After flying the better part of a day from the East Coast, we arrived into Anchorage airport around 11pm. Being Alaska in June, it was still light outside and looked more like 8pm, so the daylight made it a little easier to stay awake and get to our hotel for the night. Our travel party consisted of my husband and I, our two kids (13 and 14) and my mom, who is coming with us on a group tour for the first time. We had opted to arrive the day before the tour started because there weren’t any flight options that would have gotten us there in time for the welcome dinner if we arrived on the day the trip started. Since the cost of booking the pre-night though Adventures By Disney was very pricey, we opted to book a room ourselves and chose the Comfort Suites by the airport. The hotel offered a free shuttle, and our room for five was extremely affordable and even included a small breakfast buffet.
On what is considered Day 1 of the ABD Alaska tour, we had time on our own until our welcome dinner at 5:15, so we had pre-arranged a bear-viewing excursion to Lake Clark National Park with Regal Air. Regal Air provided free shuttle service from the Comfort Suites, and the drive to their airstrip was only about 5 minutes. We brought our luggage with us, as they had offered to store it in their office during the day. We checked in, watched a short video about the bears and the park, and then climbed in the tiny 6-seater airplane around 9am. The plane was so tiny that my husband was in the co-pilot seat and the rest of us were all very cozy in the back. We all wore helicopter-style headphones to communicate along the way.
Our pilot took us past Beluga and down Cook Inlet, looking to spot seals and whales along the way, and we landed on the beach at Chinitna Bay. It was low tide, and the beach was full of brown bears exploring for food and momma bears leading around their cubs. We saw over two dozen bears and walked among them, carefully keeping our distance and not disturbing them. It’s hard to describe how amazing it was to see these creatures in their natural habitat, and to see this land fully owned by the bears. We saw cubs wrestling, moms looking out for danger and moving their cubs to avoid the males, young bears snuggling on a cliff, and all sizes and shades of brown bears digging for clams and eating grasses. We ate a packed lunch (provided as part of the tour) not far from the beach, and then got back on the plane for the ride home. We arrived back in Anchorage at 3:30, and then they provided another free shuttle service to Marriott Downtown, where we would meet up with our ABD group.
Our ABD guides on this trip are Stephanie and Robyn. They met us at the hotel upon arrival and set us up with a quick welcome overview and then gave us our keys so we could freshen up a little before the welcome dinner. They also gave us a stack of release forms and menu-preorder forms to fill out before dinner. Our room arrangement at the hotel was two connecting rooms: one with two doubles and the other with a king bed. For dinner we met up in the hotel lobby and then hopped on a coach to get over to the 49th State Brewing Company. We had a private room for our group of 36 guests and the meal started with an appetizer buffet. We enjoyed the fruit, bruschetta, crab cakes, pretzel bites and fancy mac and cheese. Then our main course came out to the tables family style (we had about 8 people at each table). We had salmon, vegetables, mashed potatoes and steak as options, all of which was pretty tasty. By the time dessert came around we were all pretty stuffed, but as with most ABD meals, there there was a dessert course as well. We all made our introductions in the more structured part of the dinner, and throughout the meal we got to get to know the other family at our table, who also had two teenaged daughters. When the meal was over we headed back to the hotel, and it was still very bright outside and seemed much earlier than 9pm. After a long day we were pretty tired and ready to get some rest for the first full day of the ABD tour.
Our stay at the Marriott was short, as this next morning we had to have our luggage outside of our rooms early in the morning before we ate breakfast in the hotel. The breakfast was a buffet set up specially for our group in a conference room. The highlights were reindeer sausage and Mickey pancakes. After breakfast we hopped on the bus and headed to the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage. Here we split into two groups, one for the “junior adventurers” and another for the adults. Since there are many teenagers on our tour, this left a lot of the kids trying to decide which group would be the best fit. In the end it seemed that the 15-and-younger kids went with the kids’ group and the older teens went with the adults. The site had many replicas of native traditional housing, and we learned how they adapted to survive in the cold Alaska winters, and use all of the resources available to them. Our guide was a shaman, and also explained a lot about traditional cures.
After our tour we had a little time to meet some of the native craftsmen selling their wares at the center, and then headed back on the bus to head to our next stop: Eklutna Lake. The lake was the spot were we would have the chance to kayak and/or mountain bike. We lucked out with beautiful weather as it was sunny and in the low 70s. The guides split our group in two so one group would do kayaking first, while the other biked, and then after lunch the groups switched. Our group was kayaking first, so we put on life jackets and donned splash guards, and leaded up the 2-seater kayaks. The group paddled out on the lake, took in the scenery and looked for wildlife, and then headed back into shore. The ends of my sleeves got a little wet, but otherwise we stayed pretty dry, which is good since the water was very clean, but also very cold. We headed back to “base camp” where our campy-style lunch had been cooked up on the grill. The meal options were burgers, hot dogs, or salmon burgers, with some baby carrots, multi-grain chips and s’mores as sides. After lunch we headed out on the bikes to ride long the edge of the lake, and then circled back. We had a lovely day of getting some fresh air and some exercise, and then boarded the coach for the longer ride up to Talkeena. The bus ride was over 2 hours (thanks to some major road construction), and the guides helped pass the time by introducing a bingo game, and putting in a movie. The bus had both regular plugs and USB ports at every seat, so everyone could charge up along the ride.
