Northern Lights: A Planning Update

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August 22nd 2018
Published: August 22nd 2018
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We haven’t even been home from Great Lakes Rendezvous two weeks before we start getting the urge to travel again. So we decided to look at next year’s trip which, for a lot of reasons, is going to be Alaska! We’ve been looking at it in great detail over the last week and, in fact, have already made a lot of reservations. I thought it might be appropriate to provide an update on where we are with this trip, even though we are ten months away from it. (If a reader is interested, the early steps of the planning process were outlined in two previous blogs, one on 6/22/17, and the second a few days later on 6/27/17. I won’t repeat what’s in those blogs, so if you want to understand the full process, you should probably go back and read those before this one.)

In some ways, planning for Northern Lights got simplified because of one simple criteria - we wanted to go to Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park and spend a day or two watching the bears catch salmon. It turns out that you can arrange some day trips there, but you end up with just a few hours and there is, of course, no guarantee that you will see the bears. So to maximize the probability you have to spend a night or two. That means you have to either camp in the electric-fence-protected campground, or spend time at Brooks Lodge. Since we weren’t interested in flying in with camping gear, which we don’t already own, we obviously decided to stay at the Lodge.

However, that’s not as simple as it sounds. They only have a few rooms and so, to be fair, the Park Service and the concessionaire have instituted a lottery system to simply allocate the opportunity to reserve a room. The lotteries are held in January/February for the summer of the next year - so you really have to want to do this and you have to plan far in advance. We did that, applied for the lottery last December and we won the option of booking three days towards the end of next June. We exercised our option, and booked our three nights at Brooks Lodge for summer of 2019. I have no idea how many people were rejected, but we feel very fortunate.

What that does for us is lock us in - we now know that we will be at Brooks Lodge in Katmai National Park for three specific nights in late June. And that means we can, and should, start building the rest of our Alaska trip around those dates. It serves as an anchor to start arranging the rest of our travels both before and after the Brooks Lodge dates. It also means that, for better or worse, Alaska, with all of its wonders and expensive adventures is on for 2019 - we don’t have any more options to postpone this part of the bucket list!

But planning an Alaska trip is a very different animal from any of our other trips - and probably any that will follow. All you have to do is start looking at a map of Alaska and circle the 12 National Park units that form our bucket list for this trip (see previous posts to learn how we came up with the Alaskan Dozen.). In the first place, Alaska is big - very big - so traveling between spots is going to take a lot of traveling days.

Size isn’t the only problem. Look carefully at the map and you see very clearly that roads between every location just don’t exist. In fact, of the twelve parks on the bucket list, we would be able to drive to only four of them. The rest will require either planes or boats! That consideration led us to an early decision - we wouldn’t take the trailer to Alaska. At best, we would only be able to camp at four of the parks with the trailer, and for the other eight, what would we do with the trailer? What would garaging a trailer cost us? And would the trailer even make it from New Mexico to Alaska and back anyway?

So, no trailer. And it didn’t take us too long to realize we weren’t going to be doing any camping either, because, first, we don’t own camping gear, and second, we don’t want to haul it, or store it, all over Alaska. We could rent it, I suppose, but since we aren’t really experienced campers, camping with tents and Coleman stoves really isn’t our cup of tea, anyway! So, we are going to be living in lodging and eating in restaurants! Wow - big and costly decisions. (If folks can figure out how to do Alaska by camping, and manage all the logistics, that would be the best way to do it. But it takes people younger, and more savvy than us.)

The next decision was about the LandCruiser. I really love my vehicle and I would love to be able to drive all over Alaska in it and be able to say I did that. But is that a wise decision?

From Denver to Anchorage is a total of almost 3000 miles. At our maximum daily driving range, that will take us about a week. And that will require driving through not-so-good roads in Canada’s Northwest Territory. It will also require eating out while on the road and stopping for the night at motels. I estimate food and lodging at about $200/day and gasoline, based on my highway mileage and a low gasoline price of $3/gallon, at $500 for the one way trip. Or a total both ways, rounded up for incidentals of about $4000. So driving the Cruiser to Alaska and back already starts me off with a $4000 outlay, before I even get to Alaska!

