July was it. Our last full month to travel as our renters were due out at the end of the month. We raced up to Alaska in June so we could get at least of one month of exploring before heading back. We estimated two weeks of heavy driving to get all the way through Alaska, Canada much of the US and back to Texas. This left us with approximately ten days to further explore Alaska. We decided to spend it in some of the biggest Alaskan highlights – Denali and Wrangell-St. Elias National Parks. Then, it was back towards the real world (maybe)*.
Total June Cost: $4,316
Total days in the camper: 30
Total days out of camper: 0
Cost per day: $139
States Visited: Alaska, British Columbia, Yukon, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma
Total Miles: Approx 6,100
There were a lot of “Wow’s” in July. From one of our new favorite National Parks (Denali), to the huge amount of miles covered (over 6,000) and one of the highest spending months since we started traveling. It was a purposeful stalling in Alaska while the weather was good that caused most of it, but the inevitable can only be delayed so long, and we had to head back south. Emotions were conflicted as nowhere had held us voluntarily captive as long as Alaska and we knew it would be hard to make it back, but money can’t last forever and no more renters meant no more supplemented travel and covered house payment. The real world was calling, and we couldn’t send it to voicemail again.
We spent most of the month of June exploring the coast of Alaska and only darted inland to avoid the expensive ferries to get to the next coastal town. As we approached our last few weeks in Alaska, we wanted to make sure and hit one of the most exciting places – Denali National Park. Joining us on our journey to Denali were two familiar faces to the Airstream – Jocelyn’s mom and her dog, Bueno, after they flew into Anchorage.
We scored three nights at the Teklanika Campground in Denali, which is another one of those campgrounds like Yosemite that book up months in advance. However, just like Yosemite, if you’re persistent and flexible enough, you can usually find a few days that work. Teklanika is 30 miles into the park and 15 miles past the turnaround where most cars have to stop, but with the reservation they let you drive into it. Once you’re in the site, you’re not allowed to drive any farther into the park and if you leave towards the entrance, you can’t come back!
They do it for a great reason – to keep Denali wild (with animals and not tourists). The only way to tour the park is on a school bus-like Denali bus that drives the entire road. There are a couple of different types of buses and tours, but with our reservation we were able to buy one pass and ride the buses every day we were there.
Our first day started with a challenging pick up time at 8:15am (hey, that’s early for us) on a bus scheduled to drive all the way through the park (50 miles beyond us) with an estimated total trip time of 8 hours. Even crazier, for the people who started from the entrance of the park, their total trip time is 11 hours!
“STOP!!” we heard screamed from the back of the bus. It was quite startling and we wondered what sort of emergency we were about to experience. Instead, the bus driver simply complied and the lumbering bus slowly came to a stop. The passenger then yelled, “caribou, 3 o’clock”. Apparently, they were previously briefed that when they saw an animal to yell stop, and then the whole bus could have a look.
The bus stopped every 30-45 minutes at various points where you could enjoy an overlook, ranger station with some exhibits or simply a bathroom. It was the random stops that were more enjoyable as they often included caribou, moose or the infamous grizzly bear. It must be the closest thing outside of Africa to a true safari experience. It was a long day, but the beautiful mountain sites of Denali along with the wildlife made it worth it.
But we didn’t see Denali (formerly known as Mt. McKinley) the first day**. The mountain is so tall that it creates its own weather… and apparently it really likes to hide behind crowds. In the summer, you’re lucky to see it one out of three days. We had three days total, so we hoped the law of averages worked.
On the second day, we hopped back on the bus but instead of simply going for a ride and we strapped on our hiking boots and set out to explore the park. They don’t actually mark trails in the park besides simple nature walks, but instead encourage visitors to find their own way… you know, in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness that’s full of grizzlies! We had already seen five grizzlies the previous day, including the most dangerous – a momma with cubs, so this was a little scary!
However, the Alaskan wilderness is mostly tundra, so it was a smaller possibility of getting lost since you can see pretty far, and you could also see any bears that were coming to eat you! We ended up only going a few miles as it was a little disturbing, but it was beautiful.
Denali National Park quickly jumped to one of our favorites, and we’ll definitely return someday. The road within the park is a combination of dirt and gravel with single lanes passing through incredibly steep mountain passes with drop offs, but it’s done this way perfectly to preserve the ruggedness of the land and give you the truth outback experience. It worked.
