On the Road Again

We enjoyed the holidays with our families, celebrated some birthdays, and enjoyed catching up after being away for nine months straight. The main purpose for our time at home was moving my uncle into a retirement community near my mom’s house. We didn’t intend to stay in Michigan for so long, but each day blended into the next until it was May.

After being in Michigan for 5 months, living in Brian’s parents’ house, it was an adjustment to get into the trailer again. Loading it back up and getting ready to go was a lot of work, I hate packing so much. And after downsizing and moving my uncle, and establishing his new place, and moving our stuff out of and into the trailer, I felt like all I was doing anymore was moving things from place to place. We packed and moved and arranged and rearranged for days. Once we got everything back into place though, it felt really good to be back in the trailer.

We slept in Cracker Barrel parking lots along the way, much quieter than Walmart. We joined Planet Fitness gyms, to get some exercise and showers while traveling, we should’ve done that awhile ago. We drove near a couple of storms, and got pushed around by the wind a bit, while lightning spotting and dodging tumbleweeds blowing across the road.

Driving for blog-2Driving for blog-3Driving for blog-5

The second night on the road we went into the trailer and noticed that the kitchen cabinets with the sink and stove, pulled about an inch away from the wall. We wanted to get over the Rockies before a predicted snow storm hit, so we planned to make a stop in Grand Junction, Colorado to do something about the cabinets.

We took the truck in for service a few times while we were in Michigan, and got a new passenger side exhaust manifold, a serpentine belt replaced, and new brakes. There were still some funny noises, but they weren’t able to diagnose it. Fortunately, we had no problems getting over the Rockies.

Driving for blog-7Driving for blog-6

Once in Grand Junction, at the RV Ranch Campground, Brian got to disassembling our kitchen. Out came the stove and sink, and off came the countertop. Brian epoxied new wood to the counter (the glue had failed), and screwed it back to the wall. It was a pretty big job to do in such a little space. I’m very glad that Brian is handy, I have no idea how long it would take an RV repair shop to do this job, or what it would’ve cost. And we got to see what the underside of our countertop looks like!

Grand Junction for blog-1Grand Junction for blog-2

While we were in Grand Junction, we went to a fancy dinner at a nice restaurant called Bin 707, and saw some of the public art downtown.

We visited Colorado National Monument again. We discovered it two years ago and loved it, partly because we didn’t know it existed before our trip there.

Grand Junction for blog-11Grand Junction for blog-13Grand Junction for blog-12

Sunrise at Artist’s point was chilly, and the sky was only colorful for a minute. I wasn’t a big fan of getting up at 4:30 am, but it was nice to be in the monument early, when it was particularly quiet.

Grand Junction for blog-15

We walked out to Window Rock on the short Window Rock Trail near the visitors center. Fortunately there was a metal fence and clear sign, so I didn’t need to beg Brian not to get too close.

IMG_9395

The views into Monument Canyon were particularly good from this spot.

Grand Junction for blog-22

We drove all the way through the monument, and on the south end we hiked the mile and a half long Devils Kitchen Trail. There sure seem to be a lot of natural features named after the devil. Devils Kitchen is a room created by giant boulders. It was fun to climb up on the rocks.

Grand Junction for blog-26Grand Junction for blog-27Grand Junction for blog-28Grand Junction for blog-29

We enjoyed our unexpected stop in Grand Junction, and appreciated having the flexibility to rearrange things. We had made no reservations for this trip, which worried me a bit, but it turned out to be a good thing for us.

Grand Junction for blog-17

Day 808 | Mile 84,711

Advertisements

Taking the (Really) Long Way Home

If we had gone straight back to Michigan from northern Montana, it would’ve been 1,900 miles, but we decided to spend a month getting home and take a really long way, which was 4,200 miles. I think this was Brian’s dumb idea, but it allowed us to visit some friends and family, and revisit a few places that we had already been, so there was less pressure to sightsee.

Yellowstone 2 for blog-10

We drove through Yellowstone National Park, and spent two nights at Mammoth Campground, one of only two campgrounds still open in late October. Since we only had a day in this large park, we revisited our favorite places.

Yellowstone 2 for blog-9

We first went to Mammoth Hot Springs. Travertine grows every year, so we were curious if we would notice any difference from when we visited a year ago. We didn’t.

Yellowstone 2 for blog-1Yellowstone 2 for blog-3Yellowstone 2 for blog-6

Before our other favorite spot (Lamar Valley), we stopped by the visitor center and a ranger let us know that the best place to see pronghorns is just north of the park, near Gardiner, Montana. We drove up there and turned onto the dirt road, Old Yellowstone Trail.  Sure enough, we saw a herd of Pronghorn in the valley.  We took some photos, and a passing ranger told us that there were a few more herds along the road, and as we went north, they were closer and closer to the road! It was fun to get an up-close view. Pronghorn are the fastest land animal in the Western Hemisphere, and look like an antelope, though their closest living relative is a giraffe.

Yellowstone 2 for blog-11Yellowstone 2 for blog-13

Afterward, we went to Lamar Valley, and saw several herds of bison. Brian noticed one a bit off the road down by the river, so we parked and walked a bit to see it better.

Yellowstone 2 for blog-17Yellowstone 2 for blog-16

We were across the river from the bison when we noticed another bison that wasn’t as lucky, all that was left of it was bones. The skull was about 10 feet from the body.

Yellowstone 2 for blog-18

The next day we drove south through Yellowstone, and stopped at Fountain Paint Pot geothermic area. The colors in the mud are so interesting.

Yellowstone 2 for blog-24Yellowstone 2 for blog-22Yellowstone 2 for blog-23Yellowstone 2 for blog-21

South of Yellowstone is Grand Teton National Park. We were hoping to get a nice view of the mountains as we drove through, but it was cloudy and a bit rainy, so the Tetons were barely visible. Still a pretty drive though.

Yellowstone 2 for blog-25

Our next stop was to see my friend Carly, who moved to Denver, Colorado about six months before. We saw her beautiful downtown apartment, and met her puppy Stevie Ray and her cats and her boyfriend. We ate delicious Italian food and visited Denver Brewing Company, had brunch at Linger, and got ice cream next door at Little Man Ice Cream, which is the shape of a milk jug. The Pumpkin Chip Ice Cream was fantastic!

Denver for blog-2Denver for blog-3

We drove to the top of Lookout Mountain west of the city, and then to Red Rocks Amphitheatre, which is Carly’s favorite place to see concerts. Aside from an open air music venue with seating for almost 10,000, it’s also a natural area, with hiking trails and nice views. The area had been used as a concert venue since the early 1900s, due to the acoustic properties of the rock, and the amphitheatre was opened in 1941.

Denver for blog-6Denver for blog-7

After that fun visit we drove about a thousand miles to Houston, Texas. We were amazed to learn that 700 of those miles were in Texas, since we drove through it diagonally. East of Amarillo we drove through the Palo Duro Canyon. It was an unexpected scenic bit, in the middle of a not-very-scenic drive.

Texas for blog-6Texas for blog-4Texas for blog-7

Our stop in Houston, Texas was to see friends. Our friend Gavin was performing in a play, as The Baker in Into the Woods.

Texas for blog-10Texas for blog-11Texas for blog-12

When we left Houston, we headed to Tampa, Florida to see my uncle, but made a stop in New Orleans on the way. We loved our last visit to New Orleans, so we couldn’t pass up another stay at Bayou-Segnette State Park for a few nights. We did a little bird watching in the wetlands along the way.

New Orleans 2 for blog-2

We learned that unfortunately early November is not crawfish season. But, we found other delicious things to eat.

IMG_9283New Orleans 2 for blog-12

We had a fancy meal at Brennan’s, the originator of the bananas foster dessert, where they make it tableside. It is pretty ridiculous how much brown sugar and butter is used, but at least they light it on fire!

IMG_9281IMG_9275

We visited the Carousel Bar in Hotel Monteleone, and had to wait a little bit for seats to open up at the small carousel. It rotates very slowly, but dang, it’s still disorienting.

New Orleans 2 for blog-22

We visited City Park, and gawked at the lovely trees, before spending time in the sculpture garden.

New Orleans 2 for blog-5

There were many interesting sculptures, which took our minds off the muggy heat.

New Orleans 2 for blog-6

For an unknown reason, Brian and I were both drawn to this creepy sculpture.

JPEG image-9C6ACB521A32-1

Our trip to Tampa was originally intended to be a usual visit with my uncle, but when his health took a turn, we stretched it to just over a month to clean out his house and help him move to Michigan. We were grateful that we had the flexibility to do this, and that Silver Dollar RV Park had availability to extend our reservation.

