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!!! 

Denali Highway and Valdez with Mitch

We love it when we have visitors on the road, and in this post, we’re excited to share our adventures with my cousin Mitch. He flew into Fairbanks just a day before Sam left us. Together we shared a great dinner and show at the Salmon Bake at Pioneer Park. We were sad to see Sam head south but so grateful for our time with him.

Dinner at the Pioneer Park Salmon Bake

With Mitch our first stop was the North Pole! It’s actually a big gift shop in a suburb of Fairbanks, and it was a great place to stock up on gifts and put in a few requests with Santa.

Catching up with Santa

After our visit with Santa and time to restock our provisions, we set out back towards Denali with a quick stop at the Magic Bus at the Denali Brewing Company and the National Park visitors center.

From there we began our trek across the Denali Highway, the 135-mile, mostly gravel route that was the original path to the park. Along the way we camped at two primitive campgrounds, took in the amazing views, and got in a little fishing. Mitch even caught his first fish with his new fly rod!

Our next stop was back to one of our favorite places from our time here in June. We stayed at the Salmon Grove Fish Camp, along the banks of the Klutina River. From here the guys went on a rafting trip down the river to catch the big ones: King Salmon. It was a long day but both were successful, and we’ve enjoyed some incredible dinners since! This was the first time for both guys to catch Kings so it was pretty exciting!

Copper Center is quiet little town, which we explored on foot in about 30 minutes!

Valdez was our next stop and the drive itself was spectacular! The road winds through Keystone Canyon, with waterfalls on both sides.

We were lucky to arrive in Valdez on a sunny day so that we could take in the snow-capped peaks.  We had just enough time to fit in a quick bike ride and check out the town. 

The next day Steve and Mitch went on another fishing charter, this time for Silver Salmon. They had sunny skies most of the day and each caught their limits.  What a haul! For those who are keeping track, we’ve now sent nearly 50 pounds of fish home, some of which has been shared with Mitch and Sam. 

After the successful fishing venture, the skies turned dark and the town was socked in with clouds for the remainder of our stay. They say it rains a lot in Valdez, and they aren’t kidding. But it wasn’t too cold and we were prepared, so the weather didn’t slow us down much. We unknowingly timed our visit to Valdez to coincide with the annual Gold Rush Days, a four day celebration of Valdez’s history. As part of the celebration, we participated in the Wine (and more) Walk through town, which gave us an opportunity to mingle with the locals, support local charities, and sample Valdez-brewed beer. Even in the rain it was fun!

A highlight of any trip to Valdez is going on one of the local tour boats to see wildlife and the nearby glaciers. We opted to go on the Lulubelle, and we weren’t disappointed. Granted, it was a L O N G day on a boat…almost 11 hours with a captain that did not stop talking the entire time!

However, we saw things we couldn’t have seen on other tours. The highlights of our day included humpback whales, orcas, sea lions, sea otters, harbor seals, and puffin.

The most unique part of the excursion was slowly plowing through the thick ice field at the Columbia Glacier. Along the way we met nice people and enjoyed unbelievable views.

Valdez is a beautiful place. We were lucky to snag a campsite at the Bear Paw II RV Park, right alongside the boat harbor. We spent hours just watching boats of all sizes come in and out of the port. Surrounded by at least five glaciers, the port area is where the action is at in Valdez.

Across the harbor we visited the Solomon Gulch fish hatchery. Here, hundreds of thousands of silver salmon return to the hatchery each year. The mass of fish attract all kinds of other creatures including sea lions and bears. Watching this fat sea lion chow down on salmon was a highlight of our visit there.

Sea lion gorging on salmon

Mitch returned home safely, after a cancelled fight and quick change of travel plans. We loved having him with us and hope he has memories to last a lifetime. 

We’re now beginning our very slow trek south but still have some fun stops ahead. 

Spectacular Denali National Park

After our exploration of the Kenai Peninsula we traveled north with our sights set on Denali National Park. Home to North America’s tallest peak, Mt. Denali, this park is on every Alaska tourist’s checklist. Views, mountains, animals…Within our first 10 miles in the park we had to stop for a moose to cross the road.

On our way to Denali we stopped in the cute towns of Trapper Creek and Talkeetna for an overnight. Talkeetna is a common launch location for Denali climbs and flight seeing trips. We tried to get on one of those flight see planes to see the mountain up close, but unfortunately the weather didn’t cooperate. Instead we hit both sites of the local brewery and got some fun shots around town.

In Denali National Park we were lucky to score a three night stay at the Teklanika campground. This campground is as far into the park as we could get with our RV, at about 29 miles down the Park Road. Being here gave us an intimate look at the landscape and access to the “end of the road,” which is at mile 43.

Normally the Park Road goes on much further, but in 2021 a large portion of the road collapsed under a rock glacier. There is no time estimate on when the road will be repaired. So, we went as far as we could, first on a bus and then by foot, to see the rockslide and the magnificent valley below. Along our two mile walk we watched two grizzly bears traversing the riverbed below. It was quite a show. 

They say only about 30% of visitors ever see Mt. Denali. To increase our chances we stayed in the area for a longer time than most. We caught a glimpse of the majestic peak several times during our stay, between cloudy and rainy days. We considered ourselves very lucky!

After a three night stay in Teklanika Campground we ventured out of the park to empty our tanks and re-provision. A night in Healy, Alaska led us to the 49th State Brewery for dinner and a little tasting.

A big attraction here is a replica of the bus that is featured in the book/movie, “Into the Wild.” We both read the book, about a guy who enters the Denali wilderness with little preparation, only to perish. The story is outlined inside the bus with actual photos from the ordeal. If you know the story, this bus is very cool.

Properly refreshed we re-entered the park for another four night stay at the Savage River Campground. Situated along the Savage River, this area has been a tourist camp since the park’s founding. From here we could hike along the river, into the tundra, and up in the hills overlooking the valley.

Almost daily we had wildlife sightings…from caribou to moose to eagles, this area is rich with fauna. We had one rainy day but otherwise were able to get out and really enjoy.

Denali National Park is unique in that they have the only sled dog rangers in the national park system. Established 100 years ago, the Denali sled dogs help human rangers reach the backcountry during the winter. The large kennel is open to the public so we checked it out. Luckily we met the newest five members to the team…five week old puppies that are already in training! 

Denali is a special place and we only scratched the surface. One day, if the road is ever rebuilt, we’d love to venture deeper into the park to see even more of its wonders.