But we didn’t see Denali on the second day either. As we packed up our campsite and anxiously awaited our next adventure, we wondered if Denali would reveal herself (or himself). We started driving back towards the entrance when we looked back and there she was, a towering mountain that had lurked just outside of our site behind the clouds for three days. It was huge, dwarfing everything around it.
The only thing better than seeing it from far away would be seeing it up close… which we were scheduled to do! Jocelyn’s mom decided to treat us with a Denali flightseeing tour! It was scheduled as a two hour flight with a glacier landing. We had never done one of these before even though we really wanted to in places like New Zealand, so this was a real treat. We boarded our flightseeing plane with five other people, and I was lucky enough to sit in the co-pilot seat to get a bird’s eye view of the action***.
The clouds cooperated as what seemed like one tall mountain instead proved to be a large complex of mountains, glaciers and sheer cliffs. If you ever want to feel small in life, this is a good place to do it. The small mountains are 15,000 feet tall and are dwarfed by the tall one, Denali. The ice fields and glaciers drape the mountains and valleys with new snow and old ice.
After flying around the mountains, we headed to our landing strip… an ice and snow field on the top of the glacier. The plane was equipped with snow skids and the pilot brought it down beautifully. We hung out on the glacier for a while and stood in awe of the mountains around us.
After our flight we headed back to Anchorage before Martha flew out the next day. Denali was a fitting climax to the trip. We’d spend the next few weeks driving back to Texas and back to reality.
Our spending report was pretty bad, but we were okay with it. We had a great previous six months where we kept our spending under control, and the number of miles driven guaranteed we’d pay the petrol piper. The one bright spot was our camp site spending as it’s pretty easy to find free or under $15/night spots in Alaska.
As we headed back to the “lower 49”, we passed through British Columbia and down through the Yukon and Alberta. Our driving safari continued and one day we saw 19 bears as we drove! In the beginning we were excited and stopped to take pictures, but by the end we treated them like deer as we had to watch to make sure they weren’t in the road. We stopped in the Canadian Rockies and Glacier National Park for some great hiking and views.
We drove a whole lot, but we knew it was coming. We delayed as much as we could, but the time had come. We typically try not to drive more than 4-5 hours per day, but there were probably 7-8 days in July when we drove over 8 hours. We also paid for it in the gas category with $1,300 for the month… so lucky gas is half the price of what it’s been in the last decade!
I mentioned it last post, but it’s also scary to see how quickly climate change is impacting Alaska. The glaciers are receding and the animals are feeling the impacts. The most observable for the animals is the caribou impact in Denali. The guides told us that with the warmer temperatures, mosquitoes are hatching two weeks earlier than normal. It doesn’t sound like a big deal until you see how impacted the caribou can be by them. We passed by one caribou with its head shoved into the ground. The driver told us the reason was to keep the mosquitoes out of its ears and nose. We came back four hours later and it was still there.
We also saw a caribou shaking like a wet dog and another running through the rivers. All three of these actions were attempts to get away from the mosquitoes. With the pests hatching two weeks earlier, the caribou have less time to fatten up before they have to start running from bugs, and this seriously jeopardizes their chances of surviving a harsh Alaskan winter. Their main source of food, lichen, is also getting driven further up in altitude which makes it harder for them to eat.
But hey, let’s keep debating what’s causing it and not take any action****.
As we made it down to Canada and close to the US border, we still hadn’t heard from our renters if they were moving out at the end of the month. The contract said they’d have to give us one month notice, but they were working through a home renovation, so we gave them two extra weeks. It was mid-month and they asked if they could stay another month! We were okay with it since it would allow us to explore in August, but we wished we knew earlier so we could stay in Alaska.
+1 month. We made it back down to family in Oklahoma and hung out there and Boulder before heading out on our next adventure. The August spending report will now be more than normal spending on a house, it’ll be continued travel spending, and we couldn’t be happier!
*If you made it all the way down here before reading the asterisk, you know why it was “maybe” back to the real world. If you skipped down here… well, then read the rest of the post and you’ll know why 🙂
**I stick with the native Intuit name of the mountain rather than the name given later after a president who had nothing to do with and never visited the area.
***OK, luck wasn’t the simple reason I was sitting in the front seat. The pilot asked our group and I waited at least a few seconds before I claimed it 🙂
****The irony is not lost on me that in the same section I talk about driving 6,000 miles and then complain about no actions to stop global warming… I guess I embody the problem!