To Alaska Part 6: Anchorage-Chugach State Park-Seward
Can you believe we’ve been on this trip (To Alaska and Back in 80 Days) for a month now? Where has the time gone? Today we arrived back in a metropolitan area, driving through the suburbs of Anchorage to Eagle River Campground in Chugach State Park. Sites were first-come-first-served, and we were approaching the 4th of July weekend, so getting to the campground before noon was a priority. We luckily found four campsites very close together in a beautiful wooded area.
This leg of our trip took us to the Anchorage area, including Chugach State Park where Eagle River Campground was located. Later in the week we traveled south to Seward, our first stop on the Kenai Peninsula.
On our first day of this leg, after our RV drive, we headed into Anchorage to shop at (where else?) Costco and check out a couple of visitor centers. The city is compact and manageable, and even though we couldn’t see the mountains because of the rain and clouds, it was still very pretty.
Dinner at Matanuska Brewing Company was delicious, especially their blueberry ale, Backcountry Blue. I’m not much of a beer drinker, but that stuff was good!
There was a bit of a break in the weather, so today we ventured out to the Eagle River Nature Center, which every guidebook said was a “must-do” in the Anchorage area. At times we were driving through the suburbs and then it turned into a remote mountain road!
The nature center is small but packed with information and staffed with very friendly and knowledgeable people. We made our plan to hike the Rodak and Albert Loop Trails together (about 3 miles total) and headed out.
Within five minutes, we encountered a mother black bear and her two small cubs! We couldn’t get too close (for safety reasons), but we watched them eating along the trail for several minutes, and then headed out in the other direction.
The rest of the hike was pretty but uneventful. We walked across a boardwalk in a flooded area where the beavers have constructed a dam and a brand-new lodge.
On our way back to the nature center, close to where we had seen the bears before, we came upon mama bear eating her way toward us on the trail. We quickly backed off and took an alternate route back to the nature center, not wanting to disturb her or get too close.
Wildlife sightings are always the highlight of our travels, so this was a special moment.
Back at the campground, while we worked on computers, I looked up and saw a female moose making her way through the campground, munching on leaves as she walked. We jumped out of the RV and took tons of pictures (again, trying not to get too close because moose can be very aggressive). This female was not interested in us, only in her food. Fantastic!
The last day of June was our last full day in the Anchorage area. It had stopped raining, so we headed into the city to do a bike ride on the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, something I had read about for years and really wanted to do. This was our first bike ride of the trip, and it was beautiful. For those of you from Los Angeles, imagine the beach bike path from Playa del Rey to Torrance, but add in a forest, multiple lakes and ponds, and Cook Inlet with its extreme tides and exposed mud flats. We rode the first 5 ½ miles of the 11-mile trail (then back for a round trip of 11 miles).
Here’s a short video Hank made of our bike ride on the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail in Anchorage.
When we got to Point Woronzof, the Alaska Range of mountains was in view, including the queen herself, Denali. We didn’t see the very top of her, but we definitely saw Denali in the distance. A taste of what is yet to come, since we’ll visit Denali National Park in a few weeks.
Returning to our car, we linked up with the rest of our Alaska 7 group and took them back to Point Woronzof (this time in cars), so they could see the views too.
Even better, we got to view a bald eagles’ nest with three young eagles, plus two adult eagles hanging out at the cell tower nearby.
And not to be outdone, another female moose wandered through the marsh. We all tried to get a good shot, but the moose kept hiding.
We capped off all this nature viewing with a visit to the Anchorage Brewing Company. Apparently people in the lower-48 pay big money for beer from ABC, so part of our group had to buy some to take back home. We enjoyed a very picturesque brewery with delicious sandwiches from Familia.
Today was our first truly sunny day since we can’t remember when. The drive south of Anchorage toward Seward was once again spectacular. I know I say that all our drives are beautiful, but they really have been stunning.
The first part of our drive was along Turnagain Arm, a branch of Cook Inlet that provides views of the surrounding mountains that just seem too good to be true.
We didn’t see any beluga whales, but this area of Cook Inlet/Turnagain Arm has the largest tides in the U.S. (40 feet) and the second most extreme tides in North America (after the Bay of Fundy). It was fun to see how low the tide was (even though it wasn’t truly low tide when we drove by).
Some of us stopped at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center for a two-hour walk around the enclosures where wild Alaskan animals that are injured or abandoned are cared for by an amazing staff. We had watched Alaska Animal Rescue on National Geographic Wild! and learned about the center on that TV series. It was so fun to visit the AWCC in person.