OK, then! What does a rental car cost in Alaska? Well, they certainly aren’t cheap. In fact, I got a quote from expedia for a two month rental of a regular size car at more than $6000. And I have no doubt that, with diligent research, there are ways to find something for a lot less than that. But, importantly and as I stated above, you can only drive to four of the parks - for the other eight a car is useless! So, we won’t need a car for the full time we are there. (After further planning, it turns out that we need a car only for about two weeks!).

So, bottom-line, we aren’t driving the Cruiser to Alaska either - we’re going to fly. Now, I hate flying - I’m just too big to fly comfortably. But when confronted with these options, I concede that flying is going to be the best option. I can’t book the full round trip yet, so prices might change, but it looks like we will spend about $1200 for a round trip flight to Anchorage for the two of us - that is certainly less than the $4000 it would take to drive the round trip. And my initial queries about renting a car for two weeks looks very much like we will come in under the $4000 it would cost to drive, and it takes two weeks of traveling stress off of us!

A lot of decisions get made just with some information and simple math. Then the hard stuff starts - once you are actually IN Alaska, how do you get to all the places you want to see - in our case, the 12 bucket list items.

At this point in our planning, I turned to Joan and told her that just visiting my 12 bucket list items was going to be a major trip. But this was her only chance to see things in Alaska, so if she had any ‘rebellion items’ she needed to get them into the itinerary list quickly. Joan has been studying Alaska a fair amount, reading a book or two and googling some things. But her end decision was that, beyond the 12 bucket list items, she didn’t have anything to add. She said that we should move forward with just that plan and if she came up with anything new, it would have to fit in whatever plan we came up with. That was good news for me because in Chicago she had five or six extra days of things she wanted to see and if that was going to happen in Alaska, it meant extending the trip considerably. As it was, adding in travel days, down-days, and maintenance days (laundry and shopping), we were looking at almost exactly two months for this trip. Joan’s decision that she didn’t have anything to add greatly eased the planning difficulties.

Transportation quickly became the major planning factor - it isn’t easy to move around in Alaska. The first thing you notice is that Anchorage is the hub - all transportation moves in and out of Anchorage. Yes, Juneau is the capital, and you can fly in there, but airplane flights from Juneau pretty much all go to Anchorage anyway. So the smartest way to approach things is to look at Anchorage as your hub.

Now couple Anchorage as your hub and the geographic clustering of the 12 parks and you start to see a pattern. First, the clusters.

There are two obvious clusters. The Arctic Circle group includes Gates of the Arctic National Park, Kobuk Valley National Park, and Cape Krusenstern National Monument. Then there is the Alaskan Panhandle group which includes Glacier Bay National Park, Klondike National Historical Park, and Sitka National Historical Park. I will talk about the logistics of each of those groups in a minute, but they definitely make up groups based on their proximity to each other and their distance from Anchorage.

Then there are the four parks south of Anchorage, which I’m calling the Peninsula group. That includes Kenai Fjords NP near Seward, and Katmai NP, Lake Clark NP, and Aniakchak National Monument which are all further south. It turns out that although they appear to be geographically related, transportation between them is neither easy nor cheap. We decided to take the train from Anchorage down to Seward and from there explore Kenai Fjords. But, even after several days worth of phone calls and internet communications, I could find no way to get from Seward to any of the other park locations without spending several thousands of dollars. In the end we opted to take the train back to Anchorage and then take the regularly scheduled flight down to Brooks Lodge in Katmai.

Brooks Lodge is difficult to get to primarily because you need a float plane - a regular plane with wheels can’t land there, although it can land at King Salmon, on the other end of the same lake. And, apparently starting in 2019, there are taxi options to get you from King Salmon to Brooks Falls. If you manage to get a reservation at the lodge, though, they will, for an extra fee, fly you to the lodge, but only from Anchorage. So, despite its proximity, there are no reasonable travel options from Seward to Brooks, or, really, anything southwest of Homer!

After Brooks Falls/Lodge in Katmai, we are spending a few days in King Salmon, on the other end of the lake, and then moving on to Port Alsworth to spend a couple days visiting Lake Clark National Park. All of those transits require specially chartered planes and they do not come cheap. And neither does the lodging. This cluster of four parks turned out to be the most expensive part of the entire trip - they are remote and the lodge and airplane owners know that, so they can legitimately charge high fees. If planning a trip here, do your homework and shop around, but be prepared to spend lots of money!

