The group flight usually arrives into Anchorage this evening and clients will be transferred to the centrally located start hotel. Those on Land Only arrangements should make their way to the start hotel.
At 8am, after eating breakfast, we'll meet in the hotel lobby for a briefing. Our trip starts with an exhilarating hike at Flattop Mountain, located just east of Anchorage. On a clear day, there are 360° views of the Alaska Range, Chugach Range, Cook Inlet and of course Anchorage, which ensure Flattop Mountain is one of the most accessible and popular peaks in Alaska. This is a moderate hike as the trail is steep in places with loose rocks and scree, but the leader will advise on safety for the group. If you'd prefer a lighter hike, there is the option to join the first half of the trail only. The full trail is a 5km roundtrip, approx. 2 hours walking with a 380m elevation gain.
We also have some time around Anchorage today to gather supplies before our journey towards Denali National Park, home to the highest mountain in North America, the legendary Mt McKinley (6,194m). Covering 6 million acres, the Denali National Park houses some of the most unspoilt wilderness and spectacular scenery in the whole of Alaska. Within the park there's a huge diversity of wildilfe, with 39 mammal species and 169 bird species recorded. Caribou, Dall's sheep, moose, Grizzly bears and wolves are the 'Big Five' that visitors hope to see whilst visiting the park. We anticipate arriving to our campground near the park entrance in the middle of the afternoon. This camp will be our location for the next 2 nights.
Total driving time: approx. 5 hours.
A 146km road runs through the park roughly parallel to the Alaska Range. The only vehicles permitted to travel beyond the first 24km are those regulated by the National Park bus service. Today we will use this bus service to explore the park. The drivers make regular stops to pick up and set down passengers and are excellent at spotting wildlife. There will be plenty of opportunities to take short walks (of approx. 2 - 4 hours duration, 5-10km) for the best views - there are no marked walking trails once the bus gets further into the park, so the opportunity for shorter/longer hikes is quite flexible. As the wildlife is fairly habituated to park buses, we should be able to see moose and bear near to the roadside and Dall's sheep on the mountain slopes. In the middle of the park is the snow-clad Mt. McKinley - on a clear day we are likely to have excellent views.
For our second day in the Denali area, there are various optional walks and activities. The leader will usually organise a morning walk from the Denali Visitors Centre that will follow the Mt Healy Overlook Trail, a 7.3km loop of approx. 3 - 4 hours duration with dramatic views. Alternative optional activities include rafting on the Nenana River, a visit to the Dog Sled Kennels run by the park rangers, or a scenic flight over Mt McKinley, all paid locally. If you would like to re-join the National Park bus service (also paid locally) and explore more of Denali National Park by foot or by bike, this is possible as well. After today's activities we will move our campsite to Talkeetna for the night to help break up the drive tomorrow.
From Talkeetna we pack up camp and drive along the beautiful Glenn Highway towards Glennallen. Sandwiched between the coastal and interior mountains, the road has been given the title 'National Scenic Byway' for its natural beauty and incredible views in all directions. Around half way into our journey we'll stop at the Matanuska Glacier. Reaching right down to the valley floor, the glacier is a stunning 26 miles long and 4 miles wide; an enormous river of ice. We'll take a short walk (of approx 1.5 hours, 2km) to a viewpoint of the glacier to admire it, before continuing to our final destination to set up camp.
Total driving time: approx. 5 hours.
Glennallen is just on the western side of the Wrangell-St Elias National Park and Preserve. This is the largest national park in the US at 36,740 square kilometres (bigger than Switzerland!) We drive to McCarthy, a historic town at the centre of this mass of mountains, glaciers and wilderness. Our route passes through some amazing scenery, including the dramatic Copper River Valley, so there will be plenty of opportunities for photo stops. We'll also stop en route for a short walk on the Liberty Falls Trail, just off the Edgerton Highway (moderate 4km round trip, approx. 1.5 - 2 hours duration). The last part of the journey is the 96km gravel road to the small town of McCarthy (population 40 in the summer, rest of the year 17!). The area has recently received some publicity because of the popular book 'The Road to McCarthy', by the late Pete McCarthy, who visited the area in an attempt to pursue his far-flung Irish connections. This quaint town will be our base for the next two nights.
Total driving time: approx. 5.5 hours.
The Wrangall-St Elias Park and Preserve contains nine of the sixteen highest peaks in the United States, including the second highest, Mt. St. Elias (5,488m). It is also the most glaciated region in the North American continent. An imposing area of glaciers, mountains, forest and wilderness, with wonderful wildlife viewing opportunities - Dall's sheep, mountain goats, caribou, moose, Grizzly and Black bears are just some of the parks inhabitants. We'll spend the day walking in the mountains and valleys of this beautiful area (approx. walk of 7 - 8 hours duration, 14kms, up to 1,150 elevation gain). There are also plenty of optional activities for those wanting to do something else; ice climbing on the Kennecott and Root Glaciers is a popular excursion (paid locally, crampons provided), or alternatively take a short scenic flight over the mountains to appreciate the sheer scale of the park!
Our journey continues towards Valdez, passing through the Chugach Range of mountains. En route we'll stop at the famous Worthington Glacier, adjacent to the Thompson Pass, where we'll have a short walk (approx. 2 hours, 3.5km). This area holds all of Alaska's snowfall records! On the rivers, fish wheels have been built to catch salmon migrating up-stream to spawn. We plan to arrive in Valdez in the late afternoon.
