
Continuing northwest, the highway takes us over a rugged landscape, where the views are breath taking and, weather permitting, we may get a glimpse of Denali (formerly Mt McKinley), the highest mountain in North America (6188m). The Athabascan people called it ‘Denali’ meaning ‘the high one’ and this towering pyramid of rock, ice and snow is often shrouded in a blanket of mist and cloud. Denali National Park represents one of the world’s last intact ecosystems, over 6 million acres of tundra, glaciers and mountains that present a unique opportunity to observe the natural behaviour of wild animals still unaffected by the often destructive influence of man. The park provides a haven for bears, caribou, Dall sheep, wolves, moose, red foxes, wolverine and over 160 species of birds, and is without doubt one of the highlights of our remarkable journey.
Day 11 In Denali National Park; search for wildlife on walks
This morning we will drive to the entrance of Denali National Park and transfer to a shuttle bus for our journey into the park itself. Established as a national park in 1917, the area was designated as an international biosphere reserve in 1976 and contains everything from 1200 pound moose to 1.5 gram shrews. In order to ensure the preservation of this wilderness, vehicle access is restricted, so these shuttle buses are the only way that visitors can enter the park. We embark on an eight hour round-trip journey through this natural treasure trove, driving along the primitive road to the Eielson Visitors Centre and taking opportunities to observe and photograph the abundant wildlife, while sheer mountain walls rise majestically from the plains. During our midpoint stop at Eielson Visitors Centre, and with a little luck on our side, we hope to catch a glimpse of Denali, the massive 6,190m mountain for which the park is named. Depending on the timing of the buses, we may also see a demonstration of the park’s sled dogs, which are used for patrolling in the winter season and are an integral part of the cultural traditions of Denali. They remain the only sled dogs in the entire U.S. who help directly in the preservation of the park and its wildlife.
Returning to the visitors centre at the park entrance, we jump into our maxiwagon to return to the hotel. (Please note guiding is not allowed in the park – walks will be unescorted).
Day 12 Morning visit Denali Visitor Centre, afternoon head to Talkeetna
We drive to the town of Talkeetna, an old mining supply station and riverboat port, that since the early 1950s has seen itself become a focus for mountaineers attempting to scale the heights of Denali. Many believe that the best views of the mountain can be seen from here and this afternoon there will be time to enjoy some exhilarating optional excursions from the town, including river rafting and flightseeing trips to take in the majestic views of Alaska’s most famous summit.
Day 13 Visit Hatchers Pass mine, return to Anchorage
This morning we depart Talkeetna and head for the mountainous landscapes around Hatcher’s Pass, where a visit to the gold mine affords us a fascinating glimpse into the pioneering heritage of this great wilderness. Named after Robert Lee Hatcher, who established the first lode claim in Willow Creek Valley in 1906, the top of the pass is the site of the old Independence Mine, today an Historical State Park, but once the property of the Alaska-Pacific Consolidated Mining Company. At the peak of its production the mine employed over 200 men and produced nearly 35,000 ounces of gold, which at today’s rates would equate to over $17 million dollars’ worth a year. There may be an opportunity to hike around the area, although if the pass is blocked due to snowfall we will take an alternative route.
Day 14 Tour ends Anchorage
The trip ends today at our hotel in Anchorage.
There are no activities planned today, so you are free to depart from Anchorage at any time. If your flight is departing later in the day, luggage storage facilities are available at our hotel. Similar to your arrival, there is a free shuttle service back to Anchorage International Airport, approximately a 15 minute drive away, and we will give you instructions on how to take this shuttle in your final documents.