Tampa 2 for blog-1Tampa 2 for blog-2

We pulled out of Tampa with Brian driving the truck and Airstream, and me driving a big moving truck. After flawlessly driving the moving truck for 1,200 miles, Brian no longer has an excuse to keep me from driving the truck and Airstream!

We made it back home in early December, and parked in Brian’s parents driveway for a few days, to move out of the trailer, and winterize it to put it in storage. Two winters of camping in Michigan were enough for now! With all the excitement of being home and sleeping in a house, we underestimated the cold weather and forgot all about getting propane, and the trailer froze the night before we winterized it (pumping antifreeze through the plumbing lines). Fortunately, the only damage was to the shower head, which is easily replaceable. We missed the trailer when we put it in storage, especially since we didn’t know how long it would be before we would travel again. It didn’t take long to adapt back to living in an actual house again, and we were lucky to be able to stay with Brian’s parents, in their guestroom. They were such great roommates that we stayed for five months!

Day 799| Mile 82,904

 

Glacier National Park

Once we crossed the U.S. border at Roosville, Montana, our Alaskan journey officially ended. It was a relief to have our final border crossing behind us. Even though we never had any problems, we still felt anxious about it each time. The first thing we did once we were back in the lower 48 states is get new tires. This is the second set of tires we’ve put on the truck, and we’ve replaced the trailer tires once too, so that’s 12 tires we’ve bought during these two(-ish) years of travel!

Glacier for blog-21

We stayed at Mountain View RV Park, on the west side of Glacier National Park, so we visited that side of the park first. We expected Glacier National Park to feel a lot like Jasper and Banff, but it didn’t. That’s probably because it felt like we crossed back into fall once we got to Montana. The west side of the park had beautiful yellow fall colors.

Glacier for blog-1

Going to the Sun Road runs from east to west through the park and is supposed to be one of the most beautiful scenic drives in America.

Glacier for blog-20

We didn’t get to find that out for ourselves, though, since the middle of the road was closed. It was October, and there was already snow and wintery conditions in the high mountain passes. We drove the road as far as it was open from each side, and the parts we saw were very nice. It follows McDonald Creek from the west side, and has some gorgeous waterfalls along the way.

Glacier for blog-4Glacier for blog-5Glacier for blog-2

A ranger recommended the drive to Bowman Lake in the northwest of the park, with a stop at the Polebridge Mercantile on the way. The mercantile was built in 1914, four years after Glacier became a national park. It has had a bakery only since 1994, and that’s its most popular feature now. We got a selection of goodies, and enjoyed them all, especially the huckleberry bear claw. We got to Bowman Lake in time to see the sunset.

Glacier for blog-22Glacier for blog-9Glacier for blog-10

We woke up really early and drove the long drive around to the southeast side of the park. We got to Two Medicine Lake at 8 am just as the sun was starting to rise.

Glacier for blog-12

We stayed and watched the light change until the mountains were completely lit, and it took over two hours.

Glacier for blog-15

It was spectacular and all, but damn chilly to spend over two hours standing still outside. There were shards of ice in the lake, as well as colorful rocks.

Glacier for blog-14

The mountains were impressive on the east side of the park, but the fall colors were missing. The east side of the mountains is drier than the west side.

We stopped and did the short hike to Running Eagle Falls, and were surprised to see a waterfall coming out of the middle of the mountain, rather than over the top!

Glacier for blog-17Glacier for blog-18

We drove to the eastern end of Going to the Sun Road and followed it as far as it was open, which was Jackson Glacier Overlook. It was the only glacier we were able to see in Glacier National Park. When the park was created in 1910, there were over 100 glaciers. By 2015, only 26 glaciers remained, all of which are continuing to shrink.

Glacier for blog-19

Although the Going to the Sun Road was partially closed, and getting around the park was more difficult, it was nice to be at Glacier National Park when there weren’t large crowds. We’ve heard this park has gotten very busy in the summertime. The few days we spent there were full of lakes and waterfalls. The mountains are beautiful, but the water really stole the show at Glacier National Park.

Glacier for blog-3

Day 754 | Mile 76,997

Jasper and Banff National Parks

Driving into Jasper National Park, we were immediately faced with towering mountains covered in snow and trees.

Jasper and Banff for blog-1Jasper and Banff for blog-12

There are four contiguous National Parks in the Canadian Rocky Mountains, and three Provincial Parks. The two largest and most popular of these National Parks are Jasper and Banff, and the other two are Kootenay and Yoho. We visited Jasper and Banff, and drove through Kootenay, but did not make it to Yoho this time.

Jasper and Banff for blog-13

After a week on the road driving back from Alaska, we were happy to find that Jasper National Park has huge campgrounds with full hookup pull through sites, and the water was still on, even though the temperatures were below freezing at night. We got a spot in the Whistler Campground and settled in. It was cold in early October (winter comes early in Canada), but the summer crowds were gone, and we drove around the park enjoying the amazing views.

Jasper and Banff for blog-49

We saw so much wildlife in Jasper! I think this was our favorite part.

Jasper and Banff for blog-22

On a couple of days there was a whole herd of female and young bighorn sheep near the main road. Across the street up on the cliff was a male.

Jasper and Banff for blog-7Jasper and Banff for blog-6Jasper and Banff for blog-10Jasper and Banff for blog-20

We saw several elk throughout the park. They were frequently near the road, and cars stopped for people to take photos. Unfortunately, some people got way too close. The park service recommends staying 25 yards (two school buses) away, we usually photograph wildlife with a zoom lens from inside our car.

Jasper and Banff for blog-15Jasper and Banff for blog-16

We even saw a coyote near the road. Driving around the park and enjoying the scenery and spotting wildlife was great. Since we were there a little late in the year, it wasn’t terribly crowded, though I think this changes dramatically in the summer.

Jasper and Banff for blog-14

Maligne Road follows the Maligne River for about nearly 30 miles to Maligne Lake. At Maligne Lake there’s a lodge, and boat rides but we were visiting too late in the year and things were closed. The road ends at Maligne Lake, and driving back to the beginning is the same direction as the river flows.

Jasper and Banff for blog-29Jasper and Banff for blog-23Jasper and Banff for blog-24Jasper and Banff for blog-26

We drove the road back to the beginning, and saw the narrow rushing river change to a wide braided river when it went through a plain, and flow into Medicine Lake. Some of the water disappears underground, and the rest flows to the beginning of the road, where the water comes together again in Maligne Canyon, ultimately combining with the Athabasca River.  The wooded road is a good spot to see moose.

Jasper and Banff for blog-31Jasper and Banff for blog-41Jasper and Banff for blog-28

Near the beginning of the road is Maligne Canyon. The first time we went by the large Maligne Canyon parking lot, it was pretty full, so we came back a few days later. After Canadian Thanksgiving weekend (in early October) was over, there were fewer people in the park.

Jasper and Banff for blog-44

Maligne Canyon is the deepest canyon in the Rocky Mountains, eroded to about 160 feet deep. There are 6 bridges over the canyon, and the trail crosses back and forth over it, showing off the river and waterfalls below. It was a really fun trail.

Jasper and Banff for blog-46Jasper and Banff for blog-47

The Athabasca River is the main river in Jasper National Park, and it squeezes down and creates a forceful waterfall, Athabasca Falls, and then empties into a gorge.

Jasper and Banff for blog-39Jasper and Banff for blog-38

The campgrounds charged for a fire permit, and then provided unlimited wood. This seems like a great way to keep control of the firewood coming in and avoid invasive pests. More places should try this! We had fires two of the nights we were there. Even in 30 degree temperatures with the tiniest fire pit, Brian made a big enough fire to keep us warm enough that I didn’t complain (much) about the cold. After four nights there, the campground we were staying in closed for the winter. We weren’t quite ready to leave Jasper, so we moved across the street to Wapiti Campground, where part of it is open year-round.

Jasper and Banff for blog-32

On our way out of town we took the 140 mile long Icefields Parkway south to Banff National Park. It is one of the most scenic drives in North America.

Jasper and Banff for blog-56

We stopped at Sunwapta Falls, and the short walk to the overlook was an treacherous ice rink. The snow had been packed down by thousands of feet, and it was so slippery it was nearly impossible to walk without using a tree or fence to hold onto. We made our way to the overlook, and across the deep gorge there was a guy standing on the ledge fiddling with his tripod, with no fence or anything to hold him back from the edge. I couldn’t even watch. He made it out alive, and probably got some great pictures, but it didn’t look worth the risk to me.

Jasper and Banff for blog-51Jasper and Banff for blog-50

Around the middle of the Icefields Parkway is the Columbia Icefield, which is a massive field of ice that feeds six glaciers.