Total driving time: approx. 6.5 hours.
We have a full day to explore the busy seaside town of Valdez, a return to civilisation after the mountainous isolation of McCarthy. Valdez is a new town, a major earthquake having destroyed the old one in 1964. It is a busy port where the Trans Alaska Pipeline ends and oil is thereafter transported by ship. A large oil spill occurred in 1989, but fortunately virtually no signs of this disaster remain. There are various hiking trails in and around Valdez for optional walks (the 6 hour/16km Mineral Creek Trail or the 2 hour/4km Keystone Canyon Pack Trail are both popular), or you can visit the historical museum and learn about the Native Culture, gold rush history and the pipeline. There is also an optional sea kayaking excursion available today or you can book a half or full day salmon or halibut fishing charter.
Today we board the Alaska State ferry, leaving Valdez behind and crossing Prince William Sound to reach Whittier. Price William Sound is undoubtedly one of the highlights of any visit to Alaska; the views of the mountains, bays, fjords, islands and glaciers as we travel across the Sound are unforgettable. The water is home to a unique array of marine life and with luck we might see harbour seals, sea otters and sea lions playing in the water, as well as plenty of sea birds. From Whittier we drive to Seward, passing the Portage Glacier. There will be a chance to explore the small fishing town of Seward and its busy port before we head to our campsite.
At 10am we join a full day (8.5 hour) wildlife cruise around Resurrection Bay and the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. With the help of an excellent onboard wildlife guide, it's possible that we'll see Stellar sea lions, otters, Dall's porpoise and an endless variety of seabirds including puffins and eagles in this area. Orcas are often spotted and if we are lucky, Humpback whales could even make an appearance! We'll stop at Fox Island for a National Park Ranger presentation and a salmon and prime rib dinner (included, vegetarian options available).
The staggeringly beautiful Kenai Fjords National Park offers wonderful wildlife and bird watching opportunities amidst dramatic fjords and glaciers. Within the park is the huge Harding Icefield, claiming 300 square miles in its entirety. Exit Glacier is one of the 30 frozen rivers flowing off the icefield. If weather conditions permit, we'll do a spectacular walk from Exit Glacier to the Harding Icefield. The full walk, known as the Harding Icefield Trail (total walking distance approx. 6-8 hours round trip, 12km) gives views of deep crevasses and huge seracs on the glacier, and takes us 900m up to a lookout point over the icefield. This walk is strenuous and entirely dependent on weather conditions; if there is too much snow and ice on the trail, it may be impassable. If the weather conditions are not good or the group doesn't want to do the full hike, there's an easier option available today, using an accessible trail to reach a different viewpoint of the glacier (approx. 1.5 hour round trip). If the full hike isn't possible or the group splits in two, the leader will normally join the short walk and then return to Seward, returning later to collect those doing the full hike. With some free time in Seward it's possible to visit the impressive Sea Life Centre, which houses a remarkable public aquarium and ocean wildlife rescue centre.
After today's walk, we cross the centre of the Kenai Peninsula towards Soldotna. Jutting out south of Anchorage, with Prince William Sound to the East and the Cook Inlet to the West, the Kenai Peninsula is a maze of mountains, forests and icefields.
Total driving time: approx. 3 hours.
Perhaps the highlight of the entire trip is today's float plane trip to go bear viewing. Float planes are a way of life for many of the more remote Alaskan communities, particularly those who still have no road access and too little wealth or space amongst the mountains to build runways. We will have an early start today as we head to check in for our flight. We'll then board the small planes (as the planes generally seat 10 max, we may need to split into two groups for the flight) and take to the air for a beautiful flight across the Cook Inlet. We will land in the Big River Lakes area and transfer to the waiting boats to explore the river and lake system keeping our eyes open for bears. The chance of sightings is excellent and we can usually see Brown (Grizzly) or Black bears. The lakes are just on the fringe of the Lake Clarke Park & Wilderness Reserve and are a long way from any roads or civilisation, with float planes offering the only access. Perhaps this is the quintessential Alaska - almost completely untouched wilderness with ice-clad mountains and active volcanoes as the backdrop. We may see the thousands of salmon pushing up stream to spawn and if lucky we'll see bears catching and feeding upon them. The guides will also talk about other fauna and flora as we pass them. The bear-watching excursion will take about 5 hours and we will return to the planes in the afternoon. Flying back across the Cook Inlet, we may be able to spot whales and Orcas before landing in Soldotna to reminisce on the day.
After packing up camp and having breakfast, we drive for a couple of hours to Alyeska in the Chugach Mountain Range. A ski resort in winter, this is a great spot to take a final walk (approx. 3-4 hours, 4km). We will then continue to the state's capital, Anchorage. Containing around half the population of the state, Anchorage in some ways looks just like any other sprawling American town and after nearly two weeks in the small towns and villages it will likely feel busy and bustling. There are points of interest, including several art galleries and craft shops where you can see the beautiful Eskimo handicrafts being made. The National Parks Centre also has some excellent displays.Tonight we'll most likely head out for a celebratory final meal in one of the many local restaurants.
Those on the group flight will depart today. Land Only clients are free to leave at any time today.