Sunday, April 30, 2017

Pre-trip Planning: Day 9--Valdez

We have a reservation on the Stan Stephens Columbia Glacier tour.  This tour is 6 hours long, and takes you out into Prince William Sound as far as the Columbia Glacier.  There is a longer one, to Meares Glacier, but I figured that 6 hours would be long enough for this first ride.  A light lunch is provided, so we won't have to bring our sandwiches this day.  

I waited and watched for discounts for this trip, but none came around.  I hurriedly booked it one night when I visited the site and noticed that there were only five spots left on the one date that we could do this trip. 

I have subscribed to all sorts of Alaska newsletters, and in an ironic twist, about a month after I booked it I noticed a discount code in one of them to save 15% off of all the cruises.  I called and received a credit for that amount. 

This tour will take up most of the day.  I would like to pay a visit to the Solomon Gulch Hatchery as well.  Hopefully, we'll also see some bears, sea otters, sea lions, and other wildlife along Dayville Road.

Pre-trip Planning: Day 8: Delta Junction--> Valdez

This day will be a day of driving.  From Delta Junction to Valdez.  Google Maps says it's about 270 miles and 5 hours.  I figure, it'll take all day because I've read that Google Maps underestimates time and who knows how long we'll stop at the various sites.

I've read over and over that this drive is one of the most scenic ones in Alaska.   Bring it on!

  • Tangle Lakes Campground--This is at the end of the paved portion of the Denali Highway.  I've mentioned that you can only drive the entirety of the highway if your rental company allows it (or you break the contract), but you can drive the paved part with no issues.  
  •  Wrangell St. Elias Visitors' Center--I debated actually visiting McCarthy and Kenecott for a good long time.  I mentioned our decision about the gravel roads.  Shuttles and flying into McCarthy isn't in the cards for us, either.   However, it would be nice to visit the easily accessible Visitors' Center and learn a little bit more about this park...and probably get Chretien to say that we're coming back some day.  :-)
  •   Worthington Glacier--who can pass up an easily accessible glacier?
  •  Keystone Canyon--want to see Horsetail Falls and Bridal Veil Falls.  

The nice thing is if we don't see this all on Day 8, we can see some of it on Day 10 when we leave Valdez.

We have reservations for two nights in Valdez.  We have a double room with a king and two twins.  I think we asked for a rollaway, or we'll just put the kids in the king and we'll take the two twins.  This lodging provides continental breakfast and I think there is laundry, which will be helpful.

Pre-trip planning: Days 6 and 7: Fairbanks

So, we have two days in Fairbanks.  These are the possible activities that I have as possibilities:

  • Riverboat Discovery--this is probably a likely activity.  I haven't made reservations yet, but I need to call because I bought the TourSavers coupon book on Cyber Monday for a discount and there is a coupon in it to get a tour free when you buy one.  I've heard great things about this, and you figure--outdoors and culture.
  •  Gold Dredge #8--I had thought all along that this might be an activity, and it still might.  However, we might save our gold panning for Crow Creek Mine, so this is not a definite.
  •  Gold Daughters is another option to pan for gold.  Still, though, I'm learning toward Crow Creek for now.
  • Pipeline Visitors Center--for whatever reason, there is a pull for me to see the pipeline.  So we will likely swing by.
  •  University of Alaska/Museum of the North--culture again, you know?  I haven't tortured the kids with a lot of museums yet, so it might be time.
  •  University of Alaska/Large Animal Research Facility--This might be interesting as they give tours.  
  • Creamer's Field for a hike
  •  Pioneer Park--maybe the Big Stampede Show?

I am looking forward to seeing Fairbanks.  There sounds like there is a lot to do there, so I don't know why many say to "skip it".  Maybe because the scenery pales in comparison to some of the other scenery in Alaska?  Because the possible activities sound comparable to other places folks visit in the Lower 48.

On Day 7, we need to leave in enough time to visit the Santa Claus House in North Pole.  I think we'll be OK, since they are open until 8 every day in the summer.  Under the advice of some Alaska pros on Trip Advisor, we are staying in Delta Junction this night and not Fairbanks.  Delta Junction puts us 1 hour and 45 minutes closer to our next destination...not to mention, we won't have to spend time at the Santa Claus house on Day 8.  I hear that there is a lot to see as we drive toward our next destination.  We have a room reserved in Delta Junction that has 2 queen beds and a pull out couch, so we should be OK.

There is no breakfast served here, but there is an IGA grocery store close by...and they open at 6:30 AM, so we can probably get something from the bakery.  An IGA is probably a good place to restock our snacks/food supplies.

Pre-trip Planning: Day 5--Denali--> Fairbanks

We have an early-ish morning raft trip planned for this day.  It's the earliest reservation we've had scheduled yet, but that should be OK as it will give us time to do other activities once it's complete.  Again, this was part of the package we got with the cabin reservation. It's the calmest trip they have, which should be fine for us.

We should be done around lunch time.  At that point, we can do anything we might have missed in Denali, or more likely, we'll start heading toward Fairbanks.  Since we are staying in Healy, it might make more sense to just move on, since Denali is the opposite direction.  We have nothing planned in Fairbanks for this day, so if we get there early enough, we can do something which I'll outline on the next days.

