Adventures by Disney

Alaska: Girdwood and Spencer Lake

Day 5

The 5th day of the ABD trip is essentially a travel day.  We woke up early and packed out of the Grande Denali Hotel, and boarded the bus for the long ride to Girdwood. As with the other ABD trips we have taken, the trip planners are careful to build in stops along the way for long travel days, to break up the trip as best as possible.  Of note: as with the trip up by train, this drive down from Denali was mostly through no-cell-service country.  Our first brief stop was at the Alaskan Veteran’s Memorial, which provided some information about the influence of the military in Alaska’s history.  This stop had multiple Alaskan (outhouse) style bathrooms available, and the guides made a donation on our behalf which also included coffee/tea/cocoa at the gift shop.  Then we continued on our way straight through to Big Lake and Martin Buser’s Happy Trails Kennels, where we would have lunch and learn more about the Iditarod race and meet the 4-time champion and his dogs. During the bus ride the guides put on the movie “Iron Will”, which was good to get us in the mood for meeting the sled dogs later in the day.  Our itinerary said that we would have lunch at a local pizza restaurant, but instead the lunch was an outdoor catered lunch at Happy Trails.  I have to say I was a bit skeptical when we were told that we would be having soup, salad and wraps instead of the pizza, but the food was very good, and the weather cooperated for us to eat outside.  The chicken salad wraps were especially popular with the group, along they were sliced in such small pieces you could try a few different options.

After lunch we watched a 20-minute video presentation, then had a live presentation about Iditarod racing, and then got a chance to meet the sled dogs who were outside chained to their doghouses, and then hold some of the newest litter of puppies.  The dogs looked very well cared for and were very friendly.  The puppies were, as expected, a huge hit.  I found it very interesting to learn more about dog sled racing and the Iditarod more specifically.

After our time was up with the dogs, we hopped back on the bus for the last leg of our long trip to Girdwood.  We pulled into the Alyeska Resort around 5:30 and there wasn’t any dinner planned with the tour, so we were on our own.  By this point in the trip we had gotten to know a lot of the other families on the trip, and coordinated to meet up with several others for dinner.  The Alyeska is a ski resort, and has several restaurants in the main building, as well as a couple up at the top of the mountain, which as accessible via the tram.  ABD provided us with tram passes, so we opted to eat at the top of the mountain, at the Bore Tide Bar.  We were able to grab several tables together in the takeout section and order food and drinks at the bar.  The kids had chicken nuggets and grilled cheese, and the adults had hot sandwiches.  The food wasn’t anything special, but the view from the top of the tram was great, and the kids enjoyed finding snow.  After dinner we headed back down on the tram, and then the kids met up again at the hotel’s indoor pool, while some of the dad met at the bar.  After a long day on the bus, the kids definitely had some energy to work out and needed that time at the pool.  Our group of 5 had two adjoining rooms at the hotel, one with two double beds, and another with one king bed.

Day 6

Our day started with breakfast at the hotel.  Like the other hotels, this was also buffet, but the Alkeysa definitely did buffet better than all of the other hotels.  In addition to the regular buffet, there was an omelet station, and the buffet includes Starbucks coffee.  More than just coffee, they also could make me a chai latte, so I was a happy camper when I set off for my day with my to-go cup of chai.

We met up with the group to get on the bus and head over to the Crow Creek to mine for gold.  Crow Creek is actually a very nicely cared-for little historical spot with some of the oldest buildings in Alaska.  The buildings from the settlement are surrounded in beautiful flowers, and several of the buildings are open to take a look how they may have looked during the gold rush era.  After learning a little about the buildings, we headed down to the creek to begin panning for gold.  Unlike my previous panning experiences where we worked in pre-seeded trays, here we worked on the actual creek, along the water.  At first each person was given a bag of dirt which definitely had a few flakes in it to pan.  Then we could go out and try our luck with the creek and shoveling our own dirt.  Meanwhile, some others from the group were working on filling large buckets with dirt from around the creek, and they showed us how sluicing is done.

After we found our gold, the bus dropped us off in the town of Girdwood for lunch on our own.  We had only around an hour to eat, so we picked on of the faster choices that the guides recommended, Chair 5 Restaurant.   A large portion of our group also picked the same place, so we sat all together in one section, putting the kids at two tables and the adults at one long table.  We ordered pizza for the kids and the adults got a mix of pizza, sliders, salads and fish and chips.  The servers did a great job of keeping us on schedule, and we managed to get back on the bus on time.  What we didn’t have much of a chance to do is look around the town since we spent the whole time eating.

