Following our stay in Seward, we headed off to Talkeetna, our home base for exploring Denali.
Denali is the tallest mountain peak in North America and so there was no question as to whether or not we would visit. I had the good fortune of having a neighbor return from a 2 week vacation to Alaska the fall before we were slated to go and had the foresight to meet her for coffee one afternoon to discuss her trip and highlights. She ended up providing us with the most insightful piece of advice I could have received – skip Denali National Park in favor of Denali State Park and visit Wrangell St. Elias instead if we had time.
Now you might be asking – why would you end up in Alaska only to skip Denali National Park? As the National Park Service website notes:
Denali has just one road, and private vehicles can only drive a short portion of it in summer. Most sightseeing in Denali is done by bus (either a narrated tour bus or a non-narrated shuttle bus).
My neighbor reported that her experience in Denali National Park was an 8 hour shuttle bus with pre-planned stops at pre-designated areas swarming with other tourists and buses. Knowing that I was traveling with two kids, one under 2, I had no interest in boarding a shuttle bus for the day and having no flexibility in terms of scheduling or stopping. My husband and his parents are also avid “do it yourself-ers!” and so this quickly became a nonstarter for them as well.
Where did we stay?
Having decided that we would not attempt Denali National Park ourselves, we decided to stay in Talkeetna, an adorable Alaskan town bustling with food, shops, and things to do. Again, we rented a house via VRBO as our designated home base and decided to just take our time in Talkeetna easy, just simply exploring the town and enjoying each other’s company. The house was the perfect setting for it as we did not see any major hotel chains, just a few small B&B type residences. The rental house provided us with a nice yard and garden for exploring and was a block and a half off the main road, so although we were close to the activity, we never felt like we were being crowded by the foot traffic.
As an added bonus, the house was located squarely between town and the Talkeetna Riverfront Park:
Where else can you walk to the end of Main Street and find yourself at the confluence of three wild rivers, overlooking a 20,000-foot peak? Close to downtown, this large, river-centered park offers wide open, untouched spaces, along with great panoramic view of the Alaska Range.
Come here to see the mingling of 3 swift glacial rivers: the Talkeetna, Susitna, and Chulitna join to form the “Big Susitna River.” Walk right to water’s edge, or just take a romantic stroll on the gravelly, scenic sand bars. You might see people enjoying a campfire while sitting on huge, fallen cottonwood trees; rafters floating by after a day on the river; or jet boat drivers speeding by in the broad expanse of water.
We took advantage of our proximity to the riverfront and took many walks down to see the various shades of Denali throughout stay.
How did we get to Talkeetna?
We drove, of course! It is approximately 240 miles from Seward to Talkeetna so if you happen to find yourself making the drive from Seward to Talkeetna, I highly recommend a road trip via Whittier, Alaska. I had been looking for things to do and easy stops we could take to give the kids a break from riding in the car and happened across the Whittier Tunnel. My father-in-law is a land surveyor, so I knew a 2.5 mile one-way tunnel through a mountain would be something even the adults appreciated!
Our drive from Seward to Whittier happened to take place on a brutally miserable day. It was cold, dark, and rainy. But, we made it!
The weather was unpleasant and so all we did in Whittier was take a quick walk down the pier for lunch. I don’t remember the name of the lunch place, but they had outstanding crab soup that even my 7 year old enjoyed. While we were there, we saw a cruise ship docked in the sound – but otherwise, the entire town seemed quiet. As we were leaving Whittier, I happened to google “where do people live in Whittier, AK” and happened across a number of articles about The Alaskan Town Under One Roof. Although I was thrilled to have visited, I instantly regretted that the weather had not been better and that we did not have a chance to explore the town, including Begich Towers, the high rise building where everyone lives and also contains a grocery store, post office, and the local government offices.
Since the weather had been so uncooperative in Whittier, we attempted to stop at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. The rain did let up while we were there, but the walking paths were all mud, so it was an extremely messy walk through the conversation. Nevertheless, we did appreciate getting to stretch our legs, and my toddler enjoyed seeing some of the animals there.
What we did:
The only pre-planned activity for Talkeetna was a flight on the Talkeetna Air Taxi for my husband, son, and father in law. They had been on a small flight to Wrangell St. Elias a few weeks prior, and my husband said it was spectacular. Knowing that this would likely be the only way to see the mountain range, I had booked the three of them for the Grand Denali Tour, complete with glacier landing! At $395/person, this was not cheap, however, I did appreciate that they refunded the difference between my son’s original adult fare for a child fare on the day of the trip, since I had just booked three full priced tickets online.
The morning of the scheduled flight, we received a call from Talkeetna Air Taxi saying that the weather was absolutely gorgeous and clear, but that it would be getting turbulent later, during our scheduled flight time. So they asked if we could be ready to go in 30 minutes! Exactly 26 minutes later, my guys arrived to take off, and they absolutely loved the flight. If this is something you are able to do, I encourage you to do so!
While the guys were taking the flight, my mother-in-law, I, and my toddler were enjoying the sights of Talkeetna, which had a decidedly artsy/hippy bent.
Just because we weren’t planning on visiting Denali National Park, that didn’t stop us from driving up to Denali State Park for a hike! Denali State Park is only an hour north of Talkeetna and my neighbor had said it was a low key park – easy to drive through and hike on your own.
We picked a short, manageable hike on Little Coal Creek Trail, which was perfectly manageable with two kids. We did spy a bear or two off in the distance, so beware – if this is something you’re not comfortable with, definitely join a tour group or hire a guide!
We enjoyed our short stay in Talkeetna, and I’m glad that we were able to experience it with a toddler in our party. Although many with young children tend to limit their vacations to strictly kid-centered places (read: Disney World), I’m a big fan of introducing my kids to all that the world has to offer. Although we have visited Disney our fair share of times, I’m grateful to have shared Alaska with them at such a young age. Moreover, having experienced Alaska once now, I can safely say it is a state that we would like to visit time and time again. The fact that it’s “only” a short 3-hour flight from Seattle makes it much more desirable than many international locations, and let’s be honest, the fact that I don’t have to worry about keeping track of passports, exotic immunizations, and international data plans makes it all the more palatable!
Continue to The Final Frontier Part III: Wrangell-St. Elias