Jasper and Banff for blog-52Jasper and Banff for blog-53

A mountain referred to as the weeping wall (because of the wispy waterfalls that flow down it) looked a little different in the winter, since many of the waterfalls were frozen.

Jasper and Banff for blog-55

The town of Banff is really nice, and we enjoyed going to the shops and restaurants. We tried Beavertails, a canadian delicacy. They fry dough fresh, and top it with various treats. We asked whether one would be enough to share, and the girl working there lied to our faces and implied we should each get our own. Somehow we finished the ridiculous quantity of Beavertails.

Jasper and Banff for blog-91Jasper and Banff for blog-59

We spent the most time at Park Distillery. It’s the only distillery within a National Park in North America, and they brag that their glacier water helps make their liquor taste so good. They are also one of few distillery/restaurants, and the food there is great. We visited a couple times, and tried the majority of their cocktail menu, including the Caesar, which is the Canadian version of a Bloody Mary.

Jasper and Banff for blog-61JPEG image-9BBE999E6D6B-1JPEG image-33B87127AE93-1

We camped at Tunnel Mountain Village II, which was still open with the water on. It had a strange layout, with rows of roads, and the campers right on the roads, with a small patch of gravel and a picnic table next to each.

It felt like winter in Jasper and Banff National Parks in October, and the trails were snow and ice covered. After our experience at Sunwapta Falls, sliding all over, we decided to buy ice cleats. We found them nearby in Canmore, since the town of Banff didn’t have them in stock yet.

Jasper and Banff for blog-71

The trail to Stewart Canyon is about a mile that follows the bank of Lake Minnewanka, to where the Cascade River enters the lake. Brian convinced me to follow what he claimed was a trail down to the river. It was steep, but the ice cleats helped, without them, I definitely wouldn’t have made it back up!

Jasper and Banff for blog-72Jasper and Banff for blog-73.jpgJasper and Banff for blog-74

Johnston Canyon is a popular trail in Banff, and was busy when we hiked it. I can’t imagine how busy it must be in the summer! The trail went through the canyon, often with the trail built onto the edge. Parts were snowy and icy, and most of the people hiking did not have ice cleats on. We saw a few people fall, and tried to make the railings available to the people that were slipping around. It was hard to stay upright without ice cleats! Brian helped a lady that was sliding down a hill, and he helped a man up that was stuck on his back like a turtle.  There were some beautiful waterfalls in the ice and snow.

Jasper and Banff for blog-77Jasper and Banff for blog-79Jasper and Banff for blog-78JPEG image-2261219727DF-1

We drove about a half hour north to Lake Louise, and arrived just as the sun was setting behind the mountains, and Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise was reflecting on the lake.

Jasper and Banff for blog-83Jasper and Banff for blog-84

The light on Castle Mountain looked beautiful as the sun was going down. We stopped to take a picture and noticed a couple of photographers set up there.

Jasper and Banff for blog-85

Within Banff National Park, there is a natural hot spring contained within a cave, that became the first Canadian National Park in 1885, now known as Cave and Basin National Historic Site. We visited the cave, and it was had the strangest entrance of any cave I’ve seen! It was inside the visitor center building. The building was beautiful, but the whole place stunk like sulphur.

Jasper and Banff for blog-100Jasper and Banff for blog-104

From 1914-1994 there was a naturally heated swimming pool at the site. Swimming or bathing is no longer allowed in these hot springs and they are being preserved partly to protect a tiny endangered snail. We were mostly by ourselves in the cave, and a friendly ranger saw us taking photos, and offered to turn on some additional cave lights for us. It was fun to see the cave all lit up!

Jasper and Banff for blog-103

On our way out of Banff National Park, we drove through Kootenay National Park. Crossing from Banff into Kootenay crosses the Continental Divide and also crosses from Alberta into British Columbia.

Jasper and Banff for blog-105

The bridge over Numa Falls was out, so the trail was closed. People generally seemed to be ignoring this though, and it was easy to get near the falls (but not too near!) for a beautiful view.

Jasper and Banff for blog-106Jasper and Banff for blog-107

The views and wildlife in the Canadian Rockies amazed us. It’s a lot more accessible of a road trip than Alaska, with a lot of similar glacier and mountain views, and wildlife sightings.

Jasper and Banff for blog-99Jasper and Banff for blog-90Jasper and Banff for blog-87Jasper and Banff for blog-76

Day 749| Kilometer 122,593

Hunting the Northern Lights in Alaska

When we planned our Alaska trip to stretch into September, we were hoping to see the northern lights. I didn’t want to get my hopes up too much, because it can be unpredictable and several things have to go right. In order to see the northern lights, it needs to be dark enough, far enough north, not cloudy, and there needs to be solar activity.

Northern Lights for blog-34

Fortunately for us, in early September we were nearing Denali, which is far enough north for aurora. It’s possible to see the northern lights in Alaska from September through April, the rest of the year it doesn’t get dark enough. It’s more likely to be cloudy in the fall than in the winter, and a clear night is necessary. There are forecasts of the solar activity, which we used, but we didn’t find them to be all that helpful. Either the forecasts weren’t that great, or I wasn’t interpreting them right (probably the latter).

The first time that the forecast looked good, we went out to look for the aurora. I was so nervous that we would miss it, because I had heard that it can come and go quickly. We drove to a river just outside Denali National Park, and parked in a pullout. It was a beautiful clear night, and we could see a million stars. We set up our camp chairs and waited. At first there was a bit of a glow on the horizon, that looked more like light pollution than amazing natural phenomenon. It didn’t really look green, but we pointed our camera at it, and took a long exposure photo, and it looked green in the photo.

Northern Lights for blog-1

So, okay, we had found some lights! We sat there for a couple of hours waiting for it to do amazing northern lightsy things, and a couple of times it got a little more interesting. Parts of it shimmered and danced a bit, but then it quickly went back to a band of light.

We spent a significant amount of the time we were freezing out there, questioning if this was all it was? I mean, technically we could say we’d seen the northern lights, but we’d heard people say it’s magical, and this wasn’t really. What was it supposed to look like? It looked brighter and greener through the camera, and we wondered if northern lights really only look amazing from camera tricks? Were we not far enough north to see it overhead?

Northern Lights for blog-2

A couple nights later we were inside Denali at Teklanika campground having a campfire outside, and the northern lights came out and literally went from end to end of the sky. There were rivers of green all the way overhead from horizon to horizon. Stripes and swirls and other patterns were dancing in the sky. It was visible and green and beautiful to the naked eye as well as through the camera. It went on for a long time. All our questions about how good the northern lights could be were answered. It was amazing.

Northern Lights for blog-9Northern Lights for blog-6

It was funny because the other night we stayed up for hours watching for the northern lights and it really wasn’t worth it. It was freezing, and not a very good show, but we didn’t know any better. Though, we were in a beautiful place under a starry sky, so it wasn’t exactly a waste. We learned that the band of light near the horizon is visible most clear nights, and is caused by solar winds, but the really amazing shows are caused by solar storms, which happen less often.

Northern Lights for blog-5Northern Lights for blog-7

We had fun with the camera, trying to capture the movement and color with different settings. Since we were confined to the campground (no driving out of Teklanika), we couldn’t go anywhere more picturesque, but we just gawked at the sky and kept pointing in different directions. Look over there! Oooh, over there! After an hour and a half we were cold and tired, and the lights had faded some and weren’t dancing much so we reluctantly called it a night.

Northern Lights for blog-8Northern Lights for blog-11

A few more times we tried to hunt for northern lights with limited success. We were hooked at that point, and we really wanted to see them and take photos. It can come and go so fast, and different camera settings can produce really different pictures, so it was fun and challenging and honestly exhilarating to take pictures and see how they come out. And it can look even cooler in pictures than in real life sometimes.

Northern Lights for blog-36

We went out in the campground in Tok, Alaska, and saw a little. While he was fishing, Brian scoped out a spot on a bridge over the Little Tok River. A couple nights later when the forecast was good, we went out and waited for the sky to light up, but it was so cloudy. We went back to the car and hid from the cold, and then jumped out when we saw something. The clouds parted just enough to see a green band, that danced for us a little bit. It was so fast though, it was gone barely after it arrived.

Northern Lights for blog-37Northern Lights for blog-38Northern Lights for blog-39

On our drive home from Alaska, we saw northern lights out the window of the truck as we were driving, but couldn’t find anywhere we could pull over with the trailer! So, we tried to watch out the window as we drove.

On our way home, at the end of September, we were boondocking overnight in Canada near Kluane National Park.  We were on a little peninsula in a lake, where were would be able to see the northern lights no matter where they were, but barely anything came out, and it disappeared quickly.

