WARNING: This article is not suitable for anyone without a truck camper and may cause an immediate need to load your truck camper and go straight to Alaska.
According to Google Maps, the drive from our home in Lancaster, Pennsylvania to Anchorage, Alaska is 4,268 miles, That’s eighty-one hours of drive time or a little more than ten consecutive eight hour drive days. I want to walk around and stretch just thinking about it.
At an average of $4.00 a gallon and a fuel economy of ten miles to the gallon, that would be about $1,704 of fuel one way, just to get there, never mind fuel to explore Alaska. Now I love long distance travel, but clearly the distance and fuel costs for a trip to Alaska can be a little overwhelming.
These concerns melted away as I listened to John and Linda Ross tell me about their amazing Alaskan adventure. In fact, they were so inspiring that I started to seriously think about our own truck camping trip to Alaska. Their story literally made me want to pack the camper, and go.
As with so many things worth doing in life, the necessary courage, planning, commitment, and expense to go to Alaska can seem nearly impossible. Then you talk to people who have summoned that courage, made the plans, and committed the time and finances to make it happen. The nearly impossible becomes not only becomes attainable and real, but captivating.
Above: This is one of the pull-outs on Muncho Lake, Alaska Highway
TCM: Tell us about how your trip to Alaska came together.
Linda: Probably two years ago we started saying that we wanted to go to Alaska as soon as we had the opportunity. John has been retired two years and when I retired March 31st we decided it was time to begin our trip. We began our trip in May after first going to the Mid-Atlantic Truck Camper Rally and to Germany to see our daughter.
Our family is a big reason why we went on this trip. Along the way, we also visited our son and daughter-in-law in California. Our niece, our preacher’s daughter, and her husband took care of our house while we were gone, so we didn’t need to worry about anything.
Above: John and Linda at The Kinross Gold Mine
John: We have a friend who lives in Fairbanks. He has lived in Alaska five years and has told us many details about it that whet our appetites even more to begin our journey. We stayed about three weeks near him in Fairbanks and he took us places that we probably would not have experienced without knowing him.
We also talked with several people who had been to Alaska before including Chet and Cindy Manuel. We met them two years ago at the Mid-Atlantic Truck Camper Rally. We also bought The MILEPOST, Mike and Terri Church’s Traveler’s Guide to Alaskan Camping, and ordered some DVDs on Alaska. We looked at as much information as we could.
We did not have a detailed day-to-day itinerary while we were in Alaska. We decided what we were going to do and where we were going, but then left the experience open to enjoy. We did have a couple of days we needed to plan in advance; the fishing charter in Homer and the Inside Passage ferries. We had to be on the Alaska Marine Highway Ferry on August 26th in Haines. We signed up in May.
TCM: Do you have to sign-up that far in advance?
Linda: Yes. You need to reserve the ferry that far out. A couple of times we thought about a side trip, but the ferries were full. We wanted to go from Valdez to Haines, but there was a six week wait.
You can get the schedules for the Alaska Marine Highway on the web. There’s also a DVD you can get. If you sign up for it and can’t go, you can cancel and possibly make a change if they have vacancies.
Above: John and Linda entering Alaska on the Top of the World Highway
TCM: What did it feel like to arrive in Alaska after all of your planning and driving?
John: It was almost unreal, like a dream, like it wasn’t happening. It was so beautiful that it just took our breath away and the air was so fresh. We were up in the mountains and we could see for miles. It was June and all the wildflowers were beginning to bloom on the sides of the roads and on the mountains. One of the prettiest flowers is the Fireweed. It is a beautiful hot pink flower that grows everywhere.
Above: Linda and the Fireweed
Linda: When Fireweed grows, the blooms start at the bottom of the stalk and gradually grows all the way to the top as the summer moves along. When the blooms get to the top, the Alaskans say it will be six weeks to the first snow fall. They also say, “When Fireweed turns to cotton, summer is soon forgotten”. When we were in Haines at the end of August, we saw the Fireweed as cotton.
TCM: How was the weather in Alaska?
Linda: Our June and July weather was good. Temperatures were sometimes as high as the eighties in Fairbanks. There was no humidity like there is on the coast on North Carolina. It was great! Probably the average temperatures in June and July were around seventy. We had a couple of nights with rain. August had more drizzly weather. We were in Seward, Valdez, and Haines in August and the temperature was around fifty. June and July are usually the two best months.
