RV Travel to Alaska: A Summer of Life List Accomplishments

For many years I’ve kept a “life list.” Some may call it a bucket list but I prefer to think of it as experiences that enrich my life, rather than a list of things to do before death. It’s a long list, and we ticked off quite a few experiences this summer in Alaska. Now that we are headed back to our home base, it’s time to recap this epic summer adventure and offer some tips for anyone heading to Alaska in an RV.

We had expectations for what would be the big highlights this summer; some didn’t disappoint, others surprised us. The lesson: be open to whatever experiences are presented to you along the way. You never know what (or who) is going to really have an impact.

Here are a few of our top experiences:

Driving the Alaska Highway – While the drive itself was not originally on my list, we knew from research that this is an epic drive, from Arizona to Alaska, over 3,200 miles. We took a full month to make the journey, stopping at Banff, Jasper, and all of the main towns along the highway through Alberta, British Columbia, and the Yukon Territory.

Joined by our friends Russ and Susan, we hiked, biked, shopped, and ate our way through some of Canada’s most beautiful areas.  Along the way we spotted 14 bears, 21 caribou, 10 moose, 3 fox, 6 porcupines, and countless bison, bald eagles, and trumpeter swans. 

Rubbing shoulders with bears – Once we got to Alaska we splurged on the flight to Katmai National Park to see the bears at Brooks Falls. The iconic shot of the bear catching salmon on the falls is real and we got it!

Walking through the park and seeing bears just off the trail was a little unnerving at first and then just awe-inspiring. For me, this was one of the biggest highlights of our summer. Steve, however, saw bears numerous times while out running (in Jasper and in the Yukon). One large grizzly even followed him back to the camper, which allowed me to see the big guy from our back window.

Catching trophy fish – Okay, this wasn’t on my list, but Steve set out to make this a summer of fishing and he was very successful. He caught King Salmon on the Klutina River with Mitch, Red Salmon on the Kenai with Dave, and Halibut from Resurrection Bay near Seward with Sam.

In all we shipped about 50 pounds of fish home and cooked the catch at least twice a week most of the summer. Besides catching the trophy fish, Steve spent some quality time with some of our favorite people.

Seeing the northern lights – The Aurora Borealis has been on my list for decades, but we didn’t really think we’d see them with so much daylight in the summer. Sometimes the best things happen when you least expect it. When our ferry to Skagway was cancelled we were re-routed through Whitehorse, Yukon. Steve just happened to look out the window at midnight and BAM! The lights were making their first appearance of the year and we caught it at just the right time. Breathtaking is just one word that comes to mind.

Our list of highlights could go on and on and previous blog posts have captured most of them in great detail. Instead we’d like to offer a few tips for anyone thinking about making the epic journey to Alaska with an RV. 

Tip #1: Take your time. It’s a long drive and there’s so much to see along the way. While there are RV parks along the way, we highly recommend staying at Canada’s Provincial Parks. These beautiful government facilities are in picturesque locations and cost less than $20 a night. British Columbia and the Yukon Territory both knocked our socks off with beauty and warm people.

And, while you’re taking your time, drive slowly, especially where the road is not in ideal condition. In the north you’ll encounter frost heaves, potholes, and road construction. We took our time, rarely driving over 60mph. While others reported broken axles, shredded tires, and chipped windshields, we only experienced one flat tire on the truck all summer.

Tip #2 – Reservations not needed – I’m an over planner and had reservations for most of our summer. We learned quickly that it really wasn’t necessary with the exception of the popular places at popular times (Seward at 4th of July, Denali, Homer). Part of the fun of seeing Alaska with an RV is discovering new places and being surprised by where you’re spending the night. We are glad we booked the two campgrounds in Denali National Park, Savage River and Teklanika. Both gave us more time in the park than we otherwise would have had. It was also good to have a place to land in Seward and Homer. Other than that, you can totally wing it and find inexpensive or free places to camp with no problem.

Tip #3 – Roll with the punches – As much as I like to plan, in Alaska some things can’t be controlled. Our original bear trip to Katmai was cancelled and we had to reschedule to another day, our ferry from Haines to Skagway cancelled at the last minute, and on some days it just rained and rained. The more time you have, the more flexible you can be to adjust to the curveballs that will inevitably be thrown your way.

It really was a summer of a lifetime, one that we won’t soon forget. Our recommendation: do it! And if you need any help with planning, just let us know!!! 

Traveling Southward from Alaska

After a wonderful Alaskan summer filled with wildlife, hiking, and fishing with friends and family, we’ve begun our trek southward. It’s going to take us at least a month to get home, so there are more fun stops ahead!