The second activity for the day was a trip to Spencer Glacier.  This site if only accessible via whistle-stop train, so the bus dropped us off at the train stop, and the guides handed us “adventure class” tickets to the train.  This is a different class than we traveled for the longer ride on the train earlier in the trip.  We all boarded the train and went one stop down to the Spencer Lake whistle stop.  Interestingly, our rafting guides for this activity also rode in on the train with all of the gear, food and the rafts, as there is no permanent facilities out by the lake.  When we arrived, we set out on a mile+ hike to the lake on trails.  We were warned that there were bears spotted in the area that day, so we should stay together as one large group.  We didn’t see any ourselves.  We had been warned by our guides to dress warmly for this day because it got colder as we got closer to the glacier.  But being warmly dressed, I was feeling pretty hot by the end of the hike.  I would recommend dressing in regular long sleeves for the hike and sending your warmer jackets/gloves/socks in a bag to the base camp (the guides took some of the bags in van while we hiked).  The scenery when we arrived at Spencer Lake was stunning.  After a very long bathroom stop at the single out-house style bathroom by the lake, we headed to “base camp”.

We donned some rainboots provided by the guides, and lifejackets, and headed on to the rafts.  There were 8 people on each raft, plus the guide, who did most of the rowing.  He led us through the giant ice chunks in the lake, and explained that the lake looks different everyday as the chunks of ice move and melt, and as new chunks fall off the glacier.  It was really quite fascinating.  We got to see the pieces up close and even touch them.  As we got closer to the glacier, the temperatures got very cold, and it felt like were were entering a freezer.  I didn’t have gloves, but I could have used them for sure after we were out on the water.  When we got out to a good viewing point for the glacier, we broke out hot cocoa and cookies and enjoyed the view.  Then we continued back to base camp for our salmon-bake dinner under the tent.  Many people had to use the bathroom again, so they took a “potty bus” back to the train stop for the outhouse-style bathrooms there.  This ended up taking a while and for the people who went it cut into dinner quite a bit.  I’m not a big fan of salmon, so my options were hot dogs, chicken sausage or a grilled mushroom.  There was also some caesar salad and pasta salad, and some small bite-sized desserts.

Dinner ran very tight to the last train of the day, so we were bused on the raft company’s school bus back to the train stop and made it with a few minutes to spare.  The raft company had to break down the entire dinner and rafting gear in that same time and make it to the train as well.

After we got off the train at Girdwood we headed back to the hotel on the bus.  My kids opted to head to the pool with several other kids form the trip, and many of the adult headed to the bar, since our meeting time the next day was a little later (9:15).

Day 7

Our last full day in Alaska started with a bus ride over the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center.  When we arrived a wildlife guide popped on our bus to lead us through a quick bus ride through the animal enclosures (tip: grab a window seat for this bus ride).  From the bus we saw the bison, bears, caribou, moose, and sitka deer.  We stopped at the bear enclosure were we got off of the bus to look around.  We saw the brown bears and they got quite close to the metal fence.  Then we bus dropped us off and we walked to a quick informational session about the owl and eagle at the facility.  Then we had about an hour to explore on our own.  We enjoyed seeing baby black bear in a tree, the wolves, and the caribou up close.  The gift shop was also quite nice, so we spent some time looking around there.  An added benefit of purchasing souvenirs there was that the proceeds benefit conservation efforts.

After our morning at the AWCC, we had a few “on our own” options for the afternoon.  The guides offered to take folks into town and teach them “frolf” (frisbee golf), or the bus driver (Henry, who has been with us the whole trip and is almost a third guide) was taking a group out to Portage Glacier for a short walk out to the glacier, or the last option was to hike one of the trails by the hotel.  After hearing that the 6 mile Winner Creek Trail hike involved going over the river in bucket on a rope, we opted to give that a try with 3 other families from our tour.  The trail itself was well maintained, mostly gravel and boardwalk the whole way, and since it was a beautiful Sunday with 70 degree weather we encountered many other local hikers with bikes and dogs.  We left the trailhead at 2:15 walked to the hand tram, went across and then circled back and were back at the hotel by 5:15.

