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Our Travels – Alaska’s Interior

Most people who have visited Alaska have only done so by cruise ship. It’s a great way to be introduced to the state & is in fact, how we first visited. We had an absolutely awesome time on that trip, but most cruise lines focus their time in southeast Alaska. So, it left me wondering…What is the rest of this giant state like? I knew it would be different traveling by land than by sea, but I really had no idea how different a vacation to the interior of Alaska would be. And let me tell you! It’s beautiful. It’s vast. It’s a totally different experience than cruising.

Our adventure began because we were supposed to have some friends come visit us in Utah this month, but they weren’t able to make it. Not wanting to give up the excuse for a vacation, we started looking at other options. By total chance, I found roundtrip, nonstop airfare to Fairbanks, Alaska for only $118.00. I was so excited! Based on our cruise experience, I knew I wanted to explore Alaska more in-depth & I couldn’t wait. There was only one problem…

The rental car shortage is REAL.

As I mentioned in my blog post, “Plan in Advance, Pay Over Time,” sometimes last-minute travel deals can be fantastic ($118 airfare, hello!). However, as is often the case with last-minute trips, just because you get a great deal on one aspect of your trip, doesn’t mean you’re going to get great deals for all aspects of your trip. In fact, planning last-minute can often cost you WAY more than if you plan in advance. Fortunately, since I plan travel for a living, I knew I needed to make sure I could get a hotel & rental car BEFORE I booked the airfare. There were plenty of hotels, but there were NO rental cars. We searched & searched & finally found a locally-owned rental car place that was willing to give us a compact car for four days for only $1,700.00. Did you just almost choke? Because I choked when I saw that price. There was NO WAY I was going to spend that kind of money on a rental car.

You may be wondering, “Why are they charging so much?” It’s pretty simple, really. Last year when the pandemic was raging & no one was traveling, the rental car companies couldn’t afford to keep their inventories, so they sold huge chunks of it off. Now that vaccinations are moving along & people can & do want to travel, the rental car companies don’t have enough inventory to meet the demand. Why don’t they just buy more? Well, material shortages worldwide have been impacting car production so they literally can’t build their inventories back up fast enough. Now imagine being in the isolated interior of Alaska & replacing that inventory becomes even more complicated. Hence, our predicament in not being able to find a rental car & them feeling justified in charging ridiculous prices for the rare unicorn car they did have.

At that point, I thought Alaska was going to be a bust. However, we started getting creative in how we looked for a car. There are several websites out there where you can rent a car from an individual rather than the normal big businesses like Alamo, Enterprise, etc. But again, NOTHING was available. So, then we started looking at RV rental websites & we found someone renting their 2007 Subaru Outback & it came with a rooftop tent & camping supplies. They were renting it for a much more reasonable price of $500 for four days, so our trip was saved! Plus, we figured since it came with camping gear, we’d give camping in the interior of Alaska a try.

Now before I lose those of you who don’t like camping because you think that the rest of what I have to say won’t be relevant to you, HOLD UP. Almost everything we did can be experienced even if you sleep in a hotel instead of a rooftop tent. We were planning on staying in a hotel every night (& did for two nights) & using the regular rental car to explore the area. You can do that very thing when you visit the interior of Alaska. We just saw a unique opportunity to camp in a place we wouldn’t normally & we took it. So, don’t freak out. You can keep reading & still get some insights into how to enjoy the interior of Alaska. For ease of outlining what there is to do, I’ll go by geographic area to keep things concise rather than explaining things in the order we did them.

Fairbanks

Ah, the “Golden Heart” of Alaska. As with most towns in the interior of Alaska, Fairbanks began as a mining town & grew from there. It’s now the largest city in the interior (third largest in the state) with a population of just about 30,000. Fun fact: Apparently that’s enough people to warrant a Costco, Wal-Mart, Lowe’s & Home Depot.  This kind-of-sleepy town is fairly spread out & if it’s not paved, it’s forest, so getting around town really is easiest if you have a car. That being said, if you’re not averse to walking, you can somewhat get around that way (although sidewalks are limited, so plan to walk on the street). They also have a city-wide bus system, plus both Lyft & Uber are available. There are also a number of shuttles that will also take you to sights like Chena Hot Springs & the Arctic Circle & the train goes to Denali National Park. These are all viable options if you can’t get a rental car, but hopefully inventories will be restored soon & it won’t be a problem.

