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Adventure Travel | Exploring Alaska

by Barry Hoy
Siberian Huskies in Alaska by Vivienstock

There is so much to experience in Alaska that it’s impossible to do it all in one trip, or two or three.

Barry Hoy and Teraj Allen

Nature lovers will find excitement and inspiration as our team, Barr Hoy and Teraj Allen, explore the mountains, the natural wonders and discover the native wildlife of Alaska.

We arrived in Alaska to crisp fall air and vibrant yellow leaves against a backdrop of stunning mountain ranges. Even though most tourists visit earlier in the year, coming during the off-season was perfect for us due to the low number of people there. For this trip to the unspoiled wilderness, we opted to fly in and rent a car instead of taking a traditional Alaskan cruise. This way, we were able to stop whenever and wherever we wanted. Full flexibility! 

Teraj and Barry Matanuska River

Teraj and Barry Enjoying the View Along the Matanuska River

We started our trip in Anchorage (www.anchorage.net) since it’s considered a gateway to Alaska and is an excellent location for our home base. From Downtown, it’s just a short drive to experience many wilderness adventures, such as visiting the 5,000-foot peaks of Chugach State Park or climbing aboard a breathtaking floatplane tour. The perfect spot for nature-enthusiasts, Anchorage is surrounded by glaciers and, if you’re lucky, you may get to experience the wonders of the Aurora Borealis.

After picking up the rental car, our first stop was Palmer, Alaska (www.travelalaska.com) in the Mat-Su Valley, 40-miles north of Anchorage. Palmer is a recreational agriculture community, with roots dating back to the Great Depression. There’s a Museum and Visitor Center as well as a Showcase Garden where you can view the massive, oversized vegetables for which the valley is famous. For a taste of local arts and culture during the summer, hang around the Friday Fling (www.palmerchamber.org/fridayfling) for food, arts and crafts, and live music! 

Following an early dinner at Palmer’s renowned Red Turkey (www.turkeyredak.com), we scheduled a tour of the Musk Ox Farm (www.muskoxfarm.org), a non-profit farm dedicated to the domestication of the Ice Age mammal, which produces a fine wool called “qiviut” (kiv’-ee-ute.) With a knowledgeable guide at our side, we were given a private tour of the property during golden hour and were able to walk around to see the Musk Ox quite intimately. This was cool because up close, they really do look prehistoric due to their thick fur, horns, and large size; but, be warned: Do not pet and do not bend down low because that can trigger aggression. We didn’t want to end our trip early, so we complied. 

Opening USE on Right hand Paage Opposite Teraj and Barry Image by Cartarium

Image by Cartarium

The next morning, we embarked on the highlight of our trip, a trek on the Matanuska Glacier guided by Salmon Berry Tours (www.salmonberrytours.com/tour/matanuska-glacier-walk). The glacier is just an hour away from the city of Palmer, and the breathtaking views began a few minutes into our drive as we ascended Glenn Highway through the scenic terrain of river streams and endless mountains. We pulled over at a couple of opportune stops to view the wild salmon since it was the beginning of spawning season. Once we were within a few miles from our destination, the Glenn Highway curved to reveal our first glance of the Matanuska Glacier and a teaser of its vast magnitude, which stretches 27 miles in length and 4 miles in width. Upon arrival, our tour guides supplied all of the trekking gear, including crampons (ice boot chains) for our shoes so we wouldn’t lose traction while hiking on the glacial surface. 

The sublime experience of trekking across the Matanuska Glacier and taking in the other worldly views was unforgettable and truly felt like a spiritual pilgrimage. Since glaciers are mobile and constantly evolving entities, each trek is an intrinsically unique experience, and we were inspired to be fully present to soak in each moment. If we had to choose only one thing to do in Alaska, this would be it. 

Surrounded by massive seracs, crevasses, and ice caves that created the most majestic shimmers of white and blue hues everywhere we looked, there were never-ending opportunities to capture awe-inspiring images and video content, and we took full advantage. 

Following a day on the glacier that can be described as nothing less than glorious, we made our way to Seward (www.seward.com), a seaside town about 125 miles from Anchorage. The drive to Seward was a spectacle in and of itself. There’s only one road down from the city, and once we were on our way, we were captivated by the gorgeous mountains and mudflats of the Turnagain Arm. As we drove further, the views continuously increased in beauty and we pulled over several times at a few of the designated lookout points for photos. Once in town, popular attractions are the Alaska Sea Life Center (www.alaskasealife.org), the Kenai Fjords National Park (www.nps.gov/kefj/index.htm), or camping right in the quaint downtown area. 

We decided on Kenai Fjords and had a blast touring its wildlife on a three and a half hour cruise with Major Marine Tours (www.majormarine.com). A few moments after we set sail, a shoal of porpoises tagged alongside our boat, leaping in and out of the water like they were putting on a private show. The cruise provided us with binoculars, and we were lucky enough to spot a wild mountain goat, bald eagles, and endangered sea lions, in addition to relishing the captivating views of Kenai Fjords National Park’s many mountains and glaciers, especially its largest, Bear Glacier. Fun fact: President Obama took this same tour in 2015. 

Teraj and Barry at Chena Hot Springs Resort

Teraj and Barry at Chena Hot Springs Resort

Heading back towards Anchorage, our next stop was the Alyeska Resort (www.alyeskaresort.com) in Girdwood, the nicest accommodations we stayed in while in Alaska. Girdwood was originally named Glacier City until the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake, which devastated the town and prompted a move two and a half miles further up the valley. Today, it’s a year-round resort destination for skiers, hikers, and artists. We were lucky enough to be able to tour the resort’s new Nordic spa (the first one in Alaska), complete with outdoor hot/cold pools, barrel saunas, and steam rooms. The 50,000 sq. foot wellness space opens later this year, and we can’t wait to go back and experience it for ourselves. 