Northern Lights for blog-40

A few nights later we were in a campground behind a gas station in Watson Lake, Yukon. I popped my head out of the trailer and saw a green sky. I instantly was yelling at Brian to get his coat on and get outside!

Northern Lights for blog-54

We were across the street from the sign post forest, so we went into the forest to take pictures and ran around all by ourselves. There was no one else around. The show lasted forever, we watched for about two hours.

Northern Lights for blog-42Northern Lights for blog-45Northern Lights for blog-48Northern Lights for blog-50Northern Lights for blog-51Northern Lights for blog-52

When we were finally frozen and exhausted, we went back to the trailer, and the lights were still swirling and dancing in the sky. We were so happy to get another amazing show before we headed south towards home.

Northern Lights for blog-47Northern Lights for blog-55

Aurora can be yellow, green, red, blue, and purple, but we mostly saw green. Especially on the nights with vibrant overhead shows, it was all green!

Northern Lights for blog-44.jpg

Each time we saw some northern lights, it just made us want more. We were so lucky to see it a few times over the three weeks we were looking.

The Alaska Highway

We headed north from Denali a few hours to Fairbanks. The trees were yellow all the way there. It was a nice drive, and we spent it trying to figure out where we would camp.

Fairbanks North Pole for blog-1

We wanted to find hookups to charge up our battery, but were finding that the campgrounds had all very recently closed for the season. We thought we were in luck at Chena Wayside Campground with electric and water right in town. After we drove around the campground a few times, picked out a site, and paid for 3 nights at the kiosk, the camp host came out and told us that they were closing for the season at 9 am the next morning. Ugh. We charged up our battery and dumped and filled our water tank, and decided to cut our Fairbanks visit short. It felt like Alaska was ejecting us.

Fairbanks North Pole for blog-3

We moved to the local Walmart. We enjoyed the “big city amenities” like stocking up on groceries and gas. We got our furnace fixed just before our two year warranty expired (with some ordeal at the local repair shop). And visited a few of the shops in town. The Great Alaskan Bowl Company turns bowls out of local birch wood.

Fairbanks North Pole for blog-6

North Pole, Alaska is about 20 minutes east of Fairbanks, and we visited on our way out of town. They have the Christmas spirit all year, with light poles and sign posts wrapped like candy canes. We visited the Santa Claus House, which is what it sounds like. There was a really nice Christmas Shop with Christmas music playing, and we saw Santa and Mrs. Claus! I loved when Santa had Brian sit on his lap. There were even reindeer next door.

Fairbanks North Pole for blog-5Fairbanks North Pole for blog-7Fairbanks North Pole for blog-8Fairbanks North Pole for blog-10

We drove the Alaska Highway in reverse, from end to beginning. The official end is at Delta Junction, Alaska. The Alaska Highway (or ALCAN) was constructed during World War II to get supplies to the military in Alaska. It was built from each end, meeting in the middle, and covered 1,422 miles. The Canadian portion was turned over to Canada after the war ended, and in 1948 it was opened to the public. It was finally all paved by the 1980s.

Alaska Highway RouteIMG_8386Tok for blog-7Tok for blog-4

We drove to Tok, Alaska and saw 10 moose on the way! One crossed the road in front of us, so we drove extra carefully. We stayed for 5 nights at the only campground still open in Tok, Sourdough RV. We celebrated Brian’s 35th birthday with goodies we acquired in Fairbanks.

Tok for blog-8

Brian fished for Arctic Grayling in the Tok river. He was really excited to fish for Grayling, since they are no longer found in Michigan. He caught the daily limit of two and brought them home to cook. They tasted like mild whitefish, similar to trout but less firm.

Tok for blog-11Tok for blog-9Tok for blog-10

The next day he went fishing again in the rain and was treated to a rainbow. A beaver scared the shit out of him with a loud tail slap on the water. I guess that’s what happens when someone gets too close to the den. He caught and released the second day.

Tok for blog-14

Sourdough RV turned off the water after the first 3 nights, but we still stayed two more, getting ready for the big drive.

Tok for blog-1

Once we got on the road again, we drove a couple hours before we crossed into Yukon, and had an easy and friendly border crossing. Fall colors seemed to be past peak, but it was still beautiful and we had some nice sunny days.

Alaska Highway for blog-2

The first day of the long drive we made it to Destruction Bay and overnighted on Kluane Lake.

Alaska Highway for blog-4

We were right next to Kluane National Park (the Canadian St. Elias Mountains) and saw so many Dall Sheep way high up in the mountains. We estimated we could see about 125 sheep with binoculars, from the vehicle pullout.

Alaska Highway for blog-5Alaska Highway for blog-6

We stopped in Whitehorse, Yukon, and were really impressed with the downtown area. We parked in the RV parking at the visitors center, in the only spot not taken up by cars that couldn’t read the ‘RV Parking’ signs, and went to The Deli for delicious sandwiches, and to stock up on tasty Canadian deli meat. We walked next to the river that runs through town.

Alaska Highway for blog-8

Our next stop was in Watson Lake, Yukon to visit the Signpost Forest. It was started in 1942 when a soldier repairing the directional sign included a sign for his hometown. Since then many many people have added signs for their own hometowns, and there are now 77,000 signs, and they just go on and on. We didn’t add a sign, but maybe next time!

Alaska Highway for blog-11Alaska Highway for blog-10Alaska Highway for blog-9

We stayed in an RV park behind a gas station, which was a parking lot with electric, but it was cheap and charged up our batteries. They didn’t have a water fill, but they did have a laundry room, and Brian somehow managed to fill our 5 gallon jug from the water line into the laundry on the back of the washing machine. It felt a little shameful, but you gotta do what you gotta do.

Alaska Highway for blog-21Alaska Highway for blog-19

We drove from Watson Lake to Liard Hot Springs in the dark, and had to try not to hit a herd of buffalo just near the road. We also saw a few fox and a lynx! The upside to night travel is seeing wildlife that’s out and about, but the downside is no photos. The next day we set up camp at Liard Hot Springs Provincial Park and backtracked a few miles to get to see the buffalo in better light, doing things that buffalo do.

Alaska Highway for blog-17Alaska Highway for blog-14Alaska Highway for blog-16

In the evening we went to the hot springs. There is a 10-minute walk on a boardwalk over a marsh to the springs.

Alaska Highway for blog-12

At the springs there is a deck and a changing room and benches. I was so cold taking off layers and my feet especially were freezing, until we got into the hot water. The spring is at one end, but it’s a flowing river, and they’ve damned it in a couple places creating pools of different temperatures. We started in the lower pool, which was cooler. It was strange how all over there were pockets of hot and cool water, and in some places the water at the top was hottest. We stayed in the hot springs for four hours, alternating between the temperatures, and occasionally getting out to cool off. The sun went down and the stars came out. There were at least 20 people there, and it’s much more crowded in summer.

Alaska Highway for blog-13

It turned from fall into winter overnight. When we woke up on October 1st, there was over an inch of snow on the ground, and it was still coming down.

Alaska Highway for blog-22

We walked on the boardwalk back to the hot springs, to see it in the snow. We thought about taking another dip, but we didn’t want to get covered in sulphury water again, since we were planning to drive all day. In retrospect we should’ve hopped in!

Alaska Highway for blog-24Alaska Highway for blog-23Alaska Highway for blog-25

Northern British Columbia was beautiful in the snow. We drove through the Northern Rockies, and were gawking the whole time. Brian stopped the car and got out to check out a beaver dam.

Alaska Highway for blog-34Alaska Highway for blog-28

As the snow came down, the drive got more treacherous. We learned why tire chains are required starting October 1st! We didn’t have any, and thought we would make it south before the snow hit, but no such luck. We later learned that Calgary, Alberta (south of where we were) had a much bigger snowstorm, and people were stuck for hours on the roads.

Alaska Highway for blog-30

The area between Muncho Lake and Fort Nelson got a little dicey, and at times I was pretty nervous. At one point we were climbing up a hill, and a truck coming the other way flashed their lights at us. I was freaking out thinking “what does that mean?! are we going to slide down the mountain to our deaths?” and I made Brian stop on the road until another vehicle came the other way that we could ask about the conditions. They said it was fine, but there were some caribou on the road. Thankfully, we made it down this mountain and the others.

Alaska Highway for blog-32Alaska Highway for blog-33

Past Fort Nelson, we drove the next bit in the dark. We couldn’t see, but it didn’t seem like we missed too much exciting scenery. Even the lakes had names like “Borrow Pit #2”. Fortunately there wasn’t too much traffic on the road, but there were some giant trucks, that roared past and created a mini-white-out of blown up snow. We stopped for the night at the only place open between Fort Nelson and Fort St. John, Pink Mountain Campsite.  We slipped around on the road a bit just before we got there, so it was a relief to pull in and plug in. After this experience we did feel like “we survived the Alaska Highway!”

