Far away from the cruise ships and gluttonous masses, the expansive ‘interior’ of Alaska beckons with the promise of natural vistas and wildlife viewing. For many this means boarding a motor coach or luxury train to be led by the hand through the wilderness. Yet for those who prefer their nature a little less prepackaged and own a valid driver’s license, the interior of Alaska is quite a playground to romp around in.
Anchorage is the gateway to the region and a convenient base should you want to take in the coastal scenery of the nearby Kenai Peninsula. One really nice thing about interior Alaska is that there aren’t many roads other than a few highways, gravel routes and the odd driveway. If you find yourself on the wrong road all you have to do is take the other one. Just be sure to gas up when possible, as distances between habitations can be great. Brace yourself for higher gas prices than what you’re probably used to paying (unless you’re from Europe), as even though oil is one of the state’s major exports along with salmon, souvenir fleece jackets and vice presidential candidates, there is no real bargain here. Considering the distances involved, it just might be time to take out that second mortgage.
Heading east out of Anchorage you will soon enter the Matanuska Valley where the scenery becomes increasingly picturesque. At about the two-hour mark I highly recommend taking the opportunity to visit the Matanuska Glacier up close.
You’ll have to pay to drive up to the glacier, as it is only accessible via private land owned by a strong believer in capitalism. There will be a marked trail across the rocky moraine terminating at a sign emphatically warning of the dangers of going past that point, such as the risk of death, injury, and a curse upon seven generations of those that do. So once you get past there it will be an amazing experience trying to sure-footedly navigate the undulating ridges of ice intersected by squiggly rivers of intensely blue melt-water. There are guided excursions that provide the proper equipment and direction, but we’re trying to stay away from ‘packaged’ aren’t we? So what if you sprain your ankle, slip to your death or summon cosmic backlash on your great, great, grandchildren?
At the terminus of the Glenn Highway is the enormous Wrangell/St. Elias National Park. At the tiny visitor’s center there’s a really great movie about all the places in the park that are completely inaccessible to travelers without their own private helicopter, which is approximately 97%. While the mountain views are impressive, you’ll either have to take a long, harrowing drive to the offbeat town of McCarthy or a flight-seeing tour in a small aircraft to really appreciate the scope of this national park the size of Switzerland boasting the majority of Alaska’s highest peaks.
From the Wrangell/St. Elias area, follow the Richardson Highway north along the fabled Alaska Pipeline toward Fairbanks. In Fairbanks you will once again be reacquainted with the trappings of civilization, such as fast food restaurants and traffic lights. It is also here that anyone planning to take the lonely ride up the infamous Dalton Highway to the shores of the Arctic Ocean would make a right turn and head north.
Heading back south toward Anchorage on the Parks Highway, you will pass a cluster of grandiose lodges, quirky restaurants, and kitschy souvenir shops that look like they’ve followed the cruise passengers from the coast. This is the sure-fire indication that you’ve reached one of America’s finest natural treasures—Denali National Park. This unspoiled alpine gem is accessible by only one unpaved road, which itself is only open to park buses and those belonging to the many tour operators in the region.
Once again there will be the temptation to hop aboard that shiny, comfy-looking motor coach. Don’t give in! You didn’t risk life and limb on the Matanuska Glacier just to watch nature from a bus full of septuagenarians. Rather, arrange passage on one of the park service buses.
Not only is it less expensive, but you will also have the option get on or off as you please. So if there is a particular mountain view, clump of trees, or Arctic squirrel that catches your interest, feel free to ask the driver to pull over. Tickets are priced according to where you intend to turn around with Wonder Lake and Eielson Visitors Center the preferred destinations.
Of course, most people come to Denali hoping to see the park’s namesake mountain. Most people also leave somewhat disappointed, as ‘The Great One’ generally prefers to sulk behind its own private mass of clouds. Regardless, wildlife abounds with excellent chances to see foxes, caribou, Dall Sheep, and plenty of bears. Park bus drivers generally double as tour guides, and the long journey back and forth, while exhausting even if you don’t get out to tramp about, will likely be very informative.
So what should you know about interior Alaska if you’re planning just such a trip? First, it is worthwhile remembering that for wildlife viewing, long hours of sunlight, and temperatures that won’t result in frostbite, it would be best to visit in the narrow summer season. While prices are lower in the shoulder months of May and September, the weather can be iffy, the foliage not yet in bloom, and the animals either just emerging from hibernation or just getting ready to.
It is also worth noting that generally speaking, accommodations—along with food, activities, and the aforementioned gas—tend to be quite pricey. Considering the quarter-year window they actually get visitors, it’s hard to begrudge the Alaskans for trying to make a living, though it may be hard to explain this to your accountant. Tell him to deduct your glacier-related health expenses to make up the difference.
A ramble through the playground of Alaska’s interior will no doubt be a memorable experience for nature lovers, adrenaline junkies, and warning sign defying people everywhere. Just be sure to gas up, pad your bank account and bring your camera. Your great, great, grandchildren are going to want to see this—that is, if they aren’t already cursed.