April 24, 2024

Anne’s Alaska Road Trip

South Denali viewpoint at Milepost 134.

When contemplating a cruise to Alaska, it’s worth considering a pre- or post-cruise land tour. A cruisetour combines the best of both worlds – sailing past a majestic mountain-edged coastline and travelling by road or rail inland to explore Alaska’s rugged interior.

One summer, Bill and I decided to take our two boys on a southbound Alaska cruise from Whittier (near Anchorage) to Vancouver (our hometown) aboard the Coral Princess. But before boarding our ship for a seven-day cruise, we arranged beforehand to spend several days exploring Denali National Park and the Kenai Peninsula. We could have booked a Princess cruisetour and travelled with an escorted group by motorcoach and glass-domed railcar to various mountain locales, but we opted to reserve a rental car in Anchorage and strike out on our own.

Upon arriving at Anchorage’s international airport, we promptly ran into a grizzly bear. Fortunately it was stuffed and mounted inside a huge glass case, but it was still intimidating, at least for two small boys staring up at this 10-foot-tall hulk of fur and teeth and claws.

We picked up our rental vehicle – a mini-van – and headed to the nearby Coast International Inn, a mid-priced hotel located beside Lake Spenard where we enjoyed watching floatplanes landing and taking off in the lingering light of a northern summer’s eve. The next morning we were ready to hit the road. With Reid and John buckled into the back seats, their GameBoys softly chirping in the background, we wheeled northward.

The mid-August sun was warming the slopes of the Chugach Mountains as we traced the shores of Knik Arm at the head of Cook Inlet, then headed north along the Susitna River Valley. As we drew closer to the Alaska Range of glacier-crowned mountains, we marveled at the lack of traffic, which let us enjoy the scenery.

The mountaineering town of Talkeetna is about 100 miles north of Anchorage.

At Milepost 98 we pulled off the Parks Highway to visit the mountaineering town of Talkeetna and have lunch before continuing our drive. Mount McKinley – North America’s highest peak – looms on the horizon, and a good place to view this spectacular sight is from the South Denali Viewpoint at Milepost 134.8 or, perhaps even better, from the expansive deck at Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge, located close by. This is one of several custom-built Princess lodges in Alaska and is reminiscent of the famous Jasper Park Lodge in the Canadian Rockies, exuding the warmth of a rustic log cabin but on a grand scale. The main building houses restaurants and its spacious lobby is graced with floor-to-ceiling windows. Overstuffed chairs and sofas invite reading beside the stone fireplace or simply gazing outward at the alpine scenery.

The Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge near the South Denali viewpoint.

Mt. McKinley Princess Lodge is situated within Denali State Park, which shares its western boundary with the much larger Denali National Park & Preserve. Guests at the lodge can take various local tours, including sportfishing, river rafting, nature walks, trail hikes and sled dog demonstrations. A daily shuttle service ($10 roundtrip) is offered to Talkeetna where the town’s pioneer past is well preserved in its rustic log cabins now housing shops and restaurants. Talkeetna is a base for mountaineering expeditions to Mount McKinley and flightseeing excursions depart regularly from its small airstrip. The local museum in housed in the town’s former one-room schoolhouse and the nearby Talkeetna Forest Ranger Station provides information on the hiking trails in Denali State Park.

Princess’s lodges become heavily booked at the height of summer, so we had made advance reservations at several, including Denali Princess Lodge at the entrance to Denali National Park. We spent two nights here and used the lodge as our base for hiking some of the park trails, then returning to the lodge for a soak in the hot tub and a dinner of grilled Alaskan salmon on the outside deck overlooking the Nenana River. Visit Princess Lodges for more information.

Hiking the Savage River Trail in Denali National Park.

Visitors to Denali National Park must ride one of the park buses if they want to venture past the Savage River parking lot. These buses depart regularly from the visitor center at the park entrance and seats are in heavy demand, so an advance reservation by phone, on-line or though the lodge where you are staying is recommended. The park buses move along the park road at a leisurely pace, stopping at various viewpoints where wildlife such as caribou and moose are often seen feeding. The park operates narrated bus tours and a shuttle bus service; for information on bus transportation within the park and other attractions at Denali, visit the National Park Service website National Park Service website.

After a few glorious days at Denali, we were on the road again. There was more to see of Alaska by road before embarking on our cruise, and my next blog will be about our scenic drive to the Portage Valley and Kenai Peninsula.

Avatar photo About Anne Vipond

Anne Vipond is the author of several guidebooks to cruising destinations around the world. She draws on an extensive sailing background to impart her enthusiasm for cruise travel. From her home port of Vancouver, she travels by cruise ship to a wide range of destinations to keep her books current and useful for her cruise readers. Her cruising articles have been published in magazines and newspapers throughout North America and over seas.