Alaska Highway for blog-37Alaska Highway for blog-36

The next day the sun was out and it wasn’t snowing and the road conditions were much better, which made us question why we had driven a hundred and forty miles in the dark the night before. It was getting dark by 7 now, which is a big change from two and a half months earlier when it was light until 11 pm!

Dawson Creek, BC is the end (or beginning) of the Alaska Highway, but besides that, it’s a pretty industrial town. We continued into Alberta, and passed the town of Beaver Lodge, that welcomes visitors with a giant beaver.

Alaska Highway for blog-39Alaska Highway for blog-38Alaska Highway for blog-41

We overnighted at Walmart in Grande Prairie, which is appropriately named because we drove through prairies to get there.

Alaska Highway for blog-42

We were pretty tired from all the days of driving, and we were sitting on a bench in the front of the Walmart using the wifi, since the cell service was so scarce. Suddenly Brian looks down at his McDonald’s coffee cup and said “we didn’t go to McDonald’s…” he had been drinking an abandoned cup of coffee that was next to the bench! Ewww. Fortunately, he didn’t seem to contract any diseases from the momentary lapse. I guess all the driving took more out of him than he thought.

Alaska Highway for blog-44

Since we wanted to try a Canadian delicacy, we had King of Donair for lunch. Originally from Halifax, a Donair is basically a gyro with different sauce. Donair sauce is sweet and tangy, and I was really glad I got it on the side. Not because I didn’t like it, but because Brian’s was smothered in it. We bought tire chains in Grande Prairie, so of course we didn’t encounter any more snow storms.

Alaska Highway for blog-43

We stayed overnight at Gregg Lake Campground in William Switzer Provincial Park. It was still open, but not manned and absolutely deserted. We didn’t see another person or vehicle while we were there. Since we arrived at night, it was a little creepy. The next day we drove into Jasper National Park and back to civilization!

Alaska Highway for blog-1

Day 735| Mile 75,288

Denali National Park

Denali National Park includes the Alaskan Mountain Range and the surrounding tundra and wilderness. There are many impressive mountains in this range, but the most famous is Denali, formerly known as Mount McKinley, the highest mountain in North America. Native Alaskans have called the mountain Denali (which means “the high one”) for centuries. It was named Mount McKinley in 1896 by a gold prospector after William McKinley, who never even visited Alaska. The state of Alaska had been trying to change the name since at least 1975, (and it was still commonly called Denali within Alaska) and in 2015 the name was changed back to Denali, officially.

Denali for blog-27

At 20,310 feet above sea level, Denali is so tall that it makes its own weather. It is often shrouded in clouds, so much that they say that only 30% of visitors to the park see the mountain. I tried to prepare myself for the possibility of not even seeing the tallest mountain. We had such clear weather when we visited though, that we saw the mountain from miles away, though we rarely saw the very top! Even clear blue sky days can be cloudy on the mountain.

Denali for blog-8

We couldn’t believe how great the weather was during our visit. In early September it was cool and crisp and sunny most of the days we were there. The trees and grasses and mosses had changed into fall colors and everything was red, yellow, and orange.

Denali for blog-5

Denali became a national park in 1917, but there were no roads to the entrance until 1957 when a road was built from Anchorage to Fairbanks. The park is vast, (9,492 square miles!) and most of it is wilderness. The lower elevations of the park, like the area near the visitor center, are boreal forest, full of coniferous trees. Much of the rest of the park is tundra, and instead of trees there are mosses and shrubs. There is a 92 mile road that goes into the park, from east to west. The road runs parallel to the Alaskan mountain range and alternates between running alongside the rivers in the valley, and hugging the cliffside treacherously high above the valley floor. The views from the road go for miles.

Denali for blog-79

Cars are only allowed to drive the first 15 miles of it, to Savage River. Beyond that, the park can be explored by bus. The road is generally restricted to cars to protect the wildlife, which is very important in a National Park, and also because it is a one lane dirt road, and a lot more maintenance and better roads would be needed if cars were able to drive on them every day.

There are tour buses and transit buses and it can be confusing. The tour buses are narrated and stop for wildlife sightings, and the transit buses are intended to be hop-on/hop-off buses that allow visitors to explore different areas of the park. Most people have learned by now that the (much cheaper) transit buses provide some narration and stop for wildlife too, so they are used as an alternative to the tour buses and there aren’t many available seats for hopping on/off.

Denali for blog-7

There are two exceptions to the ‘no cars past mile 15’ rule, and we took advantage of both of them. There is a campground at mile 29 called Teklanika and if you camp there you can drive to and from it, one time. There is a three night minimum, and no hookups or services available in the park. Once you get there, you can take the bus into the park, but can’t go back to the park entrance. We booked a five night stay at Teklanika.

Denali for blog-11

The other exception is that for five days a year, at the very end of the season, they allow cars to drive on the road. They hold a “Road Lottery” in May, and people apply to win a road lottery permit. It’s $15 to enter, and winners pay $25 for the permit. The odds of winning are about 1 in 7. Brian and I each applied in May, and I won a permit for the first day of the Road Lottery, September 14!

Denali for blog-55

We camped for a few days at Denali RV Park, 10 miles north of the park entrance, to explore the front of the park. We went to the visitor center, and picked up our permit for the road lottery, and then went to the Wilderness Access Center (the bus depot), to check in to the campground and pick up our bus tickets.

Denali for blog-43

The next day we took the bus from the entrance visitor center to the Sled Dog Kennels for a demonstration. There were few month old puppies sleeping in their puppy house, and the other dogs were hanging out on top of or next to their dog houses. One dog was available for us to meet and pet.

Denali for blog-1Denali for blog-3Denali for blog-94

When it was time for the demonstration, the rangers ran alongside the cages and the dogs got all excited! They all wanted to be picked to pull the sled! They picked the dogs and got them harnessed and they ran along the outside of a circle and stopped in front of the stands. The dogs love running, and they should’ve let them run longer!

Denali for blog-2

Rather than taking the bus back to the visitor center, we hiked back on the Rock Creek Trail. It’s about 2 miles, and climbs up to a beautiful view where we could see the yellow trees. We stopped along the way to admire the mushroom variety. At the end, when we were just about back to the visitor center there were two moose (a cow and calf) on the trail.

Denali for blog-52IMG_7804IMG_7807

After a couple days outside of the park, we moved to Teklanika Campground. We enjoyed driving to mile 29 to set up camp. The campground has a length limit of 40 feet, and first come/first serve campsites of all different sizes, so we were a little nervous about getting a site big enough for us. When we arrived there were about 10 sites available, many of which would’ve fit us, and we picked out a nice one.

Denali for blog-6

One of the benefits of staying at Teklanika is the Tek Pass. It’s a bus pass that’s good for the duration of the camping reservation, with one bus with a reserved seat, and after that it’s hop on/hop off on a space available basis. It’s a good deal at $40 per person, since that’s the price of the cheapest transit one-day bus ticket otherwise, and going all the way to Kantishna (the end of the road) is $60 otherwise. We scheduled our ‘reserved seats’ for the bus to Kantishna the day after we arrived at Teklanika.

Another benefit of staying at Teklanika is that we were already at mile 29, so we cut off about 2.5 hours from the round-trip to Kantishna. If we had gotten on at the front of the park, it would have been a 12 hour bus ride! As it was, it was a long day of riding on a bumpy dirt road on a dusty schoolbus. Though we had guaranteed seats on the bus to Kantishna, we didn’t have any seats in particular reserved, and when we got on at Teklanika, every seat had at least one person in it. No one wanted to give up a window seat so we could sit together. A group of three girls who were traveling together were taking up three separate seats rather than sitting together. One of them eventually moved to sit with her friend when she realized that Brian wasn’t going to spring up for her to move to the other side of the bus whenever she felt like it.

Denali for blog-61

Denali attracts hard core wildlife viewers and the buses have the feeling of a safari. Visitors want to see Denali’s big five: Moose, Wolf, Caribou, Dall Sheep, and Grizzly Bears. Along with the moose that we saw in the front of the park, we technically saw all of the big five, but most of the wildlife is so far away! We joked about seeing bear-shaped dots and sheep-shaped dots. Denali is a place where we were glad to have binoculars.

Denali for blog-57Denali for blog-64

The bus stopped at several rest areas and viewpoints for 10 or 15 minutes at a time so people could use the bathroom or take pictures.

