I moved out of Michigan in 2008 and haven’t been back for a Thanksgiving since. Not because I don’t like to see my family or make the trip, but because Christmas is so close to Thanksgiving and I’ve always been home for that- justifying two trips home was never really any option. Last year, instead of going to Michigan or staying in Chicago, I spent Thanksgiving in Colorado. This year, to continue my new holiday travel tradition, I visited Alaska.
Alaska was the best bang for my buck. That is, for the distance I traveled, I didn’t pay much. I wanted to utilize my two holiday-given vacation days by going somewhere far away I’d never been before. Alaska provided that and was a pretty affordable flight, so I booked it. Many of my friends called me crazy for visiting Alaska in November. During my visit, it got down to -20 at times. While a summer visit would be nice, I’m glad I got to experience Alaska in the winter, as that’s the way it is the majority of the year, cold.
What did I do there?
With only 4 days to play with, I covered some ground. I’ve done some solo traveling in the past which I enjoy, but for this trip my friend Austin joined in on the adventure, which was loads of fun. I had already lined up a host to stay with through Couchsurfing.org. Ken, our host, picked us up from the airport Wednesday night and took us back to his place in South Anchorage where we watched some TV and caught some z’s.
We started our first morning in Alaska by driving out to Beluga Point and watching the Turagain Arm tide move in through Cook Inlet (one of the fastest and largest tide tables in the world). Witnessing that happen was a pretty cool experience - It didn’t take long to realize Alaska is a naturally rugged and unforgiving place.
Ken was generous enough to invite us to his Mom’s house to celebrate Thanksgiving over a delicious meal with his friends. The view from her house was pretty incredible, overlooking a flat marsh and a massive mountain range in the distance. Anchorage is actually surrounded by three mountain ranges. After dinner, a few of us went for a short hike to get some fresh air and walk off a few calories.
Friday morning we rented a car (we had been getting around thanks to Ken’s driving until then, but he had to work the rest of the weekend). We scored an all-wheel-drive Dodge Charger and headed South along the Seward Highway Friday morning, one of America’s most scenic drives. Alaska is actually one of four states that doesn’t allow billboards. This allows you to really soak in the sights and natural beauty of the state while driving. On our way south, we stopped into the small hippie ski community of Girdwood for a cup of coffee and breakfast at the Silvertip Grill, then proceeded South to Seward, a fishing town located literally at the end of the highway.
When we arrived, we found a small bar and chatted it up with a local fish processing worker who was very enthusiastic about discussing guns, ammo and fish nutrients. After a beer, we hopped back in the car and located a spot to do a short hike. It was recommended that we eat some fish while we were in Seward, so after our hike we sat down at Chinooks and ordered some fish n’ chips for dinner. Chinooks offers a killer view of the harbor and mountains in the background. By now we were tired and decided to get back on the road towards Anchorage, a 2.5 hour drive through dark, winding, slippery roads.
Once we got back to Anchorage we dropped into Midnight Sun Brewing to taste some locally brewed beer, then carried on to F Street Station, a small pub known for having a communal block of cheese (free to eat) sitting on the bar. There we talked with a local Alaskan guy named Adam who shared some stories and insight on living in remote areas of Alaska… pretty interesting.
We had originally planned to drive North to Denali National Park on Saturday morning but endured a slow start to the day. After getting breakfast at Snow City Cafe with our host Ken, we spent the afternoon with one of Austin’s old college buddies who lives in the mountains of Eagle River, just outside of Anchorage. After going for a drive and zipping around on his snowmobile (or ‘snow machine’ as they prefer in Alaska), he talked us into driving up to the town of Talkeetna that night.
Talkeetna is a community of about 800 people located 86 miles northwest of Anchorage. It serves as a hub for those en route to fly in to climb Mount McKinley, the highest point in North America. Alaska actually has the most licensed pilots per capita than anywhere in the country. With 80% of communities not connected to road systems, it’s often the only way to get around.
Talkeetna is quirky, cozy, and all around unique. The mayor is a cat. We stayed in a small cabin there our last night in Alaska. Talkeetna is home of Denali Brewing Company, where we got a drink at the start of the night. We then walked next door and watched a live band play at the Fairview Inn. I’m pretty sure we were the only non-locals there that night. We stayed up into the early morning hours attempting to get a glimpse of the Northern Lights. While we didn’t get a speculator show, we were lucky enough to see a green glow above the horizon and take in the incredible sky full of sparkling stars. The Alaskan sky on a clear night is like none other; no words or photos can describe it. Talkeetna was an authentic Alaskan experience to say the least.
Knowing we had driven closer to Denali, we hadn’t yet seen our new view of it. After waking up and grabbing some breakfast at The Roadhouse, we set out to the riverside where we watched the sky the previous night. There we looked back and saw Mount McKinley in all her glory. We spent the next hour or so driving further north through Denali National Park to get an even closer look at the mountain. Everywhere you look in Alaska is a breath taking view. By noon we turned the car around and started heading back to Anchorage.
Our last stop of the trip was Moose’s Tooth Pizza - a local pizzeria and micro-brewery, similar to Chicago’s Piece Pizza (though I must say, Piece is better than Moose’s Tooth). After enjoying some pie and fresh brew, we made our way to the airport and caught our redeye flights back to Chicago.
Although short, my experience in Alaska was pretty amazing. It is a massive, rugged, dangerous and beautiful place. I recommend a visit to anyone who likes nature or small towns. Anchorage is cool, but get out of there and explore. It’s a beautiful place to see and experience, and I’ve only seen a sliver of it.
Woke up in Chicago, ate dinner in Seattle, going to sleep in Anchorage. Air plane travel never seizes to amaze me.