Above: Horsetail Falls enroute to Valdez
John: The roads were also good. We didn’t have problems with fuel. You can camp anywhere, which is the beauty of a truck camper. We could have probably not paid to stay anywhere the entire time we were in Alaska. That’s how many places there were to camp. Alaska has state parks that are ten to fifteen dollars a night. They don’t have full hook-ups, but they do have water, and some have dump stations.
We also stayed at Fred Meyers, which is like the Alaskan equivalent of Walmart. At most locations, they allow you to stay in the parking lot overnight. While we were at Fred Meyers one night, I got on top of the camper, and counted more than ninety RVs in the parking lot.
TCM: Did you have any trouble with the bugs?
John: In Eureka and Manley Hot Springs, about 150 north of Fairbanks, we went out on four wheelers. There were mosquitoes there. Throughout our trip, we carried bug spray and head nets with us, but really didn’t use them.
TCM: Did you see many truck campers in Alaska?
John: I remember when you took the tour across America and told us that you were waving to all the truck campers you saw. You’d be waving all day in Alaska. It’s truck camper after truck camper after truck camper. We also saw numerous truck camper rentals.
TCM: Tell us about your fishing experience in Alaska.
John: Thousands of people salmon fish in Soldotna and they call it combat fishing. We met many people who live there who were very helpful in teaching us how to catch the salmon. Thanks to them we were soon catching our limit every day.
We would be talking in the evenings, and I would ask, “Are you going fishing tomorrow?” and they’d say back, “How many times do we have to tell you, it’s fishing in lower forty-eight. Up here you go catching.” In Haines and Valdez, we were at the end of salmon run, and they were still thick in the water. It was easier to catch than to not catch a fish.
Linda: We shipped 150 pounds of fish home, had 40 pounds with us in the camper, and gave our son 15 pounds. We caught plenty of fish. Our niece told us not to send any more fish home because we filled the freezer.
TCM: There’s a limit to how many fish you can catch in one day?
John: When we went out on the charter, the limit was two Halibut a day. In Soldotna it was three Red Sockeyes a day, but there were so many out running they upped it to six a day. There are wildlife game wardens out there and even Alaska State Troopers will check to make sure people only take their limit.
The game wardens will dress like regular people, so you don’t know who they are. We did see people get a ticket. I was never asked for a license or anything. I got an Alaskan annual license, but you can get monthly or weekly license. I think it was $140.
TCM: From your blog, it looks like you encountered quite a few bears on your trip. Did you ever get too close?
John: Twenty feet. Is that close? I was taking pictures and a grizzly was on the edge of the river. I was on the bank and I was talking to him. He turned around and I got a picture.
Linda: They wanted the fish, so they weren’t paying attention to us.
John: When we were in the Canadian Rockies, just north of British Columbia in the Yukon, we saw black bears. There were dandelions on the side of the road, which is a favorite food of the black bears. They were right next to the road. We would stop to roll down the window, and they would walk off like it didn’t bother them. We didn’t have any incidents where we felt threatened.
Above: The Mendenhall Glacier and a federal campground in Juneau, Alaska
We pulled up to Mendenhall Glacier, where you and Gordon got married, and saw people looking over the handrail. There was a big black bear over in the woods. Later in the Visitor’s Center, a guy was really excited. There were about five to six people in a group and that same bear walked up to their group like he was joining them. Someone told him that there was a bear behind him and he got a picture on his cell phone. Then the bear turned and walked off. The bears are curious.
Linda: Don’t feed the bears or leave food out.
John: The saying in Alaska is, “A fed bear is a dead bear.” If you leave food on a picnic table, you could get a $5,000 fine. When we were camping in Denali, we left motor oil and a windshield washer on the truck’s bumper. I also have an ice chest on the front of the truck. We came back and the rangers had taken the oil and washer and put them in the food lockers and told us that we had to get ice chest off the truck.
Linda: Apparently bears are attracted to oil products. When the rangers found out that we had no food in our ice chest, he said we could keep it there on our truck.
Above: Denali State Park, we had better views from the state park than we did from Denali National Park.
TCM: Did you have to make reservations for Denali ahead of time?
Linda: We made reservations for Denali a couple days in advance. We stayed at Riley Creek, which is the first campground in the park, and Teklanika River, the campground about thirty miles in. At the Teklanika River, you have to commit to three nights. They want to cut down on the amount of traffic that goes in and out of the National Park.
