(This is part 1 of our 4 part Alaska series)
Alaska is enormous. Measuring over 663,000 square miles, it is double the size of Texas. There is no possible way to see even a fraction in a trip, but in 2 weeks we conquered a good portion! Many people visit Alaska via a cruise ship, but that is barely scratching the surface of this massive state. We crafted an ambitious itinerary covering hundreds of miles with a lot of planning and research. Alaska is ready for tourism and their site, alaska.org, is amazing, It’s filled with must see sites, accommodations, drive times between destinations, packing guides, and more. It was incredible resource as we plotted our trip.
We touched down in Fairbanks and had only one day before we were on our next flight. In truth, Fairbanks isn’t the most exhilarating city but we found plenty to keep us busy. We spent our afternoon at the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitor’s Center which is free and had some exhibits on the history of Alaska. Just outside the entry is the Antler Arch comprised of over 100 antlers collected from interior Alaska which makes for a great picture. We concluded our time at Pioneer Park which is a historic village that features old buildings from downtown Fairbanks, a Gold Rush street, a carousel, and train. Our first night in Alaska we also caught a very fleeting view of the Northern Lights lasting only minutes.
The next morning, we hopped back on a plane headed for Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost point in the United States. Barrow is a pretty unique town. It is 320 miles North of the Arctic Circle and has 2 months of complete darkness each year. The town will occasionally see a polar bear, though that is rare. We stayed at a brand new hotel, the Top of the World Hotel, which had basic lodging and a small restaurant. Food in Barrow is very expensive due to the logistics involved in transporting food to the town. We dined at Osaka Restaurant, a Japanese restaurant in a bright orange building and the food actually wasn’t bad!
Our tour of Barrow was from a local who has lived in Barrow for years, Mike Schults (email@example.com). This is not your traditional tour, but if you are looking for something more authentic, he’s the guy to call. He picked us up at the Barrow airport wearing head to toe camouflage and a necklace with a polar bear tooth. We hopped into his SUV and toured the town…we stopped at his house where the landscaping is atypical…he and his wife have made ‘palm trees’ with the baleen from whales. Baleen is keratin derived system that toothless whales use to filter what enters their mouth. We drove through the small town, the school with it’s bright blue football field, the Inupiat Heritage Center, and 2 more ‘unique’ stops. First, we stopped at a friend’s home who had a walrus head decaying in the yard and second, we stopped at his brother’s museum. Joe’s Museum is an eclectic collection of antiques, taxidermy animals, Barrow artifacts and it has been visited by Sarah Palin. There is no cost but a plate where you are asked to make a small donation. It’s quite the mishmash of items and not the place to go if you are expecting a formal museum! Our tour concluded with a must visit in Barrow..the giant whalebone arch sitting on a beach on the Arctic Ocean. I’d also advise dipping a toe into the Arctic Ocean…it’s frigid! A quick overnight in Barrow as we did is likely all you need to see the sites and get a sense for the incredible resilience it takes to live so far north. Oh and bundle up…the wind is bone chilling!
We flew back down to Fairbanks to embark on the next leg of our adventure. Here we picked up a rental car and hit the road. Our goal was to drive the Dalton Highway, a 414 mile gravel road up to Prudhoe Bay traversing some of Alaska’s most remote wilderness. This highway runs parallel to the Alaskan oil pipeline for a good portion of the way, crosses the Yukon River and is chiefly used to bring supplies to oilfield workers. It begins in Livengood, reaches it’s halfway point at Coldfoot, and ends at Deadhorse on the Arctic Ocean. Because of the road conditions, most rental car agencies will not allow you to take their rental on this road but there are a few agencies who do and their cars are all equipped with spare tires and the ability to rent a satellite phone. We used Arctic Outfitters with no problems.
Chena Hot Springs
Before we started our journey along the Dalton, we made a few stops. North Pole, AK has Santa Land and millions of children mail letters to Santa here each year. They also have the Antler Academy with a few reindeer roaming the property. Here we toured around the most Christmas-like of all stores loaded with every possible Christmas decoration…children would love it here! We then detoured to Chena Hot Springs Resort located about 60 miles from Fairbanks. They are known for their naturally heated geothermal springs, a very established ice museum, and some spectacular Northern Light displays. We didn’t take a dip in the springs (the sulfur smell is aggressive!) but did visit the ice museum which they keep year round at 25 degrees. We were impressed by the size and the large sculptures which they illuminate beautifully and there’s even an ice bar where you can grab an icy appletini. Admission is $15 USD and they loan you a parka to put on for your visit as it is quite chilly in there!
The Dalton Highway
Next up, that Dalton Highway! Our plan was to drive to Wiseman which is slightly beyond Coldfoot and the halfway point. Coldfoot was named as travelers would often get cold feet as winter approached and turn around at the midway point. Mostly, we decided on that stopping point for 2 reasons 1) we actually had a layover in Prudhoe Bay/Deadhorse on our way to Barrow so we had seen it and 2) you can’t actually get to the Arctic Ocean from Deadhorse without a special permit/shuttle as it is on private oil lands.
Grab a snack at Wildwood General Store at the start of your drive and get moving. There are a couple of signs stating Dalton Highway that are must stops too. We followed the itinerary from the Alaska website with our most notable stops being the Yukon river crossing and the Arctic Circle crossing. The drive itself was beautiful with thousands of acres of woodlands and and long straight roads. We fueled up at Coldfoot and pressed onto to Wiseman, 63 miles north of the Arctic Circle. If you are traveling this far, you must stay at the Boreal Lodge. The husband and wife team here have hand crafted all of the cabins. The Polar Cabin we stayed in was very well done with rustic decor, a tiny kitchen and comfortable bed (cost $160 USD/night). We had a wonderful time exploring the wilderness around the Lodge marveling at the towering Brooks range and the owner even let us try some gold mining loaning us a pan (no success!). This was a LONG way to travel but we felt it really gave us a sense of the wide open expanse of Alaska and we felt accomplished when were returned our mud covered Jeep at the end.