When I was researching things to do in Fairbanks, a lot of what came up is pretty far out of the city limits, so I want to focus on some of what you can do IN Fairbanks.

Running Reindeer Ranch: This was BY FAR our favorite thing we did while in Fairbanks. Imagine yourself in a beautiful forest surrounded by frolicking reindeer. THAT’S WHAT HAPPENED! For two hours, and about $70, you too can have a magical time learning more than you ever realized you wanted to know about reindeer all while they are literally frolicking around you. These are domesticated animals & very used to humans, so the reindeer may even let you pet them. When we were there, they even had three six-week-old babies that were the cutest thing you’ve ever seen. Open both in summer & winter. 10/10 would do again!

Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum: Let me start by saying, I am not a car person. I didn’t even know if I wanted to go to this museum, but time allowed for it, so we went. I am SO GLAD we did. This place is amazing! Not only do they have a VERY impressive collection of antique cars dating from when they were first invented up through the 1930s, but they have also included clothing in their displays from the same time periods as the cars. Many of these pieces are originals and are simply INCREDIBLE. Seriously. I am so impressed by how smart they are to combine cars & fashion to speak to a multitude of different interests in one place. Kudos to them, because it was awesome & you should go.

Pioneer Park: This quirky little area is quite a gem. The Park is right along the Chena River & is made up of old buildings & cabins from around the Fairbanks area, many of which have been converted into shops, art galleries & eateries. There is also a playground for kids, carousel, miniature golf course, & several small museums. Entrance into the park is free, but some of the museums charge a small fee. Whether or not you choose to do the paid museums, there is a lot to see & do here. There is also a Salmon Bake that happens in the park each night from 5:00-9:00. It acts kind of like a quick-service restaurant where you order at the window & then travel to different stations to pick up your food. They had picnic tables both inside & outside & they even had a military band playing jazz music while we were there. Overall, it was a nice place to spend the afternoon/evening & I think it’s definitely worth a stop. Keep in mind, they don’t open until 11:00 or 12:00 depending on the day.

Museum of the North: This museum is found on the campus of the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. The building looks fairly large from the outside, but the museum itself isn’t really very big once you get inside. What makes this museum worth going to though, is the fact that it is 100% focused on the natural & cultural history of Alaska. This state is huge & amazing & it deserves its own museum. I learned a lot here & I’d recommend it for those traveling through.

Large Animal Research Center: Also found on the campus of the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, this research center offers tours to learn about the muskox, reindeer & bovine they study there. We did not take a tour because time wouldn’t allow it, but we did stop by & watch the muskox munching in their field as well as wander into their little gift shop (where you can buy tour tickets). It’s certainly worth a stop, even if you just get to see a muskox in person. They’re adorable.

Denali National Park & Preserve

As previously mentioned, there is A LOT to see & do outside the city of Fairbanks. The most notable & popular is probably Denali National Park & Preserve. You can reach the park in about two-hours by car from Fairbanks, it being the closest city to the park. The Park can also be reached via Anchorage, though it is twice as far & takes more than twice as long to get there.

What I thought was most impressive about the drive between Fairbanks & Denali was that for the entire drive except for maybe 5 miles, we had cell phone service with data (our carrier is AT&T, our friend who has T-Mobile didn’t have quite as good of service). This was unexpected, but certainly helped me feel more secure knowing I could call for help if we needed it. After some of our other adventures though, we realized this was one of the better roads we drove in Alaska & there was enough traffic that there was really no need for me to be worried.

Denali National Park & Preserve is named for the tallest mountain in North America found within the park. Denali tops out at just over 20,000 feet & is so big, that only about 30% of people who visit the park will actually get to see the peak since it’s normally covered in clouds. We were blessed with perfect weather while we were there & were able to see the mountain in its entirety. All I can say is, WOW.

There are a few quirky things about Denali that all travelers should know. First, there is one road into the park & the public is only allowed to drive the first 13 miles of it. There are some really fun things to do in those 13 miles (like the sled dog kennels, some great hiking, etc.), but to get past that point, you need to take a bus, or have a special permit (which are difficult to come by). The road itself goes for about 90 miles & different buses go different lengths of the road. Some buses are merely a means of transportation, others are actual tour buses that offer commentary & snacks for the long drive. Because of COVID, there are limited offerings this year, so we ended up on the Tundra Wilderness Tour. It is an eight-hour tour that takes you about 63 miles down the road. Our driver has been doing tours for 15+ years & was incredibly knowledgeable about the park. For that reason, I would recommend taking a narrated tour verses just one of the transportation buses. They both stop for wildlife viewing (we saw beavers, moose, caribou, grizzly bears, red fox, Dall sheep, & more), but the park is so vast & there is so much to learn about the geography & wildlife, it’s nice to have a knowledgeable tour guide. The guided tours are significantly more expensive, but worth it in my opinion.