Several buses run daily to take campers to Wonder Lake where there is a great view of Mt McKinley’s reflection in the lake if the weather cooperates. Bus tickets can be purchased at check-in to the campground. Anyone sixty-two or older can save National Park entrance fees with an America the Beautiful Pass.
John: Speaking of deals, Chet and Cindy told us about the Alaska TourSaver coupon book that you get for $100. It saved us a ton of money.
Linda: We got it online before we went. It got us discounts on the Discovery Riverboat Cruise and the mine in Fairbanks. For the glacier cruise, we got a buy one ticket, get one ticket free and saved us $150. There were many coupons, for salmon bakes, free souvenirs and free food. Some Safeways sell them, and if you spend $100 in the store, you get ten cents a gallon off gas. Just be careful as some Safeways were out of them.
TCM: I see from your blog that you went to some of the Inside Passage towns and cities via the Alaska Marine Highway. What was that like?
John: We boarded the Alaska Marine Highway in Haines and then it was four hours to Juneau. That ferry had a cafeteria, lounge, movie room, and an observation area. We were in Juneau for two days.
Then we went back on the ferry for a day and nine hours. There we had a very nice stateroom with three beds. We were on the back corner and had windows on two sides. That ferry had a nice cafeteria, lounge, movie room, gift store, observation decks, and rangers who gave programs two to three times a day. It also had a place on the back with heat lamps for people without a state room. They would sleep on a lounge chair with sleeping bags. Some people even had tents.
Then we were in Ketchikan for two days. After Ketchikan we boarded the Columbia for a day and a half. The Columbia was like a mini cruise ship. Our stateroom was really nice and even had a full bathroom.
Linda: The ferries also have nice bathrooms and showers for people without staterooms. The biggest expense was the camper, which we paid by the foot.
John: The best thing for a person to do who is considering going is to call the Alaska Marine Highway System and get help through a knowledgeable agent. They are very helpful.
Linda: You decide when you make your reservations which towns you stay in and how long you stay in each town.
John: The Alaska Marine Highway schedule is online. We talked to a booking agent and they told us some suggestions and they booked it all for us.
TCM: How did your dog, Gypsy, handle the ferries?
Linda: On the Alaska Marine Highway, we had to leave Gypsy in the camper, but could go visit her every four hours. We could feed her and take her out to walk around on the deck. They were very nice about letting you check on your camper and your pet.
John: I think she did really well on the whole trip. Sometimes she would get so excited when she saw wildlife that she would make a funny noise. When we were at the wildlife rehab center on the Seward Highway, a grizzly came up to Linda while she was standing at the fence and Gypsy went wild. We think Gypsy thought he was trying to get Linda. I was having to hold Gypsy with both hands to keep her in the truck.
Linda: Gypsy seemed to have the most fun at the Worthington Glacier on the way to Valdez. There is a beautiful state park which has a trail that goes down to the glacier. We went within a foot of the glacier; there were melting streams and big chunks of glacier ice. Gypsy got in the water and enjoyed trying to get at the ice.
TCM: We heard you stopped by Northwood Manufacturing on your return trip. How did that go?
John: Our last stop on the Alaska Marine Highway was in Bellingham, Washington. Then, we went on to Northwood Manufacturing in LaGrande, Oregon. I wanted them to look at some things on our camper. They were as nice as they could be. We were there half a day and felt at home with the Northwood group. It was great.
We actually were going to pull a fast one on you. Rich Zinzer had some pictures from your Oregon trip and gave us the same itinerary. We took the same picture you did with the covered wagon. He had a bunch of them and were going to send them in for the 2012 Truck Camper Magazine Calendar Contest. We gave Northwood some of our pictures for the Arctic Fox brochure. If you look at their new website, you’ll see our camper.
Above: Truck Camper Magazine with the same covered wagon in Oregon
TCM: The covered wagon photos did surprise us. Rich is trouble. What would you advise someone who is interested in truck camping in Alaska?
Linda: Don’t take so much stuff. We overpacked and had to send stuff back.
John: Once you get to Alaska or even to Canada, it’s really no different than going across the country. We had no problems with fuel or with finding a place to stay. There’s nothing any worse than what you find in the states with road conditions. We were pleasantly surprised.
We went to places with our truck camper that we would not have gone to without a truck camper. That picture on the creek I sent you was one such place. We went down a single lane dirt road, with potholes. Go anywhere, camp anywhere, right?