At mile 46 is Polychrome Overlook, which is a beautiful view of the braided rivers in the valley below.

Denali for blog-83

At mile 53 there is a bookstore (in a big tent) and bathrooms at the Toklat River rest stop.

Denali for blog-84

At mile 62 is Stony Hill Overlook, which may be the most beautiful and popular view of Denali.

Denali for blog-28

At mile 66 is the Eielson Visitor Center, we stopped here for about an hour and we ate the lunches we packed.

Denali for blog-70Denali for blog-14

Mile 85 is Wonder Lake, and mile 92.5 is the end of the road, at Kantishna.

Denali for blog-100

We took the bus all the way to the end, because we wanted to see the whole park, but were surprised to find that it isn’t as pretty after Wonder Lake. The road isn’t as elevated so the views aren’t as good. Kantishna was an old mining settlement, and now has an air landing strip and a few private lodges.

Denali for blog-62

Though the transit buses are technically hop on/hop off, no one got off our bus. Very few buses go all the way to the end of the road, so if anyone got off, they wouldn’t be able to see the whole park. A few hikers and campers did hop on for a ride back to the front of the park, and all the seats were filled on the way back, and several people weren’t able to get on that wanted to.

Denali for blog-34

The next day, we hung out at camp and rested. It was cloudy and rain was forecasted, and honestly after 10 hours on a school bus we were beat. Just before our Teklanika reservation began our furnace stopped working. It got cold at night, nearly freezing! We didn’t want to change any of our plans though, so we used an extra blanket and dealt with it. One morning when we woke up it was 38 degrees in the trailer! We had our solar panel out, but even with blue skies we still probably wouldn’t have been able to run the furnace all night using our battery, so I guess it’s better that we weren’t tempted. We made a fire and cooked steaks to keep warm.

Denali for blog-56

The day after, we hopped on a nearly full bus to the Eielson Visitor Center. We got seats in the front rows, near a couple that had been to Denali every year for the past 27 years! They come for the wildlife, and told us stories of some of the best sightings they’d had in their years of visiting, like watching a wolf take down a caribou, and then get chased off the meal by bears! They were fun to talk to, and certainly had the run of the park. They made friends with the bus drivers, and kept up on the best places to see animals. We saw three wolves for just a couple seconds as they walked on the road and disappeared into the trees.

Denali for blog-65

At the visitor center we ate our packed lunch and watched the dated but interesting video on climbing Denali. That is a brutal climb. This year 1,114 people attempted to climb Denali, and only 45% were successful. The cold temperatures and unpredictable weather are the biggest obstacles. Eielson Visitor Center also has an amazing quilt on display, a work of art by Ree Nancarrow, using hand dyed fabrics to illustrate the view of Denali from the visitor center windows.

Denali for blog-67Denali for blog-66

We hiked the Gorge Creek Trail, which dropped 600 feet in a mile to Gorge Creek. It was fun to get close to one of the beautiful braided rivers that are all over the park. The fall colors on this hike were incredible. We couldn’t believe our luck with the weather.

Denali for blog-17Denali for blog-18

Sometimes we felt silly taking so many pictures of Denali, since there is so much more to the park than just the mountain… but it really is so beautiful that it was hard to stop ourselves.

Denali for blog-19

We also gawked plenty at the braided rivers that run throughout the park and fill the valleys. The shallow rivers are fed by glaciers and are constantly changing course on the wide gravel floodplain.

Denali for blog-12Denali for blog-41

On our bus ride back to camp (2.5 hours!) we saw a mama bear and two cubs pretty near to the road, eating all the berries they could find to fatten up for winter.

Denali for blog-20Denali for blog-21

The final day of our stay in Teklanika was the first day of the Road Lottery, and the day we had a permit for! They opened the road at 6 am, and let people leave from Teklanika at 7. We were in line to leave about 6:45, and were about the 8th car. We had all day in the park but we wanted to get in early to see the park in the morning light. Our first glimpse of Denali, it was all pink.

Denali for blog-23Denali for blog-22

As we drove into the park we saw the light come into the valley.

Denali for blog-24Denali for blog-25

After two days in the park on the buses, I wasn’t sure if the road lottery would be as magical as I had built it up in my head to be, but it was really nice to be able to drive through the park at our own pace, with all our stuff with us, and be able to stop wherever we wanted to.

Denali for blog-80

We decided not to drive all the way to the end of the road, since it wasn’t that interesting past Wonder Lake. Just past Wonder Lake we pulled off at a pull out and hiked up a social trail to the top of a hill. A ranger had told us about this trail, it was steep and overgrown with waist-high bushes. It was mid-day by now, and the lighting on Denali and Wonder Lake wasn’t the best for photographs, but the view at the top was incredible.

Denali for blog-63Denali for blog-108

On the way back we stopped at a beautiful pond rimmed with yellow grass and got out to take photos. The ground was squishy, and it was like walking in a bounce house.

Denali for blog-32

We noticed wild blueberries growing all over, and started to pick handfuls. We had previously checked with a ranger that this was okay to do, and there are no poisonous berries growing here that are blue. There are some poisonous red ones though (baneberries). Another couple saw us and pulled over. We told them we were picking blueberries, and they joined us and gave us a paper bowl, which was a real help. We had brought store-bought blueberries with us, so we had a taste test. The store bought kind are way bigger and sweeter, but less flavorful. The wild blueberries have more flavor, but it isn’t always consistent, so it tasted best to eat 4 or 5 at a time. Later when we had eaten all our berries, we stopped near another pond and picked more! This was one of our favorite parts of road lottery day.

Denali for blog-31

We saw a few far-away bears and Dall sheep, but our favorite wildlife sightings were the animals we saw close up. The first one we came across was a red fox.

Denali for blog-29

We also saw arctic ground squirrels near the road, getting ready to hibernate for winter.

Denali for blog-35

We saw a Snowshoe Hare, changing its colors for the winter season. It stayed around and posed for me on the road. Later, when it was getting dark, there were hares everywhere, darting away from cars and running across the road.

Denali for blog-88

We saw six or seven ptarmigan, which are an arctic bird similar to a grouse that doesn’t migrate. They turn completely white in winter, and grow long feathers on their legs to keep warm. The ones we saw looked like they were losing their summer camouflage plumage.

Denali for blog-36Denali for blog-86

We had made it back to about mile 45 by 6ish, and weren’t ready to be done, so we turned around and headed back into the park. Brian made some enemies at this point, because there is a stretch of the road on the edge of a cliff, that is just barely wide enough for two cars to pass. Many people were heading out of the park, and they had to pass us on the outside. This was the only point in the road that was a bit sketchy. Brian wasn’t concerned, because he’s done a lot of driving by now and is pretty bold, but I can understand other people being apprehensive about this part of the drive. Everyone took it slow and there weren’t any problems.

Denali for blog-26

We got back to the Eielson Visitor Center (mile 66) around 8, and the sun was setting. We stayed as long as we could, until rangers told us we had to head back. They start sweeping people from the west end of the park so that everyone is back to Teklanika by 11, or the park entrance by midnight. We were surprised they wouldn’t let us stay until the sun was done setting, because seeing the sun set on Denali is rare due to the timing of the bus schedules.

Denali for blog-40

After the sun set, there wasn’t much to see, so we went straight back to camp and got there about 10 pm. We stayed out as long as possible, because we didn’t want to miss anything!

Denali for blog-39

We loved our road lottery day, and it definitely felt like a special privilege to be turned loose in the vast park. Sunrise and sunset in the park were beautiful. There were 400 cars on the road, but it never really felt crowded. Most of the other permit holders were Alaskans, many of whom apply every year. We felt lucky to have won a permit the first time we applied.

Denali for blog-102

We also couldn’t have had better weather during our visit. It was in the 50s and 60s during the day, and clear blue skies most days. The fall colors were on display everywhere, and we were told they were a little late this year, many years everything is brown by the Road Lottery, and some years the whole road isn’t open because of snow.

Denali for blog-90

Denali isn’t an easy park to navigate, but it’s worth figuring it out. I think the combination of camping at the entrance, using the bus system and camping at Teklanika, and winning the road lottery was the perfect way to explore this beautiful park.

Denali for blog-107

Day 716 | Mile 72,953

Driving to Denali

We drove out of the Kenai Peninsula and followed the north side of Turnagain Arm, which is the skinny inlet that separates the Kenai Peninsula. Turnagain Arm experiences huge tidal changes up to 40 feet. When the tide is out it’s a mud flat. A few days each month, when the difference in low tide and high tide is big enough, it comes in as a big wave called a bore tide. The wave can be big enough to surf, and takes 5 hours to make it all the way through the inlet. We weren’t there at the right time to see this.

