Whilst the Kenai Peninsula offered us adventurous and challenging camping experiences, the last leg of our Alaska expedition from Hatcher’s Pass to Haines and then to Skagway by ferry was a very smooth ride with spectacular changing season colors. We stopped in peaceful and picturesque camping grounds, admired gorgeous sunsets by the lake and watched the magical aurora borealis. We visited the temperate rain forest in Haines and closed our Alaska expedition on the Klondike gold rush route in Skagway.
We left Anchorage and continued our road trip headed to Hatcher Pass, which we heard has incredible hikes, views and landscapes. We couldn’t miss any of that so we camped right there at a trailhead and woke up early next morning ready to conquer the steep hill in front of us. It looked like an easy morning hike at first, which we estimated would take us about one hour. Soon we realized that what looked to be an easy hike was in fact a slippery 30-45 degrees accent of 2 hours and 30 minutes to the top. At some point we were crawling in four legs and couldn’t believe the little mountain posed such a challenge! Finally, all efforts paid off at the top as we were rewarded with a gorgeous panorama of Hatcher Pass. We had a 360 degrees view from the top, and everywhere we looked we saw nature, mountains and more mountains.
We took a deep breath on top of the hill, got all that fresh air into our lungs and brains and came back down being careful on the steep descent. Just before reaching our truck we came across with a large dark dog of a fellow hiker. The dog was completely out of control and charged us. Lucky JP had the bear spray with him and defended us before the attack. How ironic is that we were prepared to be surprised by wildlife but in fact we were attacked by a domesticated animal in the middle of nowhere. The fellow hiker was apologetic, however he should have known better and kept his dog on a leash. Once back to the truck we decided to continue the journey on the beautiful Gleenway Highway, to check out the beautiful views of the Matanuska Glacier.
It was a ride with a lot of stop overs as we couldn’t stop admiring and taking pictures to the yellow, orange palette of colors and of course to the Matanuska Glacier which can be seen from the road.
That night we found a beautiful spot just in front of the vast Wrangell St. Elias National Park, a park of 13.2 million acres which has the same size as Yosemite Nat.Park, Yellowstone Nat. Park and Switzerland combined. We were positioned on top of a hill where we could see a majestic mountain covered with snow and the forrest bellow changing its colors to bright yellow. In the valley there was a large river crossing through and we were just at the top of it. We assisted to an alluring sunset.
From there we headed back to Tok, which was the first city we have been when we first entered Alaska via the Top of the World Highway. Returning to Tok meant we were concluding our Alaska trip, and that felt great, like: mission accomplished!
The road to Tok was absolutely a nature show, the trees were changing from one day to another, every day was more colorful and brighter. If yesterday we could see a bit of yellow throughout the forrest, today it has various nuances of yellow, bright yellow, orange yellow, strong yellow. On our right side we could admire endless valleys, mountains and in the far covered with snow, mountains. We couldn’t stop wonder.
That afternoon we found one of the most charming campgrounds we have been in Alaska. We had a stunning view of the lake, an area surrounded by spruce, pine trees, squirrels, ducks, fire pits, observation point and picnic tables. We witness a mind-blowing sunset that evening on the lake. We felt so fortunate to be able to see and live these moments.
We also had nice neighbors, a couple from Germany who came to explore Alaska on a rented 4x4 RV. They were just completing their 3 weeks round trip with the truck, which cost them about 3000 euros. For the final cost one should add to this the amount the fuel, camping fees if not wildcamping, food, and national parks fees.
We all agreed Alaska is not a cheap destination, but the Germans were thrilled by the experience and said it had worth every penny spent. Alaska is huge, and having the ability to go to all those dreamed places is really priceless. We could not agree more. In our case, because we own our truck, mostly wild-camp and cook in the truck the experience became much less expensive. If there is time, it is possible to manage a 50 euros budget per day for two people excluding fuel. We saved cooking our own food, hiking accessible trails, and did not go for very expensive commercial tours. We generally bought our groceries and drinks at the local supermarkets and rarely went for a coffee or burger out. In Alaska we learned the best things are generally for free. The grizzly bears at Russian Falls, the salmon fly-fishing, and the Exit Glacier hike had no costs, but the park entry fees like Denali National Park. Of course, if one wants to take a cruise, an airplane or a helicopter to see glaciers or the marine life flying over icebergs or remote islands to see the polar bears, well… then you can spend considerably. It all depends of what you want and how much you want to spend.