I also recommend that you take more time if you can. We took three months, but would love to spend more time there. Get to Alaska in early May, and stay until late September. The time just went by so fast. We asked and people said there aren’t weather issues with traveling to Alaska in May.
Linda: In Alaska, everything is so beautiful that you want to stop and stay longer.
TCM: Are you planning on going back?
John: Depending on a couple of things, we are planning on going again this May. We are going to California for six weeks. We’re leaving the first of January. We’ll be back here for the Mid-Atlantic Truck Camper Rally and then we’re leaving for Alaska. That’s the plan right now.
Retirement is great. We don’t have to plan anything. We have now time to do all the things we’ve been wanting to do and Alaska was and still is on top of the list.
John and Linda’s Top Ten Alaska Destinations:
1. The Alaska Highway: With all the beautiful flowers, abundant wildlife, gorgeous mountains, rivers and lakes everywhere, the Alaska Highway sets the stage for a trip to the North. Take your time and enjoy the highway.
2. Discovery Riverboat Cruise in Fairbanks: We really enjoyed this attraction on the Chena River. From the float plane demonstrations, to the stop by Susan Butcher’s home (first person to win the Iditarod three consecutive years) where we were treated to a sled dog demonstration. We also stopped by a Native Athabascan Indian fish camp where we learned many customs of the Native people of Alaska. While in Fairbanks, the Salmon bake at Pioneer Park is a treat; all the baked salmon, prime rib, fried cod, and crab legs you can eat.
3. Denali National Park: If you like the outdoors, you will like Denali. We liked both campsites that we camped in there, Riley Creek and Teklanika River. The bus trip from the campgrounds out to Wonder Lake is well worth your time. Denali offers unbelievable scenery and an opportunity to see a variety of wildlife.
4. Talkeetna, Alaska: This is a little tourist town with a lot of nice shops and beautiful scenery. As a plus to the scenery, on a clear day you have a majestic view of Mt. McKinley. Also, Talkeetna is the base for flights to Mt. McKinley. If you plan on climbing, landing on a glacier, or just flying past Mt. McKinley, this is where you need to be.
5. Anchorage: We found Anchorage to be the perfect central point for all the Kenai Peninsula. We used Anchorage as our base for trips to Homer, Russian River, Soldotna, Seward, and Valdez. In Anchorage, we found the weekend craft and farmers market downtown to be a place not to miss. When in Anchorage, you have to visit the ULU knife factory.
6. Turnagain Arm: Turnagain Arm is a beautiful body of water on the Seward highway outside of Anchorage surrounded by mountains and glaciers. Turnagain Arm has some of the highest tide differentials in Alaska which creates the interesting bore tides. It’s a beautiful drive with many observation points along the highway.
7. Glacier Cruise: We took a glacier cruise out of Seward, Alaska on the Major Marine Tours in the Kenai Fjords National Park. It offered a delicious salmon bake during the cruise. There is plentiful marine life and glaciers to view. Seeing and hearing the magnificent glaciers as they were calving was a real highlight on the cruise. This is another opportunity to use your Alaska TourSaver coupon book.
8. Fishing (Catching): The fishing is incredible from Arctic Grayling in and around Fairbanks to large Halibut on the Kenai Peninsula. One of our favorites was catching Sockeye Salmon in the Kenai River in Soldotna.
9. Homer Spit: The Homer Spit is a geographical landmark located in Homer, Alaska on the southern tip of the Kenai Peninsula. The spit is a 4.5-mile long piece of land jutting out into Kachemak Bay. There is something for everyone on the Spit; Restaurants, souvenir shops, lounges, tackle shops, charters, etc.
10. So Much More: Trying to pick just ten places to visit in Alaska is almost impossible. However, for our number ten we would like to list several places we will defiantly return to visit. The Russian River State Park (fish and bears), Ninilchik (beautiful state campground overlooking Cook Inlet and several volcanoes), Wrangler-St Elias National Park (9 of the 16 highest peaks in the United States), Valdez (Worthington Glacier, good restaurants, fish, and bears), Haines (nice town with limited cruise traffic, fish and bears), and don’t forget to sample the cinnamon buns throughout Northern Canada and Alaska.
Not in Alaska, but on the way… Liard River Hot Springs Provincial Park is a must. The campground is very nice and the Hot Springs are terrific.