Driving to Denali for blog-1

We spent a couple days in and around Anchorage, running errands and doing some shopping and overnighting in Cabela’s parking lot. Anchorage has about 300,000 residents, which is 40% of the entire population of Alaska. It certainly is the “big city” in Alaska, but we didn’t spend too much time there. We briefly visited the downtown area, and went to Stewart’s Camera store and some souvenir shops.

Driving to Denali for blog-21Driving to Denali for blog-20

As we made our way north of Anchorage, we stopped in Palmer at the musk ox farm and took a tour.

Driving to Denali for blog-10

The musk ox is an ancient arctic species. They roamed Alaska 600,000 years ago, but due to harsh winters and hunting, by 1865 there were no more in Alaska or Siberia. Fortunately Greenland and Canada protected them, and in 1930 the U.S. Government paid $40,000 to buy and transport 34 young musk oxen to Alaska. They were moved to a wildlife refuge on Nunivak Island, off the west coast of Alaska. There are now about 4,000 musk oxen in Alaska.

Driving to Denali for blog-11

The musky smell that contributes to its name comes from fermented urine, that males cover themselves in to mark their territory during mating. Brian was disappointed to learn that the mating males were in a different field up the hill, and the tour didn’t visit them, so we couldn’t smell their stink. Since the smell doesn’t come from a musk gland (like the muskrat), ‘musk ox’ isn’t the best name for them. They are called umingmak in Inuktitut, which means “bearded one” and is a much better name.

Driving to Denali for blog-16

They have a long coarse coat, that covers a soft undercoat of wool, called qiviut (pronounced kiv-ee-ute). It is the softest and warmest wool, and very expensive! They shed this undercoat each year in spring. In the wild, qiviut is gathered from fields, where musk oxen rub it off on branches or the ground. At the farm, the musk ox are put in a small pen to keep them in place, and the undercoat is combed off. The average yield for an adult is four and a half pounds of qiviut.

Driving to Denali for blog-18

They are large, but not as large as we expected them to be. We thought they would be the size of buffalo, but they are smaller, only about four and a half feet tall.

Driving to Denali for blog-15Driving to Denali for blog-12

The musk ox farm is the only place where musk oxen are being domesticated. The domestication process is still early, and Brian asked which traits are being selected in the breeding process. Since they are being farmed to harvest qiviut, which is pretty much the same for all musk ox, they are breeding only for docile, well-behaved musk ox. Surprisingly, Alex Trebek is one of the musk ox farm’s biggest supporters.

Driving to Denali for blog-17

The Iditarod Headquarters is in Wasilla, Alaska, which is about an hour from Anchorage. There is a small museum with a video about the Iditarod race, and tributes to some of the famous racers, both human and canine. The Iditarod is a 938 mile race from Anchorage to Nome, Alaska. Mushers race on sleds being pulled by teams of 16 dogs. Sled dogs are a traditional form of transportation in Alaska, used for exploration and mail delivery, and are still used in rural areas.

Driving to Denali for blog-2

Alaskan Huskies are the most common dogs in the Iditarod. It’s not considered a breed, but rather a type of dog. It is bred specifically for the traits useful for sled dogs: speed, endurance, strength, and a warm coat. Siberian Huskies, Malamutes, Pointers, and Shepherds have been bred into the lineage and Alaskan Huskies all look a little different.

Driving to Denali for blog-34

The Iditarod began in 1973, and revived the mushing heritage. It commemorates an event in 1925, where diphtheria antitoxin was transported by train from Anchorage to Nenana by train, and then 674 miles from Nenana to Nome by sled dog relay in just over 5 days, to ward off an epidemic.

Driving to Denali for blog-33

Members of the Redington family bring some of its dogs in a dog-mobile, and they set up outside the headquarters and offer sled dog rides. We sprang for the ride, even though it was very short, just one lap around a circle track in the woods. It was interesting to see how quickly the dogs went from lying around to ready to run! We could feel how powerful and fast they were during the short ride.

IMG_7649Driving to Denali for blog-35Driving to Denali for blog-9

After our ride, we were shown to the puppy cage, where a musher handed me a puppy… and then casually walked away. It took every bit of honesty I have to not sprint away with it, it was so snuggly and cute!

Driving to Denali for blog-7Driving to Denali for blog-8

After our adventures near Anchorage, we finished the four-hour drive to Denali National Park.

Driving to Denali for blog-22

On the road, we had our first glimpse of the mountain, and pulled off at Denali View South Viewpoint as the sun was starting to go down.

Driving to Denali for blog-24

As we neared the park, we started to see fall colors! It was early September, and everything was red and yellow.

Driving to Denali for blog-36Driving to Denali for blog-28Driving to Denali for blog-29

Day 707 | Mile 72,280

 

Homer and Cooper Landing, Alaska

We drove past the Kenai River to the west side of the Kenai Peninsula to visit Homer, a fishing community on Kachemak Bay.

Homer for blog-42Homer for blog-2IMG_7508

We camped at Homer Spit Campground, which is near the end of Homer Spit. The Spit is a long skinny strip of land, that reaches 4.5 miles into Kachemak Bay. It was likely created by a retreating glacier, ages ago. It was a beautiful place to camp, though the gulls screeching woke us up each morning.

Homer for blog-1Homer for blog-42

It makes a great location for marinas and has a fun, beachtown touristy feeling. We really enjoyed walking on the beach, since sandy beaches are rare in Alaska.

Homer for blog-9Homer for blog-4

All along the spit there are cute shops and restaurants on stilts.

Homer for blog-5Homer for blog-10

Homer Spit has a funky vibe, and we enjoyed the fun places to take photos.

Homer for blog-20IMG_7498Homer for blog-44

We visited Bear Creek Winery and tasted their fruit blend wines made with Alaskan and Pacific Northwest fruits like blueberry, rhubarb, raspberry, and currant. They were surprisingly good!

IMG_7493

We had a really nice meal at Fresh Catch Cafe. There are several nice restaurants on the spit.

IMG_7496

Since Homer calls itself the halibut fishing capital of the world, it felt like the right place to go on a halibut fishing charter. Brian showed me how to catch halibut using circle hooks.

Homer for blog-24Homer for blog-25

The weather was spotty with rain during our stay, so we picked the nicest day in the forecast and called around to some of the many charter fishing companies. The nice thing about the halibut charters is that they are typically on a 6 passenger boat, and they will pair up groups so we didn’t have to reserve a whole boat just for the two of us. We booked an all day halibut fishing trip with North Country Charters, on the Julia Lynn with Captain Pete and mate Brett. Captain Pete’s niece and her husband were on our trip, so we knew he’d do a good job.

Homer for blog-38

Even though it was a nice sunny day, the ride from Homer Spit out into Kachemak Bay wasn’t as calm as I hoped. The hour-long ride out about 15 miles to our first fishing area felt like a million tiny roller coasters. I hate roller coasters. By the time we stopped l was good and seasick.

Homer for blog-36

Halibut are flat fish that swim at the bottom of pretty deep water. When they are born they look like normal fish, but when they are only about an inch long, one eye migrates to the same side of their bodies as the other eye, and the no-eye side of them turns white. They are funny looking, tasty fish. They can also get to be huge, the record for largest halibut caught is 459 pounds!

Homer for blog-30

Pete anchored us in about 120 foot deep water, while the current was strong. Halibut are typically caught on circle hooks, and they were baited with combinations of octopus tentacles, herring, salmon, and garlic scents. It was like a sushi bar for fish. The garlic scent was especially nauseating when already nauseas. We lowered our hooks to the bottom and they bounced there in the current. When we felt a fish tug, we reeled up. We also periodically reeled up to see if we still had bait or if a fish got a free lunch.

Homer for blog-47

The limit for charter halibut fishing is keeping two fish per person, where one has to be less than 28 inches long, and the other can be any size. We each caught our ‘under’ fish pretty quickly, and then were looking for our big fish.

Homer for blog-27

Brian wanted to jig fish, and Pete got him set up to do that. He caught a few halibut that way, but threw them back looking for a bigger fish. He caught a small flounder that we kept and used as bait. One person on our boat caught a big fish, but the rest of us didn’t have that luck. The same guy also caught a huge ray that was released.

Homer for blog-46

When the currents changed, the halibut stopped biting, and we moved to another location where we didn’t anchor and fished while drifting. We had to keep moving back to the start to drift back.

Homer for blog-32

As soon as I caught my second keeper fish, I somehow perked up. Previously I had temporarily perked up earlier after, uh, “chumming the waters”… a couple times… but this time it lasted. I was glad I was still able to fish and have a pretty good time, in spite of the seasickness. Three of the six guests on our boat were seasick, so I had company.