As for the road itself, it is dirt, but it’s one of the most well-maintained dirt roads we’ve been on. The buses are converted school buses, but they have motorcoach seats in them. It’s a bus on a dirt road, so it’s not the most comfortable ride, but the scenery is so spectacular & we learned so much, it wasn’t bad.

Since we did camp there, I should mention that there are several campgrounds in Denali. The biggest & most convenient one is at the entrance of the park & is called Riley Creek Campground. That is where we stayed & it was beautiful & well-maintained, but there are several smaller campgrounds down the park road as well. If you’re going deep into the park, you’ll have to take your gear & travel by bus to get there. Reservations are currently required for all campgrounds, so plan in advance. However, if camping isn’t your thing, there are several hotel options around the park entrance. We would be happy to help you find one that is right for you.

The Arctic Circle

In the completely opposite direction of Denali, about 200 miles north of Fairbanks, you’ll find the Arctic Circle. The Arctic Circle crosses through several countries, but nowhere in the world is it as accessible as it is in Alaska. Although “accessible” is kind of a loose term. But we felt like if we were that close to the Arctic Circle, why wouldn’t we go?  

There is just one road you can take to get there & it is a doozy. It’s called the Dalton Highway, or the Haul Road & it was built to support the oil fields in Prudhoe Bay. It runs from Fairbanks clear up to the Arctic Ocean. In fact, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline runs parallel to the road nearly the entire way.

This is where not having a traditional rental car actually helped. Most rental car companies do not allow their vehicles to be taken up the Dalton Highway & for good reason. Consequently, if we had gotten a regular rental car, we would have had to take an organized tour to get to the Arctic Circle rather than driving there ourselves. There are several organized tours out of Fairbanks that do 12-hour day trips up & back to the Circle each day, so if this is something you’re interested in, that is a viable option. We saw several tour groups along the road as we went. In fact, unless you’re completely comfortable driving on challenging dirt roads with no cell service & feel confident in changing a tire, I wouldn’t try it. We asked the people we rented our car from in advance if we could go up there & they gave us permission & then sent us with a spare tire & tire repair kit (which fortunately, we didn’t need).

That being said, although it’s a challenge to get there, the scenery is incredible. The vastness of Alaska is hard to describe. In reality, we could only see pieces of it from the road, but what we could see was just massive & spectacular. Most of the scenery was boreal forest among rolling hills, but we also drove through parts of the tundra & into the Brooks Mountain Range. Along the way, we stopped in several locations including the Yukon River Camp, Finger Mountain, obviously the Arctic Circle, and finally we ended up camping just outside a tiny town called Coldfoot which is about 65 miles past the Circle.  If you want to go clear up to the Arctic Ocean, you’ll have to get a tour out of Coldfoot. The last few hundred miles over the Brooks Range & onto the North Slope is something serious & there are basically zero services, so best to take a tour from there.

You may be wondering if it was worth the drive up there. The answer is, YES! It was an incredible adventure with many literal bumps in the road, but it was fun & certainly worth going. And the bragging rights are real. So real, that when we stopped at the BLM visitor center at the Yukon River Camp, they gave us an official stamped certificate signifying that we had driven the Dalton Highway & gone to the Arctic Circle. We also learned that only 1% of visitors to Alaska ever make it further north than Fairbanks & we are proud to be part of that 1%!

Overall, I’d recommend Alaska’s interior to anyone who appreciates natural wonders & beauty, is ready for an adventure & who isn’t afraid of a few mosquitoes. In the summer, the sun never sets & the only thing stopping you is your own tired self. The three main areas we visited only scratch the surface on everything you could do in Alaska’s interior, but it was a great place to start! Alaska is one of those places you have to experience to truly understand & even then, there’s always more to learn & explore. If you’re interested in having your own Alaska adventure, go ahead & request a quote through our website: https://woodbreyfamilytravel.com/getaquote.php. We would be happy to walk you through things!