We’ve been doing quite a few days of driving, though never more than 200 miles each segment. Along the way, again on the Alaskan Highway, we’ve stopped at mostly provincial parks, which are beautiful government-run campgrounds that often include free firewood and a view.

Twice while staying at these campgrounds, Steve has had encounters with grizzly bears while out running! He didn’t have any problems, but it sure increases the heart rate and gave us some good photos.

We took the side trip to Haines, AK from the Alaska highway in the Yukon Territory. We’re getting good at crossing international borders. Haines is a beautiful little town on Alaska’s Inside Passage. We had cruise ships visit town three days while we were there.

One of the attractions in the area is the Kroschel Wildlife Center, so we checked it out. Steve Kroschel, a documentary film maker who delighted Johnny Carson with his baby wolverines in 1990, opens his 60 acre wildlife reserve to small group tours. The wildlife park is a funky, entertaining collection of surprises.

In our two hours with Steve Kroschel, we got up close and personal with wolves, porcupines, ermines, caribou, baby moose, and of course a grizzly. Steve is a “personality” and the experience was certainly memorable.

Haines has some nice hiking trails, which we explored when it wasn’t raining. The coastal rainforest is lush and beautiful.

Twice while we were in Haines we visited Chilkoot State Park in the early evening to see the local bears. They hang out in the neighborhood where the Chilkoot River merges with the ocean. Mama bears and their babies were on the hunt for salmon and we enjoyed watching them do their thing.

We had planned to put our truck and trailer on the ferry to travel to nearby Skagway where we’d continue our journey. Well…best laid plans…the ferry was cancelled due to mechanical problems, so we headed back up to the Alaska Highway and spent the night in Whitehorse, YT where we’d visited on our way to Alaska. Our detour was a blessing in disguise as we were able to catch a glimpse of the northern lights! We really lucked out!

As we worked our way through British Columbia we took another detour to the twin towns of Stewart, BC and Hyder, AK. With our new friends that we met at a provincial campground, Ari and Dahlia, we drove the very rough road to the spectacular Salmon Glacier with views for miles.

We also made the stop at Fish Creek where bears are a frequent sight during the salmon run. We timed it just right and enjoyed watching a young grizzly playing with the fish for over 30 minutes.

To celebrate our good bear fortune we visited the only bar in Hyder to get “Hyderized.” Steve and Ari took the challenge, doing a shot of mystery liquor (Everclear) and receiving a certificate for their efforts. 

We’re now continuing our daily 100-200 mile jaunts moving slowly southward. We’re traveling through native lands, where totem poles are plentiful and subsistence fishing is the norm. In Witset, BC we enjoyed watching a local dip-net for salmon in a narrow place in the river.

The landscapes in the Yukon Territory and British Columbia have been nothing short of spectacular and the people have been truly “Canada nice.” 

The Bears of Katmai

If you only have one thing on your bucket list, might we suggest it be a visit to Katmai National Park to see the bears at Brooks Falls? It’s been on our list since we found the live webcam of the bears. We’ve checked in on these bears occasionally for awhile and couldn’t wait to finally meet them in person. 

Our adventure through Bald Mountain Air took us via floatplane from Homer to the shores of Brooks Camp. We landed on the water and walked the beach to the nearby ranger station.

There we attended Bear Watching 101 class and earned our passage into the park. We needed to know how to stay safe in a wilderness where over 2,200 bears roam free.

We walked about a quarter mile before we saw our first bears—mama and her FOUR cubs! We watched as the mama bear caught a fish, brought it to her cubs, and the cubs fought over it. It was nothing short of incredible. 

From there we walked across the Brooks River and had to stop our progress to let another big one pass by.

After about a mile walk to the official viewing platforms we watched the action for several hours. 

We learned so much about bears while in Katmai. Here are a few facts that we found interesting:

  • All grizzly bears are brown bears but not all brown bears are grizzlies. Technically, the difference is in what they eat and their proximity to the coast. The bears in Katmai are coastal brown bears.
  • The bears come to Brooks Falls because of the large number of salmon that move through the river. July is the best time to see the bears because this is when the salmon numbers are highest.
  • The bears have different fishing styles. A few examples are “stand and wait,” “sit and wait,” “snorkeling,” and “diving.” Here’s a video of the “stand and wait” method.
  • Bear cubs stay with their mothers for 2.5 years. During the first year they are called “springs” (born in the spring) and in the second year they are called yearlings. We watched a mother nurse her two yearlings, right under the viewing platform. 
  • Katmai’s bears typically only eat the skin, brains, and eggs of the salmon, which are the fattiest parts. This allows them to maximize the calories while managing their energy output. 

Even though this excursion took all day, our time at Brooks Falls was way too short. We would love to return again someday to spend more time with these magnificent creatures. In the meantime, we’ll be watching the bearcam regularly!