We slept very well that night in the quiet campground. It was one of the most well set, silent and beautiful we found in Alaska… and all this was for free.
The road to Haines: back to Canada
The following day we continued the beautiful changing season road towards Haines, crossing back to Canada for a short while as the road swang along the border. The road was as spectacular as the day before. Yellow was even stronger and brighter, and reminded me of my drawings from secondary school when assigned to creating an autumn landscape. Back then I would paint trees in dramatic colors of yellow, orange and red. Here I could visualize those drawings, those intense, almost surreal shades of warm colors. Here they were everywhere, they existed in reality. It was a fabulous throw back into my childhood.
We arrived at the borders about one hour and a half after our departure, very relaxed and with no concerns. The Canadian immigration officer pulled us over and started to address us questions. We then realized our ETA (electronic travel authorization) to Canada was only valid when arriving to Canada by air. Now that we were arriving back to Canada by land, we would need a visa. What? Yes. We did not know this because when new arrived in Halifax in July 2017 we did it by air, flying to Halifax. We then collected our truck at the port and started our journey towards Alaska crossing Canada from east to west. Now that we were done with Alaska we were returning to Canada by land and would need a Visa.
So here we were at the immigration office at the border in a situation we didn’t expect. JP was a bit upset but eventually calmed down. The immigration officer didn’t cut us any slack and said she could provide us a visa by way of issuing a Temporary Residency Permit at a cost of 200 C$ each. The alternative was to return to Alaska and apply for a visa there. We agreed to the procedure and waited for about an hour and a half for the paperwork. We were a bit distressed by the unforeseen and not happy with the cost but at the same time glad all ended well with no dramas. The show must go on.
Back to the road we saw on Nasa’s website that the Aurora Borealis would be stronger that night. JP found a service road leading to a wide open area in the middle of nowhere about 500m from the highway. We parked there for the night. I have spent all night with the eyes out to see it. The Aurora Borealis or ‘northern lights’ as they are called in North America, were on my “wish list” before leaving Romania. It was about 5am when JP signaled that the Aurora Borealis was on out in the sky.
We sticked our heads out through the sky window over our bed to check it out. It was freezing. Then we saw, and we became like two little kids looking at the magic. We observed a moving light above the sky, appearing and disappearing in an unpredicted pace. In a moment we were up and out of the car to watch it in the open. It was all over us, everywhere, in motion. We couldn’t see the intense green color as the Aurora Borealis is known for, ours had a lighter color. We may have been too way south for the epic green and red but we’ve seen the lights dancing and playing like fairy tail spirits. No wonder why the native people created so many myths and believes around it. They are simply magic. Surreal. For a moment I felt I am in the wonder land, a world of magic and fantasy.
The next day we headed to Haines. We crossed Delta Junction in Canada and slept overnight at King’s Trail. The next morning we would be reaching Haines.
As Haines is an Alaskan coastal town we had to cross borders back to US once again, but no issues this time. The road was equally impressive with a humber of ‘wow’ moments contemplating the wilderness and encountering once again our black bears friends on the way. Closer to the sea, Haines has a tempered rainforest vegetation dominated scenery, with beautiful dark green pine trees among the yellow changing colors of autumn.
Haines is a small little town of about 1700 inhabitants located in a narrow spot of land surrounded by mountains and water. As it is surrounded by Canada and the sea it has to be self sufficient. The way to reach it overland is through the same and only road available, the Haines Highway. A ferry is available too, mostly from Skagway, Juneau or other coastal cities in Alaska. Even though Haines is a small town they have everything: a good visitor center, a grocery store, a health center, a couple gas stations, restaurants and coffee shops, a mail post, a bank, a church, a police station, two museums, couple of few more institutions and here you have a self sufficient little town that lives in one of the most remote and spectacular sceneries we’ve seen.