A good example of why things are so difficult is our three-day stay in King Salmon. The only reason we are doing that is because we want to see Aniakchak National Monument, which is a park quite aways south on the Aleutian Islands. Although I don’t have any recent statistics, several years ago the total number of registered visitors to Aniakchak came to 14 - substantially less than those who climbed Mount Everest. Aniakchak is a remote park that can only be accessed by sea plane. Although I have decided it is worth it to keep it on the bucket list, I can understand if people would take it off. The problem, of course, is that there are only a few flightseeing services who will go there, and they have to cover the costs of the airplane, fuel, and the pilot for a full day. So it will run you thousands of dollars to do this trip. Add to that the fact that the weather in these parts is highly unpredictable, so that if you want to plan a plane trip to the park, you have to allocate several days to allow for weather delays. That means you need to add nights to your stay in King Salmon, which, of course, isn’t cheap either. The bottom-line is that this one park is going to cost a crap-load of money for a visit that is only going to be a few hours. Based on the pictures I’ve seen, I think its worth it. But this is the kind of decision bucket-listers will have to make. It also makes planning a trip to Alaska especially difficult. At any rate, we are almost done making the arrangements for this segment of the trip - I’m hoping it will all work out, but it is costly.

There is a similar problem with the Arctic Circle group of parks, although it is quite a bit easier. Since you can’t drive or boat to these parks, there is only one option and that is a flightsee. If you are campers or kayakers, you can get outfitters to fly you into these parks, let you off on a river, and then pick you up downstream several days later. If you like that option, go for it, but it won’t work for us. Instead we are choosing a flightsee option which will take us in a bush plane, much like Aniakchak, over those three parks and include a brief landing in each of them to take a picture. This will all occur in one day and is not exactly cheap either. But is the best we can do. There are a few (meaning three or four) options available so shop around and see what you can do. Again, though, it will cost you a couple of grand for the plane, fuel, and pilot to take you around these sights.

Oh, and don’t forget the airplane fare to Kotzebue, the town most of these services operate from, and the hotel fees for staying there. Again, you will need to allocate a few days there to allow for weather delays. Kotzebue is a small and primitive town with not a whole lot to do while you are waiting for favorable weather. Just a warning.

Then there is the Panhandle group of parks. Again, the problem is transportation. As far as I can determine, there is only one park serviced by a road and that is Klondike Gold Rush Historical Park which is accessible by a road - from Canada to Skagway. There are no roads from Anchorage without going into Canada first. But then, there are no roads of any kind into Glacier Bay National Park (Gustavus) or Sitka National Historical Park (Sitka). You can fly there or take a ferry on the Alaska Maritime Highway from Juneau. The problem with either of those options is that they do not run daily, and in some cases, are only weekly or twice-weekly. Plane trips are expensive, but ferry trips can, in some cases, take twenty-four hours requiring that you get a ‘cabin’ on board the ferry. The point is that travel in the panhandle isn’t going to be easy either and the ferry schedules for next summer aren’t available until this December or January, so final plans will have to wait until then. Meanwhile, lodging is booking up fast. So we have to book rooms now and just assume that we will be able to get there!

That leaves just two National Parks, Denali and Wrangell-St. Elias. the great thing about these two parks is that they may be the simplest to get to. They lie on highways that form sort of a circle drive from Anchorage to Denali to Fairbanks to Wrangell and back to Anchorage. This part of the trip we are calling The Roadtrip and we are renting a car for just a couple of weeks, instead of the full two months. We will be staying in park lodging for part of the time, and motels in Fairbanks, Tok, and Anchorage the other nights. In some ways, this segment of the trip will be the easiest because we will be most in control. Surprisingly, it will also be the cheapest segment of the trip.

So there you have it. We have four basic segments of the trip, each with their own transportation requirements. We are working on making necessary reservations as we are able, although some places aren’t opening their bookings until winter or spring. Everything is mapped out on a spreadsheet so we can keep up with things. This is an expensive trip, but it is also a once-in-a-lifetime trip, so we want to make sure it comes off right. It will take a lot of thought and effort to make it work right.

But it might just be the best trip ever.


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