We didn’t get good pictures of musk oxen (hopefully later in the trip we’ll get some), but there were lots of views of wood bison (which we saw in northern British Columbia), caribou, reindeer, a couple of porcupines, a Canada lynx, elk, black bears, and Alaskan brown bears (a.k.a. grizzlies).
The rest of the drive heading down the Kenai Peninsula for the first time was just as beautiful as we had hoped. We encountered a whole new set of mountains (the Kenai Range) as we headed south toward Seward and admired Kenai Lake as we approached our campground.
After dinner, where we watched bald eagles circle overhead, we drove to the Bear Creek Weir, a fish weir sponsored by the Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association, because we had heard that the sockeye salmon were spawning. Though a much smaller weir than what we saw in Valdez at the Solomon Gulch Fish Hatchery, it was more thrilling because there were hundreds of sockeye salmon attempting to swim upstream to Bear Lake nearby. The CIAA releases millions of smolts (young silvery salmon) into Bear Lake each spring, and a few years later, they return to the lake to spawn. The artificial falls at the weir replicate the falls the salmon would attempt to jump in any other river location, and it was inspiring to watch the sockeyes try and try and try again to get past the weir.
We then drove over to Bear Lake and saw a few salmon that had made it past the weir/falls. They possibly had already laid their eggs and were getting ready to die. The lake waters were very calm, and the salmon’s hard work was done.
We headed into the town of Seward this drizzly morning (our campground is a few miles north of town). First stop: Kenai Fjords National Park Visitor Center to watch a movie, talk to a ranger, and get our national park passport stamp and token. This is national park #52 for us (out of 63), and it is the main reason I wanted to come to Seward.
We enjoyed a walk along the Seward waterfront to the Alaska SeaLife Center, another rescue organization featured in the TV series Alaska Animal Rescue. This facility is a combination aquarium and marine mammal rescue center, and we enjoyed the fish, invertebrates, spotted seals, Steller sea lions, tufted and horned puffins and other water birds we encountered.
It was another rainy day in Seward, but Judy, Allyn, Hank, and I boarded the Callisto Voyager boat with Kenai Fjords Tours for another chance to see puffins in the wild. Resurrection Bay is a long finger-like fjord, and once we exited the bay, the waves and swells were pretty high. We were glad we had taken our motion sickness medication.
Orcas were the highlight of this trip—we watched a pod of at least five, including at least one baby. According to the captain, these were transient orcas that do not live fulltime in the area but move around as they hunt for food (e.g., seals and porpoises).
We visited Holgate Glacier and Aialik Glacier, two more tidewater glaciers, though much smaller than Columbia Glacier, which we had seen during our Valdez boat trip.
Another treat at Aialik Glacier was seeing the harbor seals and even some sea otters hanging out in the water and on the ice. No puffins today (again!), but another day of beautiful scenery out on the water.
When we planned our trip, we didn’t know that tiny Seward (population: 3,000) hosts an annual July 4th run up and down Mount Marathon. It’s only 1 ½ miles up and another 1 ½ miles down, but at times it’s a 45-degree angle, so participants struggle to complete the trail run in under an hour. There were over 30,000 extra people in town this weekend for the run and for the Independence Day celebrations. We missed all of the celebrations and races, and instead ate dinner at the campground and did some nature viewing.
A couple of miles from our campground, we encountered two eagle nests and lots of bald eagles, so we took a few photos of these symbols of our nation.
Then we headed into the only part of Kenai Fjords National Park that you can drive to—the Exit Glacier Nature Center. We joined park ranger Kestral for a guided ranger hike to several views of Exit Glacier, one of forty different glaciers that originate on the Harding Icefield. The Harding Icefield is the largest icefield contained entirely within the U.S. (it’s over 700 square miles and receives over 400 inches of snow each year). An icefield is basically just a mass of interconnecting glaciers. Though we couldn’t view the main body of the Harding Icefield, it was a treat to see one of its many glaciers from several vantage points along the hike.
While the hike was beautiful and informative, it was also sad to see how far the glacier had receded over the past 100+ years, and how much faster it has been receding in the last 25 years.
While we continued to have more rainy weather than was our preference, we enjoyed our time in Seward and on this leg of our journey. Our next blog post will feature our two remaining locations on the Kenai Peninsula: Homer and Kenai itself.