We are staying in another Choice brand hotel.  I had looked at another hotel which was cheaper, but it did not include breakfast.  After doing some math, Chretien and I decided that we probably couldn't feed everyone breakfast for two days with just the $57 difference between the two nights lodging at the two hotels, so we stuck with the Choice hotel.  We have two nights in Fairbanks, and I have a list of possible activities for us.

Pre-trip planning: Day 4--Denali

This is an easy day to write about.  We're taking a shuttle bus into Denali to Eielson.  If it were just up to me, we'd go all the way to the end, but knowing that my kids might not make it that long, we compromised to take the 8 hour round trip ride.  I think they'll be OK on that length, since the promised of seeing wildlife will hold interest for awhile, and then they'll have activities to keep them busy.

We are on a morning shuttle...not too early, but it should be early enough to get us to Eielson to take a ranger hike or the stroll, if we want one.  I booked this on December 1, which is the first day that reservations could be made.  I figured, we had our dates locked in, why bother to wait?  The kids are free, and we'll get a $20 refund when we pick up our tickets because we have a National Parks pass.

One thing that we still need for this is a better zoom lens for my DSLR.  The best zoom I have right now isn't going to be enough (only 200mm).  We were hoping that the prices would come down a bit for the 300mm Pentax lens, but it hasn't happened.  I'm looking at renting the lens, because I don't know how often I'd use such a big zoom after this trip.

Pre-trip planning Day 3: Talkeetna --> Healy (Denali)

This day we are planning on doing a flightseeing trip to get a better view of Denali--weather permitting, of course.  Chretien and I have done a helicopter trip around Mt. St. Helen's many years ago, and we also did a small plane trip to Orpheus Island on our honeymoon in Australia, so at least the parents have experience with flying in a small plane.  The flight is scheduled for 9 AM.  We are not doing a glacier landing, because we are trying to keep the expenses in mind and there are many other adventures we have planned.

The plan after the flight is to head out of Talkeetna and head towards Denali.  Depending on the time, we might try to get there to see the dog demonstration (maybe the one at 4 PM?)  We need to stop at the Wilderness Access Center and pick up our shuttle tickets for the next day.  Perhaps we'll do the Visitors' Center, or drive the first 15 miles with the minivan.  Again, we aren't going to rush when we don't have to, so if we miss out on something, it's probably because we were having fun where we were.

We have plans to stay in cabins again in Healy.  This time, we have two cabins, because they only each sleep four and it would be a squeeze to get a fifth kid in there, even sleeping on the floor.  We got a decent rate on the two cabins (early booking plus discount on package on rafting), so it turns out that we really aren't paying more than we would have for just one room elsewhere.  The cabins have access to a kitchen, so again, we can take advantage of that, if we want, to save $$ on dining.    This is the first reservation that I paid for entirely up front, and I sort of like that, so we won't have such a large credit card bill when we return in July.

Pre-Trip Planning: Day 2--Anchorage --> Talkeetna

I am amused to wonder about what time we will all wake up the first day.  Both Imp and I are naturally early risers, although I'm hoping that we are tired and sleep in to a normal waking time for Alaska.  Chretien, on the other hand, will probably be psyched.

The plan for this day is as follows:

  • Hit the road fairly early.  Again, I don't know how long we are going to sleep, but my guess is that we can probably be on the road by 7 or 8.  At some point either yesterday or today, we'll need to get some groceries.  When we travel, we often make sandwiches, fruit, chips for lunch to cut down on meal costs.  Given that feeding five folks in Alaska is going to get pricey anyway, this is the plan for Alaska.  
  • First stop--Eklutna Spirit Houses.  I only recently put this on our possible list.  I do like the kids (and grown ups!) to get a little bit of culture wherever we go, and this sounds like it would be unique and nothing like we've ever seen.  I'm not sure if the timing will work, since they don't open until 10
  •  Next up--Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Museum in Wasilla.  This also falls under the "Alaska culture" category.  And who can resist cute puppies?  Imp, in particular, loves dogs, so this should be a hit.  Perhaps we'll get a dog 'sled' ride as well.  The kids would probably get a huge kick out of that.
  •  Onward, to Independence Mine!  When I was first planning this trip, I debated getting a car to drive on gravel (not just for Hatcher Pass, but also Denali Highway and also the McCarthy Road).  The more I thought about it, though, I decided that things were started to get logistically complicated, and we would still have a great time without the extra worry/possible expense of limiting ourselves to only vendors who allow driving on gravel roads.  So, we'll just go as far as Independence Mine and poke around there, and retrace our steps after we are done.  Retracing our steps to head toward Talkeetna isn't going to really add any time to our journey, since driving the gravel road would be much slower.   I figure, a picnic here will be fun and beautiful.
  •  Our final stop today is Talkeetna.  We have nothing planned in Talkeetna this evening, so we can enjoy the places we have planned and not have to worry about arriving at a certain time.  I have learned our travel style and know that this will make for a more relaxing vacation.   We are staying in a cabin which has a queen bed below an a loft for the kids to sleep.  I'm sure that my boys at least will get a kick out of that.  This cabin also has a kitchen, so we should try to take advantage of that...if not for dinner, but breakfast for sure.  A continental breakfast is served as well.