We arrived at the scenic Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge in time for dinner. This evening was another split activity between the adults and the children, and created another small conundrum for the teens. The younger children all went with the guides for “junior adventurer” activities during dinner, and the teens all came to dinner with the adults, but the younger teens left dinner a little early to meet up with the guides for some crafts later in the evening. The lodge has a great view of Denali mountain (which is the highest point in North America), but the visibility is often poor due to cloud cover. Throughout the evening we were on Denali watch, and were able to see various parts of the mountain as the clouds passed. The hotel offers the option to get on a list to get a wakeup call if the mountain is visible, and several of the guests opted to do that. They got the call at 3am. I got several pretty good views, the best when I woke up around 5:30 am (about an hour after sunrise). Our room arrangement at this hotel was two side-by-side rooms with two double beds. All of our group’s rooms were off on a wing of the hotel, but it was worth a little walk over to the main lodge to check out the gift shop, the large stone fireplace, and the view from the patio.
For the third day in a row we had to pack up our things and move to a new hotel. We put our suitcases outside of our rooms before we met up with the group to board the bus and head over to the town of Talkeetna for breakfast. Our group was seated at two large, long tables and served a huge diner-style breakfast family-style at the Talkeetna Roadhouse. The food consisted of scrambled eggs, sourdough pancakes with birch syrup, reindeer sausage and bacon, and fresh biscuits and bread with house-made apple butter. While we ate we also learned about the history of the town and the Roadhouse, which also still serves as a boarding house. After breakfast we had some time to walk around the tiny town, viewing Denali from the “beach” and exploring the shops. We only had about an hour to walk around and then we hopped on the bus for a short drive to the train station.
We waited almost an hour at the station (the guides explained that since the train schedule is unreliable we had to be sure to arrive early) and the guides did their best to help the kids pass the time by someone up with projects to keep them busy as we waited. The train arrived mostly on time, and we boarded the two-story glass-dome topped cars at the end of the train. Our seats were on the top level (our group filled most of the train car), and the bottom level was the dining area. The ride to Denali was about 4 hours, and included lunch along the way. We had a guide on the train who pointed out all of the interesting spots along the route. The back of the car had an open-air balcony, and we were able to go out there and take photos along the way.
When we arrived in Denali, the train station was right at the entrance to the visitor’s center for the park. We headed into the visitor’s center where the guides had arranged with the kids to turn in their junior ranger workbooks that they had completed over the past two days. They all got their badges, and my kids had a chance to get their National Parks passport stamped as well. After a little time at the visitor’s center, we hopped on our bus (which is driven up and arrived long before the train) and headed to our next hotel, the Grande Denali Lodge. This hotel sits up on a cliff not far from the visitor’s center. The switchback road up to the hotel is graced with some amusing signage that is worth paying attention to.
Interestingly, there isn’t a view of Denali mountain from either the visitor’s center or the hotel. Our chance to see the mountain was many miles back in the previous hotel. The new hotel did have a lovely view of the surrounding mountains. We were greeted by the hotel with gifts, which was a nice touch, and had dinner at the hotel’s restaurant at our leisure. ABD had arranged a set menu which we could choose from, and the meal was included as part of the trip, but we ate as separate families. Both the salmon and steak options were a hit with our group, as well as the creme brûlée dessert. Our room arrangement at this hotel was side-by-side rooms with two double beds.
Our full day in Denali started with a whitewater rafting trip up the Nenali River (ABD offers three choices of for this morning on the trip: we selected the “wild” rafting trip; the other options were the “mild” rafting trip, which was the one for families with smaller children, and the bus tour, which was what some of the adults-without-children on the trip selected). We donned some elaborate dry suits, booties and helmets, and were bussed in an old yellow school bus down to the launching point. Unlike other rafting trips we have taken, this was a no-oars ride. We just had to hold on while the guide used giant oars to steer us in the right direction and paddle is necessary. The river moved along rapidly, so there wasn’t much of a need to paddle. 8 of us fit on a boat, so it was my family and another from the group, as well as our “shadow guide” Diana, an ABD guide who is learning so she can guide next week’s trip. Nobody fell in, but my brave 13-year-old opted to jump in the cold water during the appropriate time. The suit kept her dry and since we had a nice sunny day, she dried up quickly after the guide pulled her back on the boat.
When we reached our pull-out point we got off of the boat, and took a short ride to the raft company’s office in Healy, where we were met with our shoes and could take off the drysuits. We hopped back on the yellow school bus and headed back to Denali for lunch. Lunch was at the Salmon Bake restaurant. From reading previous trip reports I got the advice to “order the fish tacos” so that is what I had pre-selected when the guides had asked us on day 1. The meal started with a small house salad-even for the guests who had ordered the Caesar salad as their entree. Then the pre-selected entrees and a chocolate mousse pie for dessert. The fish tacos were definitely the best choice, and the halibut fish and chips seemed to be equally popular. Even though the place is called Salmon Bake the consensus in our group was to avoid the salmon salad.
After lunch we had the afternoon and evening on our own. Some options that were suggested to use were helicopter or plane rides, zip lining, or ATV tours. We opted to head over to the national park and do some hiking with our cameras with hopes of spotting some wildlife. We went over with one other family in our group and set out on the Horseshoe Lake Trail. On the way down we encountered two young moose in the woods, and watched them continue to the lake for a swim and drink. We also spotted an angry beaver who was trying his best to splash and scare the moose out of his neighborhood.
After our hike we took the shuttle from the park to the hotel, and then from the hotel into “town” for dinner. We took the guides’ recommendation and chose Prospector’s Pizza. The service took a while, but the pizza was great, and some of the folks in our group even tried the house special “The Deadliest Catch”, which was a large crab pizza. We finished up our evening with some huckleberry ice cream and then took the shuttle back up to the hotel.
The adventure continues in Girdwood (read more here).
This trip review is from our Adventures by Disney Alaska trip. I book my ABD trips through Archer Luxury Travel. My camera for this trip was the Fuji X-T20 with with the 100-400mm lens for wildlife and the 18-55mm kit lens for around town (as well as my trusty iphone 7).Share on Facebook