While we were in Girdwood, we took the Aerial Tram (www.alyeskaresort.com/alyeska-aerial-tram) to the top of Mt. Alyeska at an elevation of 2,300 feet. Since it was a rainy and cloudy day, it seemed like we were being zipped straight up into the clouds. Once we reached the snowy top, we were living in a winter wonderland fantasy. 

After our aerial tram adventure, we learned from the locals that a trip to Girdwood isn’t complete with out a visit to the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center (www.alaskawildlife.org). Unlike a typical zoo, you can walk or drive to different enclosures (there are over 200 acres of habitats) and stop to look at any thing interesting that strikes you. For us, the main attraction was the brown and black bears, who were more than willing to come right up to the fence to greet us.  

Matanuska Glacier by DCrane

Matanuska Glacier by DCrane

Our time spent in the mountains, learning about the native wildlife, and taking in some of nature’s most stunning treasures was just what we needed for our first, unforgettable, trip to Alaska. 

The following day, we were excited to experience what the largest city in the state had in store. The Anchorage Museum (www.anchoragemuseum.org) was a surprise to us; we thought we’d only stay an hour or so but ended up there for three. We really enjoyed the Alaskan and Indigenous floor because the museum had a lot of historical artifacts including traditional clothing, tools, and canoes. The exhibit delved into the complicated past of the indigenous people of Alaska and the United States overall. Also of interest is The Alaska Exhibition, which was very well done and tells the story of Alaska and how it became a part of the United States, the devastating effects of the 1964 earthquake, and the oil pipeline, including current developments. 

Spire Cove Kenai Fjords National Park By Tomasz Wozniak

Spire Cove Kenai Fjords National Park By Tomasz Wozniak

Afterwards, it was time to get our exercise on for a coastal cruise bike tour with Alaska Trail Guides (www.alaskatrailguides.com). The leisurely nine and a half miles guided bike ride took us along the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, where we learned about the history of Anchorage while taking in spectacular views. Our tour guide, Elly, was extremely knowledgeable and took extra time to show us all of the sights along the trail, even though it was a bit snowy, we pushed through with ease as we rode on heavy duty fat tire bikes. 

That night was our big Saturday night out, so we checked out both of Anchorage’s gay bars. The Raven (www.facebook.com/TheRavenAK) is a dive bar where locals go for a drink and pull tabs. Don’t know what a pull tab is? We didn’t either until this trip. Apparently, Alaska has one of the strictest gambling laws in the country, so locals tend to buy pull-tabs at bars with friends. They are like scratch and win tickets, but instead you pull the tabs to see if you win. This is where we met local “celebrity” Lon Embley and his friends. Lon is a member of the community who was introduced to us as “the guy everyone in the gay community either knows and loves, or wishes they knew.” We had a blast! 

We also went to Mad Myrna’s (www.madmyrnas.net/), where a bar and old style theatre collide. Mad Myrna’s has been hosting shows for over 20 years, and their weekly drag show is a must-see and touted as one of the best drag shows in the country. As a side note, the locals in Anchorage sure can drink; my partner and I were struggling to keep up!

For the last leg of our trip, we flew from Anchorage to Fairbanks (www.explorefairbanks.com), the furthest north we’ve ever been. We definitely recommend stopping by the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center (www.morristhompsoncenter.org) for an admission-free introduction to the city. At the Visitors Center, you can explore the art, music, stories, and dance that make Alaskan culture unique.

Musk Ox in Alaska by Martain Hejzlar

Musk Ox in Alaska by Martain Hejzlar

After our quick stop, we took a beautiful drive to Chena Hot Springs Resort (www.chenahotsprings.com), which is best known for it’s natural hot springs, a one-of-a-kind ice museum, and spectacular aurora viewing. Each night, the steam from the hot springs looks magical as it lights up with color, but the best time to go for amazing photos is early in the morning to beat the crowds. 

Any Balto fans out there? Do not miss a tour of the working mushing kennel. Our guide shared extensive knowledge about the sport, and we had so much fun meeting and playing with the Alaskan Huskies. 

Beyond a doubt, we had to end our trip with an aurora viewing tour arranged by the Chena Hot Springs Resort. We spent the evening inside of a Mongolian-style yurt, where we were served hot beverages and snacks as we waited for our 360° view of the Aurora Borealis/Northern Lights. The guides couldn’t make any promises that we would actually witness this gorgeous phenomenon, but we had to commit to hanging around on top of a mountain for four hours since no one really knows the exact moment the auroras would happen, if they happen at all. I almost gave up hope since most of our trip was rainy and cloudy, but lo and behold we were able to spend our last night in Alaska with one of the most pulchritudinous and surreal views we could have asked for. It was meant to be. 

The Aurora Borealis in Alaska by Krivosheev Vitaly

The Aurora Borealis in Alaska by Krivosheev Vitaly

There is so much to experience in Alaska that it’s impossible to do it all in one trip, or two or three. I can’t wait to go back during prime season (May to September) to enjoy a more vibrant nightlife and even more Alaskan attractions. 

Our time spent in the mountains, learning about the native wildlife, and taking in some of nature’s most stunning treasures was just what we needed for our first, unforgettable, trip to Alaska.

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