Early in the morning we crossed the border into Alaska. Fittingly the stamp we got in our passports featured a caribou. Crossing the border at top of the world highway is very simple and costs only $7. Oh the wonderful privilege of a British passport!
Chicken and North Pole
The first town of any significance we came across in Alaska was Chicken. Apparently the first pioneers wanted to name it Parmigiana, following the local custom of naming towns after local birds. However they soon came to the conclusion that none of them knew how to spell partruligian and opted for an altogether different bird, the humble chicken. (Note: it appears Aleks maybe as confused by the word Ptarmigan as the first pioneers). These days the town is more of a tiny hamlet and it is full to the brim with all things chicken. There’s a shop selling many creative chicken souvenirs, there are metal statues of chickens, there are chicken photo cut-outs, two chicken themed camping grounds and a chicken café and bar.
Alaska takes it’s themed cities very seriously, for after a squawknerful experience of Chicken we headed for a ho-ho-ho-wsome North Pole. One of those “only in America” places, North Pole is an entirely Christmas-themed town. From candy-cane lampposts to the worlds largest Santa statue, and real reindeer, everything has been designed for a year-round Christmas. Even the street names are suitable: “St Nicholas Drive”, “Snowman Lane”, “Santa Claus Lane” and “Mistletoe Drive” all feature.
In Fairbanks, we completed a first for a trip, and checked in to a hotel. It was after all our first anniversary! Fairbanks Heritage House is a beautiful old house from the start of the twentieth century, with a delicious fresh fruit breakfast and luxurious rooms (with a great collection of hats on the wall). A much fancier place than we would usually spring for, but as an anniversary treat, well worth it. A grey rainy day put pay to our plan to cycle/kayak there, but we did make our way up to the wonderful Chena Pumprooms where we split an enormous seafood platter and tasted delicious craft beer.
Our main stop in Alaska was the world famous Denali park, home to the highest peak in North America, Denali (formerly Mt. McKinley). The park is mostly given over to wilderness, with just a few trails, one of which we completed on our first day: Mt. Healy Overlook trail was a seriously hot and steep journey to a great view over the several million acres of park.
To get into the park beyond the first few miles making up the entrance area then just about the only way is to take a bus ride. We opted for an early morning journey to the visitor centre at Eilson, hoping to lay our eyes on some of Denali’s wildlife along the way. We ended up seeing many more caribou and a few moose. We even managed to lay eyes on a grizzly bear sow and her cub, although at such a distance that it was hard to make out any details. The visitor centre served mostly as a starting point for a few more trails, although we were in equal parts inspired and put off by the video about what it takes to climb Denali. The bus system in the park allows you to take any bus with spaces back to the entrance, and also permits you to get off almost anywhere en-route to go for a wilderness hike. Our early morning and the few trails left us a little exhausted so we opted not to go trekking off into a grizzly-populated bush. Perhaps next time!
On our final day in Denali we fully joined the “40% club”, by finally experiencing enough clear weather to get a good look at “The Tall One”. Astonishingly, over half of visitors to the National Park never actually see North America’s highest peak, so it wrapped up our visit nicely to actually lay eyes on it.
To leave the park we eschewed the nice paved roads to Anchorage and Fairbanks and opted for the more rustic and historic gravel of the Denali highway. This decision ended up costing us the best part of an afternoon when our tyre blew out on an extremely rough patch of road.
Cherry’s spare had not seen action in a while and it required some serious prolonged effort with the tyre iron to get it down. Then of course it didn’t have enough air, so we waited patiently until someone passed with a pump. Pump A, a small hand bike pump did nothing. Pump B, a cheapo foot pump got us most of the way before the piston melted through the cylinder. Finally someone stopped with an electric pump and we were on the road again.
During our time in Alaska we stayed at many fantastic free camping spots. We discovered some just by driving around, some through the official camping map of Alaska and some through the freecampsites.net website. The one I particularly liked was a 3 site campground about 30 minutes drive from Denali National Park. The campground was tucked away behind a big rest area with lots of picnic tables and public restrooms. The three hidden sites were right next to a small creek, among trees. Each site had a fire ring and a picnic table. There weren’t even that many mosquitoes there! The abundance of free camping spots and the cheap petrol makes Alaska a great destination for a financially savvy traveler.
On our drive back into Canada we saw so, so many moose. In one evening we saw about 15 of them, but none with the big antlers. We did see some mama moosettes with baby moose though 🙂