Five kilometers from town is the Chilkoot Lake State Recretion Site, a very beautiful camping site. The lake is connected to the Lutak inlet by the Chilkoot river. This little river was full of salmon populating the waters, as well as birds, and mountains surrounding it. There were remote cosy cottages and regular houses where people live all year round. It’s interesting to understand that the bear here is part of the community and he appears very often by the river to freely serve himself from the salmon feast every summer. The salmon is so abundant, you can see it with open eyes. Not sure how comfortable one can be with their children playing in the courtyard if bears can come anytime down to the valley and perhaps through your garden for some more wild salmon. I guess one eventually embraces the nature and blend in.
It’s incredible to witness such harmony between man and the nature. The bear is just part of the nature and the inhabitants of Haines are not afraid. The bears come naturally to feed themselves at the river, and there is nothing one can do about it. The little community live their lives normally, as well do the bears.
The next day we took the ferry to Skagway, the last leg of our trip in Alaska.
It was quite cool to get on board with the truck. The ferry looked modern and well equipped. We went upstairs on the deck to watch the beautiful ocean landscape. I bought some french fries, vanilla pudding and coffee for a comfortable and more pleasant ride. I got really excited to be on the ferry hoping to see the orcas. We had comfortable seats, great views and a pleasant journey overall. JP was happy to be the passenger for a while, just enjoying the ride. He went outside on the deck area for pictures. Beautiful mountains surrounding the Chilkoot Inlet, with waterfalls breaking through the vegetation from time to time. It was beautiful.
Skagway is another pretty coastal community with the typical Alaskan charm, surrounded by rainforest and stunning mountain landscapes. So much history here, as it was from Skagway that a good number of people left to Dawson City in Canada looking for fortune during the gold rush.
Back in 1896 Skagway became a hub from where people looking for gold would depart to Dawson City, about 800 km away. They would arrive mostly by boat and continue the journey on foot, mules and horses to Whitehorse via the famous Chilkoot trail. From there they would hope to take a boat on Yukon River to Dawson City. The trail itself would take months through very difficult and steep terrain. The whole trip to Dawson City could take one year.
Just as Dawson City, Skagway flourished during the Klondike Gold Rush with the money brought in by the fortune seekers. The town is now a top touristic destination for those cruising the Alaska coastline by boat or overlanding like ourselves. Many still do hike the full length of the Chilkoot Trail from Skagway to Whitehorse.
The Chilkoot trail was considered by many as the best route to take during the gold rush. However it was a rough and steep hike through the mountains in very cold temperatures. Many froze or were hit by avalanches. Those who perished on the trail were buried in a small picturesque cemetery in the nearby abandoned settlement Dyea. Dyea itself was another starting point to the Chilkoot trail.
The majority of those who eventually made to Dawson City arrived late, when all mining concessions were already taken and left poorer than when they left home. The ones that made money were the ones serving the fortune seekers: the hotels, the restaurants, the bars, and so on.
It was utmost interesting having finally arrived at the place the gold seekers departed to reach Dawson City. That is because we started our journey towards Alaska from Dawson City in Yukon, Canada, hearing the stories of the gold rush from the park rangers. Now we are ending our Alaskan adventure on the same spirit of the gold rush era, where it all began, here in Skagway.
We drove towards the Dyea to the south of the Chilkoot pass through a nice coastal road where we could see a couple bald eagles on the valley and a beautiful rainforest. Dyea is within the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park and has a very nice recreation area where to park for the night. There we saw various fluffy moss trees and big red mushrooms. It was looking like in the Red Riding Hood story-tail.
Closing our Alaska adventure
Overlanding Alaska and its wonders was something we will never forget. Discovering the Arctic territories of the north, its gorgeous national parks such as Denali, going for salmon fishing, meeting the grizzly bear, the moose, the caribou, learning about the muskox, seeing the Aurora Borealis… were exceptional experiences. In Alaska we hiked some of the most beautiful mountains and cruised through spectacular glaciers. Adding to this the wonderful and inspiring fellowing travelers we met, the lifetime friendships we made it was more than we could have ever asked for. It was an extraordinary experience and there was no better way to begin our expedition in North America.
We left Skagway relieved and with a feeling of mission accomplished. With peace of mind we headed south towards new horizons, which we hoped would be sunnier and warmer. We felt somehow we survived the hardships and challenges of Alaska and Yukon, and now were ready to move forward.
Alaska will always remain in our memory as one of the most powerful experiences we ever lived. Vast territories of untouched nature, wilderness and true beauty where we hope to return one day.