Homer for blog-35

Unfortunately, the boat had engine issues, and we had to idle back to the marina. It took longer, but I preferred the slower speed. The mate fileted the fish on the boat while we drove, so it was easier for him too.

Homer for blog-49

We ended up with over 18 pounds of halibut from the four fish we caught. Brian vacuum sealed and froze it himself, so we didn’t use one of the many fish processors in the area, and carried our fish home in a garbage bag.

Homer for blog-39

Over the next few weeks we enjoyed halibut, many ways!

IMG_7492Homer for blog-22

After we left Homer, we backtracked two and a half hours east to Cooper Landing, on the Kenai River near Kenai Lake. We stayed at Kenai Princess RV Park. Brian spent a few days fly fishing in the river. There were red and silver salmon in the river, but not in very large quantities. Brian practiced a two-handed cast, and hooked into a trout.

Cooper Landing for blog-14Cooper Landing for blog-16

He went on a guided fishing trip on a float boat with a few others. They caught dolly varden and rainbow trout using egg imitation beads, and pink salmon (“humpies”), many of which were in various phases of dying after breeding. They didn’t see any silver salmon. The guide helped Brian with his two-handed casting, and he caught a pink salmon on a fly.

Cooper Landing for blog-10Cooper Landing for blog-11

There was a popular fishing spot nearby, where there is a ferry that takes people across the river. Brian didn’t fish here, because it was starting to look like combat fishing, though I think it gets worse when the silver salmon are running in the river.

Cooper Landing for blog-5

There are many good hikes nearby. We did the short but steep mile and a half Bear Mountain hike, that went 400 feet up to a beautiful lookout over the Kenai mountains and Kenai River watershed and Skilak Lake. We spotted mushrooms in the forest. We were lucky to have beautiful weather in Cooper Landing, it was a nice break from all the August rain, and it was starting to feel like fall.

Cooper Landing for blog-6Cooper Landing for blog-8

We went out to dinner at Kingfisher Roadhouse the night before we left the area, and were surprised at how good the meal was! We had crab enchiladas for an appetizer and I had caribou stroganoff and Brian had a steak for dinner. Everything was delicious!

Cooper Landing for blog-17IMG_7494

Day 705 | Mile 72,001

Kenai Fjords National Park in Seward, Alaska

After a lot of rain in the Copper River Valley and Valdez, we got some nice weather on our drive on the Glenn Highway to Anchorage.

seward for blog-9seward for blog-1seward for blog-2

We passed the Matanuska Glacier, which is the largest glacier in Alaska that can be reached by car, 26 miles long and 4 miles wide!

seward for blog-3seward for blog-7

We stopped in Anchorage to run a few errands, but couldn’t spend long because we had to get to Seward. The weather forecast was predicting two straight weeks of rain, after only one nice day. I really wanted good weather to take a boat tour of Kenai Fjords National Park, so we booked that for the first day of our visit. We got to Seward late and the Waterfront campground was full, but I was relieved to find there is an overflow lot with dry camping. Early the next morning we went to the harbor to catch our boat.

seward for blog-12

We booked our Kenai Fjords boat tour with Major Marine. They have several different tours and we debated between the 7.5 hour and 8.5 hour tours. The 7.5 hour tour is very popular and has a park ranger on board, and the 8.5 hour tour is on a smaller boat that can get closer to the wildlife. We’ve decided to default to taking the longest tour available, and it worked out pretty well this time.

seward for blog-13

It was a clear blue calm day, with about 3 foot seas in the bay. The forecast for two days later predicted 16 foot seas, so I was very glad we booked the boat tour for our first day in Seward. It was cold though! Temperatures were in the 50s and when the boat was moving (which was nearly the whole time), it was windy, I was wearing two pairs of pants, two shirts, two jackets, a hat and gloves, and I was still cold. Even Brian was wearing a light jacket.

seward for blog-15seward for blog-16seward for blog-32

Kenai Fjords became a National Monument in 1978 and a National Park in 1980, which is basically when all the National Parks in Alaska were created with the passage of Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.

seward for blog-20seward for blog-26seward for blog-17

The first thing we learned on our tour was the definition of a fjord. It is a deep U-shaped valley filled with water carved by glaciation. Fjords are only found in 6 areas in the world, Alaska, Chile, Norway, New Zealand, Greenland, and Antarctica.

seward for blog-31seward for blog-29

Kenai Fjords National Park contains six major fjords and the Harding Icefield, which is over 700 square miles of ice up to a mile thick. The Harding Icefield feeds 38 glaciers. All this, and it’s the smallest of Alaska’s 8 National Parks. At over 1,000 square miles, it’s still bigger than 42 of America’s 59 National Parks.

seward for blog-30seward for blog-25

The 8.5 hour trip tours through Resurrection Bay near some islands and into Northwestern Fjord. The islands had sea lions laying around, and birds flying everywhere.

seward for blog-19seward for blog-24seward for blog-64

We were on the tour that is the one that is best for birdwatching, so we had some birders on board. There was a downside to being on a birding boat that I didn’t think of until a few gulls flew overhead and both Brian and I were pooped on.

seward for blog-90

The upside is we saw a lot of puffins! I mean, we saw a lot of different types of birds (Kittiwakes, Common Mures, Cormorants, and more), but the puffins were our favorite. The birders were very excited to see some rare birds.

img_7353

We saw horned and tufted puffins, flying and swimming and nesting. We really liked watching them run on water to take off. Puffins load their beaks with small fish to bring back to their nests, and we saw a few with full beaks. They dunked under the water suddenly if they were spooked, or maybe just for fun.

seward for blog-50seward for blog-52seward for blog-54img_7354seward for blog-65

The boat pulled up really close to a few of the islands and saw nesting birds and waterfalls. We were surprised at how close the boat was able to get.

seward for blog-55seward for blog-45

Kenai Fjords National Park would be impressive enough without the glaciers, but it also has some of the most beautiful glaciers we saw in Alaska. We parked near Northwest Glacier, and spent time there.

seward for blog-34seward for blog-35seward for blog-42seward for blog-43

There were seals laying on the icebergs near the glacier, that were unfazed when big chucks of ice fell from the glacier.

seward for blog-36

We saw icebergs calf into the water a few times, as we were pulling away a big section sloughed off and made a big splash!

seward for blog-18

After we left the glaciers we saw several sea otters and two humpback whales that flapped their tails into the air as they dove underwater.

seward for blog-27seward for blog-46seward for blog-47seward for blog-53

We felt very lucky to have a calm sunny day for this tour, since we had really been looking forward to it. The tour goes into the Gulf of Alaska, and if the seas had been rough it wouldn’t have been comfortable on the small boat. Starting the next day, it rained for about 5 straight days. We moved to a site with electric as soon as we could, since our solar panel wouldn’t work with the rain. The whole waterfront of Seward has been made into a no reservations campground, so around 11 am we drove over and were lucky to get a site right on the water. The only reservations the campground takes is for caravans, and a few days into our stay we saw the Airstream caravan pull in, we counted 35 Airstreams.

seward for blog-67seward for blog-83seward for blog-81

We spent a rainy day at the Alaska Sealife Center, the aquarium in Seward. It’s not a very big aquarium, but it has a lot of interesting exhibits with local sea life, and they rescue and rehabilitate animals. The touch tank had all kinds of sea stars and sea cucumbers, and there were exhibits on the impacts of pollution and plastic waste in the ocean.

seward for blog-69seward for blog-70seward for blog-72seward for blog-71

Our favorite exhibit was the large, two story tank that had fish swimming below and puffins and ducks above. From the tank below we could see the puffins dive underwater when they were fed, they are good swimmers and can dive pretty deep and stay down awhile. One puffin kept trying to steal a duck’s food rather than go after his own. We watched the bully jerk puffin for awhile, then we went upstairs to see the puffins up close.

seward for blog-73seward for blog-78seward for blog-79seward for blog-75

Brian almost made it to the end of our visit to the aquarium without trying to eat any of the exhibits.

seward for blog-82

We were lucky to have one more beautiful day at the end of our stay in Seward and we went to the only part of Kenai Fjords National Park that is drivable, the Exit Glacier area. We drove the only road that goes just barely into the park and did the short walk to the toe of Exit Glacier. There were signs with the years on them, indicating where the glacier had previously been, since, like nearly every glacier, it is retreating.

seward for blog-85

We spent a week in Seward and we had time to check out the town and Brian did a little fishing. Even with a daily alarm going off each noon to remind us of the possibility of tsunami, we really enjoyed our waterfront site. The view is hard to beat.

seward for blog-86

Day 694 | Mile 71,401