[Many thanks to the State of Alaska Tourism Office and each of the companies/properties linked below for hosting my wife and me on an amazing trip.]
We rode the Alaska Railroad from Anchorage to Denali and back, with a stopover in Talkeetna. Our seats were in the "Gold Star" car, which features wrap-around windows for good views of the Mat-Su Valley and Alaska Range terrain the tracks pass through. We also spotted a couple bears and moose. The history of this railway is directly tied to the history of Alaska as a U.S. territory and state.
Howard Carbone, owner of Alaska Nature Guides, points out a red-necked grebe during a short hike in the recently established Talkeetna Lakes Park. On our own, we probably would've blazed through this 3-mile trail in an hour, but Howard's knowledge of the local plant and animal life, the history of the area, and his stories about what it's like to live in Talkeetna as a year-round resident really elevated the experience.
This picture was taken standing at the toe of Exit Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park, looking back over the outwash plain whose runoff feeds into the Resurrection River, flowing downstream past our accommodations at Seward Windsong Lodge, and into Resurrection Bay at the town of Seward. There was a good 4" of snow on the national park trail that leads from the parking lot to the glacier.
In Talkeetna, we hopped in a single-prop plane with K2 Aviation and flew into the heart of the Alaska Range, making a landing at Mt. McKinley base camp. This is not a regular tourist stop -- we were carrying a special delivery of pizzas for a group of Korean climbers who had just returned from McKinley's summit. I don't think it's hyperbole to call this the most awesome pizza delivery ever.
On our Kenai Fjords day cruise out of Seward, we saw porpoises, sea otters, a possible minke whale, courting bald eagles, the massive calving face of Aialik Glacier, a breach-happy humpback, and the Chiswell Islands (pictured above), which serve as rookeries for hundreds of puffins, gulls, murres, and other seabirds. This tufted puffin looks pretty graceful, but they're super awkward transitioning from water to air.
There are 20+ microbreweries and counting in the state of Alaska. We did our best to sample something from all of them. One of our favorite experiences in this category was getting a personalized brewery tour at Denali Brewing Co. in Talkeetna from co-owner Sassan Mossanen. Pictured above is a pint of IPA from Glacier Brewhouse, in downtown Anchorage.
Flowing out of the opposite end of the Harding Icefield from Exit Glacier is Grewingk Glacier, visible at the parting of the ridgeline above. As recently as 100 years ago, Grewingk stretched to the edge of this glacial lake; like many glaciers in Alaska and elsewhere, it is retreating. We accessed this hike in Kachemak Bay State Park via a short boat ride from our accommodations at Tutka Bay Lodge.
The Alaska Range is one of the defining geographical features of the state, running in a 400-mile arc from the Yukon border to a volcanic terminus at Lake Clark and the mouth of the Cook Inlet. Pictured above is the best-known section, containing the triple peaks of Hunter (13,965), Foraker (17,400), and McKinley/Denali (20,320). The highest peaks are usually obscured by clouds, especially during the summer tourist season. The best view of the range is probably from right here, on the back porch of the Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge.
Across from the Homer Spit in Kachemak Bay is a fishing-village-turned-artist-community called Halibut Cove. Its population as of the 2010 census was 38. Tourists are brought over on the Danny J ferry to Ismailof Island, where they can eat at the Saltry and follow a boardwalk that leads to a couple art galleries featuring local work. Almost all of the evergreen trees on Ismailof have been killed off by a spruce bark beetle infestation.
A 10pm "sunset" cruise aboard Sea Salt, captained by Gus, general manager at Tutka Bay Lodge. Tutka Bay is a fjord, the steep slopes that enclose it covered in thick stands of Sitka spruce, snowmelt-fed waterfalls, and mountain goat tracks. We followed the little boat tour with a soak in the lodge's hot tub, and later fell asleep with floor-to-ceiling windows looking out on a sky of deep blue, slowly on its way to an hour or two of not-quite-black.