After our hike we had a little while to rehydrate and get changed for the farewell dinner.  The farewell dinner was held in a conference room at the resort.  It was a buffet dinner (salmon and carved beef were the main dishes), and they brought in dancers from the Alaskan Native Heritage Center to show us some native dress and dance.  The guides showed the slideshow of photos from the trip, and we got to say our goodbyes to the group.  The dinner was from 7-9pm, and of course due to Alaska’s midnight sun it was still bright daylight outside when dinner was over, so the kids opted to head to the pool for one last time hanging out together.  The pool is open until 11pm for kids.  By this point in the trip some of the kids were pretty emotionally exhausted and there was some drama at the pool, but for the most part the kids had a good time.  When the pool closed they all headed to their rooms, and some of the families packed for their early morning transfers to the airport.  My mom had a 1am flight, so she left right after the dinner for her transfer to the airport.

Day 8

On our final morning in Alaska, we slept in a little and took advantage of the last buffet breakfast at the Alyeska.  We had a 3:30pm flight to San Francisco, so we were on the last transfer to Anchorage at 11am.  We wouldn’t have quite enough time to get into the city and explore, so we had to go directly to the airport and wait for a few hours.  The next trip of travelers from ABD arrives the same day we depart, so the guides have to do double duty with welcoming the new travelers and seeing us off.

Final Thoughts

Alaska has a lot of outhouses.  I was surprised at how many bathroom stops along our trip didn’t have running water.  It takes a little while to get used to the campy style of bathrooms here, but after a point you are just happy you don’t have to go in the woods.  The small number of bathrooms at some locations made for long lines and waits with a group our size.

Alaska also has very many large stuffed (like by a taxidermist) animals that you will encounter from the time you arrive at the airport, in every hotel, and in other spots along the way.  Bears, moose (both whole and heads on the wall), deer, etc.

What we packed and didn’t need: Keens–closed toed hiking shoes were a must, and for all of our water sports we had to have waterproof boots or booties.  Tripod–I ended up shooting all of my wildlife handheld.  Capri pants–the temperatures combined with the mosquitos made long pants (quick dry!) a must.

Alaska is a huge state.  We covered a lot of ground on the way to Denali, but if you look on the map it looks like we hardly went anywhere.  Day 5 of the ABD trip has *a lot* of bus time.  Some of the travelers on our trip were not super excited about that.  I think Disney did their best to break up the day with stops along the way, but I think there just isn’t very much to visit in that stretch of highway even if they tried to break it up more.

This trip worked well with multi-generations.  I think the youngest on our trip was 6 and the oldest was 82.  Everyone was able to do just about everything in the trip, especially with the multiple rafting choices and the optional biking/kayaking.  We had three generations in my family, and there were several other grandparents on the trip as well.

Our guides (Stephanie and Robyn) and driver (Henry) was great.  ABD hires top-notch people to guide their tours, and having great guides makes the trip a great experience.  Our guides did a wonderful job managing the large group and variety of needs.  They also were great with keeping the kids busy and happy with little activities along the way, from bracelet making on the bus to sit-up competitions while waiting for the train.

Do the hiking!  There are several afternoons on your own when you have time to do whatever you like on this trip.  We recommend opting for the hiking.  We saw moose swim in the lake during our hike on our own in Denali, and got to ride the hand cart during the hike on our own in Girdwood.  The kids may want to play at the pool, but while in Alaska enjoy the outdoors.  There is time for the pool after dinner.

It’s light ALL THE TIME.  The sun goes down at midnight but it’s actually light outside all night, even for the 4 hours the sun is down.  It creates a long day for activities, but sleep is sometimes short and it’s easy to get worn out.  You won’t see the northern lights in Alaska in late June.  That was a bit of a bummer, but the great temperatures make up for it.

The mosquitos are really a thing.  The guides always had bug spray.  We used it and still found ourselves surrounded.  Long pants, long shirts and hats help.

There are a lot a risk warnings on this trip.  It’s one of the more “adventure” filled ABD trips, and it’s very active. We had to fill out 3 separate release forms, got safety briefings before all of the water sports and even warnings about how to react to wildlife before walking in the woods.  Bears are around and the guides always had bear spray and carried bear bells.  For those who get stressed out hearing or knowing about potential danger, this trip may not be for you.

We loved Alaska and we were very lucky to have a great group of people traveling with us.  It was a little larger than I would have liked (we had 36, but I think 28-30 might have been a better max size), but we got to get to know some really nice people.  One other family even came from our same town, and while we didn’t know them before the trip, we discovered that we have a bunch of mutual friends and we will definitely get to see them back home too.



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).

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